Capital Keeps Growing : Chalco Valley: Mexico’s ‘Lost City’ of 1980s

Times Staff Writer

The nameless dirt streets appear on no map, and sometimes the grid of cinder-block homes are hidden altogether under giant columns of wind-whipped dust.

The residents themselves seem disoriented by the haze and anonymity of their community. Some call their town Valle de Chalco, the Valley of Chalco. Others insist it is the Valley of Ayotla. Still others give their address as Iztapalapa, an outlying district of Mexico City, as if identification with the capital will bring unimaginable benefits to a desperate existence. A faraway bishop once tried to dub it all Guadalupe Valley, after the revered Virgin patroness of Mexico.

Why not? This place could use a prayer. It has no water and no electricity except what is stolen or provided by vendors that may or may not be legitimate. It has no police and no law except that conceded by distrusted authorities. Schools are primitive. Drainage is any hole in the ground.

Beyond the Fringe

Valle de Chalco lies just beyond the southeastern fringe of Mexico City. Newspapers in the capital call it a lost city, the latest squatter neighborhood marking the expansion of the world’s most populous metropolis.

In the 1960s and 1970s, Mexico City settlements called Nezahualcoyotl and Ecatepec epitomized escape from rural poverty into urban slum life for hundreds of thousands of Mexicans. Valle de Chalco is the lost city of the 1980s--but with a twist.


Besides the ragged from the countryside, numerous poor on the rebound from Mexico City have flocked to Valle de Chalco. Some, losers in the urban rat race, are retreating to the last frontier of the city. Others, often the young, seek a shortcut to the Mexican dream among the valley’s cheap home sites: a place to call one’s own, a house, a patio, potted plants and a television set.

Six years ago, only a handful of houses hugged the periphery of a nearby superhighway, and the Valle de Chalco was mostly corn and grazing land. Now, estimates of the population vary from 500,000 to 700,000.

Whatever the actual numbers, Valle de Chalco is proof that bloated Mexico City is still growing, lurching toward a population of 25 million by century’s end. About 17 million live in the metropolitan area now.

The constant extension of the capital represents a challenge for Mexico’s ruling group, the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI).

Since World War II, successive Mexican governments poured resources into Mexico City in efforts to stay abreast of urban growth and keep the country’s center of power quiet. But in these days of reduced resources and calls from the provinces for more attention, it may be difficult to satisfy the needs of places like Valle de Chalco. Inattention to the sprawling community has already attracted rival parties to sow opposition to the ruling group; long-term disregard could eventually spell trouble for the PRI.

Under the Volcanoes

Valle de Chalco lies in the shadow of the magnificent snow-capped volcanoes, Popocatepetl and Ixtacihuatl, all in Mexico state, which borders Mexico City on three sides. The land is ashen, and streets in the slum are marked with holes that are more like craters.

Home sites have been bought from communal farmers on holdings called ejidos . It is illegal to sell such lots, the ejidos being legacies of land reform and, at least nominally, the property of the nation. However, in the face of pressure for urban housing, the government turns its back on legality and even participates in the sales.

“In the twisted logic of official rhetoric, this is the way everyone is guaranteed a home,” said Father Balbino Rodriguez, a Spanish priest in the valley’s only parish.

So the community grows. Never mind that lots are sometimes sold to more than one buyer, setting off disputes in which no one has legal ground to stand on.

A Double Sale

Maria Isabel Ventura and her carpenter husband bought a lot a few years ago. They planned in some distant future to move from their rented apartment in Coatepec, a working-class neighborhood in the capital, to Valle de Chalco. There they would build a house and start a small furniture workshop.

In December, however, word reached Coatepec that the lot had been sold again. The sellers told the new buyers that the Venturas had abandoned the land.

Faced with the possibility of losing the site to rival squatters, Maria Isabel Ventura made her move. Over the objections of her husband, who thought the site too bleak to fight for, Ventura transported all her furniture and belongings to Valle de Chalco.

She spent cold December nights in the open to lay claim to the lot, which is located just off White Bridge Street, so named for a highway overpass down the road.

‘Our Big Chance’

Eventually, Ventura bought some bricks to surround her three double beds, dresser, sofa, easy chair and disconnected gas range with a makeshift wall. A few strips of metal for a roof and, presto, by Christmas day, she had built a new home. Her husband has agreed to start a new life in Chalco.

“This was our big chance. Either we lived crowded in Coatepec or found space here,” said Ventura, guarding her hair from the dust with a military fatigue cap.

The lot, now also piled high with rubbish left by the irate rival owners, may not seem like much, but Ventura dreams of glory beyond the dilapidation: She foresees White Bridge Street turning into a paved and landscaped boulevard, perhaps with monuments to Mexican heroes. The dust will disappear. Commerce will flourish, and the furniture factory will prosper.

“It looks ugly now, but some day, it will be very pretty,” she said with certainty.

Across the street, at a small fruit stand operated by Eulalio Zepeda, such optimism is unshared.

A Lost License

Zepeda came to Valle de Chalco not to be in on the ground floor of some distant municipal boom, but rather to flee a broken career as a truck driver. He had wrecked two trucks in the space of a month, and police lifted his license.

“Only here could I live cheaply enough to survive,” he said.

Zepeda came to Mexico City 15 years ago from the northern state of Chihuahua. Still wearing a typical northerner’s high-peaked cowboy hat, he earns a living selling fruit from a wheelbarrow.

“At least here I don’t have to pay rent,” he said, having bought a small lot five years ago.

Celebrina Martinez gave much the same reason for settling in Valle de Chalco.

