Interview
"Working 12 hours a day or having three jobs is often not enough to survive in the United States"
Argentine sociologist Javier Auyero has lived in Texas for almost 15 years. In an exclusive dialogue with LPO, he talks about life and work in Austin, the city that is emerging as the second Silicon Valley.

Javier Auyero dedicated his entire career to studying the relationship between the urban poor and the American State. He is a sociologist born in the south of Buenos Aires and has a degree from the University of Buenos Aires. He moved to the United States three decades ago, but returns to his country permanently. He is the author of recognized books such as La política de los pobres (Poor People's Politics), La violencia en los márgenes (Violence at the Urban Margins) and Entre narcos y policías (Between Drug Dealers and Police). Nowadays he is working on a future study on survival strategies in the Quilmes district, in the south of the Buenos Aires province. With a doctorate in sociology from The New School for Social Research in New York, Auyero has lived in Austin, Texas for almost 15 years and direct the Urban Ethnography Lab at the University of Texas. As part of that work, a few years ago he published Invisibles in Austin, a series of chronicles by doctoral students about stories of life on the margins of what Auyero considers the second Silicon Valley.

Why did you decide to move to Texas in 2008?

To be completely honest, I did not even know where Austin was on a map. My wife and I were working at the State University of New York -she as a literature professor and writer and I as a sociology professor- and our life in the suburbs of New York was not very pleasant. That is why we were looking to move to another city, we did not want more American suburban life, we both have lived in cities and we did not get used to it. It was not a choice to say I am going to the University of Texas because there is an excellent department of Sociology or, in the case of my wife, a very good department of Spanish and Portuguese. It was more a matter of opportunities: they are recruiting us to go, let's go and see what it is all about. We liked Austin at lot at first and so we moved. But I would be lying if I say that it was a kind of research that brought us here, but rather a vibrant city and a very good university with an excellent center for Latin American studies. That combination was difficult to find elsewhere.

Your work focuses on the relationship between the State and the poor, the violence, the inequality, the segregation. What did you find when you began to work on these issues in a place that was unknown to you?

The book we started working on, and was published with the title Invisibles in Austin, came out of a seminar I was teaching on poverty and marginality in the Americas. I have always been concerned that when poverty is studied in Latin America, there is not much dialogue with the literature that exists in the United States, and that the literature that exists in the United States on marginality, segregation and violence totally ignores the very good literature that exists on the same topics in Latin America. It began as a graduate studies seminar to put these literatures into conversation, to see, for example, how Latin America talked about informality and how the same thing was beginning to be talked about in the United States, to see how urban violence was addressed, in both contexts without any dialogue and despite being part of the same region. It was kind of motivated by PhD students who, like every good student, critique all the literature out there. Until one day they caught me off guard and I told them: "If you criticize so much, why don't you try to do it better." We were reading The misery of the World by Pierre Bourdieu. So I invited them to do a project on the fringes, the margins of Austin. At that time we were all foreigners, because the graduates also came from other parts of the United States.

What was the objective?

The challenge was to see what was happening on the fringes of this rapidly growing city, with extreme levels of inequality, with a declining African-American population, and with very high levels of urban segregation. But at the same time, we did not want it to be just a sociological work and we took tools from narrative journalism because it was not only about understanding how these people live on the margins, but also how to write about them well. In that, I was favored by the fact that the graduate students knew how to write very well. That was the challenge, to see how marginalization, invisibility, and exclusion are experienced in a city that is a kind of playground, a place for young, white, and rich people to play because that is Austin, one of the so-called new cities in the United States. It is not Chicago, it is not New York, it is not Detroit. If you land here, what you see is a thriving city.

The challenges was to see how marginalization, invisibility, and exclusion are experienced in a city that is a kind of playground, a place for young, white, and rich people to play because that is Austin, one of the so-called new cities in the United States.

How is this invisible city behind the thriving city?

