Tuesday, December 31, 2013


I love darkroom photography.

     In high school I took every possible class and worked for hours in the darkroom by myself, listening to Hijas del Sol and manipulating negatives into positives.  It was amazing work.  My photography teacher was Ms. Wilson (pronounced Wheeeeeel-sin due to her thick southern accent), a short, spunky, red-haired woman who happened to have a rhyme, saying, or song for just about every artistic principle.

     One of Ms. Wheeeeeel-sin's favorite sayings in the darkroom was about getting the proper contrast in our photos.  We used different filters to increase contrast in our prints depending on how much gray-scale was blurring up our photos.  Ms. Wheeeeeel-sin used to always say that filters "take the gray... AWAY!" in the happiest voice imaginable.

So what does this have to do with Mexico?

     If life here were a photo and socioeconomic status was the pigmentation, Ms. Wheeeeeel-sin would be proud of its composition, although potentially concerned by its content.  Socioeconomic gray-scale is minuscule and nearly invisible here.  From the minute I wake up in the morning to the moment I fall asleep at night, I am perpetually confronted by the contrast.  The very extreme contrast.

From the carretera upwards - an interlomas
highrise behind la barranca del negro
     Looking out the window over my dresser, I have a view of the homes along my street - basic concrete and cinder-block homes with roofs topped with colorful laundry hanging out to dry.  Below our homes, further down the valley, I can see the homes become progressively more ramshackle, pieced-together, and fragile.  At the edge of the road at the bottom of the valley I can see the temporary structures assembled by the homeless people who live along the carretera.  There are a couple round concrete tubes where 5 men live, accompanied by a family of black, shaggy street dogs.

     Crossing the road and rising up the other side of the valley, the pattern replicates and reverses itself.  However, in the far distance, above the humble (but colorful!) concrete/cinder-block homes on the other side of the valley, I have a view of the incredibly ritzy high-rise apartments of Interlomas, Santa Fe, and Huixquilucan - three of the wealthiest zones not just in Mexico City, but in the entire country.  The fact that their elite housing complexes loom above the more modest dwellings of my neighborhood is a physical manifestation of a social hierarchy that isn't lost on me.

     And all that before I even get dressed in the morning.

     Leaving my house I'm bombarded yet again with the extreme contrast as I walk by cars along my street that quite obviously haven't moved for decades but above me I can see sparkling white BMWs speeding though my neighborhood on their way to the elite zones around us.  I notice that the advertisements on billboards above our corner stores, our tortillerías, our taco stands, are not geared for us, but rather for those drivers passing through on their way to 'bigger and better' things.  Because I can assure you that no one who lives in El Olivo can afford private aerial dancing classes.

     Then there's public transportation to think about.  The fact that only one bus route connects my isolated, working-class neighborhood to the big city and that the entire trajectory takes between 1 to 2 hours, whereas driving on your own it takes 20 minutes.  If 'time is money' as we're so fond of saying, how much more do people who have to depend on public transportation have to spend simply to get to work?
(A great TED Talk by the former mayor of Bogotá, Colombia explains why this is so important!)

     Speaking of money, there's the issue of actual money spent on transportation.  A one-way ride from El Olivo to the closest metro station is 10 pesos, and a one way ride to the nearest grocery store is 8 pesos.  However, if you take it from just outside of our neighborhood limits, the price drops in half.  So people who live in Huixquilucan proper, Interlomas, etc. pay 5 or 4 pesos, and many people who live in El Olivo end up walking to save that money (which is equal to 31-38 U.S. cents).  When the minimum wage here is 55 pesos per day, $4.21 US dollars, that makes a difference.  It's 9% of your daily income.  (For extra irony, you have to walk to the Proctor and Gamble offices to take the combi for 4 pesos.)

Although the traffick wasn't too heavy at the moment I took
this picture, you can see the periférico hierarchy clearly.
     Once you're in Mexico City proper (also known as DF), there's another physical manifestation of the wealth hierarchy, this time on the street.  Around DF there is a huge circular highway called the periférico that allows people to avoid the highly confusing streets of the biggest city in the world.  The periférico is the central route for almost anyone travelling above ground in Mexico City, and consequently it fills with the heaviest traffic of the entire city.  However, if you can afford it, you can pay to drive on the private road literally right above the free periférico.  So, again, if you're rich you can save time.  And time is money, right?

     Finally, (although nothing is really ever final with these issues, is it?) there is the inevitable fact that the further into the wealthy, ritzy, private zones you go, the whiter and whiter the people get.  I have noticed this as I have made the walk to the grocery store, as I take the bus ride to work, anytime I find myself crossing a border from 'clase popular' to 'clase alta'.  The richer the area, the whiter the general occupants.

     Living in the United States, I saw undeniable economic inequality and similar racial correspondence.  So this post is not, at all, meant to inadvertently say that the United States is somehow perfect, but (going back to the photography metaphor at the beginning of this post) the filter used for this Mexican photo took the contrast up.

     A measurement of economic inequality used by economists called the GINI coefficient.  The number ranks countries on a scale of 0 to 100, with 0 being perfect economic equality - everyone makes the exact same amount of money - and 100 being perfect economic inequality - where the richest person earns all the money.  On this scale, Mexico ranks higher than the United States by 7 points, with 47.16 compared to the US's 40.18.

     Yet, compared to other countries in the Americas, Mexico doesn't look so bad.  Which is saying something.  For example, Honduras, where the majority of the migrants we receive at Tochan come from, is ranked as the 8th most economically unequal country in the world, Colombia is the 11th, El Salvador the 28th, Mexico 34th, and USA 61st.  (For the record, there are 194 countries in the world.)*

A map of world GINI coefficients
     A question I keep coming back to as I encounter all of these extreme economic differences on a daily basis is:  Where do I fit in this?  I am a wealthy, white, U.S. American, living in a working-class, mestizo, Mexican neighborhood, living off 55 pesos a day, working with displaced Central American migrants, many of whom are fleeing even worse economic disparity than they encounter here.  Where do I fit?

     Honestly, I don't know.  And I won't pretend to know.  It can be awkward and uncomfortable at times, especially trying to explain it:

When Tochan doesn't have any money in the office to buy tortillas that day, how can I explain that I actually don't have any extra to loan them even though they've seen photos of my parents' homes and know my socioeconomic background?

When I walk into the mall to get cereal (yes, grocery stores are in malls here), how can I explain that I feel uncomfortable surrounded by white people despite the fact that I am one because I only ever see that many of us when I'm shopping?

There are no easy answers, I suppose.

Just live, lean into the discomfort, learn, and, maybe, fight back.

*I gathered my GINI coefficient statistics from this website.