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Welcome to the Suburbs

When I first set foot in San Felipe del Agua, I was getting off a bus from Oaxaca City. It had taken an hour to get there by bus, what with transferring from one honking behemoth to another. In December 1972, under crystal clear skies, the green and blue mountainsides that rose at the rear of the village seemed much closer than they actually were, and when I turned around I saw the city of Oaxaca, population of about 50,000, nestled at the bottom of the valley, a few feet lower in sea level, under the warming, subtropical winter sun.

Between the city and I were small farming plots, lightly interspersed with houses. A small square with church and municipal building was a couple of crossroads up the hill. The intersection where I stood (and the road I’d come up on) was dirt, graded and compacted by use. This was a rural place, where peasants had been tending their milpas for generations. A milpa is a family garden for growing maize (corn), beans and squash.

Since the land reforms of the late ’30s and ’40s, much of this had been “ejido” land. An ejido is communally owned land where, by common understandings preserved in writing, the community as a whole can award the use of a particular plot for growing or for housing to those whom it deems deserving; and can take land use away from those who offend.

Since before the conquest, San Felipe del Agua (San Felipe of the Water) had been a major source of water for the city of Oaxaca. There are still remnants of a colonial era aqueduct in the historic center. In 1972, fees collected by the Agency of SFdA (a subdivision of the Municipality of Oaxaca) for supplying water to Oaxaca were a major source of income for the ejido. There were a few homes being rented to foreigners, but only a few.

In the early ’90s, president Salinas began the process, continuing to this day, to destroy the ejido system by changing the constitution to allow for private ownership of land by removing the reforms passed under Lázaro Cárdenas. As was noted in last month’s article, the final stage is trashing the “usos y costumbres” in order to wrest power away from the community.

When I returned in 1994, Oaxaca sheltered over 250,000 people who had spread their housing and services all the way up the hill. The main streets were paved, well past the town square. On “bad air days” you could look down to the city and observe the smog. New water sources had been added to the city supply.

SFdeA had a “parallel” water system of its own, which served the “natives”: people whom, by custom and mutual agreement, “belonged.” Some were private land owners, others ejido members. The newcomers either bought their water from the Oaxaca water works, or payed as much as three times the going rate for ejido water.

Back in the ’40s or ’50s, there was a “bad governor” of Oaxaca, whose greed and corruption was so awful that he became one of only four governors since the Conquest to be removed from office for corruption. Before he was dethroned, he built a lavish estate in SFdeA. Set amid hundreds of acres of land was a mansion complete with a swimming pool that looked like something out of a DeMille spectacular, with a fountain at the deep end in which a stone dancer stood, in front of a clamshell niche, like the statue of Venus bathing.

By the time I got there in 1994, the land had been split up amongst the surviving children, the mansion was abandoned and crumbling, the pool had long since ceased to function, and the acreage that fronted the main road where I had stood in 1972 contained a string of townhouse-style bungalows and a four-plex. The rents from these habitations mostly went to pay off debts and keep the daughter—who lived as far away as she could be from the renters—in servants.
I lived in the four-plex (upstairs, left) for over a year. “Rancho San Felipe,” as it was called, housed a motley crew. We were everything from a young couple from Querretaro with a new-born to a 35-year ex-pat in her late 80s. From my windows, I could see construction going on all around us.

Since then, the construction has gotten more lavish. Ever larger homes and gated communities are springing up as the wealthy business people and politicians move in alongside the substantial foreign population. As well as having abundant water, SFdeA is a very secure area, with only two main roads in, and many easily guarded cul-de-sacs.

The old bungalows at the Rancho are gone now. The landlady sold those acres off in pieces to two private owners when her attempt to sell the whole place to a hotel chain fell through.

We know many of the foreign residents of SFdeA, some quite wealthy and others living rather more simple lives in rental properties. Most of them were hardly aware of the existence of a citizen council in SFdeA. They thought of SFdeA as a neighborhood of Oaxaca. That is until recently, when an annual meeting of the “natives” erupted into a giant brouhaha. That story will be the final chapter of this series.




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