Squatters' Power is San Miguel Teotongo

September 25, 2007

PERHAPS WHAT MAKES THE URBAN POOR people's movement such a deeply challenging
force-in Mexico or anywhere-is that it is rooted in the
most intimate of realities: the houses and neighborhoods
which make up the space called "home." Though much
of life is defined by what takes place there, it is an arena
still relatively unexplored by political and economic
I arrived in Mexico bruised and worn out from five
years of grass-roots and women's trial-and-error organiz-
ing in my home state of Arkansas-and carrying with me
pieces of a puzzle I could not yet put together. But from
the moment my eyes adjusted to the dark hall where the
Mujeres en Lucha group of San Miguel Teotongo was
meeting, I felt the potential of this movement as a model
for our own search to reorganize power in our private and
public lives.
When comparing our own geographically, racially and
sexually fragmented organizations to Mexico's nation-
ally coordinated movement, it is tempting to despair at the
poor harvest of our best efforts. Mexican activists visiting
the United States describe feeling suffocated by the de-
gree of social control they sense in our cities. They find it
hard to imagine building a movement where one's cul-
ture, language and history is under constant attack, when
the potential for community is dashed by red-lining,
drugs, immigration raids and displacement-where even
the family is torn to shreds.
Though the difference in contexts may make it impos-
sible to apply San Miguel's experience to this country, the
principles of Mexico's movement evoke strong recogni-
tion and resonance among U.S. activists. And its achieve-
ments challenge us to redefine what we consider to be
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The Homeless
of some 80,000 people at the eastern edge of Mexico
City, along the road to Puebla. Its dusty pastels stretch
from behind the former women's prison up the rocky foot-
hills of the Santa Catarina mountains. It was formed some
18 years ago by families, mostly from Oaxaca, respond-
ing to a real estate company's offer of cheap lots. The lots
were nothing but tiny squares of hard, abandoned
farmland-with no water, no electricity, no roads, no
schools-but the down payment was affordable and there
was nowhere else to go.
It was the early 1970s, and Mexico's cities were filled
to bursting with families escaping the crisis in the coun-
tryside. These new communities grew wildly beyond the
government's control, creating fertile ground for a new
generation of young activists whose politics had been
forged in the student movement crushed in 1968. They
were among San Miguel's earliest settlers and soon sought
out the neighborhood's "natural" leaders-those who
had emerged from the community itself-to research the
status of the land.
It turned out that the property was not private but
ejidal, a form of collective ownership codified by the
Mexican Revolution, precluding its sale or purchase. The
leaders went house to house informing the community of
the scam, and inviting everyone to a meeting. There, a
group of residents launched a highly successful payment
strike and, in May 1975, founded the Association of
Residents (Uni6n de Colonos) of San Miguel Teotongo,
which at the time had about 20,000 people. "We still
weren't big enough to stop the developers, but we did get
people to stop paying," recalls one of the founders.
The developers who sold the false property titles also
trucked in water which they sold by the barrel. When the
Nearly 20 years old, San Miguel is well established
new association petitioned the government to install water
lines, they were told that the rocky terrain made it impos-
sible. The association then enlisted the support of engi-
neering students from the National University's Self-
Governing School of Architecture who, with residents'
help, surveyed the entire neighborhood and designed a
practical water system. Plans in hand, the association
marched repeatedly on city hall until it provided the
necessary pipes and pump stations. Residents laid the line
themselves. The students also developed the only map of
the neighborhood, which the association used to create a
development plan projecting needs to the year 2000.
The only public elementary school in the community
required parents to show proof of payments on their lots
in order to enroll their children-payments that associa-
tion members were refusing to make. The association
decided to build its own school on one of the last remain-
ing lots which the "real estate developers" were still
trying to sell. It organized voluntary weekend construc-
tion brigades and went house to house for donations of
concrete blocks and cement. One night shortly after
construction began, thugs-probably hired by the real
estate speculators-knocked down the walls; the associa-
tion set up a 24-hour guard rotation. Before construction
was finally completed, residents had to fight off two
attempts by police to evict them from '"private property."
