Tag Archives: Mexico City

Mexico’s Forgotten Poor

When we talk of ‘marginalised groups’ we are normally thinking of minorities: those vulnerable groups in society who are outnumbered and without the necessary means to represent their interests. It’s easy to wonder how a group made up of millions of people could be marginalised – surely they could, would and should group together against the powerful few to make their voices heard? I couldn’t understand how such crippling poverty could exist alongside dramatic economic progress, until I came to Mexico and saw the jaw-dropping inequality for myself.

Real poverty

What is easy to overlook is how tragically debilitating living in extreme poverty is. In the UK, we measure poverty in numbers: so many per cent living below a poverty line, such a number educated and so many unemployed. But we don’t see it, we don’t feel it, and we don’t understand it. When people live in real poverty (where they can’t afford to dress themselves, feed themselves, or shelter themselves adequately) they are living precariously from one day to the next. They don’t know where their next meal is coming from, how (and if) they will get their children to school, or where they might be living from one week to another. The ability and desire to plan meetings, strategies and long term campaigns to represent their interests publicly and politically is beyond comprehension. Survival itself is a full time occupation. The pressures of poverty in Mexico are closely linked to an intergenerational culture of violence, poor school attendance and ill health, with girls being likely to fare much worse. Mexico’s poor might be huge in number, but this by no means indicates the ability to mobilise themselves to defend their rights.

A middle class society

International headlines (carefully orchestrated by Mexico’s government and media outlets – which are practically the same thing) frequently rave about the rapidly growing middle class. It is generally believed that the larger a country’s middle class, the greater its potential for economic growth and, therefore, development. This may well be the case, but the middle class also tend to be very conservative in order to protect what they have. Wealth doesn’t necessarily redistribute itself – the government needs to introduce fiscal policy to encourage it. Mexico’s middle class don’t shop in the local markets but in Walmart; neither do they drink coffee on the street corner, but in Starbucks. Walmart and Starbucks do not employ Mexico’s poorest people, and even if they wanted to, the staff probably couldn’t afford the transport to work because the stores are located in the rich areas where the poor can’t afford to live or travel to (in December 2013 the fare for Mexico City’s Metro almost doubled from 3 to 5 pesos). In 2013 Mexico’s National Institute of Statistics and Geography (INEGI) calculated that the middle class constitutes 39.2% of the population, but the lower class still accounts for 59.1%.

Minimum wage

You’d think that all the “tremendous progress” of Mexico (OECD Better Life Index) would make a little leeway for the trickle down effect: thanks to the middle class spread everybody benefits and enjoys an improved standard of living. The reality, however, is quite the opposite: Mexico’s poor arguably shoulder the burden of the successful anti-inflation drive. The minimum wage currently stands at 66 pesos per day (although it varies slightly by region), approximately £3.00. Furthermore, 6.5 million workers (13% of the workforce) in Mexico currently earn this minimum wage, which is significantly lower than the poverty line. Not only is it low and lower than the poverty line, but in real terms it’s getting even lower: accounting for inflation, the minimum wage is estimated to have decreased by 43% in the last 23 years. Added to that, a government study conducted in July 2014 found that almost 60% of the workforce is actually in the informal economy, leaving them vulnerable to exploitation and entirely without job security.

In August 2014 Mexico City’s Mayor Miguel Angel Mancera proposed an increase in the minimum wage to 82.86 pesos per day (approximately £3.80), stating that low wages are “at the heart of the country’s economic and social problems.” Yet President Peña Nieto, the central bank, businessmen and pro-government unions staunchly oppose it, supposedly in fear of drastic inflation. Read alternatively, they want to protect their own interests.

Social mobility

In its mad dash for development, Mexico has largely forgotten its poor. Social mobility is not only a product of the effort of individuals and families, but also opportunities. As De La Calle and Rubio explain in their recent book Mexico: A Middle Class Society, “Mexico has countless impediments and obstacles to social mobility.” It is the absence of equal opportunities that deny Mexico’s poor access to products and services and the ability to invest in the future. In other words, they live with very little stability and no security. What’s more, the government doesn’t just passively neglect the poor, but actively limits their opportunities. “The regulatory framework and incentives of the Mexican economy tend to create obstacles, skew opportunities in favour of very few, reduce competition, impede the development of new businesses, and limit individual potential,” they state. Mexico may be getting richer, but the poor aren’t seeing a slice of the pie. Rafael Ch, Director of Economic Development at Cidac in Mexico City, even claims that the middle class is diminishing because of its high sensitivity to macro and micro economic shocks: real income is actually decreasing.

Extreme economic inequality significantly drives the abuse of power; Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch (amongst others) campaign extensively against human rights abuses in Mexico. Various types of gender, race and class inequality are inextricably linked to and exacerbated by economic inequality, especially when the rights and needs of the poorest, most vulnerable sectors of society are so blatantly neglected.

