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Introduction: Youth and Cultural Politics in Latin America

Author(s): Jon Wolseth and Florence E. Babb


Source: Latin American Perspectives, Vol. 35, No. 4, Youth and Cultural Politics in Latin
America (Jul., 2008), pp. 3-14
Published by: Sage Publications, Inc.
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/27648105
Accessed: 05-10-2016 19:29 UTC

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Introduction
Youth and Cultural Politics in Latin America
by
Jon Wolseth and Florence E. Babb

Latin American countries have historically been young societies, with


children and young adults making up a substantial portion of their popula
tions. In the colonial and postindependence eras, the high percentage of
children and youth commanded interest from government reformers, military
regimes, and social welfare organizations as a potential source of political and
social unrest (see Kuznesof, 2005, and contributors to Hecht, 2002). In recent
years, the proportion that is under age 25, which we broadly term "youth,"
hovers at just over half of the population both regionally and in nearly every
nation (CEPAL/ECLAC, 2007: 26). Youth movements, including the student
protests of the 1960s and 1970s, have played critical roles in the shaping of
modern history in the region. Sometimes such protests have had tragic ends,
as in the case of the 1968 Tlatelolco massacre in Mexico City. Military regimes
in Argentina, Brazil, and Chile from the 1960s through the 1980s specifically
targeted young women and men?whether or not they were actually involved
in political activism?for persecution and disappearance. A generation of
youthful participants in the region's political culture was devastated in these
nations. In other cases, as among the Sandinistas in Nicaragua and the
Zapatistas in Chiapas, Mexico, young men and women were key players in
more successful revolutionary uprisings and efforts toward democratic trans
formation. The involvement of Latin American youth has had a profound
influence on the tenor and demands of political and cultural movements in the
region in recent times.

YOUTH AS AGENTS OF CHANGE

Despite clear examples in which age has been a defining point of reference for
particular cultural and political agendas, youth?with all of their historical and
cultural contingencies as youth who are in and of themselves social actors?are
rarely prominent in scholarly investigations in Latin America. Indeed, a recent

Jon Wolseth is a visiting assistant professor of anthropology at Luther College and has conducted
in-depth ethnographic research on youth violence and religious movements in Honduras and on
violence and drug use among street populations in the Dominican Republic. Florence E. Babb is
Vada Allen Yeomans Professor of women's studies at the University of Florida and a participat
ing editor of Latin American Perspectives. A cultural anthropologist, she is the author of Between
Field and Cooking Pot: The Political Economy of Marketwomen in Peru (1998 [1989]) and After
Revolution: Mapping Gender and Cultural Politics in Neoliberal Nicaragua (2001). The collective
thanks them for organizing this issue.
LATIN AMERICAN PERSPECTIVES, Issue 161, Vol. 35 No. 4, July 2008 3-14
DOI: 10.1177/0094582X08318975
? 2008 Latin American Perspectives

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4 LATIN AMERICAN PERSPECTIVES

