50 Casas, Esmeraldas, Ecuador
50 Casas is an informal neighborhood in the coastal city of Esmeraldas, Ecuador. The neighborhood is officially named Cooperativa Río Teaone, but more informally referred to as 50 Casas, which translates to 50 Houses, for the number of families that were originally established there. By 2015, approximately 2,700 people lived in the neighborhood, with at least half of all residents under the age of 18. Most homes that line the winding unpaved streets of the neighborhood are of mixed-construction materials such as cinder blocks, cement, wood, and sheet metal roofs. While 50 Casas may resemble other informal communities in the south side of the city of Esmeraldas, with its dirt roads and brightly painted homes built close together, it is different from other barrios in its proximity to the petrochemical complex that has operated in Esmeraldas since the late 1970s (Fig. 1).
The majority of the residents are Black Ecuadorians. Although no official figures exist for the neighborhood, unemployment and underemployment are significantly higher than the state and national median. A substantial number of neighborhood residents work informally in construction, shrimp farming, or domestic labor, which includes childcare, home cleaning, and laundry service. Residents of 50 Casas have adopted a variety of strategies to secure shelter, obtain food, and deal with insecurity. Their use of strategies has ranged throughout the years, depending on their needs and resources at the time, but they have always relied on some form of contentious collective action, mutual aid and patronage networks, as well as some form of state aid.
The first settlers of the 50 Casas neighborhood hailed from different areas around the city center, but they were all victims of landslides and floods that had destroyed their homes in 1998. The city had grown disproportionately through the 1980s, and following a trend that has been observed throughout urban centers in the global south (Fischer et al. 2014), impoverished families took to the hills in search of land where they could build a home. The El Niño climatic phenomenon of 1998 brought rainstorms that caused huge landslides and destroyed dozens of homes built on steep hillsides. Displaced families were transported to emergency shelters set up in unused school and government buildings, where they spent months in crowded and unsanitary conditions waiting for government assistance. Assistance from the state finally arrived in the form of a relocation program that offered the families a donated cane and palm home in an uninhabited area in the south of the city. The first settlers of the neighborhood recall that the area was completely unfit for habitation, lacking basic services and infrastructure, and for its location right by the petrochemical complex. Yet, life in the shelters was unbearable, and some families decided to participate in the relocation program.
The Ministry of Housing coordinated the disaster relief effort and offered 50 families a plot of land and a donated home. The families who accepted the offer had to clear and level their own plots of land, they were barred for using the land for commercial or rental purposes, and they had to agree to a legalization process—which included paying property taxes—so they could keep their derecho de posesión, a document allowing them to legally occupy the land, and obtain legal titles after a two-year tenure. Over time, this legalization process broke down and was ultimately unsuccessful.
When the first relocated families arrived, they immediately went to work clearing their plots and preparing to receive the donated homes. Leti, a long-time resident of the neighborhood recalled that the place was a jungle when they arrived, “with so many plants and weeds everywhere that it took days on end to clear our plots using machetes, we also had to carve out little trails for entering and leaving the neighborhood. It was terribly dark at night! And with so many animals and insects, it was difficult and dangerous.” The donated homes the disaster victims received were constructed out of sugar cane and curated palm, and each sat on stilts, approximately six feet above the ground. This type of architecture was generally ideal for areas prone to flooding. Because the ground was so soft in this location, the stilts made the houses unstable, and they often required reinforcements. Reinforcing and restructuring these homes was an arduous process that took years, especially due to the residents’ minimal resources. A common way for residents of the neighborhood to reinforce and expand their homes was to organize mingas with their relatives and neighbors, whenever they had saved up enough for construction materials. Mingas are a traditional form of mobilizing social labor by means of systems of reciprocity. Mingas were also a common way to take on infrastructural projects in the neighborhood, given the state’s relative absence in the area. During the early years of the neighborhood, neighbors recall often working together to level the neighborhood’s main road and clear vegetation and help each other build up their homes.
