7. The leader of the pack: Iztapaluca

That night in Izcalli I headed toward the house of the parents of a friend of mine, a young graphic designer from Iztapaluca. Her parents were rural teachers in a district urbanized by squatters’ movements over the last ten years. Their small modern house stood under hills covered with concrete, dirt roads and half-built houses. Her mother, a pretty, elegant woman opened the door. The house was well furnished and I saw an old photo of the teacher and his wife, looking glamorous, like film stars in black and white.

The father arrived home. He told me the informal colonists sought out strategic locations such as this area along the freeway out of the city to Puebla. By strategic he meant for control of the city, since blocking the freeway was an important threat to have in reserve in any negotiation with authorities. He said the leaders had little interest in the education of the children in their communities. Once everything that the colonists wanted was provided for, the leaders themselves would lose their power. So it was not in the leaders’ interest that all those services arrive as quickly as possible.

That night I slept in their daughter’s room, still as she had left it. Above her bed hung the cutouts from fashion and travel magazines, teenage dreams of far-away places now being realized.

I woke up the next morning and accompanied the mother on foot to her work at a nearby primary school. We walked over the dirt roads until reaching a neat concrete building surrounded by a mesh fence. I saw the children in their red uniforms run over the school’s patio in the morning light, parents saying goodbye, teachers shepherding their students. My friend’s mother asked one of the parents to bring me to a leader of informal colonists, Felisa Calderón.

The middle-aged woman assented and took me up along the concrete labyrinth on the hillside. We stopped before a large metal gate. She knocked several times before a door in the metal access opened. A man brought me past two SUVs in the courtyard up to a small upstairs office. He explained my business to a woman in her fifties, built like a boxer, with a broad worn face, thick brows and dark curly hair shot with grey.

She was sitting at a desk and had a large stack of papers in front of her. There was a photo of Luis Donaldo Colosio on the wall, as well as one of her son shaking the hand of Enrique Peña Nieto, the concrete proof of her sway in government circles. She told me she had named this colonia in memory of Luis Donaldo Colosio as a sign of respect after he had been killed, for all the help he had given her with its founding. I realized the names of colonias were a map of political influences. She said the settlers had wanted to name the colonia after her but she had declined, satisfying herself with giving her name to the avenue in front of her offices.

She told me she had been living in Ciudad Nezahualcóyotl as a young mother some thirty years ago. Her husband abandoned her and chance brought her to this barren hillside. She decided conditions were unbearable and started to organize her few neighbors. She went to the state capital in Toluca. There she was made to wait for hours without being given an audience. Finally she stormed into the offices of the official in charge. She was dragged out. After this happened several times she said the government officials recognized her as a natural leader of her fellow colonists, someone who could be counted on to be able to turn out the vote.

She said there were many political leaders in these hills but very few natural leaders. Often political parties would choose some convenient person to be their intermediary with the colonists, but these were opportunists without true authority. The number of natural leaders whose charisma and force of will imposed themselves on their peers could be counted on one hand. I told her I had met another woman leader in the far east of the city. She smiled and said they had met once, when they had both been put in jail. They were enemies before but they had become if not friends at least friendly in prison, natural leader to natural leader. Felisa told me she had founded four colonias.

Though different leaders could be affiliated to the same party, the government itself had an interest in maintaining them divided. One way of doing this was to promise the same piece of land to two different groups. She told me how once she had led several hundred of her followers with staves of wood and rocks against another group of settlers for a vacant piece of land. Her opponent was a woman too and she had challenged her to single combat, why let others spill their blood? But now she was in ill health, having barely recovered from a ruptured appendix. Apparently this brush with death had left her milder and more philosophical.

Her job was to negotiate public services for the colonia. In return she had to make sure the settlers voted for the political party offering to bring in these services. Some leaders were opportunists but she was staunch in her loyalty to the PRI. Recently the left-of-center PRD had tried to proselytize in the neighborhood and she had forbidden it. The political organizers had told her she couldn’t; it was after all public space. She ran them out of the neighborhood.

The stack on her desk was the paperwork of the ownership titles of the houses of her settlers. She was working on them. Once the colonists had these papers they would be free. This stack of forms was the most concrete expression of her hold on power. The settlers paid a monthly quota for her expenses and maintenance.

It was now midday. I said goodbye and set off up the hill toward the vast grey colonias of Antorcha Campesina, a huge settler organization dominating the east of the megalopolis. Up in the distance I saw a small red flag waving over one of the houses. That was where I would head.