Accepted Paper:

Closure of bars and brothels in El Alto: urban renewal from below and the moral becoming of the new Bolivian citizen  


Helene Risør (Universidad Católica de Chile/Copenhagen University)

Paper Short Abstract:

The paper analyzes popular actions against bars and brothels in El Alto, Bolivia, as urban renewal from below. Through ethnographic analysis the paper discusses the relationship between state and non-state actors in the process of bringing “order” and argues that the closure of the bars entails a fight for the moral becoming of the new Bolivian citizen.

Paper long abstract:

The paper presents an ethnography of the 2007 clausura [closure] of (illegal) bars and brothels in the city center of the poor and mainly indigenous city of El Alto, Bolivia. On this occasion several sites were declared illegal, closed down and set on fire by crowds of students and neighbours. Although initially considered to be illegal the clausura was later celebrated by the police and the municipal authorities, and they invited civil organizations to participate in the nightly controls of the bars.

The paper contextualizes the clausura within the urban history of El Alto as a city that has come into be due to internal migration and in spite of urban planning. It also offers insight into the experiences of civil insecurity that lay ground to the clausura, and it elucidates how uncertainties regarding the living prospects of the poor are played out in people's imaginaries regarding proper urban space and conduct. Hence, the paper analyzes the complex, and sometimes violent, negotiations between state and non-state actors in the process of bringing "order" to El Alto by "cleaning up" and renewing the city center.

Finally, it is argued that the clausura is a form of urban "self help" renewal that renders certain forms of life undesirable while others are made viable. In this way, urban renewal from below must also be considered as a popular quest for the moral becoming of a new Alteño [inhabitant of El Alto], and for the definition of proper citizenship in today's revolutionary Bolivia.

Panel W078
Urban renewal, uncertainty and exclusion (EN)