collection of work on contemporary social movements in the region, one that is


particularly attuned to gender, race, sexuality, and environmentalism, was
among the first to give more than glancing attention to youth as a significant cat
egory of analysis (Alvarez, Dagnino, and Escobar, 1998). Yet children and young
adults are a critically important sector of society and must be understood as more
than passive recipients of others' actions. Just as women as an underrepresented
category began to receive scholarly notice a few decades ago, children and youth
are gradually becoming the subject of social analysis. Young women and men are
often cultural innovators and are the impetus for societal change. They are agents
who readily embrace new forms of cultural expression, alter language by intro
ducing new terminologies, accept new technologies, and excel in global forms of
communication. While in some instances they may be part of a neoliberal van
guard of consumption, desiring objects and experiences unheard of a generation
or two before, in others they are at the forefront of antiglobalization movements.
In diverse ways, youth struggle to manage their local everyday realities even as
they imagine global possibilities for change.
Nowhere is this more visible than in the public life of youth in urban plazas.
On sale amid the underwear, T-shirts, and shoes, pirated CDs have become
big business. Young men and women peruse the latest releases from the
United States and England alongside cumbias, merengues, and salsas.
Teenage boys ogle posters of Britney Spears, Shakira, and Jennifer Lopez even
as they sport Che Guevara caps or wristbands. Young people come to spend
their money on knock-off designer brands?they look for the Nike swoosh,
the Polo pony insignia, and the red, white, and blue miniature flags that
pledge their allegiance to Tommy Hilfiger. Those with more monetary
resources or connections to family in the United States may acquire originals
and wear them with obvious pride. Upper- and middle-class youth can be
seen in dance clubs that rival those in Miami and Houston, displaying multi
ple body piercings and familiarity with all the latest dance moves.
Youth contribute to the internationalization of music and dance styles.
Zolov (1999), in his work on Mexican youth countercultures in the second half
of the twentieth century, points out that young people defied strict govern
ment control of music by pirating and circulating recordings by Elvis, the
Beatles, and other foreign artists. Today, youth throughout Latin America
have contributed to the popularity of hip-hop and rap music, internationaliz
ing the form and style. Groups such as Mexico's Control Machete and Puerto
Rico's Calle 13 blend rap beats with regional musical forms such as danz?n
and merengue and add explicitly political or overtly sexual lyrics. The popu
larity of Spanish-language hip-hop among youth in the region is in part due
to its tendency to criticize and capitalize on globalization. In the Caribbean,
this blended musical style of hip-hop, merengue, and bachata is a recognized
genre, regueton, and, while it resonates with diasporic communities in the
United States, its concerns are grounded in local youth experience. Youth also
fuse rap and hip-hop music styles with religious themes, creating the "raperos
para Cristo" and "born-again" reguet?n that preach and perform.
Young men and women are instigators of change in gender relations in the
region. Gutmann (1996) points to the fact that the younger generation of men in
working-class Mexico City, faced with the reality of dual-income households,
are redefining macho behavior. Most young men, he observes, are willing to

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Wolseth and Babb / YOUTH AND CULTURAL POLITICS 5

help more in child care and household duties. They also have altered some of
their double-standard attitudes regarding sexual behavior. Carrillo (2002)
demonstrates that although young men in Guadalajara who have same-sex rela
tions value the spirit of spontaneity in their sexual behavior, they are also aware
of the importance of practicing safer sex. These youth are not necessarily con
flicted; rather, it is in the contradictions of knowledge and practice that they
negotiate cultural and sexual identity. Parker (1999), in his study of male sexu
ality in urban Brazil, highlights both the emergence of an international gay iden
tity among his youthful informants and local classifications of gendered and
sexual behavior that often override the concerns of the international gay com
munity Prieur (1998) and Kulick (1998) detail the ways in which young male
transvestites (in Mexico and Brazil respectively) alter their bodies and social
relations in attempts to redefine masculinity and femininity
New educational and work opportunities for young women are also chang
ing the landscape of gender relations in the region. Enrollment in primary
school is the same for boys and girls in most countries in Latin America, sug
gesting that boys and girls have equal access to education. In countries where
enrollment rates are low (such as, Guatemala), it is equally so for the two gen
ders. According to a 2001 UNESCO report, in 13 of 19 countries in the region,
young women outnumber young men in secondary school enrollment and are
more likely to finish their bachillerato (UNESCO, 2001: 45). Tertiary education
enrollment of young women in the region is seeing a steady increase. It is dif
ficult to determine the social reasons for this increase in young women's
enrollment from the statistical data, but anecdotal and ethnographic data are
suggestive. In communities with high rates of male out-migration, parents
may be investing more heavily in the education of their daughters with the
expectation that they will stay in-country and provide subsistence-level
incomes while their brothers are socialized to look for work elsewhere.
Notably, in the neoliberal economies of Latin America, employment oppor
tunities for young women without children are increasing, especially in the
burgeoning service industries. Manufacturing and maquila industries prefer
to hire young women for their supposed greater dexterity and docility in the
workplace. When young women become pregnant and start families, they
typically leave their jobs or are forced from them by employers, keeping
wages low. Such strategies of flexible labor accumulation are reinforced by a
reservoir of ready workers (Fernandez-Kelly, 1983; Safa, 1995). Age, class, and
ethnic identities intersect, as in the case of young and poor rural indigenous
Guatemalan women who, while integrated into the global economy through
work in light manufacturing, find themselves with dissipating community,
cultural, and family ties. Access to work opportunities, while providing
needed income, does not translate into an increase in power at the local or
national level, as these young women move from patriarchal authority in the
household to patriarchal authority in the factory (Green, 2003).

