Youth, the City, and Public Interventions: Challenging Patterns of Inequality and Separation

Youth groups are at the core of processes transforming cities and public spaces all over the world. In many cities, their presence is hard to miss, as they hang out in public in large numbers, circulate intensively, and create diverse styles of street art and performance. Many conditions put them at the center of the challenges faced by contemporary cities and societies. These conditions range from the reconfiguration of labor to the recreation of gender hierarchies, from the expansion of democracy to the remaking of its practices and modes of articulation in public space. At the intersection of all these processes, youth groups create styles, interventions, and products that simultaneously express creativity and hope and expose the deep inequalities that mark their societies and cities. In this process, they shake taken-for-granted hierarchies, but also harden separations and frequently foster intolerance. They are, thus, groups that must be part of any project to create “decent cities.”

Youth groups expose changes and cracks in systems of labor. One the one hand, they are both the main victims of rising rates of unemployment and the most exploited of the manual labors, those who fill sweatshops all over the global south. On the other hand, they are among the extremely dynamic and highly paid groups of new entrepreneurs and technicians that make fortunes performing flexible tasks in IT related jobs. In all cases, they live in temporalities that depart substantially from those of the Fordist era. On the one hand, many live in the slow time of what in her analysis of African youth Alcinda Honwana calls “waithood.”1 This is a time in which one feels on hold and stuck, without many possibilities of a future and moving ahead, waiting for the chance of an occupation that might land one in some kind of stable adult life. On the other hand, many live in the around-the clock availability requested by high-tech industries, in the indistinction between time of work and free time, night and day, permanently plugged to the “space of flows.”2 In all situations, they need new skills. These are not only the skills required to perform new tasks, but also those to adapt to rhythms, temporalities, and spatialities.

Youth groups in the most diverse parts of the world are developing new engagements with the space of the cities they inhabit. In so many cities, this engagement is expressed by an increased mobility – or at least by the desire for this mobility. They circulate, move around, appropriate the city, and make it their own, challenging established modes of spatial segregation and social separation. They refuse to remain restricted to the spaces they inhabit. They want the whole city, especially in places where democracy has promised them some kind of integration into the polity. Young people are among the main actors taking to the streets in waves of protests North and South (from Spain’s indignados to Chile’s students, from Occupy to Istanbul and São Paulo).

Many youth groups live at the city’s margins, inhabiting deteriorated and peripheral spaces. Sometimes, they are simply too close to crime. They die young, as they are the main victims of murder, and are increasingly criminalized, penalized, and incarcerated. This happens especially if they are men, and especially if their color is dark.

Most significantly, youth groups in the most diverse parts of the world are transforming themselves into avid cultural producers. They produce music, graffiti, tagging, video, film, poetry, parkour, skateboarding, to name the most visible of their creations/interventions, many times subsumed under the category “street art.” Through their production, they address the many conditions shaping their lives in cities: they reinvent their subjectivities, find new modes of survival, mark the city, expose inequalities, and create new voices and a new presence for themselves in the places where they circulate. They aggressively and transgressively remake public space, bringing to its center practices that simultaneously express their frustrations, denounce engrained injustices, but also foster intolerance. They thus put themselves at the core of debates of what a more just or “decent” city should look like.
In the last years, scholars all over the world, but especially in Africa and Latin America, have been identifying these processes of change, as they follow youth groups, especially from the peripheries, in their new engagements with their cities. In what follows, I offer a brief summary of cultural production by youth groups in São Paulo in the last two decades. This production makes a bold intervention in a highly segregated city. It expresses a new voice and a new visibility for young people, especially men, from the peripheries of the city. But it also recreates inequalities, separations, and intolerance. This production gives us hints about what should be studied in a project to foster more tolerant and less unequal cities.