Soon after the arrival of the first relocated families, additional parts of the neighborhood were settled through a series of land invasions. These settlers eked out plots and began building houses along the river banks and around a lagoon located toward the back of the neighborhood. Many of those who participated in the invasions were also disaster victims who had lost their homes to landslides but had not been part of the relocation program due to its limited capacity and funds. They had heard about the program while they were in the shelters and had decided to follow on their own. Those who participated in the invasions had a more difficult time obtaining the document allowing them to legally live on the land, thus they quickly organized to keep each other safe from eviction.
Residents found it necessary to organize at the neighborhood-level soon after their arrival in the area. They faced many challenges in making the area livable, from acquiring basic services, to keeping each other safe, and defending their plots from outsiders. Their organizing has been cyclical throughout the years, with periods of high mobilization activity and others in which collective action slowed down, but ultimately, it was this collectivity that helped the community face the many challenges of building a life under such difficult conditions. Their organizing was usually in response to problems, or crises, that arose, of which there were many in the earlier phases of the neighborhood.
Fast-forward 20 years from the initial settlement and invasions in 1998, and what we find is a thriving community with over 2,700 residents and access to some services such as public transportation and electricity. After many years of collective struggle, organizing, and protesting, the neighbors have made the place livable, an achievement they take pride in. As documented in other cases of early stages of squatting throughout the region and in other Latin American cities, the experience of enduring harsh conditions upon arrival and extensive labor to build up the area is common, as is the widespread proclivity to aspire to home ownership over renting (Burgwal 2003; Fischer and McCann 2014).
Most families in the neighborhood rely on wages earned in the informal labor market, such as shrimp fishing in the mangroves, construction work for men, and domestic work for women. Their reality is dictated by what they call “el diario,” which translates to “the daily,” referring to their daily earnings. Their experience of living day-to-day is quite literal, and the social organization of the neighborhood reflects that. For example, myriad storefronts operate out of homes that sell small amounts of everything from staple food items, to beauty products, and school materials. Fruits and vegetables are even sold in parts, such as half an onion and a third of a papaya, to accommodate for the neighborhood’s day-to-day domestic economy.
It is common practice for children to be sent to the neighborhood store each day to buy the necessary ingredients for that day’s meal. Many of these stores also offer credit to their trusted clients, creating a safety net for families who rely on the volatility of their daily earnings. Another common practice is food sharing between neighbors, relatives, and friends. On many occasions I heard Zula, a neighborhood leader I lived with during fieldwork, say, “we’re poor, but nobody goes hungry here” while preparing a heaping plate of food for a neighbor or friend who had been down on their luck. Additionally, residents sometime host neighbors’ children in their homes for lunch or dinner. This was another common practice in which families whose economy was more stable would help feed the children of those who are having a difficult time.
State assistance also plays an important role in the lives of the poorest families in the neighborhood through “el bono popular,” the Ecuadorian state’s welfare payment. Although the residents have two main complaints about the program: 1. To be eligible, one must be absolutely destitute, and not everyone in the neighborhood is, and 2. Those who are beneficiaries cannot possibly make ends meet with the $60-dollar monthly payments provided by the program.Footnote 4 Beneficiaries tend to be single-parent households, usually single-mothers, who cannot work outside the home due to their child-care responsibilities.
Forms of patronage in which the state becomes an important presence also exist in the neighborhood, especially after moments of crisis such as after disastrous events or before upcoming elections. In the first case, resources and aid provided by the state are often distributed to residents through particular neighborhood leaders; in the second case, during political campaigns, elected officials seeking re-election tend to use state resources to boost their popularity.
Residents of 50 Casas experience a heightened level of insecurity compared to other neighborhoods, including other informal barrios, in Esmeraldas. The most common crimes are petty theft, home robberies, and the occasional youth gang skirmish. However, long-time residents of the neighborhood noted that the insecurity they witnessed in 2018 was nothing compared to what it was 10 years prior. According to them, organized crime was a serious issue before, and gun violence between rival gangs was common. “You could not even sit outside your house in peace because bullets could start flying any minute. Those young ones were a real terror then, there are still some bandidos (bandits) left, of course, and they are the ones we keep looking out for, but the really dangerous ones are all locked up now, and the ones left don’t have as much control over the place. They will still rob your house or take your cell phone, but deaths are less common,” said Carmen, a long-time resident, in an interview.
