Photo: Saying prayer against gentrification during Right to the City discussion at Huerto Roma Verde
What Is at Stake: Three Decades of Austere Neoliberal Conditions
For over three decades, Mexico has lived through austere neoliberal conditions, which have been exacerbated by recent global crises. In this context, community-led micro-economies and local neighbourhood initiatives have emerged as laboratories for testing methods of self-organization and solidarity.
In Solidarity: Living, Making, Together envisions the city as an archipelago of these small-scale economies and bottom-up initiatives. By sharing and connecting diverse practices and stories, it seeks to grow a network that empowers participants and their communities. Such integrated decentralized knowledge contributes to the creation of a resilient system, capable of absorbing shocks and resisting pressure from the neoliberal system.
Our project understands the current discontent with capitalism, and the expanding social inequality as a crisis that is doubly an opportunity to move towards shared and collective living, away from individualistic and competitive social systems. The civil mobilization that followed the devastating 1985 earthquake in Mexico City demonstrated the remarkable self-organizing capacity of this city. Although today’s situation is slower in the making, and the population is exhausted by an accumulation of adversities, the same spirit of developing abilities together, of making spaces based on cooperation, teaching each other, and trusting each other, prevails in many disparate locations.
Communication as a Strategy
Throughout our work with collaborators on the four projects, communication proved again and again to be an essential strategy. We used simple tools: constant conversations with local residents and the construction of relational objects, such as the coffee cart we made with the people of San Francisquito. Ongoing communication strengthened relationships through the exchange of knowledge between us as visitors, our collaborators at BEMA, and the residents of the San Francisquito neighbourhood; in this way, a larger network was formed. Finally, we experienced the kind of communication that challenges the status quo, opens minds to new perspectives, and restores trust in collective decision-making, which is fundamental to the construction of a collective identity and authority that empowers residents in a city organized from the bottom up.
The relational objects we made were communication tools. In San Francisquito the relational object was the coffee cart, which we constructed with local producers out of recycled material from the BEMA construction site. We pushed it along Revillagigedo Street and offered people coffee as we engaged them in conversations about life and work in the neighbourhood. In the América neighbourhood, in Mexico City, we used a roof and self-made chairs as relational objects in an act of place-making. The improvised roof was a plastic sheet which we attached every morning to a neighbours’ street-stand to mark our place. The chairs were made of stacked egg cartons, which we collected and assembled in the open-air street market, where we sat and talked with neighbours.
From Conversations to Interviews
Another tool we used as a communication strategy was conversing with local entrepreneurs, which led to the narrative interviews in the booklets on the four projects. We took notes while we worked together, and we invited people to talk with us specifically about their practice. The interviews take an anthropological approach, which is rooted in artistic-based research. Usually we spent entire days with residents and learned about their businesses, the challenges they faced in their neighbourhood, their past, and their aspirations for the future. Although the narrative interviews describe the entrepreneurs and their trades, our voice is also present. We avoided objective analysis in favour of personalized stories that brought researchers and producers together. There was not enough time, however, to create shared statements.
The Exchange of Knowledge
We were co-researchers with the residents as together we examined the issue of collectivity and the solidarity economy in the four locations. As designers, artists, and cultural producers, our interviews with local residents who are expert in various skills were an attempt to create a platform of shared knowledge and open new perspectives. In our conversations with residents, we both gained and created new knowledge. Everyone involved viewed the exchange of knowledge between people of different disciplines and backgrounds as a building stone for a resilient city in which the solidarity economy and collectivity have important roles to play. Together we started cultural processes, such as the destigmatization of informal economies and collective participation in the work of decolonization, which challenged commonly held values and beliefs.
A Ritual of Transition
All the projects focused on the exchange of knowledge. At each location, at the end of our stay, we shared our documentation and ideas with our collaborators at a special event – a transitional ritual at the point of our departure. In the América neighbourhood, we organized a lunch at our temporary space in the open-air street market, where we distributed the newsletter SUR 128 to local residents and our collaborators. In San Francisquito, our collaborators at BEMA distributed the Tessa Zettel’s publication Micro-Economies of San Francisquito to each resident whose story was featured in the drawings. A map showing the social and economic conditions of the Cooperativa Palo Alto was presented at the opening of the exhibition at Muca-Roma; this allowed the Palo Alto residents to share their stories and discuss their neighbourhood’s challenges with non-residents. And in Palo Alto, we organized a screening of the film Places in Palo Alto, which prompted reflections on the collaborative experience.
