Photo above: Walking down a street in San Francisquito neighborhood, Queretaro, Mexico, 2017.
Text by Marjetica Potrč, 2017
Stewardship, a New Way of Owning: The Revillagigedo Street Case Study
During our brief residency at BEMA in the early spring of 2017, we lived and worked on Revillagigedo Street, one of the main streets in the San Francisquito neighbourhood in Querétaro and a fifteen-minute walk from the city centre. Through our exchange of knowledge with the entrepreneurs of the street, we had the privilege of learning about their challenges they face today, past experiences that shaped their practices, and their aspirations for the future.
This writing peels away the onion layers of the reality we encountered and reconstructs it from its core – the residents and small-scale economies of Revillagigedo Street. The next layer is San Francisquito, a historic neighbourhood in Querétaro, and then the layer of neoliberal Querétaro. The city is known today for its successful achievements under the neoliberal social and economic agreement that has governed Mexico for thirty years. Instead of criticizing current governmental policies, we found inspiration in the small-scale economies of Revillagigedo Street, which are part of Mexico’s widespread informal economy. We saw these businesses as constituting a socially conscious economy and we compared them with the goals of the El Taller Imaginario workshops, which take place in another neighbourhood of Querétaro. These workshops bring people together to share skills and knowledge in the spirit of the emerging makers’ society. This is the final layer, which points to a more sustainable future. We learned that collective authority and a solidarity economy have been deeply embedded in Mexican society throughout its history and under different social agreements, which have come and gone while the people have stayed.
BEMA, a cultural hub in the making, aspires to be a space for collaborations. It understands itself, rightly, as a territory of power. Founded on the idea of sharing space and practices, it sees itself as a cell in the emerging resilient society. I connect BEMA with the buen vivir social movement exico and Latin America: buen vivir represents a worldview that foregrounds collective authority, social responsibility, local experience, and care for the environment. While I never heard the BEMA team talk about buen vivir, I see their project as an attempt to practise the principles of buen vivir. Buen vivir owes as much to political philosophy as it does to indigenous worldviews – how appropriate, then, that BEMA is based in San Francisquito, a neighbourhood that is proud of its indigenous population and has a strong sense of itself as a distinct territory.
San Francisquito – a Territory Apart
The San Francisquito neighbourhood is different from other parts of Querétaro. It was here that the city began, long before the arrival of the Spanish colonizers. The neighbourhood is residential and approximately every third house is a little shop. Small family houses line the narrow streets and there are no main thoroughfares passing through neighbourhood. It has always been populated, at least in part, by indigenous people, who continue to practice their customs, as can be seen in the several Concheros dance groups, or “mesas” in the neighbourhood. The residents are proud and protective of their identity, and of the genius loci of their community.
Although it is Querétaro’s oldest neighbourhood and has a distinctive social character, San Francisquito has been overlooked by the city: in the last thirty years there has been no major investment here from the municipality. The presence of the state is minimal. This helps to explain the underlying sense of self-organization we experienced. Most shop owners are part of the informal economy, i.e. they are outside the official economy and don’t pay state taxes. The small-scale enterprises of San Francisquito serve the everyday needs of the neighbourhood but not the city beyond it; people from the other parts of Querétaro have little reason to come here. You might say that, while San Francisquito knows Querétaro, Querétaro doesn’t know San Francisquito. The neighbourhood is basically an enclave in itself, with little “permeability” with the rest of the city, even in a physical sense: only a few streets enter the neighbourhood. That said, with signs of gentrification beginning to appear, the isolation of the neighbourhood is appreciated as a form of protection.
Revillagigedo Street as a Shared Space
The permeability between the private and public spaces of Revillagigedo Street was the first thing we noticed. The street is a place where “inside” and “outside” become interchangeable: activities behind doors quite naturally spill into the street and, conversely, a family home can become a temporary semi-public space. In the evening, a family will bring chairs out to the street, where they chat with friends and watch the people passing by, and sometimes others join them. On the weekends, two sisters open the doors of the family house, which temporarily becomes Lolita’s Kitchen, where both neighbours and people from outside San Francisquito can enjoy a delicious home-made lunch. Although Antonia Martinez Castro’s small grocery shop might appear to have regular opening hours, they are in fact determined by the neighbourhood vibe – the shop often stays open later, if needed. If you want to ask locksmith Antonio Breña about an order you have placed, dinner is a good time to visit him – his workshop is in the front hall of his house. The dressmaker’s shop is usually closed; she comes when she can, at irregular times, so you have to look out for her.