Most interviewees reported having had something stolen while walking in the neighborhood or waiting at the bus stop, while many had also experienced a home robbery. The neighbors noted that, for the most part, they felt somewhat safe in their neighborhood especially because of the acquaintanceships and friendships they had developed over time. According to Auri, a neighborhood organizer, there were ways to safely navigate the neighborhood for those who lived there; these included knowing where the main bandido hangouts were and avoiding them, knowing all the neighbors well, since they kept an eye out for each other, and walking in pairs or groups, especially for women at night. Auri noted that the neighborhood was truly dangerous for outsiders unfamiliar with the areas and the individuals they should stay away from. Another strategy the neighbors adopted to avoid burglaries was to make sure that there was always someone home. If every member of a household had to go out at the same time, they asked neighbors to keep an eye on their homes.
Neighbors also rely on communal security groups. A few long-time residents mentioned in interviews that they had used this strategy to protect their homes when the neighborhood had just been established; at the time, they faced a variety of threats such as outsiders who claimed ownership of the land. Later, in 2018, they again used this strategy to keep construction crews safe while they paved a part of the neighborhood’s main road. After years of protesting to demand that their main road be paved, the local government finally sent a construction crew to begin the project. After a few days of work, the workers were robbed and stripped of all their belonging while in the neighborhood. After the incident, the work crew refused to continue working there because they felt unsafe. The neighborhood association convened a meeting with the crew and assured the workers that the association would make sure they were safe while working in the area. The neighbors then organized into groups of five, who kept watch over the workers from the moment they entered the neighborhood, until they left.
La Matera, Buenos Aires, Argentina
La Matera is a squatter settlement located in the southern part of the Conurbano Bonaerense.Footnote 5 Most of its 5,160 residents (roughly 1,140 households) are poor. According to the last available figures, 55% of the population is below the official poverty line. More than half of the households have no titles of their homes and/or the land where they live. Living conditions are extremely precarious: a third of the households have no access to water inside of their homes, a third of them are overcrowded (more than three persons per room), and most homes have neither sewer nor gas connections.
Since the barrio’s inception in 2001, residents’ strategies to secure shelter, obtain food, and deal with interpersonal violence have relied on a combination of (more or less contentious) collective action, patronage networks, state aid, and mutual aid networks. We describe them below (Fig. 2).
Since the mid-nineties, the Government of the Province of Buenos Aires had been planning a public housing complex in the area that today is La Matera. Towards the end of 1999 construction stopped and rumors abounded about the illegal appropriation of the funds destined for its completion. In March 2000, residents of the neighboring area (Barrio El Tala) together with future beneficiaries of the half-finished houses occupied the land assigned to the housing complex and the area adjacent to them. Future settlers found out about the imminent land invasion through word of mouth among friends and relatives. Leaders of the unemployed movement (locally known as piqueteros)Footnote 6 and members of the Peronist Party, who at the time were the opposition, organized the takeover. The testimonies of those who participated, either as occupants and/or as leaders, speak of the extensive accumulated organizational experience—several had already participated in, or had relatives who had been part of, other land occupations of both private and public lands.
Squatters knew (or identified those who knew) how to set the boundaries for each private plot, how to open up the streets and dig trenches so water could flow (“Everything we did, we did a pulmón, we got together with other neighbors during weekends and we built the sidewalks”), how to demarcate and reserve plots for public spaces (the main square, the future school and health center), how to confront the police who wanted to evict them (“We would put the kids in front of the mounted police so they couldn’t attack… we went through hell…. When the bulldozers came to try to destroy our tents…”), how to evade the police siege so they could bring in building materials, and how to negotiate with government authorities.
