I strongly believe in collaborative work and this interview is a wonderful example of interinstitutional and interdisciplinary collaboration. I would like to thank both Prof. Rafael for the insightful answers and Mariah for conducting the interview. I also dearly thank Luísa Turbino and Tiago Leme for being amazing “networkers,” without whom this interview wouldn’t be possible. Last but not least, I thank Giovanna Imbernon for being the best team player. Enjoy!
Anna Paula Bennech
Edited and reviewed by Anna Paula Bennech, Giovanna Imbernon
Interviewee: Prof. Dr. Rafael Estrada Mejía*
Interviewer: M.A. Mariah Torres Aleixo**
Rafael Estrada Mejía (Ph.D. Social Anthropology, University; M.Sc. Regional Planning and Regional Science, Karlsruhe Institute of Technology) is a socio-cultural and applied anthropologist trained in Europe and Latin America and specialized in the ethnography of knowledge and biographical methods, urban resettlements, social ecology, and migration and transnationalism in Colombia, Brazil, and Spain. For almost a decade, he worked as a practicing anthropologist on numerous projects working with indigenous peoples on food security, indigenous development, legal advice, health, inter-ethnic relations, and ethno-education in the Archipelago of San Andrés, Providencia, and Santa Catalina (Colombia) and the broader Amazonian region (Colombia, Venezuela, and Brazil). He is an associate professor of Anthropology at the University of Delaware (Newark, Delaware). He has conducted postdoctoral research at the University of Campinas (Unicamp, Brazil), University of São Paulo (USP, Brazil), and University of Delaware (United States). In addition, he has taught courses on democracy and citizenship at the University of Los Llanos (Villavicencio, Colombia). He has published several book chapters and articles in edited books and professional peer-reviewed journals in English, Spanish, and Portuguese.
According to some of your texts, cities are “existential territories” where subjectivities and heterotopias proliferate in micro-politics, and those [heterotopias] can be understood as a challenge to the ordinary spaces of cities, giving them utopian dimensions (MEJÍA, 2012). Could you explain in detail your view on urban space and cities as “existential territories”, considering confinement as a sanitary order amidst the new Coronavirus pandemic? How could we think about the micropolitics in/of cities pervaded by a virus?
I start by noting that, in 1992, the French psychotherapist Félix Guattari argued that cities had become immense machines – ‘mega machines according to the U.S. historian Lewis Mumford –, producers of individual and collective subjectivities through collective mechanisms, such as education, health, social control, culture, and mass media. Guattari stated that it was impossible to separate the city’s material and communication and service infrastructure from functions considered existential (Guattari 1992: 104). He also proposed that human beings are primordially deterritorialized and called for the restoration of the subjective city. In other words, humans’ original existential territories – the body, the domestic space, the clan, the cult, and certainly, the city – are no longer disposed as an immutable land; they are latched to a world of precarious representations in perpetual movement (Guattari 1992: 95).
Undoubtedly, the city exists in many forms. On the one hand, it is a socially constructed material reality, which we inhabit and establish a sensorial relationship. On the other hand, the city is also an imaginary representation, a symbolic and discursive construction, a product of our imagination and, especially, of language. Nonetheless, we inhabit a city, and a city inhabits us. We build cities, and the cities build us. But the city is not restricted to houses, buildings, plazas, churches, bars, businesses… It is also made of imaginaries, legends, neighborhoods of abstraction, intangible streets, corners of subjectivity. Every city is plural. It contains many other cities in it. It contains infinite unfoldings of the same space, sometimes dispersed, sometimes in communication. Like everything human, a city is, more than anything, a reinvention.
Living in a city implies, simultaneously, localizing oneself in a place that is part of a larger scheme of things: a region, a country, a hemisphere, the world. Our daily experience is informed by sensorial and perceptual experiences but also other less tangible experiences, not visible, estranged, but which in some way are part of our lives and our world. In other words, a city is an existential territory.
