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Comment on "Residency Counts and Housing Rights Conflicting Enactments of Property in Lima’s Central Margins" (Kristin Skrabut)



I remember quite well the week the census takers came to town. The year was 1999 and I was living in a provincial capital in the north of Bolivia’s Potosí Department. They were not coming to actually count people and things, because the next formal census would not take place for another 2 years. But the Instituto Nacional de Estadística (INE) had begun a process of capacity-building throughout the country’s rural districts. Given that only two censuses had taken place over the preceding 25 years (1976 and 1992), people needed to be taught how to be counted.
intentions of the census takers, undercounting and misrepre-
sentation of sectors of the population that have the most to
demand from the state. Seen on a world stage, most of these
populations are rural, located far from the seat of political and
economic power. But increasingly they are the millions of hu-
man beings who live in poor neighborhoods ringing cities and
squeezed into less desirable locations within them. The issues
they raise are fodder for every school of anthropological theo-
rizing, from the biological and ecological to the linguistic and
symbolic. Using a performative perspective, Skrabutsarticle
brings into juxtaposition several of the empirical referents that
fuel these inquiries.
For Skrabut, the centralact to be analyzed is the performance
of residency: playing the role of permanent occupant of a house
and plot, being present, counted, and accounted for. In contexts
of informality, performing residency allows shanty dwellers to
make claims to community membership and to the assets they
gradually, tentatively, often nervously bring to the site.
The article suggests the many audiences that are being played
to: national census takers, at one extreme, and, at the other,
next-door neighbors. More should have been said, I think, about
local community leaders. Long before the census takers arrive,
the local dirigentes are there with their lists and inventories.
They juggle competing demands. One is to welcome new
residents and ensure that all lots within the settlement are lled.
The other is to close off entry, creating a bounded entity in
whose collective name petitions can go forward for water and
electricity, sanitation services, infrastructure, amenities, and
titles to property. Local leaders are usually well informed about
the circumstances of the families occupying a plot. Wearing the
two-faced masks so common in Andean dance quadrilles, they
help their constituents manage appearances and simultaneously
negotiate with outside authorities and interests: local mayors,
police, NGOs, political parties, utility companies. To be sure,
some are land trafckers and members of criminal gangs.
The article, in enumerating the elements involved in per-
forming residency, understates the importance of an expanded
time frame. The shantytown is a meeting place for strangers
who become neighbors and who accept that, if all goes well,
they will share an indenite future. They must perform worthi-
ness as long-term associates. I have been struck by the hyper-
respectfulness of the language used among neighbors and the
delicacy with which conicting positions are articulated in com-
munity meetings. Various rituals of belonging create cycles link-
ing past and future: anniversaries with speeches and pageants
reviewing common history, celebrations of national holidays
starring successive generations of schoolchildren, participation
of the local soccer team in endless interbarrio tournaments.
The material advantages of performing residency also merit
further exploration. Gaining a reputation as a good neighbor
raises the likelihood of being called upon when there is an
opening on a construction crew, for drivers on a bus line, for
knitters in a handicraft co-op, for a promoters job on a health
project to which other neighbors are connected. Such a repu-
tation involves honesty, reliability, and probably demonstra-
tions of an orderly family life and compliance with gender
expectations. Ones value as resident is enhanced by proving en-
trepreneurship, managerial skills, and social networks reaching
deep into the world of the nonpoor.
A theme that is well developed in Skrabuts paper involves
the multisited economic, social, and political strategies of
shantytown residents. Although they are usually thought of
as persons without alternatives, and many work to sustain
that image, residents may have assetsland, houses, busi-
nessesin other shantytowns, poor and middle-class neigh-
borhoods, and rural areas where they enjoy advantages in
niches involving trade, transportation, technology, and insider
information. In a former shanty area at the opposite extreme
of Lima from Skrabuts Pachacútec, I found residents who
swore they would never move and never repeat the suffering
and privations of establishing residency and community in
their own name. Many were helping sons and daughters to
initiate the process, however, and many were investing in ur-
ban land as part of a retirement strategy. A new shantytown
in a rougher area of town further down the road might be the
ideal location for a business too questionable for the home
base: a bar or pay-by-the-hour hotel.
These activities, which involve acquiring stakes in a variety of
socioeconomic settings, could have been predicted if we had
been more aware of the same patterns in rural families. Though
we no longer talk about closed peasant communities, the rural
poor in Peru and the Andes still do not get enough recognition
for their mobility and creativity in exploiting opportunities for
expansion, diversication, and enhanced security. Many of their
attempts to stake a claim, even start a new life, in far-ung parts
of the country end up in failure. But conversations about
openings and who can serve as bridges are never-ending, as are
exploratory migrations.
In any discussion of the urban poor and their claim to a place
to live and establish themselves, the unavoidable backdrop is the
pursuit of inclusion and equality. In that sense Skrabutsfocus
on citizenship is spot on. Spatial segregation in Latin American
cities continues unchecked. Social segregation is facilitated by
policies that perpetuate differences in the rules of access and
quality of the services that are installed in areas of informal
occupation and those available to the rest. Shantytowns around
the world suggest a pattern of building cities of the poor around
cities of the rich. The poor respond with their own citizenship
projects, including many of the dramatic performances de-
scribed in this paper.
Mark Goodale
Laboratory of Cultural and Social Anthropology (LACS), Faculty of
Social and Political Sciences, University of Lausanne, Géosciences
5514, 1015 Lausanne, Switzerland ( 23 III 18
I remember quite well the week the census takers came to town.
