“It’s not just about money”: An Ethnography of Rebusque Performances and Life-Stories on Public Transportation Buses in Downtown Bogotá, Colombia

Master's Thesis, 2010
140 Pages, Grade: With Distinction


Table of Contents

Chapter 1: Introduction
1.1. Venturing Out on the Buses
1.2 Context and Social Significance: Research Particularities and Performance Conditions
1.3 Methodological Approaches and Ethics
1.4 Ethnographic and Theoretical Background
1.5 Research Questions
1.6 Chapter Outline

Chapter 2: Spatio-Temporal Dimensions of Rebusque
2.1 The Space of the Bus within Urban and Public Spatialities
2.2 Pursuing and Getting on the Bus: Time and Relations with Bus Drivers
2.3 Relationships Between Bus Riders and Rebusque Workers

Chapter 3: Rebusque on the Buses is for More than Monetary Gain: Informal Workers Acting Against Conventional Misperceptions of their Work
3.1 Challenging the Criminality Perception
3.2 Challenging Widespread Misconceptions of Deceit and Lack of Hygiene in Rebusque
3.3 Addressing Conflicting Ideas of Rebusque as a Form of Work

Chapter 4: Beyond Monetary Gain: Rebusque on the Buses as Social Critique
4.1 Bus Performances as Informal Workers’ Expressions of Social Critique
4.2 Moral Economies and Bus Rebusque: Social Expectations for the State, and Workers who Want Formal Employment
4.3 Recent Neoliberal Labour Reform and State Interventions: Changing the Meanings of Formal and Informal Sectors

Chapter 5: Neoliberalism and Expressions of “Self-Reliance” and “Resilience” as negotiated through the Social Relations of Solidarity in Bus Rebusque
5.1 Solidarity as Emergent from People’s Shared Conditions across Colombian Space and Time
5.2 Solidarity as Shaped by Nationalist Sentiments Evoked in Rebusque
5.3 Religious Beliefs as Sources of Solidarity in Rebusque

Conclusions and Suggestions for Further Research Ill


Chapter 1: Introduction

1.1 Venturing out on the buses

On a Friday afternoon during the summer of 2009,1 was riding the bus across one of the most congested areas of downtown Bogotá, Colombia,[1] ' when I was distracted by a peddler who jumped nimbly over the turnstile at the front door of the bus. This peddler, whom I will call Lorenzo,[2] was carrying a back-pack and a full box of chocolates. Still, he managed to jump over the turnstile of the bus with no apparent difficulty.

This was remarkable considering the usual problems bus riders encounter when passing the turnstile to get on the bus. Turnstiles are located across the front door of each bus and help the drivers control the entrance of each passenger so as to charge them bus fare. In order for bus riders to get through the turnstile one has to push hard, move quickly and hold onto the first support bar one finds because most bus drivers seldom wait for passengers to become settled before the bus starts moving. The fact that Lorenzo even managed to jump over the turnstile with the items he was carrying quickly got my attention. I thought his need to get on the bus in this manner, even putting his own physical safety at risk, must be exceptionally strong. I decided to stay on the bus and observe what Lorenzo would do next.

After Lorenzo jumped over the turnstile and got on the bus, he apologized to the bus driver and asked him permission to let him work on his bus, “Sorry man, could you allow me to work?” The bus driver nodded to indicate that he would permit Lorenzo to stay on the bus and work. Lorenzo thanked him and started to greet passengers, first apologizing to them for having boarded the bus in a manner which might have disturbed their trip. Riders’ responses varied. Most of them did not reply to his greeting but turned their heads away from him and towards the windows. A few, however, did greet Lorenzo in return and were attentive to what he was about to say. Lorenzo thanked those passengers who responded to his greeting.

What he did next surprised me. He started to recount his life as a displaced person from a town located in one of the most violent regions of Colombia, and said that he had been forced to move to Bogotá with his family in order to protect his loved ones from acts of violence imposed on his hometown. Lorenzo continued by describing the lack of government attention his family had received in response to their plight as displaced persons, and how they were left to overcome various hardships by themselves, especially their current unemployment. They had no work experience in Bogotá to help them gain incomes and stability for the family. He explained how “rebusque ”[3] on the buses presented them with an unusual opportunity to work toward that stability because no skills or employment history were required for him to sell chocolate to bus riders. Thus, rebusque on the buses gave him an opportunity to provide for his family in an honest way.

It so happened that seeing Lorenzo was my first encounter with some of the “informal workers”[4] who got on the main bus system in search of alternative forms of making a living by singing, selling products and so forth in the city of Bogotá in the summer of 2009.

