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Urbano (Concepción)

Print version ISSN 0717-3997On-line version ISSN 0718-3607

Urbano (Concepc.) vol.23 no.42 Concepción Nov. 2020 



Luis Alfredo Campos-Medina*

Juan Luis Sandoval-Pavez**

*Profesor asistente, Doctor en Sociología, Universidad de Chile, Instituto de la Vivienda, Santiago, Chile,

**Asistente de Investigación, Licenciado en Arquitectura, Universidad de Chile, Instituto de la Vivienda, Santiago, Chile,


This text presents an empirical characterization of a resistance dynamic to the presence of garbage in the public space and the contamination currently seen in a peri-central neighborhood of Santiago de Chile. The focus of the analysis is placed on the street writing, understanding that the inhabitants, through these, face this problem, activating new dynamics of territorialization and generating new ways of providing intelligibility to the neighborhood and to the subjects living there. The information was generated through a systemic listing of the neighborhood’s street writing, its photographic record and geo referencing, to make a pragmatic analysis viable, both of its content and its location, based on the anthropological concepts of the exposed urban writing. The article provides a systematic understanding of the relevance of practices, usually trivialized, by which inhabitants display means of resistance to territorial and epistemic dispossession that affect the territories of the current urban capitalism.

Keywords: Urban waste; exposed urban writings; resistance to dispossession; territorialisation


Urban studies have made great strides in highlighting the way in which neoliberalization has contributed to aggravating and diversifying urban dispossession processes. Particularly in Chile, contemporary studies have allowed addressing urban dispossession processes associated to gentrification (Janoschka, 2016), socioenvironmental conflicts caused by accelerated urbanization processes (Hidalgo et al. 2016) or the repercussions of the widespread application of the social housing policy (Jiménez, 2015), among others.

Under this scenario, the experience of those affected by these processes has been relegated to the background. We do not know the way dispossession processes change spatial practices either, or how they affect the intelligibility of the territory or if they even trigger new forms of territorialization (Del Romer, 2018; Haesbaert, 2013), at neighborhood or urban levels.

This research looks to contribute towards reducing this deficit by addressing the last aspect mentioned. Our hypothesis is that the forms said writings take, will show the action modalities on garbage and on the territory, but will also suggest ways of conceiving the subjects who live in this territory, expressing action modalities about this. Our goal is to characterize the way in which the use of exposed urban writing forms constitutes a tool to face the problem of the generation and accumulation of trash in a neighborhood context and, by doing so, trigger a dynamic of territorialization. We pursue this goal from a quite unconventional conceptual perspective in domestic territorial studies, the anthropology of exposed urban writing.

Studies about garbage in Chile are few and far between and have focused on the management of illegal solid waste landfills and their impact on the operation of the Metropolitan Area of Santiago (Asenjo-Muñoz, 2013), particularly in the transportation, collection and final disposal of the waste (Lerda & Sabatini, 1996; MIDEPLAN, 1996). Recent studies have sought to survey small dumps, accounting for their spatial location (Morales, 2016). Other research projects include in their study the topics of environmental conflict (Aliste & Stamm, 2016), sustainability (Reyes, 2004), the right to the city (Sabatini & Wormald, 2004) or the forms of urban segregation (Saavedra, 2017). In fact, Saavedra (2017, p.44) in her study about waste management and its consequences in terms of segregation, asked about “the social and spatial effects of the locational coincidence of dumps and the habitational units provided by housing subsidies” (Saavedra 2017: 44). The focus of the author’s argument lies in the consequences of the application of the principle of subsidiarity, both at the level of housing policies and of urban waste management. Starting from this diagnosis, which is both geographical and institutional, our text looks to account for the level of the agency, addressing in a particular way how the territories’ players face this institutional and geographic correlation. Along this same line of argument, the text of Sabatini & Wormald (2014), constitutes a starting point to understand that this agency capacity, manifested in exposed urban writings, can be understood as a form of “political-distributive dispute” (Sabatini & Wormald, 2004, p. 83) and daily resistance, where the autonomy of the inhabitants of poor neighborhoods is manifested.

