Putting a Face on Mexico City's 'Invisible' Poor

Rebels will fight for rural Indians' rights at a congress next month. But will urban Indians go unnoticed?

When thousands of Zapatista rebels and their sympathizers converge on Mexico City for a political congress next month, there will be plenty of talk about the plight of the Mayans and other indigenous populations of rural Mexico.

But probably very little attention will be paid the 600,000 Indians who live in squalor and virtual oblivion in the old center and satellite towns of Mexico City.

The urban Indians, more than 70 percent of whose children are estimated to be malnourished, give the city much of its color and attractive artisanry. But employers, city officials, and the police practice rampant discrimination against them, Indian rights groups say. While legally all assistance programs are open to all in Mexico City residents, the groups say that practically, it is very difficult for Indians to get help from officials.

Many residents treat them as if they don't belong, Indians claim, sometimes telling lifelong city dwellers they should return to the lands they came from.

"The worst is when we are treated as if we were invisible," says Lorenzo Saldivar Fernndez, an Otom Indian who has lived in Mexico City for 25 years. "Unless they want to blame us for something, they act like the Indian doesn't exist."

Mexico went into an uproar in July over the discovery that dozens of deaf-mute Mexicans in New York and other US cities were living in what authorities called virtual slavery, forced to sell trinkets on the streets by day and return to guarded living quarters at night. But when a Mexico City housing commissioner declared earlier this month that many of the city's Indians are living in conditions of "veiled slavery," his words didn't cause a ripple.

Slave conditions?

"I don't think a reference to slavery is too strong, it's something you can see for yourself," says Antonio Paz Martnez, chairman of Mexico City Assembly's housing commission. "[But] many people prefer not to see the problems, which allows the abuses and discrimination to continue to exist."

To support his accusation, Mr. Paz Martinez points to the case of Mazahua Indian families who sleep in small stalls of the city's Merced and Morelia markets at night, after they have sold vegetables, herbs, or other products on the street all day. "They are locked in at 9 o'clock at night [with no bathroom facilities] until the doors are opened again at 6 the next morning," he says.

The families pay six pesos (about 80 cents) per person per night to "rent" their sleeping space. The cost means the families can't save the money to rent normal housing, while the day-to-day living conditions prohibit them from owning furniture or appliances, Paz Martinez says.

Still, some Indians say the word "slavery" is incorrect because it is not so much forced labor as the work, housing, and upward mobility they don't have access to, that defines their situation.

"Slavery no, but marginalization, yes," says Mr. Saldivar, an organizer of a year-old alliance of Mexico City's 48 indigenous groups. "Unless you call it slavery when, instead of forced work, you only have access to the low-rung jobs left to you."

Mexico's original city dwellers

There have always been urban Indians in Mexico: Spanish conquistadors turned the Aztecs' glorious capital, Tenochtitln, into Mexico City in the 16th century. But migration of rural Indians really began this century, turning into a heavy stream of arrivals with the onset of an agricultural crisis and urban boom beginning in the 1960s.

At first the new arrivals were able to find jobs, often in the low levels of a rapidly expanding government bureaucracy. Many took jobs other Mexicans didn't want, such as street vending, and moved into the crumbling buildings of the city center that other Mexican families had abandoned.

But with Mexico's successive economic crises beginning in the early 1980s, urban Indians found their living conditions deteriorating until "things are much worse now than they used to be," according to Marjorie Thacker, Mexico City director of the National Indigenist Institute.

As one example, she notes that the street vending that was once left to Indians has been taken over by other unemployed Mexicans since the 1994 economic crisis. Indians find themselves losing their livelihood to former factory or bank workers.

"Most of us have been selling on the same stretch of sidewalk for years, but now when there's a conflict with an urbano [what the Indians call non-Indian residents] who's trying to take our space, the police always side with the other," says Magdalena Garca Durn, a Mazahua Indian who has sold on Mexico City's streets for more than 40 years.

The police still seize their merchandise and sometimes beat them, she says, but conditions have improved. "They don't cut our braids any more, and they don't spray gasoline on our fruits and vegetables like they did in the '70s," says Mrs. Garca, another of the alliance's organizers.

For the alliance, a first step in addressing the Indian population's situation will be at least beginning to achieve equal recognition from the government.

35 families, one faucet

"So many of our people live in squalid conditions in crumbling buildings because they don't have anywhere else to go, but they also don't have access to the kind of loans available to improve those buildings," says Saldivar. "We're either told we don't have they steady income to make us eligible for government credits, or we hear promises that never come true."

The 35 Mazahua families living in a nine-apartment building in the city's historic center are a case in point. "We're tired of officials coming here to see what's wrong and promising the loans that would let us fix things up," says a woman washing out clothes by hand in a concrete tub in the building's courtyard.

Aside from the courtyard faucet the renters installed themselves, most apartments don't have either running water or a bathroom. That's because the building owner divided the apartments to make each room a single unit. Paz Martinez has a three-page list of similar cases.

Others say a lack of equal access to education is still a major roadblock. "My daughter made it through high school and has taken [college] entrance exams three years in a row, but for some reason she never gets admitted," says Garca. "It leaves us suspicious."

But perhaps the key will be what Ms. Thacker calls a "renewed dignity" among urban Indians. "They've been told for so long that they are ugly, weak, bad, drunks, stupid - they need something that won't come simply from an economic solution," she says. "They need to feel worthy, and that they have a future."

A conviction that conditions are not improving could lead to a radicalization of the Indians' approach, Thacker warns. But she remains hopeful that with innovations such as the alliance, along with improvements in society's treatment of urban Indians, such a turn can still be avoided.

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