A Reluctant Locality: Place Politics in a Santo Domingo Barrio

Erin B. Taylor is a lecturer at The University of Sydney, Australia. She researches material culture and social stratification in Santo Domingo and on the Dominican Republic-Haiti border.
Control over the production of locality is often touted as desirable for poor urban communities. But what happens to the politics of place when residents have formed a community reluctantly and their aspirations lie elsewhere? Drawing on material from my ethnographic research in La Ciénaga, a squatter settlement in Santo Domingo, I explore what is at stake, and who has a stake, in strategies of localization. Community activists, ordinary residents, and the Catholic church are all engaged in the production of locality in different ways and for different reasons.
In Santo Domingo’s informal barrios, residents invest a great deal of time and energy constructing physical and social space, often over decades. They plan street layouts, build houses, cover alleyways with concrete, construct schools, and display fashions. Their control over their immediate material environment has permitted them – mostly rural migrants – to construct tight-knit communities of a kind that they claim are disappearing elsewhere in Santo Domingo. Yet Santo Domingo’s barrios are far from being ideal places to live: they are isolated, under-serviced, polluted, and carry the kind of social stigma that so often accompanies inner-city poverty.
As a result, despite investing a great deal of time into constructing the barrio – especially their houses – the vast majority of residents would prefer to leave. In August 2005 I was designing survey in La Ciénaga and asked one of my neighbours for advice. He took issue with one particular question I had framed: ‘Would you move away from La Ciénaga if you had the opportunity?’ My neighbour argued that this question was redundant, because every single resident would answer ‘Yes’. If they answered ‘No’ they were lying, because no sane person would choose to reside in La Ciénaga voluntarily. Indeed, when I collated the results of the survey, 96% of residents (300 surveyed) reported that they would leave La Ciénaga if they had a choice.
From the time they arrived in the 1970s, La Ciénaga’s settlers made significant strides in constructing place within the confinement of the barrio. The original residents came mostly from the central region of Cibao. Their presence was illegal, and they took it upon themselves to plan their new barrio’s layout, divide up land between them, and obtain basic services. In the early years, these cooperative activities encouraged a spirit of hope and possibility, cementing the social bonds that would eventually forment a range of community organisations. The construction of the barrio’s first school, Virgen del Carmen, in 1987 was one of the first major communal actions achieved by the Catholic congregation. It was organized by a nun called Maria Blanca and carried out in conjunction with the community, with men supplying labour and women carting materials to the site and preparing food. Every house donated a block towards the building of the school and their labour according to their capabilities. Soledad, a middle-aged community activist, remembers that she had a bad leg and was ordered to rest by her doctor but ‘God gave me the strength to go on working’. The thought of God watching her and judging her kept her going back every day.
A range of community organisations and local NGOs work in the barrio today. Their vision is to modernise the barrio so that existing residents can live there comfortably. The leader of the community’s sports organisation explained to me,
We want to llevar mas adelante [take ourselves forward]. As they say, a diamond is made of carbon but once you polish it, it shines. That is, you bring out the value. As an institution we could prepare a fertile terrain, that is, the seed that we plant today will turn the barrio into fertile terrain for development (Gabriel).
However, the overall number of residents who take place in community activism is small. Most residents have trouble believing that it possible to transform the barrio into somewhere that is truly liveable: the barrio’s extensive problems, its stigma, and the fact that creating enough space would require the mass eviction of potentially half of the barrio’s residents means that few people are motivated to become involved in community activism.
As a result, people’s primary place-making activity remains the one that brought them to the barrio in the first place. La Ciénaga exists precisely because the illegal nature of the settlement provided poor migrants with the opportunity to live in the city in proximity to their family and friends, and to attain some measure of progress through transforming their house over time from a rural-style, wooden ranchito into a modern concrete house. Throughout the Dominican Republic, the ideal house is made of concrete block with a tiled concrete floor and a concrete slab roof, a model that provides much greater protection from hurricanes than the wood-and-tin shack. It has white metal shutters, bars on the windows and air conditioning in the main bedroom. Residents of the barrios as much as elsewhere in this city aspire to this ideal, although it may take them decades to achieve or be left for the next generation to complete.
Residents’ ability to construct the right house in the right place is the key to who would remain in a transformed community and who would be evicted. These judgements are dependent upon geographic features and interpretations of the moral value of the people who live in different parts of the barrio. The barrio has two definitive spatial sections: the high ground in the centre of the barrio (arriba), and the low ground that surrounds it (abajo). Most houses arriba are built of concrete block and a large number of its original residents still live there, maintaining a community feel. This is the most desirable area of the barrio to live in because it does not flood and it houses the school and the Catholic church. It also has the highest rate of church attendance out of the barrio’s six sectors. In short, it offers domesticity and institutions of the sort that Peter Wilson (1973)[3] associated with ‘respectability’ on the island of Providencia, Colombia.
Abajo is the old swampland that was settled in the 1980s. It is the worst part of the barrio to live in due to seasonal flooding, open drains carrying black waste water, and poor housing. A network of alleys rather than streets conveys a sense of inaccessibility and alienation. Abajo’s geography is moralised in a strikingly similar way to how the barrio in its entirety is stigmatized by outsiders. Its greater material poverty and dominance of people from the south (closer to Haiti) rather than the central region (settled by Europeans) impacts upon popular perceptions of residents’ capacity for respectability. There is also a popular perception that residents live in shacks because they spend all their excess cash on conspicuous consumption and entertainment rather than investing it in creating an ideal house. Every weekend, the sounds of partying float up to La Clarín from abajo. Often they activity was still audible on the following morning. ‘Listen to the tígueres! [tigers]’ residents regularly exclaimed, ‘Listen to the state of desorden [disorder] that this country is in!’ For residents arriba, the partying abajo is indicative of a disintegration of the Dominican people, who have fallen into corrupción [corruption, or immorality] in hard times, rather than persevering with traditional peasant values of hard work and austerity.
This moralization of place demonstrates how the problems of barrio life are conceptualised in relation to a much geographically wider and historically deeper set of issues. This is indicative of how residents’ lives and livelihoods depend upon forces outside the locality, despite the fact that it is these very forces that have localised them so thoroughly. Understanding people’s engagement in place politics – individual and collective – requires examination of their relationships and positioning beyond the locality upon which that action is centred. This is not to argue that locality has no agency of its own, but rather that people are never merely local: ‘Everyone can relate themselves (or is allocated) to a multiplicity of spaces – phenomenal and conceptual – whose extensions are variously defined, and whose limits are variously imposed, transgressed, and reset’ (Asad 1993: 8). [4] Whether the politics of place concerns staying or going, its reference points will continue to be located outside the community as much as its strategies are enacted on the inside.
[1] A full-length version of this paper will be published in January 2011 in Bönisch-Brednich. B. and Trundle, C. (eds.) Local Lives: Migration and the Politics of Place. Ashgate. The research was carried out with a Carlyle Greenwell Fieldwork Scholarship at The University of Sydney, Australia.
[2] Bourdieu, P. 1984. Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
[3] Wilson, P. J. 1973. Crab Antics: The Social Anthropology of English-Speaking Negro Societies of the Caribbean. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.
[4] Asad, T. 1993. Introduction. Iin Genealogies of Religion: Discipline and Reasons of Power in Christianity and Islam, edited by T. Asad. Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press, 1-24.

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