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ARQ (Santiago)

versión On-line ISSN 0717-6996

ARQ (Santiago)  no.106 Santiago dic. 2020 


Us/Them: Geographical Fantasies, Frictions and Disappointments

Ricardo Greene1 

Lucía de Abrantes2 

Luciana Trimano3 

1 Centro Producción del Espacio, Universidad de Las Américas, Santiago, Chile.

2 Instituto de Altos Estudios Sociales (IDAES), Universidad Nacional de San Martín (UNSAM), Argentina.

3 Investigadora de CONICET en el Centro de Investigaciones y Estudios sobre Cultura y Sociedad (CIECS-CONICET y UNC), Argentina.


If coexistence were easy, it just wouldn’t be an issue. Because, beyond idealizations, the practice of encountering difference is complex, and its folds are rough. Based on examples of people who are moving to live “far from the city,” this article depicts the clash between metropolitan and rural culture, proposing alternatives for a possible balance between the two.

Keywords: coexistence; migration; towns; cities; essay


“20 years ago, everything was quiet,” says a dweller born in a mountainous town in Argentina. Then, from the metropolises - she says - new residents and new ways of life began to arrive and, with them, asphalt, traffic jams, shopping malls, density, and diversity. Another local, this time from a seaside resort, agrees: “all this started recently, with the growth and migrations coming from Buenos Aires.” Furthermore, he affirms that these changes are not only material, they also impact social dynamics in ways that are not always welcome: “they come and stay. Every time we are more. This growth of people, of buildings, of the city, was changing our landscape, but also the way in which we relate to each other (...) we no longer know each other, and it is hard to know who is who.”

In the current scenario - marked by Coronavirus pandemic -, the desires to flee the metropolis have intensified, especially in young professionals from the middle and upper classes, who calculate budgets and showcase distant properties fantasizing about other lives (Bontempo, 2020). Some real estate agents even speak of a “corona-exodus” (Quiroga, 2020), where the beach, the forest, the hills, or the mountain range are strengthened as peaceful destinations where to settle permanently or at least spend a few days in confinement. This was revealed, for example, by the traffic jams on the highways in the days before the quarantine was decreed.

On the other hand, as the virus mainly affects large cities,11 the bodies of metropolitans have been reimagined as biological threats, carriers of disease (Figure 1). In the host communities, there is the ghostly sensation of a foreign horde that will soon come to invade their immune paradises. As one interviewee commented: “What are we going to do when the townspeople want to come en masse?” From there you can read the improvised barricades, the application of control swabs, the deployment of sanitary customs or the implementation of identification tests, among other technologies designed to limit the flows of biohazard bodies from “the outside.”

Source: © Coni Curi

Figure 1 “Pandemic Souvenir.” Image that circulated after President Fernández declared on June 26, 2020 that “the metropolitan area is infecting the rest of the country.”. 

Despite local efforts, many metropolitans interested in “the natural” have been migrating strongly since the 1990s,12 when practices related to what Greene (2020) called “ethics of comfort” began to emerge in large cities: the search for a “purer” life that implies, among other things, the requalification of the family, the care of the body through sports and dietetics,13 spiritual development, less frenetic rhythms, and a closer contact with nature. This way of conducting existence usually finds its ideal locus in geographically remote spaces - “the country” - (Figure 2). As one migrant tells us: “We went looking for another life, for another healthier way of living.” Contemporary Latin American architecture reflects this movement, insofar one of its most internationally recognized areas has been the design of rural rest houses for the elite, bucolic, and inserted in isolated places.

Source: © Eugenia Gutiérrez Palma

Figure 2 Inmobiliaria Gutiérrez Palma advertisement, Traslatierra, Córdoba. 

Now, metropolitans who decide to pack their bags put various fantasies about their future lives in them, but when they unpack, reality rarely adjusts to their wishes. The countryside is no longer exhausted in that “deep rural,” away from industrialization processes, and non-metropolitan cities which, more than being community utopias, are witnesses of profound changes and the object of new vocations. The bubble soon bursts to find that host communities are not as open as they hoped, nature is less pristine than in real estate advertising, and their job ends up being as or more intense than in the capital. So “arriving with the permaculture14 manual under your arm,” as one interviewee tells us, does not guarantee a full life.

