SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador- “What makes this a middle class community is the guard,” my wife’s cousin spoke to me as we sat inside of his home in San Salvador. I had asked him about the gates that I have observed at the entrance way to most residential streets in his part of the city, and I wondered if these gates were a sign of class, or if most of the residential areas of San Salvador had gates in front of them.
He answered that even poor communities will often put up gates across the access areas of their residential streets, the only difference is that they do not have official guards controlling who can enter. Rather, each person who lives inside will have a key to the gate — all others are kept out by community decree.
San Salvador is not a secure city by any means, the people there seek to protect themselves from theft or intrusion by not only securing their homes with cages and razor wire, but also safeguarding their entire community with gates put up at the entrance ways to major streets and every other access point into the community. It is my impression that these gates draw a clear distinction between who is allow inside and who should remain on the outside — they are the physical manifestations of where a community begins and where the common, public, commercial areas end. A person cannot just go for a stroll through the residential areas of this city — no, they need a reason for going into the communities where other people live.
Though many of the streets beyond the gates ARE public streets — they are maintained by municipal work crew, garbage collection, etc . . . — the only thing that private about these areas are the people who are allowed to be there: the residents who live inside the fences have claimed the streets around their homes for themselves, and have sought to keep them safe by controlling who may, or may not, enter.
These are not preplanned gated communities as are popular in India, the USA, or Europe, but they are just normal urban neighborhoods who decided to put up gates at the ends of their streets. The result is that the residential areas of San Salvador feel a lot safer than in many other Central American capitals. When out in the commercial areas of the city, you are of course a little on guard against being robbed. My cousin told me that a place right outside of his gate is a common place for robberies. He told be that right in front of a church there is a little courtyard where thieves like to hide and select their targets.
“People get robbed there all the time around 5 PM.”
I knew exactly where he was talking about, as the evening before I had actually stood in this little courtyard with Petra — perhaps right in the little hiding nook just inside the gate where the thieves are suppose to hide — and took a couple photos of the church. I did not feel as if I was doing anything particularly risky until I noticed a street vendor looking at me with the particular expression — eyebrows raised to their fullest height, eyes made real big — of someone trying to communicate a warning. I thought that he may have been telling me to get away. I got away, and thought little of the encounter until talking with my cousin. I was two blocks from the gate that lead into his community, and, apparently, in a place of relative danger.
Meanwhile, inside my cousin in law’s community — which is just a standard set of residential streets that someone slapped a gate and a guard in front of — people hang out until all hours of the night. People walk outside without fear, they drink beer in the streets with their friends, teenage boys hold hands with teenage girls on sidewalk curbs, old folks watch their dogs poop under the moon. There does not seem to be a sense of urgency, I could not detect a sense of fear — the community watches out for itself, the community is designated as such by the gate and the guard, and the simple fact that everybody seems to know who is suppose to be on the inside, and who is to remain outside.
I walked through the streets with my cousin in law, he introduced me to the gate guard, and his neighbors seemed to make the association that I was with him so I was therefore safe. I talked with an old lady in my cousin’s community while walking with Petra a few days after arrival. I mistakenly told her that I was staying with my wife’s prima (girl cousin). The lady corrected me, and I was informed that I was in fact staying with my wife’s primo (male cousin).
It is my impression that the gates at the entrance ways to residential areas in San Salvador are a somewhat recent development. I even watched a gate being built during my walks around the city, and my cousin says that the gate in front of his community is only a couple years old. He also stated that the reason for some of the gates in the middle class areas of San Salvador are more to prohibit outsiders from driving their cars in and taking up parking spaces than an attempt to build up palisades against intruders.
Though Latin American neighborhoods are often guarded with strict insider/ outsider regulations that are enforced with or without physical gates. “If I were to go walking in a poor community where I did not live that did not have a fence, the people there would come up to me and ask me what I was doing,” my cousin explained.
But a gate or a fence is a symbol that means something, it is a physical dividing line that says that you are entering another territory, it is a inarguable demarcations which tells you where you belong and where you don’t — it is a visible line that makes no questions about what side you stand on.
Chinatowns around the world often have large ornately carved and brightly painted gates at their main entrances. These are not restrictive gates — you can walk through them at will — but they are more mental gates: they tell you that you are entering into a new territory. These gates mean to some that they are home, and in a place that they can feel safe, while they are warnings to others that they are not where they are suppose to be, and should leave.
I once did a short study on the Chinatowns of India, and one line stuck with me:
“Chinatowns were built not to keep the Chinese people in, but to keep everybody else out.”
But gates always act in both directions.
Gates can both provide feelings of security concurrently with feelings of insecurity. The emotional response that a person feels in a place they feel is safe is often the same response that tells them that other places are dangerous. Safety is often a response to a feeling of danger. A gate may be a good way to keep intruders out, but they are also good ways to keep you in.