Down and Dirty in Latin America
Low” and “dirty” are taking on increasingly contradictory meanings.
Used by the excluded and dissident, these old symbols of domination,
of disrespect for Latin America’s poor and native peoples,
are instead beginning to express cultural resistance,
a rejection of the system.
The resulting mix is still very ambiguous,
but deserving of careful attention.
Ricardo Melgar Bao
There is a set of modern beliefs, images, symbols and metaphors that relate to life, identity, otherness and the place of cleanliness and whiteness in opposition to the low, the dark and the dirty. All these ideological and symbolic references have been used to construct extensive authoritarian logics of social and ethnic exclusion that cover the indigenous, the poor and the marginal youth of Latin America’s cities. The other face of this reality is being retooled in the subaltern cultures, which are themselves carnivalizing these stigmatizing meanings of the hygienist and scatological discourse and beliefs of our Latin American bourgeoisies and oligarchies, throwing them back with a new semantic content.
We are more interesting in looking into the contemporary cultural and political uses of the “depths” and the urban scatological dimension than in charting the history of their use. We will thus limit ourselves to a cursory glance at how these traditions were configured and sedimented by our modernizing oligarchies and bourgeoisies. In such a complex and mutating urban cultural universe, we will limit our search to certain aspects of this historical process we are currently experiencing in a neoliberal key, in which a dense and contradictory symbolism of what is down and dirty is being updated. This means presenting violence from a cultural dimension in which the meanings of the scatological and the underworld come together and blur.
Do we have less controlWe all know that throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, stigmatizing hygienist ideas and images aided the unfolding of a modern, authoritarian and ethnocidal vision, although they could neither deactivate other meanings and symbols generated by the mass subaltern cultures nor suppress those that had filtered down into our Latin American urban self-visions over the centuries. We closed the 20th century affirming what Gilles Lipovetsky has called the individualistic and hedonist “era of nonconformity,” although anyone who thinks that this has a more egalitarian skew and a less controlling determination over the body would be mistaken. In fact, other cultural observers have shown it to be quite the contrary. There are those who say, against the current but not without reason, that under the “voracious pan-capitalism” of this “era dominated by self-centered utopias, the human body was perhaps never before perceived with such disdain.” This is due both to the emerging cybernetic culture and its perceivable games of incorporeal simulation and to the recent genetic mapping, which will determine “the discardable, replaceable, interchangeable and multipliable nature of its different fragments.” We must be concerned about the classist and neoconservative uses of the body in both the real and the virtual terrain, as well as the discretionary handling of the human genome map to reaffirm the hegemony of the white model.
over our bodies today?
The city’s stinking peripheryFor over a century the obsessions of the Latin American oligarchies and bourgeoisies found their own way of emulating the European hygienist discourse on social control and urban modernization. The stinking and muddy land, the stagnant water, the putrefying cadaver, the garbage and the miserable housing were gradually displaced from the public to the private sphere, even hidden, perhaps because the hygienist coordinates of the urbanizing process had already eliminated them, deodorized them or relocated them on the periphery.
In the mid-19th century, following the cholera epidemics in European cities and Latin American capitals, the medicalized view of urban administrators started to focus on the living spaces of the poor. Thus, for example, the hygienist reordering of Buenos Aires following the yellow fever epidemic of 1871 lured the bourgeoisie of that port city to the north, leaving the southern part stigmatized as insalubrious and poor, under the speculative reign of tenements and the subsequent campaign to control their occupants and their private spaces. Beyond the event that marks its hygienist bloom, Buenos Aires is another example of how this dis-course devalued the city, both in Europe and in the Americas.
Nations and their beliefs about what is “dirty” have an indubitable visual referent coupled with value-laden implications that permeate social relations. In general, bourgeois hygienism—as a discourse, policy and development program—was not removed from the cultural construction of the pestilence and filth of the poor and their places in the cities or countryside. Nor was our oligarchic and post-oligarchic hygienism, which created an analogous image of the rural and particularly indigenous and black migrant in Latin America. The modern hygienist ideology projected its control over body language, the spoken word and writings using many different means and entities that go well beyond the educational field.
De-liced heads, civic heads In schools, hygienism was often connected in an authoritarian way with civic ritualism and the idea of the homeland. An illustrative case is that of the Villa Crespo school, which in 1921 was located in a marginal Buenos Aires neighborhood of European immigrants. The symbolic act of obliging the students to shave their heads and wear a tie with the colors of the Argentine flag went beyond the hygienist intention of de-licing them. For Beatriz Sarlo, this school event is evidence of “a symbolic condensation: the patriotic discourse is shifted to the heads of individuals. A displacement to the heads, which come to be considered conceptually as the place the school has to modify, enrich, structure and prepare physically. We shift from how a good head is formed (ideally) to how a good head is formed (materially), and the barber’s sheers appear in this transition.”
If in the Argentine capital under the populism of President Irigoyen what is clean (a haircut) and high (the head) are patriotically exhibited from the public school of a poor neighborhood, in Chile what is white condenses the attributes of the national future, according to the recollections of Bernardo Subercaseaux, quoted in Sarlo’s article. “In Chile, in the same period, we came up against an act of tremendous state brutality: the competitions of ‘guaguas,’ babies, promoted by the Ministry of Education, in which prizes were given to the whitest and blondest ‘guaguas,’ which in the public schools was like finding a needle in a haystack. And it was accepted. What was operating there was a racial paradigm.”
Public modes of expression and communication did not escape the sustained hygienist project of our native oligarchies. Communication had to be cleansed of the multiple impurities and excrement in countries in which multilingualism and multi-culturalness had and still have a relaxed tenor, with a predominance of the popular vernacular, the plebian, and are thus, in the view of the elites, inclined toward disorder and dirtiness.
The “Indians” in their “grossness”Our societies were constructing a standardized public dimension of the unpronounceable and inexpressible. “Dirty words” and “filthy gestures” were confined to the underworld of the low and scatological, in other words the down and dirty. Even more stereotyped are the ways in which the metaphors related to non-bourgeois and unlettered speech and reasoning continue to be stigmatized. Intercultural and interethnic oral communication reveals the absence of a democratic horizontalness, by forcing onto the other the stigma-judgment of speaking “out their ass,” in other words colloquial, vulgar, gibberish. Not only is the way of speaking questioned; so is the right to rationality in any form. A clear example of this appears repeatedly in Luis Carlos Fallas’ anti-imperialist novel Mamita Yunai (1941), in which the indigenous way of speaking is signified by suspicion and a reiterated and indecipherable “Ejem!” or by rhetorical questions about their nudity, their love of eating chanchadas [gross foods], their affection for their “mangy dogs” or their devilish capacity to urinate. “Every half hour all the little ones came out, some naked and others wrapped in ragged loincloths, leaping among the shadows like imps, peeing over the edge of the platform. What the hell do those people drink that makes them urinate so much?” The narrator’s writing cleans up the native-born Europeans and mixed-bloods, and dirties the native people with the construction of such rhetorical questions or stigma-phrases.
Let’s look at one example to get an idea of the perverse ontology of “the other,” which associates dirt and ignorance with one’s ethnic origin and condition. A Peruvian indigenous education primer from the mid-20th century says: “The misti [read white man] is still disgusted by the Indian, without you understanding why. That’s why you need to know how to be clean.” Now let’s reflect on the message of Elena Poniatowska, at the end of the seventies, in an urban and private passage from her story El limbo. Here the narrator’s voice becomes confused with that of the character. “He smelled bad. It’s the smell of the people. The naked bed with that body stretched out on the striped mattress gave the sensation of abandonment, of an empty stomach, of a pigsty.…”
The color and smell of the earth, ascribed to indigenous people, is devalued in one common grassroots urban expression in Latin America that links “embarrar” (to mess up, mess things up or be splashed with mud) with filth and shit. And this is reiterative. It is thus no surprise that it appears in other tales, literary or not. Film very occasionally engages a veiled criticism of bourgeois hygienism, as was the case with Luis Buñuel’s Los olvidados (1950). Based in Mexico, this movie deals with young gang members in the capital to portray the hidden face of the lower depths and reveal the subsoil of the presumed “economic miracle.” Carlos Feixa is right to recover the critical value of Buñuel’s work, with respect not only to hegemonic film stories, but also to the complicit forgetfulness of literature and the social sciences, and to stigmatizing and criminalizing journalistic or official reports.
Let’s look at another example of contemporary narrative that gives an account of the smell and the ethnic filiations of the lower depths of our urban bourgeoisies’ residential spaces. In the story El árbol, Elena Garro writes: “Her misery produced nausea. Her odor spread through the salon, invaded the furniture, slipped through the silk curtains. ‘Just smelling her is punishment enough,’ Gabina had said, and it was true; Martha looked at her with disgust.” But in this tale, it is Martha, the aristocratic lady of the house who perceives and gives meaning to the smell of the other, who imagines herself feeling an olfactory commotion: “She was disturbed by the repugnance the Indian woman inspired in her. ‘My God! How do you allow a human being to adopt such attitudes and ways?’ The mirror reflected the image of a lady dressed in black and adorned with pink pearls. She felt shame before this wretched girl, dazed by indigence, devoured by the misery of the centuries. ‘Could this possibly be a human being?’ Many of her relatives and friends argued that Indians were closer to animals than to man, and they were right.”
These literary fictions take on greater reality when confronted with the testimonies of indigenous migrants to the Latin American cities. Nobel Peace Laureate Rigoberta Menchú recalls that when she migrated to Guatemala City and worked as a servant in the residence of absentee landlords, the cultural marks of what is dirty became truly oppressive and defaming. The room in which the young Rigoberta was assigned to sleep was the storage room for old or unused thing, as well as the place “where they kept the trash.” She recalled feeling “very marginalized, worth less than the animal in the house, eating leftovers” and being compulsively turned into an object and an agent for cleaning what was considered “low.”
Frivolity, vulgarityOnly exceptionally are literary tales explicitly shot through with a sustained use of symbolism and scatological language that ironically and lucidly mark the characters, their places and interactions. Two Peruvian novels stand out in that genre: Oswaldo Reynoso’s El escarabajo y el hombre (1970) and José María Arguedas’, El Zorro de arriba y el zorro de abajo (1971), the latter far better known in the Latin American sphere. In this controversial work published posthumously, the Andean novelist addresses the issues of identity, interethnic and class conflict, public morality and development with fine cultural irony. Ten years later, we were presented with the short novel Coprofernalia (1981) by Mexican writer Gonzalo Martré, who uses scatology to signify the frivolity of the urban middle strata’s consumer culture, the banality of their existence and the primary nature of their modes of communication.
We could similarly consider the art and irony of the Mexican comic strip Jis and Trino, popularized over the course of the last decade of the 20th century. The characters of Santos and Tetona Mendoza take the humor and critique of the ordinary and the extraordinary in grassroots urban life to its limits. One literary critique quite rightly pointed out the difficulty of situating this serial work in the comic strip genre in that it presents Mexican chaos with an “unaccustomed vulgarity” that reveals “a joy in breaking limits” in the desire to “celebrate pig stubborn survival.” Would the success of this comic strip have been possible at any previous time? What complicities identify readers with these frightfully ugly characters from the lower depths?
The down and dirty always comes from elsewhere The bourgeois hygienist paradigm is in crisis in the literary universe. In recent years the fictional possibilities of the low and the scatological in Latin American literature have been expanding, exhibiting diverse intensities, symbolical shifts and esthetic or ideological characterizations. Nonetheless, the old hygienist phantasmagorias of the oligarchic culture have not disappeared. In fact, they have been updated in many tales of our own conflictive urban plots. The highly publicized Peruvian scatological novel No se lo digas a nadie (1994) by Jaime Bayly has eloquent passages of the crossing of the low and the scatological as expressions of Lima’s bourgeois racism, refurbished by the ominous experience of the domestic war against Shining Path and the MRTA. The violent discourse of one of its fictional representatives, Luis Felipe, in speaking to the newspaper and magazine seller who sells a copy of Playboy to his son Joaquín is quite eloquent.
The passage recreates the strong belief of the urban elites and middle classes that what is presumably down and dirty about the emerging onanism of youth can only come from others elsewhere. Grabbing the neck of the mestizo publications dealer Luis Felipe spits the following at him: “Listen closely, you mountain-bred motherfucker. The next time you give my son an adult magazine, I’ll make mincemeat out of this cubbyhole. I’ll kick it down then burn it to ashes all by myself, you hear me? Not only that, my friends on the police force have told me that you rent out this kiosk at night as a whorehouse… All you cholos are alike: you swear at them a couple of times and they piss in their pants… Learn from your father, Joaquín. If you want to get ahead in Peru, you have to know how to talk down to the half-breeds.”
Five years earlier, Peruvian narrator Cronwell Jara had achieved the most lucid and provocative literary construction of a fictional marginal city, Montacerdos [which translates literally to “mount pigs”], taking the down and dirty to its cultural limits, and adding madness and reason, hope, passion and shit to its inhabitants’ self image. Although the narrator sets his story in the forties, there are obvious similarities between Montacerdos and the Lima of the domestic war and its excesses of excretion, loss of self-control and social injustice. Perhaps these phantasmagorias of the immediate present explain the poor reception of this unarguably fine novel.
Violence by one side and the otherWe could come up with endless literary examples, but let’s reopen the window on our times, although now with the intuition that we are exploring more cultural continuities than ruptures. On the side of the hygienists, both the experts on conduct and decorum and the communicators have oriented and justified the politics of control, stigmatization and social exclusion over the course of the 20th century. The most recent documentaries on Mexican indigenous peoples by the Azteca TV channel stigmatized their uses and customs and marked them with the supposed “ontological defect” of being unable to elect, attributed to the poor of the continent by the elites and pointed out by Carlos Monsiváis. The prevailing ontology of indigenous peoples in the creole-mestizo self-image accents their devaluation from the perspective of the elites. The fictional character of one novel provides us a likely fragment of this excluding rhetoric when faced with the imposing pre-Hispanic ruins of Cuzco: “‘No shit! The Incas didn’t do all this alone,’ she said, looking at the ruins of Machu Picchu. ‘It must have been the Martians.’”
The down and dirty are the symbolic camps from which violence is exercised by both sides of Latin American society, something to which the plastic arts are sensitive. The prestigious Mexican painter Francisco Toledo just unveiled his most recent show of 24 paintings under the eloquent title “The Shit Notebooks.” Toledo thus pays neoliberalism back in symbolically significant currency for the rigid pressures of its new tax policy on authors’ rights in the field of the plastic arts, as well as in other artistic and intellectual fields. Toledo’s ironic replica is framed within what Certeau has rightly called “tricks for dealing with or interpolating the system, making use of the loopholes of its own rules.” The act of defecating appeals to the carnivalesque constructions of zoomorphic and anthropomorphic figures that often give way to symbolic violence: pigs that go after shitting men, scenes of anal pleasure or pain with dissimilar characters, corporeal fragments of the scatologically sexual...
“Big brother”: Private miseriesThe media are not removed from this successful entry of the down and dirty symbolism. The powerful reception of the semi-monthly program The Clinic in Chile in recent years is a significant example. Representative of one current of the intellectual Left, it appeals to grotesque humor to sling mud at the pro-Pinochet Right and other government figures. Its “Merculo” section so upset the publishers of the rightwing newspaper El Mercurio that they bought the right to the name in order to deactivate that space, which not only caricatured it but did it so well that it undermined their editorial line.
In other cases, some TV companies, such as Mexico’s Televisa, are beginning to offer programs like the Orwellian “Gran Hermano” [Big Brother], in which the last frontier of liberty—that of temporarily renouncing it—is provided through voluntary confinement in a conflictive, physically reduced space controlled by reactive canons of primary coexistence. The media’s eye into the private sphere is increasingly outdoing even the embarrassment of talk shows. Here TV viewers enjoy watching their own miseries being constructed in the mirror of the other. The degradation or impoverishment of private life becomes an act of cynical complicity. As it turns out, this renunciation presupposes others: that of intimacy and privacy themselves. With no aspect of the low and the scatological left to the imagination, everything must become grotesquely public.
The political implication of remounting a totalitarian social base via the media is present on the Latin American agenda. The panoptic of the thousand and one transparencies permitted by the TV spectacular’s cameras and microphones will strengthen unhideable neo-fascist streaks.
Going away, getting away: Kids with no placeLatin America’s four largest metropolises (São Paulo, Río de Janeiro, Buenos Aires and Mexico City) and the many smaller cities accompanying them in their erratic and asymmetric growth have filled with worrying signs and symbols due to exclusionary schemes justified by the market forces, the games of public and private security and the narratives of participatory or “democratic” neo-hygienism. On top of that has come a predominantly youthful tendency to migrate, to leave behind their urban and national surroundings.
In Bogota, Lima or Buenos Aires, young people with no place on the national horizon repeatedly talk about getting away, going away, cutting loose, disappearing. The down and dirty have not escaped this territorial uncentering process, whether as forcibly “displaced” or as economic migrants, assuming one of its most dramatic faces in the entry of young people into the sinister field of the sex trade from a gender perspective. Over the past ten years, thousands of undocumented women in Europe have been turned into prostitutes by the mafias. Contingents of young women from the Dominican Republic, Brazil and Colombia stand out particularly, their perceived sexuality and eroticism assuming the symbolic attributes of what is low.
The North-South migratory coordinates in which Latin Americans are increasingly finding themselves suffer the restrictions of a global, neoliberal market that only permits freedom for capital, denying it to labor. Such a situation leaves the main migratory corridors in the hands of transnationalized mafias. The migratory trade to the United States and Canada is the best known but not the only one. As a young Colombian university student put it, referring not only to the disillusionments of his condition as a displaced person, but also to those of the “X generation”: “I became a displaced person because that’s what you are when you have to leave your country without wanting to. My Colombian generation is not a building generation, a renovating generation. I’ll challenge anyone who says we are, because we’re not. There is no creative wealth among us young people right now. As a social group, a force, we are incapable of building, of creating, of renewing. That’s what I believe, and it seems to me the most discouraging thing of all.”
The “others,” that is, young people from the poorer strata, opt to create different identities, associated in different ways with transgression and the stigma of the down and dirty. As one fan magazine produced by a Brazilian punk collective puts it: “We’re garbage to this society. We’re excess baggage, the residue of a class that fights for its rights, that still fights for liberty, justice and equality.”
The urban elite’s clean “islands” Considering that 391 million Latin Americans (75% of the continent’s total population) were living in cities in 2000, it doesn’t require any special brilliance to realize that the main weave of social conflict and inequality has an urban texture. It is forecast that 83% of Latin America’s population will be living in cities by 2030, and this, of course will be accompanied by the expanded visibility of their poverty and insecurity. What these demographic estimates do not mention is the growing weight assumed by the youth sector in the past two decades. Given such a panorama, aggravated by the current neoliberal policies, the cultural construction of an urban fear of disturbance will be accompanied by authoritarian and even more exclusionary practices and representations.
Segments of Latin America’s cities are being insulated to the benefit of the elites. The areas around their homes have been stripped of their traditional public nature, their sense of openness, of multiple use and flow for both pedestrians and vehicles. In the islands created for the urban elites the aim is a decontaminating and controlling hygienism. In their areas, the clean-up gambles on making anonymous passers-by invisible, the domestic garbage waits discretely for its privileged turn to be picked up and taken away and the logic of the privatized panoptic to provide security through multiple electronic devises and impeccable and dissuasive guards. The mapping of the city for the urban elites, thanks to the freeways, allows them to go out in their cars without having to lay eyes on the degraded and impoverished spaces of the city. The material and social dregs thus assume phantasmagoric contours in the self-image of the elites and middle strata of the Latin American cities. The city’s down and dirty thus end up associated with the chronic symbolic violence of some underworld invented and inhabited by fantastic beings.
“They should stick them in a gas chamber”Two recent ethnographic investigations of the mental maps of university students from privileged strata reveal converging ways of marking social distances in their itineraries and their cultural consumption. While Lima’s university students have no visual or cognitive experience of the “low” neighborhoods and their feared actors, their peers from Mexico City have no street or neighborhood culture but rather one built around their private “bunkers,” removed from the “jerks and thieves.” The use of the city or neighborhood is restricted to daily itineraries protected by their automobile and weekend wanderings through a select corridor of discothèques, bars and videotacos.
The discourse of young people from Latin America’s upper classes ranges from prejudice and ignorance to abrasive verbal and symbolic violence regarding intergenerational, class or ethic otherness. One young woman of Bogota’s elite said outright what many of her peers choose not to express: “First of all I don’t like the poor, or poverty. I find them pathetic. So there are poor; it’s true. But it’s not my fault they’re there begging at the intersections. They should be gathered up and dumped in the jungle to cut down trees and work. And the cast-outs? They should stick them all in a gas chamber. ‘Sanitary shooting,’ my dad calls it. What use to society is a cast-out? Tell me, what use? To pick through the garbage for food and then fight and rape at night? It makes me ashamed that people come from abroad and see them lying in the streets at midday. When you leave the U, there they are masturbating. The least they could do is hide them away if they don’t want to gas them, which would be easiest. Just gas them. Who would protest on behalf of a cast-out? Nobody.”
A study on how middle-class youths viewed poor mestizos in Lima uncovered results with serious racist implications. The sample revealed an “absolute disparaging” of the kind of people who “infest Lima,” the “half-breeds,” “those people with the bad habit of not bathing, being fetid, ugly and resinous.” There is at least an open discursive complicity between this and urban paramilitary cleansing. The persistence and spread of repression and extermination practices against street children in the main cities of Brazil, Colombia and Guatemala come as no surprise.
“Whiten” the body and the cityIn urban settings all over the continent, with a few nuances or variations, the media market successfully promotes articles to clean the body of undesirable smudges, be they due to the contaminating surroundings or any of a number of other causes. In addition to being cleansers, the most successful products for sale are announced as excellent “whiteners.” At the end of the day, cleansing and the color white go arm in arm, fighting against the current of these multicolor cities. It is no accident that the market has not only resituated our consumption, but has also reshaped the body in poetic fragments through prostheses, plastic surgery and new products from the make-up industry and medical esthetics. For the bourgeoisie and well-off petty bourgeoisie, the predominant use of bodily prosthetics offered by the market is not oriented to dealing with real physical impediments but to creating the idealized images of the body that express the white paradigm.
To this panorama would have to be added the unveiling of another cultural text and terrain. We are witnessing the multiplication of shopping centers, a kind of “space capsule conditioned by the market esthetic,” where sensorial stimuli are regulated by a globalized architectural design and controlled by the electronic panoptic of vigilance. In these shopping centers, the signs of material, human and symbolic excretion remain outside the cultural frameworks of our perception. Otherness and marginality tend to be excluded without the need for visible obstacles.
Take a bath! Wash your hands!The weight of dirty and clean in contemporary Latin American culture is undisputable, but not so its contextual referents and political implications. Dirty and clean are more than relational categories in our societies, they are rooted in a de-historized cosmovision.
The police and sanitary controls join forces in open public spaces, streets and parks, when political and cultural dissidents or impugners of the established order converge. Such expressions are not just a thing of the past. In Mexico, the governor of the state of Morelos set as a condition for the entry of the Zapatista caravan into the city of Cuernavaca a hygienist act of fumigation and bath for the indigenous delegates. This sanitary control was applied moderately, and was convincingly justified by the argument of medical aid to Zapatista delegates who had the runs. The emblematic “Indian,” who in addition to not having a singular face, balaclavas apart, reproduces the shat-upon image of the poor, although this does not annul the possibility of re-symbolizing the color and smell of the earth.
During the most recent reappearance of cholera in our countries, health authorities rescued the anachronisms, dusting off old images and sanitary control practices: “Wash your hands as often as needed, when eating and after going to the bathroom.” Many poor city-dwellers living in marginal areas devoid of even the most elementary public water and drainage services, however, found the media campaign perverse. Are the governments and their elites perhaps unaware of the unequal distribution of this scarce service in the big Latin American cities? Do they not know that the most expensive water is that which is sold, informally, in the most marginalized poor neighborhoods? Washing and eating are two activities located on the contradictory borderline of precarious subsistence. Even those with access to river water in the marginal populations know how fetid it is and about its inevitably multiple uses.
The “stain” and its symbolsThe stain, in its broadest sense, belongs to scatological semantics, due to its symbolic baggage of impurity, dirtiness, contamination and stigma. In Spanish, the word accents its negative weight by signifying what is feminine, whether in its religious or its profane connotation. This is authenticated by the symbolic weight of original sin, the sexual behavior that transgresses the patriarchal order, and the periodic menstrual stain. Nonetheless, the variegated symbolism of the stain slides beyond gender, affirming itself as a polysemic and multiform cultural category. The many bodily marks of morbidity, particularly those of leprosy and syphilis, symbolically represent the best-expressed and most efficacious cultural stigmas of “the other.”
In general, the stain takes on its broadest sense in its opposition and complementarity to clean, as well as in its barely visible mediations. In this sense, we should remember the labor category reserved for actors of the down and dirty, whose function is to clean up the private and public surroundings. On the level of beliefs, the stain goes beyond sin, because secularized forms of significance and symbolic representations can be adopted.
Under neoliberal pressure, which exalts individualism and depredates spaces of socialization and their networks, the stain—as a cultural category—increases the distances between the private and the public, between wealth and poverty, between security and insecurity. Even the few cases that invert this cultural logic do little more than validate its growing weight in our cities.
The stain affiliates and alters places, actors and cultural practices. “Urban blight,” that handy metaphor used by social scientists, urban planners, architects and mapmakers, has on the one hand strong political and social implications and on the other is symbolically located at the limits of scatological meaning.
During the sixties, Lima’s media popularized the image of urban blight as the dangerous beltway of shantytowns where Andean migrants settled. At another level, those of us in the marginal, working and middle-class youth of the time in Lima, took on the artful appellative “la mancha” (the stain) as an itinerant group. “La mancha” loosely marked the youthful “we” in action, over and above other more specific neighborhood ascriptions, and gained public visibility as it grew in number and in street actions.
Graffiti and tattooesLet’s look at the importance of two youth cultural practices that are close to the symbolic camp of “the stain”: graffiti and body tattoos. For young people, graffiti and tattoos display a dissident esthetic dimension that has pried open spaces, despite the stigmatizing discourses against them. The placazo as a form of graffiti communicates and marks territory and group identity. The popular youth tattoo, both emblem and stigma, is situated in the individual flaunt-hide dialectic, updating dissident collective symbols. Flaunting to “scandalize the old-timers and/or the bourgeoisie,” hiding to avoid police raids. A survey of members of the feared Salvadoran youth gangs revealed that 74.6% had a tattoo on some part of their body.
We should remember that the Salvatrucha gang emerged indirectly from the “dirty” war in El Salvador. Its members were children of combatants from both sides of a war that displaced them either as economic migrants to Los Angeles or as inhabitants of extremely marginalized poor neighborhoods in San Salvador. They tell of having suffered all manner of physical violence, be it from rival bands, the police, relatives or neighbors.
The Salvatrucha gang is a paradigmatic case due to its long extra-national reach, supported by migratory coordinates and virtual spaces and networks. It is no accident that other gangs with multinational as well as local overtones have emerged in Guatemala, Nicaragua, Honduras and Mexico. The Salvadoran term for such gangs, mara, is, according to some, nothing more than the word that designates “disturbed people.” Others say it’s an abbreviation of marabunta, a symbolic figure combining a strong sense of mass, chaos and depredating violence. Whatever the case may be, “mara” condenses the attributes of degradation, danger, violence, filth, the stigma of the visible tattoo and transgressing visage in the social self-image constructed by the power groups.
In Mexico, “bola” (ball) bears a certain likeness to the sense of “mancha,” when attached to a pejorative such as “bola de mugrosos,” or “greaseball.” In popular tradition, the “bola” has revealed a preference for social excess, at least ever since the start of the Mexican revolution. The ball rolls and grows, leaving in its path the terrible marks of disorder and impurity. The mancha and the bola can assume forms of social behavior based on violence and eruption, spreading chaos. But they are not alone. Many urban youth tribes and/or gangs set out on the same road.
The chronic outbreaks of violence from Latin America’s soccer fans simultaneously reveal the signs of both their popular extraction and the violent visibility of youth. They are constructing a ritual violence that moves from the soccer game to the neighborhood and other public spaces without drawing any lines. The horizontality of this violence is related in many forms: songs, chants, graffiti that ratify identity at the cost of a racist and scatological negation of the other.