It is often a feature of living in extreme poverty that the most fundamental human rights to life, liberty and security of person are not guaranteed. The right to a standard of living adequate for the health and wellbeing of a person and their family is not a given. We may have no control over where or the circumstances into which we are born, but we at least deserve equal opportunities to basic rights and services, and the Mexican government has the responsibility to ensure these as well as security and dignity to its people. Mexico may be desperate to develop, but it must not do so at the cost of the poor and vulnerable. Let’s not forget that decisions about those living in poverty are overwhelmingly made by the rich, who may not always have the redistribution of wealth as a genuine concern.

This post was written as a part of Amnesty International’s participation in Blog Action Day. Get involved on Twitter by following @AmnestyOnline or using the Blog Action Day hashtag #BAD2014

Remembering Mexico’s Heroic Children

On the 13th of September each year Mexico remembers six courageous young military cadets who fought to the death in the name of Mexican independence.

The Mexican-American War was well under way, and on the 13th of September 1847 this included the Battle of Chapultepec where the Mexicans fought to defend Chapultepec Castle (the only Royal castle in the American continent, but following Mexico’s independence from Spain, a military school) from the invading U.S. forces. Despite General Bravo of the Mexican Army ordering retreat, six young soldiers – Los Niños Héroes – refused to fall back and died fighting. They were Juan de la Barrera, Juan Escutia, Francisco  Márquez, Agustín Melgar, Fernando Montes de Oca and Vicente Suárez, the youngest of whom was just thirteen years of age and the eldest nineteen.

The bravery and patriotic heroism of these young boys is celebrated on the annual anniversary of their tragic deaths. They are also honoured by the naming of numerous streets, squares and schools throughout Mexico, the Niños Héroes metro station in Mexico City, and the Altar a la Patria monument in Chapultepec Park. They were featured on the five thousand peso banknote for many years.

At the time of the U.S. invasion Mexico was on the brink of civil war, left weak ever since achieving independence from Spain in 1821. The Mexicans forces were also armed with far inferior weapons. Texas and much of their northern territory was lost, which although sparsely populated signified a humiliating defeat. For this reason, the absolute dedication, honour and heroic sacrifice of Los Niños Héroes to their beloved country is particularly poignant for Mexico and its history.

The Charitable Conscience

Take a closer look, the above photo isn’t digitally altered. The wealth gap in Mexico is shocking and obvious, and it’s not uncommon to see the rich and the poor live side by side like this. Mexico isn’t considered First World (despite joining NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement, 20 years ago) nor Third World, but rather sits in the vague and variable ‘developing country’ category.

  • According to 2013 government data, 45.5% of Mexicans currently live below the national poverty line.
  • The World’s Richest Man is the Mexican magnate Carlos Slim, whose fortune increased from $74.5 billion to $79.6 billion between the 1st and the 11th of July this year, that’s a jump of $5.1 billion in just 10 days.
  • Mexico ranks second only to Chile for Worst Income Inequality as measured by the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development).

In Britain, we like to pretend that our society is much more equal than it really is; we want to believe that we live in a thoroughly modern, civilised, just society. We don’t want to see poverty: if we must deal with it on our doorstep, it’s veiled as ‘regeneration’. It’s hidden behind confidentiality clauses and highly sensitive lists of children receiving free school meals, just a glimpse caught in the odd homeless person being swept off the street by a bobby on the beat, and begging is illegal – if you’re poor, better just not to show yourself in public at all. Poverty is a foreign problem, and even then we arm ourselves with numerous distancing mechanisms: charity campaigns are glossed up, large scale events put the ‘fun’ into fundraising, and the causes are glamourised with endless celebrity endorsements. It all makes poverty sickeningly palatable.

General advice tells foreigners not to use the Metro, the figurative and literal underground of Mexico City. I believe this is less to do with the impending ‘danger’ and more to do with the discomfort of being visually assaulted with the desperate poverty of Mexico’s poorest citizens. The devastating reality chokes your throat and crushes your heart. Be prepared to be approached by people with shocking disfigurements, infected gun wounds, exposed catheters, and filthy children crawling the carriages with no shoes. Some have something to sell, others are purely begging, but it is impossible to look away. What do you do? What can you do? And what should you do? What if by giving money you are perpetuating the problem rather than helping to solve it? Many children have shoes, but they look more pitiful and are given more money by going without them. The more money they return home with, the more hours a day they are made to go out begging. The horrible truth is that a lot of children are abused and exploited by their families, who are themselves the victims of mental health problems or drug or alcohol addiction. There’s a real likelihood that your good gesture is doing more harm than good, so how do you give responsibly?

