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Copyright © 2000 SAGE Publications (London, Thousand Oaks, CA and New Delhi) Vol 1(1): 93–116[1466–1381(200007)1:1;93–116;013128]

The hyper-shantytown
Neo-liberal violence(s) in the Argentine slum

Javier Auyero
State University of New York at Stony Brook, USA and Centro de Estudios en Cultura y Política, Fundación del Sur, Buenos Aires, Argentina

A B S T R A C T I Ethnographic observation, archival data, surveys and newspaper reports are combined to depict the social transformation of Argentine shantytowns during the last two decades, focusing on three different kinds of violence that impact the lives and social strategies of their residents: daily interpersonal violence, intermittent state repression, and the structural violence of mass unemployment. These violences are interrelated expressions of the broader socio-economic and institutional changes that have swept Argentina as the country adopted and implemented neo-liberal economic policies. As a consequence of the withering away of the wage-labor economy, the official indifference of the state, and the breakdown of the organizational fabric of these territories, shantytowns run the risk of becoming functionally severed from the larger society.

K E Y W O R D S I Argentina, inequality, neo-liberalism, poverty, shantytowns, violence


E t h n o g r a p h y 1(1)

Pierre Cardin in Villa Paraíso During the 1980s and 1990s, in both the United States (Wolfe, 1987; Mollenkopf and Castells, 1991) and Argentina (Sarlo, 1996; O’Donnell, 1998), the literary and sociological imagination adopted – usually in critical ways – the metaphor of the dual city to describe the changes in urban geography and ecology caused by increasing economic polarization. Despite its many conceptual and empirical flaws, the image of the dual city has the ‘virtue of directing our attention to the new inequalities’ (Mollenkopf and Castells, 1991:16) that, provoked in part by the elimination of millions of manufacturing jobs and by state retrenchment, not only characterize postindustrial cities like New York but also Third World cities such as Buenos Aires. During the last two decades, Buenos Aires – much like postindustrial cities of the advanced north – has witnessed ‘opulence and indigence, luxury and penury, copiousness and impecuniousness’ (Wacquant, 1999: 1641) booming right alongside one another. In Argentina, as throughout Latin America, these growing extremes of poverty and wealth are paralleled only by the gaping inequalities between increasingly larger metropolises, smaller cities, and rural towns. The luxurious wealth of an allegedly cosmopolitan bourgeoisie gives Buenos Aires the appearance of other global cities. The landscape of La Reina del Plata is increasingly ornamented with – to quote Saskia Sassen (1991: 9) – ‘expensive restaurants, luxury housing, luxury hotels, gourmet shops, boutiques, French hand laundries and special cleaners’, and we could add the opulent shopping malls and sumptuous developments in Puerto Madero. In these shopping malls global brands, like Pierre Cardin, presumably ‘Made in Paris’, are readily available for the conspicuous consumption of the privileged upper-middle class porteños. From the Soros-owned Alto Palermo shopping mall located in the upper class neighborhood of Barrio Norte it takes approximately 90 minutes and two overcrowded buses to reach the shantytown of Villa Paraíso.1 Paraíso (as its residents call it, avoiding the stigma carried in the prefix villa) is one of the oldest and most populated shantytowns in the metropolitan area of Buenos Aires. More than half of its residents have what studies of poverty call ‘unmet basic needs’, and roughly 75 percent earn incomes below the official ‘poverty line’.2 Widespread unemployment is the single most significant defining characteristic of Villa Paraíso. Sixty-two percent of the population between 18 and 60 years old is currently unemployed or underemployed. Long-term unemployment is rampant: more than half of those unemployed have been without a steady job during 12 months in a row (1996). Some of them rely on casual, temporary odd jobs, and other

. . the Plan País distributed small cash subsidies to help local groups to get started in some production line. ‘Pierre Cardín made in Paraíso’. they jokingly told me when I asked them if they actually put the tags on the purses. people buy them and think they are coming from Paris. ‘See. Rosa and her brothers. Reminding me of the effects of the ‘modernizing opening’ of the Argentine economy and of the well-intended but ultimately failing efforts of the (shrinking and increasingly inept) state’s left hand3. they realized that their artisanal mode of production was not competitive enough against cheaper imported puppets. Some others depend on their work in family sweatshops that. Two years ago they used to make US$700 every two weeks.’ In Alto Palermo shopping mall one of those purses can be purchased for around US$100. “Made in Paris’’. Other sweatshops that depend on the demand from the shanty dwellers have been disappearing as fast as they were started. and the tags that read ‘Made in Paris’. receive approximately US$10 for each one depending on the size and time required. together with many ‘enclave industries’. 1998). everybody is trying to screw you . the most they can do is to be vigilant for this kind of ‘trick’. who are occasionally joined by their mother during their 14-hour working day. . ‘You have to watch out. for reasons they cannot explain but that have to do with the increasing number of producers ‘off the books’ eager to work for derisory wages. ‘imports screwed us up . After a brief period of initial enthusiasm. some of them with the financial assistance of the government. they are now making US$800 every month. here. Lucy and Nelly were invited to take part in a government-funded micro-enterprise. When I last talked to them. the molds.Auyero I The hyper-shantytown 95 ‘informal activities’ as a source of (always scarce) monetary income. In their extremely precarious situation. Lucy and Nelly began manufacturing puppets to be sold in Paraíso.’ Today Lucy depends on the discretionary favors of a powerful local politician who was able to get a part-time job for her husband in the municipality and who occasionally provides her with food and medicine. they can consider themselves lucky. Even in their extreme vulnerability. This income puts their family of eight well below the official poverty line and the official value of family expenses. they had just received a fake US$100 bill from their employer. They receive no insurance or health coverage from their employer with whom they are usually bargaining for either more payment per piece or for more work.’. and with whom they are frequently in serious disputes over late payments. Lucy sadly noted. Rosa and her two brothers work in one of those sweatshops manufacturing Pierre Cardin purses. have been flourishing and dispersing throughout the underdeveloped world (Sassen. With the original intention of ‘strengthening community organization’. . they told me. They work for a large firm that provides them with the raw materials. Through their contacts with local political brokers of the official (Peronist) party. .