In Argentina the San Lorenzo fans taunt the rival Boca Juniors fans with a song that includes the line, “Gentlemen, I went to La Boca and they’re all Bolivians / they shit in the path and wipe themselves with their hands… they all have to be killed till there’s not one dung shoveler left.” And it’s not an isolated case. A study of the fans of the Lima Sports University team offers a similar construction about its opponents, in this case the Lima Alliance, who they call “crappy blacks” and “trash” through many of their narratives, reiterating or expanding their racist and scatological tones. The response from both the Lima Alliance and the Boca Juniors fans falls into the same universe of scatological images and metaphors. One of the strongest senses of this language, as in the case of youth tribes, is the assumption of an explicit homophobic bent, such that on top of being shitty and incompetent, the objects of the fans’ scorn are also decried as gay.
Social cleansing and repression The mass media projects these same attributes somewhat more subtly on the most marginal wing of the urban youth tribes. The legacy of the domestic wars of the seventies and eighties in Latin America continues to weigh in a fragmentary and contradictory manner on the kind of violence exercised by the marginalized sector of the urban youth tribes, both within their own field and outside of it. In addition, the youth share the vision that, notwithstanding the return of democratic regimes, they have to fight against the tough shell of the police system and a whole set of judicial dispositions that criminalize their dissident or transgressing conduct with increasing rigor.
In Tegucigalpa, a curfew for youths under 18 was imposed at the end of 1998 to deal with the nighttime excesses of some five hundred youth gangs:the lawbreakers were detained by the police and their parents fined. While other Latin American cities lack such municipal ordinances, police action is often based on a prejudicial vision of the presence of young people in public spaces to justify “clean-ups” and repressive excesses. There is no doubt that violence has many faces for the young people of the marginal and impoverished neighborhoods of Latin America’s cities.
A Colombian singer rap-chants the harsh violence that riddles his local setting in the following way: “Nobody in the barrio believes in peace, there’s another kind of violence that can’t be seen. Bogota’s violence is different: it’s on the corner, it’s in the driver, it’s in the looks, in the thieves who live on the corner of my house, it’s in the police, and in a thousand things. And it’s in me because I can’t stand the world I have. If they come to treat me rough, I stand tough. It’s the way to survive in the barrio.”
Dirtiness is disorderA public agenda of urban order with respect to the marginal youth and the poor is the order of the day in Latin America. A review of the past decade reveals a certain convergence of the efforts of Latin American governments to shift the attention of their poverty fighting programs toward youth policies, considered a key vector for achieving neoliberal governance and keeping it looking good. In the city, order coexists with chaos, while repression paints dirty to reorder the urban spaces at the cost of the city dwellers from the “lower order.” In certain circumstances, urban social protest could increase its social base and distort the political-cultural values of chaos and authoritarian order.
Anthropologist Mary Douglas rightly says that dirtiness offends order, although it has to be nuanced when power appeals to its veiled or open logic of exclusion and at times of extermination. Dirtiness—understood as a cultural construction—is filtered by the social or ethno-classist differentiation and polarization processes, expressing a field of confrontation in all orders. From the viewpoint of the elite and the hegemonic classes, the stigma of “dirtiness” operates as a legitimizing alibi for the policies of social control and repres-sion, backed by the creation of a judicial discourse in which the ideology of clean is joined to the ideology of ownership.
“When will God in Heaven want...”From the side of the subaltern classes and groups, dirtiness and excrement are carnivalized and lucidly assumed, or projected as a vehicle for symbolic confrontation. Neoconservative intellectuality is very sensitive to such critical veins emerging from the grassroots camp. It is thus no accident that Álvaro Vargas Llosa aims his barbs at what he perceives as the meaninglessness or “idiocy” of a very popular song that circulated in Latin America for over two decades: “When will God in Heaven / want the tortilla to flip: / for the poor to eat bread /and the wealthy eat shit.”
The clean/dirty relationship, in both its complementary and contradictory aspects, has various impacts, not only on ethno-classist distancing but also on the formation of social hierarchies. Different Brazilian studies have illustrated how domestic cleanliness reveals gender-based differentiation and social hierarchy. From another perspective, people picking through garbage in extensive Latin American dumps demonstrates the existence of sordid networks and hierarchies in an expansive underground economy in the continent’s cities.
“My father doesn’t love me”Sociologist Alain Touraine has underscored the tension between Chile’s two images of youth: “instrument of modernization or marginal and even dangerous element.” Justifiably, this could be extended to almost all countries of the continent from Toronto or New York to Río or Santiago, as Touraine himself points out. He is concerned that the dominant image of the transition and democracy constructed in recent years in Chile is the second, more precarious one. And that image has a very urban physiognomy: the image of peasant or indigenous youth lacking visibility except when we associate them with the phantasmagoric images of their focused local or regional outbursts. This “black” image of the excluded young people in Santiago, Chile, constructed by the media, the elites and the government, negatively permeates their own self-image and life options.
The picture Touraine presents us is as depressing as it is familiar. Its mirrors are everywhere: “The youth of limited means who live in Santiago’s peripheral ‘populations’ are excessively affected by that image. They have the impression that no one loves them, not even their cohorts. It is no accident that in an encounter with youths from a poor neighborhood, the first words uttered from a 20-year-old were, ‘My father doesn’t love me,’ after which he told how the military arrested and sometimes abused youths questioned in some corner where they were hanging out chatting.” Similar narratives were repeated by others.
The youth response to the Latin American neoliberal order does not seem projected in a single direction, but rather expressed in an ambivalent or contradictory manner. In general, young people resent the strong weight destructuring the spaces of public sociability, liberalizing labor and reducing the job market, the trend to privatize education and health services, the offensive waged by the cultural industries against the informal and underground economy that popularizes cultural consumption and the deployment of drastic controlling or repressive measures. The social exclusion visibly affects mainly the low-income youth, with a negative impact on the supposed democratic institutionalization.
