What do law and justice mean in a poor, rapidly changing society where, in practice, they seldom intersect?
Daniel Goldstein, professor of anthropology and director of Rutgers’ Center for Latin American Studies, has spent the last decade exploring these questions in Cochabamba, Bolivia. When he did the field work there for his book, The Spectacular City: Violence and Performance in Urban Bolivia (Duke University Press, 2004), Bolivia was following the neoliberal economic policies urged upon its government by the United States and by international financial institutions – policies which pushed thousands of rural, indigenous Bolivians off their ancestral lands and into Cochabamba and other Bolivian cities.
Justice in Bolivia, Goldstein has concluded, is so far from law that it doesn’t even live in the same neighborhood – literally. “In Bolivia, if you want justice, you need money and you need to live in the right part of town,” he says.
Goldstein’s book dealt with what local people called “making justice with one’s own hands” when the institutions normally charged with administering justice are unable or unwilling to do so. His book takes its departure from the attempted lynching of two suspected thieves by residents of Villa Sebastián Pagador, a neighborhood in Cochabamba where Goldstein did his field work. For Goldstein, this incident and other, less drastic ones are “performances” in which marginalized people get the attention of the authorities and larger society by acting in a dramatic way.
For Goldstein and many of his colleagues, however, merely standing by and watching people’s lives unfold, or even talking to them about their lives, is not enough. “This (work) should be engaged ethnography, meaning we’re studying people but not just extracting information from them for our own academic purposes,” Goldstein says. “We should be giving something back. Everybody benefits from the encounter.”
Among the beneficiaries in the summer of 2008 were 13 undergraduates who went with Goldstein to Cochabamba as part of Rutgers’ Study Abroad program. They spent six weeks in Bolivia, listening and talking to people, but also helping to build a community center in a poor urban neighborhood, and lay the plans for a day care center for mobile street vendors, many of whom are rural migrants and single mothers. This led them to produce a website and a short documentary on the lives of these vendors, called ambulantes.
“This year, we really are going to focus on the ambulantes,” Goldstein says. “We’re going to help them build a health clinic, and get them some help on business practices, like marketing.”
The ambulantes have access to doctors – some of the many Cuban doctors sent by the Cuban government to serve poor communities in Latin America – but they need a place for those doctors to work.
And then there’s the matter of justice. Ambulantes usually don’t have city vendor’s licenses, and they’re looked upon as competitors by stationary merchants. The police – severely stretched and badly paid – frequently harass the ambulantes. They have no money and they definitely don’t live in the right neighborhood. “If you’re being abused by the cops, or robbed all the time, or a victim of violence, you often feel you have no access to justice,” Goldstein says. So, this summer, Goldstein and his students will look for ways to help the ambulantes know their rights and work within “the legal system that does exist.”