What’s behind a place’s name?: Poblaciones in Chile

This graph is a small list of self-managed settlements in Chile during the 70’s. By that time creative and radical forms of city-making were put to practice. Tomas, as they called them, consisted of take-overs of land by a group of poor city dwellers and families. They were initially considered illegal but became a popular form of city production due to decades of unresponsive housing policies (de Ramon, 1991, Santa Maria, 1973). Once land was occupied, usually done quickly in the early hours of a morning, pobladores would build their houses and communities with whatever building materials they managed to obtain (pobladores is a Chilean expression which refers to the low and mid income urban dwellers). For a few years The land occupations or take-overs were eventually legitimized and supported by a wide range of institutions, such as the church, borough mayors, congressmen, students, unions and political parties from one end of the ideological spectrum to the other. It even became a state policy, named “Operacion Sitio”, and President Alessandri delivered speeches suggesting a need to knowledge the right to live in the City.

catastro campamentos 1971. Source: Direccion general de carabineros

catastro campamentos 1971. Source: Direccion general de carabineros

Historians suggest (de Ramon, 1990, Santa Maria 1973)these names do not always reveal the type of relation between  the urban movements pro-housing and the institutions backing them up. Even though some institutions were sincerely concerned with the housing shortage and living conditions, others found it an opportunity to obtain political support and votes. This partly may explain why it became a mainstream urban program. Since it went in well with the establishment it was widely supported.

But not all were in favour of Tomas. The idea of promoting self-managed settlements implied autonomy to be involved in collective decisions regarding where to live and freedom in terms of what type of house will be stood up. In many occasions it developed high levels of solidarity for various issues: employment, food, security, basic services, and so on. Levels of organization and self-determination which help poorer groups to be less vulnerable to, for example, evictions. It even went as far as to providing construction material to start up the house. If you take into account that thousands of pobadores actually signed up to social organization which were responsible of Tomas in Santiago, this drained a significant number of urban dwellers from the real estate driven market. The social organization became an alternative to the usual “Rancherios”, Conventillos,Cites or other form of state/firm provision of housing and amenities.

It is worthwhile mentioning that the absence of this building sector, may have significantly contributed to the explosion of participation among pobladores and the wide range of institutions. Indeed, these social organizations centred their agenda around housing. And were not necessarily obliged to include real estate firms into the process of selecting people, choosing a place, defining the land sizes, the size and shape of the house and so on. But the need to legitimize a take-over of land in a mainly capitalist driven urban growth, and obtain valuable organizational skills still required strategic association with powerful institutions “outside” the pobladores world. Institutions which some have been mentioned in the first paragraph. This period of Chile’s urban policy was a form of re-politicization of the city making process. By re-politicization I mean an inclusion of more institutions or actors into the urban process. Institutions which used the urban process as a means of establishing links with pobladores to find similarities in agendas and collaborate towards similar goals. Consequently, the process of making a Toma is important just for the fact that it diversified the ways in which social relations were created. It would then be true to suggest that those who control the city making process control social relations. Many of these relations are reflected sometimes through their names.

There is a long history of naming the places where the poor live which also reflected the social relations of the time. During the 1900s up until the 1970s poor urban dwellers lived either in rancherios or in cites and conventillos. Rancherios had a negative connotation to where families and individuals lived just outside the city. Land owners would rent parts of their farm land to poorer groups, and charged according to size of the self-made housing. Rancherios is also a name that according to de Ramon (1991) and Santa Matia (1971) were associated to thieves, indigenous groups and the poor. It was during the 1920s and 1930s that mid and high income classes decided that it was trendier to live in the country side. And the places left to the urban poor were what this group left: inside the city. The inner city became the new areas for the urban poor, which eventually were filled with Cites and Conventillos.

Cites and conventillos are names much friendlier than rancherios, in the Chilean language at least. Cite is associated to a French word. And conventillos is the diminutive of the word convent, which had a more dignifying and “spiritual” sense of place. But both words, as much as they evidenced a change in how poorer groups were named, simply hid the process of concentrating the poor into urban enclosures and unhealthy living conditions. These words were probably show an intention to forget rather than initiate a process of integration through the housing policy. By the way, cites and conventillos were built by the real estate sector of the time. Due to the pressures of the media as well as elites, a solution to the urban poor was “urgent”. And it was through a series of financial policies and incentives that real estate firms provided a new form of living in the central areas of Santiago. An example is showed below.