YOUTH AND FAMILY: LOCAL AND TRANSNATIONAL

Within the household, youth often play active roles as necessary contribu
tors to the domestic economy who also drive consumption choices. Children

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6 LATIN AMERICAN PERSPECTIVES

and youth make demands on the ways in which families spend their incomes.
For example, in Andean Peru, Weismantel (1989) has shown that children's
preference for white bread has shifted the uses of local grains and altered
dietary patterns. In addition to introducing less nutritious staples, such
demands change culturally appropriate ways of eating and sharing food.
Young Maya women in Guatemala may use their increased earnings from
factory work to buy traditional traje, their dress being a marker of their indige
nous identity and an important index of their local community ties while they
themselves may be unable to weave (Green, 2003). Working youth may spend
less of their income on household necessities, instead purchasing personal
consumer items like clothes, music, nonlocal food, electronics, and entertain
ment. Changes in consumption patterns such as these rearrange priorities in
ways that may not be beneficial to the household's survival.
Parents with the means to provide better opportunities for their children find
that education costs have risen as they invest in private schools or supplemen
tal programs such as the computer schools that seem to be housed in Internet
caf?s throughout urban Latin America. In rural areas as well, parents are elect
ing to invest in education, sending one or two children to live with relatives in
the city so that they may attend secondary school. This changes the face of
household and agricultural labor and, in many cases, creates a glut of partially
educated young men and women living in rural areas without job prospects
(Krauskopf, 1998). At the national level, government youth policies generally
stress the necessity for higher education without providing the means for
acquiring it. Nor is public policy often concerned with the underemployment of
educated young men and women (see Mu?oz, 1998; Hern?ndez, 1998; Liebel,
1992). It is difficult for youth to remain enthusiastic about school or optimistic
about their future when they see few positive results.
Out-migration, whether from rural areas to urban ones or from depressed
national economies to the United States and Canada, has consequences for
children, young people, and their families. When parents migrate to seek work
in the North, their children and other relatives are involved in the vicissitudes
of what are now termed "transnational families" (Hirsch, 2003). Migration is at
times an attractive, if risky, possibility for young adults. Significantly, this phe
nomenon is not gender-specific?young women, as well as young men, are
leaving their natal towns and countries to seek their fortunes elsewhere. In
areas where men's agricultural labor is highly valued, young women may be
encouraged to migrate. Migration has, for better or worse, altered household
composition and relative power, fragmenting families, age cohorts, and tradi
tional support systems. Families that have been separated by transnational
migration may have difficulty raising children and adolescents despite efforts
to provide the immediate care and direction that they need.
When weaker family relationships combine with sporadic school attendance
and inadequate instruction, youth find alternative forms of socialization and
acceptance. This puts them at greater risk for living and spending time on the
streets, as Tobias Hecht (1998; 2006) and others writing on street children in
Brazil (Moulin and Pereira, 2000) have shown. Living on the streets can serve
to perpetuate youth violence and expose young people to state abuses, as in the
case of El Salvador (Smutt and Miranda, 1998). Research in Cuba, however,
shows that government-sponsored social programs can prevent children from

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Wolseth and Babb / YOUTH AND CULTURAL POLITICS 7

living on the street. The state intervenes to replace unstable families (Lutjens,
2000a; 2000b). Migration also increases the flow of transnational goods, styles,
and organizations. In Central America, one consequence of transnational
migration has been the introduction of deadly street gangs born in the United
States (Falla, 2001). Gangs introduce international street style and communica
tion (Savenije and Lodewijkx, 1998) along with drugs such as crack and speed.
They provide a different kind of support from that of the family for young men
and women who feel the attenuating effects of economic pressures and
transnational migration (Cruz and Portillo, 1998; Rosales et al., 1991). The glob
alization of youth gang identities in the hemisphere is having a radical impact
on the ways in which 'Tocar7 and "global" geographies intersect as deported
youths reshape cities like San Salvador and Tegucigalpa, modeling spatial and
gang relationships found in Los Angeles (Zilberg, 2004; Vigil, 2002).

