Maria Atuesta: La Hoja, Placing Displacement in Bogota

Maria Atuesta is a Ph.D. candidate in Urban Planning at Harvard University. She was the 2018-2019 Jennings Randolph-Minerva Peace Scholar. She can be reached at matuesta@g.harvard.edu.

La Hoja, Placing Displacement in Bogota

By María Atuesta

More than 300,000 internally displaced peoples from Colombia’s longstanding armed conflict live in Bogota in different kinds of shelter. Some live with friends or family members, or pay rent, in small apartments around the city. Others live in informal settlements in the sloping hillsides towards the southwest outskirts of Bogota, and others live in low-income housing located for the most part in the city’s urban peripheries.

Among the many sheltering options, there is one housing complex that is unique: Plaza de la Hoja (La Hoja). La Hoja, is the sole public housing project that has brought 457 displaced families to live in a central location in the city, instead of relegating them to the urban peripheries. With the idea that place and location are defining elements of social life, I visited La Hoja just two years after its inauguration in 2015, to examine whether and how residential proximity is promoting social interaction between the displaced and the surrounding communities, and to reflect about the challenges and benefits of relocating displaced households from the urban peripheries to middle income neighborhoods in the inner city.

The literatures in urban sociology and neighborhood effects have identified weak relations between residential proximity and the social integration of populations across racial, ethnic and socioeconomic boundaries. These findings do not suggest that formulating a policy of social integration based on conditions of residential proximity and housing location is a waste of time. Rather, they suggest that devising such a policy requires consideration of the diverse dimensions in which residential contexts shape individual and social life, as well as consideration of how different people are differently influenced by neighborhood contexts. As the maxim goes, the devil is here in the details. Drawing on these findings to reflect about the case of La Hoja, I deemed important to start with the question of what it means to be displaced in Bogota: how the displaced are perceived by others, and how do these perceptions shape social interactions.

One way to identify how displaced peoples are generally perceived is by examining neighbors’ opposition to the implementation of La Hoja. Opposition to the construction of low-income housing by those living in nearby areas is not unique to this case, and has been studied in many instances, across a variety of neighborhoods and cities in the world, as a NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) syndrome. But beyond the study of discrimination by race, ethnicity and socioeconomic status, which characterizes the NIMBY literature, the case of La Hoja brings an additional layer of complexity, which is: discrimination by the condition of displacement as a result of Colombia’s internal armed conflict.

In my interviews of residents of nearby neighborhoods, many mentioned that people became very anxious when the government announced the project of La Hoja. Displaced populations were generally assumed to be former guerrillas or paramilitaries – even though in principle displaced peoples in Colombia are victims of either of these groups – or individuals who have experienced violence, thus were assumed to be more prone to violent actions. With this idea of who the displaced peoples were, residents of the different surrounding neighborhoods opposed the project, and residents of La Hoja did not receive a warm welcome.

View of La Hoja from neighborhood Cundinamarca

Cundinamarca is the name of the middle-income neighborhood right across the street of La Hoja. Its eclectic and colorful landscape of low-rise urbanism, contrasts with La Hoja’s high rise grayish towers, which stand out conspicuously, separating its stigmatized resident population from the rest. Hence, despite residential proximity, social activities remained separated after displaced persons moved in to La Hoja. This separation was enforced by both the particularities of the building design and Cundinamarca residents’ own rules and aversions to the newcomers. For example, a resident of La Hoja described to me an uncomfortable interaction she had with a resident of Cundinamarca:

She [the neighbor] asked me: ‘Do you live in those housing complexes? Are you not scared?
And with that beautiful girl [the La Hoja resident’s daughter], are you not scared?’ She said:
‘people consume [drugs] there [in La Hoja].’ I invited her to come [to her house] and she
said that I would have to join her all the way because: ‘I might get robbed in the elevator.’
They discriminate against us for living here” (interview by author).