The approach set out in this article looks to contribute to the academic debate, linking the problem of garbage with other vectors of sense, like infra-politics, the means of daily resistance to dispossession and the relevance of daily cultural practices in the dynamics of territorialization. It does not intend on being a representative study of the national situation, but aspires to provide analytical keys that transcend the specific case and serve to understand similar situations and analog micro-practices to the use of exposed urban writing.



In the context of current capitalism, the production of added value requires the permanent generation of new urban geographies of displacement and dispossession (Janoschka, 2016). In the studies on accumulation by dispossession, the material, economic and geographical effect that different forms of expropriation and eviction have, has been underlined. But dispossession also involves “a problem of subjective and epistemic violence” (Butler & Athanasiou 2017, p. 18). In fact, the work done by Janoschka (2016) is emphatic in showing the relevance of symbolic, and even psychological aspects, involved in dispossession processes.

The garbage issue can be understood as key in dispossession in the means that it involves, first of all, the differential structuring of the city, generating territories that are prone to garbage accumulation found in the areas where the most precarious population lives; second, differential management of the municipal and communal resources and action capabilities, using those which keep some sectors of the commune clean while keeping others dirty; third, the stigmatization of the inhabitants who live in territories with garbage, who are seen as beings prone to living in spoiled, unhygienic conditions and; fourth, the activation of subjective self-understanding dynamics related to the aforementioned stigmatization.

Any practice of resistance that seeks to oppose these forms of dispossession will be linked to the territory and will mobilize material, intersubjective and cognitive elements, on a diversity of scales. Under this understanding, it can be assumed that any practice of resistance has an aspect of territorialization (Haesbaert, 2013). But it is possible that this resistance is not evident at first glance, as usually it considers discrete practices, albeit no less powerful and activating (Zibechi, 2008). Said in other words, resistance to dispossession usually adopts a form of “infrapolitics” (Scott, 2004).

In this research we state that the exposed written signs constitute practices of resistance. We start from the notion of “exposed urban writing” developed by Fraenkel (2008, 2017), who includes in this, a “set of writings like political slogans, tags, obscene graffiti or those of love, marketing posters that adorn our cities and cohabit with the more solemn graphical productions” (Fraenkel, 2008, p. 158), but we avoid only referring to interventions that have a legible content (texts), as well as excluding mural, mosaic or similar interventions (which lead us to interchangeably using the notions of writing and sign). Exposed urban writings make relevant contents and issues clear to a given group. They look to be observed or read by someone, to generate a knock-on-effect on their readers and observers, composing, in this way, the informational ecology of the places (Denis & Pointille, 2009).

In the Chilean case, some authors have explored the function of exposed urban writing in certain settings. The political aspect stands out, particularly in the work of Araya (2010), who has shown how the writing allows condensing senses and channeling a rebellious action to the political regime, particularly the dictatorial, calling on the passersby. The ways in which written signs shape the political and neighborhood identity (Cortes, 2016) and take part in the production of the place (Campos, 2009), have also been addressed. In a different tone, Campos (2014) has explored the way these writings have sought to challenge their readers to ask for help or to coordinate the action of reconstruction, in situations of disasters and catastrophes.

What is interesting here is to explore the way in which exposed urban writings contribute towards facing the problem of garbage and, on doing so, generate a form of territorialization. As Haesbaert (2013) says, the territory “is always linked to power and the control of social processes”. But the “appropriation can be given in multiple and varied ways (…) it is never absolute, but rather historic and, therefore, open to what’s going on and (…) must be produced permanently through the generation of markings and symbolizations (Campos & Soto 2016, p. 76). From this perspective, territorialization emerges as a process of material and symbolic appropriation of the space by which individuals and groups resignify the territory through their practices, inscribing their identities and senses of belonging and developing an emotive-affective relationship with the surroundings (Porto Gonçalves, 2001).

We are authors of our territory, so we inscribe on it using our tools and our real capacity of action. Even the most trivial practices are potential producers of territory and we must consider them to see how this takes place (Musset, 2015). For this reason, we feel that both elements, written signs and territory, maintain a link that is worth exploring, in the means that, as Raffestin (1986) sets out, the territory is nothing other than the result of an unfinished process by which a human group records in the space, the cultural signs that characterize it. This is what the author calls, “territorial ecogenesis”.