YOUTH AND THE STATE

Latin American youth are a marginalized population, whatever their


socioeconomic class status, insofar as the nation-state defines them as non- or
partial citizens, but this does not mean that they are powerless. In fact, youth
in Latin American countries can produce anxiety for governments and non
governmental organizations (NGOs) because of the ways in which they
synthesize and manipulate traditional and innovative cultural styles.
Working-class youth, both urban and rural, hold a double position in the pop
ular and state-level imagination, being both held up as the cornerstone of the
future and derided as a national embarrassment if discovered to be out of
their proper place. Youth, like children, are the preoccupation of national
debates on citizenship, cultural rights, and environmental policy. Similarly,
public debate over the position and behavior of youth is also implicitly about
immigration, economics, and indigenous rights. Youth occupy center stage in
the cultural politics of the nation (Stephens, 1995; Scheper-Hughes and
Sargent, 1998; Malkki and Martin, 2003).
Much of the concern over youth in Latin America is a response to the con
dition of youth who lack access to socializing institutions such as the family,
church, work, and schools. Recent ethnographic studies of street youth have
detailed the grim consequences of being at the margins of social respectability
(Aptekar, 1988; 1991; Hecht, 1998; Scheper-Hughes and Hoffman, 1998;
Marquez, 1999; Kovats-Bernat, 2006). Street youth's experience intensifies
interpersonal and social violence both as victims and as perpetrators. They are
targets of homicide, rape, and theft for others living on the street and for the
police and para-state forces.
Latin American street youth are the most visible group of young people in
the academic and public policy literature. They have generated an inordinate
amount of interest in the national and international press, partly because their
visible presence in public space clashes with society's definition of what youth
ought to be doing (Hecht, 1998). In many cases, the total number of street
youth has been greatly overestimated (Rosemberg, 2000). The majority of
young people do not live on the streets. This emphasis on street youth has had
the effect of stigmatizing any young person who is found on the streets

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8 LATIN AMERICAN PERSPECTIVES

(Mickelson, 2000a). It has resulted in aggressive "street-cleaning" programs


designed to remove all youth from urban streets and city centers through
police harassment and incarceration. At the ideological level, the excessive
interest in street youth serves to legitimize the repression and even killing of
youth by para-state organizations (Huggins and Mesquita, 2000). But youth
who are found on the streets may not actually live there full-time (if at all) but
rather work on the streets or spend time hanging out on street corners while
unemployed. This distinction between youth on the streets and of the streets
receives little public recognition. Often in these contexts, any poor, young
person found on the streets?even if working or spending leisure time rather
than living there?is coded as a threat to public safety and the national image
(Moser and van Bronkhorst, 1999).

CITIZENSHIP AND THE RIGHTS OF YOUTH

At the national level, many governments proclaim pro-youth policies


through their ratification of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child or
pro-youth legislation (including laws ratified in Colombia in 1997, Mexico in
1999, and the Dominican Republic in 2000). Young people are brought into a
child rights discourse that seeks to empower children and youth, but the
incorporation of such discourse into protective legislation, laws, and
programs is idiosyncratic at best (Stephens, 1995; Scheper-Hughes and
Sargent, 1998). NGOs may use the umbrella protection of the convention to
strengthen the structural position of young people and have experienced
some success. The National Movement of Street Children in Brazil (Klees,
Rizzini, and Dewees, 2000), the National Movement of Organized Working
Children in Peru (Liebel, 2000), and the Movement of Working Children and
Adolescents in Nicaragua (Babb, 2001: 210), for example, are partly organized
and run by children and youth themselves. These organizations have decades
long histories of promoting the right of children and youth to work and the
dignity and solidarity of working minors. Together with adult facilitators,
they take the expressed concerns of young people to national forums, address
ing the public sphere and politicians alike. They present a positive image of
street and working youth and lobby for the inclusive protective rights of citizen
ship that are denied them through vigilantism, police brutality, and restrictive
governmental policies. The organizations confront middle- and upper-class
notions of appropriate childhood, broaden the public conception of youth and
child rights, and challenge academics to view children and youth as political
and social actors (Martinez, 2007).
Young people on the streets are often considered social deviants because
they violate the dominant middle-class norms that hold that children and
youth should be in homes with families, in schools, or working in the formal
economy. They challenge deeply held cultural values of family, education, and
work (Mickelson, 2000b). Deviating from cultural norms, youth found outside
of institutional control are easily conflated with criminal deviants?thieves,
drug addicts, and murderers?and coded as transgressors. A regionwide
increase in youth homicide (and not just by other youth) demonstrates the vio
lent consequences. Youth who violate norms index the failure of society to
provide them with educational and employment opportunities for the future.

