Taking back the barrio

A youth center takes on Mexico's ubiquitous gang culture.

Published July 26, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

Soft afternoon sun reflects off the brightly painted exterior of the Centro Juvenil ("youth center"), casting a warm orange glow on the crowd of teenagers gathered to show off their latest dance moves.

The dance, called "under," is a south of the border take on break-dancing that has taken the capital city's poor neighborhoods by storm. In this neighborhood, known locally as Tlanetziye, "under" is a kind of community thermometer. Five years ago, for example, today's interaction would have been unthinkable. But since 1992, this community has been under social repair and along the way has pioneered a new strategy for neighborhood organizing. Today Tlanetziye, which means "is threatening" in the Nahuatl Indian language, is a rare gem amid Mexico City's urban despair.

Fifteen years ago, the neighborhood emerged as a makeshift shantytown as Mexicans migrated by the thousands to the capital looking for work and a better life. Mexico City's fledgling infrastructure couldn't keep up with the mass migration and gang crime ran rampant in a Wild West type atmosphere. The residents of Tlanetziye were under siege, sometimes at the hands of the children of their own neighbors.

In 1982, a bishop from the city's Catholic Church did what many people saw as the unthinkable. He began to work directly with the gangs by contacting leaders and offering them a place within the Church. The underlying idea behind the bishop's effort was that teens join gangs because they feel marginalized. His plan: To "mainstream" the youths by inviting them to a private mass, organizing excursions and outings and offering them gifts and incentives.

In a country that is 90 percent Catholic, the bishop's program was symbolically important, but on the ground, it simply didn't work. The gangs continued to operate -- perhaps with more impunity, because they now had the excuse that their sins, no matter how ghastly, would be forgiven by the Church. The pontiff's special treatment created a dependency relationship between the gang members and the project without addressing the underlying causes of the problem.

But in 1990, the project changed hands and went through a transformation. Today Cejuv, a nonprofit community development organization, has taken over administration of the youth program and runs it from the ground up. "We wanted to reinvent the program so that it involved the whole community; it was directed by the neighborhood's youth and [it] addressed the root causes of violence and drug abuse," says Oscar Rey, the program's young and energetic coordinator.

Under its new directors the project took a drastically different tack. Rather than impose an agenda on the community, Cejuv took the pulse of the neighborhood and organized events around its existing religious and social structures. On religious holidays such as Easter, for example, the Cejuv organized a discussion which resulted in the symbolic sacrifice of a neighborhood drug addict. To draw attention to the community's social problems, the group constructed a cross and hung an effigy of a street child and a beaten woman from its yoke.

Little by little, the group's efforts opened up a public space where a discussion of these previously hushed issues could take place. "We formed a bridge of communication between the factions in the community and asked people to voice their true opinions. In the end some sort of truce was formed this way," says Rey.

Mobilizing community leaders, Cejuv harnessed support for a youth center. A small piece of land was allotted for the project, money was raised through small enterprises like bake sales and a community fund. A small building was renovated and now includes a large classroom, computer lab, darkroom, kitchen area and an art workshop. A few blocks away a second center boasts a large meeting center and classroom. Painted bright orange, the Centro Juvenil has become a beacon of hope in the community's ongoing struggle to lift itself out of poverty.

"A prevailing belief four years ago was that the only way to solve the drug problem, was to kill the drug users," says Rey. Today, a unified neighborhood council exists largely in response to the Cejuv's community organizing efforts. "Before the center was here, we didn't ever come down [to the youth center] because we didn't know anybody," says Maribel Ramirez, 17. "Now we all meet here to play and hang out," she beams.

The center invited all community members to participate in its programs and actively sought the involvement of gang members and drug users. But rather than coddle the marginalized youth, the center asked them to contribute to its success by teaching a class. One drug user gained notoriety by offering a successful guitar workshop. Others filter through sporadically, curious as to what has the community buzzing all the time.

The center's open rapport with the community's drug users has set a standard that appears to be working. The Youth Center is one of few public buildings in the area that has not been tagged with gang graffiti, an indication that on some level, the center's work is respected by the neighborhood's gangs.

The center now offers a series of income-generating workshops aimed at all members of the community, from kids to seniors. Each one of the programs operates as a cooperative that sustains itself by generating income for supplies and a small stipend for its participants. Members of the cooperative learn collective organizing skills by making group decisions about their respective businesses.

Local teachers with vocational skills and young volunteers from Canada and the United States offer workshops such as astronomy, French, women's self-esteem groups, photography, cooking and textiles. A paper recycling/making workshop is proving wildly successful after the teen cooperative members came up with the idea to sell handmade journals and notepads to coffee houses and gift shops in Mexico City's upscale districts. The photography cooperative has a savvy side business that sells instant photos for ID cards and portrait photography to families in the neighborhood.

Whether or not the 6-year-old project has successfully diminished crime and social disintegration in Tlanetziye is difficult to measure. "This place provides a support for young people because many of them have problems at home," says Paolo Martinez, 17, who takes a computer training class at the center. "But the gangs, I don't know if they will ever go away," he adds.

"We aren't pretending to solve everything here," says Rey. "There is real anguish within this community but we have created the possibility and the prototype for change. " Outside on the center's front steps, the dancing continues into the early evening. And the music, like the struggle of this urban community, plays on.

By Koren L. Capoza

is a Mexico City correspondent for Pacific News Service

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