they take forever’. and they began to “charge me a toll”. . better. another long-time resident of Paraíso. Themselves victims of socioeconomic exclusion5. In both La Cava and Paraíso violence comes with isolation: ‘The men who sell milk. succinctly illustrates the experience of abandonment: ‘Not even God remembers us’ (Qué se va a acordar Dios de nosotros). . tells me. Every night they smoke pot or fire guns right outside my window . . I was lucky because a cousin of mine stopped by and he scared them out . you know.6 A resident from a third shantytown. . . And another resident of La Cava comments: ‘Car services and ambulances don’t want to come in. . street corner youth groups contest their vulnerability and redundancy by setting the tone of the shantytown’s public life.7 The ‘invasion of drugs’ is. we are cursed’. Las Ranas in the district of San Martin. . ‘See those guys over there?’ Eloisa. . from the shantytown of La Cava in San Isidro. Eloisa looks at them with resignation and wonders. And if they do come. the ones who come to buy drugs stole it’. . dwellers of the villas are not so much afraid of the military – as they were during the last military dictatorship (1976–83) – as of their own neighbors. The two men are parking a new car in front of the neighborhood association. You can’t denounce him anywhere. ‘They always steal cars’. pervades the whole atmosphere of the shantytown’s life and affects basic routines such as taking the bus for work. hurt you. . an old-time resident of Paraíso. ‘I don’t know . The spread of drugs and alcohol fuels the self-perpetuating cycle of distrust and interpersonal violence. or even worse. . Hugo recounts with an expression of grief on his face. Nilda. under democracy. overwhelmed by) the related spread of violence in their neighborhoods. the dominant concern in shantytowns. echoes her when recounting that two adolescents attempted to rob her. because they get robbed . . cab-drivers don’t want to come into the shantytown . Juan’s depiction encapsulates this feeling of dread: ‘I head to work early in the morning. and bread do not enter this area any more. because he might rob you. . I already changed my bus stop three times. . are always doing drugs . together with the lack of employment. we are more and more isolated . because the youngsters on the corner . Today. ‘The guy next door sells drugs. soda. . as time goes by. Hugo. this cannot be. at that time it is kind of dangerous here. ‘they had pocket knives. asked me. they say that they don’t want to be robbed’. This cycle. .96 E t h n o g r a p h y 1(1) ‘Screwed’ (jodidos) as they are by the dynamics of capitalist restructuring and aware of the lack of realistic expectations for future improvements. armed robbery and violent mugging have become quite common in many shantytowns. . Paraíso residents like Lucy or Rosa (and thousands of others who inhabit the many shantytowns of Buenos Aires) are even more concerned with (or. here. They stole my bicycle . we do not respect each other anymore’. having neither clear purpose nor clear origin. . mostly of the young ones. .4 During the last decade.

can you believe it. survey. if I didn’t have it. The other day they robbed me of the two pesos I had for the bus. and ethnographic fieldwork. they wouldn’t let me pass. . Cachún tells me. ‘cut a line on the hood of their car. .Auyero I The hyper-shantytown 97 a coin or a cigarette . . . adds: ‘My son is really ashamed of living here. The day on which 400 policemen with dogs and the support of helicopters entered La Cava looking for two murder suspects (two 14-year-old residents who were later discharged). was coming back from a pub in the city of Buenos Aires. intermittent state repressive violence. and at the mercy of drugaddicts and dealers who terrorize them: ‘During the weekend this is like the Wild West. . . He can’t invite his friends because they won’t venture into the alleyway’. there are a lot of gunshots . . ‘The cops took my coke’. Although the violence that dominates the daily experience and routines of most of the residents of Villa Paraíso and other shantytowns in Buenos Aires comes from other residents. you know they are not going to call you’. The police stopped them while they were walking towards Villa Paraíso. at night you can’t sleep . the Ministry of Justice proudly announced: ‘This is the end of the myth that said that the police did not enter into the shantytown’. this article argues that these different kinds of violence and fear are . ‘minding our own business’. And María. Cachún. No one expresses this fear better than the popular rock and roll lyric: ‘Even the Red Cross can shoot you’. made them stand spread-eagled to be searched for drugs. there are tons of drugs around’. and the structural violence of unemployment dictate the pace of everyday life in Paraíso as well as in most poverty enclaves in contemporary Argentina. and snorted it . . Using data from primary and secondary sources and combining observations drawn from census. state violence is still present in the form of sporadic and fiercely brutal raids targeted at youngsters. archival research.8 These ethnographic portraits should suffice to show that daily interpersonal violence. . man?’ The cops. abandoned by the state. He and his friends were high on cocaine. Isolation (both from the rest of society and among the neighbors) and violence come to intensify an already present stigma that shantytown dwellers have by now been forced to live with: ‘Each time you fill an (employment) application and you put (that you live in) La Cava . . It is Alejandra from Villa Paraíso who best summarizes the pathos that suffuses many of the shanty lives: that of being socially isolated. . they become cops so that they can smoke pot and sniff coke for free!’ Shantytowns are recurrently ‘invaded’ by the police.and upper-class neighborhoods take for granted. a friend of Cachún adds. . from Villa Paraíso. . ‘They pushed us against the wall’. are ‘all crazy . newspaper reports. alienated from those institutions and services that middle. . and they even got angry with me because that was all the money I had at the time’. . an unemployed 20-year-old.

In the second part I examine the way in which these structural forces impact in the living conditions of shantytown dwellers and in the relationships (or the lack thereof) that the shantytown has with larger society. . and the dismantling of the welfare component of the state. as the industrialization of Buenos Aires quickened.98 E t h n o g r a p h y 1(1) Figure 1 ‘See those guys over there? They always steal cars . deserted lands around the central city and close to newly installed factories. There is continuity in the sense that these areas have experienced the cumulative effects of disadvantage since their inception. As standard housing was scarce and extremely expensive given the low income of the new migrantsbecoming-industrial-proletarians. Villa Paraíso received huge contingents of migrants from the provinces. During the late 1930s and early 1940s. in turn. and practical consequences. namely a sectorial shift from a manufacturing to a service economy. their roots. Attention to connections together with conditions shows that the story of Villa Paraíso and other shantytowns contains both elements of continuity and discontinuity. La Cava. began growing in the mid-1950s. and it examines these changes.’ interconnected manifestations of deeper socio-economic and institutional changes that took place during the past two decades. the growing prevalence of unemployment and poverty. like Villa Paraíso. . became natural . In the first part I summarize the most important changes in the country’s economic and social structure during the last 20 years.

