Lives at the Urban Margins

“Every great city,” wrote Friedrich Engels, in The Condition of the Working Class in England, “has one or more slums, where the working-class is crowded together. True, poverty often dwells in hidden ...

“Every great city,” wrote Friedrich Engels, in The Condition of the Working Class in England, “has one or more slums, where the working-class is crowded together. True, poverty often dwells in hidden alleys close to the palaces of the rich; but, in general, a separate territory has been assigned to it, where, removed from the sight of the happier classes, it may struggle along as it can… The streets are generally unpaved, rough, dirty, filled with vegetable and animal refuse, without sewers or gutters, but supplied with foul, stagnant pools instead.” More than a century and a half later, the subproletariat still inhabits treacherous, dreadful grounds in today’s megacities. With close to a third of the world’s population living in informal settlements, many of them mired in misery and violence, the need to understand and explain their lives is as imperative as it was when Engels first wrote these words. Three recent books here under consideration take up this task in two very distinct cities, Buenos Aires and Mumbai, dissecting the material and symbolic dimensions of life on “the other side.” These vivid portraits convey the external and internal forces that shape and sustain the slum’s challenges, its struggles, its relentlessness, and its cruelty.

A dexterous combination of detailed, in-depth reporting and crisp, dynamic writing heeds the calls that urban ethnographers have been making for the past three decades: calls for capturing the viewpoint of those living under oppressive conditions, calls for thick descriptions of their lives and circumstances, calls for narrative writing that appeals to larger publics and politics. These are not only engaging books to read, however. While teaching about the trials and tribulations of residents of stigmatized territories, these three texts provide elements to outline a much-needed political sociology of urban marginality. They describe many of the ways in which the state is deeply implicated in the fate of what sociologist Loïc Wacquant calls “territories of urban relegation.”1

Privileging the showing more than the telling, authors Boo, Hacher, and Licitra not only allow readers to make the connections between structural forces (such as informalization of the economy or deproletarianization or changing labor markets dynamics) and the lives, behaviors, and beliefs of those at the bottom of the sociosymbolic order. They also demonstrate how the state regulates poor people’s lives sometimes overtly (in the form of police repression, forced evictions), other times covertly (through extortion and intimidation) reproducing much of the precariousness, vulnerability, and violence that define them, and ultimately keeps the dispossessed in their (to a large extent) invisible place.

“Beautiful Forever” is a brand of floor tiles whose advertisements cover the huge walls adjacent to Airport Road—the road that connects the international airport with Mumbai, the world’s fifth largest city. Behind the walls that advertise Beautiful Forevers, hidden from the view of the “happier classes” much like in Engels’ time, three thousand residents live and die in Annawadi, the shantytown from where Katherine Boo reports. The ads not only provide the reader with a sense of spatial separation between haves and have-nots but also, and most importantly, with a narrative hook—one woman’s dream of having her kitchen floor tiled with Beautiful Forevers end up with a neighbor’s suicide and her own family wrongly accused of murder. The court case—and the looming forced eradication of the shantytown—threads Boo’s captivating and, truth be told, at times quite depressing book.

Social scientific studies of poor people’s lives too often ignore what long ago Karl Marx called “the real grounds of [people’s] history,” that is, their hazardous, oftentimes, polluted environment. Not Boo’s chronicle. Located close to many luxury hotels, Annawadi epitomizes the growing extremes of wealth and destitution, opulence and indigence, that have come to characterize global megacities. “Everything around us is roses, and we are the shit in between,” states one of the protagonists in the book. Annawadi is adjacent to a sewage lake (the source of dengue and malaria as well as of a myriad of other health hazards), and close to a concrete plant (the source of the asthma and lung obstructions routinely suffered by its residents). Annawadians are not only constantly exposed to these environmental hazards, and the rats and roaches attracted to the uncollected garbage that lies everywhere, but to other, call them, occupational risks. Trying to make ends meet as part of the ever-expanding informal sector, many shanty-dwellers scavenge for a living with the obvious dangers involved: children get hit by cars in their daring attempts to grab plastics and other re-sellable goods from the street, and young bodies get wrecked: “Scrapes from dumpster-diving pocked and became infected. Where skin broke, maggots got in. Lice colonized hair, gangrene inched up fingers, calves swelled into trunks.”