Although there is no doubt that metropolitans are fully entitled to migrate and that their actions also promote a necessary deconcentration of Argentine prime cities, both they and the authorities rarely take the actions required to appropriately conduct their effects and externalities. Population movements tend to develop without the implementation of public policies capable of regulating the modes of settlement and urbanization, producing radical changes in land use, threats to landscape heritage, saturation of local infrastructure, real estate speculation, and residential segregation (Llambí, 2004; Kay, 2009). Faced with this scenario, local residents tend to resist the arrival of “outsiders,” whom they also fear because they carry other “vices” such as the urban way of life or a different moral order (Trimano, 2019). As one resident of the seaside town says: “This paradise cannot continue to be destroyed with the practices they bring from Buenos Aires. This is a community of good people. We don’t want Buenos Aires’ liveliness here.”

Based on these antecedents, the research15 that we have developed in a set of non-metropolitan scenarios in Argentina investigates the geographical fantasies (Rowles, 1978) that configure these encounters and frictions, raising an analysis of how a common territory based on diverse subjectivities is built - or not.

The Transformation of the Territory

One of the changes that locals suffer most is the impact on ecosystem structures. The arrival of migrants tends to misalign the established morphological, architectural and landscape identities, with an anthropization that produces tensions which are announced to us in phrases such as: “now we have asphalt everywhere,” “we are becoming more and more like a big city,” “they want to put up traffic lights,” “they are moving over the forest and the waterfront,” “they do not respect the relationship we have with our territory,” and “here they are building five cabins and a house on a little tiny land space.” What the residents call “the landscape essence of the place” is being penetrated with the development of real estate projects (cabins, private developments, tourist complexes, high-rise buildings), commercial enterprises (shopping malls, gyms, dog groomers, restaurant chains), and the expansion of road and telecommunications infrastructure networks, devices that are often built in an “unfriendly” way with the environment.

In the seaside, these transformations can be observed in the way in which the undulation of the original urban fabric - streets that bend to the physiognomy of the dunes - began to dialogue with the grid: parallel, paved roads with a more dense housing disposition (Figura 3). Some of the images found in the local archive also expose a process of multiplication of high-rise buildings, gaining ground to the Californian chalets with gabled roofs, a characteristic dwelling of the first urbanization on the Argentine Atlantic Coast (Pastoriza and Torre, 1999), thus displaying a different occupation of the territory.

Source: Google Earth

Figure 3 Satellite image of the city of Villa Gesell, with undulations towards the coast and grid towards the interior. 

The urban sprawl, for its part, tends to advance following the form of private urbanizations, which present an architecture different from the traditional one. This shows divergent perceptions regarding “legitimate taste” (Bourdieu, 2010) and landscape attributes. Real estate advertising plays an important role in this, supporting the imaginaries that metropolitans circulate about smaller-scale territories, becoming generators of the idyllic construction of a “countryside” that is not consistent with reality. The romanticization of nature does not consider the inclement weather, the local fauna, or the unforeseen events to which the autochthonous inhabitants are subjected (Carman, 2011; Girola, 2004). As a young migrant from the mountain town states: “When we came, we did not think it would be so difficult to spend the winter.”

It is not only the landscape but also the built environment that is idealized. In architecture, it has become usual for some of the most prominent professionals in Latin America to be awarded for houses built in rural settings, designed not for local residents but for a migrant elite. Houses such as Reutter by Klotz (Chile), Las Anitas by Benítez (Paraguay), or the Concrete House by Kruk in Mar Azul (Argentina) (Figura 4) are part of this trend.

Source: © María Victoria Besonías

Figure 4 Concrete House by Luciano Kruk and María Victoria Besonías, located in Mar Azul (Argentina). 

If they do not opt for the construction of new homes, many of the migrants decide to renovate old ones, undertaking processes of reconversion of the traditional architectural heritage into foreign styles such as Shabby Chic, Country Bohemian, or Cottage Style. The mountains show an infinity of expressions like these (Figura 5), and they often circulate in design magazines, reinforcing the urban reading of the rural world.

Source: © Daniel Karp

Figure 5 House in a farm, Traslatierra, Córdoba. 

