Latin American Squatter Settlements

Mangin, William. “Latin American Squatter Settlements: A Problem and a Solution. Latin American Research Review, Vol. 2, No. 3 (Summer, 1967), pp. 65-98.

Written in 1967, Mangin’s article just barely pre-dates the settlements that I am studying. Despite this, many continue to cite his work, his fellow researcher John F.C. Turner, and his argument that squatter settlements are themselves a solution to the problems caused by rapid urbanization and state inability to provide resources to in-migrants. His view of squatter settlements as “solutions to difficult social problems…[and] as a process of social reconstruction through popular initiative” (67) was controversial at the time of publication and is helpful in thinking about the current state of certain settlements.

In addition to continually dispelling numerous myths about the demographics, crime, politicalization, education and general establishment of squatter settlements, he also explains the nature of organization during the moments of invasion. Higher degrees of organization were generally a reaction to either active opposition from police, or conversely, complete inefficiency on the government’s part. While I am not necessarily focusing on the origins of settlement organization, the initial moments of land invasion are important in terms of thinking about the relationship between the residents and the government as well as the connection among all residents. Interestingly, Mangin states that Lima barriadas (which are now called pueblos jóvenes) actually experienced a disintegration in organization once the community became more integrated. My basic background research with VES seems to disagree; however, it could very well be that over a more extended period of time, say 30 years, the community has perhaps become less “organized.” His brief comments on neighborhood associations were particularly interesting when compared to the reading on María Elena Moyano and Cecilia Blondet’s work. While the latter works point to the efficiency and authority of associations, Mangin claims that despite their ability to receive basic assistance, most associations are unable to enforce rules. Later, he goes on to refute the belief that squatter settlements are merely reproductions of rural community life. Instead, he sees them as being a direct result and part of urban structure.

Linked to this concept of association and social articulation is Mangin’s argument that squatter settlements, unlike central city slums, are actually less alienated from the state and more involved with each other (due to their mutual accomplishments.) Mangin consistently repeats the notion that residents actively participate in a calculated decision-making process; in his later section on social satisfaction, it appears that the majority feel safer and more financially secure in squatter settlements than those who live in slums.

Mangin also refutes marginality theory that squatter settlements are a drain on the national economy. Not only have they solved their own housing problem, but their presence encourages investment in housing and land improvement, strengthens the job market (even if they do informal work), increases small business within the settlement, and provides social capital by facilitating relationships with the state and attracting attention from international aid agencies.

Residents are also very active in economic life; not only do they work (oftentimes in the city), but they also patronize areas of entertainment and utilize public transportation. In addition, residents tend to have higher levels of education than those in their place of origin and are remarkably active in social participation. Somewhat similar to one of Alan Gilbert’s points, Mangin states that “they are compelled to acculturate strategically in order…to defend themselves” (79). As stated above, this view of socialization and organization carries over into his argument that associations are generally mechanisms of defense, not reproductions of rural community life. Towards the end of the article, he makes an interesting argument that most residents tend to be politically conservative. Perhaps even more interesting, however, was his claim that “at present they seem capable of mobilization only as a group to defend their homes” (85). Instead, a majority of residents interviewed in a Lima barriada believed that the solution to their existing problems would only come from external organizations or countries; “only 11 of more than 70 replied that they could do anything to solve their own problems” (85).

Finally, Mangin conclude with a recommendation that clearly appreciates the work and needs of residents in squatter settlements. Instead of eradication or public housing programs, he argues for rehabilitation of existing settlements. While Mangin’s work represents the very beginning of squatter settlement research, it does provide an insightful analysis of how to understand and appreciate the complexities squatter settlements.


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