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In Argentina and Uruguay, a barrio is a division of a municipality officially delineated by the local authority at a later time, and sometimes keeps a distinct character from others (as in the barrios of Buenos Aires though they have been superseded by larger administrative divisions). Here, the word does not have a special socioeconomic connotation, except that it is used in contrast to the centro (city center or downtown). The expression barrio cerrado (translated "closed neighborhood") is employed for small, upper-class, residential settlements, planned with an exclusive criterion and often literally enclosed in walls (a kind of gated community).
In Colombia, the term is used for any urban area neighborhood whose geographical limits are determined locally. The term does not have any social class condition or overtones, as it is used to refer to working-class areas as well as those populated by the well-to-do. The term barrio de invasión or comuna is more often used to refer to shanty towns, but the term "barrio" has a more general use.
The United States usage of the term barrio is also seen in Venezuela and the Dominican Republic, where barrio is commonly given to slums in the outer rims of big cities such as Caracas and Santo Domingo, as well as lower to middle-class neighborhoods in other cities and towns. Well-known localities in the United States containing a sector called "Barrio" include Manhattan (Spanish Harlem), East Los Angeles, California; and Chicago, Illinois. Some of these are referred to as just "El Barrio" by the locals and nearby residents.
Over the centuries, the colonial Hispanic American cities evolved as a mosaic of the various barrios, surrounding the central administrative areas. As they matured, the barrios functionally and symbolically reproduced the city and in some way tended to replicate it. The barrio reproduced the city through providing occupational, social, physical and spiritual space. With the emergence of an enlarged merchant class some barrios were able to support a wide range of economic levels. This led to new patterns of social class distribution throughout the city. Those who could afford to locate in and around the central plazas did so. The poor and marginal groups still occupied the spaces at the city's edge.
The desire on the part of the sector popular to replicate a barrio was expressed through the diversity of the populace and functions and the tendency to form social hierarchies and to maintain social control. The limits to replication were mainly social. Any particular barrio could not easily expand territorially into other barrios, nor could it easily export its particular social identity to others. Different barrios provided different products and services to the city. One might make shoes while another made cheese. Integration of daily life could also be seen in the religious sector, where a parish and a convent might serve one or more neighborhoods.
The mosaic formed by the barrios and the colonial center continued until the period of independence in Mexico and Latin America. The general urban pattern was one where the old central plaza was surrounded by an intermediate ring of barrios and emerging suburban areas linking the city to the hinterland. The general governance of the city was in the hands of a mayor and city councilors. Public posts were purchased and funds given to the local government and the royal bureaucracy. Fairness and equity were not high on the list of public interests. Lands located on the periphery were given to individuals by local authorities, even if this land was designated for collective uses, such as farming or grazing. This practice of peripheral land expansion laid the groundwork for later suburbanization by immigrants from outside the region and by real estate agents.
At the edge of Hispanic American colonial cities there were places where work, trade, social interaction and symbolic spiritual life occurred. These barrios were created to meet the space needs of local craftsman and the shelter needs of the working class. At times they were designed to meet municipal norms, but they usually responded to functional requirements of the users. Barrios were built over centuries of sociocultural interaction within urban space. In Mexico and in other Latin American countries with strong heritages of colonial centers, the concept of barrio no longer contains the social, cultural and functional attributes of the past. The few surviving barrios do so with a loss of traditional meaning. For most of them the word has become a descriptive category or a generic definition.
Life in the barrios of Caracas, Venezuela, is a struggle for most and living conditions are often precarious. The main disadvantage of living in the barrios is that it presents very cramped living conditions with only the basic facilities available. People living in these areas lack running water, proper sanitation and face high risks of crime. Lack of schooling and a full educational offering are also problems. Garbage disposal is inappropriate presenting their own health risks. People built their own poor structure houses from provided government grants.
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