How do poor people fight against urban marginality and spatial

How do poor people fight against urban marginality and spatial segregation?
Political Practices and Social Intermediation in Contemporary Mexico City
Edison Hurtado Arroba
PhD. Student of Sociology, Centro de Estudios Sociológicos, El Colegio de México
1. Research Problem
Latin American cities (among others all over the world) are the scenario of accelerated
reproduction of economically marginalized and socially excluded “citizens”. Precarious living
conditions in these cities are not new, nor those studies of urban poverty, poor neighborhoods,
inner cities, slums, settlements, favelas, villas, colonias populares, etc. (cfr. Auyero 2001,
Cordera, Ramírez, Ziccardi 2008). It is not new that some of these conditions (the structural
ones) are re-created over the years, and that poor people all around fight against social destitution
(social situations are not immutable, nor in nature, neither in their expressions). In Mike Davis’
words (2006), we are facing a planet of slums in the near future, as a result of a global capitalist
accumulation process that creates a huge mass of unemployed. Urban marginality and
segregation is the correlative outcome of a global liberalization path in which poor people are on
their own, without effective public support and with fragile (or inexistent) articulation to the
labor market.
In these contexts, what do poor people do to face urban segregation and poverty? Is there any
bridge between “urban social movements” and “patronage”? How do national and sub national
governments imagine (and act with reference to) political inclusion of the urban poor? What is
the set of political practices in which poor people live in contemporary Latin American cities?
How “participation initiatives” deal with current political practices?
In Mexico City, population living in conditions of high and very-high urban marginality reaches
28% according to official national statistics (CONAPO 2005). But, perhaps it is more accurate to
use the recent Social Development Index (Evalua DF 2011), which tells us that almost 60% live
under low or very-low levels of “social development” 1 . Beyond that, no matter which index we
use, both show us a well structured map of urban segregation in the city: a misery belt where
poor people deal with unemployment and deprivation in daily basis. In Mexico City, deep
economic and social inequalities are clearly observable in the territory. Capitalism, urban
development and class inequality have socio-spatial manifestations, especially in this large
metropolitan city (as in others). This mixed picture of the city, which receives differential
impacts of the dynamics of neoliberal globalization, requires thinking in “several cities” that
overlap each other. And when we think about how these multiple and varied social
configurations coexist in the same city, we must consider the very local and particular history of
neighborhoods and urban social struggles as geographically located. Urban poor politics is, in
this perspective, a social product of an irresolute urban social issue, that take place differentially
within specific spatial settings (Tarrés 1994).
The Index of Urban Marginality (CONAPO 2005) uses a negative or privation-centered approach. The Index of
Social Development (Evalua DF 2011) states an optimum positive social level to be reached. It is possible that a
certain spatial unit (e.g. a neighborhood) scores low marginalization, but also low social development, not being a
Under this analytical scope, this research project focus on the political practices seen from below
as a way to explore how the local political realm deals with poor and marginalized citizens in the
city, and vice versa.
2. Research Questions
The analytical aim of the research is to explain how specific urbanization and capitalist processes
constrain the political practices and the citizenship of the urban poor. My comprehensive
questions are: How do poor people claim the “right to the city”? Which are the explanatory
factors that constrain political performance of urban poor people?
Links between social exclusion, marginalization, citizenship, patronage and urban movement
have been used repeatedly to study the forms in which urban poor express their search/struggle
for social, economic and political inclusion (from H. Lefebvre to R. Sennet, from M. Castells to
D. Harvey just to mention a couple of classics). Following these perspectives, the research
attempt to analyze how urban popular collective action emerges in marginal and segregated
places. In that way, the project links two main concepts: urban regime and citizenship regime 2 .
In fact, urban sociology acknowledges that urban segregation constrains the capability of poor
citizens to exercise their rights, but also their expressions towards social inclusion and political
participation (Harvey 2007). Here, we want to know how it is produced in contemporary Mexico
City. How do poor people fight against urban segregation in this Latin American city? What
factors are constraining the agency of urban poor living in marginalized neighborhoods? If so,
As a parallel course of action, during the last decade, recurrent initiatives to promote
participation have been considered as required institutional approaches to fight against poverty,
and to face traditional patronage and built democratic citizenship from below. In 1997, for the
first time, México City elected the Mayor, and in 1999 was published the first Law of Citizen
Participation (Ley de participación ciudadana), which was reformed in 2010. What kind of
participation has been promoted in Mexico City in these years? Does it really replace “traditional
values” with “progressive” democratic culture and practices? How those new participatory
designs deal with previous-current political practices in poor neighborhoods? To what extend
participatory designs of public policy can thwart social destitution? Is really social participation a
new and improved mechanism to forge democratic citizenship?
In a wider perspective, my thesis explores the relationship between society and politics, in a
version in which urban social issues (marginalization and exclusion) would shape local political
practices. What I put in the core of this discussion is the relationship between urban social issues
and politics, understood as an expression of social citizenship and of current social and political
ties (or sociopolitical intermediations).
Here, I follow the work of David Harvey (2007), Guttman (2009), John Mollenkopf (1996), Javier Auyero (2001),
Denis Merklen (2005), Wayne Cornelius (1980), Lewis (1959), Lomnitz (1975), and many others. Let me just to
mention the name of these well known urban sociologists.
3. Towards an Analytical Model
Urbanization processes in Latin America, as is well known, were the resulting product of a
particular capitalist accumulation model in the periphery. If recent development (urbanization) of
Latin American cities shows the passage from the Import Substitution Model (ISI) to the
Structural Adjustment Model to face and to engage into globalization (Portes, Roberts, Grimson
2008), we need to conceptualize how this process is producing new forms of exclusion in the
cities and also, correspondingly, new conditions for the exercise (or not) of social citizenship in
the cities.