For the last ten years, my professional concerns have been laid on what Michel Foucault calls biopolitics. This concept refers to the managing of territories and populations in the most general sense. My research has taken me to the two extremes of urban models in today’s world: refugee camps and Brazilian Elitist Closed Condominiums (BECCs) in the state of São Paulo. They are both contemporary heterotopias – that is, real or localized utopias. On the one hand, there are elite gated communities or closed condominiums: “self-confined communities” protected by walls, wire fences, and a forceful security apparatus that prevents any physical manifestation of difference. On the other hand, there are “camps” in their many expressions: refugee camps, detention centers, slums, ghettos. Camps for the stateless people, the undesirable. Refugee camps also represent “confined identities,” and similarly to gated communities, they are characterized by walls, wire fences, and a forceful security apparatus.
Heterotopia is a concept reinvented by Foucault in the 1960s and has at least two characteristics: illusion and compensation. As the US anthropologist Setha Low (2008) noted, gated communities are an example of contemporary heterotopias because people have the illusion of living in eternal thematic vacations of daily life and ordered spaces in contrast with a chaotic city outside the walls. Living in gated communities implies experiencing an illusion and compensation heterotopia while life goes by outside the walls. Two aspects are highlighted in these spaces: the eternal thematic vacations of daily life and the escape from its regular dimension. These aspects transform gated communities into paradises, refuges, safe ports, and sanctuaries for a few, in contrast with possible urban solutions for many (Estrada Mejía and Guerrón Montero 2020).
Micropolitics is one of the key important concepts used in my research, which was first presented in the 1970s by Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari. It derives from the ethnological concept of segmentation used for stateless societies; Deleuze and Guattari applied it to state societies. In practical terms, micropolitics refers to the measure of the coefficient of transversality, that is, how open one is to diversity.
What is our coefficient of transversality in today’s global pandemic? What is the role of fear in the politics of managing territories and populations, especially in terms of the undesirable (such as the infected, the potential super-spreaders, the poor, the migrants, the homeless)? Without denying the need for physical distancing and other basic sanitary measures, how to understand the disciplinary mechanisms of confinement and quarantine in connection with the multiple coercive and punitive measures that facilitate abuse of power and authority?
We are not going through a pandemic that can only be understood and explained through medical, sanitary, or biological perspectives. The truth is that what has happened is an inherently compounded event in the phenomenological and epistemological sense. Therefore, the medical, sanitary, or biological perspectives represent only one vector in a complex system composed of multiple agents. These perspectives do not fully explain what is happening worldwide nor the role of deforestation or ecological disasters in the current crisis.
Miguel Benasayag argues that the disciplinary mechanism of confinement has forced thousands of millions of people to recognize a lack of regularization in the capitalist system. We have ignored that, in complex systems, information is necessary but not sufficient and that decisions cannot be based on simplicity. The unparalleled side of this global pandemic is that, in contrast with other global pandemics, the world suddenly recognized its complexity, both in terms of its materiality and ontological nature. Our relationship with the world and everything that surrounds us has changed. This world, this period, cannot be explained through the duality subject-object anymore, through causes that precede effects, because, in this world of complexities, both can coexist.
My current personal situation might serve as an illustration. Presently, I am in Bogotá, and on January 16, I was diagnosed with COVID 19/22, as I prefer to call this virus. Suddenly, I have had to live the complexity of this pandemic up and close. One of the publicity slogans used by the District Secretary of Health of Bogotá is called DAR in Spanish: Detecto, Aíslo y Reporto (Detect, Isolate, and Report). This acronym clearly expresses the objectives of a government used to manage the undesirable. Undoubtedly, the lockdown is the present health order worldwide, but we cannot forget that it is a privilege of certain social classes and peoples both in the Global South and North. Here, I connect this experience with my research on BECCs: traditionally, the elites have been prone to self-confinement. The present contingency only reveals a lifestyle that has been perpetuated throughout history. I argue this point in my most recent work about Brazil illustrated through the lifestyle of the BECCs (Mejía and Guerrón Montero, 2020).
The 2020 report of the Oxford Committee for Famine Relief (OXFAM) calls the current global pandemic the pandemic of economic, racial, and gender inequality. However, I believe that the virus’s appearance has only intensified a state of affairs that has been consolidating historically. More than two million people have died, and hundreds of millions become poorer every day, while most billionaires and the wealthiest corporations in the world are becoming richer. According to this report, the 1,000 largest fortunes on the planet were able to recover from the losses caused by the pandemic in only nine months, while the poor will have to wait at least a decade to see the light at the end of the tunnel. Let us also not forget that the situation of indigenous peoples and peoples of African descent in the Global South is even more difficult.
