I said goodbye to my hosts and started walking.
By now I’d realized that my original goal of walking the entire outskirts of Mexico City was impossible.
Streets often crawled far up mountains and terminated in dead ends. Often there wasn’t a way to get from one of these streets to the next dead end because of the walls that surround much of the city to stop urban migration. As I hiked, these walls reminded me of the same ones that now rise up on most of the U.S.-Mexico border.
Walking the entire outskirts of Mexico City requires going up and down sometimes hundreds of streets just to cover the periphery of one mountain. It would take months to walk every street, maybe even years. But there was one ultimatum in trying to complete this trip: I could try to climb every mountain surrounding the city. That still seemed pretty hard core.
I got an early start on Day 6 and made it up and down three mountains by noon. Ahead of me loomed the mountain of Chiquihuite, for anyone who lives/has lived in Mexico City its that big mountain you always see at night that has about 10 glittering radio towers on its top.
Unfortunately, the summit to Chiquihuite was closed to hikers. No doubt I was probably the first person in some time who had arrived there to try and hike it.
My intention was to stay on the true outskirts of town for the duration of my hike to get a better sense of what life is like for the city’s most marginalized residents. But as the sun went down, I hiked up and down two more mountains and headed back into Mexico City proper to visit a very special family who live on Cerro Tepeyac, a tall hill in the city’s northern end.
Cerro Tepeyac was once a lonely hillside rising from an empty floodplain. Beginning in the 1960′s, rural farmers from throughout the country began flocking to Mexico City in search of work. These urban migrants often moved to poor shantytowns at the base of hillsides like Cerro Tepeyac, but several families actually settled on top of this hill.
As Mexico City’s population skyrocketed to over 20 million, and the urban sprawl spread around Cerro Tepeyac and continued on for miles, the families who settled on top of the hill have watched these changes and continued their traditional village life as subsistence farmers, growing crops on this isolated hillside which rises from the city.
I first hiked Cerro Tepeyac one afternoon, in search of some fresh air and a momentary escape from the city after finishing up one of my numerous research trips to the outskirts.
I almost never climbed Cerro Tepeyac because a sign at the entrance warned visitors not to go up the hill because local robbers had assaulted locals. Instead of the bad guys, I met people brandishing flowers, and a kind man, named Roberto Juarez, a farmer who lives on top of Cerro Tepeyac with his wife and six daughters.
Roberto Juarez comes from the coastal state of Veracruz. His parents died when he was just nine years old. Roberto’s sister married a man who had family living at the base of Cerro Tepeyac. When she married, she took Roberto to Mexico City to live and this family of rural farmers settled on top of the hill.
Today, Roberto raises sheep on top of the hill and grows his milpa, the traditional farming method in Mexico of growing squash, beans, and chile below rows of corn, which acts as a natural fertilizer.
“When I arrived here on the hill, I felt like the richest man in the world,” Roberto once told me. “All I knew how to do was farm, and here there was plenty of land. But today, I can barely make a living. It’s a struggle just to survive. And now I wish that I had settled below in the city like everyone else.”
Roberto lives in some of most striking poverty I’ve found yet in my journey. The family lives in two one-room shacks with dirt floors. The walls are made of scrap wood, sheet metal, and old mattresses.
They have access to water just once every one or two weeks. When the water comes, they fill up several large buckets. They steal electricity from a line below in the city by running a wire up the mountain connected to trees. Roberto says that thieves often cut the wires to resell the metal and he has to restring the cables again all the way up the mountain so they can turn on their lights at night.
Each morning, Roberto uses the family’s two horses to commute from the hill down to the city where he sells the vegetables he grows at a local market. Roberto and other farmers on Cerro Tepeyac say that yearly rainfall has decreased, which has lowered the annual yield of their crops, and thrust them into deep poverty.
Throughout the developing world, rural farmers have migrated to cities in search of jobs and a better life. Cerro Tepeyac is a time capsule within one of the world’s largest metropolises where a traditional way of life is now fading.
When I arrived at Roberto’s, rain poured down upon me and the family welcomed me inside. We sat together and ate hot chicken soup. Roberto’s son, who previously lived at the base of the mountain, had now moved in with the family in hopes of shaking off a severe addiction to what locals in Mexico City call activo, a solvent used for cleaning PVC pipes that when inhaled produces a strong high with vivid hallucinations. Use of this drug is epidemic in the city’s outskirts.
Roberto pulled out an old mattress and I slept on it in the family kitchen, a small wooden shack near the houses. Roberto’s son also slept in the kitchen, and he spent most of the night pacing around the room, inhaling activo, and cackling madly.
Let’s just say it was a really long night.
The next morning I helped the family prepare for the market. We cut nopales, wild cactuses that grow all over Mexico and are cooked and served with most Mexican cuisine. Afterwards, we used knives to remove the thorns from the cactuses so they would be ready to sell.
I really loved cutting nopales, but by the time noon came around it was time to get going again.
I spent the day hiking up and down ridges covered in lower class neighborhoods. The mountains fell into wide valleys covered in city. Instead of walking all the way around the ridges and into the valley, I found holes in the walls that surrounded this new urban environment and bushwhacked up through the mountains to get to the next communities.
From my vantage point alone in the mountains, this is some of what I saw:
That night I was taken in by a wonderful family who invited me in for a cup of tea and then offered to let me spend the night with them.
Jose and his wife, Sara, also come from the coastal state of Veracruz. They moved to Mexico City in their teens in search of a better life and worked for years to buy a small plot of land in the mountains of Tlanepantla, just outside Mexico City.
Today Jose and his wife run a small business out of their two room shack making children’s suits. In one room, a line of sewing machines runs along the wall. Heaps of cloth and string cover the floor. The family all sleep together in a small twin bed in an adjoining room.
Three years ago, Jose and his wife invested all of their savings in a coyote who would bring them to the U.S. They hoped to work in the U.S. for a few years to save enough to finish their house and expand their business.
The two left their children with family, walked through the Arizona desert with a coyote, and made it Phoenix where they were apprehended by the Border Patrol and deported just two days after entering the U.S.
In an instant, they lost everything.
This family had lost so much during their short-lived journey to my country, and it amazed me that they still welcomed me into their home with open arms. We spent the night talking and laughing and ate a wonderful lentil soup for dinner.
Jose heated up some water for me so I could bathe in the bathroom, cardboard shack out back behind their cinderblock house. Jose had rigged up an electric wire from a nearby line and ran it near the bathroom. He connected it to another wire which produced a flurry of hot sparks. Then he put the two hot wires in a plastic bucket of water. A half hour later, the water in the bucket was boiling. This is how the family heats up water and how most people in Mexico City’s outskirts heat water.
I spent the next morning giving English lessons to Jose’s nine-year-old daughter, Adriana, probably one of the coolest and smartest kids I’ve ever met. It was an amazing time with an awesome family who showed me so much kindness.
By noon the next day, it was time to get these itchy feet moving again back on the road.
Back into the mountains.