São Paulo: Cultural Production and the Recreation of the Public

Youth groups and their artistic interventions are changing the character of the public in São Paulo. In the 2010s, it is through cultural production more than through political movements that public spaces are being transformed. A significant proportion of the new cultural producers come from the impoverished peripheries of the city. Through cultural production, they not only affirm their existence in the city and assert their right to use its spaces, but also start to master the production of signs – painting, calligraphy, writing, video, and several forms of electronic and digital production. Moreover, they use them aggressively to expose the discrimination they experience and to re-signify spaces of the city, especially the periphery. No longer represented by others who used to dominate the production of signs, young people from the peripheries now force their own representations onto the city. Thus, they destabilize the previous system of signs, social relations, and rules for the use of public space dominated by the upper classes.
These transformations are substantial, but not without deep contradictions. One of the most salient of them is the reproduction of gender inequalities. The protagonists of all forms of artistic and cultural interventions coming from the peripheries are mostly young men. Although women have always been present in these productions, there is no doubt that they are a small minority, operating in universes dominated by men and in which they face many obstacles and prejudices. Thus, although women participate in the public sphere in countless ways they tend not to be producers of cultural and artistic interventions coming from the peripheries.

The young people who are the main artistic and cultural producers today were born in São Paulo and are the children or grandchildren of migrants who came to work in the rapidly industrializing city and first moved to the middle of nowhere to build their own houses. The perspective from which they look at the city is quite different from that of their parents’ generation. When they were born, the spaces of their neighborhoods had improved considerably. They grew up in a world of democracy, NGOs, relative access to education, and increasing availability of technologies of communication. They all carry cell phones and have some access to the internet, while their parents, a good proportion of them illiterate, faced long years of a military dictatorship and censored mass media, only dreamed of an almost impossible phone land line, and spent at least part of their lives without electricity and asphalt and with very limited possibilities of consumption. In spite of their poverty, the young artists from the peripheries are plugged into globalized circuits of youth culture, whose styles they reinterpret and adopt, and into an equally globalized and quite expanded consumer market.

This cultural production started to be noticed in the 1990s. At that moment, a series of negative factors also shaped lives in the peripheries. The years of an economic boom that peaked in the 1970s were over and young people faced not only an economic crisis and unemployment but also the disintegration of a working class culture anchored in the dignity of labor. The economy was changing so much that many working class skills were becoming irrelevant and young people could no longer rely on the references that had guided previous generations of urban workers. They had to reinvent themselves. Moreover, violence and crime were widespread in their neighborhoods. Starting in the 1980s, homicide rates started to climb in the city, jumping from 14.62 per 100,000 inhabitants in 1981 to 47.29 in 1996 and to 57.3 in 2000. Murder hit especially hard in the peripheries, where rates of homicide reached around 120 per 100,000 in some areas, compared to less than 10 in central neighborhoods. The majority of the victims were young men, especially African-Brazilians. They are also the main targets of a police known to abuse the use of force and to kill. In the 1990s, homicide became the main cause of death of young men (the third for the total population) and made life expectancy for men decrease by four years.3

Violence and death, more than anything else, shaped the emergence of the new youth cultures of the peripheries in the 1990s. Hip hop was its first expression. In São Paulo, it started in the mid-1980s in downtown with groups of break dancing. By the 1990s, it had moved to the peripheries and rap became its dominant expression. São Paulo's rappers identify themselves as from the peripheries, poor, and black and articulate a powerful social critique.4 In a few years, rappers became the interpreters and voices of a generation of young men coming of age in the peripheries at its most violent moment. As in many other parts of the world, young people were appropriating hiphop as a means to express their segregation and suffering.