The politics of confinement in Colombia, for example, has crossed the threshold of respect toward civility, citizenship, democracy, and liberty. The state has demonstrated its condition of authoritarianism and lack of sovereignty. In my perspective, the Colombian state is currently facing, once again, a fascist drift. Its elites recurrently challenge the 2016 peace accords while social and environmental leaders are massacred weekly, and where femicides occur daily. Its capital, Bogotá, is ruled by a progressive mayor who has established lockdowns, quarantines, and curfews while police abuse, misery, and inequality run rampant. This situation happens in a city confronting domestic migration and the staggering migration of Venezuelans (more than two million by the latest count), forced displacement, and structural institutional and molecular violence.
You emphasize that the anthropologist’s task, or rather of the ethnographer and ethnography, is to experiment, take risks instead of understanding or interpreting (MEJÍA, 2012; 2015). Could you explain this difference? To what extent is this proposal close to Favret-Saada’s (2005) idea of “being affected,” or even to ethnography as experience, present in Marcio Goldman’s proposal in “Tambores dos mortos e tambores dos vivos” (2003)?
When I wrote about this topic, I was interested in highlighting the processual aspect of the ethnographic method and how to present results; that is, elaborating written or audiovisual work. I used parallelisms with writing, poetry, and literature. Experimentation has to do specifically with the notion of “adequate ideas” proposed by the 17th-century Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza, but also with the resignification that Deleuze and Guattari, Suely Rolnik, Janice Caiafa, among others, have proposed. The idea is to conceive the ethnographic encounter in Spinoza’s sense to the concept “encounter” (occursus): with the other, with alterity; that is, being able to affect and be affected, even to self-affect. This, added to the collaborative nature of ethnographic work, generates a written or audiovisual outcome.
In pragmatic, operative terms, I consider the scholarship of Joanne Rappaport (2007) an iconic example of collaborative work. In Latin America and particularly in Colombia, the Investigación Acción Participativa (IAP) or Participatory Action Research (PAR) has been used and refined for decades. I have used this methodology and find it extremely useful. Regarding the ethnographic outcome, I recommend the excellent results attained by Janice Caiafa (2007), who uses the concepts of polyphony and sympathy in very successful ways. Finally, I stress that these works require a powerful exercise of decolonization. As the Bolivian sociologist, Silvia Rivera Cusicanqui, asserts, “the idea is to practice decolonization through the body – and that is not said, it is done” (Barber 2019).
You have worked with “applied anthropology” as a civil servant in Colombian government offices and national and international NGOs. This seems to be quite characteristic of a professional anthropologist in Colombia, whose work differs from this practice in Brazil, where it is mainly an academic profession. Therefore, how would you compare the work of anthropologists in Brazil and Colombia? Based on this and your practical and academic experience, how do you think anthropologists can work in Brazil beyond academia? Do we need to change anthropology training in Brazil?
One of the peculiarities of Latin American anthropology is the transit of anthropologists between academic reflections, university life, and applied institutional projects, particularly in countries such as Mexico, Colombia, and Peru. There has been great fluidity between academic functions and applied anthropology in these countries, even today, despite the consolidation of a strong academic sector distanced from applied anthropology and centered on basic research. However, it is essential to highlight that alterity (“the Other”) in Latin America has been an arena plagued with tensions evidenced in social movements and their effects in the cultural sphere. The revindication of Latin American anthropology towards difference, mediated through a rhetoric of identity, would eventually become what we now call the politics of identity, inundating these young and fragile democracies with cultural concerns (Jimeno 2005). Politics has always been present in anthropological endeavors even though some professionals do not realize it or externalize it as practice.
The case of Brazil is different in some ways because, despite a long history of engagement with politically minoritized populations, anthropological work in Brazil has been somewhat limited to university life. Perhaps one of the most important characteristics of Brazilian anthropology historically has been its consecration to the nation-state building. For decades, being an anthropologist represented an act of citizenship and a pact denoted or connoted, with the project of national construction. This is evidenced in the work of several generations of anthropologists, e.g., Florestan Fernandes, Darcy Ribeiro, Antonio Candido, Roberto DaMatta and Otávio Velho.
