Are Mexico City’s violent wars over gentrification a window onto our collective future?
Photographs courtesy of Myles Estey
“So cheat the landlord if you can and must, but do not try to shortchange the Muse. ”— William S. Burroughs, The Western Lands
Last August, as the pre-dawn light fell upon Mexico City’s Roma neighborhood, Alejandro Kanan, a poet and silversmith, slept in the rooftop quarters of a neocolonial house. Kanan, his wife and young daughter woke when they heard thugs busting in downstairs. A man claiming to own the property had hired these men to evict the artists squatting inside.
Kanan initially submitted, but once he was on the sidewalk and learned that there was no eviction order, he forced his way back into the house. Two men grabbed his arms and another strangled him from behind. They tossed him to the floor and stepped on his fingers while his daughter screamed. Within a half hour, all the artist squatters had been cast out from the house—which they called “Casa Matus”—and its front door was welded shut behind them.
That’s when we realized what we were really up against. They’re not just squatters; they’re people who are willing to murder.
Five days earlier, a small army of seventy-seven thugs had propped ladders against the two-story façade of a building on nearby Calle Coahuila. Some of the men climbed onto the roof while the others broke through its front gate. Chaos erupted inside and the thugs quickly removed a group of squatters: men, women, and children. The development company that owns the building, El Cisne, had bribed a city lawmaker to ensure that the squatters’ political connections would not protect them, according to Rafael Bernal, El Cisne’s administrator. Once the squatters were on the sidewalk, they took action into their own hands: they stabbed three of the thugs—one of whom went missing and was presumed dead—and recaptured the property.
“That’s when we realized what we were really up against,” Bernal said. “They’re not just squatters; they’re people who are willing to murder. They had already lost, and that’s when they started yanking out the knives.”
Mexico has strong squatter’s rights, and forceful evictions have been the dirty underside of gentrification in Roma. Since moving to the neighborhood in 2007, I’ve watched new bars, cafés, restaurants and galleries transform the quiet neighborhood into an urban playground. Banners hanging from some squats proclaim resistance to eviction, while others fall prey. Squatters, gentrification, and evictions exist the world over, but Roma is unique because of its architectural value and the legacy of a massive earthquake that left refugees scrambling for some semblance of shelter.
After Kanan and his fellow artist squatters were forcefully ejected from Casa Matus, they set up camp on the house’s doorstep, making and displaying work as a protest against unlawful eviction. Meanwhile, after El Cisne’s failed raid nearby—its third eviction attempt on the Calle Coahuila building—Bernal began working his connections in the city government to reclaim the property. Both the squatters and Bernal saw themselves as standing up to injustice as they fought for their respective spaces in Mexico City.
On a September morning in 1985, an 8.1 magnitude earthquake ripped through Mexico City. Roma, which sits on soft lakebed, saw some of the worst damage in the city. Shoddy buildings lacking rebar tumbled, and survivors found themselves on the streets. Mexico City’s resilient citizens had to swallow their grief, roll up their sleeves, and organize relief efforts with scant government support. They searched for relatives in the rubble, and their effort exemplified their hard knuckle humanity. Roma’s residents formed a union to demand that the government expropriate damaged structures, rebuild the neighborhood, and provide housing for refugees. The soundtrack to the quake’s fallout was the aptly-named, ska-influenced band Maldita Vecindad (“Damned Tenement”), and as some of the affluent abandoned their crumbling mansions, squatters moved in.
A black flag with a crossed paintbrush and hammer flapped in the breeze. The erstwhile squatters distributed fliers – “No to the eviction of culture!”
Casa Matus was among those Roma houses where the Porfiriato-era flair was in decay. According to Gilberto “El Ponk” Peña, one of the house’s artist squatters, its black-and-white checkered floors had accumulated more than a decade’s worth of rubble, detritus, and trash by the time five students from the Bellas Artes vocational school arrived at its open door in 1999. The artists made the space their gallery and home. The owner, who was living in Guadalajara, was irate, but agreed to let them stay until he asked for his house back, Ponk said.
