OUT OF THE BARRIO. Housing program relocates poor Mexican families to homes in the countryside

Suzanna Mendoza smiles and is quick to invite a visitor into her new home. ``We continue to make improvements,'' she says, ``but we can hardly believe how fortunate we are already.''

She cares for her three children while her husband commutes to the city. He leaves for work every morning at 6 and doesn't return until 8.

``It gives me a long day to take part in the efforts in this neighborhood,'' she continues, a shy smile lighting her dark eyes.

The housing relocation program of Ex-Hacienda De Xalpa, in the municipality of Huehuetaco, 25 miles north of Mexico City, was begun in 1985 by the Mexican government.

Funded by a variety of nongovernmental organizations, it is coordinated by the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF).

When the earthquake of 1986 made the bad housing conditions in Mexico City even worse, greater efforts to give hope to the destitute became imperative.

The plan for change was explained to hundreds of families who lived in one-room huts without sanitary facilities.

Now, 25,000 people are settled in eight small locations with access to both health and educational services.

The four-room houses are simple - a family room with a table and chairs and sometimes a sofa; a kitchen with a hot plate or perhaps a four-burner gas stove.

Some have a sink, but all have at least a water faucet where a plastic bucket serves until a sink can be afforded. There are two bedrooms in every home, many with curtains.

Angela Soto de Mejia, whose husband is a truck driver, makes bedspreads from scraps of fabric for her home and to sell to others. They have seven children, aged 10 to 20. The older ones with jobs helped to buy a stove, a sink, a radio, and even an electric blender.

Every house has an indoor bathroom and a laundry tub outside with running water. A line stretched across the backyard makes it possible to dry clothes in the sunny clean air, far from the pollution that hangs over the city.

Whenever a family can afford paint, the rooms become bright with color. And a few people are building walls for privacy and decoration around their flower beds.

Eight women joined together to plant a garden. Each takes three-hour turns for digging, planting, and weeding the 20-square-meter plot (24 square yards).

As the spinach, beans, onions, peas, lettuce, and other vegetables are ready for harvest, no one cheats or demands more than her share.

``We're so thrilled to have fresh vegetables for our children,'' says one mother, ``we just select what we need one day and someone else selects the next day.''

A UNICEF social worker assists the women in organizing their clubs. When one group complained about the mud during the rainy season, they decided to spread stones and discarded construction materials to pave the walkways in the area.

Another club made posters alluding to neighborhood cleanliness, and they give talks to the young people about how to conserve and properly use water.

A UNICEF nurse immunizes the children and teaches mothers about oral rehydration therapy, the need for growth monitoring, and breast-feeding.

When it became necessary to build a second floor onto the modest Health Center, every family was asked to donate 1,000 Mexican pesos (less than one US dollar), and local construction companies were requested to give materials.

The spirit of working together for the benefit of all is growing.

Even the local store was organized by committee. Situated in a private home, it carries canned goods, soap, and household supplies, as well as family-planning information and birth-control devices.

Edwardo Ch'avez Silva, who gave up a good job to join UNICEF because he prefers ``people instead of papers,'' explains that helping communities start a store brings economic benefits while also creating outlets for educational and health materials. ``More people than ever are concerned about illness prevention and family planning,'' he says.

Bureaucrats in many countries have a joke about not hanging mirrors in their capitals for fear their governments will have to face what they are doing.

But a lady in the relocation project in Huehuetaco points with pride to the mirror on her living room wall.

``A woman dares to own a mirror,'' she says, ``when she is willing to reflect who she is and what she is becoming.''

With delight in their new homes and hope for a better future for their children than they ever would have had in the barrios of Mexico City, many women in that neighborhood, and others around the world, look forward to owning a mirror.

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