Until the mid-1980s, alterity in Brazil meant “indigenous societies.” Between the 1960s and 1980s, Brazilian ethnology focused on the contact between indigenous and non-indigenous peoples and its consequences. On the contrary, anthropologists from other parts of the world who conducted researches in Brazil focused on culture and social organization. Here we find a clear parallel with Colombia. In both countries, in the mid-1960s, anthropologists centered their analysis on the mechanisms of resistance to social change and the asymmetry of power relations between indigenous societies and the so-called national society, focusing on the confrontation of assimilationist policies carried out by the state (Jimeno and Triana 1985; Jimeno 2011). Likewise, the study of inter-ethnic contact became a predominant area of concern for Brazilian ethnologists. From the 1980s on, anthropologists expanded their scope of interest to include other alterities, such as rural societies (quilombolas, caiçaras), as well as research topics that had been the purview of social sciences (particularly in urban areas).
In Brazil, there is a certain negative stereotype surrounding applied anthropology and the work of applied anthropologists. Some consider the work of “anthropologists of NGOs” as less scholarly (Tavares et al. 2010). I believe that these ideas need to be revisited. As noted earlier, Brazilian anthropologists have been fully committed to supporting the lives of marginalized populations through academic and engaged work outside academia. Therefore, educational programs should reflect this reality in their curriculum offerings.
In your Ph.D. dissertation, you investigated Colombian forced travelers in São Paulo and Barcelona (MEJÍA, 2010). Forced travelers, refugees, asylum seekers, and international migration, in general, have been gaining notoriety in social sciences and anthropology, in particular, due to the proliferation of the phenomenon. How do you understand “forced travelers” nowadays? Why has this kind of migration increased? What are the challenges they impose on migrants and, also, the state?
Migratory flows and population movements are as old as humanity. Likewise, the interest in these flows in the social sciences is not recent; by the 1950s, scholars worldwide were interested in these topics. Anthropology witnessed a turning point in the 1980s, when the study of migratory flows took front and center, particularly in the Caribbean and Latin American migrations to the United States, and was known as transnationalism. Today, migration studies, refuge studies, and climate change studies are common worldwide, and new categories have emerged, such as environmental refugees and environmental migrants.
I highlight that refugees are not migrants. The official definition of refugee invites us to imagine being forced to flee our country to escape towards safety. If you were lucky, you would have had time to pack a bag. If not, you simply dropped everything and ran. Refugees are people fleeing conflict or persecution. They are protected by international law, and theoretically, must not be expelled or returned to situations where their life and freedom are at risk. The category of “internally displaced” person (IDP) was created in the 1990s by the UN Refugee Agency to contain the number of asylum seekers to Europe. IDPs have left their place of origin due to violence or internal wars but remain inside their nation’s borders. Since the creation of this category, the number of IDPs has not ceased to grow.
We are now witnessing the highest levels of displacement on record. In 2015, there were 8.6 million new displacements associated with conflict and violence in 28 countries. In 2016, 6.3 million people were forced away from their homes. Among them, there are nearly 21.3 million refugees, over half of whom are under 18 years old. There are also 10 million stateless people who have been denied nationality and access to basic rights, such as education, healthcare, employment, and freedom of movement. Outside the Middle East, the countries with the highest numbers of people fleeing are Ukraine, Nigeria, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Afghanistan, Colombia, and Sudan. These displacements occur because of conflict, geophysical hazards, criminal violence, development projects, and drought and environmental change crises.
Depending on the source reviewed, the number of refugees changes. According to the UN Refugee Agency, Colombia is the second country in the world with IDPs. In Colombia, 6.7 million people are internally displaced, around 13% of the entire population. In Latin America nowadays, the most pressing flow of migrants and refugees comes from Venezuela. In 2019, 4.5 million Venezuelans left their country (IOM) to settle elsewhere.
My objective with my research on refugee and migratory flows was not to justify the institutional existence of a polemic concept: one becomes a refugee because an institution decides to classify him or her as such, after having gone through categories such as clandestine, asylum seeker, internally displaced person, or resettled. My objective was not to validate the numbers created by institutions such as the UN and other international organizations, which have the power to produce inventories, count, recalculate, assign, and rename. I also was not interested in denouncing scandals or ‘revealing’ hidden intentions of the humanitarian government. I aimed to question these categories and numbers through ethnographic work.