The Santiago neighborhood is in the commune of Estación Central, in the pericenter of the city of Santiago. The residential occupation of this commune was originally linked to land occupation and the construction of social housing units, as well as to activities linked to cargo and passenger transportation, developing discontinuous urban structures with heterogenous morphologies (Municipality of Estación Central, 2017). The commune houses, in the southern sector, emblematic “poblaciones”, the Chilean name for working-class neighborhoods, like Villa Francia, Los Nogales and Bonilla. Among these is the Santiago neighborhood, whose boundaries can be seen in Figure 1.

Source: Prepared by the authors.

Figure 1: Boundaries of the case study: Santiago “Población”, commune of Estación Central, city of Santiago. 

According to information from the 2017 Census, 5,442 people live in the Santiago ‘población, in 1,419 dwellings, with a vulnerable home index of 65% (INE, 2017). The urban structure is mainly formed by narrow passageways. There are green areas with different degrees of quality, among which some have no paths, no plan and lack infrastructure, but are located close to the dwellings. According to the council, among the main problems affecting the sector is garbage: “The neighbors mention the lack of cleanliness in the sector as an important problem, along with the generation of small-dumps” (Municipality of Estación Central, 2017, p. 254).

The garbage problem in the Santiago población is evident onsite. It is possible to find waste piled up on road junctions like Ferrocarril and Manuel Chacón or Calle 2 and Guillermo Franke, just to give a few examples. We must consider that governmental institutionality defines micro-dumps as “… all those sites with a surface area of less than a hectare, where garbage is regularly or eventually dumped” (MIDEPLAN, 1996). Figure 2 shows a small-dump that is found close to homes and playgrounds.

Source: Prepared by the authors.

Figure 2: Small-dump at the intersection of Calle 2 and Guillermo Franke, in the Santiago población (22/09/2019). 

The National Environmental Survey (Ministry of Environment, 2018) shows that garbage and dirt on the streets is the second most commonly mentioned problem for the country’s population, with 20.7%. In its breakdown by socioeconomic level, the issue appears for 13% among the ABC1 population, while 24% for the E stratum, which suggests that this is a problem that mainly affects working-class sectors.

On the other hand, Morales (2016) made a survey of the small-dumps of the Metropolitan Region, indicating that this considers 1,013 and not 700 as the health authority stated. His study also concludes that the sector of the city which is most affected is the periphery, excluding the high-wage cone, and that micro-dumps are found on the periphery areas, according to the definition coined by Lynch (1960). Our case study is close to one of the 6 areas with the highest concentration of small-dumps per hectare in the entire region.


The choice of the case of the Santiago población was based on the principles set out by Zussman (2004), which do not aim at generating a form of representativity, but rather at profiling a clear analysis perspective that allows accurately reflecting some theoretically relevant elements (cit. in Auyero, 2007). The information production procedure involved three essential operations: a) onsite survey of all the exposed writing of the sector; b) photographic record of each one of the writings identified and; c) generation of analytical maps based on the material of the survey.

The survey was done in three days of work. The first was dedicated to preparation and logistics, making a trip around the población. This was followed by two work days performed by one of the authors of this article and an assistant, on September 4th and 5th, 2019. The first day involved the creation of routes and recording protocols. While on days 2 and 3, each street and passageway were covered, and each written sign found was recorded, photographed and geo-referenced, using mobile phones and the Cartodroid freeware. In addition, sketches and notes were taken onsite from conversations with the neighbors.

Likewise, the analysis procedure implied: a) thematic analysis of the content of all the exposed writings (Riessman, 2008); b) classification of the texts into emerging categories, following the perspective of the grounded theory (Strass & Corbin, 2002); c) material analysis of the exposed writings as “written objects” (Fraenkel, 2017); d) analysis of the graphical ecologies present in the neighborhood following the theoretical keys of the anthropology of exposed urban writing, including direct observation and interviews with inhabitants (Denis & Pontille, 2009).



In the survey made, we identified 407 exposed writings, which were georeferenced and classified following a thematic analysis of their content (Riessman, 2008). Among these there are 12 categories, one that groups 12 signs referring to the environmental issue. The textual contents of these are recorded in Table 1. Within this category, 8 signs are explicitly linked to the problem of garbage.