Ponk, thirty-one and built like a lineman, was the only one of the initial five artists still living in Casa Matus by 2011, and served as the revolving community’s de facto chief. He claimed that the house’s owner died and a former squatter sold that nugget of information to a man who wanted to illegally gain possession of the property. That man began launching raids, and the successful raid in August was the third attempt to evict Ponk’s band. While he and the other artists were living on the sidewalk, Ponk filed a case arguing unlawful eviction, and hoped the judgment would uphold their story and set a precedent for similar cases. While they waited, the sidewalk evolved into a thrift store, flophouse, and urban gallery. A black flag with a crossed paintbrush and hammer flapped in the breeze. The erstwhile squatters distributed fliers—“No to the eviction of culture!”—to passersby.
“We could enter [the house] by force, but we are doing it the legal way,” Ponk said in August. “That’s why we are here in resistance, because we’ve done nothing wrong, we owe nothing, and we know our defense is pure.”
Enrique Quevedo, the house’s most commercially successful artist, had moved his studio to Casa Matus from the adjacent Condesa neighborhood, which he found “too snobby, too light,”. “[Casa Matus] was filled with marijuana and drunks and very intense people, and that attracted me. It influenced my work, and that’s why I’m here in the struggle. Within the romanticism and aggression that my work contains, this place also exerts a passion, an energy, different from other places.”
The painting he made during the first week of camping on Casa Matus’s sidewalk, called “Internal Violation,” depicts a nude woman sitting on an antique chair, sliced at the waist with her legs gracelessly spread toward the viewer. A whirling, toxic-green storm cloud of hair shrouds her face. Other faces float wraith-like in the confusion, and the black-and-white checkered floor is wavy and unstable.
One afternoon a few days after the eviction, summer rainclouds covered swaths of the Valley of Mexico and sent wind charging about the basin. A gust ripped through the canvas of a work-in-progress: a maguey cactus and the Calavera Catrina (“Elegant Skull”). Rain and hail followed, and two women en route to meditation class sought shelter beneath the artists’ tarps. One hung a mandala on a wrought iron window grille to bestow positive energies. Still, the deluge continued.
By early September 2011, charged with adrenaline but without a flesh-and-blood threat before them, their fear had morphed into anger. “You’re gonna pay for this, sons of a fucking bitch!” Ponk shouted as the group watched footage from the eviction that showed their belongings discarded among the bushes.
That fury’s edge gradually dulled, subsiding into despair. Because Ponk had been busy guarding Casa Matus’ encampment, he lost his stand at the La Lagunilla street market where he sold his art. He said one night that he thought the artists should force their way through Casa Matus’ welded front door. His shoulders were slumped, his head low, and his eyes were welling up. It didn’t seem to be from the joint he was smoking; he was frustrated and bumbling and broken. I asked how reentering the house squared with everything he had said before: resolving the conflict legally and artistically, their pure defense, their optimism.
“The government, the cops, they don’t give a shit about us. If someone comes, robs us, fucks us, they don’t give a shit. That’s the truth. And we’re exposed to everything,” he said.
Another artist told Ponk that legal processes aren’t resolved overnight.
“But why do we have to be out here, those sons of bitches, for a fucking process?” Ponk responded. “We’re going to be out here getting wet and sick just because of a fucking process? No. Either they give us a fucking apartment or we bust in. Either they give us somewhere to go, a fucking shelter, with all our things, or we stay. That’s the truth. I’m getting tired of fucking lawyers. I’m getting tired of it all.”
With Ponk’s idealism crumbling, the other artists quickly followed suit. They decided to break through the night of September 15th, when the police force was occupied with the celebration marking Mexico’s independence. That afternoon, however, as lightning crashed and I took a siesta beneath my duvet two blocks from Casa Matus, the artists’ desolation boiled over in a rush of bodies and fists and hammers that busted open the door. They had already moved some possessions inside and were eating traditional pozole stew when I arrived. Ponk said they would leave their tarps and most things on the sidewalk to create the guise of an exterior presence. He then offered me a tour of the house. It was gritty, in shambles, and the night sky was visible through gaps in the plastic roof.