Barber, Kattalin. “Silvia Rivera Cusicanqui: ‘Tenemos que producir pensamiento a partir de lo cotidiano.’” El Salto, February 17, 2019. https://www.elsaltodiario.com/feminismo-poscolonial/silvia-rivera-cusicanqui-producir-pensamiento-cotidiano-pensamiento-indigena.
Caiafa, Janice. Aventura das cidades: ensaios e etnografias. Rio de Janeiro: Editora FGV, 2007.
Favret-Saada, Jeanne. “Ser Afetado.” Cadernos de Campo, no. 13 (2005): 155–61.
Goldman, Marcio. “Os Tambores Dos Mortos e Os Tambores Dos Vivos. Etnografia, Antropologia e Política Em Ilhéus, Bahia.” Revista de Antropologia 46, no. 2 (2003): 445–76. https://www.scielo.br/j/ra/a/ZbLf7Zpb9rXF7bqdnd56GPd/?lang=pt&format=pdf.
Guattari, Felix. “Pratiques écosophiques et restauration de la Cité subjective. ” Chimères. Revue des schizoanalyses 17, (1992): 95-115.
Jimeno, Myriam, and Adolfo Triana. Estado y Minorías Étnicas en Colombia. Bogotá: FUNCOL, 1985.
Jimeno, Myriam, and David Arias. “La Enseñanza de Antropólogos en Colombia: Una Antropología Ciudadana.” Alteridades 21, no. 41 (2011): 27-44.
Jimeno, Myriam. “La Vocación Crítica de la Antropología en Latinoamérica.” Antípoda. Revista de Antropología y Arqueología 1, (2005): 43-65.
Low, Setha. “The gated community as heterotopia.” In Heterotopia and the City: Public Space in a Postcivil Society, edited by Michiel Dehaene and Lieven De Cauter. Routledge: London & New York, 2008. 153-164.
MEJÍA, Rafael Estrada. “Etnografia, cartografia e devir: potencialidades da escritura nas pesquisas antropológicas contemporâneas.” In: KOFES, Suely; MANICA, Daniela. (Org.). Vida & Grafias. Narrativas antropológicas entre biografia e etnografia. 1ed. Rio de Janeiro: Lamparina editora, 2015, v. 1, pp. 90-110.
MEJÍA, Rafael Estrada. “Micropolíticas, cartografias e heterotopias urbanas: Derivas teórico-metodológicas sobre a aventura das (nas) cidades contemporâneas.” Revista Espaço Acadêmico (UEM) 11, (2021): 01-09.
Mejía, Rafael Estrada; Carla Guerrón Montero. “Home, Sweet Home: Negotiating Intimacy in Brazilian Elitist Closed Condominiums.” Brasiliana: Journal for Brazilian Studies, v. 9(1), pp. 374-392
MEJÍA, Rafael Ignacio Estrada. DESTERRITORIALIZAÇÃO E RESISTÊNCIAS. Viajantes forçados colombianos em São Paulo e Barcelona. [tese] Campinas: Programa de Pós-Graduação em Antropologia Social, Unicamp, 2010.
Rappaport,Joanne. Más allá de la escritura: la epistemología de la etnografía en colaboración. Revista Colombiana de Antropología 43, (2007): 197–229.
* I express my deep gratitude to Professor Carla Guerrón Montero, my colleague from the Department of Anthropology at the University of Delaware, for discussing, reviewing, and translating my answers.
** Ph.D. candidate in Social Anthropology (PPGAS/UFRGS). She holds a human rights master’s degree and a law bachelor’s degree from the Federal University of Pará (UFPA). She was a professor at the Federal University of Amapá (UNIFAP) between 2015-2017. Currently, her research focuses are anthropology of law; gender violence, sexual and reproductive rights; traditional peoples; anthropology of health. She is a member of the Núcleo of Anthropology and Citizenship (Naci) at UFRGS. E-mail: email@example.com.
*** Answers translated by Carla Guerrón Montero. Questions translated, reviewed, and edited by Anna Paula Bennech and Giovanna Imbernon.