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Wolseth and Babb / YOUTH AND CULTURAL POLITICS 9

Children and youth in poverty are consistently denied access to education


by its prohibitive costs. As a result, a primary site for child socialization and
societal integration, the school system, fails to reach a sizable portion of the
population. Instead of receiving formal schooling, children living in eco
nomic hardship are socialized early to help meet family needs by entering
the workforce. For example, a 1997 report indicated that 620,000 young
Honduran men and women were working, most in substandard high-risk
jobs that offered low pay, and, of those, 270,000 were working without pay
in exchange for work, food, or housing (Salom?n, Castellanos, and Flores,
1999: 47). Recent ILO statistics for the region show that 30 million youth
between the ages of 15 and 24 years are employed in the informal labor
market, representing over half of the working youth in the region
(Organizaci?n Internacional del Trabajo, 2007).
Paradoxically, early entry into the working world is at once necessary for
the economic survival of the family and a tangible marker of a troubled eco
nomy. In a neoliberal economic context, youth may find work more easily than
adults precisely because they are more "willing" to work for low pay. The
trade-off, of course, is that working young men and women do not receive the
education and training they need to obtain formal-sector employment, and
many remain unemployed or marginally employed in adulthood. Some NGO
programs, recognizing the value and worth that youth may gain in the house
hold by working to meet family needs, have offered monetary incentives to
youth who stay in training programs. These youth continue to be a vital part
of the economic support of the household while also receiving training and
education to increase their chances for more gainful employment in the future
(Almeida and Carvalho, 2000; de Queiroz and Elliot, 2000; Silva, 2000).

MOVING BEYOND MARGINALIZATION

A general lack of opportunities, even for those who continue with formal
education and job training, has created a situation in which many young men
and women are pessimistic about their future. Sofia Montenegro (2001) char
acterizes Nicaraguan youth in the 1990s as politically apathetic and disen
gaged from active political struggle as compared with youth in the 1970s and
1980s, who were an active force in the toppling of the Somoza dictatorship and
in key Sandinista projects such as literacy and health campaigns (Abaunza
and Sol?rzano, 1994; Abaunza, Sol?rzano, and Fern?ndez, 1995). She attrib
utes this generational difference in attitude toward political engagement to a
neoliberal economy and the exclusion of youth by the government and polit
ical parties. She argues that youth have instead withdrawn to family life and
the private sphere, a phenomenon not limited to Nicaragua but also cited for
El Salvador (Ramos, 1998), Costa Rica (Mu?oz, 1998), and Honduras (Hern?ndez,
1998). "Privatized" forms of religious practice?both Catholicism that is not
associated with liberation theology and evangelical Protestantism?as well as
"private" cliques such as popular-class youth gangs and middle-class subcul
tural affiliations are part of this withdrawal from politics.
A disengagement from traditional politics may also be due to a regionwide
increase in violence against youth. Throughout the hemisphere, violent death