A few weeks ago, I passed a boy of about 10 crying in the street. “What’s the matter?” I asked, and he replied that he had lost his wallet and couldn’t get home. Pobrecito, I thought, and asked him how much money he needed. “50 pesos.” FIFTY PESOS?! This wiley little weasel was having me on. “How many buses do you need to take?” “Three,” came the reply. Well unfortunately for him, I know very well that three buses costs 18 pesos (it’s also highly unlikely that he really needed to take three different buses). I gave him the 18 (just under £1) and went on my way, rather confused by the exchange that had just taken place. Were they crocodile tears? Does he know exactly how to make some easy extra pocket money after school each day? Or does he have a sick parent or many younger siblings at home that he has to care for? I will never know. Giving money to people is the most direct form of giving, but you still don’t really know where your money is going.

The nature of charitable giving in the UK has undergone huge changes in the last 30 years: as the third sector has increasingly shifted away from alliance with the public sector to be more closely aligned with the private sector there has been a dramatic rise in demand for the transparency and accountability of charitable institutions. Charity is increasingly competitive and funds are hard fought for under strict requirements of impact assessment and evidence of effective spending. We are also much more personally concerned with responsible giving, and it seems that no type of contribution is without its criticism. Social media has hugely increased accessibility and awareness, but is also criticised for its swing towards ‘slacktivism,’ where a click, ‘like’ or ‘share’ is the newly favoured form of being seen to be supporting without really doing anything impactful. There is cynicism towards international aid as recent exposés have revealed instances of foreign funds being squandered, fostering corruption, destroying local enterprise and creating a dependency culture. Even direct volunteering is often attacked as ‘voluntourism,’ where short-term programmes are accused of benefitting young, privileged white Westerners more than the needy communities they recklessly flit in and out of.

These dialogues raise important issues, but mustn’t become an excuse for apathy or a “my money won’t do any good so I won’t give any” attitude. Instead they ought to be used as an opportunity to harness much more deeply engaged giving. It’s great to see the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge raise so much awareness and money having ‘gone viral,’ and simultaneously be closely scrutinised and called to account for how their funds are directed. When deciding how to donate, it is a good idea to think about where there is the greatest need for support, where your money will have the biggest influence, and what are the most urgent problems. We all prioritise differently: do your research, choose your cause. Every kind of aid is political, so it really is worth thinking carefully about. And when you’re abroad, you can do your bit by not just staying within a resort but travelling and spending money in the local community.

Photo credit: http://petapixel.com/2014/05/15/shocking-aerial-photographs-show-stark-economic-divide-mexico/

Danza de los Voladores: The Flying Men of Mexico

I had caught a glimpse of these flying ‘bird men’ once in Cholula, but they had grounded by the time I got close enough to have a good look. So as you can imagine, I was very excited to see them again in Chapultepec Park, Mexico City, just as they were about to take off.

The ceremony entails five men in brightly coloured, heavily-embroidered, traditional dress climbing to the top of a tall thin pole between eighteen and forty metres high. Four of them attach ropes to their ankles and launch themselves off while the fifth stays at the top and plays a flute and drum like a snake charmer, coordinating the mesmerisingly slow and controlled pace at which the men spin around the pole as they descend to earth.

The ritual dates back to Mesoamerican culture, when it was performed widely throughout Mexico and as far south as Nicaragua. The profession was passed from father to son, and it was performed only once every fifty-two years at the change of the Aztec century. The voladores (fliers) circle thirteen times each, making fifty-two in total, which represent the fifty-two years of the Aztec ‘calendar round’. The four voladores correspond to the four cardinal directions as well as the four elements of earth, wind, rain and fire, and the fifth, the orchestrator known as the caporal, symbolises the sun.

The origin myth of this captivating and beautiful ceremony is found in a great drought in the state of Veracruz some 450 years ago, which led to villagers to seek a way of sending a message to Xipe Totec, God of Fertility, to ask for help in restoring growth and nourishment to their lands. Five Totonac men from the village of Papantla ventured into the forest to find the tallest, straightest tree. There they spent the night fasting and praying  to the tree’s spirit before blessing it, cutting it down, and carrying it back to the village. They then created the fertility dance to express harmony with the natural and spiritual worlds.

The tradition was partially lost after the Spanish conquest and, despite continuing to be performed in secret, it has nevertheless undergone inevitable changes over time. It has become less important as a spiritual offering to the Gods and more about the public spectacle (the voladores request a donation from non-Totonaca onlookers), education, and preserving cultural heritage. Some women are now allowed to participate, but this continues to cause controversy in places where they adhere more strictly to the original tradition (when women’s contribution was believed to be unlucky).

