18. The Mexican Polder: Tecámac

Leaving from Tecámac that morning I walked through the former lakebed of Zumpango, its green fields dotted with white patches of salt. Bare walls and high electricity cables stretched from tower to tower cutting through the pastures. Little water ditches marked boundaries. Social housing units criss-crossed the flat landscape, their backs to the fields, long brick walls scrawled with tags separating them from ditches and grassland. An occasional pepper tree broke the monotony. It reminded me of the polders of the Netherlands, flat fields once covered by the sea.

Amid the swampy pastures I encountered a cluster of informal-looking houses under construction along a small grid of muddy dirt roads. A woman came from behind a half-painted pink picket fence. She seemed in her late thirties, over-weight, with a round jovial face, gleaming with suspicion. I explained to her my project and we fell to talking.

The dirt roads crisscrossing the colonia were all named after virgins, the Virgin of Juquila, the Virgen of Fátima, the Virgin of Guadalupe and so on. Hand painted signs indicated the names on the street corners. This was much to her distaste, she thought these were stupid street names, but the neighbors had outvoted her. She herself was Protestant. Nonetheless it can never hurt to have an army of virgins on your side and one imagines corner houses being especially blessed.

The authorities had tried to get rid of the settlement but the settlers had managed to contest the eviction legally and were now in limbo. At first she had been afraid that I was from the municipal authorities. She had spent eight years building up this shell of a house from steel and concrete. The façade was still half-open. Flowerpots were built into the outer fence. She was a single mother with three children who did odd jobs, amid piles of bricks and unfinished walls. An eight-year-old child appeared from behind a plastic curtain.

She told me her eldest daughter had gone missing for several months. The daughter had run off with a man. The girl was thirteen years old. The girl had called the day before and she hoped to see her again soon. Life was hard. Yet somehow there was still something vaguely jolly about her with her round face and chubby arms.

I said goodbye and continued over the dirt tracks by half-built social housing units, finally reaching a broad dirt road. Trucks barreled across my path. The dust had been ground to fine powder and was being kicked up by the wind. Low mounds of dirt blocked the view behind the dirt road. I saw a man with a bicycle turn left ahead of me over a path among the grass-covered heaps of dirt. I followed him at a distance.

After a few minutes I reached a deep broad canal of black water, with sheer rock sides plunging down to the bubbling pitchy current. I had reached the Gran Canal, the great canal taking the city’s sewage to Hidalgo. Ahead of me I saw the man take his bicycle and cross an old steel footbridge made from steel girders like a throwback to 19th century Europe and the Eiffel Tower. I waited contemplating the smooth black stream, dotted with bubbles, torrents of sewage cascading from pipes issuing from the banks of rock. Various other pedestrians and cyclists crossed after he had passed.

I walked the bridge with its metal grill floor and metallic resonance, girders painted over with tags, the black excrement of a megalopolis streaming slowly to the northwest below me. I reached the other bank, descended a short steel staircase and continued up a dirt path along a grassy knoll. Directly in front of me was the toll highway, the Circuito Exterior Mexiquense, which divided the city from the countryside. Trucks rushed by at high speeds. Three lanes of high-speed traffic separated me from the concrete dividing barrier in the middle from which the metal screen on top had been removed.

I timed my run carefully, reached the barrier, straddled over it and ran to the other side. There a dirt road reached another metal mesh fence, with a hole in it. There is always a hole in the fence. I marveled that this route was just another part of the daily commute for the workers on the construction projects north of the highway. Barrier after barrier passed cheerfully, often with bike in hand I imagined them whistling as they crossed the raging highway, passed the bubbling black canal and walked into the swirling dust.

I walked down into the Colonia Luis Donaldo Colosio in Ecatepec past the half-built skeleton of church. It was getting dark.