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10 LATIN AMERICAN PERSPECTIVES

rates are highest for young men and women (WHO, 2002). Young men in par
ticular are targets of violence, appearing as the most frequent victims in gov
ernment statistics and newspaper reports. Those who are young, poor, and
male in urban Latin America make up the highest-risk category. To the extent
that youth are becoming politically disengaged, this no doubt corresponds to
their violent exclusion from public life.
Notwithstanding a general disengagement from the usual realms of poli
tics, the party system and trade unions, youth are often in the vanguard of
new social movements and in the literary, arts, and cultural scenes of urban
centers. For example, in the Dominican Republic there are a number of youth
led initiatives and social movements that connect youth with other sectors,
such as the nationwide environmental movement, Brigada Verde, and
HIV/AIDS prevention programs like Escojo Yo. HIV/AIDS prevention is an
arena in which many local-level NGOs rely heavily on the participation and
leadership of politically aware youth. For example, Amigos Siempre Amigos,
in Santo Domingo, is a gay rights and HIV /AIDS prevention program whose
core membership and staff are made up of young gay men. Writing of youth
participation in social movements in Chile, Larroquette (2005) argues that
civic engagement of youth is best viewed as a continuum ranging from polit
ical parties to subcultural formations. Less well studied but effective in terms
of overall gains is participation in regional and municipal politics, whereby
youth groups may demand access to educational and community resources.
Youth are less frequently involved at the state level and, when they are, may
recapitulate or challenge political patronage and caudillo-style politics.
Contributors to this issue, the first to focus on youth in the region, take up
a wide range of topics. Donna Guy offers a provocative historical assessment
of the ways in which the Dirty War in Argentina deployed meanings long
associated with parental abandonment of children when older youth and
political dissidents were seized and disappeared. Guadalupe Salazar com
pares harsh police responses to two groups of youth in Chile, street children
and high-school activists, showing that widely held perceptions of "appropri
ate" childhood motivated differential treatment by social class. A fascinating
companion to Salazar's article is offered by Leticia Veloso, whose concern for
the implementation of children's rights is taken in another direction when she,
too, compares two groups of youth, Brazilian street children and privileged
students. The former are sometimes aware that their status as minors "pro
tects" them from arrest, and so they enact what their future holds for them:
little opportunity and possibly a life of crime. The latter enjoy a democratic
educational environment in which they express a commitment to universal
human rights, though they also accept a degree of social inequality.
A number of contributors make use of ethnographic research to discuss
strategies for getting by during a time of neoliberalism. Jessaca Leinaweaver
calls for greater attention to youth in Peru and elsewhere in the continent for
an understanding of kinship practices in poor rural and urban families. Her
research examines child circulation as a strategy for enabling children to get
ahead and families to alleviate economic pressures. While Leinaweaver's
study notes the frequency of internal migration, Michelle Moran-Taylor's
work considers the case of transnational families in Guatemala when parents
migrate north and children remain in-country. She shows how families must

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Wolseth and Babb / YOUTH AND CULTURAL POLITICS 11

struggle to adapt when their lives reach across national boundaries as a result
of economic need.
The responses of youth to the dislocations of living in political and eco
nomic uncertainty in a time of modernist claims to universal citizenship vary
enormously. Jon Wolseth considers the strategic move of some young
Hondurans who reject urban gangs for organized religion. These youth may
exchange everyday violence for the transformative value of Pentecostalism
out of desperation and then find redemption through conversion in the
church's protective "social space." At the other end of the spectrum, Bruno
Baronnet discusses rebel youth in Chiapas, Mexico, who embrace Zapatista
political and educational practices. These young indigenous people engage in
autonomous community-based projects with a view to building a new society.
Different though these Honduran and Mexican youth may appear in their
political orientations, both groups are passionately involved in processes of
self-actualization and social reconstruction.
This issue presents timely work that redresses past scholarly neglect of the
role of youth in the region's cultural, political, and social movements?a
neglect not only of the impact of such movements on youth but also of the
ways in which youth act as innovators and invigorate movements with new
organizational practices and new visions. Through their active participation in
the household, community, and wider structures of public life, youth learn
what it means to be full citizens of their nations. At the broadest level, the
future of the democratic transition in Latin America will depend on the
engagement of young women and men in calling for, securing, and preserv
ing their citizenship rights. What we find in the engaged scholarship pre
sented here is abundant evidence that by focusing on young people we gain
distinct and meaningful perspectives on urgent contemporary concerns in the
Latin American region. We discover new insights into what is most vexing in
neoliberal economies, what is most promising in current political struggles,
and how youth cultures are transformed by globalization in both adverse and
positive ways.

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12 LATIN AMERICAN PERSPECTIVES

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