Table 1: Textual content of each sign belonging to “environmental” category. 

Sign Text
1 Days the garbage truck passes: monday wed (nesday)
2 No more garbage: “awareness comes from the neighborhood”. today like yesterday. let’s build a worthy life. los caminantes
3 United for our dreams of today. fp. los caminantes
4 Neighbors: Here we’re building this garden for the entire neighborhood. Take care of what’s ours and let’s work together for a better neighborhood. Taller Sembrando Dignidad.
5 This garden is proof that when neighbors come together, Great Things can be done. Let’s take care of it!
6 The población is organizing against the contamination problem. informante callejero.
7 Nuestro mundo creche - nursery.
8 Municipality of estación central. don’t dump garbage or debris. fine 3 utm. ornamentation and cleaning direction. uv 41-1
9 Don’t dump garbage
10 (D)on’t dump. i’m recoring you. (g)arbage
11 Don’t dump garbage
12 Don’t dump garbage. no more. no more. no more.

Source: Own preparation.

After the thematic analysis, we proceeded to a material analysis of the exposed writing, as written objects (Fraenkel, 2017). This allowed detecting that the exposed writings of the environmental category can be split into those of simple execution and those whose preparation implies more work.

The first correspond to signs that, at first glance, seem to have been made with a degree of improvisation, using materials like zinc, wood or recycled materials. In these signs, free-hand is seen, with simple edges and without serifs. Its text is written in imperative form, with the most common being, “Don’t dump garbage”. They lack individual or collective signatures. The second group, the more elaborated signs, correspond to different expressions, with a heterogeneous format and support, whose preparation implies a greater degree of sophistication and detail, given by their technical or artistic treatment. In this group, we find banners, murals, posters and screen printing. The supports have different sizes, ranging from letter sized printed sheets, to large murals that fill entire walls. Their strokes are varied and in some cases manual or electrical tools are involved, like printers or screen-printing frames.

What is interesting in this fledgling classification is that, on positioning their location on a map of the población, both manifestations evidence a differentiated territorial display. That is, the concentration of one typology is seen on the east side of the poblacion, while the other is concentrated in the west sector.


In the territory’s west sector, those more complex written signs and of a more elaborated graphical and textual context are more prevalent, while in the east sector, those with a simple execution and with less elaborate textual content dominate. As can be seen in Figure 3, the signs of the east sector are almost all located on important roads, where a relevant number of vehicles transit and that have large sidewalks in a poor condition, where it must also added, in the case of Ferrocarril Avenue, that one of the sidewalks does not have a defined use and, therefore, does not have inhabitants for its visual control and occupation.

Source: Prepared by the authors.

Figure 3: Map with the territorial distribution of the written signs in the Santiago población. 

In this sector, the writing adopts imperatives and appears almost like a road sign, precisely because the issue being faced, as the sector’s inhabitants told us, is that of the litter dumped there by people in their cars who, taking advantage of the little visual control, litter on the sidewalks, generating small-dumps. Here the texts are simple and direct. The text size must allow reading from a distance and, also, the location of the writing must provide the text with visibility. Consequently, there are writings that look to act quickly and effectively on outsiders so that they do not litter there, just as the conversations held with the inhabitants confirm.

Meanwhile, the west sector’s written signs are located at places where vehicles stop, queue or at least transit slowly. Unlike the east sector’s signs, flow does not dominate here and great speed even less so. This spatial characteristic is reinforced by the signs, which are accompanied by more abundant text and which, because of this, require greater attention and time from their readers. The texts adopt a more declarative tone, stating what characterizes those who live there. The target of these texts is the community itself.

On observing in detail, the distribution and territorial location of the writings, as well as their material characteristics, we can see that the aforementioned general pattern has nuances and exceptions, as in the east sector, sign number 7 is found, which corresponds to a highly elaborated mosaic (Figure 4), an exception to the indicated pattern, while in the west sectors, signs 1 and 6 are found, which have a more restrictive text and an eminently informative role, which also nuances the described pattern.

Source: Prepared by the authors.

Figure 4: Image of each one of the analyzed written signs. 