In closely following a garbage trader and a slum political broker, the book offers a nuanced understanding of the lives of those living in what the author calls “the undercity.”

Boo’s book is organized around the lives of two main characters: Abdul, a teenager who sorts and trades garbage, and Asha, a local political broker. Their families’ lives occasionally intersect but remain largely independent from each other, though bounded by the confines of the shanty’s violent, oftentimes unpredictable, world. The book begins as Abdul is hiding from the police, accused, alongside his father and sister, of a murder they have not committed. In closely following a garbage trader and a slum political broker, the book offers a nuanced understanding of the lives of those living in what the author calls “the undercity.”

As the author follows Abdul at work and in the courts, the reader learns about the survival strategies of slum-dwellers, a combination of “doing and dodging” in trying to obtain vital resources and avoiding ever-present catastrophes. We also learn about the pernicious presence of the police in the area—officers oftentimes take a cut of the building materials children steal to later re-sell and level false accusations to extract bribes from the locals, the malfunctioning judiciary and penitentiary systems, and the devastating presence of cheap but highly addictive drugs among the destitute youngsters.

In its attention to the work of both reciprocity and exploitation in the lives of the dispossessed, this is far from being a romantic tale of endurance and redemption. In point of fact, in its detailed consideration of interpersonal conflict and violence (cases of mutual deception and of domestic abuse and intimate violence abound) and its refusal to hide the most gloomy aspects of what daily lives look, taste, and smell like on the other side, Boo’s work resembles the in-depth descriptions of a classic in the study of urban poverty: Oscar Lewis’s.2 But, and herein lies a crucial difference between Boo and Lewis, Behind the Beautiful Forevers makes no mention of a system of values that allegedly traps the poor in their poverty, as Lewis’s culture of poverty argument.3 Instead, Boo shows how the behavior of the wretched of the cities hinges on objective constraints and political dynamics that, although beyond their control, count on their essential participation.

Asha is the Mumbai version of a character we might find in any tale of poverty enclaves that takes local politics seriously: the party broker. Puntero in Argentina, cacique in Mexico, cabo eleitoral in Brazil, Asha is a local problem-solver with licit and illicit connections with state agents. As most political brokers around the world, Asha channels political support (in the form of rally attendance and votes for Bal Thackeray’s Shiv Sena party) in exchange for goods and services to the local population in need. State corruption offers one of the few economic opportunities for the poor far beyond Annawadi’s boundaries. Anybody familiar with how urban politics work in Latin America and Africa would immediately recognize Asha—the elaborate schemes she orchestrates in order to personally benefit from aid programs for the poor put in place by a corrupted Indian state, her hopes to move up the social ladder and out of the shantytown, by combining political deal-making and sexual favors she provides to powerful men (with her husband’s knowledge if not tacit consent). These maneuvers are not unique to Mumbai, but in Boo’s narrative we learn the operative details of the ties of sex, politics, and corruption between poor shanty-dwellers and established political authorities: who benefits, who suffers, and how these ever-present phenomena are understood by those involved.

In Annawadi, people die of treatable diseases, children are murdered and no one cares, hopes are dashed as quickly as they are conjured up. In the slums of Mumbai, in the villas of Argentina, in the comunas of Colombia, life is indeed miserable and gives no breaks. Boo shows by way of example that it is quite difficult to tell a different story. Yet, as readers we need silver linings—lights at the end of the tunnel that, if nothing else, make our reading possible. We want those falsely accused to be released, we want Asha’s daughter, Manju, to graduate from college even when we know about her mother’s corrupt schemes that provide the financial support; we want “honor and respectability” for Abdul even when we know it to be far-fetched. We want them, in the words of writer Colum McCann, “to walk away intact,” to stay out of harm’s way physically and psychologically. In a way, they do. Truth be told, Boo’s reporting does not describe the subjective resources they mobilize to “crawl away from that life and start anew,”4 but she provides plenty of luminous and nuanced material for us to figure it out.