There are two transportation systems in Bogotá and rebusque is found on only one of them. Rebusque practitioners are found in Bogotá’s larger public transport system which consists of independently operated buses. In this system, individual “driver- owners” affiliate their buses with private enterprises that follow state transit regulations in terms of securing minimal public transportation standards (Echeverry et al. 2005: 153). These buses have narrow aisles, long routes, uncoordinated schedules and impromptu bus stops. The other transport system in Bogotá is TransMilenio. This is a “hybrid” transport model that combines private operation in terms of fare collection supply of the bus fleet and service personnel, with public planning, regulation and supervision. In this case, the government assures that private enterprises meet minimal transit standards, licensing, and so forth, as well as maintenance of the system and route infrastructure (Echeverry et al. 2005:152,153; See also TransMilenio S.A. nd.: par. 3,6). TransMilenio is made up of high capacity buses that run on specific transit-ways separated from the other traffic lanes. It maintains regular time schedules and bus stations. According to former local government secretary, Clara López, informal workers are not allowed in TransMilenio as this is a privately operated system of transportation (El Tiempo 2009b: par.6). In other words, because private enterprises own TransMilenio buses, as opposed to the larger bus system where individual bus drivers own their buses and can thus decide whom they allow onto their buses, rebusque practitioners are prohibited access to TransMilenio. They are allowed only on the main “public system” in which buses are owned by their drivers.

Like Lorenzo, many informal workers within the main public transit system do not limit themselves to selling their products or musical, story-telling and poetic skills, but also offer life accounts which focus on the particular circumstances that led them to engage in their alternative job activities commonly known as “rebusque. ” These autobiographical discourses are a standard component of rebusque in Bogotá’s larger bus system, and are performed either before or after workers show their products or musical performances to bus riders. The term “rebusque” is understood broadly as the practice of looking for alternative means to help solve life’s hardships but is mostly used to refer to peoples’ actions of devising alternative employment possibilities in the context of limited opportunities for getting a formal job.[5]

1.2 Context and Social Significance: Research Particularities and Performance Conditions

There wëre three aspects of his performance that struck me as peculiar in Lorenzo’s rebusque activity on the bus. Firstly, the physical risk to just enter the bus. Secondly, the fact that he depended on the bus driver’s willingness to allow him do rebusque on his bus and on the bus riders’ attitudes of indifference or concern towards his situation. Thirdly, I found it surprising that Lorenzo provided some details of his life as part of doing rebusque. People seeking to get a source of income on the buses through rebusque do not necessarily have to give details or further insights into their lives in order to get passengers to give monetary donations. I have witnessed about ten peddlers who have entered buses just to sell their products and I have seen passengers buy them without receiving knowledge of the peddlers’ personal lives.

From this contrasting strategy, I realized that Lorenzo’s life story performance exceeded monetary motivations to some degree. Above all, it revealed a common understanding of his broader social context as one in which lack of state attention towards displaced populations causes them to experience another kind of violence in the city, namely that of unemployment and the real threats of starvation and lack of housing. Rebusque offers these people a way to sustain their households when the state has failed to assure them protection from unemployment in the cities (after having already, in many cases, failed to protect them from life-threatening violence in their rural homes).

In a country where lack of “regular employment” opportunities has pushed many people to participate in the more readily available employment as perpetrators of violence (i.e., in guerrilla and paramilitary groups which provide salaries [ENDH 2003: 274]), Lorenzo’s decision to face his problem of survival through rebusque clearly deserves some attention and ethnographic exploration, particularly as it represents a determination to seek viable alternatives to the more readily available, but violent, means of gaining a livelihood offered to Colombia’s dispossessed.

These observations lead me to ponder the extent to which rebusque practices exceed monetary relations in Colombia’s urban social life and provide a window into the country’s broader social relations of power, inequality, discrimination, opportunity and solidarity. From what I could observe as a bus rider in the next couple of days, a similar practice was shared by most informal workers doing rebusque on the buses. They too recounted their autobiographical stories of dislocation and unemployment. In this way, I came to see rebusque as a form of social activity worthy of further examination, and I decided to explore it further through ethnographic fieldwork. Both the autobiographical accounts and the social relations workers established while doing rebusque on the buses became the basis of this M.A. research project.

I was initially concerned only with the life stories spontaneously told by informal workers on the buses. As my fieldwork progressed, however, I realized that through their other performances (which include mostly songs, poetry and fables) some informal workers offered further insights into their lives and social contexts. As a result, I became equally interested in their life accounts and other performances as a way to get some insight into their lives and social domains. I must note here that I am not merely concerned with a semiotic analysis of the narratives contained in rebusque workers’ performances (although that could prove a compelling exercise in itself). I am, above all, interested in providing an ethnographic description of these rebusque practitioners’ performances and viewpoints in order to situate them more adequately within the literature on Bogotá’s “informal economy.”

