Saturday, March 24, 2007

Urban Popular Movements (UPMs) and Cultures of Poverty

In my post from two days ago, I ended with the following two paragraphs:

“Matthew Gutmann’s fine ethnography The Meanings of Macho: Being a Man in Mexico City has as its main setting the colonia community of Santo Domingo. (A colonia is an urban squatter community, typically on the edge of a major city, such as Mexico City. Initially, colonias represent communities with truly dire conditions of poverty, with housing improvised out of materials at hand, generally unpaved streets, and a lack of even basic utility services. Over time, if not subject to mass eviction and elimination of the colonia, such settlements do tend to improve at least a bit, with individual residents and families improving their housing bit by bit, tapping into utilities, often illegally at first and gradually through legal means, having streets paved, and acquiring legal title to land.) Santo Domingo, though still known as a colonia, was at the time of Gutmann’s field work in the early 1990s a well established community in Mexico City – while it was once on the outskirts of town, further squatter settlement had long since surrounded it. It was also a community with relatively formalized infrastructure. What had brought this about, and what seems in part to have kept the colonia from developing a culture of poverty, even though poverty was an element of day to day life, was a strong tradition of community activism and the presence of UPMs.

“‘Urban Popular Movement’ is used in the social science literature to refer to a variety of social movements. Some are oriented toward very specific issues, such as paving roads in a community, improving a water supply, or building a school, others toward improving conditions of a community generally or of addressing important social justice issues, such as women’s rights or combating police violence. Though the terminology could be applied to other world areas, UPM usually refers to Latin American social movements, with the main thing in common being their urban orientation and the fact that these are grassroots organized movements. UPMs have played an important role in the economic and infrastructural development of Santo Domingo, and while they have by no means eliminated poverty, the UPMs (and the fact that many of the residents of the community seem to be the sort who join UPMs) seems to have inhibited the development of a culture of poverty.”

Here I ask, what is the relationship between some urban impoverished communities and the development of UPMs or some similar mechanism providing for a sense of belonging and collective action (with its combination of social and psychological benefits) and the lack of a culture of poverty?

A pessimistic interpretation would simply chalk up Santo Domingo as a statistical fluke. Mexico City is a huge metropolis, currently the second largest city in the world and growing. Over the past several decades, there have been countless squatter settlements-turned-urban-slums like Santo Domingo. With any large sample, we expect to find a few exceptions, and that could be what Santo Domingo represents (this is a case where more community by community ethnographic study is needed), an unusual case where at the start of the community, a cluster of people with the right qualities and aptitudes might have been in place to keep things going in terms of community action, and as a result a community where despite endemic poverty, the malaise of a culture of poverty never took root.

At the same time, UPMs seem too prominent in Latin America to be simply the result of statistical anomalies. UPMs sprung up in a number of countries in Latin America in great numbers during the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, and were an outgrowth of a number of factors, including rapid economic growth and transformation in much of the region, entailing large scale urbanization (e.g. the fact that Mexico City is today the world’s second largest city is the result of this) and a massive transition from rural to urban life, but without corresponding private or public investment in new affordable housing and other urban infrastructure for the millions of urban in-migrants. One result of these changes was colonia development, with countless new urbanites living in squalid conditions on the outskirts of virtually every major Latin American city.

In many, if not most, cases, a culture of poverty was also something that developed, but given that the people moving to these new settlements were active agents in their own right, individuals who were taking it upon themselves to try to improve their lives by their movements to urban areas, the particular combination of agitators, go-getters, altruists, and individuals simply trying ambitiously to improve the situation for themselves and their families that Gutmann writes about in Santo Domingo might be expected to have occurred with some frequency. The tragedy, perhaps, is that UPMs were not even more common, with this testament to the negative power of grinding poverty – and of course the repressive nature of most Latin American governments during the same period.

No comments: