Tepito: no thanks, first world

Gustavo Esteva on the puzzle of autonomy in 1990s Tepito, an inner-city community in Mexico City, which prefers to manage its own affairs, without interference from the forces of “development”.

Submitted by wojtek on January 6, 2012

Severe injustices and human rights violations are continuously perpetrated against the peasants’ organizations and the urban popular groups with which I have associated my life. Within these groups, we often ask ourselves how we could build a more just social order which would allow us to live in peace, to flourish and endure.

For a long time we believed that the remedy to our predicaments consisted in the improvement of the nation’s political regime and its legal institutions. For many years we waged a wide and persistent political struggle to get full enforcement of the law and to prevent injustice and discrimination in such enforcement. We did not forget, of course, also to struggle against the economic exploitation and the technological, political and social oppression which we discovered to be at the root of our predicaments.

More and more, however, we are questioning how sensible we are in proceeding as we have in the past. Some occasional successes in our struggles for reform – better laws, judges, lawyers or sentences – have introduced a new kind of perplexity in our lives. Instead of improving, our situation has deteriorated. Unsufferable, unprecedented injustices have appeared among us and we are less able to struggle against them, since they are the result of legally correct sentences, dictated by honest judges and based on reasonable laws. Instead of security, police and lawyers give us incertitude. We don’t trust any court and recur to one only when there is no other option left to us. Is it not silly, then, to ask for more lawyers and courts?

After comparing such experiences with those resulting from our own internal “judicial” system – the system of social regulation within our groups – we have started asking ourselves whether it would not be better to be left alone. We have begun to conceive how it might be possible to design a protective barrier around us against the legal order, against the lawyers as well as against the police.

This is not an anarchic cry. We are not attempting the disintegration of the country nor its large social organizations and institutions. We would like instead to reaffirm our right to exist every day in our own way. We want direct social regulation, rather than the abstract, impersonal mechanisms of the law and the economy.

The stories I am going to tell in this colloquy on society and law illustrate our present situation, which involves constantly testing the limits of our autonomy and our internal capacity for social regulation. The judicial inflation we have experienced amounts to nothing less than the continual, legal devaluation of our own social procedures. In seeking legitimation and respect for such procedures, we are also asking for restrictions upon the spaces and fields of application of the law of the state.

The Politics of Survival

Tepito is a barrio* in downtown Mexico City: 72 blocks occupied by 120,000 inhabitants. In 1945 it was one of the worst places to live in Mexico. Its houses were really ugly: they were in fact rooms, not houses, of 13 to 25 square meters, each one built around dusty yards, without sanitation facilities and made of very poor materials. Ten, twenty, or fifty of these “houses” constituted a vecindad*. Only delinquents of every kind – drunks, prostitutes – accepted living there, giving the place additional handicaps.

After World War II, the government of the city “froze” the rents of low cost housing. The people did not perceive this measure as temporary, particularly since they struggled for it. As a consequence, this special arrangement exists even today, in spite of countless attempts by lawyers, politicians, and developers to eliminate it.

Those who live in Tepito thus enjoy a kind of economic privilege compelling them to remain. The very low quality of the houses put their rents among the cheapest in the city – what today is equivalent to one cent per month. So the Tepitans conquer spaces with ingenuity. They get a second floor by building one in the interior of their houses. Many houses serve as workshops during the day and as homes at night. Patios are common spaces with multiple purposes.

Step by step, the Tepitans have invaded the streets, transforming them into places for workshops, trade, and recreational activities. In fact, all of Tepito has been transformed into a creative and recreative space. The trade of used clothes flourishes next to that of new clothes produced in Tepito. Shoe repairmen prosper next to workshops to produce new shoes. Tepitans have remade, remodeled and transformed with ingenuity a thousand mechanical and electrical gadgets thrown out by their rich or middle class owners. The objects reformulated by Tepitans have become famous for their quality.

Yet public and private “developmentalists” have, for decades, attacked Tepito in a concentrated and systematic fashion. There has never been a mayor who has not promised to get rid of the barrio, for the sake of the aesthetics and modernity of downtown Mexico City. The owners of buildings in Tepito have tried every legal or illegal method to eliminate the barrio - to build in its place offices, banks, hotels. They have seduced, corrupted, threatened, pushed and repressed. Every two or three years, a new official Plan Tepito is announced, meaning no more than a new effort to get rid of Tepito, to kick out its inhabitants – even to “golden cages” on the outskirts of the city – and finally to let loose a fever of speculation and construction in the area.

But the Tepitans resist. Conscious of the need to improve the appearance of their barrio for the benefit of clients, tourists, and mayors – and also because of a real need to improve their homes, which are never repaired by the owners - the Tepitans have searched for allies and options. They have found both in certain artistic and intellectual circles. Innovative architects, rapidly deprofessionalized, worked many hours with them to put some initiatives into practice. They finally formulated, as the core expression of the Tepitan spirit, a rehabilitation plan that would improve the entire barrio.

Those were the years of the oil boom. A particularly enterprising mayor had just entered office, and the threats to the Tepitans seemed more dangerous than ever. Their own plan, however, won first place in Warsaw at an international contest organized by UNESCO. With this triumph in their hands, the Tepitans called the press: not only was theirs the best conceivable rehabilitation plan, as the international recognition showed, but it also involved no cost to the city. The new official Plan Tepito – for which the mayor had already secured millions for financing – was thus defeated. The Tepitans began their own “urban rehabilitation,” if one can use this technical title for a differentiated initiative that called for strengthening fragile walls and decaying ceilings while at the same time enriching the social fabric, overall aesthetics, and spirit of conviviality and solidarity.

Over the years, Tepito has been transformed into a great market. But its social substance, the mortar uniting and articulating the whole, is not an economic one. It is a weave of social relations – a way of living, a way of being, of talking, of dancing, of loving and dreaming. In Tepito the cultural character of politics is accentuated. The economy is constantly subordinated to the cultural center of the barrio and strictly limited to the areas and conditions where it has a prescribed function.

The Puzzle of Tepito

Toward the end of the 70s, Tepito filled me with constant perplexity. Shaped by the formal categories in which I was trained, my questions lacked pertinence and invariably received surprising answers. Through many years of contact and interaction, I was able to identify several hundred different organizations in Tepito. Here an association of shoemakers on this street, there the leathergoods makers or sellers of used clothes. In this street, an organization of those with commercial stands and in the other one of those with no stands. Over there an organization of purveyors of used or “crooked” goods; here, of the “established” or legal. Then there were organizations of a particular vecindad, or of those who repair cars in the middle of the street – exactly in this street, not the other one. In all blocks of vecindades, there could be found at least one mutual credit organization, handling a lot of money.

When my list of organizations had grown quite extensive and I had the opportunity to see how some of these organizations functioned, I dared to present my critical observations to a Tepitan friend of mine.

“Your organizations lack democracy,” I told him. “You never elect your leaders, nor do you maintain records of the formal histories of your organizations. And, in addition, you have never consolidated, to create an organization that could include all of Tepito and democratically and effectively represent all Tepitans in their struggles and negotiations.”

My friend gazed at me with a certain tenderness. “Look,” he said to me, “here, everything is very tough. With all the outside pressure, it would be very easy for a leader to be corrupted, or just turn out to be a bad leader. If we have elections, we’re screwed, because we will have put the power in his hands. To get it back from him, we would have to create a counterforce and this would divide us. So, here, when we see that a leader is doing poorly, we start to talk among ourselves until a new one emerges. The old leader is the last to find out what has happened, when two or three months later he realizes that no one pays any attention to him any more.”

“And how about grouping together all of Tepito?”

“Tepito just is Tepito, or it isn’t,” he said, almost angry. “Either we are who we are or they just screw us over, they make us disappear. As it is we’re together, but we are not all scrambled up – as opposed to all those organizations you people are so proud of in private business, unions, and political parties of the left or the right.

“When we have a big problem with the city authorities, we look for a real articulate guy, real smart – but he officially represents no one and nothing. So we send this guy to negotiate, explaining real well what we want. Off he goes to argue with the authorities. Finally they write up an agreement and he signs it and brings it over to us. Here, we all discuss the agreement. It circulates from person to person, from group to group. If we like it, that’s that. We abide by the agreement. If we don’t like it, if it has things in it that we just plain can’t accept, we go to the authorities and accuse them of negotiating with this guy who doesn’t represent anybody. And it starts all over again.” This is, obviously, only one of the many thousands of tricks that the Tepitans constantly use in their daily life and their political struggles.

The assemblies of Tepito – assemblies of 7, 70, or 700 – inevitably remind me of village assemblies in the indigenous zones. An assembly is not a space for democratic decisions, such as can be found in unions, universities or political parties, where individuals vote on alternatives presented to them by the speakers. Here assemblies are theatrical representations for the ritual ratification of previously made decisions arrived at through extensive and very complicated exploration, in which the decisions themselves take form with the participation of everyone.

Effective government is not arrived at through representatives and their experts who govern for the people once they have been elected with a greater or lesser degree of democracy, i.e. according to the ritual proceedings of suffrage that is called democracy elsewhere. Here the need for a leader is clearly recognized: the need for someone to coordinate the collective efforts and to conduct the group as their initiatives, talents, needs and aspirations require. But the power itself always remains in the hands of the people, who, depending on complex patterns of behavior, may or may not follow the leader, but will never let go of the reins of control. Here is government of the people, and by the people – not for the people.

I do not know whether the barrio will survive. Recent attempts to destroy it look to be more successful than previous ones. Using the well-known smuggling expertise of Tepitans, and under the banner of efforts to control inflation, the authorities have fostered an artificial and unprecedented economic boom there. Officially sponsored smuggling – driven, perhaps, by fear of the fiery autonomy of the barrio during the earthquake days - is undermining Tepito’s very basic social foundations. In order to earn quick money, young people have started to abandon workshops where they had previously been learning a thousand and one skills.Drug addiction and trafficking have appeared.

Whatever happens, Tepito’s history and practices have circulated over the entire city. A thousand Tepitos have been born and reborn. They are not ideal models. It would be criminal to fall into the trap of an idealization of the conditions these communities suffer, exposed as they are to a thousand forms of economic exploitation, cultural aggression, social discrimination and political subordination.

But the socio-cultural substance that Tepito symbolizes and illustrates explains why we have not already murdered each other in this urban monstrosity of twenty million inhabitants; why, for many of us, Mexico City is still a good place to live – clearly superior to New York, Tokyo or Paris. The form of direct governance, in a convivial life style, defines also a moral and political substance that has spread to the deepest bases of Mexico City and gives room to alternative ways of urban existence that deserve serious consideration.

Tepitan Tactics

The following stories illustrate alternatives to the current state of our behavior in the “First World.” As First Worlders, we want sewage systems and we want jails. We want our excrement to vanish, our social failures well out of sight. Similarly, when we send a mother with Alzheimer’s disease to an old folks’ home, we believe we have found a solution. We wash our hands of it, satisfied. To take care directly, socially, implies accepting serious, real responsibilities that we have been unwilling to shoulder. But it also implies the power to live our lives on our own terms.

The success of the people of Tepito in attracting rich clients awakened the ambition of pickpockets, and they started to proliferate in the area. Of course, this affected the prestige of Tepito, and caused an exodus of customers. As a response, Tepitans established their own security system. When a pickpocket was detected trying to rob someone, they would give the alarm signal, catch the pickpocket, shave his head, take his shoes, and send him running. The poor pickpocket had to go running out of the area, not without receiving his share of beatings on the way from those who recognized him – shaven and barefoot - as a pickpocket. Pickpockets simply stopped appearing.