Boo does not provide answers – or at least not the formal, “definite” kind social scientists would recognize – but she raises the critical question of “collective in-action” and plants tentative and thought-provoking insights.

Toward the end of the book, in the “Author’s Note,” we learn Katherine Boo’s main motivation to write this book: to learn why insultingly unequal societies do not implode, why insurrection does not happen more often, why shanty-dwellers, angry about so many things (the lack of water, the lack of good jobs, unfair treatment in the courts, police arbitrariness and brutality, political corruption, impending eradication), rarely get “mad together.”  Scholarship on social movements has asked a version of this question for a long time now, trying to find the mediating factors between grievances and collective action in political opportunities, mobilization of resources, networks, frames, and lately, emotions. Boo does not provide answers—or at least not the formal, “definite” kind social scientists would recognize—but she raises the critical question of “collective in-action” and plants tentative and thought-provoking insights: The poor of Annawadi are too busy trying to barely survive, too tired at that, too weak and sick after destructive jobs, too divided, and too entangled in corrupt political networks.

What we do not learn in the “Author’s Note,” is the reason why Boo herself is nowhere to be found in the narrative. She makes clear that many of her findings come from her own “time spent, attention paid, documentation secured, accounts cross-checked,” but she does not offer the rationale behind her fly-on-the-wall approach. Placing the narrator among the protagonists would have allowed the reader to see how she came to her understanding of the protagonists’ hopes and dreams for righteousness and respect. These subjective states sound plausible but not altogether reasonable in the face of such scarce objective possibilities.

The world of the urban poor in Buenos Aires is also one characterized by ingenious “doing and dodging,” and it is also suffused with all sorts of violence—from arbitrary police brutality to drug-related, criminal, and interpersonal harm. Unlike authors Boo and Licitra, who take us into spatially-bounded poor communities to show the everyday lived experiences of marginalization, Argentine journalist Sebastián Hacher takes us to La Salada feria in Lomas de Zamora, a poor and stigmatized region in the southern sector of Buenos Aires. La Salada is a maze of a place, an informal market sufficient in size to constitute its own social universe, its own social ecosystem, that, according to Hacher, plays by its own rules and survives by its own logic. The market spans roughly 20 hectares, almost 50 acres. The European Union declared La Salada a “world emblem of illegal commerce” for the quantity of ropa falsificada (brand-name rip-offs) one finds there. And through four years of interviews—not to mention hundreds of hours spent walking through its pathways—Hacher adeptly chronicles the social worlds that intertwine within the gargantuan territory of La Salada. He follows the tentacles of this informal market as they spread across vast territories—to Bolivia and back—and deeply into the territories of the home. With a vignette narrative structure, Hacher delves into the lives of those whose work and livelihoods are tied up in its operation.

The book is organized around the jobs of the feria and the stories of those who perform them—the taxi drivers that take people back and forth from the market with their black bag loads of merchandise; those who run the parking lots and the taxi stands; the food vendors; the head-honchos who run the operative structure; the strong-armers; the men and women responsible for collecting payments due from stall-owners for the feria’s expenses; the police who elicit bribes, who raid vendors’ homes without legal cause looking for cash, who shoot and kill with seeming complete impunity; those who set up gambling tables and swindle passersby; the stall vendors with their varied merchandise; the sweatshop laborers; the providers of fabric and sewing machines—in short, the niches that make up the social universe of La Salada.

But to have a market, formal or informal, you need products. The knock-offs sold at La Salada are often 10 times cheaper than the brand-name merchandise sold at shopping malls. And here the success of La Salada as a marketplace resonates beyond Argentine borders, as growing global poverty increasingly entrenches the inability of poor communities to legally consume the products they see advertised. An administrator of La Salada said in an interview, “There is something that is real: in La Salada, the non-rich can get Adidas or Reebok clothing, even though they are imitations that don’t last long, they can have them. What do the big corporations offer? … They sell shoes for 800 pesos that no one who earns 1,300 a month can buy. And here, the people can obtain that illusion… Our public and that which buys the original products are totally distinct.”