The artists were still living inside Casa Matus when I left Roma for vacation. I returned in October after the summer rains abated and saw from a distance that Casa Matus’ sidewalk encampment was gone. The house was empty. Strewn about the sidewalk in the artists’ wake: a rolled-up carpet, an old straw hat, broken fluorescent lights, a cheap desk split down the middle, paintings behind the window grilles. Two days later, only paint drippings remained.
I caught up with Ponk at the Monument to the Revolution. He said the government had sent trucks to remove the encampment because it obstructed the sidewalk. Days later, the government forces returned to evict the artist squatters from the house, and Casa Matus’ purported owner filed theft charges against Ponk. Casa Matus will remain empty until its ownership is legally determined, which will probably take years, he told me. However, when I walked by the house weeks later, workers were already starting demolition of the house’s interior.
The city’s plan was to have the Grupo GERI (akin to a SWAT force) and riot police force the squatters out. The Civil Protection ministry, which is charged with preventing accidents and responding to catastrophes, would immediately declare the structure unfit for human habitation, allowing Bernal to demolish it. Notwithstanding the city’s grand design, Bernal told me at the time that he was unsure the raid would ever actually go forward.
Indeed, months later, meeting after meeting with city officials had produced no action. The investors in El Cisne’s condominium project set a December deadline to regain possession of the property or else pull the plug on the development. The deadline passed and the Attorney General left office in order to run for mayor. Despite Bernal’s high-powered connections, he admitted that going through the proper channels had been naïve.
Bernal convinced his investors to wait by reluctantly engaging the services of a shadowy and superbly well-connected woman who, he said, “represents institutionalized corruption.” He said she agreed to pay 300,000 pesos to the “right people”: people from the left-wing city government’s party who provide squatters a small salary to occupy buildings as a means to extort owners. With the bribes duly delivered to the political puppeteers, she promised that the squatters would peacefully vacate the building and invade another property.
“If you have the cash and are willing to do anything, then you’ll solve any problem,” Bernal said. “I mean, of course, except the problem of guilt, if you happen to have a conscience.”
And if that failed, El Cisne would get a low-level politician to give a stump speech, rile neighbors threatened by the squatters’ presence, and protest at the Attorney General’s office. “Just be a little thorn in their side, and see if that works,” Bernal said. Either way, he would already be off to graduate school in Chicago.
While he was in the neighborhood, he wanted to see a property where an apartment building owned by his family had come down in the quake. Today it is a parking lot across from a tiny plaza. A plaque there reads:
Recognition of the men and women who made reconstruction of the city possible. For their work of solidarity in the fight to obtain dignified housing for the refugees of the September 1985 earthquake.
As we walked toward his car, he took stock of the scene.
“One hundred and fifty years ago this was somebody’s farm,” he said. “The thing about this city, though, is that it tends to feel ancient even in places just recently developed. I can totally imagine a tourist walking down this street and saying, ‘I just love this colonial architecture!’”
Roma today is a different beast than before, but it bears a blood relation. It may again be shaken to its core, and I can’t help thinking someone else would inherit the ruins. Someone else would choose to gather and reassemble the pieces. As though forewarning, a 6.7 magnitude quake jostled Mexico City this December.
Walking down Calle Orizaba from Avenida Álvaro Obregón, one comes upon the broad Plaza Río de Janeiro, the northern pole of Roma’s development. Ringing the plaza are a few apartment buildings, a gallery, a breezy café, and a few mansions. One decrepit mansion was demolished last year. At the plaza’s open center is a fountain with a reproduction of Michelangelo’s David. David is typically portrayed atop Goliath’s severed head, but Michelangelo’s version hasn’t yet fought the battle and stands triumphant over nobody. He is set against the sky, set against the city.
David Biller is based in Mexico City, where he serves as energy correspondent for a news agency and freelances for magazines. His freelance work has appeared in National Geographic en Español, Wend, and National Geographic Traveler Latin America. You can find more of his writing on his website, or follow him at @DLBiller.