For many years, all alternatives to the flush toilet were persecuted by the sanitation engineers, authorities and developmentalists. We had to use our latrines and composting toilets in a clandestine fashion, converting them into part of a social struggle. For this reason, both the right and the left considered us to be reactionaries, opposed to progress: dangerous hippies dedicated to a return to the Stone Age. Nevertheless, in 1985 when the earthquake destroyed the sewage pipes of two million families who could no longer do without them and 150,000 families were left homeless in the very center of the city, we, the so-called reactionaries, were the only ones with the experience needed to rapidly remedy this collective predicament. From that time on, the authorities were forced to cease the persecution and even to back up the alternative proposals.

An attempted rape of a four-year-old girl by a neighbor was discovered one day, and the entire vecindad was discussing what to do. One of my companions reacted immediately and vehemently, expressing perfectly her middle-class rage.“To jail with him,” she demanded peremptorily. The neighbors gazed at her calmly.“Why?” they said, “So they can turn him into a criminal?” “At least to the psychiatrist,” she demanded. “Why?” they insisted, “so that they make him go crazy?” They continued the discussion for a long time. Some suggested he be kicked out of the community. Others argued that this man had fought hard as one the most dedicated for Tepito’s new homes. Someone suggested that he be sent at least to a different vecindad. That would also be unfair, ran the counterargument:“Here at least we know him, we know how he is, we can take care of him and of ourselves. Who knows what he would do in another vecindad?” The final consensus leaned toward letting him stay, but only if the child’s mother accepted.Once consulted, the mother agreed. The man still lives there; I am told that he is a model of cooperation and solidarity. He no longer lives alone, as he used to, and since he found a young woman to live with him despite his fifty years of age, he seems quite content.

By Gustavo Esteva, one of the articles in Reclaiming Politics (IC#30), Fall/Winter 1991, Page 38

Taken from Self Learn Los Angeles

Gustavo Esteva has been a key figure in founding a number of non-governmental organizations in Mexico and has also been active in building economic linkages among grassroots groups. An economist without training, he won Mexico’s National Prize of Political Economics. His reflections on economics deal with the imperative of marginalizing the “economy” and replacing its centrality with the centrality of a people’s commons. He is a front page columnist for El Nacional, one of Mexico’s most influential newspapers, and he participates in many grassroots community groups.

Contributing Editor David Korten describes him this way: “Gustavo is a leader of a deprofessionalized segment of the Southern intellectual community that rejects the terminology and constructs of ‘development’ in all their forms, seeing them as inherently destructive of the human processes by which common people work to recreate community as an expression of their culture and aspirations. He argues that even the ‘alternative’ development prescriptions lead inexorably to depriving people of control over their own lives and shifts this control to bureaucrats, technocrats, and educators. Rather than presume that human progress fits some predetermined mold leading toward the increasing homogenization of cultures and lifestyles, his ideal is a ‘radical pluralism’ that honors and nurtures distinctive cultural variety and enables many paths to the realization of self-defined aspirations.”

He can be reached at Apdo. Postal 106, Admon. 3, 68081 Oaxaca, Oaxaca, Mexico.


Barrio and vecindad have no direct translation. A barrio is more than a neighborhood. It is a collection of neighborhoods, like the developments of a modern city, but it is not a development. It is more in the tradition of the Frenchquartier, in which the common traits defining the place and distinguishing it from others come from the inside, from the soul of the barrio, and not from the frontiers established by developers or officials. Vecindad is a kind of neighborhood, but not defined by the mere vicinity of the houses but by the kind of conviviality existing among the neighbors who happen to live there.


Caiman del Barrio

12 years 4 months ago

In reply to by libcom.org

Submitted by Caiman del Barrio on January 8, 2012

Fascinating article about a barrio that is rather awed by chilangos (Mexico City residents). By all accounts, it's pretty dangerous and has a HUGE black market (lots of gun-running there), which Esteva fails to mention.

In his defence, this article is 20 years old and the national security situation has spiralled beyond belief in the intervening period.

Oh yeah, if anyone's ever around DF, Tepito's flea market on Sundays has some excellent wares. :)