In 2009, the Ritual Ceremony of the Voladores of Papantla was recognised by UNESCO as Intangible Cultural Heritage, which came with the responsibility of safeguarding the tradition and keeping it alive. The School of Volador Children was established, which teaches the Totonaca indigenous language and trains children in the art of ‘flying’ for ten to twelve years before they are ready to perform. There are now approximately six hundred voladores in Mexico; it continues to be considered by many as a lifetime vocation and primarily a tradition continued within families.

If you can’t make it to Papantla in Veracruz, where the ceremony still has a lot of meaning for the preservation of indigenous Mexican culture, it is performed each weekend outside the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City. For more information from the perspective of the modern-day Totonaca Voladores, here is a really lovely three-and-a-half minute video: http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-24439200



A Floating Fiesta: Xochimilco

Just an hour south of Mexico City’s Zócalo lies the ecological reserve of Xochimilco (pronounced So-chi-mil-co), the Náhuatl word for ‘place where flowers grow’. Here you will find a network of canals and a series of artificial islands, more romantically known as ‘floating gardens,’ called chimpanas. They originally formed a part of Tenochtitlán (the pre-Hispanic name for what is now Mexico City) – the Aztec city on a lake that the Spanish conquistadors called ‘the Venice of the New World’; today Xochimilco forms a part of the Federal District of Mexico City.

In recognition of its cultural and historic importance and danger of disappearance it was made a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987, in order to raise awareness and implement measures for its protection. UNESCO declares it an “exceptional agricultural system, based on the combination of environmental factors and human creativity…one of the most productive and sustainable agricultural systems in the world.” However, its productivity and efficiency remain severely threatened due to new agricultural technology, excessive ground-water extraction, development pressures and contamination. There are now extensive efforts by authorities at local, federal, state and national levels to promote sustainable conservation and management policies in the area.

After taking the metro to Tasqueña, followed by the Tren Ligero to Xochimilco, there are lots of guides to show you to one of nine embarcaderos (boat landings) in the area. They are so helpful, in fact, that one followed us the entire way on his bicycle to make sure we went the right way, no doubt directly to the boatman who pays his commission. Upon arrival it is very important to haggle your way to a good price. This will depend on the number of you in your group and how long you want your river tour to be. We paid $100 each for what was supposed to be half an hour but was actually an hour, and as unpaid volunteers living in Mexico we also consider ourselves very seasoned bargaineers! You should also factor in that the boatmen expect a tip, so try and join forces with other tour-seekers looking for a good deal.

The boats are gondola-style vessels called trajineras, each charmingly named in classic feminine Mexican nicknames like ‘Dulce Lupita’ and ‘Ana Paolita’. They are wonderfully and uniquely decorated in traditional Mexican colours and styles: with up to two hundred boats on the water at any time it is quite a sight to behold. As soon as you reach one of the main canals the atmosphere is as bright as the paint, and the air vivacious with laughter and music as the boats float cheerily along, each one’s passengers admiring the others in a joyful display of the Mexican spirit of sociality. Smaller boats weave their way between them offering chela (cold beer), esquites (sweetcorn), potted flowers and knick-knack souvenirs. There are also boats with Mariachi bands, ready to hop aboard and sing you a pretty ditty, for a small fee of course. Luckily not all of the visitors were penny-pinching like us, so we enjoyed a lot of music at the expense of other boats and their entertainers! There were two lanes in each direction so there was a lot of meandering and overtaking, carefully negotiated by the distinct whistles of the boatmen. Nevertheless, we did encounter one head-on crash, much to the amusement and uproar of all those on board!

There is also the option to alight at various points to peruse the garden centres, buy refreshments, or if you have a taste for the grotesque, request to stop by the infamous ‘Isla de las Muñecas’ – Island of the Dolls. Here you will find dolls with missing limbs and decapitated heads hanging from the trees, the origin of which is shrouded in mystery and legend in true Mexican folk-history fashion. It is said that Don Julian Santana Berrera found the drowned body of a little girl and hung the first doll – which he also found in the canal – in respect. But he was haunted by the girl’s spirit which had manifested itself in the doll, so he began to hang more dolls in order to appease her. The dolls are supposedly possessed by the spirits of dead girls, and are said to move and whisper to each other. After 50 years of collecting dolls, Don Julian died in 2001 by drowning in the very same spot where he found the girl; the floating island became a tourist attraction, and visitors often bring their own dolls to add to the collection.

A trip to Xochimilco is a delight for the senses and a must for anyone visiting Mexico City. It offers a refreshing taste of the frivolity, fervour and fiesta-atmosphere of traditional Mexico in stark contrast to the colonial grandeur of central Mexico City built by the Spaniards atop of the ancient Aztec city. Sure it’s a tourist hotspot for both internationals and natives alike, but there’s absolutely nothing forced or synthetic about it, and above all you’re guaranteed to leave with a smile.