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Alejandro Velasco speaking at an event.
Alejandro Velasco will be speaking at The Regulator Bookshop
in Durham on November 11.

Growing up in the Venezuelan capital of Caracas, Alejandro Velasco (M.A.’02, Ph.D.’09) was always curious about the public-housing neighborhood known as 23 de Enero (January 23). The community was named for the date in 1958 when the country’s dictatorship fell, a fact that underscores the neighborhood’s significance in Venezuelan history.

On the flip side, the area was also seen as, in Velasco’s words, “a site of danger, crime-ridden and lawless.” That reputation for danger kept Velasco from visiting the neighborhood much.

"It was a 'zona roja'—red zone—especially for folks like me who grew up in the eastern, wealthier part of the city," he said.

While pursuing his Ph.D. in history at Duke, Velasco decided to delve into the political significance of 23 de Enero for his dissertation. In July, he published a book on the topic, Barrio Rising: Urban Popular Politics and the Making of Modern Venezuela.

On Wednesday, November 11, Velasco will be at The Regulator Bookshop in Durham at 7 p.m. to discuss the book, read select passages, and answer questions about his work and Venezuela, which is slated to hold parliamentary elections in December.

Also on Wednesday, Velasco will speak to current Duke graduate students about his career path. He is an associate professor at the Gallatin School of Individualized Study at New York University, where he recently received tenure. That talk, to be held at noon in room 225 of the Friedl Building, is part of the Academic Job Search Series co-sponsored by The Graduate School.

Registration is required for the career-path talk. No RSVP is needed for the event at The Regulator Bookshop.

Velasco recently talked to The Graduate School about his book and his time as a student at Duke.

Tell us a little bit about your book and the Caracas neighborhood that you focused on.

My book explains the origins of the political battles that have gripped Venezuela since Hugo Chávez was first elected president in 1998, and what this tells us about the development of urban politics in 20th century Latin America more broadly.

Venezuela is an intriguing case through which to examine urban politics in part because over 90 percent of its people live in cities, the highest percentage in the region. Also, for decades it was viewed as an inclusive, stable democracy in a continent where dictatorship and civil war reigned. But what I argue in Barrio Rising is that the conflicts Venezuela faces today aren’t a departure from, but a continuation of decades-long struggles over what kind of democracy would emerge after the country’s last military dictatorship fell in 1958, struggles that remained largely out of view of most mainstream scholarship.

These struggles played out dramatically in the 23 de enero (January 23) neighborhood, a massive complex of squatter settlements and public housing high-rises in the heart of Venezuela’s capital Caracas, next to the Presidential Palace and Capitol. Named in honor of democracy’s founding date, the neighborhood’s history mirrors the nation’s democratic history—unruly, contentious, and rife with battles to secure a political system more responsive to the needs of the nation’s growing ranks of urban poor. These battles took place in the streets and in the polls, as residents made use of both institutional and extra-institutional democratic tools—protest and the vote—to demand accountability from political leaders, in the process creating a kind of informal democracy.

Understanding the origins and development of this interplay between formal and informal helps explain why democracy in Latin America sometimes can seem so “messy” from afar. More so, it helps recast that messiness not as an example of democratic weakness—as many political scientists argue—but of democratic vitality. Protest might be an indicator of weak institutions. But democracy is more than institutions. It’s a constant, day-to-day struggle over social and political inclusion and accountability. That’s the major takeaway of Barrio Rising.

How did you become interested in the history of this neighborhood?
Alejandro Velasco poses with the city of Caracas, Venezuela in the background.
Alejandro Velasco grew up in Caracas, where the neighborhood
of 23 de Enero loomed large in his imagination.

Growing up in Caracas, el 23, as the neighborhood is best known, had an outsized place in my imagination, mainly as a site of danger, crime-ridden and lawless. And yet it also held this symbolic tie to the nation’s democratic founding. So a dramatic contradiction seemed to surround the place, which although it piqued my curiosity, I never pursued.