The story of poverty enclaves also has elements of discontinuity. ‘Nowadays the shantytown is almost an inferno’. and diminished neighborhood collective mobilization are the most important effects of the larger structural changes to be explored. According to this author. There is a new marginality spreading within these old territories. A relational turn in poverty studies will also help us to better interpret the ways in which national and global processes interact with small-scale social life. a perspective that is badly needed in the case of Argentina. and c) the retrenchment of the semi-welfare state. 1998. 1997). 1993). the state’s indifference. Thus. class and state provide the major driving forces for the redrawing of the urban color line. Loïc Wacquant’s recent dissection of the transformations in the ‘black ghetto’ from the 1950s to the 1980s (what he calls ‘hyperghettoization’) is of particular relevance to the analysis that follows.g. Borrowing from Wacquant’s (1998) analysis of the deep and sustained erosion of social capital that lies at the heart of the transformation in the ghetto.Auyero I The hyper-shantytown 99 squatting grounds for thousands of migrant families. Since the early 1980s the population of poverty enclaves such as La Cava. 1991. Las Ranas. and relational. dynamic. The aims of this article are. twofold. Catholic priest Farinello says about the shantytown where he works. the three major political and economic causes behind this process are: a) the economic transformations in the postFordist American economy (see also Sassen. chronic poverty. I seek to contribute to the current debates on what can be termed the new sociology of urban exclusion. First. Depleted networks of reciprocal help. Mingione. then. the dynamics of race. The second aim of this article is to examine the concrete effects that the neo-liberal wave has had on poor enclaves. Many contemporary authors (e. . Las Ranas. b) the persistence of racial segregation (see also Massey and Denton. places like Paraíso. as Tilly (1996) suggests. drained community organizations. or Villa Paraíso has been increasingly confined into what Mingione (1996:9) aptly describes as ‘highly malign circuits of social marginalization’. Wacquant’s approach is quite pertinent to the analysis of Argentine poverty enclaves not only because he puts forward a truly relational understanding of social exclusion but also because he encourages an analysis of the new forms of urban marginality ‘from the bottom up’. because these areas suffered the devastating effect of the growth of unemployment and underemployment (and the subsequent increase in the vulnerability of their residents) during the 1980s and 1990s. the shantytown has been an area of concentrated. I will argue that as a consequence of the withdrawal of the wage-labor economy. Wacquant. analysis that. and vulnerability as processes (rather than as states or conditions) that are cumulative. Since then. 1996) have recently highlighted the need to focus on urban poverty. should be the top priority for urbanists. inmiseration. Wilson. 1996. and the decomposition of the organizational fabric of this enclave.

As its social isolation increases. 1997). and industrial jobs went from 1. most Latin American countries following the ‘recommendations’ of the Bank and the IMF adopted even stricter adjustment programs and opened their economies even more. the Ministry of Justice and Security of the Province of Buenos Aires announced that 3700 new prisoners would be temporarily placed in the storage spaces of once-active industrial plants. In the last 10 years. 1995). ‘There’s no room to put the new prisoners. 1996. this type of enclave runs the risk of becoming functionally disconnected from the rest of society. O’Donnell. and uneducated harder (Beccaria and Lopez. and so are the precincts’. Stillwaggon.600 in 1994 (a 22 percent decrease in manufacturing jobs over nine years). jails are full. the ministry admitted. since it has been a star student of World Bank-style adjustment. 1998. Murmis and Feldman. on Latin America highlights the devastating effects that neo-liberal structural adjustment policies are having on enclaves of urban poverty (Barbeito and Lo Vuolo. The ‘social costs’ of neo-liberal reforms Current research on poverty done in and on Argentina and. 1998). the harmful consequences of the privatization drive and exportoriented economic strategy applauded by the World Bank can be seen in Argentina’s current. Different from their predecessors. the industrial heartland of Argentina (known as the Conurbano Bonaerense) lost 5508 industrial plants.381.805 in 1985 to 1. more generally. the disappearance of work hits the poor.9 Argentina is a particularly interesting case for the analysis of the concrete effects of structural adjustment policies. particularly since the ‘Convertibility Plan’ was adopted by the Menem administration (1989–99). In the last 10 years (since 1988).100 E t h n o g r a p h y 1(1) or La Cava have turned into hyper-shantytowns. the residents of this new urban form are neither employed nor mobilized. the market-oriented policies and austerity programs (increased exports and reduced internal expenditures) required of developing nations by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund in exchange for their lending became the major driving forces behind the dramatic increase in poverty throughout Latin America. 1996. 1996). unskilled. Villareal. 1996. Kessler. Beccaria and Lopez.082.10 In September 1998. Beginning in the mid-1970s and continuing well into the 1990s. 1995. Since 1991. There should be no problem in housing the increased prison population in former factories. 1992. 1997. there has been a 300 percent increase in unemployment (CEB. the Argentine . record-high 16 percent unemployment rate. As in the US (Wilson. Today. As UNICEF warned more than 10 years ago. 1997. The result was a sharp and unprecedented rise in inequality and poverty levels. Lloyd-Sherlock. Minujin and Kessler.