Cite or Conventillo. Source:

Cite or Conventillo. Source:

Much of the process of making tomas was also one which reshaped the sense of popular identity. Institutions, by helping to organize and then having some liberty to name the toma created a form of institutionalization of the mix between popular and institutional identities; a form of institutionalization of popular identity. The names of tomas also reflect the competition among some institutions to obtain political support and votes. Naming the toma was a way of establishing a precedence of the institutions social oriented agenda, one which cleaned their image and provided a positive response form the political and social establishment. It also created a permanent effect among pobladores to what kind of ideology or party they should feel associated to. But whether tomas were used by some and genuinely supported by other institutions, a wide range of places were named in the city, and institutions became embedded into city through the Toma/making process.

Finally, as ephemeral as a name may seem to some, its creation is a simplification and interpretation of an identity constituted by different people and of a complex process, like the Tomas. This is why this version of history may not be the only valid interpretation of this specific topic and part of urban policy in Chile. Nevertheless, I believe these names show a innovative reaction to the need for social integration. And the urban process became the media through which collaboration and association among various actors became possible. This period of urban policy also teaches us to be more critical to the wide range of intentions of the institutions involved in integration and inclusion processes. After all, the names do reflect a poblador-institution relation which questions how “autonomous” or “independent” pobladores really were to be the drivers of their own history.

lo que (no) nos dicen los nombres de las poblaciones

De adonde provienen los nombres de poblaciones? Como algunos sabrán, hubo una época en Santiago, donde las “tomas” o campamentos eran formas legitimas de encontrar un lugar para vivir y construir vivienda. Muchas de estas iniciativas eran intensamente apoyadas desde un principio por diversas instituciones y personajes: diputados, alcaldes, la iglesia, estudiantes, cooperativas, etc. (de Ramón, 1990, Santa María 1973) . Y por supuesto casi todo el espectro de partidos políticos, desde la Partido Nacional (derecha) hasta el MAPU (izquierda).

catastro campamentos 1971. Source: Direccion general de carabineros

Catastro campamentos 1971. Source: Direccion general de carabineros

Muchos de los nombres que se encuentran en esta lista reflejan este vínculo movimiento urbano – institución organizadora. No obstante, la idea de imprimir una identidad institucional sobre los movimientos que reivindican la identidad del poblador tiene una doble lectura. Si bien algunas instituciones eran sinceras en su apoyo a pobladores, otras los usaban para obtener votos o apoyo político. Esto de obtener apoyo político ademas de conseguir de paso una imagen positiva frente a la comunidad política y social podría explicar en parte la aceptación general del “establishment” chileno de las Tomas. Y por supuesto, como los nombres reflejan el uso que le daban a las Tomas para competir entre algunas instituciones.

De todas formas, si existían serios detractores. Si promueves la auto-gestión, entonces permites un nivel de autonomía para construir colectivamente un lugar. Y esto afectaba a las inmobiliarias, ya que quedaban al margen del control de  ciertos circuitos del conocimiento y materialidad en el desarrollo urbano. Sobre todo en una época en que miles de pobladores se inscribían para obtener vivienda mediante organizaciones sociales vinculadas a la formación de tomas. Esto remplazaba el proceso habitual de obtener vivienda por medio de rancheríos, obtener un lugar en un cite u alguna otra alternativa donde el estado o sector constructor estaba en control de la mayor parte del proceso de urbanización.

Cabe señalar que, la ausencia de este sector de la construcción puede haber contribuido a la significativa explosión de participación de otras instituciones en el desarrollo urbano. La vinculación de las organizaciones de pobladores no debía responder ni estar supeditada a una constructora en aquel momento de Santiago. Pero la necesidad de legitimar la edificación de una parte de la ciudad y obtener ayuda organizacional requería de apoyo de instituciones “externas”. El resultado fue una serie de asociaciones con una gran gama de organizaciones, como se menciona al principio. Es más, sin esta re-politización (o participación de varios actores) del urbanismo quizás muchos de estas instituciones y actores hubieran quedado al margen de colaborar o encontrar formas de vincularse usando procesos urbanos como medio de comunicación. Consecuentemente, el proceso urbano es fundamental para diversificar los medios a través de los cuales se construyen relaciones humanas (e institucionales). Quizás sea cierto entonces que, el que controla el proceso se hacer ciudad, controla estas relaciones. Relaciones que en muchas ocasiones se reflejan en los nombres de los lugares.

Detengámonos un momento para juntar algunos nombres que se le han dado a sectores pobres en el pasado. Que nos dice el nombre “Rancherío”? Este nombre representa una forma de arrendamiento a familias o grupos pobres de terrenos alrededor de la ciudad. El nombre es bastante despectivo y estaba asociado al lumpen o ladrón o indígena. En cambio “Cite” o “Conventillo” son nombres que intentan imprimirle una identidad “noble” y acorde con una tendencia arquitectónica del momento. Un nombre que en realidad le resultaba interesante mas para la clase media y alta, que a los pobres que tenian que vivir en estas edificaciones. En realidad el nombre era una forma de disfrazar una realidad y un proceso de hacinamiento.