Those who were present in the land invasion remember that "all this was like an empty field … it was all mud…up to your knee,” “the bridges to enter the neighborhood through the creek were made of wood or used tires, bridges of terror [we called them], you were afraid to go through.” Lucía (58) summarizes the beginnings of La Matera: “It was hard to level this plot (so it didn’t flood). Truckloads and truckloads of rubble, dirt, a lot. But, hey, it was a struggle … we had no water. We had to go and find it on the other side (across the creek), and when it rained the mud covered our boots. It was tough. We cleaned el barrio, we cut reeds, the tall grasses, with a machete. So many things we did…" “Two years after we took over, you didn’t recognize the neighborhood. It improved a lot”, Julio (61) tells us. And every resident we spoke with agrees: “It was a huge progress.” The shared view about progress refers mainly to public infrastructure and facilities: the elementary school, the community and health center, the plaza, some paved streets, the sidewalks, street lights, public water, and the concrete bridges to cross over the creeks that came to replace the “bridges of terror.”
Neighbors tend to associate certain improvements with specific municipal or provincial administrations. Additionally, they recall that "progress" was the outcome of their own "struggles," the actions of a particular neighborhood broker (a puntero) who “got resources for the neighborhood” or, just as importantly, of a mix of protest and brokerage – as in the many rallies organized by the puntero to demand a school, health center, and/or state aid programs. In other words, strategies to obtain land, build private shelter, and public infrastructure and facilities (streets, bridges, sidewalks, lighting, elementary school, community and health center) combine personalized political networks and collective action. Contention was sometimes more transgressive – as in the squatting – and at other times less disruptive – as in the rallies organized to claim a building for the local school.
Soup kitchens, both private and publicly funded, were quite common throughout La Matera before the COVID-19 pandemic, and they became even more widespread since its onset. Children and some adults ate their lunch and sometimes even dinner in these comedores. After the onset of pandemic restrictions, they picked up their cooked meals and took them home. During weekdays, the state distributed food to elementary school students and their families at the local school. Local brokers and churches also gave away “mercadería” (foodstuffs) they obtained through their contacts at the municipal and provincial administrations. State assistance programs also helped residents make ends meet. The Asignación Universal por Hijo (AUH) provided families with $30 USD per child per month, the Tarjeta Alimentaria provided pregnant women and mothers of one child with $28 USD (and $ 42USD to women with two or more children), and, since April 2020, the Ingreso Familiar de Emergencia (IFE) offered each family $71 USD per month.
Workers with formal employment did not receive the IFE. According to the last available figures (pre-pandemic), 15% of La Matera adults were unemployed. Of those who were employed, most relied on informal jobs, such as construction and delivery services for men, and domestic work for women. Almost every household of the fifteen we surveyed since the onset of the pandemic relied on state aid to stay afloat. This meant that someone within the household received AUH, IFE, and/or some other state aid program in either cash or kind.
In what follows we present the case of Vanesa and Cristian’s household. Although the details may be particular to their case, the many sources they rely on for food illustrate a general pattern in the neighborhood. Most residents of La Matera combine low-paid work, state aid, and family networks for survival.
Vanesa (30) and Cristian (32) have three children: Melanie (14) Uma (8) and Byron (3). In 2020, they lived in a house built by the state. During the early 2000s, neighborhood residents who at the time were organized by local political brokers linked to the Peronist party, participated in many rallies and road-blockades demanding public housing. Thanks to collective action and patronage, along with the state’s response to both, they now own the house where they live. Although Vanesa’s household does not need to cover the cost of a mortgage or rent, they still struggle to make ends meet. Cristian works at a slaughterhouse an hour away from home and makes approximately $190 USD per month. Vanesa receives two monthly payments from state sponsored aid programs: the first payment is of $71 USD for their three children, and the second is of $6 USD for food. Thus, roughly a third of the household income comes from state sources.