there has been a 50 percent increase in the number of underemployed people.3 percent. the federal police will receive $32 million more. while today they hold 37.8 percent GDP growth for 1999. whose output declined by nearly 20 percent over the 1980s. among other things.2 percent of the national wealth (GNP). poverty in Buenos Aires metropolitan area increased from 16. 1996).9 percent to 27. was particularly devastated. A dramatic reduction in the investment rate. while indigence went from 3 percent to 5. was passed as law weeks later and included considerable cuts in education. The growth of what many authors are now calling ‘flexpoitation’ has been accompanied by the spread of informality. A week after the ‘factory-into-jails’ announcement. while the military will have $110 million more in their budget. income disparity has dramatically increased. The holdings of the poorest 30 percent dropped from 11.5 percent of households were below the official poverty line in Greater Buenos Aires. In 1980. 1998:16).9 percent. reduced the costs of hiring and firing workers and facilitated the use of temporary and part-time workers (Patroni. health.1 percent. what Barbeito and Lo Vuolo (1992) call ‘early and non-modern tertiarization’. 11. and more universities to serve than in previous years). negotiated with and approved by the IMF and the World Bank. . social security. the Argentine Ministry of Economy sent its budget proposal for approval to the National Congress. accompanied de-industrialization. job programs. This unprecedented decline in public and private capital formation reflected the external adjustment process – the net transfer of capital overseas to service the foreign debt. The already inadequate welfare programs will suffer a $37 million cut.5 percent.3 percent to 8. which.8 percent). In the last two decades. and temporary work tends to predominate. all in a budget that predicts a 4. more schools. While the budget allots $25 million less to education than in 1998 (with more students. The creation of a more ‘flexible’ labor force has been encouraged by the labor reform carried forward by Menem’s administration. job creation is circumscribed to the service sector of the economy where part-time. From 1993 to 1996. Poverty rates also skyrocketed. and housing.11 In this same period. In 1974.12 Rising poverty and inequality are the results of this veritable hyperun(der)employment (Iñiguez and Sanchez. As William Smith asserts: the manufacturing industry. while increasing expenditures on domestic security.Auyero I The hyper-shantytown 101 economy experienced a sectoral shift from manufacturing to service employment. The new 1999 budget. Since May 1994 there has been a 27 percent increase in the number of jobs ‘off the books’ (jobs that have 40 percent less salary than those in the formal sector). (1992: 21) At present. from over 23 percent of GDP in 1979 to less than 10 percent in 1990. the richest 10 percent held 28. flex-time. In 1995 one out of four households were below the same line (25.

. and so many fears in the present. Let’s organize the worm’s parade.] We are the rats and the bats. 1995. the region most affected by this ‘epidemic disease’ (Kessler. shantytowns are a permanent part of the geography of most Latin American cities (Peattie and Alderete-Hass. 1995). dwarfish edifices of debris were crammed at the feet of the towering buildings of its modern architecture .] Children.13 Back to the shantytown And this is Buenos Aires? [. so that the city can see them. novelists like Bernardo Verbistky (1957) – who some credit for the invention of the name villa miseria – and social scientists like Hugo Ratier (1971). . Shantytowns have been portrayed as the ultimate example of the failure of Peronist populism during the fifties.000 unemployed. 1996. and adolescents were all vexed and humiliated as human beings in those slippery places. Prévot Schapira. The state’s inattention to the poor and unemployed is not only expressed in the insignificant number of people covered by unemployment insurance (and the low value of the insurance itself) but also in the chaotic character of those policies specifically directed toward ‘fighting poverty’ (Cetrángolo and Golbert. but we can crawl. One morning Buenos Aires discovered a surprising spectacle: Infinite number of miserable houses. and social activism. of so many hopes in the past. . . One can hardly think of an urban form that was (and still is) the repository of so many (mis)representations. 1996). Gilbert. in a great parade of all the villamiserias . [T]heir presence could no longer be ignored or covered.102 E t h n o g r a p h y 1(1) The state has been particularly indifferent toward the plight of the unemployed. religious. a mobilization of all the shacks. . coming in front of the true houses. Only a negligible percentage of the national employment programs are located in the Conurbano (CEB. [in front of] the homes of the human beings. .700. . .] It happened like this. even less than that. muchachas. During these 50 years. shantytowns have captured the imagination of Argentine film-makers like Lucas Demare (his 1957 film. as hotbeds where revolution was . Las villas have also been the sites of intense political. . 1994). Detrás de un Largo Muro). (Bernardo Verbitsky. . . let the spectres and the shadows see the light. in those repugnant mudholes where you lose your self-respect . a rally of each and every barrio de las latas. [. 1957) Fifty years after their emergence. . 1981. [. Golbert. Villa Miseria también es America. as project sites for the modernizing dreams of the sixties. Unemployment insurance only covers 5 percent of those without jobs in the whole country (95. as of 1997).000 beneficiaries out of 1. 1996). we are the worms that are born from all this indigence.

Media accounts periodically refer to the fear incited by shantytowns and their inhabitants. Experts on the ‘causes and solutions’ to urban (in)security recurrently feel the need to address the ‘shantytown problem’.Auyero I The hyper-shantytown 103 Figure 2 ‘Children at risk: “Same germs . During his first day in Buenos Aires. crime. . To witness: Former New York City Chief of Police. the ‘father of zero tolerance’ visited a precinct and two of the largest shantytowns. In a climate in which urban security is the major issue in the press and one of the most important concerns among the population. different conditions”.’ germinating during the ‘glorious seventies’. William Bratton. irrespective of whether they live in shantytowns or not) and as a symbolic (but no less real) threat to be avoided. In today’s fragmented and polarized Argentina. ‘patches of crime’ to be feared and averted. and as places of immorality. . hardly a conversation about public (in)security avoids mentioning the ‘villa’ or the ‘villeros’ (a label that is equally applied to people living in poor areas. and lawlessness in contemporary Argentina. hired by one of the candidates for the forthcoming mayoral elections ‘to collaborate in (the candidate’s plans) to combat the city’s insecurity’ (Clarín 17 January 2000). focusing overwhelmingly on the reactions that people from outside feel toward these ‘refuges (aguantaderos) of criminal activities’. recently visited Buenos Aires. the shantytown stands out as the ‘unknown and impenetrable’ origin of criminal activity. as obstacles to progress during the dictatorship of the eighties. shantytowns are no-go areas. Today. .