In noisy late-night discussions of strategies and tactics,
the association matured. After one president was co-opted
by the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) and
another suffered constant police harassment, members
scrapped their original president/vice-president/secretary
structure for more collective leadership by an elected
council. To promote maximum participation as member-
ship grew, they divided the community into "sections,"
each with its own leadership committee and weekly
assembly. Some 15 task forces were formed on press,
transportation, finances, recreation, youth, etc. In San
Miguel today, every school, light post, market and paved
street has a story. Together, they show how this neighbor-
hood has become a community able to act in its own
tion has sought to integrate its campaigns for imme-
diate barrio needs into a strategy for broader change,
linking its demands for water lines and tortilla coupons to
the building of community-controlled alternatives to
government programs. It now has influence on almost all
neighborhood activities. It mediates conflicts among local
gangs, works with Alcoholics Anonymous, and allows
local sound companies to use vacant lots for dances in ex-
change for free use of their equipment to announce
marches and major negotiations. Disputes between neigh-
bors are handled by the association's "Honor & Justice
Commission" avoiding the corruption and bureaucracy
of the city court system. During last spring's teachers'
strike, women in the association closed down their chil-
thoughtful participation by all its members, the urban
popular movement has incorporated a number of practices
which could be described as "popular education." These
usually follow the participant's first experiences of collec-
tive strength in the street, at city hall, or in community-
initiated projects.
Through "exchanges of experience" with other neigh-
borhood organizations, which are an integral part of all
regional and national conferences, people come to see them-
selves as part of a larger urban movement. And through late
night discussions with campesinos who arrive in the city
annually to march on April u0 (tne anniversary of tmlllano
Zapata's birth) or with street vendors who have marched in
from Puebla, they extend that vision to other popular struggles
After evaluating past actions and before planning future
ones, organizations routinely develop a "snapshot" diagram
of their strengths and weaknesses, as well as those of their
allies and opponents. This they call "anilisis de
coyuntura."Another practice which is increasingly used is
"'systematization of experiences." Here, people break down
the history of their organizations into stages, defining for
dren's schools, even where teachers were not yet support-
ing the strike.
In the elections of block representatives held every
three years, association members have defeated PRI
candidates in almost every single block, thus denying the
party a traditional channel for funneling government
favors to its partisans.
and children. Men leave by the busload at dawn in
search of a day's wage, and women are left to produce the
miracle of survival, a task which has required collective
action. For example, it was women, exasperated from
washing babies, dishes, and laundry on a barrel of water
a week, who stood for hours outside city hall demanding
access to city water.
Women's involvement in the association set off hun-
dreds of household "revolutions," some negotiated, some
violent, as women began to challenge their husbands' and
in-laws' dictates and stepped out into new roles. Although
most of the work of the association was being carried out
by women during the day, decisions were made during
late-night assemblies. The few women who could be
present at such hours rarely spoke.
In 1982, half a dozen activists came together to form
the Grupo de Mujeres en Lucha, as a committee of the
association, to promote women's participation in leader-
ship. The year before, a male activist had formed a
women's group whose main attraction was sewing and
knitting classes, and whose main function was to cook and
fundraise for the organization as a whole. Understanda-
bly, response was less than enthusiastic.
In Jalapa: "Women struggling are transforming the
world-Woman, educate your children in the struggle"
each stage their stated goals, their field of action, the prob-
lems they faced and the strategies they have developed.
These techniques are key to the building of autonomous
grass-roots organizations in which decisions are made by
those most affected by them. They serve to "raise the
consciousness" of participants, enabling more people to
assume greater levels of leadership, and helping the move-
ment as a whole to act more intentionally. EB
The new group originally focused on the issues of rape
and battering. Arguing that domestic violence is not a
private matter but rather a crime against the community,
they convinced the Honor & Justice Commission to hear
and decide on cases of battering. In a few cases, the
women's group intervened directly, removing the bat-
terer and locking him in the meeting hall all night, and
then verbally confronting him in the morning before
releasing him. In others, they worked with local Alcohol-
ics Anonymous members to have alcoholic batterers
committed to A.A. programs, and then raised funds to
support the battered women and their children.