Then in 2002, I was in Caracas just a few weeks after Hugo Chávez, who had rankled many among the elite after being democratically elected in 1998, was ousted in a coup and then dramatically reinstated two days later. It was a tense time. At the Capitol building downtown, Congress was holding hearings on what happened, with large screens and speakers set up outside for people to follow the proceedings. Because the Capitol was on my way to the archives, I would stop and speak to folks gathered outside about their own experiences during the coup. Many of those stories had a common thread – el 23, either because they were residents and remembered taking to the streets around the nearby Presidential Palace to protest the coup, despite a media blackout, or because they heard about how residents of el 23 rose up and followed their lead.

So it was clear that this neighborhood exercised a major role in the development of political events. Over time, I learned that many of those stories were shrouded in myth, much like the larger history of the neighborhood. And yet what was true—in 2002, in the history I recount, and from my own upbringing—is that el 23, more than any other single place in Caracas and perhaps Venezuela, holds a special place in the nation’s political history.

How often did you venture into el 23 while growing up, or was it a place that you were warned to stay away from? How has your perception and relationship with the neighborhood changed after all the research you have done on it?

As you might have suspected, I did not venture into the neighborhood much while growing up in Caracas. It was a "zona roja"—red zone—especially for folks like me who grew up in the eastern, wealthier part of the city. However, I did go once, around 1993 o 1994, to visit what was then the Military Museum, where Chavez staged his 1992 coup. It's located right in the heart of the 23 de Enero. I was 15 or 16 then, and even then, though I didn't think about much at the time, I remember that the general feeling of being there was quite different from my image of the place. It felt tranquil, even familiar. Later I came to realize that the familiarity had to do with the design of the neighborhood, broad roadways and superblocks, a feature of mid-century modernism that influenced the design of the neighborhood where I lived on the other side of Caracas.

Years later I saw that moment as an early lesson in how ignorance about a place and its people, despite or perhaps because it's so near, feeds exalted fears and mythologies that bear much less with reality than meets the eye. Of course that same dynamic underlay much of the intense polarization that characterized the Chavez era, that fueled deep anxieties of people where I grew up—my friends and family—that were informed by little more than projections. Living in and learning from people of the 23 de Enero certainly demystified those fears and anxities for me. I hope it does the same for others, and maybe as a result, can help assuage some of the social tensions tearing at the fabric of Venezuela.

How does the book relate to the work you did as a graduate student at Duke?

“Every conversation was an opportunity to thrash ideas about, and to learn through debate.”

Most of the research in the book is based on work I did for my dissertation, but the influence of my graduate training on the book extends beyond specific research I conducted. The book ultimately asks how democracy works and doesn’t work for people often excluded from the historical record. Getting at those voices and weaving them into larger political questions and processes—about justice, citizenship, participation—conveys responsibility that makes history relevant, important, vital even. That’s a lesson I learned early on from my adviser John D. French, and later from Jocelyn Olcott. Their work set an example of the kind of engaged, meaningful scholarship that addresses key questions of political formations not as an abstraction, but as lived experience.

The other major influence of my time at Duke was the interdisciplinary training I received at the Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies. What I tell my students in New York, where so many events compete for attention and audiences, is that going to grad school in Durham meant that whatever talk or conference was happening that day or week was the only game in town, and we all attended and by default had to move outside our disciplinary confines.

Nominally I was a Ph.D. student in history, but I spent at least as much time in classes at the Carr Building as I did at the former CLACS house on Campus Drive, in lectures with renowned scholars from all over the world, in working groups with students and faculty in anthropology, literature, political science, sociology, whether from Duke or Chapel Hill.

That generated a sense of intellectual fertility that migrated easily from place to place. Intense debates that started at a conference in the Franklin Center moved seamlessly into the Green Room, then found their way back to our classrooms without skipping a beat. Every conversation was an opportunity to thrash ideas about, and to learn through debate. That’s all likely romanticized, but certainly those interdisciplinary foundations are deeply reflected in the book, which draws on ethnography, electoral returns, census data, literary and spatial analysis, all on top of the significant archival work I undertook, to flesh out a comprehensive social history of the 23 de enero, and of Venezuela.

You received two fellowships from The Graduate School—an International Research Travel Award in 2003 and a Summer Research Fellowship in 2006. Can you talk about the work supported by those awards?

