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Becoming citizens in the midst of post-conflict: Urban youth identities and the peace process in Colombia’s Pacific South

Tue, March 27, 1:15 to 2:45pm, Hilton Reforma, Floor: 4th Floor, Doña Adelita


Since 2012, with the beginning of peace dialogues between the Colombian government and the FARC guerrilla group, Colombia has entered into a process of transition from war to a ‘post-conflict’ scenario. While young people involvement in peacebuilding has been identified as crucial for the success of post-conflict processes, disregard of their views and concerns in relation to peace and conflict—within and outside schools—often curtails their opportunities to become active participants of such efforts, nor do their views represent a significant input to understand the challenges that post-conflict and peace represent to them (McEvoy-Levy, 2006, n.d.; Özerdem & Podder, 2015; Quaynor, 2012; Schnabel & Tabyshalieva, 2013; Schwartz, 2010).

In this paper, I discuss youth identities as seen by young people who live in Tumaco, an urban territory of Colombia’s Pacific south facing extreme challenges in terms of poverty, unemployment, violence, and illegal economies such as coca production and mining. Youth experience this conflictive and complex reality by finding themselves in the middle of political polarization around what peace reforms mean and entail, and the escalation of criminal urban violence that commonly includes youth recruitment by organized armed groups (Almario, 2017; Ávila, 2017; Flórez, 2016; Guerra Rincón, 2017; Rocha, 2014; Verdad Abierta, 2017).

I explore these identities based on a 3-month period of fieldwork in this coastal municipality, and a series of 3 focus groups, each taking place with 3 different groups of youth aged 14-18 years-old in two schools—one private, one public—of the urban area of this municipality (18 focus groups in total). Focus groups were designed to map out youth’s daily lived experiences with social conflicts and the expressions of violence they consider more salient in their communities, as well as their views, concerns and conceptions on controversial issues related to the peace process, and finally, their envisioned participation in concrete activities to transform some of these issues.

In this study, identities are conceived not as mere ideological devices that reproduce structural patterns of dominant institutions or hegemonic discourses in society. Youth do not simply reproduce passively the meanings and inputs received from their socio-cultural contexts. They actively engage in making sense, contesting, and creating their own identities and forms of participation as political subjects. There is a negotiation—a complex process of reproduction adaptation or rejection—with the meanings, beliefs, and experiences available to them through their belonging in multiple—ethnic, age, gender, religious, political—cultural groups and with larger historical communities, hegemonic subjectivities, and social positions (Alcoff, 2000). I seek to understand the ways in which young people construct their identities and participate in the political realm acknowledging youth’s lived experiences and their actual forms of participation as creative forces of cultural production (Gaztambide-Fernández & Arráiz Matute, 2015; Tuck & Yang, 2011). Understanding youths’ (counter and sub) cultural expressions—alternative lifestyles, and promotion of new values and social relations—as forms of participation in their own right, I hope to recreate a more complex picture of the diversity of political expressions, as well as the limits, scope, and pedagogical implications of what youth understand as enacting ‘new’ citizenship(s) (Oliart & Feixa, 2012).

From these premises, I challenge an essentialist and reified conception of black underprivileged youth in the Pacific as a particularly troublesome criminal body of post-conflict violence. In contrast, based on the data collected, I unravel the labor-productive, racial-ethnic, and gender relationships that constitute the axis in face of which youth negotiate their political identities. The characteristic extractive economy that has historically dominated the region—of which coca trade is the most prominent recent example—translates land dispossession and curtailed citizenship into informal/illegal labor exploitation and destruction of black bodies, in which lack of material stability in the context of risk capitalism confronts youth with the demands to self-fashion identity, respect, and belonging through short-term acquisition and cultural consumption of ‘status goods’, a way to reclaim a right to accumulation. This culture of ‘new capitalism’ (Sennett, 2006), in turn, challenges images of traditional afrodescendant identities, in which historical narratives of race, ethnicity, and nation around black populations become embodied in black urban militia or “niche-pandilleros”. This popular culture of black urban youth is both critically and empathetically associated by focus group participants to practices and ideas of ‘easy money’, the dilemma of ‘having too much time’, and the creation of counter-spaces and means of public expression in music and fashion. While prescriptive gender and masculinity norms appear to play, in their views, a major role in recycling violences from the household to armed confrontations, they are also seen as a social barrier recognized as highly difficult to transgress due to cultural and peer pressure.


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