This research is rather pressing because informal economic activities have grown significantly in Colombia during recent years. In 2002, the Colombian Congress introduced The Labour Reform to increase formal employment by 10% within four years (Congreso de Colombia 2002). However, political scientist and economist Amylkar Acosta notes that between August 2004 and September 2005 the creation of jobs increased but only within the informal sector, and not within the formal sector as anticipated by the 2002 Labour Reform (Acosta 2005: par.l). One does not necessarily have to resort to statistical studies to note the astonishing number of informal workers in Bogotá. This phenomenon became obvious to me when I noticed the number of informal workers who got on the buses to make a living through rebusque. In the summer of 2009, there were between two and four informal workers climbing aboard for each single route lasting around 30-45 minutes. By contrast, in the years 1989-2001, when I frequented buses in this city, the number of rebusque workers climbing aboard was not as alarmingly high.

Although the presence of informal workers on the buses is increasingly pervasive in the everyday life of bus riders of Bogotá city, these people's lives remain highly neglected in existing ethnographic literature where most research has been done on street vending (See Gil 1998; Mendoza 2000; Bromley 1978). In this thesis I suggest that the economic activities of bus informal workers need to be studied separately from informal activities in the streets since rebusque on the buses presents particular characteristics in itself that differ from informal economic activities in the street. Indeed, a comparative analysis of these differences could play a role in understanding bus rebusque. For instance, the spontaneous life story phenomenon by informal workers occurs on the buses and not on the streets. In addition, unlike street vending, there is no state regulation that forbids bus informal workers from doing rebusque on the larger public transportation system in Bogotá where bus drivers are free to let them get on their buses (or deny them access).

Nevertheless, even though they are not persecuted by the local police and so have not had to form unions just to be able to work like the street vendors have had to do (Gil 1998: 66), informal workers on the buses have had to deal with bus riders’ frequent rejection of their activities. Rebusque practitioners on the buses have to ask drivers’ permission to get on their buses and have often been mistreated by bus drivers when denied access to buses. On the other hand, unlike either workers in the formal sector or informal street vendors, the rebusque workers working on Bogotá’s main transit system make an effort to communicate messages of social dissatisfaction and resilience through their life accounts and performances. It is these particularities of rebusque on the buses which provide a means for coming to some understanding of larger and contradictory social relationships of inequality, power, discrimination, solidarity and opportunity within which bus informal workers are immersed, as I will endeavour to render evident in the course of this thesis.

Thus, this thesis examines the complexity and ambiguity of rebusque through the claims and agency of the informal workers themselves. In turn, it contrasts these with state labour policies that regulate both the formal sector and informal street vending.

This study seeks insight into bus rebusque practitioners’ life circumstances and social contexts from their own understandings of their personal and social predicaments, as well as their reasons for working in a space that was not initially conceived for their rebusque activities.

My project intends to make a contribution to anthropology and to Colombian society by addressing the gap in existing ethnographic literature regarding the informal economic activities of rebusque practitioners in public transportation in downtown Bogotá. Ethnographic research that sheds light on the performances of bus informal workers is needed because the habitual approaches to Bogotá’s workers in the informal economy criminalizes them, with little or no regard to those peoples’ actual life circumstances or social backgrounds. This form of “conventional wisdom” in the city has been a means to discriminate against bus informal workers. By attending to the messages communicated through these people’s performances which are made available to riders on public buses, my project seeks to offer alternative understandings to conventional approaches toward rebusque and its role as a labour form within the informal economy.

My research also contributes to an ongoing discussion within anthropology regarding the heterogeneity of the infonnal economy and forms of work because this project shifts discussion from more standard studies done in this field, which tend to focus on informally owned and operated businesses within larger industries (i.e manufacturing, construction etc.), and street vending. By focusing on the buses as a fieldsite, this study introduces new explorations into the ways that informal workers engage in economic activities through busking, peddling and panhandling.

This study is timely. It documents rebusque practices on Bogotá’s buses before this labour form is eliminated in March 2011. Then, a new transport system will integrate the main bus system with TransMilenio and both will be officially regulated so as to terminate bus rebusque (see El Espectador 2010:par.l2), as will be explained further in section 2.1 and the Conclusions.

1.3 Methodological Approaches and Ethics

The research findings described herein are based on one month of ethnographic fieldwork among informal workers in Bogotá’s buses from mid August to mid September 2009. My qualitative research involved participant observation from a bus- rider’s viewpoint. Participant observation data emerged from my direct participation and observation in the ordinary everyday practice of city dwellers that is bus riding, and was based solely on information that was publicly available.

For researching public workers or artistic performers about whom information is already made publicly available in the course of their labours, the Tri-council does not require ethical review. The Canadian Institutes of Health Research, Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, and Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, in section 1, Article 1.1 (c) of their “Tri-council Policy Statement: Ethical Conduct for Research Involving Humans,” have stated that: Research about a living individual involved in the public arena, or about an artist, based exclusively on publicly available information, documents, records, works, performances, archival materials or third-party interviews, is not required to undergo ethics review. Such research only requires ethics review if the subject is approached directly for interviews or for access to private papers, and then only to ensure that such approaches are conducted according to professional protocols and to Article 2.3 of this Policy (1998: PI .1).

