Utopian Projects and the Troubled Paradise. Grassroots Discourses and Strategies of Change at the Periphery of Fortaleza, Brazil.
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PublisherThe University of Arizona.
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EmbargoRelease after 12/01/2022
AbstractIn Brazil, inequality, segregation, and urban violence go hand in hand. Not surprisingly, Fortaleza, a city situated in Northeastern Brazil, is the world’s second most unequal city and also Brazil’s most violent. This dissertation aims to understand how residents of the poorest area of Fortaleza—Conjunto Palmeiras—respond to these problems. Conjunto Palmeiras is an extremely poor neighborhood and has the highest homicide rates in the city, yet it is also an important site of activism. Therefore, I seek to understand the tensions between poverty and activism present throughout the history of this neighborhood. What does Conjunto Palmeiras tell us about how marginalized people living in a peripheral neighborhood manage to create and develop political imaginaries of change and act upon them? I ask this question with reference to three historical moments between 1970 and 2017 when collective attempts of problem-solving are clearly evident. The first of such episodes is represented by 1970s to late 1990s period, marking the military dictatorship in Brazil, but also one in which a wave of social movements accompanied the democratization process. The second of these moments is represented by the period 2002 to 2016, which in Latin America, in general, marked the Pink Tide, an era of governance by leftist parties, specifically by the Workers' Party (PT) in Brazil. My focus here is on understanding the contradictions embedded in the institutionalization of a once grassroots project—the solidarity economy movement, rooted in liberation theology—into a state-sponsored program. The third moment is the period between 2015 and 2017, characterized by an increase in drug-related violence in Fortaleza, related to the presence of large drug factions (locally called facções). This dissertation emphasizes that the creation of local political imaginaries, upon which activists developed particular strategies, has been constantly shaped by activists' personal life experiences and interaction with both liberation theology and PT leaders. Shifting understandings of the political landscape reshaped perceptions of poverty and ways to tackle it at the local level. In Brazil, the 13 years of the PT governance put in place a set of socio-economic programs that enabled social mobility for the country's historically marginalized groups. However, during this period, the discourses of older social movements that promoted an egalitarian ideology and a working-class consciousness were replaced with more neoliberal and individualistic understandings of poverty. According to this view, poverty is the result of economic marginalization and can be eradicated by “inclusion” in the market. Yet, over the years, the consciousness-raising process necessary to the formation of a working-class consciousness developed by the liberation theology movement, contributed to the creation of a certain political imaginary among former movement members that inspires the strategies of some local activists. For example, with the increase of homicide rates in Fortaleza, drug related violence emerged in places like Conjunto Palmeiras as a generator of new forms of resistance, where activists dare to challenge the presence and authority of drug gangs through symbolic practices. This phenomenon of change challenges current trends in “resistance” studies to romanticize social movements and portray local leaders as heroes since it situates such forms of activism into larger historical processes of change, which can only be understood in close relation to most activists’ daily experiences with poverty.
Degree ProgramGraduate College