In the 1990s, São Paulo rappers started to elaborate the notion that the periphery was a world apart and that they spoke from there and to other people like them. The famous verse by Racionais MC’s, São Paulo’s most well-known rap group, ‘the world is different on this side of the bridge’ powerfully captured the city’s geography of segregation and demarcated their territory.5 In important ways, São Paulo’s rap is the elaboration of this dichotomy between there and here and the denunciation of the inequality that exists between them. On the other side of the bridge, there is wealth, white people, families going to the park, playboys wasting water to wash their cars, whores, and upscale clubs. That is a world inaccessible to them:

Look at that club, how cool!
Look at the little black boy seeing everything from the outside He only dreams through the wall…
Racionais MC’s. Fim- de- Semana no Parque 1993

On their side of the bridge, the periphery, there is a universe always described in quite dystopic and unsubtle ways as a space of despair: violent, ugly, poor, dirty, and polluted; a space of single mothers and alcoholic fathers, of treacherous young women, of feuds and deaths of young men, most of them black. This is a space in which ‘to die is a factor… The true trick is to live,’ as the Racionais put it:

In the extreme south of the southern zone all is wrong. Here your life is worth very little,
our law is faulty, violent, and suicidal. […] Scary it is when one realizes
that all turned into nothing and that only poor people die. We keep killing each other, brother, why?
Racionais MC’s ‘Fórmula Mágica da Paz’1997

The more rappers and later other cultural producers elaborated on the characteristics of the two sides of the bridge, the more they transformed ‘the periphery’ into a homogenizing symbol of precariousness, violence, and inequality that disregards the real improvements that have happened in the peripheries and erases the differences in relation to other more precarious spaces, such as favelas. It is in the terms of this symbol that the periphery has been appropriated by thousands of residents of the peripheries for whom rappers offered a language to express their despair and frustration with the daily indignities they suffer in the city.

The imaginary articulated by the 1990s raps became the repertoire of other artistic genres created in the peripheries. One of them is ‘marginal literature’ (literatura marginal), a term coined by one of its most famous representatives, the writer Ferréz. This term designates the production by a series of writers from the peripheries and who write about them basically in the terms articulated by rap. As he elaborates on the precariousness of life5 The bridge they refer to crosses the Pinheiros river that separates São Paulo’s expanded centre from the southwest peripheries.

In these territories, Ferréz prefers to call the periphery ghetto, or sometimes favela or senzala, the Brazilian term for slave quarters. He writes about the hopelessness of the ghetto, its violence, its neglect and isolation. This ghetto is sometimes a space of solidarity and certainly one’s own space of belonging, but it is mostly a space of suspicion and betrayal, something they frequently associate with women.

The ghetto has never been a relevant sociological concept in Brazil and has not been part of popular imagery until very recently. In fact, Brazilians have been proud of not having ghettoes, this American ill. The contemporary construction of the ghetto imports this notion from the U.S. and the black diaspora. São Paulo is not the only case: this notion has been used to make connections globally, as Rivke Jaffe shows for the case of Jamaica, and as Rami Nashashibi argues for in the case of the relationship between American ghettoes and middle-eastern migrants, which through the practice of Islam constitute what he calls “ghetto cosmopolitanism.”6 These borrowings and circulations obviously attest to intense flows in global circuits that bypass the local and its particular constructions of segregation and make it “cool” to be part of the ghetto. The circulation of the image of the ghetto unites and homogenizes peripheries all over the world, at the same time as it constructs them as enclosed and isolated.

But if the elaboration and dissemination of the image of the ghetto unites discriminated against people and especially those of African descent all over the world, the fact is that this image also reproduces the stereotypes that stigmatize its residents. Rappers, writers of marginal literature, and other artists from the peripheries articulate a powerful and complex voice, a balancing act of trying to transform derogation into a source of dignity. They speak from the perspective of dangerous peripheries and of the prejudices expressed against them. Instead of contesting the terms that stigmatize them, they adopt them to identify themselves, reinforcing the terms of derogation. Moreover, they create a new aesthetic that in general exaggerates whatever is considered negative: precariousness, violence, bad words, ugliness, defacement, and the use of a Portuguese close to oral forms and that ignores correct grammar.