In addition, article 2.3 of the Tri-Council Policy Statement further states:

REB review is normally required for research involving naturalistic observation. However, research involving observation of participants in, for example, political rallies, demonstrations or public meetings, should not require REB review since it can be expected that the participants are seeking public visibility (1998: A.5).

With regards to my project, performances and accounts of their own lives provided by people who work at rebusque on the buses can be considered publicly available information. The stories informal workers tell, as well as their musical performances while doing rebusque, are available to anyone who uses public transportation and could therefore be construed as being within “public visibility” so that my project would not need to undergo ethics review. Nonetheless, I have had this project reviewed by Carleton University’s ethics committee and received ethics clearance for it in August 2009.

Thus, the procedures that involved each research participant (or informal workers on the buses, and со-represent bus riders and bus drivers) are not different from the activities in which they normally engage when rebusque is practiced on the buses. There were no interviews, questionnaires, tests or personal conversations between participants and me. My only research procedure involved taking bus rides as the sole participant observation researcher. I made four city bus trips for a total of four hours daily on a variety of bus routes across downtown Bogotá.

There are advantages and disadvantages to avoiding interviews in ethnographic research. Among the advantages is that participants’ actions follow their spontaneous ways of dealing with their lives on a quotidian basis, and are less likely to be altered by the presence of the researcher or framed within the researcher’s particular set of questions, as has occurred in some ethnographic research that has resorted to this means of data collection. For instance, in his ethnographic work with Tuhami, a Moroccan tilemaker, anthropologist Vincent Crapanzano observes that, “Not only did my presence, and my questions, prepare him for the text he was to produce, but they produced what I read as a change of consciousness in him” (Crapanzano 1980:11).

However, my methodological choice of not doing interviews also has some disadvantages. I cannot claim to offer an account of informal workers’ lives and social contexts in their entirety. Although I complemented their expressed views with data found in newspapers as well as in social science and historical studies on informal workers’ testimonies, there were some aspects of their claims that still remain inconclusive and perhaps further enquiry into their particular life circumstances would have provided a more complete picture of their situations. Thus, my research cannot be taken as representative of the entire situation experienced by informal workers in Colombia, or even as a complete portrait of certain rebusque practitioners’ lives. Nonetheless, this research is presented with the aim of describing possible ways that informal economic activities on the buses in Bogotá can be understood.

I should also acknowledge that my position as a person bom and raised in Colombia undoubtedly influenced my analysis, facilitating or impeding my interpretations at various points of my research. Indeed, due to my familiarity with the Colombian context I could understand most of the underlying cultural beliefs that guide people’s daily interactions in this country. However, I may have also taken for granted some behaviors and attitudes which may have led me to overlook certain aspects that could have been relevant to analyzing the information gathered. The way I tried to overcome these drawbacks was through reflexivity, by reminding myself constantly of my position and taking a moment to think upon the different events I was going through during the research process. Ultimately, I hope that any identified biases or oversights on my part will encourage readers to explore further the arguments propounded, and to contribute to the discussion presented in this thesis.

1.4 Ethnographic and Theoretical Background

The concepts of “rebusque” and “informal economy” clearly require discussion about the contested meanings for “work” which they convey. In her study among “cartoneros” (street recyclers) in Argentina, anthropologist Corina Aimmetta notes that the idea of “work” is conventionally understood as “wage labour,” and argues that alternative forms of income and employment in the informal sector challenge such a definition of work (Aimetta 2009: 2, 3; see also Salaman 1980: 21; Durrenberg and Marti 2006: 2; Castree et al 2004; Núñez 2007; Wade 1999).

Based on my evaluation of some of the academic studies consulted for this research, I must note my reservations about the concepts of “work” and “informal economy,” particularly since they cover a wide variety of terms with different meanings. In the case of “work,” for example, “labour,” “job,” “employment,” and “occupation” are used interchangeably by some scholars to refer to “work” in their research (See for example Castree et al. 2004; Mains 2007; Mollona 2009; and Wade 1999). In addition, some of the scholarly attempts to differentiate among these concepts seem to contradict one another. For instance, what some scholars would call “work,” others would define as “labour,” and vice versa. To illustrate this viewpoint, anthropologists John Calagione and Daniel Nugent explain that, “In studying work and workers we sometimes refer now to work, now to ‘labor,’ to signify creative activity on the one hand and economically productive activity on the other”(Calagione and Nugent 1992: 7). By contrast, geographers Noel Castree et al. treat the terms of work and labour interchangeably as opposed to Calagione and Nugent’s definition that differentiates between these two concepts. Thus, Castree et al. define “labour” as “Both the act of work and the name for people who do that work” (Castree et al. 2004: 257).

