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Slum Serves as Model for Changing Mexico

TIMES STAFF WRITER

For decades, this city named for an ancient renegade-poet-king earned its reputation as Latin America’s largest slum--an urban sprawl of squatters’ shanties and rural migrants who cobbled together a kaleidoscope of crushing poverty on Mexico City’s outskirts.

When the great quake of 1985 shattered Mexico City, it leveled Neza, as the town is widely known. Crime syndicates have had headquarters here, along with drug dens, thieves’ markets and the tough inner-city rock music culture known as La Banda.

And for years, an open garbage dump in the town--complete with professional scavengers who daily sift for treasure in the waste of the nation’s capital--has been an apt metaphor for a town synonymous with squalor.

But behind the veneer of methane fumes, high crime and poverty, this suburb of 1.6 million people--unofficially, the population is closer to 3 million--on the eastern fringe of the capital is another Neza: a new symbol of hope that has become a centerpiece of self-improvement.

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It is the leading edge of a new era of rebellious, home-grown Mexican politics that will play a role in many of the key elections in the year ahead, many analysts say.

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Although still beset by deep poverty and neglect, Neza has been building itself into a cultural and social mecca that the analysts view as a model for a nation in crisis. It has done so largely by rejecting a federal government that has long ignored it and by recycling its own resources in order to progress.

Neza has paved its own streets and strung up its own power lines. It organized itself, block by block, in single-issue crusades to fight for what little materials the state and federal government would give it. And it did so against all odds in an urban planner’s nightmare: a town of 40 square miles that has grown more than a hundredfold from 2,000 families in 1950 on dusty, saline land that could barely nurture cactus and scrub pine.

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Last month, Neza took center stage in the nation’s political arena when voters rejected one of the country’s most deeply entrenched and corrupt local ruling party structures to elect a leftist street activist as mayor--a glimpse, some say, of what may lie ahead in Mexico City’s first mayoral election in July.

And this month, the Neza Bulls--the city’s avant-garde soccer club, which takes pride in players who sport Dennis Rodman-style Day-Glo hair--rocketed into the national championships.

“The people here are real fighters; that’s what distinguishes us,” said Mayor-elect Valentin Gonzalez, the 41-year-old rural migrant who will take office Wednesday.

Dressed in jeans, between meetings with local business people at a down-market coffee shop called Toks, Gonzalez added: “The authorities never listened to us, and the people couldn’t wait for them to resolve our problems. We had to do it ourselves.”

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Neza’s residents have few resources beyond their own strong wills--most of the employed are taxi drivers, service workers or have other low-paying, blue-collar jobs in the capital. But they are upwardly mobile, a phenomenon that turns some of Neza’s poor into doctors, lawyers and other professionals who can then move to better-off parts of Mexico City or to the United States.

In many ways, Gonzalez and his recent victory personify Neza.

The son of a migrant street merchant, the new mayor was 3 months old when his family of eight moved here from a small village in the impoverished southern state of Oaxaca. They were part of a rural-to-urban exodus that brought hundreds of thousands of people to Neza, many from Mexico’s poorest states, during the years before it was officially made a municipality in 1964.

When Neza was carved out of another municipality that year, it had 700,000 residents but little or nothing in the way of public services. Gonzalez said his family took part in the struggle for electricity, drainage, paved streets and, mostly, schools.

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“People wanted schools the most, and they built them themselves,” Gonzalez said. “They thought, ‘I don’t have a job, but I’m going to have a school.’ And the youth became the anchor for progress.”

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It was education and a heightened popular consciousness, Gonzalez said, that also laid the groundwork for his victory over the candidate of Mexico’s long-ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI. And by all accounts, that triumph--which led the news nationwide--broke new political ground in Mexico.

The PRI, which has ruled Mexico’s federal government and most of the nation since 1929, began organizing Neza from the moment of its birth. Although it delivered few services and little federal money, the party was the only conduit for licenses and a means of cutting other government red tape. And through that and intimidation, many residents said, the party became inseparable from the city’s structures, as it has in many parts of the country.

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Even today, the PRI controls all of Neza’s labor unions--from bus drivers to the owners of the horse-drawn garbage carts that fill Neza’s now-paved streets. Even the soccer teams, La Banda concert promoters and business people say they had to affiliate with the PRI to avoid fines or other official punishment.

“What happened was the people have lost their fear,” Gonzalez said. “People accepted favors from the PRI, but they voted against it.”

As a precursor to next year’s critical mayoral balloting in Mexico City--and of countrywide elections for the lower house of Congress--the Neza polls spawned a populist slogan: “If the PRI loses Neza, it loses the nation.”

And privately, ruling party sources said the PRI was stunned by its defeat in a city that closely parallels the demographics in much of the capital.

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Neza has demonstrated its essential rebelliousness also in aspects of life beyond the realm of politics, a fact that local residents said helps explain the recent appearance here of propaganda from the Popular Revolutionary Army guerrilla group that has attacked police officers and soldiers throughout southern Mexico since August.

Neza, for example, is the undisputed headquarters of La Banda--Mexico’s anti-establishment rock culture, whose proponents insist it is an apolitical but vital outlet for a generation growing up in economic crisis and political turmoil.

“It’s progressive urban rock,” explained Mauricio Irineo, 26, founder and advisor of the Popular Youth Council, generally known as Urban Courage.

“La Banda has its own culture, our form of dress, our music, our rock movement,” he said, describing it as a synthesis of “rhythm and blues, Chuck Berry, heavy metal, trash, hard core, national rock like [the Mexican band] Fobia.”

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La Banda’s reach is broad, Irineo added, extending into other major Mexican cities and the Mexican American culture in Los Angeles, where thousands of Neza’s youth have gone to work, visit or settle.

“Many go to Los Angeles. Too many,” he said. “We have a specific project to keep the youth from going there and to stay and work here. . . . But we also have cultural exchanges with the pochos [Americanized Mexicans] from Los Angeles and also with Banana Kelly [a community improvement group] from the Bronx.

“We go there, and they come here from the inner city. We’re all young; we have the same restlessness.”

And in Neza, they also have some of the same graffiti--a gift, Irineo said, from the cultural exchange. A Los Angeles graffiti artist known as Toons has left his mark here: “He taught us the graffiti art,” Irineo said, adding that it’s a positive alternative to the criminal gangs and drug dens that also abound in Neza.

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Putting a different spin on the way Mayor-elect Gonzalez and most other residents interviewed here described Neza’s life force of self-help, Irineo said, “To live in Neza is to live within misery and look for a way out of it.”

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Jose Luis Juarez, an 18-year-old self-described “Banda kid,” is a case in point. Hanging out with a dozen or so others in an underground drug den beneath a soccer field one recent afternoon, he said he plans to go to Los Angeles someday “for adventure or work,” adding, “I’d love to go to Alaska too, where it’s cold.”

But he stressed that he also loves and takes pride in Neza: “When I was born in the barrio here, there were no amenities, nothing. Today there is.”

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Even more hopeful were the youth at the Technological University of Neza, a 5-year-old institution of about 4,000 students that has helped Neza supply Los Angeles and other U.S. cities with at least as many engineers as Banda kids.

“There has been tremendous development in Neza,” said Cesar Hernandez, 24, a student at the university, who proudly said he voted for Gonzalez and his left-leaning Democratic Revolutionary Party, or PRD, last month. “Before, everything here was empty. Before, to speak of Neza to the outside world was to speak only of La Banda.

“Now, it’s not like that anymore. We are a community of self-improvement and self-betterment. The Neza of today is a model: a land of valuable people who know how to overcome.”

Times special correspondent Joel Simon contributed to this report.

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