One with others: care, stigma and the creative everyday of urban social space in Soacha, Colombia
Anderson, David Andrew
This thesis examines ways in which residents of one informal neighbourhood in Soacha, Colombia, are engaged in everyday struggles to navigate inequality, marginalisation and displacement. Similar to other informal settlements that have been established around the periphery of Soacha and its larger neighbour, Bogotá, the neighbourhood’s population is a mix of rural migrants, the urban poor, and those displaced by conflict. These residents suffer from high levels of poverty and institutional neglect, while crime, drugs and violence affect their lives both literally, through the presence of criminal groups, and symbolically, through stigmatising narratives attached to people and place. This territorial stigma, meanwhile, connects to historical currents of the stigma and marginalisation of rural populations in Colombia. Previous understandings of informal settlements as slums, qualified only by poverty and lack, have been interrogated by recent research, which has presented a more nuanced picture through studying the development of homes, public space and everyday life within them. In Colombia, research has also engaged with the ways in which the urban poor and the displaced – often living within these informal settlements – engage in struggles to assert their rights. Drawing on this literature, this study provides a textured and lyrical engagement with the research neighbourhood, exploring its social space and questioning how meaning accumulates around the people, places and acts that occur there. I also examine the conditions of everyday life for neighbourhood inhabitants, particularly through the work of a care organisation run by two local women. This foundation, a comedor [canteen] providing food to local children, is the only social organisation present in the neighbourhood and so I engage with its key role in supporting local families and the possible significance of this for the development of the neighbourhood. Finally, I ask how the fear generated by crime and violence is present within the neighbourhood through its inherence to specific locations, and how these places are understood by local inhabitants. I address these questions by drawing on ethnographic fieldwork – specifically participant observation conducted working within the foundation – interviews with neighbourhood inhabitants, and photographs and maps created by local children. I find that in the absence of support from external actors, hardships are often navigated on an interpersonal level through kindness amongst residents and the care present in the work of the foundation. These two responses are able to mitigate but not resolve larger structural inequalities, whilst also forming bonds of solidarity and sociability amongst residents. The foundation is especially important in this regard through changing the use of neighbourhood space and opening up new opportunities for residents to engage with each other. I also find that, for the displaced, contrasts between their rural and urban lives highlight painful contradictions which serve as a marker of injustice and reminder of loss, but also a testament to progress made in living through displacement as they establish new homes. Finally, I found that while particular places were emblematic of crime, violence and fear these understandings of place are contested through the everyday engagements of local children in play, and their connection with family, friends and animals. Overall, I argue that the everyday acts and practices of residents are generative of moments that allow the neighbourhood to matter, in significant moral ways, to those living there. These acts and practices are understood as struggles occurring against the injustices and inequalities that residents face daily, and which by necessity form their everyday. This makes the political and moral shaping of the neighbourhood a quiet one, motivated not by one uniting goal but dispersed throughout routines, interactions and individual moments. I argue that this is of central importance for understanding how urban space is formed through a moral community based on respect and recognition of the other, and how this is a process that occurs unevenly due to the presence of stark injustices. This reveals the ways in which local everyday lives engage dialectically with structural inequalities and narratives of stigmatisation, providing insights to the formation of social marginality and the contestation of this by those forced to live it.