“Más vale vivir cinco años como rey, que cincuenta como buey” – street philosophy
Aside from international efforts to alleviate inequality, the gap between the rich and the poor has persisted in Mexico. This inequality has its cultural and spatial representations. Furthermore, the generally high violence indicators in Mexico tend to concentrate in deprived neighborhoods. This case study is looking at the youth experience of male youngsters in one of the historically oldest, yet, most deprived and stigmatized neighborhoods in Monterrey – La Independencia. How do the youngsters perceive the current situation of marginalization and violence? How do they respond, resist and adapt to a dominating discourse of stigmatization?
Mexico – a failed state?
Thanks to a process of market liberalization starting in the 1980s, belonging to a society of equals is still a distant dream in Mexico. Salaries in the richest decile of population are on average 27 times higher than those of the poorest (OECD 2017). Additionally, some authors claim Mexico to be a ‘failed state’ corrupted by the narco. This leads to high levels of various forms of violence, public insecurity and an ‘architecture of fear’, where areas of cities become ‘no go’-zones and citizens of the middle, middle-upper class protect themselves in the form of private policing and gated communities (Humphrey 2013).
The truly disadvantaged
Especially male youngsters from poor neighborhoods can easily fall into a ‘vicious cycle of violence’. By being confronted with intense levels of inequality, exclusion, poverty, and alienation, they often see no other option than to turn towards criminal violence in the form of youth gangs, criminal mafias, and drug cartels. In some cases, the street becomes the only realistic option for social mobility (Sanchez 2006).
This goes hand in hand with a public perception of poverty which is attributing its causes to the individual. From this vision, the poor are considered as ‘the ones to blame’ for their own situation, not doing ‘the necessary’ and being ‘lazy’. This leads to institutions of low quality, which are only designed for ‘the poor’. Particularly, it is the male youngsters from deprived neighborhoods who become stigmatized as the ‘incarnation of all socially bad and dangerous’ (Bayón 2015).
La Independencia – a cultural melting pot
Created in the 19th century and with around 35,000 inhabitants, La Independencia is one of the oldest and largest neighborhoods in Monterrey. Located right in the city center only separated by a dried-up river, the neighborhood is divided into an area of streets and a mountainous part, which is only accessible by foot. As it almost completely lacks urban planning it almost doesn’t offer public places and playgrounds. Especially parts of the upper area still largely consist of informal settlements. As from 2009, violence escalated along with the ‘war on drugs’. Still in 2016, homicides came up to 28 homicides out of every 100,000 citizens (Nuevo León 2017). It was the same year when La Independencia was named to be the most dangerous neighborhood in the state of Nuevo León.
But this place has another side – by, among other aspects, being the cradle of popular cultural production. La Independencia is the origin of Colombian music from Monterrey with national and international reputation. The music from Colombia was spread by the mass media and rural immigrants from other Mexican states who identified themselves with this music style and introduced it to ‘La Independencia where it found new variations. The cultural-expressive counterpart of the music style is found in the cholo with a specific way to dress, to speak and to behave. The cholo term is very complex and has, among others, its origins in the gang culture of Latin American descendants in California in the 1960s.
Structural violence in Monterrey
Monterrey is the capital of the Northern-Mexican state of Nuevo León. The metropolitan area of Monterrey comprises of around 4 million inhabitants. In this city, a neoliberal concept of urban development predominates, where public resources are distributed in a systematically discriminating manner. It is not unemployment but rather precarious low-paid employment the most deprived are suffering from, not providing sufficient for a ‘dignified’ life. This is complemented by an exclusionary urban infrastructure which is almost exclusively developed for the use of cars.
Deprived neighborhoods mutually co-exist to the privileged, sometimes only divided by streets (as it is the case for ‘La Independencia’ – San Pedro but true for many other areas), yet without any kind of non-hierarchical social interaction. This development mode leads to the spatial and cultural fragmentation of space and is perpetuating a ‘classist’ society with citizens of ‘first’ and ‘second’ class.
How is it to grow up in ‘La Independencia’?
The male youngsters’s life chances are already largely limited by the structural setting of Monterrey. The age group considered was 16-24. Additionally, while they were growing up in La Independencia (especially in the early years during the peak of violence in 2009-2011), the youngsters were exposed to and involved in severe forms of violence. The experiences range from domestic violence, bullying, kidnapping, drug abuse, gang fights to involvement with organized crime. It needs to be mentioned that a frequent factor mentioned was also violence executed by police.