“Shitty blacks!”Young people’s disenchantment with conventional politics sidelines them not only to indifference but also fosters radical postures of different ideological signs that contribute to a spasmodic or chronic climate of violence and ungovernability. These can sometimes assume explicit racist signs, such as the popular dance song Negros de mierda, which caused a commotion in Buenos Aires. Here, black mainly refers to mestizos, through two color markers: their hair and their skin. This anti-black piece, composed by a member of the musical group Jamón del Mar, was launched through its Rock and Pop program and won youth audiences. The lyrics include the following statements: “Shitty blacks seem like cockroaches/ that accumulate in the garbage/ Shitty blacks, are good for nothing/ they go straight for the garbage/ Shitty blacks have to be disinfected/ so you don’t get stained by their blackness/ Shitty blacks, they have to be sterilized so they fall into/ frank extinction.”
From the grassroots perspective on Latin America today, we can observe a pendulum movement between the festive mode of positive national characteristics, such as “Long live Chile, shit!” and that other mode charged with negative sentiment that questions the features of social existence, illustrated ironically, for example, by recent graffiti on a busy street in Asunción, Paraguay: “What a shitty country!” It is also worth reflecting on the way a group of Latin American youths, finding that the precarious sense of the “X generation” comes up short, prefer to view themselves virtually as the “shit generation.”
Names that screamAt the end of the eighties, the symbols and means of down and dirty were already shared in Mexico’s capital by hardcore and trashcore punk groups. Over the last two decades of the 20th century, the names of the musical bands and groups of marginal or excluded youths have become explicitly provocative, with the strongest examples found among those of punk affiliation: You Shit Punk, Septic Tank, Rotten Seeds, Cerebral Diarrhea, Infected, Pig Orgy, Dead Generation, Misery… The ascription of the young musical groups in other Latin American countries is much the same, as demonstrated by the fact that one of the most prestigious rock groups in Colombia named itself “Pestilence,” while a group in Argentina with a huge youth audience calls itself, simply, “Lice.” Youth tribes in Brazil have opted for names such as Abortion Survivors, Body Drivers, Human Putrefaction, Deserters, Syphilis, Diarrhea, Malnutrition, Suburban Discharge, Bastards, Euthanasia, Disorder, Remains of Nothing, Indigents… Bad joins down and dirty in Chile, where the best-known youth bands include Bad Class, Filthy Mind and Bad Together. The rock song “Morgue Children” takes up the identity adscription that, with black irony, as it were, links garbage with death: “They are garbage that cause harm/ they are garbage that shouldn’t exist/ What will the figure be?”
It would appear that the overwhelming weight of dirty police violence opaques youth hope in the poorer sectors, although it often rouses a primal resistance. Latin American cities suffer from the exaggerated media construction of the proclivity of the grassroots youth to transgress the traditional order or the neoliberal stamp. In the urban spaces, youth’s visibility is buttressed both by the increase of its relative and absolute demographic weight and by the impact of the controlling and excluding logic and the debasing conditions of existence.
The low and “the lower depths”Under the spirit of Western modernity, the European cultures and those that suffered the colonizing influx of its self-images marked and popularized the two most devaluated universes of meaning through the low and the dark. The former includes sexuality and scatological symbols and metaphors as two of its most relevant constellations.
Low is the most universal way of referring culturally to the terrestrial (land and the color of land), the devalued or detestable, the prohibited or occult, the penetrating aromas and the stench of the miasmas, the putrid and the stained, fascinating and feared genitalia. The low marks the topography mainly of the female body, starting with the naked and terrestrial foot, but also with its symbolic coverings. Patriarchal traditions condense the down and dirty in menstrual blood, which is why women should not lay out the wine because they will turn it to vinegar, or why some Mexican chemical-pharmaceutical companies exclude women from production phases demanding greater asepsis.
Beyond that, the cultural categories of lowness project their meanings on other camps. The hard and polysemic describer “bajeza,” whose meaning ranges from lowness, downward to lowliness, vileness, abjectness and baseness, observing a certain gender neutrality, was admitted into the academic tradition in 1495. From the architectonic perspective, lowness (basement)is devalued by its loss of visibility. But if lowness is made into a social describer, we then find ourselves with “the lower depths.” These are defined by their links to the criminal world, the world of vagrants and rowdies or of organized crime in societies that distinguish between a normal and respectable world and its counterpart—the underworld. That underworld has its own jargon or argot, territories and haunts where transgressors of the law weave complicities, organize illicit sales or establish bribes and protections against the not-so long arm of the law.
For more than a century, the lower depths in the Latin American cities have been tolerated and partially controlled territories. Today their attributes tend to be established, whether in a stable or fleeting way, in diverse segments of the city, without renouncing their primordial territories. The underworlds have expanded and recreated themselves more in some cities than others, forming part of our daily life, bolstering the circulation and reproduction of the images and symbols of the down and dirty.
The city’s “dirtiness”Scatological language is well anchored in Latin American grassroots cultures, where its humorous and carnivalesque function prevails over its racist and controlling uses, save in times of crisis. There are scatological ways of marking social, ethnic or gender differences and of serving as a vehicle for verbal and symbolic violence to negate, devalue and exclude the other. The presence of scatological metaphors in the sayings, proverbs and popular tales of our countries speaks to a long cultural sedimentation process in which we received Mediterranean Europe’s cultural traditions of the grotesque and recreated them in our own manner. Little attention has been paid to the contradictory and discretional nature of the extended uses of such cultural repertoires by the common sense reigning in our subaltern culture. The lower depths of the city represent both transgressions and the condensation of the fears of most city dwellers.
In Bogota, the territories of fear in the social self-vision are associated with the cultural sedimentation of trans-classist stereotypes that affect the arenas of transportation, housing, work, diversion and the whole public sphere. The majority of Bogota’s residents imagine that “danger,” “ugliness,” “filth” and the “piquant” reign within the desolation, narrowness and daily obscurity of its territories due to the presence of poor, gamins, outcasts, drunks, drug addicts and criminals. Other cities reveal an ethno-classist excision in the urban social self-vision.
A sociological survey of students from high social strata in Lima’s Catholic University reveals a dichotomous view of the city: their own, affectionately marked by their places of cultural consumption with a strong classist meaning, and the other, the “unknown, dirty, dangerous city, marked by the gray ghost of poverty.” They claimed to “know nothing” of this other city, and demonstrated as much in the way they symbolized their mental maps and sketched their urban itineraries.