The first one funded a summer of preliminary research in Caracas to see whether my idea for an urban history of Venezuelan politics around the 23 de Enero neighborhood was viable. I spent the summer visiting archives, tracking down leads, and getting to know people in el 23. I came away from it not only convinced that the project was feasible and important, but also with enough solid, promising information to make my proposals for dissertation research funding fellowships convincing. Without it I doubt my SSRC-IDRF proposal would have been successful.

The second fellowship was also crucial. It provided enough funding over the summer so that I could focus on drafting the first chapters of my dissertation rather than finding another way to support myself and taking time away from writing. And that helped to set me up well for the fellowship I held at Hampshire College the following fall. So in very direct and real ways, both awards were key to shaping the dissertation that eventually became Barrio Rising.

Talk a little bit about the process of putting this book together.

Some people write their dissertations as a book and are able to publish them very quickly. That was decidedly not my case! While I was proud of my dissertation, I also knew that I wanted to revise it significantly before taking it to presses. Of course, the pressure to publish is overwhelming for junior faculty on a tenure track. I was very fortunate that my dean and colleagues at NYU gave me latitude and funding to publish better rather than quicker.

“If all that sounds arduous, it was! But it also resulted in the strongest book I could write ....”

So I was able to let the dissertation sit for a year before returning to it with fresh eyes, reworking it to reflect feedback I received during my defense and incorporating additional research I conducted on two return trips to Venezuela while I was at NYU. I was also able to teach courses around my topic, which helped me flesh out ideas in conversation with students.

Once I had a fully revised manuscript, I presented it at a workshop with current Duke Latin American History graduate students. That was invaluable, and goes to show the continuing strengths of graduate education at Duke. It also helped me polish the book, which allowed me then to approach presses with a very clean, tight, fully workshopped manuscript in hand.

From there, securing a contract and taking the book to press felt very quick and smooth, largely because by that point both the press and I were on the same page—so to speak—about the book we wanted to publish. That in turn helped me develop a strong working relationship with my editor at UC Press, Kate Marshall, whom I trusted to give me advice on how to make the book’s style and argument more readable to a larger audience.

If all that sounds arduous, it was! But it also resulted in the strongest book I could write, one that best captures the extraordinary lives and politics of the people of el 23.

What are you working on now?

I have several projects underway. The first is The Venezuela Reader, which I’m co-editing with fellow Venezuelan historian Miguel Tinker-Salas for Duke University Press. It’s a collection of primary and secondary sources from the pre-Columbian era to the present, which we’re using to recast Venezuelan history as a centuries-long conflict over social and political inclusion, quite apart from conventional appraisals. It should be a great teaching tool for undergraduates especially, but really for anyone with an interest in Venezuela.

The second project is a brief history of the early Cold War in Latin America, centered on the strange story of the Simón Bolívar statue in Washington, DC. It was commissioned in the 1950s by Venezuela’s military dictatorship, which was close to the Eisenhower administration. But days before the statue’s inauguration in early 1958, that dictatorship was overthrown. Over the next year the statue and who would inaugurate it unleashed a dramatic behind-the-scenes diplomatic saga between US and Venezuelan government officials, each trying to size the other up in the context of the early Cold War in Latin America. So I’m using the episode to shed light on larger geopolitical dynamics of the era just before the Cuban Revolution, which is what we normally associate with the period.

My major follow-up project to Barrio Rising considers the place of race in Cuba and Venezuela as each underwent socialist revolutions. In both, deep experiences of racialized slavery informed long legacies of racism, structural and cultural. But in the case of Cuba, in the early years of the revolution, racism was thought and indeed declared to have been eradicated as the nation did away with capitalism and class distinctions. Of course we now know that racism persisted despite formal declarations. Meanwhile in Venezuela, even as he drew on a socialist program very much inspired by the Cuban revolution, Chavez embraced racial difference and identity, not racial unity, as a marker of revolutionary justice. So I want to research what accounts for how revolutionary governments contend with local modalities of racism, what compromises that implies, and how those compromises complicate the circulation of ostensibly similar political programs and ideologies.