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The Americas 61.2 (2004) 281-283

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Contentious Lives: Two Argentine Women, Two Protests, and the Quest for Recognition. By Javier Auyero. Durham: Duke University Press, 2003. Pp. xv, 230. Illustrations. Notes. Bibliography. Index. $18.95 paper.

The dramatic economic downturn in Argentina due to rapid globalization, recession and the debt crisis ushered in a major social crisis and a series of popular protests. Uprisings characterized by road blockades and burning of buildings by unemployed and semi-employed piqueteros (picketers) became commonplace. Sociologist Javier Auyero has relied on oral histories, diaries by some of the participants, news accounts and fieldwork during 1999-2001 to skillfully weave together collective biographies of protest, focusing on two cases: one a six-day uprising in [End Page 281] the oil-producing towns of Plaza Huincul and Cutral-có in the southern Province of Neuquén in 1996, and the other in the arid northwestern Province of Santiago del Estero in 1993. Women were protagonists in both popular protests.

In the wake of the government's privatization of the Yacimientos Petrolíferos Fiscales (YPF) oil company in 1992 there ensued massive unemployment that, coupled to the loss of government assistance, led to a rapid impoverishment of the population in the oil-producing area of Neuquén. Unemployment reached more than 30 percent. Laura was the unemployed mother of three children, who had left her violent husband and lost her home. Although she had no previous history of political activism, she emerged as the leader of the six-day road blockade called the "pueblada" (popular rebellion) in Cutral-có and became the riot's most visible symbol. The piqueteros wanted to be heard and demanded from the government long-term solutions to social problems. Laura kept a notebook in which she recorded the evolution of the six-day uprising. In leading the riot, she insisted that the blockade and the uprising not become violent, as these events had in other areas of Argentina. She and the picketers made abundantly clear that they did not want to be used by the politicians. On June 26, 1996, she and the governor of Neuquén signed an agreement to put an end to the protest. What Laura achieved, above all, was recognition of the important role she played and a newly found self-confidence. The courts required that her former husband pay child support and she was able to return to her home.

Ayero also examined the uprising in Santiago del Estero, known as the "Santiagazo," on December 16, 1993. During this riot the picketers attacked and burned the government house, the courthouse, the provincial parliament, and more than a dozen homes of government officials. The protest was the result of long-simmering discontent among the impoverished population in one of the poorest provinces of Argentina. Many public employees' salaries were cut, while others did not receive salaries at all, and social services had been cut. One of the leaders of the 1993 uprising in Santiago del Estero was Nana, dubbed "the queen of the riot," because she had been the queen of Carnival for several years. She is the divorced mother of six children who felt that life had been very difficult for her and her family. The Santiagazo differed from the uprising in Neuquén because it was the result of long-standing grievances and deteriorating economic and social conditions. Protests generated assemblies drawn from many walks of life; according to Nana, they kept growing, and people could not be held back. In describing the riot, Nana potrtrays a party atmosphere and one in which some members of the police either participated or did not prevent the looting. In addition to Nana's recollections Auyero also interviewed a wide array of other rioters, including public administration employees, teachers, trade union members, the unemployed, as well as members of the police. Auyero also relied on contemporary newspaper accounts, government records, and video footage.

This analysis of the dynamics of popular protest and gender comes largely from the point of view of the participants. Based...


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