The elaboration of the symbol of the periphery and the cultivation of a voice rooted in stigmas are part of the project of these movements to affirm their autonomy, especially for the production of information about themselves. They want to use words as weapons, to produce a ‘literary terrorism’, to make people think, to circulate information, to expose inequities, ‘sabotaging the reasoning’ of the elites, as the Racionais put it. This is for them the only path to freedom and to peace.

Rap and marginal literature are also male universes. Not only are the large majority of writers men, but also they write from the perspective of young men growing up in the peripheries of the 1990s in a context marked by death and violence. They address each other as ‘mano’ and elaborate the terms of their masculinity. They reflect on the (lack of) options available to them, on what lead them to either crime or to rap, to feuds and death; they ask what would make the right type of black man, what it is to have the right ‘attitude’. In these reflections, they contrast themselves, the ‘sangue bons’ (good blood) to those to be despised, especially white men, black men who betray them, and women. The representation of women is marked by a deep split. Basically, they articulate two main categories of women: on the one hand, mothers, especially their own; on the other, young women not to be trusted. Fathers are frequently absent in their lives in a significant part of the families of the peripheries, where one in every three mothers is a single mother.[7] In Jardim Ângela, the neighborhood that both the Racionais and Ferréz are from, only 39% of the mothers are married. In central neighborhoods, the percentage is around 70% and only around 17% of the mothers are single mothers. http://www.estadao.com.br/noticias/impresso,chance-de-ser-mae-solteira-na-periferia-e-ate-35-vezes- maior-,1030951,0.htm.] In this context, the women treated with respect in raps and marginal literature are mostly their own mothers who suffer, raise them by themselves, and give them character. Verses despising young women abound. They are described as vulgar beings, with repulsive ideas, idiots, obscene, worthless people who make money from sex.

During the 2000s, cultural production exploded in São Paulo and went well beyond the peripheries. This dispersion of the presence of cultural producers from the peripheries in the public spaces of the city is probably most evident in the types of practices that take the whole city as a site of intervention: graffiti, tagging, skateboarding, parkour, motorcycling. They all grew exponentially during the 2000s. Against the symbolic construction of the ghetto and seclusion to its limits, they claim all urban space. ‘A city only exists for those who can move around it!’ says graffiti in downtown São Paulo. As they intervene everywhere, they affect the quality of public space.

I do not have space here to analyze all these urban practices. However, it is important to add a few comments about the most visible of them: graffiti and pixação.7 Most graffiti artists and pixadores (taggers) are young men who come from non-elite and non-central areas of the city. While several graffiti artists have a middle-class background and are college- educated, most pixadores come from the peripheries and grew up under conditions of significant poverty. Many of them are Afro-descendent. The two basic formal elements that set those two styles apart are the use of colour and figuration. Today, what most Paulistanos recognize as graffiti are large and colorful murals painted mainly on public surfaces using not only aerosols but also latex paint, and creating amazing characters and complex compositions. São Paulo graffiti is known internationally and has become one of the city’s tourist attractions.

Pixação has a much more transgressive relationship with the city and its public. It is the writing in public spaces usually in black and without figuration. Pixação is made either with spray cans or with black paint and small foam rollers. São Paulo’s pixação has its own renowned style: a calligraphy made of vertically elongated and pointy letters using straight lines. Pixadores tag any type of surface or building and their inscriptions are omnipresent in the city today, constituting a central mark of the public in any direction one wanders, from the center to all the peripheries. The majority of the population detests pixação. They see it as vandalism and crime, as attacks on their property, and as proof of the deterioration and defacement of the public spaces within which they no longer prefer to circulate. Pixações are commonly associated with ugliness and defilement, not with art and beauty, as in the case of graffiti.

