MEXICO CITY — What Mexicans call “the lost city” finds its home in the drained bed of Lake Texcoco, not far from where the Aztecs built their empire hundreds of years ago. The area is composed of three cities–Nezahualcóyotl, Chalco and Ixtapaluca–and is Mexico‘s largest slum. It is considered by some to be the world’s largest slum.
Although this region has access to water, electricity and other amenities, most residents live well below the national poverty line of $117 per month. The crime rate is among the highest in Mexico, due in part to the popular “cholo” culture inspired by gangs in Los Angeles and other major U.S. cities. In most parts of this “mega-slum,” garbage is collected in carts pulled by donkeys and the houses are composed of unpainted cinder blocks.
This region, also called Neza-Chalco-Izta, has been described as drab and unsightly for its lack of colonial style buildings. However, a thriving community and a growing culture dwell within the structures. The fertile ground of Mexico’s largest slum is home to many beautiful things.
Junior Symphony Orchestra of Neza
Established in 1998 by a professionally trained musician, Roberto Sanchez Chavez, the Junior Symphony Orchestra of Neza was formed with one goal in mind: to divert children from criminal culture. Chavez hopes that by teaching children to perform classical music, they will develop valuable characteristics such as discipline and the ability to work well in a team.
How will music stop crime? “Music is one of the most complete and rich fine arts of the human spirit,” Chavez says in his blog. “Teaching it…helps to form whole and healthy individuals in society.”
The award-winning orchestra, composed of around 45 children and adolescents, plays a mesh of classical works, contemporary pieces such as the theme from Titanic and local Mexican banda music. They have performed hundreds of times, both inside and outside of Neza.
Ciudad Jardín Bicentenario
The Jardín Bicentenario within Neza contains a shopping mall, a hospital, a rehabilitation center and off-site campuses of several universities. However, until ten years ago, this same plot was a landfill with 12 million tons of trash and was classified as one of the dirtiest places in the world by the World Bank.
In 2006, efforts were made to seal off the landfill and begin the process of reclaiming the land. In time, additional plans formed for the development of a community hub centered on the new space. This project has helped create thousands of jobs for the residents of Neza and has benefited the economy of the entire region.
While still considered one Mexican slum, this sprawling area is governed by three separate municipalities, each with their own approach to alleviating the effects of poverty.
In Neza, many community services stem from the Jaime Torres Bodet Cultural Center. Created in 1987, this building serves as a center for musical productions, art displays and foreign language instruction. Entrance is free to all visitors, allowing for a peaceful escape from the harsh streets.
Community directors have also placed a large focus on athleticism. Neza has devoted significant funds to building facilities for soccer and organizing youth sports leagues.
Giving the Poor a Chance
Thousands of people began migrating to Mexico’s largest slum during the 1900’s in search of affordable living spaces. In the 1970’s, rental prices in Mexico City became increasingly expensive, driving poorer people to buy their own plots of land in places such as Chalco for as little as $88. Although the land only allowed them to build meager concrete structures, it was something they could call their own.
These informal communities eventually grew into urban cities with electricity, soccer stadiums and even a zoo. Homeowners have begun to paint and plaster their homes in vibrant colors, transforming the drab grayness of the city. Nevertheless, gangs and drug dealers still dominate and residents struggle daily to make ends meet.
Recently, the Mexican government has reported that 1.5 million people were no longer living in extreme poverty. Through government programs, foreign aid and the efforts of community members mentioned above, the effects of poverty can be soothed.
– Emiliano Perez