However, it is necessary to go into more depth in the material and situational characteristics of each sign. Number 7, the mosaic, is located on a perimeter wall of a nursery, surrounded by a green sector. This accounts for a location in line with the permanence and congregation described for the signs of the west sector, very similar to what is seen for signs 2 and 3. These share the greatest level of preparation and largest sizes of all the signs analyzed, as well as an allegoric and celebratory functionality of the community, that is reinforced by cheerful colors and motives. Although there is a difference in that signs 2 and 3 are murals whose author is indicated in the graphics by the reference to the group that prepared them: “Los Caminantes or The Walkers”. The written signs in these three cases (2, 3 and 7), look to face the problem of garbage describing the community, presenting a cheerful colorful version of it, transmitting an uplifting message about the virtues of ecology, hygiene and care for the environment. The feedback received in conversations with inhabitants and onsite observations suggest that this goal of action on the community itself is confirmed by the recipients of the written signs.

Sign number 6 is a screen print that shows a high level of preparation. Its text is accompanied by an image of a group of people of different ages that are found on the base, made in one stroke with no filling, which can be interpreted as different forms of contamination, garbage and industries. The screen print is in a good condition, and the whole text can be seen; however, it has signs of aging and a few scratches. It is located on the metal door of a hut, along with remains of other screen prints and printouts whose texts are no longer legible. On being a screen print, it is presumed that it could have been one of many that were placed in the sector. The screen print alludes to the problem of contamination in its entirety; nevertheless, through the drawing it alludes to the problem of garbage in public spaces.

Meanwhile, sign 1 corresponds to a printed sheet whose text is informative, as it indicates the days the garbage collection service passes by, and its placing is on a public street lamppost, on the corner of one of the tight passageways. The sign tries to face the garbage issue, informing the community of readers, reminding which days the garbage truck passes by and when, as a result, garbage can be taken out from each home and placed on the street.

Within the west sector, signs 4 and 5 have an important trait on being part of a material intervention in the neighborhood setting, which is the construction of community gardens. They also have longer more developed texts that outline the importance of the garden for the community. The written signs in both cases face the garbage issue, labeling a place, marking out and inviting its protection by the community due to the environmental benefits related to its conservation and care.

Finally, returning to the east sector and complementing what has already been said, signs 8, 9, 10, 11 and 12 are more simply made. In three of them (9, 11 and 12), the text included is, “don’t dump garbage”. In sign number 10, the text “don’t dump garbage” is accompanied by another, less visible message, “I’m recoring you” (sic). In sign number 9, the text says “don’t dump garbage or debris, fine 3 UTM”. Beyond the textual and material variations, very important in an anthropological analysis, we want to highlight, from a pragmatic perspective, that these signs match up, on facing the garbage issue through direct action, looking to influence the behavior of the readers, converting the inhabitant into a subject capable of organizing and acting on their territory against outsiders. A summary of what is indicated in this section can be found in Table 2.

Table 2: Textual content of each inscription. 

Sign Intended action
1 Inform the community. Provide knowledge that guides action.
2 Reinforce the community. Positioning of values that motivate them. Aesthetic intervention on the environment and morals of its observers, who are the neighborhood’s inhabitants.
3 Reinforce the community. Positioning of values that motivate them. Aesthetic intervention on the environment and morals on its observers, who are the neighborhood’s inhabitants.
4 Labeling of a garden. Statement of its relevance for the community. Production and conservation of a common green area and production of the community that sustains it.
5 Labeling of a garden. Statement of its relevance for the community. Production and conservation of a common green area and production of the community that sustains it
6 Reinforce the community. Invitation to the inhabitants themselves.
7 Reinforce the community. Positioning of values that motivate them. Aesthetic intervention on the environment and morals on its observers, who are the neighborhood’s inhabitants.
8 Imperative. Looks to act on an external agent and avoid that they litter.
9 Imperative. Looks to act on an external agent and avoid that they litter.
10 Imperative. Looks to act on an external agent and avoid that they litter.
11 Imperative. Looks to act on an external agent and avoid that they litter.
12 Imperative. Looks to act on an external agent and avoid that they litter.

Source: Own preparation.