Similar contradictions occur when referring to “work” in terms of “employment” and “job.” In fact, while some scholars distinguish between the concepts of employment and work, others use them as synonymous. To give an instance, economist Julio Cesar Neffa affirms that “Not all work is employment; someone can work and yet not have an employment [...] it [employment] is a labour relation that takes place for a period of time, and has a mercantile nature, as it is done in exchange for an individually assigned salary” (Neffa 1999: 135,137; my translation). On the other hand, in his study among young Ethiopians, anthropologist Daniel Mains approaches the terms of employment and work indistinguishably and does not seem to define employment as related only to wage labour. As Mains puts it, “In Ethiopia, employment is often conceived of not only in terms of labor and wages but also in relation to the social interactions associated with particular occupations [...] To work or not to work was a social decision” (Mains 2007: 660, 663).

Mains’ assertions lead me to consider another concept associated with the notion of “work,” namely “occupations.” Sociologist Graeme Salaman understands occupations as a function of work in terms of the social values attributed to it. Thus, Salaman defines occupations as, “identity-giving work [...] To describe a man’s work as an occupation suggests that his work carries implications for his identity and attitudes, and, possibly, for his choice of friends and associates” (Salaman 1980: 35). Similarly, sociologist Katherine Newman notes that an occupation relates to people’s social expectations and further links this notion to the idea of “job.” As Newman explains, “occupation is a crucial determinant of social status, because, in addition to money, a job confers prestige and a sense of purpose” (Newman 1988: 23). Meanwhile, anthropologists Ann Kingsolver and Mario Parelman propose a definition of “work” similar to that of “occupations,” but contrary to Newman, these scholars differentiate between the concepts of “work” and “job,” framing the latter one in terms of wage labour. As Kingsolver and Parelman state, “The concept of work is not synonymous with ‘having a job’ but instead needs to be understood in broader terms as part of the construction of the identities of workers” (Kingsolver and Parelman 2007: 11).

Thus, diverse accounts conceptualize work and its associated terms differently. However, there is a consensus among these authors suggesting that there is a need to expand our definition of “work” beyond understandings that frame it within monetary purposes, and consider other kinds of social exchanges and relations established by people’s experiences of their work. Indeed, an extensive literature describes the importance of providing a more inclusive definition of “work” that takes into account people’s conceptualizations and views of what they consider to be their work, and the historical and socio-cultural context in which such definitions of work are constructed (Aimetta 2009: 3, 4; Kingsolver and Parelman 2007: 11; Blau 1993: 19; Wade 1999; Heelas 2002; Mains 2007). By the same token, Kingsolver and Parelman further argue that by focusing on workers’ quotidian experiences we can examine individual as well as larger social issues, and understand that work encompasses “a whole universe of feelings and relationships that acquire significance in the individual and collective experience of the subjects” (Kingsolver and Parelman 2007: 11).

In this way, scholars have challenged traditional utilitarian assumptions that maintain the idea that money is the only incentive for work, and they urge scholars to explore the different reasons that motivates people to work (Wiik 1996: 68; Gamst 1995: xxi; Zielenic 2007: 26; Mollona 663; Annetta 2009; Ransome 2005: 22; Pardo 2009: 103; Calagione and Nugent 1992: 7). As Gamst explains, “Work has also a dimension of intrinsic rewards [...] People work for a variety of motives that are psychic, sociocultural, and economic” (Gamst 1995: xxi). Subsequent chapters of this thesis will reveal, through the ethnographic example of bus rebusque, how ideas of work vary and are constructed based on complex social relationships in which workers are immersed daily.

Sociologist Cecilia del Pilar Mendoza defines rebusque in Colombia as an individuaPs creative ability to find solutions to life adversities and reach family or personal goals. As Mendoza puts it:

“Rebusque” is an expression used broadly by Colombians to describe the way people have to “make it on their own.” It means the repeated action of looking for a way to survive when their survival is uncertain, and get the money needed to sustain themselves daily (as individuals or as a family). It means to find solutions to life crises and be able to act in an uncertain context. In sum, it is the ability to conquer life adversities. It [rebusque] could be defined as an individual’s achievement and his/her capacity to be able to do well in life despite the adverse circumstances of his/her social context, the creative disposition to find solutions to life obstacles, the perseverance to succeed, the determination to reach goals: “el ser echao pa’lante” (2000:57,58; my translation).

