In Latin America and the Caribbean, with a total population of 625 million, 472 million people live in cities, including more than 111 million (23.5 percent) who live in slums or shantytowns. Since the 1990s, the number of slum-dwellers increased in at least one-third of Latin American cities.
“The first thing the report says is that in the past 20 years, the general tendency seen in Latin America was the growth of urban inequality,” said Elkin Velásquez, director of U.N.-Habitat for Latin America and the Caribbean. This inequality creates cities of the excluded inside large cities, where access to rights is unequal.
‘Villas miseria’ is the name for slums in Argentina. “Favelas”, “cantegriles”, “ranchos”, “tugurios”, “callampas” or “pueblos jóvenes” are among the dozens of terms used for slums in Latin America. In Mexico City it is the ‘colonias populares’.
“Bajo Autopista” (Under the Freeway), a slum built under an expressway in the Argentine capital, where some 60,000 people live just 200 metres away from El Retiro, one of the poshest neighbourhoods in the capital.
Karina Ríos’ gets light and ventilation through the space between the two halves of the elevated expressway, which is the roof for her two dark, damp rooms with bare brick walls where she lives with one of her daughters. “Ambulances won’t come in here unless the police accompany them. That’s because here, as the police say, a ‘negrito’ (poor, dark-skinned person) who dies is just another negrito. For them, we negritos are nobody,” Ríos told IPS.
As an activist with the community organisation “Powerful Throat”, Ríos represents her neighbourhood now, demanding better living conditions. The main demand is “urbanisation”. “We slum-dwellers are stigmatised. And it’s because we’re not urbanised, we don’t have decent streets,” she said. “When we look for work, we don’t say where we live because if you give an address from here, they won’t hire you. ‘Villeros’ (people who live in ‘villas miseria’) are all seen as thieves.” For Ríos, urbanisation means streets have names and are paved. The streets here, most of which are dirt, are muddy and impassable when it rains. Nor are there basic public services. The list of demands is long: “We need sewers, electric power. Fires happen here because everyone is illegally connected, and short-circuits happen and the houses start to burn,” said Ríos. It also means getting medical clinics.
“This is another world. They are clearly two very different worlds. Here everyone knows each other, everyone is friends, and when you go out there it’s not just that no one knows you, or that it’s not the same way of life, but out there you live with stigma, discrimination,” said computer technician Ariel Pérez Sueldo. For this resident of Villa 31, the most pressing need is security or safety, in a broader, more inclusive sense. “Not just from the police, but in terms of the power lines, the sewers, the streets. There are places where people, to get to their homes, have to wade through knee-deep mud. There are places where power lines hang down, and kids can be electrocuted. Safety also in the sense of having a place that fire fighters and ambulances can get to,” he said. It’s as simple, according to Pérez Sueldo, as “having what everyone has: an address where they can install public services. Just be able to live normally.”