The year was 1999 and I was living in a provincial capital in the
704 Current Anthropology Volume 59, Number 6, December 2018
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All use subject to University of Chicago Press Terms and Conditions (
north of Bolivias Potosí Department. They were not coming to
actually count people and things, because the next formal census
would not take place for another 2 years. But the Instituto
Nacional de Estadística (INE) had begun a process of capacity-
building throughout the countrys rural districts. Given that
only two censuses had taken place over the preceding 25 years
(1976 and 1992), people needed to be taught how to be counted.
Before the white SUVs arrivedbearing INE técnicos in the
ubiquitous logo-emblazoned eld vests that marked them as
experts with knowledge to share with their fellow citizens in the
countrys remote cornersthe town relaxed into the festive
mode that was more common around Todos Santos or during
the weeks of Carnaval. Stalls began to appear around the central
plaza selling snacks and mocochinchi, the favorite drink made
with boiledpeaches, sugar, and cinnamon. But even more telling
was the appearance of the hanging bundles of eucalyptus leaves
outside of certain houses, which was the eagerly awaited sign
that the towns several chicherías were open for business.
During the few days in which the INE personnel were among
us, they met with ofcials in the alcaldía to plan for the future
census; they distributed pamphlets with practical information
about census-taking; and, apropos of Kristin Skrabuts insight-
ful ethnographic study of census-taking and housing rights in a
shantytown in Lima, Peru, they promoted participation in the
upcoming census as an act that was both good for the country
and good for the town, because an accurate survey was a pre-
condition for local development. Yet unlike in Skrabutscase
study, when the INE SUVs left town, people returned to other
preoccupations, other undercurrents of conict that had noth-
ing to do with being counted by the state.
This is all to say that one of the most important lessons to be
drawn from Skrabuts intervention is the idea that the linkages
between belonging and legibility are deeply contextual and
therefore cannot be reduced, as she argues, to preexisting as-
sumptions about citizenship, marginality, or governance re-
gimes. Indeed, her article can be read as a radical exercise in
phenomenological differentiation, one that takes place at just
that point atwhich the tendency to simplify is the most acute: in
considerationsboth political and analyticalof the relation-
ship between the apparently powerless marginalized and the
apparently powerful state. Rather, she argues that the ethnog-
raphy of residency practices in Pachacútec revealswhat she calls
governmentality from below(citing Appadurai 2001), in
which forms of power are projected from the bottom upward
and outward within a diffuse web of sociopolitical relations.
But I think that even this fruitful inversion does not do full
justice to what she describes. Instead, the article shows how
nuanced layers of materialization unfold horizontally and
unevenly across the range of residency practices, or perfor-
mances, as she frames them. What gives Skrabuts article such
force is in the way it demands a complete and utter rejection of
vertical metaphors of power. In their place what we are left
with is an account of what might be thought of as sideways
governmentalitythe way, for example, the stories of Luisa,
Claudia, and Teodora gesture toward endless permutations in
the practice of residency in Pachacútec that belie even well-
meaning categorical reduction. Skrabuts own description of
these horizontal irreducibilities is punctuated living,an apt
phrase that captures, with a certain ethnographic urgency,
what is vital to know about the different temporalities of right
and need embedded in shantytown property regimes.
Kregg Hetherington
Department of Sociology and Anthropology, Concordia University,
Henry F. Hall Building, 1455 De Maisonneuve West, Montreal, Que-
bec H3G 1M8, Canada ( 29 I 18
In her evocative ethnography, Skrabut shows just how com-
plicated possession can be, and how much it saturates social
lives. I was particularly taken with this for how similar it is to the
practices of rural Paraguayans with whom I have worked (see
Hetherington 2011). Peruvian shantytowns and Paraguayan
frontiers share similar legal regimes and are subject to the same
development ideologies, and what is most striking ishow closely
the informal languages of ownership, and the anxieties about
duplicitous documents, mirror each other. But unlike Para-
guayan campesinos,Skrabuts informants buck two of the most
obvious motivations for acquiring property: many of them do
not appear to need housing per se, and few seem interested in
property as a means to an economic end. Instead, property is
a way of declaring self-sovereignty in the face of existential
The key to various kinds of property rights in Pachacútec is
establishing residency, and Skrabut argues that this happens in
two distinct ways. The rst is the awkward phrase hacer vi-
vencia, which Skrabut translates as doing living,although it
could also be thought of as making experience,an ongoing
commitment to presence and belonging. The equivalent ex-
pression in Paraguay is arraigarse, to root oneself, and it bears
the same moral requirement to stick around. The second set of
practices are engagements with the state,during censuses,
enumerations, and recounts, that variously promise to produce
formalized property titles. These two strategies can feed into
each other, but they are also at odds with each other, as one
requires intimate neighborly work, and the other harbors the
danger of betrayal.
Skrabut calls these two modes performances,like striking a
posefor the census taker. The performances, though, are part
of larger property-making strategies that use various kinds of
practices to build relationships of recognition. Savvy aspiring
residents need to play both of these games at once, often using
one to bolster their chances in the other. The key to successfully
hacer vivencia is knowing and being known to ones neighbors,
especially by building amicable relationships with local political
patrons and with self-styled property vigilantes who can vouch
for you to the census takers when you are not at home, or, al-
ternately, take a crowbar or a torch to your house. Here the
stakes of the strategy are at their clearest. Someone who is
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