However, Mendoza’s perception of rebusque has been highly criticized by sociologist Alvaro Camacho who maintains that such an interpretation (of what he calls the cultural and social dimensions of rebusque) evokes a kind of creativity and ingenuity that promotes attitudes against the state, individualism and delinquency. As he expresses it:

In its social and cultural dimensions rebusque is associated with attitudes against the state, and is characterized by a group of practices that reproduce a logic of opportunity in which subjects look for the spaces offered to them on a quotidian basis to solve their individual or family problems of survival. Rebusque evokes ingenuity and creativity to evade legal norms and procedures in order to satisfy personal or group goals. It is a practice that tends to promote informality, exceed institutional limits and activate illegality and delinquency. This understanding of rebusque sustains an ideology that praises the capacity of a subject to conquer adversity, but masks the fact that this practice promotes individualism and the impoverishment of the social fabric. It has led, indeed, to the assumption that this capacity of individual achievement makes unnecessary state intervention under the belief that the presence of the state castrates private ends (Camacho 2001:133; my translation).

I find Mendoza’s and Camacho’s understandings of rebusque to be quite problematic. First of all, I disagree that rebusque should be understood in terms of an individualistic kind of agency to achieve personal or family goals as both scholars somehow assert. Indeed, while Mendoza notes that it is an individual’s response to an uncertain social context, I depart from this definition which insists that people who engage in rebusque “make it on their own” as individual and isolated agents. My findings reveal a more complex multitude of social relations which informal workers on the buses establish in order to be able to make a living through rebusque. For instance, as described above in the case of Lorenzo, rebusque workers depend on the good will of bus drivers and also upon forming some sense of solidarity with riders in order to successfully do rebusque on the buses. This becomes evident when informal workers have to ask bus drivers to be able to get on their buses or when they express their gratitude to bus drivers for letting them work on the bus and to riders for their collaboration. These acknowledgements are given in narratives performed before or after offering products or performances to bus riders.

On the other hand, I think it is quite striking that Camacho talks about the “social and cultural dimensions” of rebusque and condemns it as a practice that promotes individualism and delinquency without considering the social context in which informal workers live and the reasons they have to engage in rebusque, how they do it and for whom, exactly, they do it (Camacho 2001). Thus, Camacho’s concerns are quite ungrounded and oversimplified. I suggest that rebusque does not always promote delinquency or individualism, but quite the opposite, as the following chapters of this thesis will demonstrate.

It should be noted here that this thesis does not seek to offer an apologetic account of rebusque and the informal economy, or ignore the downsides that scholars have found in some activities of the informal economy such as workers’ exploitation and lack of social protection in the form of benefits, the low wages informal workers often earn, as well as criminal activities within informal dealings such as sex trafficking and particularly the drug trafficking in Colombia (Camacho 2001 ; Garay et al. 2009a; Bromley 1978). Rather, this thesis aims at examining the unexplored sides of rebusque, such as the social ties that sustain it as well as the kind of social, economic and political interests rebusque represents, in order to furnish an ethnographic counterpart to these scholars’ assertions.

In this vein, it is important to question the extent to which this tendency to equate all activities within the informal economy with criminality obeys conventional perceptions of informality in terms of illegality. Scholars have noted that such perceptions of informality have led some authors to view informal economic activities that do not fit into officially sanctioned economic orders, as “other” (Murphy 1990: 161) or even “deviant” (Halperin and Sturdevant 1990: 324). Indeed, the informal economy is usually related to illegality based on the idea that the activities undertaken within the informal sector develop outside the law that regulates the official or formal economy (Benton 1990; Long and Richardson 1978; De Soto 1989; Castree et al. 2004). As Long and Richardson explain, “The formal sector -including government activity and the private sector- is officially fostered and regulated by the state” (Long and Richardson 1978: 179). On the other hand, Castree et al. define the informal economy as, “Work (usually paid) undertaken outside the normal rules, regulations and norms of the formal economy” (Castree et al. 2004: 257). By the same token, De Soto argues that the persistence of the informal economy in Peru is a result of the intervention of the state through extreme regulations on the economy that obstruct people’s entrance to the formal economy and therefore informal economic activities have to develop outside the law (De Soto 1989:232). Thus, some scholars seem to agree that one of the causes of informality is formality and the legal system that regulates it. For instance, Fernandez- Kelly affirms that, “Without formal laws defining the relationship between employers and workers, the informal economy cannot exist. Put differently, formality breeds informality” (2006: 3).

Along these lines, De Soto concludes that, “For the sake of simplicity, however, we will assume that informais have no legal status whatsoever and that formais are completely legal [...] The legal system prevents people from being formal” (De Soto 1989: 152, 232). Although there is some truth to De Soto’s argument in the sense that state regulations play a role in limiting people’s access to the formal economy, I find his assertions to be quite generalistic, and questionably based on a conception that separates law from culture. As De Soto puts it, “The legal system so far seems to be the best explanation for the existence of informality [...] We cannot continue to close our eyes to the fact that not all society’s decisions are determined by its cultural characteristics or economic systems” (1989: 185,186). In this way, De Soto’s affirmation overlooks the cultural aspects and complexities of law formulation and implementation widely documented by social scientists.

