Exuberant art and the cable car can only lift a poor and violent place so high

MEXICO CITY – Observed from a booming cable car, the city is a sea of ​​concrete stretching to the horizon, broken only by clusters of skyscrapers and the remains of ancient volcanoes. Some 60 feet below is the district of Iztapalapa, a maze of winding streets and alleys, its cinder-block houses blanketing the neighborhood’s tasteless gray hills.

But then, on a roof, a sudden explosion of color: a giant monarch butterfly perched on top of a purple flower. Further along the route of the last cable car in Mexico City, a toucan and a scarlet macaw watch the passengers. Later, on a canary yellow wall, there is a young girl in a red dress, her eyes closed in an expression of absolute happiness.

The 6.5 mile line, inaugurated in August, is the longest public cable car in the world, according to the city government. As well as cutting commuting time in half for many workers in the capital’s most populous arrondissement, the cable car has an added attraction: exuberant murals painted by an army of local artists, many of whom cannot be seen. views only from above.

“There are paintings and murals all along the route,” said music teacher César Enrique Sánchez del Valle, who was taking the cable car home on a recent Tuesday afternoon. “It’s good, something unexpected.”

The rooftop paintings are the latest step in a beautification project by the Iztapalapa government, which has hired some 140 artists over the past three years to cover the neighborhood with nearly 7,000 pieces of public art, creating explosions of color in one of the Mexico City’s most criminal neighborhoods.

“People want to save their history, the history of the neighborhood,” said the mayor of the district, Clara Brugada Molina. “Iztapalapa becomes a giant gallery.

Stretching out to the outskirts of Mexico City, Iztapalapa is home to 1.8 million residents, some of the city’s poorest. Many work in wealthier neighborhoods, and before the cable car, that often meant trips of several hours.

Like many poor urban areas in Mexico, Iztapalapa has long suffered from both a lack of basic services, such as running water, as well as high levels of violence, often linked to organized crime.

The mayor’s artistic initiative is part of a larger plan to make Iztapalapa safer, including streetlights that now bathe main roads that were once plunged in darkness with light.

The murals feature national icons such as Aztec deities, revolutionary leader Emiliano Zapata and Frida Kahlo, with a touch of turquoise on the eyes.

But there are also nods to more local heroes.

Against a scarlet background with blue, yellow, teal and lime green shapes floating behind her, the image of a woman with short hair smiles at the viewer: this is Lupita Bautista, from Iztapalapa and almost world boxing champion. also colorful in real life.

One recent morning Ms Bautista, 33, walked into her gym wearing fluorescent green sneakers, a pink beanie and a rainbow tie-dye sweatshirt with her name scrawled in fuchsia sequins on the front.

“I love that the colors are so strong,” she said of the government-funded project which, in addition to creating the murals, has turned the neighborhood where she trains into a mosaic of colors. by coating the concrete block houses in bright colors, a paint job that would be unaffordable for many residents. “It gives him a lot of life. “

Ms. Bautista’s childhood story is familiar in the borough. When she was young, her home in Iztapalapa had no electricity – lit only by candlelight at night. Her neighborhood had no sidewalks or even paved roads.

“Everything was gray,” she recalls.

Crime was also a problem, with robberies and murders so common that Ms Bautista said her mother never let her or her sister leave the house unless it was to go to school.

“I was terrified,” she said. “I felt like something was going to happen to me. “

With many avenues now well lit, Ms Bautista said she felt a lot safer jogging after dark.

“I was built to run in the streets,” she said of her youth roaming the avenues and alleys of the neighborhood long before she became a fighting champion. “Now you can run with a lot more safety and concentration, without thinking about when someone is going to jump and scare you. “

But despite government efforts, most residents of Iztapalapa continue to live in fear: according to one June survey from Mexico’s national statistics agency, nearly eight in ten residents said they did not feel safe, one of the highest rates of any city in the country.

Women in particular face pervasive violence in Iztapalapa, which among the top 25 municipalities in the country for femicide, in which a woman is killed because of her sex. From 2012 to 2017, the city’s security cameras recorded more sexual assaults against women in Iztapalapa than in any other district in Mexico City, according to a 2019 report from the National Autonomous University of Mexico.

This gender-based violence is what motivated the mural and lighting project in the first place, according to the mayor: to create paths where women could feel safe returning home. Many murals celebrate women, be they residents like Ms. Bautista or famous figures from history as well as feminist symbols.

“We are trying to reclaim the streets for women,” Ms. Brugada said.

But not everyone is convinced that the strategy is working.

Daniela Cerón, 46, was born in Iztapalapa when it was just a hilly community, with open fields where farmers grew crops.

“It was like a small town,” recalls Ms. Cerón. “You used to see the beautiful hills.”

In the 1970s, the region began to urbanize rapidly.

“Any minute or another you would see a little light here, a little light there,” said Cerón. “Until the boom, it started to fill up with people.”

The growing population, both families leaving downtown Mexico City and migrants from rural areas, has also resulted in an influx of crime. For Ms Cerón, who is transgender, this meant confronting not only widespread violence, but also the prejudices of living in a conservative religious neighborhood – each year Iztapalapa attracts millions of worshipers to a giant re-enactment of Christ’s crucifixion.

“This religious stigma weighs against you,” said Ms. Cerón.

As for the murals, she says they are beautiful but haven’t done much to make her feel more secure.

“I don’t mind having a really pretty painted street if three blocks away they rob or murder people,” she said.

Alejandra Atrisco Amilpas, an artist who has painted some 300 murals in Iztapalapa, thinks they can make locals more proud of where they live, but admits they can’t go further.

“Painting helps a lot, but unfortunately it cannot change the reality of social issues,” she said. “A mural won’t change if you care about the battered woman around the corner.”

Ms Atrisco, who is gay, said she encountered conservative attitudes during the project, from male artists doubting her abilities to local officials preventing her from painting paintings LGBTQ themed murals.

“Violence against women, yes, but lesbians, no,” she said, smiling sadly.

Nonetheless, Ms. Atrisco believes her work can affect the lives of residents by portraying Iztapalapa figures in color.

“Every day you face a new challenge, every day a new wall and a new story,” she said. “You make dreams come true – you become a dream maker. “


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