One of the group's actions most often recounted oc-
curred soon after its formation. A woman came to a
meeting distraught because her daughter had just told her
she had been raped-by her father-in-law (her daughter's
grandfather). The woman's husband (the rapist's son)
refused to do anything about it.
The women's group had the association call an emer-
gency session of an expanded Honor & Justice Commis-
sion. The man was found guilty and as punishment was
stripped naked, his hands tied behind his back, and his
body painted with the words: "I am a rapist. I raped my
granddaughter." He was marched around the neighbor-
hood, and then tied to a tree beside the market to expose
him to public scorn for the rest of the day.
Such actions had a tremendous impact on the commu-
nity. Yet it was only after the economic crash of 1982,
when Mujeres en Lucha began to focus on economic
survival issues-children's breakfasts, milk, coupons for
subsidized tortillas-that it began to grow beyond a hand-
ful of activists. As the economic crisis deepened with each
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DoTIsucceeding year, the right to food became an ever more
critical issue.
Many of these "foodbasket" victories were achieved
by means of city-wide coordination between women's
groups through the Mexico City Women's Council of the
CONAMUP, of which Mujeres en Lucha was one of the
founders. For the first time, women not only filled the
ranks of marches and sit-ins, but also negotiated demands
with authorities, and developed distribution systems for
the resources they won (children's breakfast rations, milk
cards, tortilla coupons, toys). By integrating conscious-
ness-raising workshops into their organizing process,
they worked to ensure that women who first dared step out
of their house in search of cheaper tortillas stayed on to
become an active part of the movement.
A few months ago women from San Miguel gave a
workshop in the Chalco Valley, a rapidly urbanizing area
where the daughters and sons of San Miguel and other
neighborhoods are just initiating the struggle for electric-
ity and water. Some 30 women gathered in the dirt-floor
classroom they had recently built. A compafiera from San
Miguel asked, "Who here works?", and the room was so
still you could hear a dog roll over and sigh.
Things picked up, however, as the women began to
make a list of everything they did in a day, and then rose
to rowdy laughter when one of the compahieras mentioned
nocturnal duties. Women estimated how much it would
cost to hire someone to do each of these tasks, and the sum
was multiplied by seven, since it was agreed that there are
no days off from housework. The sum turned out to be four
times the minimum wage which their husbands earned.
To challenge the consignment of women to unpaid
labor in the home, women are organizing community
kitchens, laundries, and child care centers where this
work can be made more efficient, visible, collective,
socially recognized, and eventually shared between men
and women.
To dispel accusations that women's organizing is
divisive and to ensure that women's organizing and issues
not become segregated within the movement as a whole,
women have maintained what they call "double mili-
tancy." That is, they participate in twice as many
meetings--developing a women's perspective in local to
national women's meetings and then taking it to all the
meetings of the organization as a whole. Their objective
is to place women's struggles at the very center of the
popular organizations that they are helping to build.
Middle-class feminists have worked with CONAMUP
women's groups, providing workshops or helping to
develop projects on literacy, nutrition, sexuality and health.
Some of them have criticized the CONAMUP women's
focus on milk and tortilla coupons, saying that it only
The Second National CONAMUP Women's Conference (Monterrey 1985): Placing women's struggles at center-stage
VOLUME XXIII, NO. 4 (NOVEMBER/DECEMBER 1989) 33Rhepor on44 Aerias
The Homeless
reinforces women's traditional role in the family. They
also have criticized the movement for too narrowly defin-
ing popular-"of the people"--thus preventing femi-
nists from participating directly.
