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MEXICO: Invisible Indigenous Communities in the Heart of the Capital

Diego Cevallos

MEXICO CITY, Feb 14 2008 (IPS) - Chapultepec Avenue 380: the address leads to a downtown section of the Mexican capital full of the usual office buildings, restaurants and heavy traffic. Few people know that it is actually home to an indigenous community, made up of kids who clean windshields or panhandle for a few coins, construction workers and street vendors.

Hidden from the street by a two-metre-high white wall, a lot filled with one-story rooms houses roughly 160 Otomi indigenous people from the community of Santiago Mezquititlán, in the central Mexican state of Querétaro.

Located just five kilometres from the Zócalo, the massive downtown square where the former government palace and city hall headquarters are located, the settlement’s existence is unknown to most of its neighbours – mainly office workers who leave the area at the end of the work day – as well as the majority of Mexico City’s 20 million inhabitants.

“I came here when I was 15 and it’s hard, but what can you do about it,” Viviana de la Cruz told IPS. “They discriminate against us because we don’t speak Spanish well.”

Now 30, de la Cruz lives with her husband, a construction worker, and their three children in a 24-square-metre cement-floored room built from sheet metal and bricks.

But despite their poverty, she said they are better off than in their native Mezquititlán, an impoverished rural farming district of 14,000 people.

“Back in our town it’s really sad, there’s no work and we don’t even have land anymore,” she remarked.

One third of Mexico’s estimated 12 to 13 million indigenous people live in cities, mainly the capital. The rest continue to live in rural or semi-urban areas, according to figures from the government’s National Population Council.

Indigenous people living in urban areas generally reach higher levels of schooling and have access to better health care services. Yet their average level of human development is lower than that of the rest of the population, and they tend to work at the lowest-paid jobs.

They also suffer blatant discrimination. As a result, many prefer to group together in closed communities, out of view from strangers. When they do go out in public, they avoid speaking their native languages and wearing the traditional clothing used by their ethnic groups.

“Even though they’re now part of the city, they remain invisible to the majority, who don’t see them or don’t want to see them,” Elena Ramos of the Interdisciplinary Centre for Social Development (CIDES) told IPS. CIDES is a non-governmental organisation that has been working on projects involving indigenous people in Mexico City for more than a decade.

Over the last 20 years, different indigenous groups have occupied abandoned lots and buildings in the capital. The municipal government, headed since 1997 by the leftist Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD), has established low-cost housing plans and other social programmes specifically geared to this sector of the population.

Since 2004, the authorities have granted 840 low-cost housing loans to families from the Otomi, Mazahua, Trique, Mixtec, Zapotec, Huichol and Tojolabal indigenous communities, some of whom now own their own apartments.

Chapultepec 380 was one of the abandoned lots occupied roughly two decades ago by the first wave of rural migrants from Santiago Mezquititlán, but the families who live there are still not the official owners of the property.

More and more indigenous people continued to arrive at this address over the years, all of them from Mezquititlán. They gradually transformed what was originally a vacant lot into a makeshift camp of cardboard dwellings and eventually a settlement with poor housing conditions that is nonetheless equipped with electric power, drinking water and sewage services.

“Everything was built little by little. When I arrived it was very different, but the women and their husbands went on making requests to the government and working on construction so that we could have what we have now,” explained de la Cruz.

In most of the indigenous settlements in the city, the occupants are all from the same ethnic group and often directly related. It is unusual, for example, to find Otomi indigenous people living together with Trique or Tojolabal people.

De la Cruz arrived in the early 1990s, when several of her 10 brothers were already living there. “My father died and one of my brothers went to the United States, but the rest – with their wives and children – are still living here,” she said.

Behind the small metal door marked with the number 380 stretches a cement-floored passage nearly 200 metres in length. It is flanked on both sides by small, ramshackle housing units, each no more than 30 square metres in size and criss-crossed by lines of freshly washed clothing.

Each individual home contains a cement-floored living room area, with the kitchen and beds set off behind a piece of plywood or cardboard. The different units are separated by nothing more than a flimsy wall.

The entire lot covers some 2,000 square metres, and is divided into two corridors with housing units built on both sides, together with areas equipped as communal bathrooms and dish and clothes washing facilities.

“I remember when there was nothing here but dirt and everything was completely disorganised, but we all got together and now we have our own home, thank God,” said de la Cruz.

CIDES worked with the settlement’s residents to have a small room set up as a meeting centre and library, which they named Colibrí (Hummingbird). Here, among the two computers and a handful of books, CIDES staff members offer weekly workshops on issues such as domestic violence, family development, accident prevention and health education.

The organisation carries out similar activities in four other places in the area that are also occupied by groups of people from different indigenous communities.

And from Monday to Friday, dozens of indigenous children visit the nearby CIDES offices, where they are provided with tutoring and food and can participate in a variety of activities during the hours when school is not in session.

The aim is to keep them off the streets – where they typically sell candy and ask for spare change alongside their mothers – and to encourage them to stay in school and maintain their traditional languages and cultures.

Every morning, an army of people emerge from the door to Chapultepec 380, made up of women who sell candy and crafts on the streets, construction workers, and youngsters who stake out intersections to clean car windshields in exchange for a few coins.

“My kids don’t go out on the streets anymore, but everything is expensive, and the 800 pesos (roughly 75 dollars) that my husband makes in construction isn’t enough to live on and pay for electricity and water,” commented de la Cruz, who gave up selling candy and crafts to stay home and care for her youngest daughter, aged two.

“I don’t know how to read or write and I would like to learn. I hope someone can help us so we can have more opportunities and we won’t have to go out and sell things on the street anymore,” she added.

Pablo Yanes, who was the director of the municipal government’s Department of Equity and Social Development between 1998 and 2006, stresses that although indigenous people living in Mexico City achieve higher incomes, more schooling and better access to health care than those living elsewhere, they nonetheless face “high levels of social inequality.”

They come up against “a structural mechanism of discrimination,” and invariably earn lower incomes than the average wages paid in the city.

According to Emilio Álvarez, president of the Federal District Human Rights Commission, Mexicans feel great pride over the country’s pre-Columbian indigenous cultures, yet they treat the descendants of these cultures in a humiliating, discriminatory manner. “It is a brutal phenomenon,” he concluded.

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