It is a city that has quintupled its population in a decade and a half, a city that has lost its Afro-American population, it has been losing and expelling it for a long time. The African-American population in Austin is between 6 and 7% -it is less than the national average, which is 13%- and Austin is a city that increasingly expels the population with fewer resources. Latinos and African-Americans are overrepresented in that population with fewer resources. So it costs, poverty and marginality here are rather made invisible by the same structural processes that make the city grow. It is a city in which the technology industry has moved very strongly, it is a kind of second Silicon Valley that in its nature, and we see it in Los Angeles and New York, the tech labor structure itself is very polarized: it generates many very good positions with very high skills and very high salaries, and many very low positions. It is a very different structure from the manufacturing that fueled the growth of America's middle class. It is a more polarized structure, a very fragmented job market and that is very clear in Austin. There is a housing crisis that lower middle and middle income people are finding it increasingly difficult to cope with. It becomes impossible. In fact, we, university professors, began to see it.

"Working 12 hours a day or having three jobs is often not enough to survive in the United States"

What important change has occurred in the last decades in the relationship between the State and the urban poor?

It is a complex issue. If you take a look at the classic works that studied urban poverty in the United States in the 1980s, what was seen was a total abandonment. There was no State in these territories of relegation, there wasn't, it did not exist. That was also spoken in Latin America, the State was absent in those areas. Today all those areas of poverty are hyper-controlled, hyper-surveilled. There is a hyper-presence of a punitive State: in terms of the right and left hand of the State, there is much more right hand. In the United States, we can speak of a shift from abandonment to hyper-presence. Before, nobody took care of poor youth. Today the State takes care of them a lot, the police too. The chances of a young African-American being in contact with the penal system are seven or eight times higher than those of an equally poor white young man.

"Being Latino and being a Democrat in Texas does not mean being progressive"

What is the relationship between Latinos and Afro-Americans in the labor world? Are there levels of association or dispute?

We are in Texas, which was a Mexican territory, that means that Latinos were always here. There is some evidence in studies of large cities where there is what is known as ethnic succession and later arriving ethnic groups compete with and displace more established groups. In some sectors of the labor market there may be competition but, more than competition, there is the advantage of the employer of searching those who are least unionized, or those who have a more precarious legal situation. To work in a pig's shop I can hire illegals who won't bother me. It is the strategy of employers to see how I get more profit, and faster. But I think even that is not seen so much. Here the unemployment rates are very low, and as in many other areas of the United States, there is hyper-employment and hyper-exploitation. Two or three jobs are not enough for some people, due to food expenses, but above all housing expenses, to live a comfortable life despite working almost 12 hours a day piecework. They have a job, miserable jobs, and it is not enough for them to survive.

Austin is a kind of second Silicon Valley, and the labor structure of the industry itself is very polarized: it generates many and very good jobs with very high skills and very high salaries, and many very low jobs.

Having three jobs and not making ends meet, it was thought that this type of reality was rather reserved for Latin America.

There are no protections, there is no protection from anything, they have flexible hours, they don't have vacations, they don't have health insurance. Here an accident or an illness leaves you without a job, and if you don't have a job in a month, you loose your home. We described it quite well in Invisibles in Austin: the case of a lady who was a cook and was doing very well. One day she was walking down the street and was hit by a car: she had no health insurance and over the course of six months, she ended up as homeless, because the protections that the labor market provides in advanced societies do not exist here and even less do they exist on the part of the State. So they are unprotected by the market and unprotected by the State.

No network at all.

When it comes to precariousness, never better graphed than the case of the lowest sectors of the social scale here in the United States who, from one day to the next, they can literally lose everything, also with a very high level of debt.

"Fuimos la democracia más antigua y hoy somos la más esclerótica"

Who are the leading roles of social activism in the United States?

My impression is that there are alliances between old generations and new workers, a combination of different kinds of activism. There is Black Lives Matter, student activism, both in the California university system and in universities in New York, professors and graduate students are on strike, there are unionization attempts in large companies and there is also a very strong environmental activism. We had the opportunity to study it in North Texas, in relation to fracking, and we saw interesting alliances, radical environmentalists with conservative sectors that did not want fracking to occur in the back of their houses. There is a whole activism around reducing the prison population, it is an unexpected alliance between fiscal conservatives and liberals who -for different reasons- are against the explosion of the prison population. In fact, for the first time in many years, this prison population in the United States has dropped, unexpectedly.

It is surprising to see environmental activism questioning the oil companies in Houston, the oil capital of the world.

I had the privilege of interviewing environmental activists in Texas and they define it as activating in the belly of the beast. In many cases they are defeated, however, if you think of the young generations, the issue of the environment is on everyone's mind. Today, even for a conservative Republican kid it is not the same to grab a plastic bottle and throw it away. In terms of training environmental awareness, there have been very significant advances.

