Chile. Maestranza, the barrio imagined by the homeless and poorly housed

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It was once a dreary wasteland, between the railway line and the row of old railway houses, now gray in color with frescoes in bright colors, claiming a new Chile. the barrio Maestranza came out of the ground just a year ago. A dream made possible by a collective of poorly housed and homeless people formed by the popular organization Ukamau, whose roots plunge into the cultural and political resistance opposed by a whole generation, at the end of the eighties, to the twilight but still fierce dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet.

Like a challenge from those who have nothing

Ukamau! In Aymara, the language of one of the peoples originating from Chile, the expression means: “We’re here, so what?” “, like a challenge launched by those who have nothing to those who monopolize wealth and power. From the outside, the concrete walls streaked with red bricks give the building an austere allure which dissipates as soon as you cross the gate of this popular city imagined by its inhabitants. Inside, the accommodation is distributed over four floors around large patios planted with flowers and very young trees. The brand new play areas delight children, which parents watch from the upper floors.

“This apartment is everything for me. We have struggled to live here. Romina Fernanda, resident of Barrio Maestranza

Everywhere, square spiral staircases connect the passageways that the inhabitants have invested as common balconies, opening, on the top floor, onto vast terraces, luminous breaches towards the city, the rails and on the horizon, the Andes cordillera. At her flowered window, Romina Fernanda, barely thirty, smart and talkative, invites us into her home. She proudly points to the bathroom, the kitchen connected to gas; teases her two daughters, each curled up, in their early teens, in their own bedroom. “This apartment is everything for me. We have struggled to live here. At first my husband was hanging out, he had never set foot in a demonstration. I told him that if he was not ready to fight he could stay alone with his mother, she laughs. We are well here: we breathe, the neighbors have a good heart. “

Driven from the north by the closure of mines and misery

Years of fierce combat have forged friendships, solid bonds of solidarity. Most of the inhabitants here come from these places where their ancestors, driven from the north by the closing of the mines and poverty, put down their bundle, in the middle of the last century. “We wanted to stay in this neighborhood where we grew up, where our parents grew up. It was necessary to conquer this part of the city which is ours, to think it differently, to refuse the social segregation which rejects the most deprived always further in the periphery, with harmful ecological and human consequences “, says Doris González, figurehead of this struggle, now known throughout Chile as one of the faces of the fight for access for all to decent housing.

The main protagonists of this struggle

In the heart of the capital, in the municipality of Estación central, the closure, in 1995, of the old railway maintenance workshops had given way to an abandoned wasteland, which the poorly housed mobilized under the banner of Ukamau took it into their heads. to conquer: blocked roads, busy crossroads, daily chases with the carabinieri …

We organized ourselves democratically, making a promise to each other that we had to keep at all costs, because for common people, promises are never kept: they always end up being fooled. Aland Castro, Ukamau movement coordinator

The authorities ended up ceding, by preempting the land, by releasing the essential subsidies for the construction of these housing units with access to social property. “At the start, we had modest ambitions, we imagined around 40 housing units, but as soon as the idea was launched, 400 families came forward, remembers Aland Castro, a pillar of Ukamau, coordinator of the movement. We organized ourselves democratically, making a promise to each other that we had to keep at all costs, because for common people, promises are never kept: they always end up being fooled. ”

The most involved? Women, often single people raising their children alone: “They were the main protagonists of this fight, even if it means going over and over again family relations, relations with husbands, companions: it has changed a lot of things, starting with the awareness of having rights”, testifies Doris. They are the ones who, in the early days of the project, designed the houses of their dreams, sketches that the architect Cristian Castillo, chosen by the collective, consulted, before accompanying them step by step. “What interested me was the creation of a social force linked to the demand for housing, with a perspective, a political project, an openness to other struggles, summarizes the latter. In the eighties and 90s, real estate speculation soared, without meeting the needs. 100,000 people still live in slums, not to mention substandard housing, rented at indecent prices, up to 300 euros for a single room housing an entire family, with shared sanitary facilities. Today, nearly a million homes are lacking for everyone in Chile to have a home worthy of the name. This represents a quarter of the population ”.

“One of the strongest effects of neoliberalism has been to impose the idea that people have to solve their problems on their own. Cristian Castillo, architect

This militant architect wanted, at Maestranza, to give shape to common spaces, to think about traffic so that people cross paths, meet each other, share moments of life. “One of the strongest effects of neoliberalism has been to impose the idea that people have to solve their problems on their own. We must break this isolation, create places where neighbors can discuss how to collectively face the difficulties ”, he continues. In the passage, a cat slips between its legs.

From the historic popular movement of October 2019

An air of reggaeton escapes from an apartment nestled under the roofs imitating those of rural houses. Leaning on the railing, Doris points to bare land in the neighborhood from which 200 additional housing units will soon emerge. “We do not want to make our barrio an exemplary but folkloric place: we are fighting for the right to decent housing for all workers, it is a political project”, insists Aland . All took part in the historic popular movement of October 2019, which crystallized anger and brought together pressing social demands, in a country where neoliberal extremism promoted by the Pinochet dictatorship and perpetuated by the “democratic” transition has shattered social ties, destroyed collective rights, pulverized public services. Long reclusive in a legitimate distrust, Doris, she took the step last May to be a candidate for the elections. Without success.

We do not want to make our barrio an exemplary but folkloric place: we fight for the right to decent housing for all workers, it is a political project. Aland Castro, Ukamau movement coordinator

She is today, not without some friction, one of the campaign spokespersons of the left-wing presidential candidate, Gabriel Boric. “For a long time, politics appeared to us as a business that only benefited great fortunes, a business that made us disappear from institutions, she exposes. From this struggle for housing, we are now seeking to build majorities, but radical majorities, capable of pushing towards the changes that our country needs. “In the meantime, in Maestranza, even the youngest have taken a liking to wrestling: the adolescents are organizing to demand from their elders the inclusion of a sports field in the plans of the future neighboring housing estate.

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