These homes, in general, retain their facades but undergo major refurbishments inside: the spaces are redesigned, walls are demolished, kitchens are renovated, and Wi-Fi and central heating installed, as well as other common elements in urban homes. In this way, it is possible to reside in “natural,” apparently rustic environments, without sacrificing comfort. A local mountain woman tells us: “You can’t imagine the screams I heard from the front-house neighbor when she arrived, because here it is very common for the water in the pipes to freeze in winter, you can’t imagine the things that woman said!”

The transformations of rural and non-metropolitan settings are also accompanied by processes of social stratification, which find their expression in space. In the seaside, the areas near the beach and the forest are inhabited by the local elite, and it is here that public policies aimed at beautifying, regulating and ordering the space focus. In the mountains, on the other hand, the possibility of being close to the mountains, having a house with views, and inhabiting an area that is as less dense as possible, become elements of desire and competition that articulate the processes of segregation.

The elitization of nature operates as a mask for these processes: “This area is said to be more beautiful and exquisite because they brought trees from Europe,” “if you look at it, all the beautiful houses are in the forest and near the sea,” “there is a great division that is expressed in the aesthetics of the houses and in the proximity to nature.” Social and material borders, as an effect of migration, are drawn on space from the location of this resource (de Abrantes and Trimano, in press).

Some appeals to nature can even become arguments for the exercise of “civilized violence” (Carman, 2011) over those considered “other,” “rustic,” “savage,” “countrymen” or “poor.” The following reflection by a newcomer to the mountain town, about the weeding process carried out by the locals, portrays this exercise: “The worker is forced to kill the species in his own habitat. How would you feel if you had to liquidate your habitat, with which you had an emotional relationship?”

Residential growth is not the only process that drives morphological and architectural mutations. Tourism is another factor capable of unfolding disputes between ideas of development and conservation (Urry, 2002). The advance of the urban frontier, from the conformation of both residential and tourist developments, competes for land and water, displacing, in some cases, those who live and work in said settings. Real estate projects take advantage, on the one hand, of the low values of rural land, and also of its possible profitability as a future urban sector, which is especially valuable in places with tourist potential. At the same time, these dynamics drive forms of collective resistance, which make evident the control over the production and reproduction of ways of living. The result of these encounters is a zone in tension where, on the one hand, the real estate market that, in complicity with venal political sectors, seeks short-term private benefits without responding to a common good on a regional scale (Figura 6), and, on the other hand, a population that is organized to implement territorial regulations16 that promote sustainable development, coexist.

Source: Por los autores, imagen con superposición del plan maestro de El Salvaje sobre planimetría de Google Earth.

Figure 6 The proposal to develop the closed neighborhood El Salvaje on the most important natural reserve of the Partido de Villa Gesell, generated discontent, disputes and demonstrations in the local community. 

Tensions and Encounters

The study cases are spaces where social groups in tension converge, and whose dissimilar interests produce a particular geography. Part of this disagreement occurs because those who migrate to rural or urban locations17 usually carry with them urban subjectivities and practices. Their relocation, we could say, is more spatial than cultural and they end up replicating what they were trying to escape from.

This configuration can be observed in the disparity of rhythms. The metropolitans move with the intention of “returning” to a certain natural state of tranquility, a capital available to the locals, apparently, innately. As one migrant points out: “I worked 12 hours a day in Buenos Aires. (...) I had money, model-family, what they call being happy. I had an existential crisis, gave up everything, and decided to move. Here they have an enviable tranquility, one is not born with that internal peace.” However, they soon realize that the biggest challenge is reorganizing their own temporality; in this regard, another migrant tells us: “When I arrived (...) I didn’t know what to do with the time, it was as if I had hours to spare. I was quite confused until I settled into the routine of this place.”

Capitalism is a difficult subjectivity to dismantle. As much as you want to abandon it, the metropolitans arrive, as a mountain person indicates, “at an accelerated pace and one has to adapt. People here move at other speeds. In the valley, I’m not in a hurry, but I feel like I have to keep a schedule with the landscape” (Figura 7). In a similar sense, a migrant declares himself stupefied when temporal logics do not respond to metropolitan standards: “What’s the matter with the businesses of this town? - he wonders - I don’t understand when they open and when they close! It is impossible (...) here there are other times” These dissonances are also detected by the locals, who affirm: “Those who arrive do not stand the rhythm (...) you realize who they are (...) They come looking for tranquility, but the waiter takes a little longer and they are already moving their feet impatiently. That is generating changes in our pacing.”

