Book Reviews

The Poetry of Barrio Libre

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Book Review: Gilberto Rosas, Barrio Libre: Criminalizing States and Delinquent Refusals (Duke University Press, 2012).
By Vino Avanesi, undergraduate student in Culture Studies, Faculty of Humanities (Tilburg University, the Netherlands)

The title of Rosas’ work suggests a balance between the concreteness of Mexican barrio’s and the abstraction found behind scholarly walls. One could say that ‘Barrio Libre’ did not disappoint, in fact, it surpassed expectation. In order to offer the reader a deep understanding of the phenomenon called Barrio Libre, Rosas theorizes in his work the multiple threads which come together in the phenomenon. According to Rosas these social, economic and political threads constitute the fabric of the problems underlying the emergence of Barrio Libre.

Barrio Libre is understood by Rosas as a group consisting of criminal youngsters, active in and around the border-town of Nogales, Mexico. Situated at the border with the United States – and conjoined with its urban-twin Nogales, Arizona – the city of Nogales, Mexico is home to many disenfranchised youngsters. Mexican youngsters who, according to Rosas, were lured and driven to the border by neoliberal forces. At the same time, Nogales is a way-station for undocumented migrant-workers originating from the Mexican rural areas and on their way to the gold-paved streets of the United States. These two groups find themselves in an urban landscape scarred by neoliberal forces. A landscape where they are subject to these forces, forces which are intrinsically linked to the breakdown of social services in the Mexican state and the transformation of the US-Mexico border in to what Rosas calls the new frontier.

For the youngsters of Barrio Libre the identification of oneself with the class of the criminalized cholo means an identification with the perils and joys of life on the streets, which in turn means a refusal to accept a position of vulnerability

It is at the new frontier, according to Rosas, where the youngsters of Nogales, Mexico descent into the criminality of Barrio Libre. In his work Rosas tries to understand why it is that the youngsters of Nogales have fallen for the charms of a criminal life. Why is it that they have taken up the dark – and perhaps suffocating – cloak of Barrio Libre? And secondly, how do global neoliberal currents and US-Mexican security policies tie into the youngsters` fall?

Rosas starts out with an account of how the phenomenon Barrio Libre was produced as a result of an intricate relationship between the US-Mexican policing of the border region and its migrations. He argues that the new frontier is the result of complicated historical interactions between the racialized state of affairs, neoliberal forces and sovereignty-making. Rosas traces the practices of sovereignty-making in the border region back through three different epochs: the old frontier, the modern border and the new frontier. It is emphasized that one can understand the new frontier as incomplete sovereignty-making by both the US and Mexico. As the war-like sovereignty-making practices of the new frontier have intensified, racialized discourses – dating as far back as the 19th century, the epoch of the old frontier – have re-emerged. Re-emerged in the sense that ‘Native Americans, Mexicans and other subordinated populations’ are now linked to the nightmarish discourses of criminality. With these discourses of the Other Rosas tries to show the reader how sovereignty-making practices are strengthened in their legitimacy by various forms of racism, racism produced by the policing practices found at the US-Mexico border. One should place, according to Rosas, these sovereignty-making practices against the backdrop of an age wherein neoliberal forces have affected government policies, both US and Mexican, in the sense that subjects of the state are left more and more to fend for themselves, the so-called ‘age of neoliberal governmentality'(p.49).

According to Rosas, it is in the criminalized and nightmarish discourses of the Other that the youngsters of Nogales, Mexico have been transformed. The disenfranchised youths that call the streets of Nogales home and who once only engaged in misdemeanors in order to survive in an age of neoliberal governmentality, now find themselves being coalesced by sovereignty-making practices into a group of felons tempered by a life of hard-crime: life as a cholo. For the youngsters of Barrio Libre the identification of oneself with the class of the criminalized cholo means an identification with the perils and joys of life on the streets, which in turn means a refusal to accept a position of vulnerability1. Rosas points out that the youngsters have a measure of circumscribed agency in the sense that their self-identification as cholos/cholas is a refusal of vulnerability and an embracing of being irredeemably lost to the pathologically criminal life of Barrio Libre. And it is in this circumscribed agency that one can find the extraordinary nature of the phenomenon of Barrio Libre: the youngsters are – in their own way – free! Or to put it in the words of Rosas, they are in a sense free ‘from the displacement of the neoliberal economy, the manifest violence of homelessness, and particularly the warlike exercises of sovereignty that anchor the new frontier’ (p.131).

One could say that it is only in the margins of the subjugation of the youngsters that a reactionary form of agency can be found, reactionary in the sense that they are stuck between two unappealing choices: starving to death or being subjugated to police force

It is with the notion of circumscribed agency, the crux of Rosas` work, that a possible point of critique emerges. The youngsters of Barrio Libre consider themselves free as they exercise their circumscribed agency. But in what measure is this agency circumscribed? One could make the claim that Rosas has not sufficiently illuminated the relative insignificance of the agency the youngsters maintain in order to both mentally and physically survive the pressures of state-exercised biopower. These pressures – which are the result of policing practices and the implications of neoliberal governmentality – have coalesced the youngsters on the one hand into the cholo-class, and have subjugated the youngsters on the other hand with the use of ‘micro-deportations’2. These micro-deportations bar the youngsters from working in the tourist-zone as taco-sellers, gum-sellers, windshield-washers and other street jobs. On the basis of appearances they are selected out and deported to the south of Nogales, where subsisting on the streets is much harder. These changes in environment facilitate, or perhaps even cause, the youngsters` passage into a life of crime. In a sense the youngsters find themselves reacting with crime to a bio-political subjugation, just to survive. One could say that it is only in the margins of the subjugation of the youngsters that a reactionary form of agency can be found, reactionary in the sense that they are stuck between two unappealing choices: starving to death or being subjugated to police force. In an article2 – on the policing of internal borders in the Netherlands – Mutsaers makes a similar point when he states that Rosas` work captures the notion of how migrants find themselves stuck in the proverbial quick-sand, ‘under pressure of an increasingly thickening control apparatus, that keeps them in check and in place’.

Rosas` personal engagement with the disenfranchised youth of Nogales can be felt through his prose, which adds to the strength of his work. His work is further strengthened by the methodological choice of using first-person vignettes, these vignettes make it easy for the reader to be completely submersed into the world of Barrio Libre. Although, one must say, at times his prose can be hard to follow as he attempts to coalesce the numerous threads which constitute the complex fabric of Barrio Libre. At other times, the murkiness, unreliability and despair of that which the youngsters call everyday-life bleeds through the pages, almost transforming his prose into poetry. Poetry in the sense that it firstly batters the heart, before reaching the mind.

One could say that the youngsters of Barrio Libre are the manifestation of the words once written by Albert Camus, whom some consider to be a poet first and a philosopher second: ‘The only way to deal with an unfree world is to become so absolutely free that your very existence is an act of rebellion.’ Sadly enough, this is a freedom some of the youngsters eventually end up buying for the highest of prices.


  1. Rosas juxtapositions the criminalized cholo-class against the vulnerable migrant chuntaro-class: ‘to be a cholo was to perform a criminalized masculinity that was ideal for intimidating the displaced and [..] emasculated chuntaro’ (p.80).
  2. Mutsaers, P. (2014). An Ethnographic study of the policing of internal borders in the Netherlands: Synergies between criminology and anthropology. The British Journal of Criminology. Advance Access




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