Las tomas fueron también un proceso de institucionalización de la identidad popular. De paso, al formar parte del proceso de “tomarse” un terreno, también se aseguraron de imprimir una identidad más a la ciudad y de permanecer en ella a través de la presencia de la Toma. Consecuentemente, se podría decir que urbanizar es crear (reivindicar, remplazar, mezclar, etc.) identidad.

Finalmente, por efímero que un nombre parezca, su creación refleja una simplificación e interpretacion de una identidad constituida de personas diversas ademas del proceso (muchas veces complejo) que la formo. Por eso es importante no simplificar o reducir esta etapa de Tomas en la historia urbana de Chile a una sola interpretacion. En mi opinion, refleja una reacción creativa a la necesidad de integración social, y como a través del proceso urbano esta necesidad es reconocida. Esta etapa también nos enseña a ser más críticos de las intensiones de las instituciones que participan de la integración urbana. Ya que esta relación poblador-institución refleja que tan “autónomo” o “independiente” puede llegar a ser un movimiento para modificar (o ser dueños de) la trayectoria de su propia historia.

The unbuilding of informal Buenos Aires, part 3

The unbuilding of informal Buenos Aires, part 3

What can be learnt from the global south?

Ethnic geographies: the case of Los Angeles from Soja’s perspective


(Images of Los Angeles: Courtesy of Daily Mail and Google Maps)

Among the various discussions Soja (2000) suggests in his book Postmetropolis is his notion of an Exopolis (p250). He highlights the relevance of processes which de-centers cities, expands them, and provides a new reality to so many of the city dwellers. Soja’s analysis begins with Los Angeles, which is represented in the above images. Recently a publication of the Daily Mail (2010) evidences some of his views of cities as assemblages of enclaves (Soja, 2000:252). The newspaper published a series of maps which evidenced the divisive pattern of cities from an ethnic perspective. The revealing geographies of ethnic enclaves reinforce the importance of Soja’s question: what processes are involved in this form of city making?

After a description of a city which emerges as a consequence of racial, class and gender divisions, Soja also provides details of various mechanisms through which democratic citizenship and the right to the city is possible to obtain.  Among the selected examples is the BRU/NAACP lawsuit against the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA). The BRU and NAACP, by using the civil rights legislation, argued that “particular populations if transit dependent bus drivers were being discriminated against by the policies and investment patterns of the MTA” (p257). From this brief description of the lawsuit, three elements arise as relevant to allow a closer to democratic outcome of L.A.’s urban development. First, it is the capacity to organize (in this case Unions). Secondly, the capacity to form agreements and coalitions, or forms of sharing knowledge and resources. This allows to access higher levels of knowledge, technology and form part of expensive processes which otherwise are not obtainable by poorer sectors of society.  Thirdly, institutional mechanisms which allow a relatively adequate environment for transparency and accountability.


Soja applies a critical appraisal of the expansion of the city. He leaves aside the successful discourses of real estate developers, and looks into the evolution of places beyond the “edge city”. this means areas sprawled or build considerably far from the traditional L.A. inner city. The map provides a general view of those places suggested as running down middle class areas. he uses four aspects to evaluate and build his arguments: housing (the cost of them and who can access them), jobs (their amount, cuality and distance), transport (commuting time and effects over people and neighborhood sustainability) and environment (lost grassland and wetlands prior to developments, loss of connectivity among central and distant urban areas).  Indeed, much of the issues which might have characterized inner city (poverty, lack of individual investment on property, public fiscal deficit, scarcity of economic initiatives, loss of job concentration, far from jobs, exodus of residents, increasing sense of insecurity, etc) are also present in areas such as Lancaster, Palmdale, Moreno Valley and Antelope Valley in general.

Far from a positive outcome, thee places suggest a difficult outcome to the form of urban expansion, which may well be applied to many cities around the world. this expansionist model is reflected in the urbanization of the world. The fact is that most people live in cities today. just recently we tilted over the 50% of the world’s population living in urban environments. with this fact in mind, Soja’s perspective raises the question how are we living in cities today? Although the diversity of cities may shade the possible applications of Soja’s L.A. picture, the Exopolis effect can be identified in most countries which have restructuring processes. urbanization is after all a phenomena which is closely linked to economic growth. Indeed, and places such as those mentioned as conflict previously, also indicate the fragility of urban economic development.