Wellesley Anthropology Professor Studies Bolivian Lenders’ Use of Graffiti to Trigger Repayment

Graffiti on the wall of a house, which reads "Deudor moroso"
Image credit: Susan Ellison
June 20, 2019

Pressed by her desperate sister-in-law, the woman identified as Modesta, a resident of El Alto, Bolivia, co-signed a bank loan with her. Before long, the loan payments fell into arrears, and the bank held Modesta responsible.

A visitor came to Modesta’s home one night with a can of spray paint. In large letters, he wrote Deudor moroso (defaulting debtor) on the brown adobe wall around her home, where she lived with her extended family.

“Debtor graffiti traffics in humiliation and targets the household,” said Susan Ellison, Wellesley assistant professor of anthropology, who spent two and a half years researching credit and debt in El Alto and the increasingly popular use of debtor graffiti. “It does so by publicizing economic ruin through the materiality and visibility of spray paint.”

“It’s like a stain; for the people you live with, for your neighbors to see. It makes you look bad, like an irresponsible person,” one of Modesta’s daughters told Ellison in an interview. “It’s as if the objective of the bank is to pressure you through disgrace.”

As she discusses in her recent paper “Painted by Default: Public Shaming and Graffiti on the Homefront,” Ellison followed Modesta and other El Alto residents who sought legal assistance through El Alto’s Integrated Justice Centers, gaining first-hand knowledge of an issue affecting many people there. Despite Bolivia’s economic growth, many people in El Alto struggle financially, as families procure loans from relatives, microfinance institutions, or moneylenders to open small storefront businesses that sell everything from bread and eggs to office supplies and photocopies.

In a city populated by extended, multigenerational families who live together in household compounds, those public walls matter. Unpaid debts create conflicts not only with lending institutions but also among family members.

“It’s not the individual loan recipient who is branded delinquent but much larger family networks,” said Ellison. “As more and more people flee across international borders to avoid debt repayment, the graffiti serves as a mechanism to recover loans by pressuring those who remain behind.” In another family Ellison studied, a man identified as Daniel described frustration with his sister, who had secured a loan from a microfinance group but could not keep up with her payments. Someone spray-painted debtor graffiti on the wall outside the family compound.

“My father is pretty radical,” said Daniel. “He doesn’t like public scandal. Conflict must be kept inside the family.”

Loan officials Ellison interviewed admitted that the graffiti was “a common, if unofficial, practice.” One loan officer said the graffiti served as psychological or social pressure to coerce payment from the debtor.

Ellison’s research shows how debt and graffiti transform a family’s household walls into a very public platform to generate “conflict that crosses the thresholds of people’s homes and market stalls.”

Her research was part of her book that was published last year and titled  Domesticating Democracy: The Politics of Conflict Resolution in Bolivia, winner of the Latin American Studies Association’s Bryce Wood Book Award for outstanding book in the social sciences and humanities published in English.

In the book, Ellison examines foreign-funded democracy assistance programs operating in Bolivia, particularly programs targeting interpersonal and sociopolitical conflict in El Alto. She found that much of the case load of these conflict resolution programs was dedicated to resolving widespread tensions, and even overt violence, generated by residents’ crushing debt.

Photo: A home in Bolivia spray-painted with the phrase "defaulting debtor, pay up." The remnants of earlier attempts to brand the house as insolvent can also be seen, marked out, presumably by the homeowner.