Additionally, Vanesa cleans her grandmother Catalina’s home twice per month – for which she receives between $4 or $5 USD for two hours of work. Every two weeks, Elena, Cristian’s aunt, provides them with milk, noodles, polenta, rice, and corn oil. Elena works at a state-funded local soup kitchen where she receives food, which she then passes on to Vanessa and Cristian. Elena “has a lot of stuff and she shares,” Vanesa noted. Elena is not the only one that helps them make ends meet. Like most of the families Auyero and Servián interviewed, Vanesa and Cristian’s household is part of an extensive network of intensive exchange. Twice a week, Vanesa helps her brother Fernando with the sale of clothing the latter buys in bulk in the city. Fernando often loans her money to buy clothes for the children, and also helps her with food: “I only buy oranges because they are always on sale. That’s why I only buy oranges, if you come over and see apples or bananas it’s because Fernando came by. I ask him to buy me some potatoes, but he also buys fruit for us,” said Vanesa. Once or twice a week, Vanesa also helps her mother, Rosana, who owns a small bakery, in exchange for which she receives pizza dough and cookies for the kids. Rosana also reciprocates with clothes and sneakers for Vanessa’s children. During the pandemic, Vanesa has not only relied on family members to obtain food. With a portion of the cash Cristian brings home every two weeks, she runs a little store in front of her house where she sells toiletries and cleaning products. She makes an average of $2 a day which she spends on meals for the family: “What I earn, I spend on food. We don’t eat too much meat. We eat mainly chicken and noodles… every now and then I make a little more and I buy milanesas.Footnote 7”
Along with food, recurrent expenses include paying for internet, cell phones, the gas canister to cook, and the parochial school their children attend – arguably the most important expense aside from food. For perspective, slightly over 10% of their income goes to tuition (roughly US$30 per month). As of February 2021, they owe US$235 to the school, a debt towards which they make small payments each time Vanessa receives her welfare check. We highlight this point because, contrary to bolstering lassitude, a critique that conservative writers have launched against welfare programs throughout the Americas (Fernández-Kelly 2015), Vanessa and many of the neighbors we interviewed in La Matera, show us that welfare payments are often used to cover the cost of their children’s education. People like Vanessa and Cristian, deposit their hopes for social mobility in education– if not their own, that of their children. State aid is thus a component in poor people’s strategies not just to ‘stay afloat’ but also to ‘thrive,’ thus contributing to both simple and expanded reproduction.
“They already robbed me about 40 times” Daniel (32) told us in an interview. “Do you know how ugly it is to cross the bridge at five in the morning? Everything is dark, they come out from under the bridge, from the side, they take everything out of you, they hit you… I have seen many people robbed in front of me and I turned back… you have to go with your heart in your mouth and there is no lighting. Nothing at all." The vast majority of our interviewees had been victims of assault on public roads at least once. A minority few told us that they had been “lucky” and had not directly experienced violence, although close relatives had: “They stole the horses my son-in-law uses to pull the cart to scavenge…. Luckily, we recovered one,” “My son got his shoes and jacket stolen,” “ugly things happen here (in terms of) security…” Direct or indirect victims, all, however, reported feeling that, in terms of public safety, they are at the mercy of what each day brings. Constant attacks against their physical integrity did not seem to surprise them.
Persistent robberies were not confined to public spaces, but also occurred inside homes. Soledad (28), for example, had her gas cylinder (which she purchases once a month for $4 USD and uses to cook) and cell phone stolen one morning when she left to pick up her daughters from school: "When they rob you, you feel like they will be coming back." Soledad was not the only one who suffered the theft of personal belongings from her home, nor was she the only one who knew the thieves personally—as we heard on countless occasions, victims and perpetrators often knew each other or knew of family or friends they have in common.