there is very little empirical research that focuses on the recent fate of the shantytown and specifically on the impact that the combined withdrawal of the state and the market has on these expanding enclaves and the everyday lives of their stigmatized inhabitants (Eckstein. Shantytown dwellers suffer high degrees of respiratory illnesses (such as asthma). there has been a 65 percent increase in the shantytown population of the city of Buenos Aires from 52. The understanding of shantytowns is thus dominated by journalists’ accounts which are occasionally impressionistic but. 1990). producing a stench that can. gastrointestinal and parasitic diseases.000 shantytown dwellers in the province of Buenos Aires. and almost 98 percent of the houses get their gas for cooking and heating from pressurized containers (tank gas) that residents purchase periodically and that incur a higher risk of house fires. Outside their houses. there were 300. and without adequate ventilation which – together with their zinc roofs – make them extremely hot during the summer. charged with prejudices and pre-notions. Houses are cold in winter.500 to approximately 50. the environment of the shantytown is extremely damp and unhealthy.472 to 86. the shantytown population of the capital city grew 300 percent (from 12. As a former resident of Villa Paraíso (now moved to another shantytown in the capital city) puts it: ‘Yes. .104 E t h n o g r a p h y 1(1) Unfortunately. A frying pan might fall down. the abundance of statistical analysis is only matched by the almost total absence of serious ethnographic case studies. usually damp. 1998). Twenty-five percent of the dwellings do not have piped-in water. and noxious fumes (Stillwaggon.16 Almost 70 percent of the dwellings’ roofs are made of metal sheets. This lack is quite striking in Argentina given the skyrocketing of the shantytown population in recent years. Household wastewater and rainwater run in open ditches through many areas of the shantytown. Since 1983. Between 1983 and 1991. 1998).14 Since 1991. There are a lot of accidents because we live very close to each other (encimados). with the highest concentration in the southern districts.15 As of 1981. more often. at times. overcrowding in extremely precarious and unhealthy houses is the defining feature of the shantytown. or they might fall down into one of the holes we make to put garbage or to put what comes out of the toilets’.666 shantytown dwellers (Alfieri. [a lot of children die] because of the accidents. While ‘poverty’ is one of the most studied subjects in Argentina. More than half of the population live in substandard housing and over a third live in houses with more than three persons per room. the shantytown population has been growing in the province as well (Stillwaggon. 1998).900). In Villa Paraíso. Located in the flood zone adjacent to a stream killed by industrial and sewer dumping (the Riachuelo) and close to a huge garbage dump. the environment that dwellers confront daily is not much better. contact burns. be nauseating even for residents.

higher-than-average rates of unemployment and underemployment. they were slowly beginning to recede during the 1960s and 1970s. 80 percent of the cases of infantile tuberculosis and measles in the country were found among shanty children (Stillwaggon. There used to be clear rules: no one would steal in the shantytown.’17 The surrounding landscape of the shantytown and the internal make-up of the alleyways are probably the best indicators of the fate of Villa Paraíso. unknowingly agreeing with many residents quoted in the introduction: ‘During the seventies the shantytown was perceived as a transitional place (un lugar de paso) where someone could get a job. unsanitary housing. rampant and stigmatized poverty: these living conditions in the shantytown are hardly products of the two decades of neoliberalism. from the truck the water is carried in buckets into the houses with obvious risks of contamination. and pneumonia greatly affect shantytown dwellers. and the defects in the joints and countless breaks in the hoses make bacteria and parasites a common presence in what municipal officials define as ‘potable’ water. angina. . that is) have intensified the alreadypresent marginality of shantytown dwellers to a point at which social exclusion becomes the defining characteristic of the shantytown population. In the southeastern part of the shantytown stands the huge abandoned skeleton of the Fabricaciones Militares factory. they rob you in the shantytown and everywhere. During the winter. these diseases are not restricted to the shantytown population but according to physicians of the local health center. In 1984. the two ‘lost decades’ of the 1980s and 90s (lost for the poor. Obviously. Now. Violence(s) Overcrowding. they are overrepresented there. 1998: 74–5). . bronchitis. Yet. they would do it outside the shantytown. [become] integrated. A municipal truck brings water on a daily basis to huge areas of Villa Paraíso. and then leave. ‘People who do not eat well are prone to any kind of sickness’.Auyero I The hyper-shantytown 105 and epidemic skin diseases (scabies and lice infestation). The majority of pipes are plastic. Today it is a place to stay . As an architect with long-time experience working in shanties asserts. and the household-appliances . a physician of the local health center tells me. Present since the shantytown’s inception. besides there were not so many drugs. This defiled water is responsible – according to the physicians of the local health center – for diarrhea’s prevalence as the most common disease among children and adults during the summer. . . . ‘There are the same germs. yet the conditions are different’. If and when they stole. Those who are served by a water network drink contaminated water served by a clandestine grid connected to the city water supply.

.18 . . . .106 E t h n o g r a p h y 1(1) factory where many inhabitants of Paraíso used to work is now a warehouse with no industrial activity whatsoever. you know . the alleyways were roads from which the interior of the houses could be seen. . Once. . the police . The internal make-up of the alleyways is also an unconventional sociological indicator of the changes the shantytown has suffered in the last 20 years: the walls of the houses facing outside have been substantially elevated. but I heard that the councilwoman knows about the drug problem and doesn’t do anything about it. in turn. and cocaine) are having devastating consequences on the life-world of shantytown inhabitants. . in Villa Paraíso. In chronically poor enclaves like Villa Paraíso high and constant levels of unemployment not only cripple the reservoir of contacts that has proven to be the best way of obtaining a job. You can’t trust the police . . In other words. . you can’t take your kids to the sidewalk because of the smell. Their feelings about dealers and consumers point not only to the insecurity they feel – the fear of being mugged or assaulted – but also to the abandonment and impotence they experience. The state is viewed as both impotent in solving this problem and suspect in making arrangements with dealers. . . Well. And at night it is terrible. The withdrawal of the wage-labor economy puts endemic unemployment at the core of the shantytown’s despair. the metallurgic factory has been significantly downsized. they fire their guns at the police . . . and neighbors could talk across them. . opportunities. As Adela puts it: ‘This is terrible . the alleyways look like veritable tunnels: the elevated front walls serve as a defense against the social predators (drug dealers and addicts) that – although a tiny minority – intimidate shantytown dwellers. squatter settlements. No one cares if you denounce people selling drugs . weird things . . and strategies. same thing (Roberto). (Juan). on the corner. marijuana. Some people say that her son is involved in the whole business (Adela).’ Drug-trafficking and diverse addictions (mainly alcohol. Most people are afraid to complain about the dealings or see no point in denouncing dealers because the police and state officials ‘are with them’. and poor working-class barrios. . . Now. to the northwest. . many kids get together and they smoke . spatially concentrated worklessness has impacted on the different types of social capital (formal and informal) that shantytown dwellers possess and that. affect their capacities. I cannot say that it is true. as well as in many other shantytowns. the dealers . but they also exhaust the networks of reciprocal help that have traditionally ameliorated the effects of economic hardship and the organizational networks that in the past were decisive in the improvement of the habitat.