Discussions on Solidarity Societies, Solidarity Economies, and the Right to the City
Essential to the project were the four discussions we organized on the solidarity economy and collective organization in Mexico. The participants presented their practices and, most importantly, we had lively discussions about how a new culture of living could be a tool for overcoming the current neoliberal social and economic agreement. The buen vivir social movement came up in every discussion, underscoring the need for a more just and egalitarian society based on collective authority, social responsibility, local experience, and care for the environment.
The networks that already existed between the individuals and groups who took part in the discussions were reaffirmed and new connections were created. There was general agreement on the importance of developing networks of numerous diverse initiatives and the role of such networks as a social and political force. This symbolized the growing support for a culture of self-organization and bottom-up initiatives as opposed to dependence on top-down organization.
The first discussion took place at Muca-Roma a few days before the opening of the exhibition In Solidarity: Living, Making, Together. Representatives from the four project locations exchanged their experiences with solidarity in their communities, provided a historical perspective for the solidarity movement, and emphasized the importance of solidarity networks.
Three more discussions followed in the large space in the geodesic dome at Huerto Roma Verde. On March 13, several local initiatives, including Feria Multitrueke Mixiuhca (a barter community) and Rancho Electronico (a hacker space), presented their practices in a discussion on the topic of solidarity societies. They viewed themselves as part of a new social agreement for a more resilient society. The Institute of Solidarity Economics at UNAM, meanwhile, is engaged in a long-term exchange of knowledge with local groups in Mexico City, thus building a bridge between academic and practical knowledge. We saw a notable difference in the way older and younger generations engage in politics: while the older generation continues to participate in politics, the younger generation is largely not involved in representative democracy; instead they view themselves as makers and presented what they do as inherently political.
On March 21, the discussion on the solidarity economy centred on the crisis of modernity and capitalism and the importance of decolonization in both Latin América and Europe. Social responsibility and interdependence were emphasized as key elements in building a socially conscious economy. People are rethinking forms of consumption, distribution and production and are experimenting with alternative currencies. Solidarity societies and economies are two sides of the same coin and are completely dependent on each other. We learned that collective authority and the solidarity economy have been deeply embedded in Mexican society for generations, and that while different social agreements may come and go, people remain the same.
The discussion on the right to the city, on March 18, brought together more than one hundred people from Mexico City. Discussion participants talked about the challenges faced by self-organized practices, as well as the potential of such practices to grow organically, like cells, and spread their expertise to other parts of the city. They spoke of the powerful networks they had created among themselves for a more self-organized and resilient city. They emphasized that their individual practices – each of which was developed in response to the particular local situation – should not be understood as alternatives but as a multitude of possible solutions. One of the main issues raised was the importance of rethinking the way we value land. Do we see land as real estate, or do we recognize the value of its soil, and see it as a place for citizens’ self-organization, where the act of place-making can lead to a new way of living? The right to the city is also the right to public space. At the end of the gathering, we all joined local activist Jaime Reillo in reciting an anti-gentrification prayer. The prayer is usually performed in the streets as a procession of neighbourhood residents. It originated recently in Mexico City’s Juárez neighbourhood as part of the 06600 Neighbourhood Platform actions. Based on the political strategies articulated by the Superbarrio movement in the 1980s, the anti-gentrification prayer was viewed by some not only expressing opposition to urban development that fails to consider the needs of the local residents, but also as a performative action and tool that communities can use in a bottom-up urban movement.
Passing On: The Pensaré Cartoneras Workshops in the América Neighbourhood
Before we left Mexico City, the América team gave their remaining project money to Pensaré Cartoneras, a collective committed to the theory and practice of living a dignified life with autonomy. We wanted to support Pensaré Cartoneras and hope they will continue to share their methods of critical thinking, collective social transformation, and creating spaces for new ways of living through future workshops in the América neighbourhood, whose residents so generously shared their passion, knowledge, and experience with us during our short stay in Mexico City.