Sometimes, the people who work informally making name-brand merchandise for the big companies are the same people occupying the stalls of La Salada, selling “knock-offs.”  But many of the products at La Salada are hybrid inventions. Vendors at La Salada produce knock-offs of each other’s knock-offs, buying one, taking it apart, and then producing it themselves—leading to products that become increasingly new and often bizarre. But—regardless of the creative hybridity of the merchandise at La Salada—the logo’s presence labels it illegal, making police bribes an inescapable part of earning one’s livelihood in La Salada.

As Boo also finds in Mumbai, ethnic tensions (may) still define how neighbors and coworkers interact. In La Salada, Bolivians and Argentinians uneasily coexist. Relations are often fraught with stereotypes on both sides, yet Hacher shows how the privileges and networks of each group mean that cross-national partnerships still proliferate—as one character says, you always need an Argentine to sign the papers.

Success stories are laden with a violence that permeates and threatens – and too frequently takes away – their lives and livelihood.

The author’s project is succinctly stated in the last sentence of Sangre Salada: “The objective of this book is neither to make a denunciation nor to provide data for the justice system about any illegal practices, but instead to tell [the story] of a feria that took thousands of individuals out of misery, and grew with its own rules—rules that many times are distinct from the rules that govern the rest of society.” But Sangre Salada
is not only the story of a marketplace that propelled individuals out of destitution, though economic success stories abound; people are shown making lots of money at any niche in the system. But it is not the success that sticks with you, but the high cost of making it big within the feria’s alternative logic. Success stories are laden with a violence that permeates and threatens—and too frequently takes away—their lives and livelihood. Robberies are frequent. Main characters or their children or partners are killed or beaten in disputes over feria matters. Mirtha loses two sons—at least one at the hands of the police—after her boys’ found their niche robbing bus passengers going to La Salada. With the death of the second son, one of Mirtha’s daughters enters into a depression that leads her to commit suicide on her fifteenth birthday. Mirtha, to move forward with her life, finds her own niche in La Salada. With both threats and acts of violence, Mirtha gains control of a parking lot and taxi stand that generate work for her extended family—her remaining son Julián, her husband Raúl, and an army of cousins, neighbors, and girlfriends. But Mirtha’s story does not end with her economic triumph.

After bringing the family together in her new enterprise, Mirtha discovers that her husband is having an affair with their daughter-in-law, Julian’s wife. Mirtha beat Raúl until there was blood everywhere, she says. How does economic success change Mirtha’s life? She tells Hacher that she still does not know what it would mean to take care of herself, to go for a walk, to go on vacation.

La Salada is located in the southern part of the conurbano of Buenos Aires and so are the two neighborhoods from where Josefina Licitra reports. Sometimes translated as the suburbs, the conurbano hardly resembles the suburbs of American cities. These spaces are not escapes for white middle and upper classes, but instead where those, ostracized by the exclusionary policies of the Buenos Aires housing market, make their lives on the city’s edge, sociopolitically marginalized and without basic infrastructure. The neighborhoods Licitra describe smack up against each other, but remain worlds apart. Acuba of the negros and Villa Giardino of the tanos, are separated by a series of symbolic and physical barriers. The physical wall between the neighborhoods is a central point of contention, as it is broken down in successive holes by the Acuba squatters, with subsequent demands by Villa Giardino residents for a new, impenetrable wall. Licitra writes, that when Amanda, a Villa Giardino resident, speaks of the negros, there is no hate, there is no disgust, only an infinite distance. While Licitra introduces us to a world of binaries more firm than those portrayed by Boo or Hacher, she also straddles both sides of the wall in ways that Boo and Hacher do not. While Boo does not take us deeply into the lives of the other’s other – the judges, the policemen, the airport workers—Licitra shows us both the barrier and the social worlds that, for better or worse, coexist. In Licitra’s work, the other’s other world is closer.