Residents had an "explanation" for the surrounding violence. "It's ugly, because they can hurt you for nothing, because the kids are drugged …" Phrases like those of Mariluz (38) were related to us, with minimal variations, countless times. All the neighbors associated assaults and robberies with the psychopharmacological effects of drugs, often in combination with alcohol, that youth in the neighborhood consumed. From the point of view of the neighbors, which on this issue was practically unanimous, the ingestion of drugs (including paco, cocaine, ecstasy or pills combined with alcohol) irritated, excited, enraged, or emboldened "the kids"—and these emotional states translated into violent behaviors.Footnote 8
Repeated expressions of fear, helplessness, and futility in the face of threats of physical violence co-existed with, at times futile, attempts to mitigate the danger they and their loved ones faced. Neighbors organized their daily routines in an attempt to avoid navigating the streets alone – even more so at night time when their potential perpetrators (“the kids”) were more likely to strike. Residents frequently told us that they tried to stay indoors as much as possible. If and when venturing outside, they planned for a family member to stay at home so that household belongings were safe. They also relied on family members to accompany them as they ran errands within the neighborhood or as they left for work or study.
Excerpt from Sofía’s diary (edited for clarity)
August 2019. Yesterday night my brother was waiting for me at the bus stop (four blocks from home). I came back at 11.15 PM, had classes until late. We said hi and two seconds later, we were surrounded. Three kids. Two of them were wielding knives, a third had a gun. “The cell phone!” That’s all I heard. I panicked because I had it inside my backpack and I thought I wasn’t going to be able to reach to it. I thought they were going to hurt me. One of them hit me on my wrist when he reached out to grab the cellphone. They also took my backpack and ran away. When it was over, I noticed that my brother had lost his jacket, his t-shirt, and his sneakers.
Acapatzingo, Mexico City, Mexico
The Communidad Habitaciónal Acapatzingo is an autonomous housing cooperative in Mexico City's peripheries, home to around 5,000 residents. The community is the oldest and largest of the eight belonging to the Organización Popular Francisco Villa de Izquierda Independiente (OPFVII), a socialist organization seeking to build power by building self-reliant communities based on practices of collective decision making, solidarity, and mutual aid. Located in Iztapalapa, notorious for being one of the city's poorest and highest crime boroughs, Acapatzingo displays little of the insecurity and material degradation of the built environment that characterizes the surrounding area. Passing through the community gates, one leaves behind narrow streets, dangling wires, and unfinished concrete. Inside, buried electrical cables give community members an unobstructed view of wide, quiet streets lined with carefully tended greenery and colorful two-story houses. The community boasts parks, greenhouses, a pavilion for general assemblies, a library, and a medical clinic. Despite the community's gates, this is hardly the secured enclave of wealth and privilege the term gated community evokes. The Panchos, as the residents call themselves, come from the humblest sections of Mexico City's working class, the majority scraping by as subway vendors, taxi drivers, domestic laborers, or toiling in other informal jobs. Rather than a reflection of wealth, their neighborhood is, as residents proudly explain, a testament to nearly three decades of collective struggle to build what they call "dignified lives."
Similar to what we've observed in La Matera in Argentina and 50 Casas in Ecuador, the Panchos have relied on diverse strategies to secure shelter, obtain food, and deal with insecurity. From the community's origins thirty years ago as a squatter encampment to its status today as a housing cooperative, these strategies have included collective action, communal labor, and mutual aid networks. However, unlike the previous two settlements, the residents of Acapatzingo have been excluded from patronage networks due to their refusal to work with political parties and thus rely more extensively on contentious collective action to access state resources (Fig. 3).
Acapatzingo began in 1994 as a land invasion organized by politicized squatters. The former quarry filled with rubble was, according to Antonio, "so ugly it made you want to cry." Yet, beyond the rubble, the squatters saw the possibility of a home for their families. Over the next few years, hearing from friends, relatives, or coworkers, families arrived and built their "modulos," provisional housing made with low-cost materials like cinderblocks and tin roofing. In 1996, following an internal conflict, the encampment became a cooperative.
While most squatters were young families with small children and a shared need for housing, their circumstances varied widely. Some, like Valente, a migrant from Veracruz, moved to Acapatzingo with his wife and two children after being violently evicted from a nearby ecological reserve. Others joined to escape the condition of living "arrimado" – living rent-free in the crowded homes of friends or relatives. Women were often instrumental in getting their families to join the community, eager to leave the overcrowded and contentious homes of their husbands' extended families. Finally, some joined because they simply no longer could afford to live in the city center due to rising rents and high unemployment.
