We were invited to spend time in the neighborhood of Palo Alto, a living cooperative in Mexico City. Palo Alto is an example of self-organization and self-determination from a community exploited by neoliberal circumstances.
After the sand mine of Palo Alto closed-down in the 1960s, its workers and residents were threatened with eviction. The landlords wanted to sell the land at its highest market value. With the help of external collaborators, the inhabitants of Palo Alto organized themselves, fought growing discrimination and repression and managed to win the right to buy the land. This happened during a time of rapid urbanization, when for-profit development was starting to overtake the interests of neighborhoods and social networks.
The area of Palo Alto is currently inhabited by about 1,600 people and has been withdrawn from the real estate market by its legal status as collectively-owned land. However, there is growing pressure from outside interests over this lucrative area, which leads to internal tensions. Forty- two houses have been abandoned since the mid-nineties, the result of an ongoing conflict, in which some families demanded private ownership of their homes.
During our visit, it became increasingly evident that a collective movement does not proceed as a matter of course, smoothly handed over from one generation to the next. It must always be maintained and adapted by its members, which is a major challenge in Palo Alto today. The new generations do not relate to the historical movement and have limited access to the decision- making process that governs the cooperative. Despite the challenges, Palo Alto is writing a new constitution and exploring ways to change its profile into a working and living collective. The residents are trying to enable a new collective identity.
Participants: Tino Holzmann, Barbara Niklas, Konouz Saeed and Julia Tielke.
Interviews with Palo Alto Residents
Juan Daniel Franco Estrada, Tortilla Maker
Daniel and his friends work at the Tortilleria in Palo Alto. It is a collective effort from residents to provide the community with their daily supply of tortillas. They produce a total of 160 -180 kilograms of tortillas a day, which is almost always sold out by evening. But that comes as no surprise, considering that maize has been a staple food in Mexico for centuries, making it also the most planted crop in Mexico.
At 8 am, Daniel and his friends start their daily ritual by putting on good music “to set the mood”. The Tortilleria is located next to the assembly salon and event hall, which is one of the most common gathering spaces in Palo Alto and decorated with a murals depicting the history and formation of the cooperative. “The Tortilleria was shut down for a long time” according to Daniel, “people didn’t like what they made. It was bad quality. But now it’s better, because we enjoy what we do, and put a lot of love into it”. According to Daniel, the key to making good tortillas is setting the right temperature on the machine.
Palo Alto had other collective businesses to serve the community like a small super market but the Totilleria is the only one that remains.
Josefina Juarez Guerrero, Shopkeeper
Josefina is a shy older woman, who runs a small kiosk in Palo Alto. Her shop consists of an old dusty shelf, which is cramped at the entrance of her house in a narrow alley next to the football field. The shelf is crowded with large plastic bags and jars, overflowing with a variety of candy and snacks.
Her customers, by no surprise, are the children from the neighborhood. She earns a small income from her business and says that her major reason for maintaining the shop is for the children, “I know all the kids of Palo Alto, and I’ve been watching them grow for the past 20 years”.
Rosa Maria Salas Juarez, Chef and Restaurant Owner
Rosa is a chef, who runs a restaurant from inside her house. Her husband and granddaughters have been helping her for about two years. The restaurant is in a small room. A maze of tables and chairs stand at the entrance and a DIY kitchen at the opposite end of the room. Customers seem to find seating in what looks like the family’s private dining room, although there is a strange ambiguity about what is private and public space. It is difficult to identify a family member from a customer.
“This house is my daughter’s, but she moved out some years ago with her family. Eventually, we came up with the idea of running a restaurant out of here,” she said. The restaurant is open Monday to Friday and serves mostly people from the surrounding neighborhood of Santa Fe,especially after the state prohibited informal street vendors in the area. Many employees from the neighboring high-rise offices prefer coming here, “You get affordable home cooked meals,” one customer said, “…way better than eating fast food, which is what you mostly get around here”.