A traditional band of performers poses for a photo during the celebration of Santiago Apostol in Iztapalapa.
Los Santiagueros, a traditional band of performers, pose during the celebration of Santiago Apostol in the church of Acahualtepec. Gustavo Graf

Religious events help maintain organizational frameworks and a sense of identity in the formerly rural and mostly indigenous areas that now form Iztapalapa—Mexico City’s largest district. There’s honor to be had for the few who get to organize such events.

Remilio Vargas, 83, is considered a patriarch in Santa Martha Acatitla, located in Iztapalapa, Mexico City’s largest district. He keeps his adobe house to remind him how this village once was, before becoming a dot in a sea of concrete.

Vargas remembers when the villagers ate fish from the lake of Texcoco, an area now occupied by Mexico’s most densely populated municipality, Ciudad Nezahualcoyotl. In his youth people spoke the language of the Aztecs, Nahuatl. Mountain lions roamed the series of small volcanoes behind the village. He took girlfriends to his fields on the slopes of the Cerro de Guadalupe to picnic under a tree.

That landscape now lies buried under one of the world’s largest megacities.

Silvestre Daza, mayordomo of Santa Cruz Meyehualco, Iztapalapa, Mexico City.
(Gustavo Graf)

The Iztapalapa of Vargas’s childhood was a rural area with a largely indigenous population grew from 25,000 in 1940 to 1.8 million in 2015. The 17 original villages registered in the 1960 census never vanished; they were simply enveloped by the city. Even now, these villages—with their colonial churches, separate graveyards, and village ceremonies—continue to exist within the fabric of the megacity.

Iztapalapa originally consisted of two clusters of villages oriented around what was once a volcanic peninsula known as the Sierra de Santa Catarina, which ran between the now largely desiccated lakes of Texcoco and Xochimilco. One cluster with the villages of Iztapalapa and Culhuacan centers around the Cerro de Estrella, a hill of great religious significance for the Aztecs. The other cluster consists of a line of villages along the southern shore of the Lake of Texcoco from Santa Cruz Meyehualco to Santiago Achualtepec.

Armando Medina, mayordomo of Santa Marta Acatitla, Iztapalapa, Mexico City. (Gustavo Graf)

“People sold their land cheaply, or it was expropriated, or lands which were informally invaded were never paid for,” says Silvestre Daza, mayordomo [organizer] of Santa Cruz Meyehualco’s principal religious festivity. The campesinos [peasant farmers] of Santa Cruz are still involved in lawsuits to be paid for the lands on which a massive social housing unit was built in the sixties. Unlettered indigenous farmers sold their land or were cheated out of it. Whatever money they did make off the sale was spent on upgrading housing or day-to-day necessities. They were left with neither the land necessary to farm on nor the skills necessary to thrive in an urban economy.

The villages are now among the poorest areas of Iztapalapa, racked by crime, with lower social mobility than even the informal colonies and social housing units surrounding them.

Hugo Sanchez Sanchez, mayordomo of Santiago Acahualtepec, Iztapalapa, Mexico City. (Gustavo Graf)

“Here, people are chauffeurs or work in construction,” says Armando Medina, mayordomo for the festivity of the Santa Martha in Santa Martha Acatitla. “There are more white collar workers in the colonias [neighborhoods] around us.”

Though their populations are relatively small—fluctuating between 12,000 and 20,000—these urban villages still play a defining role in the image and culture of Iztapalapa through the religious festivities they organize.

These festivities are perhaps the only mass events creating a sense of community in the district. The Passion of Christ, organized by the village of Iztapalapa, attracted almost 2 million people this year. Carnival celebrations in villages such as Santa Cruz Meyehualco and Santa Maria Axtahuacan attract crowds of up to 30,000 people from throughout the periphery of Mexico City.

Ismael Ramírez Duarte, mayordomo of Culhuacan, Iztapalapa, Mexico City.
(Gustavo Graf)

The single most defining event of these villages is the festivity for each village’s patron saint. The mayordomia is a concept common in indigenous communities, in which the organizer of a festivity pays for a substantial part of a communal event and organizes it. It’s seen as a great honor to fill this post and there are often long waiting lists to become mayordomo. Those chosen can pay as much as 300,000 pesos in the course of a mayordomia.

In the villages we surveyed for CityLab, only people descended from the original villagers can be the organizers of these celebrations, just as only people descended from the original villagers can be buried in the village graveyard. Though these villages no longer have a political structure, such religious events maintain village-wide organizational frameworks. Despite poverty, political disarticulation and cultural destruction, such traditions allow the Valley of Mexico’s original communities still maintain their identity decades after being swallowed by the megacity.

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