‘It’s like a refrigerator. and lacks essential resources. ‘It is really dangerous here’. Together with the new school building. lighting) services of ‘collective consumption’ (Castells. you know?’ During the 1970s. Once we finish our conversation. Paraíso is the most drug-infested. an image immediately comes to my mind. I am waiting for Roberto. who is helping me to conduct a survey on employment and survival networks. an old friend from a nearby working class neighborhood. responding to their high levels of mobilization. As I am talking to them. he tells me as we begin the interview. During part of the year. ‘I didn’t even think about going in there’. It is getting dark and I ask a young couple sitting at the entrance of one of the alleyways if they have seen my friend. be sure he won’t come out (alive)’. right at a time when all such community organizations were banned or sharply controlled. He has been waiting for me in the grocery store. the center opened its doors at the beginning of the military dictatorship. ‘Paraíso is the shantytown with the highest drug consumption and HIV infections’. many community organizations and block delegates were involved in ‘la lucha’.Auyero I The hyper-shantytown 107 Capital destruction Older residents of Villa Paraíso are very proud of the local health center. The shantytown struggle over these and other (sewage. half of the school building does not have electricity. Having spent most of my pre-fieldwork research doing archival work on the representations of shantytowns in recent history. ‘The social problems are so serious that the pedagogic stuff is always left for later. I look for my research assistant. On a hot summer afternoon. As a product of sustained collective action. ‘We fought for it. Las Ranas is the most violent. Today the health center is usually crowded. dirty. 1983) was drastically interrupted by the military repression. my friend reappears. the principal tells me as she welcomes me into her office. Yet the mixture of impressions and prejudices from the outside (that are ironically echoed from the inside) serves the purpose of making a name for each and every shantytown. permanently understaffed. the health center stands as the symbol of a time when the state. a social worker who is trying to start a program for drug prevention based in the center. There are no records to substantiate these hardly commendable standings. The school principal has been working in the shantytown public school since the early 1980s and ‘Each year is a little bit worse’. all shantytowns have managed to wind up at the top of some disreputable ranking: La Cava is the most dangerous. ‘If he went in there (pointing at the alley). I talked for about two hours with her and the school social worker. and the lack of heat makes it extremely cold. you have to take charge of . cared for the plight of Paraíso residents. isn’t it?’. He points and adds. The two-storey school building stands in stark opposition to the small and precarious houses of the poorest area in Paraíso where the school is located. As the places that are classed at the bottom of urban symbolic space.

or called ‘stupid’. everybody is malnourished’. sewers run in the open air. . During the early 1990s. officials. Every time a new teacher comes to the school. Both the social worker and the principal associate the heightened criminality of the area – ‘It used to be the case that people from the shanty did not “touch’’ other shanty dwellers. the principal talked to a ‘person close to the ones at the top [of the criminal ring in the shantytown] and told him that if they kept assaulting teachers. Being a shanty teacher is [belonging to] a class. the principal and the social worker agree. ‘The true serious thing is that kids here are growing up with their fathers in jail’. you could have counted the cases on your fingers. One fundamental difference between the Paraíso of the 1970s and today’s shantytown is the much lower level of political collective mobilization. they had to intervene for others. the social worker says. When three teachers were mugged last year. there has been an explosion of AIDS. together with drugs. who in turn are beaten by those living outside the shanty . Not just anyone can be a shanty teacher. . The principal and the social worker are very proud of their work. they [the teachers] would not want to come to the shantytown anymore. Nowadays. They are beaten (apaleados) by the grownups. ‘Yet. you won’t have a problem’. and we never lose’. The principal and many neighbors say that there are at least five retail drug centers around the school. the ‘negros’. but it’s useful because the kids are defenseless. ‘It is more of a social service. Now they assault you even if you are living next door’ – with the spread of drugs. . ‘The first meetings of the year of all the principals were held here. and drugs circulate day and night. They are not only worried about food. by people from outside the shantytown. This . . and kids are without any protection whatsoever’. Although they ‘were never “charged a toll’’ to get to the school’.108 E t h n o g r a p h y 1(1) what is socially urgent . and educators agree is the most dangerous area in the shantytown. there was an explosion of drugs. To be school principal in the shantytown is to be far removed from the strict academic and disciplinary tasks that principals in other locations are used to. the principal points out. Both the school principal and the social workers assert that. in Paraíso. plus problems’. they are beaten. In their homes. . According to them. the levels of overcrowding are higher. ‘Malnutrition among our kids used to be an isolated phenomenon. though. Our kids go through problems. Our kids are very much used to being called the ‘villeros’. The stigma of being a ‘maestra villera’ (shanty teacher) is carried by them as a badge of honor. Some of them arrived and asked: “Who had the idea of organizing the meeting here?” We [the shanty teachers] are different from the rest. we make bets as to how long she is going to stay . The school is located in what neighbors. where some streets are still unpaved. . ‘the thread between life and death is easily broken’. plus problems. if you go in the school’s uniform and with someone else. Here. And they stopped’.

