Driving through the outskirts of Lima presents an entirely different view of the city structure, one that someone wouldn’t necessarily pick up on if they stayed in the hotspots of Barranco, Miraflores, or San Isidro. Outside of the city proper are squatter settlements, known colloquially as barriadas, that house a huge portion of the city’s population. These houses are built informally, without legal standing or any real connection to property rights or the government as a whole. Much like the well-known favelas in Brazil, the barriadas can be unsafe, rife with poverty, unemployment, a lack of sanitation or electricity, and at times political unrest. Many families in the barriadas have migrated from poorer areas of Peru in search of economic opportunity but have been faced with a lack of legitimate living options. As Peru’s population has expanded, and in particular as the population of Lima has steadily risen, the government has been unable to meet housing needs for its citizens.
Photo: T. Hilde
My initial impression of the barriadas was negative – I found it to be particularly troubling that I was able to see, from my safe spot in one of the bustling main squares of Lima, the barriadas piled atop one another on an unstable, rocky mountainside, peering down at a city so physically close but incredibly distant to them in terms of economic or social mobility. The yellows, blues, and other bright colors of the barriadas houses seemed cruelly ironic – a physical manifestation of a desperate attempt to maintain a positive attitude in an intractable state of serious poverty.
Yet after reading a few in-depth articles on the barriadas and listening to the talks given by Iván Lanegra and Fernando Villarán, my perception of the situation shifted from sadness and disdain to a quiet understanding of the social, cultural, and economic intricacies of the housing crisis in Lima and the barriadas as a whole. Professor Bill Chambers, who spent 40 years living in and studying the barriadas, writes that the barriadas actually act as the only functional solution to Lima’s inability to provide housing for its growing population. He argues that since the state has been unable to meet this need, the barriadas serve as an important service to the lower class and migrant worker populations of Lima who would be effectively homeless without the squatter settlements. While the barriadas are certainly not without their problems, Chambers’ writes that he saw distinct changes in the communities over the course of 40 years – over time the houses became safer, electricity was present in many areas, and families were able to rise in economic and educational status. From this perspective, the informal settlements might prove to be a gradual solution to Lima’s housing problems.
Fernando Villarán and Iván Lanegra also shed some light on the context of the barriadas. Villarán talked at length about the informal sector of the Peruvian economy – since the government has been unable to economically absorb the growing population and needs of Peru, informal economies have sprouted up as a means to an end for many citizens. The majority of taxi cabs, for example, are not formally registered or connected to any certified cab company; they simply operate and provide services without any formal connection to the state. In our other meeting with Iván Lanegra, Professor Hilde mentioned that from an American perspective, we have a difficulty understanding both the overt illegality and informality of much of the Peruvian lifestyle. The US, at least in most aspects, appears to be incredibly regulated and formal (thanks to our strictly-by-the-rules Puritan roots). But in Peru informality permeates the culture, and looking at something as vast and challenging as providing adequate housing for a populous city, it’s no wonder that the barriadas have arisen as a solution in Lima.
As Professor Hilde suggested, I think I have a great deal of difficulty wrapping my head around a state and culture that operates in a style so different from the one in which I’ve grown up. My personal bias tells me to equate informality with illegality, or at least with a negative connotation. I can’t help but ask myself questions like: shouldn’t the government be in charge of ways to provide legitimate, formal services to its citizens? Isn’t that what the government is for in the first place? Is informality really an appropriate way to handle major civil issues? But, then again, my knowledge is certainly limited, and it’s evident that Peru is facing major problems that won’t have simple, clear-cut solutions.
The class saw a glimpse of the barriadas as we drove south towards Cañete to visit Susana Baca. The houses were in various states, some with walls of crumbling brick and others with sturdier concrete sides. Children in school uniforms were walking with their friends through the streets, and many of the major roads, while unpaved, had streetlights with working electricity. The barriadas may not be the best solution to the housing crisis in Lima, and it remains to be seen as to whether the widespread informality of the Peruvian state and culture is an asset or a curse to complicated civil problems. But maybe, like Chambers said, the barriadas are the best option that Lima has for now.
– Jen Crino