“In Mexico City, we were having to pay 10,000 pesos to rent a room,” said Martinez, a young mother of four. “We bought a lot here for 80,000 pesos, and it’s ours.”

Ten thousand pesos is the equivalent of about $11 today; 80,000 pesos, about $88 dollars.

Martinez’s children trudge to school daily balancing kitchen chairs on their heads. The school, run by the state, lacks even furniture for the pupils.

“It might not be the best place to live, but we’re here out of necessity. We have no choice,” Martinez said, sighing.

Better Schooling Sought

Valle de Chalco, like other squatter ghettos, is also a peasant’s launching pad to life in the city.

Seven years ago, Tomas Cruz and his father descended from mountains in Guerrero state to try their luck in Mexico City. The city, their idea went, would permit Tomas the kind of schooling unavailable in his remote village of Tlalpla. The Cruzes belong to an indigenous community known as the Mixtecs.

While his father sold newspapers, Cruz studied and worked part-time in a market hauling vegetables. They saved enough money to move from an uncle’s house in the capital to Valle de Chalco and buy a lot. Later, they were joined by sisters and aunts.

Cruz recently suspended his high school studies to work full-time because the family of nine cannot make ends meet. Finding employment for the women is difficult because they speak no Spanish, only their native Mixtec language.

“It is nicer in the country, as far as cleanliness (is concerned),” Cruz declared. “But, no way. We have to live here because in our village there is no work.”

Tangle of Lines

Over the years, the Cruz family has obtained, in one way or another, use of the services available in Valle de Chalco. They have siphoned electricity from main lines near the highway. Individual households in the valley commonly run individual lines from transformers to obtain electricity. The resulting tangle of lines is one of the most impressive sights in the valley; residents label their own line by attaching rags, milk cartons and even shoes.

Self-proclaimed owners of the transformers often come to collect for “repairs.” On occasion, wires are mysteriously cut and disappear, and the customer must pay someone to reinstall them.

The Cruz family buys water from privately owned tank trucks. It costs 250 pesos, about 27 cents, to fill a 50-gallon drum. Ironically, the rainy season means a water scarcity in the valley. Many drivers of tank trucks refuse to enter the neighborhood for fear of getting stuck in the mud.

The Cruzes, like many of their neighbors, provide for their own drainage. They poke a hole in the porous dirt and let waste water run into it.

‘Thousands of Villages’

“We make do. It’s as if there were thousands of little villages here, each providing for itself,” Cruz said.

Officially, the valley falls under the jurisdiction of Chalco city government, but the municipality, with a listed official population of 50,000, does not have the budget to provide for the much larger squatter adjunct.

Such neglect has led political observers to conclude that places such as Valle de Chalco might become nests of opposition to the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party. In Chalco, several minor leftist parties have organized to push for services and clear titles to the land.

A recent study by U.S. government intelligence analyst Brian Latell suggested that the growth of slums like Valle de Chalco threaten one-party rule in Mexico.

‘Rapid Diversification’

“Significant political realignments are occurring as unemployment continues to grow, government subsidies are reduced and public pessimism deepens,” Latell wrote. “Like the rest of urban Mexico, the slums are experiencing rapid political and social diversification that have ended the monopoly the PRI once enjoyed.”

The PRI has not abandoned Valle de Chalco politically. The valley is divided into 18 wards overseen by elected PRI delegates. The delegates press the city and state for services. They also arbitrate land disputes and conflicts over electricity and water delivery, and they sometimes organize vigilante police protection.

Some residents complain that the delegates compound problems in the slum. They charge that the officials are in league with the sellers of electricity who arbitrarily cut off power or that they take bribes to settle land claims. Private police protection is at best spotty and at worst abusive.

The valley newspaper, El Despertar, recently published a complaint from a woman who said the delegate in her district tore down her shack in an effort to evict her from disputed land. When asked what he was doing, the delegate replied, “I am the law.”

‘Lies About the PRI’

“This happens sometimes,” said Olaya Arias, the delegate in the ward called Alfredo del Mazo, named for a former governor of Mexico state.

“But beware, there are lots of opponents of the government trying to disorient the people and tell lies about the PRI.”

Arias, who owns a grocery store, says that her job consists of sending letters to Chalco city hall to try to get better schools or to resolve questionable land deals. Recently, she organized a fee collection among ward residents to obtain normal electrical power from the national electric company.

She said that some residents oppose regular service for two reasons: they fear that the service will never arrive, even though they pay the fee; and it is cheaper to pirate power than pay for it in the regular way.

“The people who control the transformers, they mislead the people,” Arias charged. “They live off selling power illegally.”

Roving Youth Gangs

Arias has also formed a vigilante force to patrol the streets of her ward to fight crime. The main source of crime, she said, is roving youth gangs that go under such names as the Associates, the Cubs, the Geese and the Smurfs.

“If they come in here, we break their heads,” she boasted.

The vigilantes collect 200 pesos a week from each household, which number about 3,000. The force patrols the neighborhood in a beat-up Mercedes-Benz.

“When the punks see that car coming, they run,” Arias said.

Arias does not believe that life in Valle de Chalco will improve much any time soon. Paved roads and water, such as have been installed in other former “lost” cities, are a long way off.

“Maybe by the year 2000,” she said.

A Second Start

Arias moved to Valle de Chalco to start a second life after raising four children by taking in laundry. A widow, she found a new husband who owned a lot in the valley.

“My current husband worked in La Merced market, but he has bad lungs. So we came here,” she explained.

When they arrived in 1979, Valle de Chalco was pastoral and their street near the highway quiet.

Now the dust swirls around them each winter, and his bronchial problems have returned. But Arias, like neighbors who came before and after, shrugged and said that she has no other place to go.