Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs

Graduate Students Exchange Research Findings

March 4, 2011

Three graduate students presented their work late last semester during a workshop on "Alternative Political, Economic and Social Practices in Latin America,” sponsored by the Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies. 

Digital Activism in Chile
Community televisions are far from apolitical in Chile, according to Jennifer Ashley, a graduate student in anthropology. All of them operate illegally in the South American country, fueling accusations from their critics that they steal bandwidth from legal channels. For activists meanwhile, these stations are crucial parts of the democratic system.

“We are pirate televisions, clandestine in a democracy,” said a perturbed activist from Señal 3 La Victoria during a meeting of community campaigners. “How is that possible?” 

But Chile’s process of switching to digital television will for the first time legalize community televisions. “Honorable Pirates: Chilean Community Television and the Digital Transition” examines how these television channels are attempting to incorporate themselves within this process of authorization despite enduring attempts by the state to block their participation. 

Most of her ethnographic fieldwork focused on the low-income neighborhood of La Victoria in Santiago. Ashley also assessed the center-left’s allegedly benevolent decision to overlook unauthorized bandwidth usage. This policy, she argued, failed to understand what community activists have been battling for. 

“The activists find offensive what the state actor sees as charitable solidarity,” said Ashley. “They respond, “thank you, but no” because they have interpreted the tenants of democratic governance to mean that they have a right to participate in public debate and a right to transmit their ideas through the public sphere.”

Living off of Trash in Brazil
They inhale the stench of decomposing waste all day. Trailers and tractors zipping around are a constant threat. And neither sun nor rain halts catadores, or trash collectors, scurrying for recyclables in one of the largest dumps of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. 

“The idea of people picking through garbage to make a living is jolting,” said Kathleen Millar, a graduate student in anthropology. It is therefore surprising to note that many garbage collectors who find a less strenuous, more stable job often end up returning to the dump, she added. 

Rose, for instance, is a local dump-worker who secured a job as a maid. The work provided two minimum wages, compensation in case of injury, and pension payments. After a history of selling garlic in the street or cleaning a school, Rose was ecstatic at the prospect of her first formal employment. But a few weeks later, when Millar asked her how she liked her new job, Rose replied that she had quit.

“Rose’s story is not at all unusual in Jardim Gramacho,” the dump where Millar conducted her ethnographic fieldwork. “Sometimes I would not see someone for weeks or even months on the dump and almost without fail, the person would reappear – often with a story of a family visit to another part of Rio or a story of employment very similar to Rose’s.” 

Problems with fixed hours, observance of stricter rules and, perhaps most fundamentally, a loss of autonomy, often pull workers back to the dump.
Millar’s presentation, “I Come and Go, Come and Go: The Circulation of Workers in Rio de Janeiro's Urban Periphery,” highlighted how garbage collectors value the flexibility of work on the dump. It also pointed to the role of a government crackdown on informal employment – like street vending – as key to pushing people towards garbage collecting. 

But the fluid mobility of catadores should not be read as survival strategies or political critique, Millar warned. 

“Neither of these paradigms fully capture the life demands and desires that inspire these urban mobilities,” according to Millar. “It is precisely the interplay between certain pressures and various, at times contradictory, aspirations and values that lead to the cyclical comings and goings from Jardim Gramacho.”

Being Middle Class in San Felipe, Peru
Divisions within San Felipe, a middle class neighborhood nestled in Lima, Peru, affect the area’s potential for collective action.  

“It’s a middle class place which has the organization, it has the income – all the conditions to be a successful place, to have successful collective action,” said Omar Pereyra, a graduate student in sociology. “And sometimes they are successful, and sometimes they fail.” 

His presentation, “San Felipe: Living in Common and Boundary-Work in a Diverse Place,” explored how collaboration – ranging from painting buildings to uniting to oppose the transformation of public space – is affected by diversity. 

The historical development of the neighborhood is tightly linked to Peru’s wider history. In 1968, the state funded construction of the residential area, which now boasts 34 buildings and over 2000 apartments. Civil war in the 1980s triggered migration from the Peruvian highlands, and the neighborhood became home to more cholos, people of indigenous ancestry. 

“Then young people in Lima started to see San Felipe as a cool place to live in,” Pereyra said. “Right now there is a group of hipsters or whatever you want to call them, in San Felipe.” 

This diverse cluster – grouped together under the vague banner of “middle class” – helps explain why the success of collective action has differed in the neighborhood. “We have to understand the interests of these groups and the resources they have,” Pereyra said. 

By Watson Institute Student Rapporteur Alexandra Ulmer ’11