Source: © Gabriel Noel, autor del artículo “De la ciudad slow a vivir sin prisa”

Figure 7 “Living without a hurry” is the slogan of Mar de las Pampas (Partido de Villa Gesell), a seaside resort that is postulated, under the slow city movement, as a “heritage of slowness.” 

On the other hand, for the locals, the region is lived from a historical daily life, marked by the efforts of generations and by the “work from sunup to sundown,” where the landscapes provide a framework of collective identification. The following testimony of a mountain person expresses this well: “The people of the area work on the road. (...) We fought all of those stones that are there with a barrette. The work was from ‘sunup to sundown,’ we put a lot of effort into our place: how can we not defend it?” In a very different sense, the bond of the “outsiders” with the territory is experienced as a way of escape and reencounter with “what is essential”; as contemplation and desire to be rooted in an idealized place and time (Trimano, 2017). As accurately described by a migrant who settled in the mountainous area for more than fifteen years: “Living in nature allows you to really measure what you are, you feel alive. In big cities, this is not even considered. You get up in the morning and feel the green mantle. This place saved me.”

Although migrants mobilize alternative utopias,18 they maintain power relations and class distinctions: “I came to the valley 20 years ago, imagine how much I know this place (...). Just a couple of years ago I felt rooted, it was very hard to me (...). I have a good bond with the locals, but we don’t get together for dinner.” This representation can also be understood in terms of what Sennett (2002) called “the celebration of the ghetto”; as a metropolitan living in the mountains says: “It is a great community, I have many known people in the valley; a similar type of people who leave the cities in search of living more natural rhythms.” Metropolitans imagine the local landscape as a sacred territory, but they tend to omit the natives19 from the story, both in their historical and present dimensions, weaving their daily ties only with those who share their trajectories, thus producing a kind of “rivalry for symbolic authority” (Thompson, 1995) of the place among the different actors.

All these expressions of a stressed coexistence prompt us to reflect on the ways in which externalities could be reduced. In a context traversed by a health crisis that has awakened a series of geographical fantasies capable of intensifying this migratory trend as well as its impacts, frictions, and disappointments: will it be possible to think of a harmonious coexistence between each other? Or even more, will the configuration of a “us/them” be possible?

Dwell in Differences

Migration from the big city to non-metropolitan environments20 is characterized not only by geographical displacement, but also by the radical transformation of all the actors and localities involved. This display of alterity sharpens questions about territorial identity: what are we? A town, a city; a pristine landscape, an artificial one; the undulating plot, the grid; nature, cement; real estate speculation, defense of the land? As well as doubts about cultural identity: who are we? “Locals,” “born and raised,” “newcomers,” “natives,” “migrants,” “from here,” “from there,” “from abroad,” “from the interior”?

Faced with this coexistence of subjectivities, landscapes, dwellings, temporalities, and morphologies, it is worth asking: in what way is it possible to negotiate the transition and the border? How do we construct a “limitrophy” that consists, as Derrida (2008: 46) suggests, “not in erasing the limit but in multiplying its figures, complicating, thickening, misaligning, folding, dividing the line precisely by making it grow and multiply?” The most successful cases that we have surveyed in the fieldwork show us that it is possible to live in differences. Coexistence in the territory lessens their frictions when, first, the metropolitans weigh in advance the ideas they have about the smaller-scale territories, guarding their fantasies and anticipating the consequences of their migration. Locals, for their part, produce more prosperous spaces when they recognize the right of others to migrate, and offer - but also demand - respect and recognition, both for the different ways of life and for the territories and their heritage: “Perhaps the moment of learning to coexist without problems, respecting what each one brings along, has arrived,” an inhabitant of the seaside told us when discussing the potential that comes with “learning what each group has to share” (Figura 8).

Source: © Andrea Induni

Figure 8 Traslasierra Jazz Club event. 