Indeed, anthropologist Alexander Ervin suggests that laws and policies are not isolated aspects from culture but “emerge out of a much wider and deeper context of social action and cultural expectation” (Ervin 2005: 44). In addition, scholars agree that ideas of illegality, as well as the activities that develop within the informal economy are culture-based, and thus vary across cultures (Bromley 1994; Gaughan and Ferman 1987; Murphy 1990). To give an instance, anthropologist Joseph Gaughan and sociologist Louis Ferman discuss the ambiguity of the informal sector and its relatedness with ideas of illegality arguing that although many activities within the informal economy may be outside the law, not all are totally illegal or criminal across cultures because some informal activities are immersed in a series of relationships of “tolerance” and even “encouragement” and therefore “their status with respect to the law may vary” in different cultures (Gaughan and Ferman 1987: 22).

In addition, Tokman argues that De Soto’s widely known work on the informal economy in Peru has ignored the heterogeneity of the informal sector by categorizing all informal activities within the realm of illegality when some informal activities work in a grey arena between “underground and legality” ( Tokman 1992: 7; See also Roberts 1990:41; Lanzetta 1989: 104-108). Similarly, in anthropologist Keith Hart’s study of the informal economy among the Faifas in Northern Ghana, he notes that it is difficult to categorize workers as belonging to either sector unambiguously due to the fact that people have multiple sources of income which bridge the informal and formal sectors (Hart 1973 83; See also Garay 2009a: 199; Barber 1992: 203n4). In the same vein, Halperin and Sturdevant argue that, “To define the informal economy as only those activities that are illegal rules out all of the alternative forms that are legal, but non­mainstream” (Halperin and Sturdevant 1990: 330). Therefore, scholars seem to agree that legality is not always a useful conceptual tool for understanding the informal economy.

Nonetheless, social scientists recognize that there are indeed legal barriers and costs to entering the formal sector and “staying legal,” such as registration requirements related to taxes, licenses, safety and labour standards, and the money and time costs to get such registrations in place (Casanovas 1992: 31-43; Lagos 1992: 88-104; Powelson 1998: 12; Long and Richardson 1978). However, Lagos argues that the “institutional and legal obstacle” argument does not totally explain the persistence of the informal sector in Latin America as such costs vary among different countries of this region. For instance, according to Lagos, although Bolivia has less institutional instability and less regulation barriers in terms of time and costs to enter formality, the informal sector is almost as widespread as it is in Guatemala where institutional instability and regulation barriers are stronger (Lagos 1992: 87-89, 97).

One of the reasons, besides legal requirements, that scholars have found for informal workers choosing to remain in the informal sector is related to their income opportunities. For instance, anthropologist Martin Murphy’s work among “lechugeros”[6] in the streets of Santo Domingo notes that these informal workers chose to remain in the informal sector because they have more income opportunities than they would have in the formal economy (Murphy 1990: 176). Similarly, sociologist Bryan Roberts notes that, “At times, informal sector employment offers higher and more flexible forms of income than could be gained in the formal given age and qualifications” (Roberts 1990: 41). By the same token, scholars Murphy and Hart agree that sometimes informal workers get higher wages in the informal economy and decide to stay in it because of the inadequacy of the minimum wages in the formal sector (Murphy 1990: 171; Hart 1973:66). Thus, one of the conventional reasons that is used to categorize activities in the informal economy, specifically the fact that people receive incomes inferior to the minimum wage (Garay et al. 2009a: 199), is not always applicable to all workers’ experiences in the informal economy.

In addition to the fact that sometimes informal workers have better monetary possibilities in the informal sector, another reason for people to choose informality is time. According to Tokman, the costs of legality are not only calculated in terms of money but also in time (Tokman 1992: 8). However, Tokman notes that time concerns are not only related to the time it takes to have all the paperwork to do legitimate business but also in terms of flexible work relations and working hours. As Tokman puts it, “The work process is organized in a different manner in informal units: labor relations are not subject to contracts, working hours and remuneration are flexible” (1992: 13). Similarly, economists David Ochoa and Aura Ordóñez have noted that in Colombia some women prefer to be employed in the informal sector because it offers flexible working hours which allows them to contribute to the household income, as well as to fulfill other responsibilities in their homes (Ochoa and Ordóñez 2004: 110). This in turn shows how, as Airuetta discerns, the very idea of work time (or “disciplined” work time as historian E.P. Thompson [1967] would refer to it) seems to disappear in many activities within the informal economy (Aimetta 2009: 4) and informal workers are attracted to this.