Pixação is conceived by its practitioners as an anarchic intervention and a kind of radical urban sport. The idea is to inscribe onto the most impossible of spaces, to experience an adrenaline rush by risking personal safety. Pixadores climb tall buildings without safety equipment and write upside down, frequently hanging from dangerous positions to tag the highest part of buildings. Pixação is about being recognized for one's daring deeds and the marks left all over the city. Additionally, pixadores are organized into groups that, following the same logic of the narrative of the ghetto, identify themselves with labels such as “the dirtiest,” “the nothings,” “vice,” “abnormals,” “the worst.” Violence, competition, aggressiveness, and adrenaline are ingredients in the type of masculinity they articulate. Pixação accepts the illicit as something both inevitable and desirable, as the only location from where young men from the peripheries can speak. As the pixador Djan summarizes in the film Pixo, ‘Pixação is illegal and this is its essence. Pixação is pure anarchy, [it] is hatred’.

Pixação and graffiti are transgressions. More than improper appropriations of public or private space, they imprint on the city, especially on its wealthier part, the presence of those who were supposed to be invisible. In the same way as other forms of artistic interventions produced from the peripheries such as rap and marginal literature, they destabilize existing systems of representations, social relations, and rules for the use of public space dominated by the upper classes. They interrupt the monopoly of others to represent them and cast doubts about the legitimacy of other representations. Thus, all these practices dislocate the centre, affecting its character and reconfiguring the public space of the whole city. These interventions can only be tense and frequently aggressive, as they challenge long-term and entrenched patterns of dominance and discrimination, but also reproduce other tensions, as in the case of gender. However, this production of self-representation and its transgressive character are without doubt some of the most innovative byproducts of Brazilian democratization.

Moreover, their strategy of simultaneously enforcing and delegitimating stereotypes and the uncomfortable presence of the subaltern this generates expose the limits of a common ground. As they subvert the rules of visibility and representability in the city, as they affirm their existence as marginals and transgressors and speak from this position, they make strange an order of things, expose the flaws in its systems of partitions, and open a dissensus about distribution. They thus establish a disagreement, in Rancière’s terms, interrupting a contract and a modus operandi.8. Disagreement – Politics and Philosophy. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.] By doing so, they aggressively and ambiguously expose the depth of the system of injustice that characterizes São Paulo and Brazilian society. They establish a “no” that has the potential of opening up the possibility of the political but also of violence and intolerance.

The imagery and strategies that the young men from the peripheries mobilize are not those of the unified city and society of modern utopias. They reveal new geographies of isolation, bypasses, splintering and segmentation. They force us to take inequality more seriously and to re-conceive the terms in which democracy, citizenship, and rights will be conceivable.

  1. Alcinda Honwana. 2012. The Time of Youth – Work, Social Change, and Politics in Africa. Sterling: Kumarian Press.
  2. Manuel Castells. 1996. The Rise of the Network Society. Malden: Blackwell Publishing.
  3. Jorge, M.H.P.D.M (2002). ‘Violência como problema de saúde pública’, Ciência e Cultura, 54(1):52-53.
  4. Some ideas summarized below have been articulated in Teresa P. R. Caldeira. 2006. ‘“I came to sabotage your reasoning!”: Violence and resignifications of justice in Brazil’, in J. Comaroff and J. Comaroff (eds) Law and Disorder in the Postcolony, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, pp. 102-149.
  5. ‘Da Ponte pra cá’, 2002.
  6. Rivke Jaffe. 2012. “Talkin’ ’bout the Ghetto: Popular Culture and Urban Imaginaries of Immobility.” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research. Volume 36 (4): 674–88; Rami Nashashibi, 2007. “The Blackstone legacy, Islam, and the rise of ghetto cosmopolitanism.” Souls 9 (2): 123–31.
  7. I have addressed their characteristics in a previous article, Teresa P. R. Caldeira. 2012. “Imprinting and moving around: new visibilities and configurations of public space in São Paulo.” Public Culture 24(2):385-419.
  8. Jacques Rancière. 1999 [1995
About the Author
Teresa Caldeira is a professor of city and regional planning at the University of California, Berkeley.
Posted on July 23rd, 2014.