Globalization, Mobility, Ruination: Contemporary Urbanization in Latin America

On a recent trip to Lima, which will forever hold a special place in my heart, I became rather enchanted with the integration of pains from the past into the present configuration of the city: the smattering of indigenous ruins throughout the cityscape, as well as the touristic draw of the former colonial center and its architecture of domination. These ruins, in the process of being preserved, and the well-kept colonial center, should not be seen as two disparate phenomena, but one linked to a previous form of domination and globalization, the expansion of the Spanish and Portuguese Empires into what we now call “Latin America” in the 16th Century. A new form of mobility, long-distance sea travel and navigation techniques, enabled this barbaric expansion and the subsequent genocide and subjugation of not only the indigenous peoples of that land (the Incan and Aztec societies, the Tainos in the Caribbean, and so many more), but also the irreparable destruction to numerous societies and tribes of the African continent who were enslaved and carted off to these lands. Slavery wasn’t a new thing and has a long history in different cultures the world over, but what was new was the systematic nature of it, the transatlantic, trans-“national” character of mass subjugation and domination. And so while the people of Europe became disillusioned by the Renaissance and its illuminated Christian Humanism, as the Protestant Reformation rent the fabric of the Holy Roman Empire, the people of Europe, and specifically the Iberian peninsula, where that brilliant Baroque light-source was already setting, set out in search of gold for monarchical glory and wound up constructing the rudiments, in almost pure-form, of the geographical relations of capitalism: destroy the old, build the new in our image, and create a source of cheap labor—all three tied to this new form of mobility.

And so it can be seen generally, in the continent built on the idea of urbanism and urbanization (see Angel Rama’s unfinished masterpiece The Lettered City for more), that the vestiges of the past bear down on the present like a harrowing nightmare, but one from which a vast majority cannot wake. The dislocated indigenous groups, still distanced from the mainstream mestizos, the poor still haunting the peripheries of siege cities, the remnants of the African slavery still systematically fragmented from economic and/or political means of bettering their circumstances all occupy spaces in these urban environments where not only business and civic leaders have global aspirations. Tourism, especially from the so-called developed countries, brings material wealth to these groups, be they beggars in the streets or food-stall operators offering local or traditional delicacies to those unaccustomed to their cultural artifacts. Artisanal crafts probably produce as much profits as the generic kitsch one finds in airport terminals, and sometimes appear side by side. Fair Trade agreements between these “othered” groups and consumers in the “West” also contribute to bettering or maintaining the livelihoods of those on the margins of “globalization,” along with tourism of the margins—and here I am thinking of favela tours. Likewise, the academic industry attempts to interrogate this underbelly of globalization and the formation of Global Cities, envisioning these “informal” communities and marginal populations as directly connected to the accumulation of finance capital in major economic hubs (this is essentially Mike Davis’ argument). Such a research agenda remains central to understanding the process of globalization as a new form of economic production and mobility, but tends to project a bi-polar world trapped between the dictates transnational capitalist class and communication technology and the global underclass living in slums or invasiones that lack any meaningful agency in confronting global capitalism.

Therefore, to bring it back, and to organize my thoughts and how they have been affected by my trip to Lima, the ruins and the colonial center—that fusion of early modernity and coloniality as Arturo Escobar reminds us—still carries a tune that has been reconverted into a new melody: that of a new global mobility that both projects images of “globality,” or a global aesthetic replete with the most advanced means of mobility (high-tech mass transit, world-renowned accommodations, airfare and airports updated and integrated into the “space of flows”) alongside the “local” circuits of specific cities aiming at reproducing their everydayness, definitely expanding its share of capital, but also in converting the specific and particular into globally recognized images metonymically replacing the actual embodied histories and cultures of people who inhabit and produce these spaces—but not under conditions of their own choosing. My interest is seeing how globalization impacts those people, the ones who get up and run a corner store far from the “ruins” and colonial centers, their experience of the city as it positions itself for global investment, development, and integration, but who may never play any other role in that process other than by perpetuating and reproducing an urban everyday life that appears local and specific forming the basis of city life, its openness, its vibrancy, but also the attitudes that disfigure the realization and recognition of its insertion into a global urban fabric.

And so the interweaving of a bundle of urban practices into the global urban fabric requires a bit of organization and planning. What I find most interesting about globalization, and disturbing in the literature, is the lack of “concretization” in explaining the “space of flows.” We talk about gentrification as an urban strategy or the means of sequestering finance capital in certain regions, but we rarely talk about how cities are being organized or reorganized as a whole, particularly the ways in which people move about the city. Almost all “global cities” have well developed transportation networks that promote intra-city production and reproduction as well as inter-city mobility that integrates these circuits. But we also have to locate the experiential city, the spaces of everyday life in these mobilized cities, in order to understand the impact that globalization has on everyday life, not just in abstract economic terms, but also ways that people traverse their cities, how mobility in these cities is stratified, and how these mobility systems link the specificity of these cities to larger forces that may not be perceptible at the level of the street.

To rearticulate the issue, full circle, the ruins of the past in Latin America, now tourist attractions along with the colonial headquarters that quickened the dissolution of indigenous societies, are the new ballasts of globalization in Latin America as global images of these spaces. The mobility networks that unite these attractions with the cities themselves are the means of achieving this reorganization of city space. But the new ruins are the city streets themselves, the old mobilities, the people that lack access to the newly integrated circuits of capital and movement—often fused. This urbanism fits neatly into that law-like dictum of uneven development with some left behind so that others benefit, and usually at the expense of those left behind. Rather than seeing the fixed, immobile spaces of the city—particular blocks or quarters—as the outcome of globalizing capital, perhaps we should see the city, its mobility structures, and means of reproduction and integration as the core feature of globalizing societies, and perhaps then we can politicize the seemingly innocent act of getting on a bus to go to work as preparation for a confrontation with global capital. In other words, the “street” has been and will be the site of contestation against globalization and learning to disrupt its flows, particularly those foundational to it, are of utmost importance to a social science interested in seeking alternatives.Curitiba’s BRT