La Hoja residents were also separated in some of the activities that took place in the neighborhood. For example, they were separated during liturgical rituals at the local church: they were told to sit at the back and leave the empty front seats to the residents of Cundinamarca. Some were not allowed inside the neighborhood’s internet café. Others identified that owners and managers of local grocery stores raised prices, just for them.

The church of Cundinamarca neighborhood stands right around the corner of La Hoja

These narrations of displaced residents’ perceptions and experiences of discrimination against them were interlocked with other memories of discrimination, experienced over the years as a result of the stigma of displacement. As they talked about discrimination in Cundinamarca, they also recalled the different times they were refused a job because they mentioned they were displaced; a woman remembered when she was not allowed to rent a room because the owner figured out her condition of displacement; and many were upset by the times they were compared with homeless and treated with pity and disdain, or by the times they were called guerrillera or guerrillero. After recalling her own experiences facing discrimination, one woman concluded: people in Bogota should “learn what a displaced person is.”

Learning of displacement in Bogota is, I would argue, an unfinished business. In a city that has been deeply shaped by displacement – it has been the main absolute receptor of displaced populations during the longstanding armed conflict – the issue continues to occupy a marginal place in city politics and citizens’ mindsets, probably justifying why displaced families are expected to occupy, not an apartment in the inner city, but a shelter in the urban peripheries or neighboring municipalities. When I asked a resident in a surrounding neighborhood of La Hoja whether allowing displaced peoples to live in the inner city would help them establish new social relations, especially with people who were better connected and could introduce them to new working opportunities, she answered: “no, I think proximity does not give them anything. We live in a space were that does not occur. We have not taught our children to share. I don’t think it is possible to join cultures and learn from each other. At least the local administration has not made any efforts to put us in contact. Our daily life is separate.”

Despite the various descriptions of unpleasant encounters between La Hoja and Cundinamarca neighbors, some of these daily encounters have transformed perceptions about the displaced. I became aware of this transformation when I interviewed residents from other surrounding neighborhoods that did not share daily encounters with La Hoja residents, because their neighborhoods were separated by two large avenues with no bridges to facilitate contact (see neighborhoods Usatama and Gran America in Image below). I realized that Cundinamarca neighbors’ descriptions of displaced populations were more complex and richer. These descriptions were filled with details and anecdotes, as opposed to the vague generalizations made by the residents of the other neighborhoods. Cundinamarca neighbors mentioned they were surprised to find out that the population in La Hoja was not as poor as they thought and “some of them were decent people.” Similarly, some of La Hoja residents mentioned that even though the relation with Cundinamarca was difficult at the beginning, things had changed for good over the last year: “Once I overheard people who work at the tractor repair stores saying: ‘we were so wrong, there are entrepreneurs there [in La Hoja], look at that lady, so neat.’ They [Cundinamarca neighbors] realized here people have good cars. There are recyclers as well, but can you see my hand? Does any finger look the same? No, there are differences everywhere and we have to learn to live with that.” Other Cundinamarca neighbors also acknowledged positive transformations with the arrival of La Hoja residents such as a better environment for local businesses and livelier Sunday gatherings at the local church.

Unlike neighborhood Cundinamarca, neighborhoods Gran America and Usatama are separated from La Hoja by two large highways

These positive transformations do not necessarily mean the dissolution of conflict and exclusion. It does not mean either effective integration of displaced populations into the neighborhood. In fact, I identified that changing perceptions are also entangled with new forms of differentiation that might reproduce practices of exclusion. Nevertheless, the case of La Hoja shows that ideal types of the displaced as poor and inextricably linked to violence are not helping to create a better understand of who they are. These ideal types justify their relegation to the urban peripheries, with no place in the city. I would argue that learning of displacement in Bogota requires us to rethink the ways in which they inhabit the city: from the margins to the center, not just as victims begging for money, but as resilient communities with organizing capacity, with their own aspiration of social mobility, and long term goals of becoming just another citizen of Bogota.

Living room of a housing unit in La Hoja

Check out the 2017 displacements issue here.

Check out the 2003 Colombia issue here.