By joining Acapatzingo, the new arrivals became Panchos,Footnote 9 participants in a social movement that emerged in 1988 from the radical wing of the Urban Popular Movement. While similar organizations gradually embraced electoral politics as a vehicle to secure housing and other amenities, the Panchos refused to work with political parties, deeply critical of how clientelism undermines poor people's struggles. Instead, they remained firmly committed to the organizational autonomy, collective decision-making practices, and contentious collective action that characterized earlier expressions of the Urban Popular Movement.
Beyond simply meeting the need for housing, the Panchos see the construction of communities for the urban poor as the first step towards building an alternative socialist society. As David, a prominent community organizer, told Sam, "Housing, as a deeply felt necessity, is the pretext to initiate the struggle, but it doesn't end there. Political consciousness doesn't end when you get the keys to your house." This commitment to the construction of an alternative society is seen in the active participation in the communal structures of self-organization: from the monthly general assembly, rotating community guard, and involvement in the eight commissions that organize communal life.
Without ties to political parties, the community relied heavily on contentious collective action to gain access to credit from Mexico City's housing agency to construct their homes. According to the cooperative's documentation, in the seven years it took to secure the housing credit, the community participated in 205 marches, sit-ins, and rallies. As Monica put it, "For us, our weapon is our voice. Through marches, sit-ins, rallies, we have been able to achieve everything we have today."
While the credit to build the houses was secured from the government through collective action, the community itself oversaw the planning and construction process. Collective labor such as digging ditches and unloading materials lowered construction costs. These savings allowed the construction of larger houses and wider streets that deviated from standard subsidized housing and set aside space for a health clinic, a radio station, and a cultural center.
Most residents of Acapatzingo start working outside the home by age 13, and it is primarily through earnings from this work that families purchase food. While some community members have more stable waged work, most of the community works in the informal economy as domestic laborers, delivery workers, taxi drivers, and mobile vendors. Most residents conduct the bulk of their shopping in a small but labyrinthine market adjacent to the community. Most vendors sell food – vegetables, tortillas, eggs, dried staples like beans and rice, poultry, herbs, and spices. In addition to this market, many community members sell food out of their homes like tortillas, candy, baked goods, and snacks. There are also numerous street vendors selling tacos and quesadillas and several small convenience stores that sell cigarettes, credit for pre-paid cellphones, sodas, and packaged food within walking distance. Due to the consumption of processed foods, street food, and soft drinks, there is a high prevalence of obesity and diabetes.
The health commission, operating out of a two-story house designated as a volunteer-run health clinic, addresses these diet-related conditions by monitoring residents' blood pressure and glucose levels and organizing exercise classes and nutrition workshops. Another effort by the community to address food access issues is the small urban farm run by the agriculture commission. Made up of two greenhouses and a small orchard in the center of the community, the urban farm produces vegetables and fruit, which are sold door to door at a fraction of their market price. While the small farm has an impressive yield, it meets only a tiny fraction of the community's food needs. Thus, while Mirella, a member of the agricultural commission, dreams of one day "harvesting enough food to feed the whole community," she describes the farm as part of an educational project, teaching community members about nutrition and the value of agricultural labor.
The pandemic greatly impacted the economic livelihood of many residents of the community, particularly those in the informal economy. To deal with the growing issue of food insecurity, the neighborhood established a community kitchen that served a low-cost breakfast, lunch, and dinner to around 50 families. Run by the community's brigades, the community kitchen substantially lowered costs by purchasing ingredients in bulk, using produce from the farm, and using a sliding scale to subsidize meals for unemployed families.