Urban poor people politics (Auyero 2001) or the political practices of the poor citizens (Merklen
2005) are conditioned by an irresolute urban social issue in Latin America (Alvarez, San Juan
and Sanchez 2006). So far, I suggest that these issues are still irresolute in the lives of urban
residents in Mexico, and shape the way politics take place in poor neighborhoods (Tejera 2003,
Gomez-Tagle 2000). Recent research on Mexico City (Paladino, 2010, Tosoni 2007, Ziccardi
2008), or long-term studies (Ramírez 1986 and 2002, Álvarez 2004), show that urban social
issues structure a poll of social incentives where sociopolitical actors emerge with specific
characteristics and ways to do politics. A specific frame is built from below. Social relations in
the urban peripheries are embedded within a large institutional milieu, and the entire public
sphere in the city acquires particular density.
Socio-political dynamics in Mexico City has been studied under the scope of “urban social
movement”, mostly to refer to mobilization processes after earthquake of 1985. What has
changed? What are the current social circumstances that enable new forms of urban collective
action? What actors and agendas are shaping urban politics nowadays? For example, the step that
many of grassroots organizations are taking toward electoral politics (Espinosa 2000, Haber
2009) is certainly a new process that is facilitated by the opening in the District election (as late
as in 1997) and for attempted emerging alternative forms of governance (Bolos 2003, Tejera
2009), which includes new participatory routes to implement local public policy. This issue
raises new questions about the future of grassroots organizations, and requires research with the
lens of those who seek new politicization forms in the city and changing types of social
A socio spatial perspective of political behavior must take into account multiple determinations
affecting poor neighborhoods and local actors. Practicing local politics implies a particular
insertion in the life of the city and its institutions (Merklen 2005). For this reason, investigate
citizenship regimes as ways of belonging to a whole social-institucional, is part of an ongoing
study of the ties and networks of social relations.
The processes of urbanization in Latin America have been constraints of particular forms of
political action and urban protest. The marginal mass can be seen as passive and non competent
agents for the exercise of full citizenship (simply looking for material survival in deprived
conditions. But there are also groups that can organize and deploy collective action. Both
perspectives can also be integrated in a large analytical model, where poor people politics are
embedded in a set o social networks and institutional settings.
4. Research Design and Methodology
“Is urban politics worth studying at all, or is the urban political realm
so subordinate to, dependent on, and constrained by its economics and
social context that factors from this domain have little independent
explanatory power?” (Mollenkopf, 1996: 236).
The research analyzes the current political and organizational practices within three poor
neighborhoods (colonias populares) in Mexico City 3 . Each case study shows an internal
diversity in terms of social actors and performance of local politicians (or operadores políticos)
as well as local government officials and social programs. All of them, comparatively, allow us
to recreate the situated networks of social and political relations in which urban poor people live
and claim for sociopolitical rights and urban services (here I use a Simmelian perspective). The
resulting scrutinized set of relations will let us understand how deprived urban conditions shape
urban popular politics.
The twofold research design of my dissertation attempts to capture the performance of
intermediate social and political organizations within the local political realm (the “interface”
between state and society). First, I use quantitative data and institutional analysis to situate the
social, economical and institutional milieu in which poor urban people live. I use regression
analysis to explore specific correlations between electoral behavior, political participation, and
urban segregation. I use data from last local (municipal) elections and a set of statistical data
(social development indexes, and urban marginality and segregation indexes) 4 . Then, I
reconstruct the set of local government offices and social programs that deal with local public
policy in these poor neighborhoods.
Second, I use an ethnographic approach to dissect the local urban regime from below, and
capture the political daily live in the neighborhoods. During my fieldwork (2010-2011), I have
followed local actors (popular leaders, local activists, political parties, and low range officials) in
their quotidian activities, in order to link their currents practices with those large-structural
manifestations of urban poverty as well as with local and extra-local political institutions.
Accordingly with the structural and institutional analysis, what I want to describe (using
ethnography and live stories) and analyze are those situated strategies used by poor people to
claim for urban services, social inclusion and their social and political rights. Both perspectives,
from above and from below, configure an evaluation of sociopolitical intermediation in which
poor people live.
To explain these mechanisms of sociopolitical intermediation, it is not rare that academics
continue talking about “patronage” or “clientelism”, but I prefer to use the more analytical and
neutral idea of “social and political ties”. Following this path, I have collected evidence to
explain how “intermediating institutions” (a concept that I take from David Harvey) are built
differently from below in each case, although those three poor neighborhoods apparently have
the same structural conditions. This is to explain (through the understanding of social
The neighborhoods (colonias) are: a) Mesa los Hornos, b) Miguel Hidalgo II and c) La Fama. All of them are
situated in the municipality (delegación) of Tlalpan, in Mexico City.
Data from Instituto Electoral del Distrito Federal ( and Secretaría de Desarrollo Social del
Distrito Federal (
mechanisms of intermediation) why “patronage” or “clientelism” should not be used as a tout
court categories in social sciences.
5. Project Significance
In deprivation contexts, it seems unlikely that cities are able to accomplish its functions of social
integration and the realization of economic, social, cultural and political conditions for urban
citizens. This project wants to clarify the mechanisms used by poor people to claim for social
inclusion, as an attempt to understand large social conditions required to build citizenship from
below. Correlatively, the project study institutional initiatives to promote participation. If we
understand the gaps between social actors and political institutions, we may design a further
policy reforms to favor political participation as a way to fight against social destitution.
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