40 years ago, there was no State in these territories of relegation. Today all those areas of poverty are hyper-controlled, hyper-surveilled. There is a hyper-presence of the State in its punitive face. We can speak of a turn from abandonment to hyper-presence.

Texas is a monster state and we see a stark contrast between big cities like Houston, Austin, San Antonio and Dallas and rural communities. Can this activism expand or is this kind of geographical breakdown going to continue?

It is hard to predict. What you say is true, there is a very strong contrast between those big cities and what happens in rural, deep America, in small towns. When I hear about the polarization of the political field in Argentina, I wonder whether you know that is happening here, because there are very different versions of reality, very different narratives of what is happening today. I am not talking about political positions, whether I am in favor of or against abortion, or whether or not the State has to intervene in the economy. That division between rural America and big cities at the same time is being heavily fueled by the ruling wing of the Republican Party. They are people who do not believe in the democratic game.

"Working 12 hours a day or having three jobs is often not enough to survive in the United States"

How would you define Texas Republicans?

They are the extreme wing of the Republicanism. We are talking about people who defend the right to be armed. I am speaking now from the University of Texas Campus, a place where I can walk around with a gun. It is the belief that the State is not what it should be, the actor that monopolizes the use of force. Every time there have been very tragic massacres in schools, the Republicans react by saying that the problem is the doors in the schools, that it is mental health. The entire Republican Party has moved too far to the right, and they say the Democratic Party has moved too far to the left, which I do not think is true. Democrats remain moderates. But this wing starts the movement with the Tea Party, and today we witness the radicalization of the Tea Party.

The Republicans take refuge in those rural communities, which are the ones who do not want controls.

The idea of defending a right or the Second Amendment becomes an argument. But the Second Amendment is written over 200 years ago and they talked about rifles that where like that and now you can use an AR 15 machine gun.

Here, an accident or an illness can leave you without work or home. In Invisibles in Austin, we talk about the case of a cook who was doing very well and was hit by a car: she did not have health insurance and ended up homeless.

What are you working on now from Austin?

We are writing a book that reproduces the Invisibles in Austin model, but for the entire region: we use a personal story to illuminate a social problem. Now we are doing the same all over America. I believe in the model of public social sciences and for there to be public social sciences one of the requirements is that the social sciences have to be understandable. In order for a journalist to be read, she or he has to write well. It is not giving information that no other person has. Sociologists are kind of slow to understand that and they write very badly, there and here. The interesting thing is that the few examples of sociologists who write well end up being very successful. The one who won the Pulitzer Prize a few years ago, Matthew Desmond, wrote a book on evictions that is very good sociological work, and at the same time, it is very well written. He uses the tools of narrative journalism to tell a sociological story. That is what we tried to do in Invisible Austin, which must have been my best-selling book by far. I didn't write it, my students wrote it. I was the conductor, but they use it in high schools and universities because kids can read it and we must think that to be read is part of the functions of social studies.

In the book Entre narcos y policías you work a lot on the idea of an ambivalent State, which controls illegality but at the same time stimulates it, promotes it or is associated with crime. Does politics validate it?

The original title of the book in English is precisely The Ambivalent State. A state that on the one hand persecutes and says that we are in a war against drugs, and on the other hand colludes, participates and intervenes in that market. We had access to 80 judicial cases where this clandestine relationship is very clear: the policeman is a cousin of the drug trafficker, they know each other, they live in the same neighborhood and collaborate. I think that this aspect is a structural characteristic of how the State works now, regardless of who governs. Sectors of the State collaborate clandestinely with whom the State defines what a criminal enterprise does. I don't think there is anything criminal per se, but the State says that this is a crime and State agents participate in this crime. We accessed that world of relationships between small drug traffickers and security agents from court cases. The State itself allows us to see a part of that world, but everything indicates that this structure is supported by other, more vertical relationships in which sectors of politics participate in. We could not access that world, that is in the shadow of the State. I have no evidence, other than anecdotal, that much of the money generated there finances political campaigns. Perhaps the best strategy to fight this type of clandestine relationship is a serious political reform. It has nothing to do with police strategies. The investigation shows that if this structure is supported by politics, so that it can be dismantled, if you continue to persecute police officers who collaborate with drug dealers, you will spend your whole life doing that.

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