On the other hand, they are subject to particularly two forms of stigmatization – the stigma of space and the stigma of class which are interrelated. A photo experiment (see title photo) applied showed that they indeed are, as outlined before, stigmatized as the ‘incarnation of all evil’ as ‘drug-addicts’, ‘gang members’, ‘violent’, ‘with a limited horizon’ and so on. This evaluation is connected the ‘cholo’. This is interesting because the original representation of the ‘cholo’ was very striking (see Link). Even though they seem to have physically adapted to the cultural mainstream, they seem to never leave to be a ‘cholo’. Even though the ‘cholo’ is just a cultural expression, due to its origins, both historically and spatially, it is almost automatically linked to gang culture, violence and even organized crime. It is also interesting that this evaluation is not only undertaken by ‘outsiders’ but by youngsters from La Independencia itself. Furthermore some youngsters ‘self-stigmatize’ by identifying as ‘cholo’ but refuse to be ‘cholo-cholombiano’. This reflects a complex internal structure of the ‘cholo’ stigma.
In this context it is important to note that, according to their reporting, none of the youngsters is involved with youth gangs or organized crime at that time. All of them are working in high school or studying at college. This, on one hand speaks for their resilience and, on the other, is saddening with respect to the stigmata which are attributed to them. Many of the youngsters reported to have experienced discrimination, especially when the two worlds of the ‘deprived’ and the ‘privileged’ come together. This refers to those youngsters who study in university. ‘the rats from La Independencia’ and ‘Hide your things’ where usual comments. However, the youngsters reported that the discriminating practices became erased once they youngsters got to know each other. Albeit the youngsters’ general report that they have not been affected by stigmatization and discrimination they might not completely be aware of the extent of stigmatization and structural limiting factors they are subject to.
However, for these youngsters, the ‘vicious cycle of violence’ is not a causality. This shall not obscure the fact that the interviewed are most probably a minority, at least when it comes to studying at a university. Still, as several youngsters mentioned – “there is a cultural change going on in La Independencia”. The youngsters have a strong desire to move forward and to turn their neighborhood for the better. This is connected to a strong rootedness with respect to La Independencia which has shown “the good and the bad side of life.” So, if those youngsters decide to stay living in their neighborhood, they can be the first seeds of a larger transformation. This is not only true for their neighborhood. Of course, the Mexican government’s efforts to provide academic education and decent jobs are far from being sufficient. However, the pressure to meet international requirements set by the United Nations is provoking a change which very slowly, yet steadily could empower the deprived youth in their citizenry and, on the long run, alleviate material, social and cultural inequality. Yet, it is still a long way to go.
To alleviate spatial stigmatization in La Independencia, the focus needs to shift from deficit to potential. The area provides an immense repertoire of cultural heritage. Specifically, it disposes of the basilica of Guadalupe, for a few days in December, attracts thousands of people to the neighborhood. Still, this is only for a few days and until a specific geographic point. However, this could be taken as a starting point to reverse the social dynamics (the case of Medellín, Colombia, Pachuca, Mexico and many other examples are positive examples). It was not mentioned in the text before that the image of La Independencia deteriorates the more one goes up in the mountain. Investing in la La Independencia as a touristic site (art corridors, viewpoint on the upper area, historic street tours, postcards etc.) and by involving the local population (young and old are telling their stories), could attract people from outside and, thus increase the cultural and social capital of the inhabitants with a potential to the reverse social dynamics and structural aspects on the lung run. Of course, security issues and a sensitive approach to avoid gentrification needs to be taken into account.
Generally, until violence indicators significantly decrease, it cannot be completely let go of a ‘firm hand’ approach, meaning a strong presence of police and military. Even though, aside from increasing the police budget for arms and other equipment, it needs to be made sure that the police is properly trained to attend the population and specifically male youngsters. Many reports by the youngsters showed that stigmatizing discourse prevailing among police is a main factor for police violence. This can go as far as that a police men from Fuerza Civil killed a 16-year-old boy, who was caught on drugs, by setting him on fire in 2016. Additionally, social work is scarce and poorly paid in Mexico. Still, some policies focus on achieving big numbers, instead of focusing on the quality of interventions. This could be taken up by focusing on a small group of youngsters who could be trained and turned to be ‘multiplicators’ within their neighborhood and ‘ambassadors’ outside of it. The interviewed youngsters with their reflected world view and their enthusiasm could be a perfect start!
Thanks a million for all who helped me to realize this investigation!
© Title Photo Thom Díaz
Photo 1: Monterrey’s City Slogan: “La Gran Ciudad – Somos Incluyentes” – “The Great City – we are inclusive”
Photo 2: Structural Violence in La Campana, Monterrey
Photo 3: Outside View from ‘la Independencia’