Autonomous Spaces, from Philly to Santiago

This is the first installment of a blog, written by a member of the defenestrator collective, about autonomous politics in Chile.

Earlier this week I went to La Legua, a neighborhood in the Santiago, the capital of Chile. La Legua is a población, which is a term used to refer to working class neighborhoods that were often formed in huge land occupations in the middle of the 20th century. It was explained to me that La Legua was one of the few neighborhoods were there was open, popular resistance to the US-backed coup of General Augosto Pinochet on September 11th, 1973.

Walking through the neighborhood for the first time, I noticed a strong sense of that history in La Legua; one example is the fact that the only plaza in the neighborhood is named after Salvador Allende, the socialist president deposed by the Pinochet coup. There were murals everywhere that celebrated that resistance, and the memory of those that had been tortured and disappeared, and countless other political murals. In a country that was a laboratory for neoliberal economic policies in the seventies, and in a city with countless malls filled with US-inspired ads and shops, La Legua felt like an important reminder of the social struggles of Chile's past, and inequalites of it's present.

Today, La Legua is a still poor neighborhood; the textile factories that once provided some employment are gone. It felt like a lot of places in Philly, where industrial jobs have left, often only to be filled by a drug economy and police harassment.

"Workshops in The Cultural Center of La Legua | So that the energy the builds, that dances, that weaves, sows autonomy in the Legua"

Mural in Plaza Salvador Allende: "Workshops in The Cultural Center of La Legua | So that the energy the builds, that dances, that weaves, may sow autonomy in the Legua"

The point of the visit was to meet people from the Casa de la Cultura de La Legua (Cultural Center of La Legua), about a twenty minute walk from the main North-South metro line, for their weekly breakfast. The Casa functions as a social center, carrying out different political and cultural events for people that live in the area. It's a long, two-story building, with the front door opening into an open room and stage. To the side are some smaller rooms that function as a library and as storage space; the kitchen and living space in the back. Right now three people live at the Casa, and another three who live in the area are involved in organizing the space. This felt distinct from a lot of the autonomous spaces I've encountered in the U.S., that are often rented and occasionally owned, but general don't double as living spaces. They told me that the space has been there since the late 1980s, when the military government was still in power. One of the people who live there started going to the Casa as a kid, and ended up living there.

Over breakfast, they discussed the work at the social center, what they had planned for the summer before school starts again in March. I was able to share some of my experiences being involved in the LAVA Space in Philly, a library and community space, as well as the defenestrator, a radical newspaper. I also told them about the experiments with alternative energy that take place in my house; when I told them we used a wood stove for heat, they asked me if polluting the environment or contributing to deforestation was a concern. I tried to explain that Philadelphia gets so cold in the winter that heat is necessary; it's not like central Chile, that gets cold, but rarely passes below zero, like coastal California. I told them that the only other option was natural gas, which carries it's own set of environmental concerns, and proceeded to tell them about conflicts over gas extraction in the Marcellus Shale, a huge natural gas deposit that crosses from Southwestern to northeastern Pennsylvania and into upstate New York, that has caused a lot of land conflicts and environmental contamination. People were shocked to hear that people were able to set their tap water on fire.

Kids drawings at La Casa de Cultura de La Legua

Their discussion of their project reminded me of a lot of things people talk about the LAVA space: how to work with kids that come in looking for something to do, how to get their parents involved and interested, how to make the space welcoming for people who wouldn't otherwise visit it. The folks at the Casa also talked about their work organizing “environmental brigades”: earlier this year, they had been able to work with kids in the area to pick up trash and maintain some small gardens. People discussed the idea of having kids collect bugs and bring them (in jars, of course) to the Casa so they could be identified, and recognized as living beings. The rest of the group were kind of lukewarm to that idea.

 There was discussion that felt familiar, that of involving people that didn't live there or weren't involved for broader political motivations. People talked about the need to work with people, and not simply focus on bringing people into that space.

Getting ready for the neighborhood Carnival at La Casa: "The 5th Carnaval of La Legua is done by hand and without a permit"

Some people said that working in that way would position the people who live at el Casa as the “self-selected” ones who have “the answer” for “the people.” The discussion involved a lot of discussion of autonomy, of working in a less ideologically-driven way, and of horizantalidad, or “horizonatality.” To them, horizontalidad means carrying out political and social activities by working with—and not for or at—other people.

I got to see some of the neighborhood: people were out everywhere, walking through the street. In a 20 minute walks I saw two police vehiclesslowly roll down the street. The folks From La Legua took me to see different people involved in social/political projects and spaces in the neighborhood. I had once (afternoon snack/dinner of tea and bread) at the house of a friend of the Casa. They talked about their work in the neighborhood, including efforts to out drive drug dealers. The kids took turns picking out music on the computer; it alternated between cumbia, an easy-to-dance-to genre that's popular throughout Latin America, and Victor Jara, a famous leftist Chilean folk singer who was killed by the military in the days after the military coup in 1973. It was his song "El derecho de vivir en paz" ("The Right to Leave in Peace") that really inspired people to talk about their work against drug dealers in La Legua. 

Later on, we went back to the Casa, where word has spread that I was going to show a movie about the police in Philadelphia. A compañero from Philly had just released a 40-minute documentary called “Gangs in Blue” that documents that rampant police abuse and corruption that occurs throughout the U.S., and especially in Philadelphia. I had brought a few DVDs to share with people. We translated it as “Pandillas de Azul”—in Chile the police wear green.

Neighborhood Carnival

 Two themes stuck out in people's questions: The first was the racial politics of police violence in the US. The movie shows, and I explained, that the majority of police violence in Philadelphia is directed at young black men, and that it was often coming from white cops. The part of “Gangs in Blue” that explains how the modern U.S police was borne of patrols of white men to capture runaway slaves in the South emphasizes how policing is—and has always been—a racial issue in the U.S. When the documentary showed a black cop beating a black man, people were a bit surprised and noted that. They drew comparisons to Chile, which is much more racial homogeneous, and where police violence doesn't always have the same racial implications.

 The second questions dealt with the process of bringing charges against police in the U.S., since it's handled by the military in Chile. I couldn't answer these questions quite as well, as I'm not particularly well-versed in this process.

It was a powerful experience to be able to share so much, and discover how similar things are in different ends of the hemisphere—something I've known in my head for a while, but haven't been able to experience in such a direct way.








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