Thus, scholars agree that a definition of the informal economy is very ambiguous due to the heterogeneity of the informal economic sector and the variety of reasons people have to resort to it; and this is commonly ignored in conventional understandings of the informal economy (Tokman 1989; Träger 1987; Lulle and Gros 2006). Anthropologist Lillian Träger, in her analysis of the informal sector in West African cities, notes the heterogeneity of the informal economy in these urban areas and advocates for a definition that encompasses the wide variety of activities that develop within the informal economic sector. In this way, Träger follows Portes and Walton’s approach to the informal economy being understood as “all income-producing activities outside formal sector wages and social security payments” (Portes and Walton as cited in Träger 1987: 239). Träger borrows this definition of the informal economy arguing that it is open to the diversity we may find in the informal sector in different cultural settings. My problem with this definition is that it places all activities within the informal economy as being solely income-driven. Although many of the reasons for people to engage in the informal sector relate to income gains, my research findings suggest that people also have other types of exchange relationships and conditions for engaging in the informal economy, as will become clear as the discussion develops.

In order to study the heterogeneity of the informal economy, Träger suggests three approaches. The first approach consists of studying informal enterprises; a second approach involves focusing on the workers in terms of their ownership characteristics, and the third approach proposed by Träger requires looking at particular types of informal activities (Träger 1987: 242, 243). Although Trager’s suggested approaches to studying the heterogeneity of the informal economy can be useful to guide our studies of it, I focus on informal workers and their rebusque activities on the buses, not in terms of their ownership characteristics, but in terms of their life’s circumstances evoked through their rebusque performances. In addition, I would also add to her suggestions that an analysis of the spatial dimensions of rebusque, namely inside buses in the case at hand, influence the ways people engage in it, and that spatial relations also influence our understandings of the heterogeneity we find in the informal sector.

It is important to note that most of the studies on the informal economy described above have been done on activities developed in the streets and within informally owned and operated businesses. Similarly, and as was briefly noted earlier, most of the anthropological work done on rebusque and the informal economy in Colombia also focuses on this activity in the streets. For instance, the most widely known ethnographic study on rebusque in Colombia is the work done by anthropologist Clara Gil on street vendors in downtown Bogotá (1998). Gil’s work sheds some light into the social context in which informal workers engage in rebusque by focusing on an analysis of this activity as it occurs on the streets through the formation of street vendors’ unions. In analyzing the persistence of the informal economy in Colombia, Gil provides a historical perspective informed by sociologist and historian Fernando Guillen’s theoretical approaches and suggests that a feudalist mentality from colonial times still permeates all levels of Colombian society and forms of social organization. I must note here that the term used by anthropologist Clara Gil to refer to this social logic in Colombia is the “Hacienda” (estate) system. Scholar Vincent Pérez explains that although historians have debated the characterization of the Hacienda insti tution as being strictly “feudal” due to its hybrid character regarding forms of production, there seems to be an agreement among these scholars that in terms of its social organization (paternalistic in nature) the Hacienda can be understood as “feudal” (Pérez 2006:31-36 ). In this vein, I am using the term “feudal” to refer to the kind of social relationships of patronage and peonage that Gil describes in relation to the Hacienda model in Colombia.

Indeed, according to Gil, “Relationships of work, property and authority are associated with an integrative model of interpersonal relationships of command, obedience and loyalty that underlies attitudes of respect, subordination, and domination in this society. This has its roots in the integrative structure of the Hacienda model” (Gil 1998:22; my translation). Thus, Gil argues that in the Hacienda system, social relationships are of an “authoritarian” and “paternalistic” model, and this is reflected in all realms of Colombian social organization (Gil 1998:22).


[1] Traffic congestion in this area of Bogotá is very common, especially on Friday afternoons when some people finish their work early and drive their cars home or other destinations in the city, as well as others who are traveling from the city to little towns in surrounding areas to spend the weekend.

[2] The names used to cite participants in this research are entirely created by the researcher and do not correspond to participants’ real names.

[3] The word “rebusque” seems to be part of the local dialect of several Latin American countries. It is used mostly to refer to a wide range of informal economic activities such as, but not limited to, peddling, busking, panhandling and street vending. There is an element of resourcefulness in practices of “rebusque,” but it does not translate directly into English. The Spanish word for resourcefulness is “recursividad.” As far as I am aware, an exact translation of the term “rebusque” into English has not yet been devised.

[4] The term “informal workers” is used in this project to refer to peddlers, buskers and panhandlers who get on the buses to do rebusque.

[5] The inclusion of panhandlers as rebusque "workers" is somewhat debatable. However, in this thesis I consider panhandlers as practitioners of rebusque following this broad understanding of this form of labour.

[6] Street vendors who sell fruits and vegetables.

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“It’s not just about money”: An Ethnography of Rebusque Performances and Life-Stories on Public Transportation Buses in Downtown Bogotá, Colombia
Informal economy, Colombia, ethnography, Latin America, anthropology, labor economics, history, ethnology
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informal economy, Colombia, etnography, anthropology, history, Latin America, Rebusque, labor economics, ethnology
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Ana Fonseca (Author), 2010, “It’s not just about money”: An Ethnography of Rebusque Performances and Life-Stories on Public Transportation Buses in Downtown Bogotá, Colombia, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/281110


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