with the spread of long-term unemployment or insufficiently paid unstable jobs. primary support networks become less equipped to deal with difficult circumstances. . there is no public housing policy although it is badly needed given the overcrowding that affects Paraíso: ‘piling up’ [apilamiento]. and with the generalization of income reduction. Informal social capital is also rapidly diminishing. and health care’ [Wacquant. These features put state social capital or the lack of it (i. In other words. housing. and income reduction affects every single job that the unskilled population of Villa Paraíso is able to obtain (domestic services and jobs in the construction sector are the predominant occupations among women and men in the shantytown). and fragmented are the terms that best characterize social policy in Argentina. State repressive violence and. education. the structural violence of unemployment deprived the shantytown dwellers of the means of effective collective control over their own neighborhood and their own lives. The paths that used to link the shantytown economy to outside wage work are now interrupted. The state of the local health center mentioned previously is emblematic of health policy in the shantytown. overlapping.Auyero I The hyper-shantytown 109 decline in organizational density was initiated by harsh state repression and then reinforced by the disappearance of work. by the dynamic of the market). Networks of reciprocal help have not completely disappeared. 1998:28]) at the core of the reproduction of material deprivation in shantytowns like Villa Paraíso. as shanty-dwellers say. Individuals are hence more vulnerable. the informal capital of shantytown dwellers ceases to perform its traditional function of helping the population to make ends meet during critical times. legal protection. and organizational networks lack resources and become difficult to sustain. is a ‘very serious problem here’. However. but also by state inaction. Except for the occasional distribution of metal sheets for the always-transient improvement of the precarious houses’ roofs. and the monetary flow that entered the space of the shantytown as the blood of those reciprocal networks is severely diminished. the array of ‘organizations presumed to provide civic goods and services – physical safety. later. Even superficial observation attests to the fact that reciprocal favors abound in the shantytown economy. Changes in poor enclaves are not caused solely by the spread of joblessness (that is. Many of those interviewed rely on kin and friends whenever they run short of food. as they are still central in the survival strategies of the shantytown dwellers. these networks are being progressively emptied of their resources. with the escalation of unemployment and underemployment. When rejection from the labor market ceases to be temporary.e. Chaotic. More than 20 percent of those consulted in Villa Paraíso mentioned their relatives as sources of help when they needed medicine. welfare.

In other words. the Peronist Party) constitute the one problem-solving web that is rapidly increasing in size and relevance in poverty enclaves. Clientelist networks linked to the government party (until 1999. The Programa Materno Infantil (also targeted to pregnant women. targeted to the elderly without social security). Life Plan). It is probably a resident from the shantytown of Bajo Flores who best . Needless to say.110 E t h n o g r a p h y 1(1) Predictably. This implies that not all informal social capital has eroded. and despite official claims to the contrary. local officials consistently deny this public policy of abandonment. As in many squatter settlements and shanties. 1998). and the random and arbitrary allotment of food cannot possibly work as a support system against the ravages of joblessness. the Plan Asoma (funded by the national state. Levitsky. and the distribution of vegetables and other foodstuffs in grassroots offices of the government Peronist party. asserting that ‘there is no neo-liberalism here’ or that ‘we haven’t heard about neoliberalism’. 1996. are other outlets where some shantytown dwellers can find basic food products. Auyero. we care for the people’. In Villa Paraíso. assistance programs are the booty disputed by local politicians who use the ‘ownership’ of those programs to enhance their public image. together with state-retrenchment. under the supervision and with the funding of the World Bank).19 and they should be carefully distinguished from an actual concerted effort by the state toward solving the problems generated by (both female and male) unemployment. During my fieldwork. Many of these food programs are subject to clientelist manipulations that personalize the always meager benefits and present them as gifts or favors of local politicians rather than as social rights. that took me back and forth from Villa Paraíso to the municipal building. 1999a. a daily supply of half a liter of milk and one egg per child below the age of six and/or pregnant woman. Villa Paraíso has received a plethora of ‘social programs’. and illustrating this ‘fact’ through a detailed explanation of the different food distribution programs that serve the shanty population. This program is organized around block-delegates who distribute milk and eggs to every pregnant woman and child below the age of six on a daily basis. through the distribution of desperately needed material resources local ‘políticos’ try to build their own constituencies (see Golbert. 1998. This meager assistance received (mostly) by the women and children of the shantytown (adolescents and youths are not ‘targeted’ by any major social program) looks very much like a policy of containment directed toward the deterrence of mass riots such as those that shook Buenos Aires during 1989. machine politics have grown and consolidated in these territories during the past decade (Levitsky. ‘Here. the largest one being the Plan Vida (literally. 1999b). local officials were eager to point out how ‘assisted’ the poor population of the district was.

and dressed up as the only realistic way to (finally) modernize the country. this global poverty amounts to a veritable de-linkage from larger society and the confinement of shantytown dwellers to nether zones of accumulated and self-reinforcing joblessness. or barriadas.. etc. Or they think we don’t need that. favelas. there are problems. . and the gas? A – Did the people who don’t live in the shantytown install the gas system or did they find it installed? Did they install the sewage system? Q – And why do you think they don’t install it here? A – Because they want us to leave. giving prima facie plausibility to those arguments that stress the dual character of turn-of-the-century metropolises in both advanced and Third World countries. or they invite us to eat. 1998) Under the cloak of an allegedly inevitable ‘globalization’. they better not. If increasing social polarization is – as Henri Lefebvre would say – ‘inscribed’ not only in space but also in consciousness. and the dramatic increase in the number of people living in poverty. and vulnerability. . As the social isolation of the contemporary shantytown increases. Because each time they come.Auyero I The hyper-shantytown 111 expresses the official indifference and the sustained stigmatization that shantytown dwellers experience: Q – Do you think that the government should help the shantytown dwellers? A – I don’t know.They throw mattresses. poblaciones. violence. a whole host of minor and major everyday acts of violence. Concluding remarks You cannot cheat with the law of conservation of violence: all violence is paid for. alcoholism. in the form of layoffs. (Pierre Bourdieu. Q – Do you think that the government should install the water system. . and. the light. drug addiction. is matched sooner or later in the form of suicides. Acts of Resistance. the dismantling of the welfare component of the state. and then there’s not enough food. . the structural violence exerted by the financial markets. loss of security. crime and delinquency. as well as the declining conditions of the pre-‘austerity measures’ poor in Argentina (those known as the ‘structural poor’ as opposed to those recently impoverished). we should explore the ways in which this new geography of marginality is lived in the periphery. As in thousands of other Latin American shanties. If this is a qualitatively different type of shantytown. a . these enclaves run the risk of becoming functionally disconnected from the rest of society. for example. because we are villeros. If it [the aid] is as it has been until now. macro-economic adjustment and neo-conservative reforms are responsible for the spread of unemployment.