We Are Stewards: The Gatekeepers and Caretakers of Revillagigedo Street
The first time we heard about Ismael Morales was when the BEMA team told us there was a local carpenter who works in front of his house in the street. The house – where he lives with his family and keeps his workshop – has an awkward triangular layout; it’s large enough for him to have his tools there, but not to work in, so he works in the street, which he treats as an extension to his workshop. “This street is my house,” he says, and jokes: “I’ll put up a door here. People in the neighbourhood use my house to go in and out of San Francisquito.” He is a gatekeeper of the neighbourhood. His joke about owning the street may well be an emotional reaction to the dispossession of his family’s property by the municipality years ago, when the street’s expansion swallowed up half his house. Today, his extended workshop on the street is located exactly where the house used to be.
But Ismael’s assertion can also be seen as a metaphorical expression of the permeability of Revillagigedo Street, where small family houses interact with street life. The most permanent – yet constantly shifting – feature of Revillagigedo Street is, in fact, this permeability between private and public spaces. Residential space can turn into public space – an example is the locksmith’s workshop in the front hall of his home – and public space can be temporarily private, as with Ismael’s workshop. The shifts are orchestrated at different times of the day, week, or year, with spaces opening and closing in tune with the neighbourhood’s needs and rhythms. With care and attention, neighbours, shop owners and street sellers continuously recreate the street’s permanently permeable condition. Well attuned to the life of the street, they are its main performers. They are the caretakers of the street.
And they literally keep watch over the street. One neighbour, speaking fondly about the welder Eduardo Capetillo, said: “Everyone greets him when he walks by, even from their windows.” Not only Ismael, but all the neighbourhood residents are gatekeepers, as we experienced for ourselves: they quickly realized we were not merely passing through but wanted to belong, if only for the short two weeks of our residency at BEMA. We discovered that we had come into a tight-knit community where personal relationships matter – as you might expect in a place where people care for and protect each other.
One can say that the residents own the street, but it is a special kind of ownership. As gatekeepers and caretakers, they are the stewards of Revillagigedo Street.
Security in a Self-Protected Territory
Revillagigedo Street is just wide enough to park a car on one side and leave room for other cars to pass – but there are not many cars coming through and they drive slowly. People walk down the middle of the street and stop to chat with friends. Children play in the street. It has the atmosphere of a small town and feels safe. Nevertheless, when we arrived, people from outside the neighbourhood warned us that the street wasn’t safe and we should be careful.
When we asked Eduardo Capetillo about this, he joked, “Me and Antonio” (the locksmith, his neighbour and co-worker) “are the most dangerous people in the street.” In other words, our question was ridiculous. It surprised us to realize that the local residents considered Revillagigedo Street to be safe – in Querétaro, San Francisquito has the reputation of a dangerous place that is best avoided.
Dangerous streets are one of the most persistent stereotypes associated with the neighbourhood (Concheros dancing is another). But why does this stereotype persist when, as we heard from our neighbours, there might have been a dangerous gang living here a long time ago but no one really remembers it? Possibly, the stereotype remains because it marks San Francisquito as a place apart, an unknown and therefore possibly dangerous territory. And this separateness suits the residents fine. They know everyone who walks by their homes, and strangers like us are spotted at once and talked about. Here the neighbourhood watch, although not in any way organized, happens naturally.
A Socially Conscious Local Economy: It’s about Coexistence, Not Competition
Shop owner Antonia Martinez Castro told us she does not compete with other shops, but rather stocks a somewhat different selection of items, so that all the shops in the street, including hers, can prosper. While her shop supports her family’s economy, it is not its main pillar. Small businesses like hers make a living from the neighbourhood, but they don’t price their goods and services beyond the means of the residents. The welder Eduardo told us that he charges less in the neighbourhood than when he works in other parts of the city. By not focusing primarily on profit, such small enterprises are examples of a socially conscious local economy. That said, the small economies on Revillagigedo Street are able to survive primarily because they maintain a close relationship with the neighbourhood. They depend on the neighbourhood.
In his book Being Singular Plural, the philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy wrote: “Being is always ‘being with’, and ‘I’ is not prior to ‘we’. Existence is essentially coexistence.” We see this played out on Revillagigedo Street. The fragile balance of coexistence goes both ways. In San Francisquito we learned that maintaining the balance between existence (the survival of a shop or service) and coexistence (the interactions within the neighbourhood) is essentially a form of social responsibility, of neighbours caring for each other.
