Corona Governance in Urban Margins


“They took away our fear”: Popular power against COVID-19 and the Chilean state

A group of women cooking in the popular dining room in Villa Francia, Santiago. (Frente Fotográfico)


Martín de Gregorio (Utrecht University)


On Friday October 18, 2019, the government closed the entire network of Santiago metro stations. Secondary school students had been protesting for a week against the increase in subway fares, jumping the turnstiles and calling to evade payment. The movement was gaining more and more support from the population. The government of Sebastián Piñera decided to repress, and after the closure of the stations, forced all the passengers of the city to walk home, in what was interpreted as a sign of humiliation for el pueblo (the people). But they did not return home. The crowd that had gathered on the city streets began to protest, and with the protest came rage. As never before in the history of Chile, the people revolted against the government in this way. The city was filled with barricades, and the subway stations, large company buildings, pharmacies, supermarkets, pension offices, and automobile companies were burning. The fire in Santiago spread throughout the entire country, and at midnight Piñera declared on the national broadcast that ‘we are at war against a powerful enemy’, decreeing a state of emergency and a curfew. It was the first curfew in more than 30 years, and that night police and the military were guarding the streets. In just a few hours, tear gas bombs were replaced by rifles, and images of people detained, beaten, and shot were going viral on Twitter. The specter of the dictatorship haunted. This was the beginning of the Chilean Social Revolt, the most massive social movement in its history that began the struggle ‘until dignity becomes the norm’, a struggle of el pueblo without arms against the government, the powerful, the state, and neoliberalism.


Despite the strength of the social movement, the COVID-19 pandemic stopped the protests. The increase in unemployment and hunger have once again evidenced the absence of the state in providing care to the population. With the spread of the virus, class contradictions were accentuated. On May 15, 2020, the government decreed a total quarantine in Santiago, forcing people to stay in their homes. Hunger, however, forced the ones on the (urban) margins to go out in order to feed their families, and the overcrowding prevented them from staying home (according to the Ministry of Social Development, in 2019, 8.1% of the Metropolitan Region of Santiago presents some type of overcrowding that varies from medium to critical; in the poorest quintile, this figure reaches 16.8%), revealing that going into quarantine is part of the structural privilege (Srikantia 2016). The phrase ‘los ricos ponen el virus, los pobres ponen los muertos’ (the rich bring the virus, the poor bring the dead) that could be read on city walls and on social media was prophetic and confirmed once again that in Chile there are two Chiles. Nonetheless, COVID-19 and the regulations from the government could not stop people to reorganize in order to survive nor stop the fighting spirit forged during the social revolt. As one of the messages of the demonstration that would remain engraved in the collective imagery said: ‘they took so much from us that they even took away our fear’.


Resisting the state and COVID-19 in the urban margins of Santiago

Villa Francia is a neighborhood located in the commune of Estación Central in Santiago. A población (excluded territory, marked by poverty and drug trafficking) known for being combative, as it resisted the repression of Pinochet’s dictatorship. It is the place where the “Day of the young combatant” originates, during which popular power is celebrated every year through protests and confrontations against the police. On this day in 1985, the Vergara Toledo brothers, Rafael and Eduardo, were murdered by the police. They were young pobladores (inhabitants of the urban margins), militants of the Revolutionary Left Movement (MIR, for its acronym in Spanish) and the Liberating Christ Community. Both were shot after being cornered by a patrol when they were attempting to escape after a failed recuperación popular (popular recovery), a practice that refers to the reappropriation of goods necessary for survival using force to subsequently socialize them among the poor.


The context of the COVID-19 pandemic made it necessary to rethink the territorial political organization of la población to face hunger as a result of the increase in unemployment, for which a group of neighbors of Villa Francia organized the Comedor Popular Luisa Toledo (Popular Dining Room Luisa Toledo). The name comes from Luisa Toledo, the mother of the Vergara Toledo brothers. She is represented as a strong woman and persevering mother in the fight for justice for her children murdered by the police. The dining room is located in a shed that is occupied illegally, known as the multiuso (multipurpose) because it is a space adaptable to the needs of la población (before the dining room it was used as a popular school). Inside, a mural of Pablo Vergara Toledo’s face, the older brother of the family, who was found dead with his girlfriend, Araceli Romo, after having returned from exile to Chile in 1988, covers the entire back wall. Tables are spread out along the length of the space, and a kitchen was adapted in which a group of volunteer neighbors cook lunches for all the people who need it. Around 600 portions of rice, pasta, chicken, fish, salad, legumes, and fruit are served daily.


From Monday to Friday, Tamara, one of the compañeras (female comrades), who is a woman and mother in her 50s, to the dining room to cook. Wearing her mask, she goes through the sanitizing tunnel that the neighbors installed at the entrance of the multiuso and puts on her apron and hairnet. She meets with the rest of the volunteers and they begin to cook food for the hundreds of people who come to get their lunch, while the people united will never be defeated sounds through the music speaker. On behalf of el pueblo (the people), volunteers work to establish an autonomous community capable of meeting the material needs of people on the sidelines of the state and the market. These women and men who work in the popular dining room recognize themselves as pobladores, that is, inhabitants of a historically excluded territory with a working-class consciousness. In one of the videos uploaded in the popular dining room’s Facebook webpage, Tamara remarks that they do not accept government resources, “because we have a political project and we do not have to ask anyone for permission to be in solidarity or to rebel”. Accepting the (precarious) government aid would be accepting the contribution of those who have impoverished this country, oppress el pueblo, and protect the rich. The ‘aid’ of large private companies such as Burger King or Luchetti (pasta company), who offered hamburgers and pasta in exchange for upholstering the entrance to the dining room with brand advertising, have also been rejected. The popular dining room works in a self-managed way: all the resources are obtained among the neighbors, the various territorial organizations of la población and anonymous contributions. After having gone to get lunch for herself and her son, one of the neighbors comments that she goes to the popular dining room every day, otherwise they would be starving. “Let’s be clear, this is something that they (the volunteers) do on their own, this is a contribution for all the neighbors. I’m grateful for them, God will bless them for their great heart. The shitty government, Piñera motherfucker, they are not here, and the mayor only came here to fan himself, to make fun of us”.


Despite the absence of the state in guaranteeing social rights and welfare, on the other hand there is a state presence  in la población through its repressive apparatus (Althusser 2006). Police raids and surveillance in Villa Francia are part of the everyday life of la población as it has been historically conceived as a place of resistance and combativeness against the state. On one occasion one of the volunteers recorded a video in which the police arrested an underage cook when they were returning to their homes during the curfew, while on social media images of the police throwing food out of common pots in other poblaciones went viral. In response to the state repression, one of the compañeras stated that ‘we are not afraid of the cops nor the virus, and the fight continues.’  After these words, it is clear that since the social revolt, fear has been taken away.


The case of the Popular Dining Room Luisa Toledo constitutes an experience of collective survival, of the fight against hunger that derives from unemployment in times of the pandemic. It also enlightens a case of resistance in the urban margins of Santiago against the neoliberal politically organized subjection that seeks to “ensure cohesion of an unequal and antagonistic society through the stabilization of inequalities and the suppression of alternative political projects” (Bordisky 2016, 123). In Chile, the fight against the pandemic is also a fight against the state. It reminds us that ‘people take care of the people’ through everyday life resistance practices that make it possible to imagine and build self-managed political projects. It also shows us how the marginalized and excluded reconfigure structures of domination, and affirm and celebrate popular power (Auyero and Berti 2014).