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 analysts. 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 possible. VOLUME XXIII, NO. 4 (NOVEMBER/DECEMBER 1989) 0 U, a, C- 29 W -%~6 The Homeless S AN MIGUEL TEOTONGO IS A NEIGHBORHOOD 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 interests. THROUGHOUT ITS HISTORY THE ASSOCIA- 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- REPORT ON THE AMERICAS 30A SCHOOL FOR CHANGE I N ORDER TO PROMOTE INFORMED AND 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 nation-wide. 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. BY DAY, SAN MIGUEL IS A WORLD OF WOMEN 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 VOLUME XXIII, NO. 4 (NOVEMBER/DECEMBER 1989) 31SPECIAL HOLIDAY OFFER Two for One! "*Offer expires Three Kings Day--January 6, 1990 Card Missing? Send check to: NACLA, 475 Riverside Drive, Suite 454 New York, NY 10115 $20-1 year, $36-2 years, $51-3 years 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 resources. 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. T HE SLOW ORGANIC GROWTH OF COMMU- 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? REPORT ON THE AMERICAS 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- ministration. 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

Like this article? Support our work. Donate now.