But who are the tanos? And who are the negros? The tanos—local slang short for Italian—are lower-middle class descendants of the Italian immigrants that founded Villa Giardino upon their arrival after the Second World War. The negros—a blanket term unfortunately common in Argentina for socially-stigmatized groups, often with indigenous roots—founded a squatter settlement in 1995 on the land adjacent to Villa Giardino, where, as of Licitra’s writing, lived 2,500 families arriving from Bolivia, Paraguay, Peru and the Argentine interior provinces. Here, in Acuba and Villa Giardino and in-between, you find social conflict, contamination, industry, the complicity of officials, and party brokers. But, as Licitra shows, both immigrant groups believe the periphery of Buenos Aires promises them and their loved ones a better future.

Again, violence structures the story. The narrative is driven by the death of Héctor Daniel Contreras, a cartonero (person who collects recyclable goods for profit) who lived in Acuba, and the subsequent trial of Antonio Baldassarre, a Villa Giardino resident, for his murder. The negros say it was the tanos, that Antonio killed Héctor. The tanos say it was the negros, that they started a violent protest and Antonio is innocent.

But more intriguing than the conflict between the two neighborhoods, are the similarities Licitra shows as she brings the reader close to those living on both sides of the wall. Carlos, of the Italian Villa Giardino, and Marcelo, an Acuba resident who is both local party broker and La Salada strong-arm, are main characters that show the endearing similarity of the goals of the residents on each side of the wall. Both Carlos and Marcelo explain their different life choices, how they each make ends meet, and how they make demands on the government, as to instill values of self-sufficiency and pride in their children. Licitra also includes chilling letters from the mothers of both the deceased Héctor and of the incarcerated Antonio, that eerily parallel the same weight of a mother’s grief.

In spite of the intensity of the conflict between Villa Giardino and Acuba, outside of this part of the conurbano, their differences are subsumed by their shared poverty and marginalization. Outside, the negros and the tanos, the categories that circulate and that matter to those who live on the Riachuelo River in Lanús, are erased by the broad brushstrokes of poverty. They live, Licitra writes, in the same land, which is to say to live in the same misfortune.

These three books are not simplistic journalistic narratives. They illuminate poor people’s lives in all their complexity—lives intricately entangled with the state, and shaped by its selective presence. The poor of Mumbai and Buenos Aires are bound by a set of common experiences: judiciary systems that regulate their lives while denying them basic infrastructure or services, party brokers, and modes of alternative justice. Such life-defining patterns raises the question of why politics is often absent from many examinations of the lives of those at the urban margins.

Along their carefully constructed narratives, Boo, Hacher, and Licitra show us much more than the roles played by the economy and the state in the perpetuation of urban marginality. These writers get readers to care about places they have never been and will likely never go—places that eerily resemble the other side of nineteenth-century Manchester depicted by Friedrich Engels. They leave the reader wondering how the rest of their stories will unfold—when Manju hopefully goes off to college; as La Salada continues to grow, or when its era ends; and whether Villa Giardino will ever get its sewage system. And, they leave us wondering what will happen when the children grow up. icon

  1. Loïc Wacquant, Urban Outcasts: A Comparative Sociology of Advanced Marginality (London: Polity, 2007).
  2. See, for example, Oscar Lewis, Five Families: Mexican Case Studies in the Culture of Poverty (New York: Basic Books, 1959); and The Children of Sánchez: Autobiography of a Mexican Family (New York: Vintage, 1963).
  3. The “culture of poverty” argument was appropriated by conservatives to presumably explain poor people’s “bad” behavior and is currently experiencing a bizarre revival in academic circles. See, for example, Patricia Cohen, “Culture of Poverty Makes a Comeback,” New York Times, October 17, 2010,
  4. Colum McCann, Let the Great World Spin (New York: Random House, 2009).
Featured image: Annawadi slum, Mumbai. Photo: Sudip Sengupta