announced the ‘convertibility plan’. 8 Reported in Clarín 20 January 1999. 1995: 63). the poverty line for a family of four was $420 a month (Minujin and Kessler. 6 Reported in Clarín 10 January 1999. in 1989 44 percent were poor and 21 percent indigent (Bustelo. (1992). and representation this ethnography should attempt not only to provide a sociological account of the social strategies and experiences of those living in enclaves of poverty but also to rise up against the widespread hostility and/or indifference toward los villeros. Much like in France. 1998). 1998:3). See Auyero (1992) and Kuasñosky and Szulik (1996). the finance minister of the Menem administration. Through respectful observation. For an analysis of the specific programs of this social hand in Argentina see Lumi et al. 5 According to UNICEF (cited in Páginal 28 February 1999). and my own survey (based on a stratified random sample of 300 cases) carried out during October 1996. Notes 1 All the names of places and persons have been changed to ensure anonymity.000 youths (between 13 and 17 years old) who neither work nor study in Argentina belong to poor households. then ethnographic work must be done on the emergence and consolidation of its experiential correlates. listening. while in 1980 41 percent of Latin Americans were considered ‘poor’ and 19 percent fell into the category of ‘indigent’. Ninety thousand of these marginalized youngsters live in Greater Buenos Aires. in Argentina the social programs of the left hand can hardly compensate for the ‘flagrant inadequacies of the logic of the market’ (Bourdieu. in which the exchange rate . The data on poverty and unemployment come from the population census (1991). 1993. see also Oxhorn. 3 The ‘state’s left hand’ is an image proposed by French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu (1998: 2) to refer to the set of state agents in charge of cushioning the ‘social costs’ of economic programs. 60 percent of the 330. 4 Reported in Clarín 10 January 1999. 7 Reported in Clarín 10 January 1999.112 E t h n o g r a p h y 1(1) severed – rather than transitional and transitory – territory. An ethnography of the other side would thus be above all – populist overtones aside – an act of solidarity with those wretched of the city now being entrapped in the hyper-shantytown. than the one sociologists and anthropologists studied in the 1960s and 1970s. 9 According to CEPAL-UNDP. 10 In March 1991. Doming Cavallo. 2 In 1993.

Rosario. bulletin published by the Defensoria del Pueblo of the city of Buenos Aires. 1998:28). two women.. ‘Las cuatro chapas del desamparo’. and one nine-year-old boy). Peronist Networks. p. or connection to. As stated in the introduction. In an array of unplanned protests over rapid price increases. Ciudad Abierta 9. looting hundreds of stores. 15 of the 22 provinces reported looting. Since then. 8. cit. Loïc Wacquant. cit. op. p. 1998) makes to explain the drastic deterioration of living conditions in the North American ‘black ghetto’. Political Culture and Urban Poverty (Duke University Press. Acknowledgements Materials for this article are drawn from my book. here I am extending the argument that Wacquant (1995. and Claudio Benzecry for their comments on previous versions of this paper.. Cordoba) at the end of May 1989. explicitly referred to these riots as the origin of the soup-kitchen program. op. 14 people died in the ‘saqueos’ (11 men. 9. and 21 arrested at the orders of the executive branch of the federal government. Quoted in ‘Las cuatro chapas del desamparo’. I wish to thank Carol Lindquist for her editorial assistance. For a full exploration of the state’s indifference. See also Clarín 1 January 1999. although they want to work more. . The underemployed are those who work less than 35 hours a week. 80 were seriously injured. Formal social capital refers to the ‘set of resources and values that individuals may draw upon by virtue of membership in.000 people participated in the ‘saqueos’. forthcoming). and Lucas Rubinich. By official count. the wife of the governor of Buenos Aires. According to him. Quoted in ‘Las cuatro chapas del desamparo’.Auyero I The hyper-shantytown 113 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 was fixed at one US dollar equaling one Argentine peso. Over 52. formal organizations (that are themselves resourceful and efficient or not)’ (Wacquant. Doing Politics. the erosion of ‘state social capital’ is the most important social-organizational cause of the worsening of the conditions of existence of ghetto-dwellers. p. 13. who is the coordinator of the Plan Vida. and food factories. see Auyero (1999c). Reported in Clarín 8 December 1998. supermarkets. In one of the public rallies I attended. any monetary creation had to be financially backed by an equivalent increase in foreign-exchange reserves at the National Central Bank. thousands of people took to the streets of major cities in Argentina (Buenos Aires.

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L. (1995) ‘The Comparative Structure and Experience of Urban Exclusion: “Race. 1957. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.J. Buenos Aires: Norma. Argentina. His book Poor People’s Politics: Peronist Networks and the Legacy of Evita (Duke University Press) will be published in 2001.J. Wacquant. pp. New York: Farrar. and Space in Chicago and Paris’. Wacquant. New York: Knopf.D. Buenos Aires: G. J. Wacquant. (1998) ‘Negative Social Capital: State Breakdown and Social Destitution in America’s Urban Core’. Wolfe.D. Straus. He is assistant professor in the Sociology Department at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. Inequality and the Future of Social Policy. T. 543–70 in Katherine McFate. (1997).’’ Class.D. Address: Sociology Department. State University of New York at Stony Brook. (1997) When Work Disappears.com] I . Kraft. La Exclusión Social. Wacquant. W. (1999) ‘Urban Marginality in the Coming Millennium’. (1996) ‘Elias in the Ghetto’. NY.J. Roger Lawson and William Julius Wilson (eds) Poverty. Buenos Aires. L.D. Wilson. I JAVIER AUYERO received his Licentiatura from the University of Buenos Aires. L.J. USA and Centro de Estudios en Cultura y Política. He is now studying episodes of violent collective action in the Argentine interior. Villa Miseria también es America. Stony Brook. L. (1987) The Bonfire of Vanities. Villareal. Fundación del Sur. Amsterdams Sociologisch Tidjschrift 24: 340–8. Netherlands Journal of Housing and the Built Environment 13: 25–39.J.116 E t h n o g r a p h y 1(1) Verbitsky. B. Urban Studies 36(10): 1639–47. [email: Auyero@aol. and his PhD from the New School for Social Research.

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