Acapatzingo is a neighborhood where people leave their doors unlocked for visitors to stop by, where parents feel comfortable letting their children play outside alone, and where, well past dark, small groups of all ages can be seen enjoying each other's company. This degree of safety is a testament to the community's self-organized security practices and is especially remarkable when considering that the community is located in Iztapalapa, Mexico City's highest crime borough. In 2019, for example, more kidnappings, robberies, murders, femicides, and incidents of rape and sexual violence occurred in Iztapalapa than in any other part of the city (González 2020, 335–43). Many residents have direct experience with this violence, with stories about being robbed at knife or gun-point as they walked or took collective busses to the subway station a mile from the community. Josefina, who spoke to Sam about her experiences participating in the rotating community guard, said that it is not uncommon to see people make the sign of the cross when they safely return to the community.
Residents themselves provide security in Acapatzingo. As David told Sam, "We don't let the police enter because we make our own security." In the earliest days of the settlement, threats from rival squatter groups and the theft of construction materials led the community to build a fence around the perimeter and establish nightly bonfires to keep watch, which are remembered fondly today. To respond to threats, community members to this day carry with them a whistle and a baton, ready to assemble en masse to collectively address security threats. This system, which allows any community member to alert and rapidly mobilize the rest of the community, enables the community to address violence without relying on a specialized armed security force.
As the community grew, it replaced the fences with walls topped in many places with barbed wire, and the bonfires were replaced with two gated entrances. Today, guard duty rotates daily between the 28 brigades, whose members divide the day into eight-hour shifts. This means that each family takes part in a guard shift once every 28 days. During the day, guards sit at the gates and monitor traffic. Residents are free to come and go, but guests must be met at the gate by a host from the community, and vehicles leaving the community are searched to prevent theft. Incidences of teenagers from outside Acapatzingo jumping the fence to drink, smoke, and occasionally steal have led to establishing a nocturnal foot patrol around the perimeter. This patrol also enforces community agreements like a 10 PM youth curfew, restrictions on public drinking, and quiet hours.
In addition to protecting the community from external threats, the security commission plays an integral role in addressing interpersonal conflict and harm within the community. At a general assembly in April 2021, for example, the commission reported that they had broken up a violent brawl at a house party and responded to a father who blew his whistle for help when his 16-year-old son pulled a knife on him for trying to send his friends home late at night.
Beyond de-escalation, the security commission works to address the harm caused by interpersonal violence, following practices of community justice informed by mechanisms of conflict resolution in indigenous communities and principles of transformative justice. Through mediation, the security commission determines sanctions to be ratified by the general assembly, which can include restitution, communal labor, counseling, or other behavioral changes, and, in the most serious cases, expulsion. In the case of the 16-year-old who pulled the knife on his father, for example, the commission recommended to the general assembly that for a year, the teenager see a psychologist, refrain from drinking alcohol, and be required to take a Saturday night guard shift.
While Acapatzingo is not free of interpersonal violence, often the result of domestic conflicts or the use of drugs and alcohol, this system of communal security and conflict resolution means that the consequences of this violence don't spiral out of control. With the whistle, residents have recourse to a rapid and effective means of communal de-escalation and conflict resolution. Furthermore, by resolving conflicts internally and without the police, these communal mechanisms of conflict resolution avoid recourse to state intervention that, due to their intermittent, punitive, and contradictory character, often exacerbate interpersonal violence in the surrounding area.
This self-organized system of communal security has also allowed the community to respond to emerging external threats without relying on the police. In May 2020, a new criminal organization active in the surrounding area sent two armed men to deliver a letter demanding money from the community. In response to this attempted extortion, the community convened an emergency general assembly where they collectively decided to destroy the letter without reading it and to add an additional patrol through the community.
Thanks to this self-organized system of security, residents feel a sense of safety and peace in the community that they don't feel outside. As one resident and longtime member of the security commission, Antonio, told Sam, "When I pass through the gates, I feel safe because I know that nothing will happen to me. I know that my children are safe and protected when I leave for work and that everyone is here to help." Referring to the feeling of safety in the community, David told Sam, "Safety isn't something that is measured, it is felt. Living in peace is part of a dignified life. That we are able to feel this way thanks to our organization shows that we can solve own problems, that things can be done in a different way."