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Slum Mentality: A Look at the Complexities of Housing in Venezuela

Latin American architecture, minus the ruins of fallen indigenous civilizations or the colonial churches in hill top villages, is in its urban expression a collection of high rise buildings and sprawling slums. Caracas is no exception and to any eye is a sore indication of entrenched discrepancy in wealth and opportunity. Nonetheless, the slums, or barrios, have an identity far more complex and far less self-pitying than the impression non-slum dwellers attach to tin-roof houses. The people of the slums have come to define a way of life and a culture that doesn't necessarily see them jumping at the opportunity to leave it all behind to pay rent and maintenance for a city-centre condominium, whilst their communities, generations-old, have built their own society and set of laws. Until a government truly decides to incorporate the slums into its cities' collective and make available the same services as offered to any other area, then any moral authority it may wish to impose is made immediately redundant by a different set of local rules and values that have been devised to overcome century-old state neglect and discrimination.

In December 2010, the Caribbean area of Latin America, which incorporates much of Venezuela and Colombia, fell victim to inordinate levels of rainfall with hundreds of thousands losing their homes. As a result, the past two years have seen various hotels, car parks and abandoned shopping malls used as refuges for the homeless, who in their overwhelming majority were living in the most precarious conditions. The Venezuelan government thus launched what it has called Gran Mision Vivienda , The Great Housing Mission, and with the help of both national and international construction companies, is building new apartments blocks in and around the capital, as well as across the country. To date, roughly 200,000 Venezuelans have been moved to their new housing.

Although the need to create communities and healthy environments with the new buildings has been taken into consideration, there have invariably cropped up cases wherein previous slum-dwellers feel disorientated and ill at ease with their new urban environment. The most striking examples have been with what social workers call the "hybrid buildings", a meeting of recently arrived slum dwellers with already present apartment dwellers. In general the main problem has been prejudice towards the new arrivals who in mainstream society are all too often profiled as poor, black and thus dangerous. Second to that and interminably linked to it, is the culture shock. Indeed, the newly coined expression "He's got the slum in his head" points exactly to this conflict in living practices. For example, those who bring their motorcycles into the lifts or who refuse to pay for electricity and instead steal from the street cables as they once did in the slums because the town council never strived to guarantee electricity in their houses, run up strongly against those who have always lived in apartment block communities and know the rules of such spaces. Furthermore, whilst earnings for most slum dwellers were generated from and within the same neighbourhood, such as selling homemade ice creams and cakes from kitchen windows, seamstressing or random DIY jobs, living in an apartment block on the 11th floor on a main avenue does not provide the same or appropriate clientele. What then is known and has always been used to survive and make money suddenly no longer applies, whereas the next door neighbour who works in an office is in line with the local economic system in place and can survive perfectly well.

Overcoming these difficulties is of course a case of adaptation from both parts, but it is a process that can take time. Until then, whilst slum-dwellers continue to exercise "slum mentality", the more affluent sections of society continue to huff and puff at the poors' inability to "cope".

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