Social Agreement No.1: It’s about Stewardship, Not Personal Gain
Social responsibility means that one cares for and serves the community, beyond profit-driven personal gain. Coexistence is balanced with personal existence – this a basic aspect of stewardship. The people who live and work in Revillagigedo Street acknowledge the interdependence between their personal lives and the life of the street. They care about each other and protect their social agreement and the territory it covers.
They treat the neighbourhood as an extended family and not as a place where random individuals happen to live, the attitude that characterizes the modern city, where people don’t know their neighbours and tend to look only after their own interests. The people of San Francisquito defend their tacit social agreement. They want to keep their territory the way it is. At the same time, they know that the social agreement is not permanent and may change. The gentrification that is slowly spreading into San Francisquito – a result of the neighbourhood’s proximity to the city centre – could easily throw out of balance the coexistence between local businesses and the neighbourhood. When the socially conscious shops and services are challenged by strictly for-profit businesses, the neighbourhood’s small-scale economies will very likely disappear. And as a consequence, the self-protected territory of San Francisquito will disappear as well.
Informal Economies Are the Stewards of the Neighbourhood
People who come to San Francisquito from other parts of the city view its life and practices almost as a premodern existence. Although tradespeople are not usually hired from outside the neighbourhood to work in San Francisquito, Andrea Magaña, a young designer and carpenter, was an exception: she made the bathroom doors for the residence at BEMA. She commented on the neighbourhood’s village-like feeling and noted how strange it was to see people sitting and chatting in front of their houses. To her, the neighbourhood seems self-sufficient – a place apart from the city – where shops and services exist exclusively for the neighbourhood. She noted the absence of shops that serve the wider city. But is the way of life on Revillagigedo Street simply anachronistic, or can we relate it to life in a more resilient future city, where the aim is “to produce what we consume and consume what we produce”, as the French philosopher André Gorz wrote in Manifeste Utopia? Resilient cities are composed of neighbourhoods, each with a different footprint. In San Francisquito, the informal economies support the people who live in this territory. The informal economies are the stewards of the neighbourhood.
On a larger scale, informal economies support one third of the population in Mexico. We saw the informal economies of Revillagigedo Street as demonstrating the power of self-organization and self-sufficiency. We also saw the potential of today’s entrepreneurs to become the makers of the future. The small economies are the bulwark of the neighbourhood’s strong identity – a precondition for the resilient future city. That said, the notion of a makers’ society is foreign to the people of San Francisquito, but it is the underlying concept of the El Taller Imaginario workshops, which are organized not far away in another neighbourhood in Querétaro.
Social Agreement No. 2: The Buen Vivir Movement and the Makers’ Society
Although informal and barter economies are common and long-standing practices in Mexico, there is today a new interest in protecting small-scale local economies as a way of creating a sustainable future. This can be seen, too, in the recent upsurge in alternative currencies (there are currently fifteen of them). Similarly, the buen vivir movement is a reaction against the globalized market economy that has been implemented over the past thirty years of an austere social and economic agreement in Mexico, which has brought poverty to many people and destabilized the rural population. The buen vivir movement represents the aspirations of people who seek a new social agreement, one based on coexistence and not the mentality of “every man for himself”. Buen vivir (loosely translated as “good living”) is understood as a new way of coexisting in our age of social change. Originating in Latin America and closely related to the principles of indigenous rights and the rights of nature, this worldview acknowledges the limitations of capitalism and its ideology of continuous development. The movement’s proposal is to consume less (as opposed to consumerism) and rebuild collective authority (as opposed to individualism). Combining political philosophy with indigenous knowledge and practices, buen vivir embraces a solidarity economy and a solidarity society.
We encountered aspects of the buen vivir movement in the El Taller Imaginario workshops, which bring together people from Querétaro to share knowledge and skills. For Patricia Ávila Luna, who started El Taller Imaginario, each of us has a skill and we want to teach it to others – this is a natural part of the human condition. The recovery of skills is what matters here. The workshops aim to reclaim the connection between producers and consumers. These are experimental spaces where participants practice a makers society in the context of de-growth economy.
Perhaps because we were outsiders from Hamburg, we could see similarities between the makers of El Taller Imaginario and the businesses of Revillagigedo Street. To see the connection between these two socio-economic approaches – one looking towards the future, the other rooted in the past – we first had to remove the stigma from San Francisquito’s informal economies and reframe them as socially conscious economies. We saw these entrepreneurs as both makers and the stewards of the neighbourhood, providing the foundation for a resilient future city. The examples of Revillagigedo Street and El Taller Imaginario show us practices that can thrive in the world without being under the cloud of the neoliberal social and economic agreement, which, after all, is merely one way of organizing human existence. But today many people are looking for a different model, one founded on a new culture of living.