Anti-system youth resistanceThe recent emergence of what some have called the subculture of obscenity or of youthful irreverence has permeated the protest ritualism of the university movements, as well as the deployment of tribes from the New Left, whether anarcho-punk, Zapatista, etc. They have distanced themselves from the traditional clientele systems of the political parties, including those of the Left. But such experiences are not removed from the new nocturnal offerings of the Latin American media. Filthy language goes hand in hand with the playful and humoristic use of an emerging esthetic of obscenity. The media construction of the stigmas related to popular and grassroots spheres shows the duality of our images and rhetoric.
New forms of juvenile dissidence have become politically visible, whether supported by informal direct networks or via the Internet. For those involved, the semantics of the “political” appear interwoven with their most popular cultural consumptions and with emerging rituals of transgression and anti-system civic-popular protest. Rossana Reguillo is right when she sums up the thinking of the young rebels as wanting to know nothing, wanting to escape the world that others propose for them, yet with tremendous energy for designing certain alternatives of their own, despite being disenchanted with all that exists. She describes them as few but resounding. “When young people have their own real spaces—their rock concerts, their debates—and when they can think beyond what the traditional institutions determine for them, they construct a very active citizenship.”
Dirtiness is now associated with powerThe 1999 anti-Pinochet student demonstrations saw the burning of national flags in Santiago, Chile. In Mexico, the youth receiving the Zapatista caravan the following year unfurled national flags with the national shield replaced by a clenched fist with an erect middle finger or the emblematic figure of the black balaclava-wearing Zapatista. There is no doubt that national symbols are being recreated from grassroots dissidence and the disenchantment of the youth.
Between 1999 and 2000 young people in Lima and other Peruvian cities played a major role in the anti-Fujimori campaign, with their extensive rituals of washing the national flag, a carnivalesque portrayal in which dirtiness was associated with power. One network of youth organizations, including the groups that called themselves All Arts Collective, Regeneration and Anti-megafraud, was active in a number of different ways. The anti-Fujimori campaign took on a new twist under the motto “Dump the garbage in its place.” Thousands of black plastic bags bearing Fujimori’s image were filled with daily household garbage, while an improvised motorized service was set up to deposit the symbolic garbage collection in front of the residences of the Fujimori regime’s most prominent leaders. The longest student strike seen by the National University of Mexico, in 1999, deployed this expansive subculture of youthful irreverence and obscenity against the institutionalized wisdom, norms and hierarchies, providing it with their own local overtones.
The transgression of language and behavior against university and governmental authorities, even professors, has gained some space in the youth’s visionary imagination. Mexican university students repeatedly expressed their impugning of the powers that be and their mediating representations by unashamedly showing their butts or genitals.
Young rebels recurrently use filth as a cultural referent for the field of power, as verified by the song “Piedras, clavos, molo” by the famous Chilean rock group Antileyes (Anti-laws). They exemplify this resemblance by singing: “We’re bored of so much filth,” meaning a hostile and alien order that blurs the borders between Pinochet’s military regime and democracy: “the whole militia controlling the city/ corrupt guards beating us all the time/ the whore democracy will always help the rich.”
The poison of this societyIn its heterodox mix of heavy rock and hip hop, the group 2K of Santiago, Chile, made up of children of families affected by the military dictatorship, denounces the lack of a future for young people under the established order. Alex, one of its members, sums up the message of his song “Urbe” in the following way: “We’re saying that the system is sowing shit and can’t control what it created. The idea is that when they see us act and hear such shouting, they will understand it as a reaction against this society’s poison.”
The Argentine protest against the state of siege decreed by the government of De la Rúa shortly before he resigned was also eloquent. The downtrodden middle class went out into the streets to protest, leaving the order of fear behind. Gathered together in the Plaza de Mayo, they launched the spontaneous, effective and multitudinous cry: “Stick the state of emergency up your ass!” thus breaking down the last redoubt of authoritarian rhetoric. Today, what is clean and what is dirty in political culture has lost its ethnic and class directionality and can be read in many different ways.
Between domination and resistanceWe have offered some convergent probes into this dense symbolic chain of the down and the dirty, which particularly when wielded by young people, goes against the grain of contemporary social self-identity. The diverse narratives consulted—be they stories, journalistic chronicles, graffiti, movies or songs—have expressed in diverse ways the significant gravitation of these uncomfortable categories that range asymmetrically between cultural domination and resistance.
The cultural uses of the stigmas of dirty and low prevailing among the power groups have been counterpoised by the dissident and countercultural uses of the urban youth tribes, although avoiding the traps of a formal Manicheanism. It is clear that some scatological images and metaphors reveal a classist, ethnic or racial underpinning, but others circulate with greater plasticity. It can tenuously be inferred that the symbolic efficacy of such images and metaphors is supported by very longstanding traditions about what is clean and what scatological, what upper and what lower, regardless of whether the actors distance themselves from meaning, enunciation and representation. Symbolic violence is deployed by crossing or superimposing the language of the clean and white over the language of the low and dark, whether or not adding the scatological.
The diverse examples of down and dirty we used with thought-through but arbitrary reason has permitted us to shine some light on a little-explored but real symbolic field with significant cultural and/or political weight. We have underscored the points of proximity of meaning in all examples, over and above their insertions in local or national semantics. The oversizing of the cultural categories of low and dirty in the self-identity of young people of grassroots extraction has been related to the depredating impact of neoliberalism not just on their living conditions but also on their conditions of existence. We have tried to describe a panorama and a problematic and consider that this work’s main merit, if it really has one, is to have put on the academic agenda some of the thorny problems of this complex Latin American symbolic-cultural problematic about the unnamable.
Ricardo Melgar Bao is an anthropologist and historian. This work was edited and synthesized by envío.