Feike de Jong is a journalist and urban researcher in Mexico City. He is the creator of the app, “Limits: On foot along the edge of the megalopolis of the Valley of Mexico."
Ciudad Nezahualcoyotl was developed on top of the swampy remains of Lake Texoco by dubious subdividers after World War II. Thanks to some of its earliest residents, “Neza” has become a thriving hub of culture and commerce with running water and paved roads just outside Mexico’s capital.
The Neza of today is made of paved streets, bricks, and mortar. Not so long ago it nearly ran on willpower alone.
Ciudad Nezahualcoyotl serves as the central hub for commerce and services for Mexico City’s poorer eastern districts. Located on the swampy remains of Lake Texoco along the eastern fringe of the city, it’s commonly referred to as Neza—sometimes affectionately as “Neza York” or “MiNezota” which translates roughly as “my big Neza.”
Neza served as the dark underbelly of the so-called “Mexican Miracle,” in which the country experienced a little more than 6 percent growth between 1940 and 1971. Back then, the city’s burgeoning factories attracted workers from all over the country who would then find cheap swampland for sale in the drained lake peddled by dubious subdividers allied with local politicians and army generals.
The salty lakebed housed 6,000 people in 1950. By 1963 the population had grown to 100,000 before ballooning to 600,000 by 1970 despite a lack of basic urban services. The gradual introduction of services such as drinking water in the sixties, electricity from 1969 to 1974, the first drainage in 1975 and garbage collection in the late seventies encouraged growth—the official population reached 1.4 million by 1983.
Today, Ciudad Nezahuyalcoyotl is Mexico’s most densely populated municipality with 18,000 inhabitants per square kilometer and a population of 1.1 million. No longer a hive of shacks in a swamp, Ciudad Nezahualcoyotl is crossed by wide avenues with greenswards and parks in the median strips.
Commerce thrives inside its boundaries. It has become a regional center and trendsetter for the megacity’s low-income eastern fringe. Still, it carries the stigma of its origins and is considered one of the region’s toughest districts. Many people still won’t set foot in it.
The few remaining witnesses to the amazing transformation of Ciudad Nezahualcoyotl from slum to city are now old. Most of the principle social leaders of those years have died.
The creation of the Movimiento de Restauración de Colonos—a key moment in the history of Ciudad Nezahualcoyotl—was started by slum inhabitants in 1965 to address the question of land titles which were commonly held back until full payment of the subdividers who often sold the same plots of land up to nine times and failed to deliver on promised urban infrastructure.
“We were so poor, we had nothing,” says 83-year-old Natividad Trejo, while looking at an old photo album from her days as an organizer. “We lived in a shack with a cardboard roof. It was all one big salty swamp. We lived here seven years before the first public water tank was installed. Before that we had to leave the municipality and get water from the city.”
For almost two decades this slum existed in a condition of perpetual strife. Slingshots were called “Aztec pistols.” Land plots were sold as many as nine times over. When inhabitants revolted against the subdividers who failed to make good on promises to urbanize, the police sided with the real estate barons until politicians finally realized that the thousands of votes trapped in the mud were worth more than money.
Formally created in 1963, Ciudad Nezahualcoyotl was one of modern Mexico’s first laboratories for the conjugation of mass politics and urbanization. The relative success of this district is a testimony to the political power born from grassroots organization.
Rogelio Vargas was one of the founders of the Movimiento de Restauración de Colonos. After buying land in 1953 he asked the salesman where his property ended; the salesman threw a rock out into the water—his plot ended where the rock had splashed. Twenty years later when Luis Echeverria became the first president to visit Ciudad Nezahualcoyotl, Vargas recalls grabbing the president’s hand and refusing to let go until he had heard his explanation of the slum’s many problems.
While Ciudad Nezahualcoyotl’s men went to work the women stayed behind with the children, hiding the leaders of settlers organizations, organizing the social structures to support the community, navigating a lack of plubming, electricity, and pavement while creating a network of private kindergartens. Many of those involved in political activism saw their relationships flounder as a result.
“I created an organization of only women just to resolve the problem of jealousy. I thought if there are no men at the meetings the husbands will not get jealous,” remembers Ana Ventura Ortiz, president of the women’s league and founder of a kindergarten.
“Once, there was a terrible battle with the police with gunshots and they beat us. When I finally arrived home in the middle of the night my husband beat me again.” Despite these hardships eight of her nine children have professional degrees.
Seventy percent of Ciudad Nezahualcoyotl’s economically active population works inside the municipality in commerce and services according to a study by researchers from Mexico’s Universidad Nacional Autonoma de México. That’s exceptional for Mexico City’s periphery—many of its municipalities are known as dormitory cities where up to 80 percent of the population works elsewhere.
“Due to its high population density Ciudad Nezahualcoyotl has a vocation for commerce,” says Perfecto Martínez, now a leader of a large Partido de la Revolución Institucional (PRI)-affiliated organization of street vendors. “When people built their houses over time, they also built shops on the ground floor. This enabled Neza to become a regional commercial center.”
Many different grassroots political organizations have had their impact in Neza over the years. Named after one of the triumvirate of kings who led the Aztec Triple Alliance, the social ties and resources built up over years of urban strife have put the district on an upward trajectory.