Fieldwork has shown us the virtues of crossed knowledge: “These new houses that the people from Buenos Aires make upset us because they have nothing to do with the spirit of this place,” said a local from the seaside, “but the truth (is that) our architecture is already quite old.” One should be able to recognize that what they did is good.” It is to value the “encounters,” as Preciado (2019) would say. On the other hand, as a local architect told us, in addition to transmitting certain situated knowledge to the newcomers, the locals have to be able to disarm some monolithic associations that they have built on them:

“One also had to negotiate with those who were arriving. Tell them: you can’t do what you want (with your houses). Here there were forms, regulations, a whole special relationship with the environment, with materials, such as wood, and they had to be taught (...) and that worked well (...) in the end, they also came to live in this paradise, and they want to take care of it.”

In a similar sense, a person from the mountain spoke to us about the mobilization of certain strategic resources, pointing out that not only people but also institutions must host differences:

“There are people who think that ‘outsiders’ want to change the town; and it is not like that; on the contrary, they help this town. I was in the school cooperative for six years, living off anything, because it was a very poor rural school; and ‘people from outside’ came, someone among them brought a position or knew someone in the Ministry of Education, and we achieved what we could not for years; that contributes a lot.”

However, in order to inhabit these differences, certain structural conditions should be guaranteed. Beyond fantasies and disappointments, various actors point out that these migratory processes generate friction if they are not accompanied by public policies, work with communities, and the development of infrastructures capable of managing new material and social brands. Likewise, the interviewed actors point out the need for territorial tools that can contain and drive real estate speculation, while protecting local assets. With this, it should be assumed, a different space begins to be socially produced, neither “rural” nor “urban” as competing programs, but a new place of encounter.

At this point, one might wonder if the phenomenon we are observing refers simply to the interaction of “individualistic communities” that coexist territorially in the limbo of difference or if, on the contrary, there is a latent solidarity that, skewed by binary logic, has not yet found its way of interstitial formulation. If we dare to think beyond the distances that separate us, it may be possible to trace “communalization” practices that shed light on the coexistence of a us/them. This implies that the question of “who,” so gravitating in these scenarios, is replaced by the question of “what” kind of coexistence is possible. In a context such as the current one, plagued with uncertainties about the future, an interviewee from the mountain told us:

“I have understood why the collective inspires me. The strength, the projects, the laughter, the struggle of the other, like a graft, springs up in me and flourishes. So, I say again, I handle confinement well, it has helped me discover that if I am with others, I am strong. That so long isolated is not in vain. When this is over, we must continue to build the common.”

Rethinking territorial complexities from a new grammar that allows us to imagine another social organization of ways of life serves as the starting point to question narratives and draw other possible horizons. Metropolitan migrations map a new society, with renewed and unexpected forms of production and reproduction of life. Coexistence feeds uncertainty and, therefore, strangeness. This should not be evaluated as a weakness, but rather from its transformative power. As stated by Turner (1988), we must put ourselves in the presence of the inventive capacity of a society, now impacted in the insides of its normality.


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Ricardo Greene

Sociologist, Master in Urban Development and PhD in Anthropology from Goldsmiths, University of London. He was director of FIDOCS and FILIT, of the Association of Documentalists of Chile ADOC and of the Association of Editors of Chile. He currently directs the magazine and publishing house Bifurcaciones, the chrono-photographic project Esto Es Talca and the audiovisual platform CinEducación. His recent work includes the documentary The Absence (2018, JaF) and the book Conocer la ciudad (2018). He is part of the collective Cosas Maravillosas.

Lucía de Abrantes

Sociologist, National University of Buenos Aires (UBA), Master in Social Anthropology, Facultad Latinoamericana de Ciencias Sociales (FLACSO), fellow and doctoral student in Anthropology from the Universidad Nacional de San Martín (UNSAM). She is a professor at UNSAM and actively participates in the program, based at this university, “Migrations and social transformations in small and medium agglomerations.”

Luciana Trimano

Social Communication graduate, Universidad Nacional de Córdoba, 2007. Doctor in Social Communication, Universidad Nacional de Córdoba, 2014. Her work focuses in the communicational processes generated by residential mobility and counter-urbanization. She is a researcher at the National Council for Scientific and Technical Research (CONICET) at the Center for Research and Studies on Culture and Society (CIECS-CONICET and UNC ), Argentina.

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