Words by The Urban Popular Economy Collective | 14 Apr 2024

In auto-constructed Brazilian housing occupations, even “democratic” public/common spaces are marked by constraints, absences, and silences. Men as leading figures usually dominate the public spheres of participation, such as assemblies and councils, tending to silence subaltern voices. It is against this silence that some activists defend and some residents perform a politics of the commons based on an explicitly feminist perspective, centered on the collective work of social (re)production.

One of the first objectives of collective effort in occupations, especially by women, is the construction of spaces for subsistence and care, such as community kitchens and day care facilities. The role of women in occupations, many of which are already well organised in groups and movements, is more explicit in these collective spaces, and is organised around reproduction issues, rather than in "instituted" political spaces, such as assemblies. These spaces also help to strengthen women’s power against domestic violence and other forms of oppression experienced in and out of occupations.

Located on the southern outskirts of Belo Horizonte, the day-care facility Crèche Tia Carminha is a source of great pride for the residents of the Eliana Silva occupation and has become its most important collective structure. It serves children up to six years of age, from within the community itself, and was built—and then expanded—by mobilisation and digital collective financing, with the support of university researchers. The day care is maintained by the work of volunteer women and by the contributions and financial support from inside and outside the community. It is a common space where forms of domestic or privatized work are communalised by sharing care and teaching work, ensuring safer spaces and great autonomy for women outside home confinement.

In the Paulo Freire occupation, neighbour to Eliana Silva, the communal water tank and collective kitchen used to function as a crucial common space, mainly for sharing the material means of reproduction—water, food, pots, utensils, gas and so on—and where commoning created mutual ties and collective interest among women. Collective kitchens are key in the early months of a new occupation when residents still live in makeshift shacks without private kitchens. Once the occupation is consolidated, communal kitchens tend to weaken and may even be abandoned. The communal kitchen of Eliana Silva no longer exists, but women especially recall its importance, and some residents even rehearse its reconstruction next to a new projected community centre.

As housing occupation consolidates, common spaces and commoning practices tend to become diluted. Among other factors, this has been related to how occupiers are subjected to work under situations of precariousness, extreme exploitation, and racism in distant jobs outside the occupation. This poses a challenge for the creation of popular and solidarity urban economies, such as cooperatives and alternatives for income generation or employment that give better living conditions for residents.

In the highly consolidated Dandara occupation, located in the northern periphery of Belo Horizonte, families tend to establish their own business on residential plots—mainly tyre shops, freight carts, construction, as well as bars and some bakeries or grocery stores. Thus, it is evident that, after a few years of densification and consolidation, occupations go through a typical transition: from a largely residential space to a popular neighbourhood in which multi-functionality prevails, combining residence, commerce, services, and production. The development of mixed-use and popular economies indicate that families already feel secure about their tenure to invest in residential expansions and local businesses, questioning liberal prescriptions on land regularization that promote the idea that properly registered private property titles are essential to transform “dead capital” into productive capital.

The Eliana Silva community has been looking for alternatives to generate work and income inside the occupation in more cooperative ways, as can be seen in the practice of women’s meetings for the collective production of handicrafts, cookies and cakes. These items are sold at events, parties and fairs in the community. There is also the intention to formalize a production group, cooperative or other forms of collective work. Many of those projects are supported by the Olga Benário Women's Movement, which carries out mobilization activities, handicraft workshops, and public debates on topics such as feminism, reproduction, and domestic violence in Belo Horizonte’s occupations.

In this sense, the production of the common implies the transformation of everyday life, recombining what was separated by the social, sexual, and spatial division of labour under capitalism, redefining (re)production more cooperatively, and bringing people closer to the political. Notwithstanding the many challenges and obstacles, common spaces dedicated to (re)production issues in occupations point to more worthy and less alienated alternatives for many families, especially for women. When asked about spaces such as the day-care facility or communal kitchen, residents usually express great affection for them: they are places where ties were once woven, where stories of hardship and endurance were told, where care used to be shared.

Image credit

Crèche Tia Carminha at Eliana Silva occupation, 2013, photo https://praxis.arq.ufmg.br/