Another source of conflict is the preference of interna-
tional funding agencies to finance non-governmental
organizations rather than grass-roots movements. This
has made CONAMUP women uncomfortably dependent
on middle-class feminist groups for access to meeting
space, typewriters, mimeograph machines, and other
As the women of the CONAMUP have become surer
of their own position and strength, a new relationship with
the feminist groups has become possible. One sign of this
new stage is the Benita Galeana Women's Coalition,
created in November of last year to bring together women
from the urban popular movement, feminist groups, un-
ions and political parties. Another is the extensive col-
laboration of feminists in the Women's Regional Coun-
cil's leadership training school in July-December 1989.
nity organizations has hardly been a match for the
wildfire spread of discontent generated by six years of
economic crisis. The general population, for the most part
unorganized, leapt at the chance to use the 1988 elections
to protest-and the urban movement found itself im-
mersed in what was formerly seen as a ritual serving only
to legitimate the PRI.
During the campaign, the Uni6n de Colonos held a
rally for center-left opposition candidate Cuauht6moc
Citrdenas, who addressed a crowd of 10,000. On election
day, teams of association members armed with walkie-
talkies, CB bases and borrowed cars maintained vigil over
polling places throughout the neighborhood from dawn
until late evening.
Though activists still feel that grass-roots participation
is the best guarantee of democracy, how to relate to the
new Partido de la Revoluci6n Democritica, which grew
out of Cirdenas' campaign, is a subject of an intense and
as yet unresolved debate. The new administration's atti-
tude toward independent organizations has given rise to
similar challenges.
The new city government, like the national govern-
ment that appointed it, has sought to recover public
support by engaging in dialogue with independent move-
ments that previous administrations ignored or attacked.
The first act of the official assigned to the Iztapalapa zone,
Uni6n de Colonos of San Miguel Teotongo celebrates an anniversary meeting: The Salinas government seeks to
incorporate community organizations into the system--co-optation or an opportunity to wield power?
34where San Miguel is located, was to make an appointment
with the Uni6n de Colonos so that they could show him the
neighborhood's problems and projects.
Some fear that negotiating with the government will
only serve to legitimate it and leave organizations open to
the possibility of co-optation. Others argue that as long as
the movement negotiates from a position of strength, it
can make good use of access to economic resources and
political structures, and that refusal would relegate the
movement to unnecessary marginality and vulnerability
to repression.
Unified coordination among all urban organizations is
seen to be key to confronting these new attempts to divide
and contain the movement. Although the city official
made wonderful offers during his visit to San Miguel, the
association insisted that projects be negotiated only in a
meeting involving representatives from all organizations
in the area. And when the Mexico City government
extended personal invitations to selected leaders of the
major urban organizations, some 200 activists showed up
and demanded that the meeting include them all.
President Salinas' strategy of working with independ-
ent organizations (concertaci6n) appears to be part of his
new economic model, with its drive for "efficiency" and
privatization. The corrupt PRI bureaucracies which con-
trolled food distribution and transportation are now seen
as obsolete. An extremely pragmatic government recog-
nizes that participatory organizations can better provide
the voluntary labor to make a little go a long way.
In San Miguel and the Women's Regional Council,
this may mean greater access to food subsidies, and to the
state's warehousing and distribution infrastructure. Local
and regional food committees have been set up and are
now preparing to gain control over these key economic
resources. By learning to manage them democratically,
they hope to avoid being overwhelmed by the tasks of ad-
The democratic exercise of power from the neighbor-
hood and the workplace has thrust the urban grass-roots
movement onto the national political stage. The political
potential of this movement, born on the outskirts of cities
-far from phone lines, reporters' beats, technical and
economic resources-greatly exceeds its current impact.
Today the people of San Miguel Teotongo and their
companeros in community organizations across Mexico
not only must provide leadership in the resolution of the
urban crisis. They face the much more daunting task of
building a political alternative for the society as a whole.

Tags: Mexico, homeless, squatters, grassroots, organizing

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