In terms of the territorialization dynamics, what this distinction between the east and west sector leaves clear, is that the former constitutes a boundary line, a border territory where the writing aims to act on players outside the community, trying to intervene on their behavior, while the latter is a space of community construction, a common territory where the community acts upon itself, states what it does and what it wants to do and, in addition, generates graphical content that fosters this intention.

Through the written signs, the subjects resist the dispossession process that implies the systematic presence and accumulation of garbage in the territory, turning this into a relevant expression of infra-politics (Scott, 2004). They resist because they seek to intervene the cycle of production, circulation and accumulation of garbage and, at the same time, counteract the subjective and epistemic process involved, that points them out as subjects that deserve to live with garbage and passively accept its presence and persistence.

In this sense, the written signs surveyed in the neighborhood account for a behavior that opposes and resists the dispossession involved in the production and accumulation of garbage. The daily presence of these signs shows from their articulation, the spatial characteristics and the relational dynamics of the neighborhood (informational ecology of the place), but also suggest that they contribute to shaping the territory, as their texts, materiality and placements indicate that they look to act upon their observers, generating persuasive effects and encouraging certain types of behaviors: reinforcing community spatial practices and care for the territory; discouraging spatial practices that degrade the neighbourhood and stigmatize its inhabitants. Said in other words, they look to generate another emotional-affective relationship with the place. We consider that an epistemic effect is at play here, as these effects also imply repercussions at a level of the understanding of the territory and the self-understanding of the subjects.

Also, through the modalities in which these written signs are materialized, the modalities used to act on the target subjects of the writing, are clear: dissuading external players from littering in the neighborhood, using whatever they have at hand for this, inviting inhabitants to increase the environmental care activities of the neighborhood and to reinforce the community that inhabits the territory, through well looked after signs, which require significant production.


The current urban neoliberalism of Chile does not comprise abstract forces nor is it articulated in elusive geographical organization for the subjects. On the contrary, the structural dynamics of neoliberalism adopt an experiential complexion, giving form to the territories and to daily experiences. In this research, we state that the garbage issue is a matter of dispossession in the means that the presence, persistence and accumulation of waste is not a random and contingent situation that affects the neighborhood considered, but rather a persistent dynamic that involves structural management aspects, but also subjective and symbolic ones.

The written signs show the active role of the inhabitants and that there are modes of action, apparently insignificant, where a deep issue is crystalized. That is to say, “infrapolitical” modalities which are material illustrations of this transformative positioning of the subjects. Furthermore, the written signs are not the result of an automatism, nor a purely contingent effect. They are the materialization of a self-understanding of the subjects that live there. The crystallization of needs, aspirations and horizons of action, modeled based on the availability of material resources and the use of cognitive abilities. They are a concrete way by which the subjects activate their action capabilities, seek to recover control of their neighborhood and of the social representation of their own identity. Paying attention to them is a way of recognizing the real capacities of agency of the subjects and to deactivate the processes of stigmatization that are often spread unconsciously.

Starting from this analysis it becomes possible to reflect in a more complex way about the modes of affectation of garbage, as well as about the modalities of territorialization linked to this and the variety of modes of resistance that the inhabitants can use to face it. The presence of garbage in the territory is related to the level of control the inhabitants have over it. The written sign aimed at acting on the presence of garbage, of any shape or form, is an intervention that indicates that a means of control over the different territory is pursued, that the presence of garbage is opposed and that organizing and managing the territory in another way is sought.

The results presented here do not intend to be representative of the varied forms of dispossession that currently affect the territories of the country, but that seek to: i) account for the relevance of exposed writings as tools to face the garbage issue and as a practice that generates a new form of territorialization; ii) show the pertinence and plausibility of an approach that pays attention to micro-practices of resistance that form part of the infrapolitics of sectors affected by these forms of dispossession. In this sense, the proposed approach can be extrapolated to the analysis of another type of practices and micro-practices by which the subjects “write” their territories. A line of exploration in this perspective and that extrapolates the type of analysis made here, can be put forward as the step of the concern for the meaning of places and the syntax of spaces, towards the pragmatic of the territories.


This work was carried out within the ENLACE project (ENL 020/19), financed by the Vice-Rectory of Research and Development (VID) of the University of Chile.


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Received: July 15, 2020; Accepted: November 06, 2020

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