Like Flowers Breaking through the Cement

| 1st April 2003
Many people dismiss environmentalism as a middle-class luxury that few can afford. But in Mexico City a group of impoverished street punks are pioneering radical social alternatives because their survival depends on it. Holly Wren reports.

Chiwy lives in Mexico City, one of the fastest growing metropolises in the world. Though it was built on marshland, many of the city’s once famous rivers have ceased flowing because of diversion and contamination. Mexico City’s air is foul, there is little open space, and – with a population of 25 million – the city creates 1.3 kilograms of garbage per resident per day.

In a city that has only ever landfilled its rubbish, Chiwy is among a group of youths who are working on local recycling and composting programmes. They go into neighbourhoods to teach residents how to sort waste, and build depots where recyclables can be taken for collection. The needs of the city are that basic, and, rather than waiting for the government to institute solutions, Chiwy and co are doing it themselves.

Chiwy, with his floppy mohawk and boyish face, is a member of the Juventud Antiautoritaria Revolucionaria (Jar) – ‘Anti-Authoritarian and Revolutionary Youth’. The patches on his black clothing proclaim ‘freedom lives when the state dies’, and ‘resistence exists’. During visits to Huehuecoyotal eco-village south of Mexico City, Chiwy and Jar learned permaculture techniques, which they then took back to the city. Often working in the toughest neighbourhoods, they promote the dream that one day every building will have a roof garden, that vacant lots will become community spaces and rivers will be clean enough for kids to play on their banks and fish.

City dwellers
Recently Chiwy, along with his friends and fellow Jar members Raul and Alejandra, gave a workshop on how they are taking their work to other parts of the city as well. After being shown a home-made video in which the trio were shown studying radical texts together, protesting neo-liberal trade agreements in the streets, and silk-screening the shirts they sell for fundraising purposes, an Argentinean in the audience expressed his disagreement with Jar’s urban focus; the group should leave the city and go to the countryside where things are healthier.

But while many environmental activists focus upon rural living, others recognise that green-cities initiatives are a realistic approach to the fact that urban populations are on the rise, and it is in cities that most of today’s young will make their homes.

Most of the Jar youth cannot, and will not leave the city. Instead, they have been developing plans for an urban eco-village. The fact that they lack the funds to purchase a piece of land, does not deter them from this goal. In the meantime, Jar has been loaned a property with a small backyard from which they have cleared several truck-loads of household trash, abandoned appliances and wood debris. They make do with what is shared or donated in a spirit of mutual aid. As the text on Alejandra’s T-shirt says, ‘somos como flores irrumpiendo en el cemento’ (‘we are like flowers breaking through the cement’). Confronting waste, creating ‘autonomous zones’ and dismantling machismo, they liberate their neighborhoods a little bit more each day. This includes surviving in a hand-to-mouth way instead of taking meaningless full-time jobs that would consume valuable time which is better spent rebuilding communities and sharing their skills and knowledge with others.

Working for stints in their ‘rich-neighbour country’ (the US) is an option for some, while others direct passengers at the bus station in exchange for a few coins from the bus drivers. Still others vend TV cases on the street, risking an occasional beating by the cops for selling without a permit. Working tax-free as bricklayers, painters, labourers and electricians is also possible, though always sporadic. Rents are high and wages low, so many Jar activists (most of whom are aged between 16 and 25 years old) live at home. Some sleep on the street. The reality of their daily existence makes their work for change that much more vital. It is not an intellectual exercise, as it often is for middle class wanna-be revolutionaries in the North. It is a matter of survival.

Alejandra works with Colectivo Ecologico Social Tierra Viva, an independent group that often collaborates with Jar. Her jet-black hair falls below her waist. She is small and tough, with the guarded air of someone who has lived in the city all her life. She says: ‘It is very difficult. You have everything going against you. You are young, you are poor and you are making change.’ Alejandra survives by making and selling botanical cosmetics and soaps; she is well versed in the wisdom of her ancestors, who used plants to heal long before Monsanto discovered the rainforest.

As well as their efforts to clean up the city, the Jar collective also engages in customary punk activities such as zine publishing, music recording for the ‘Jar Core’ label, and taking to the streets against the consumer culture. Jar blames that culture for the ‘desperation of millions of people, who are left with no way to live but in humiliation, apathy, and egoism’. In October the group celebrated nine strong years of existence. For Jar’s members, punk is not fashion; it is a constant struggle for freedom and self-determination. ‘We think the world we dream of is ours to the extent we create it.’

Holly Wren is a freelance journalist.


Area: 1,958,201 square kilometres – eight times the area of the UK, and the third largest country in Latin America after Brazil and Argentina.

Population (1998): 96.5 million (the 11th largest in the world).74 per cent of the population live in cities or towns. In 1980 this figure was 66.4 per cent, and in 1950 it was 42.6 per cent. Population under 18 years of age (1996): 41.6 per cent.

Capital: Mexico City; the total population of Mexico City’s metropolitan area is estimated at about 20 million.

Malnutrition: From 1985 to 1995 there was an average of 1.7million malnourished children under 5 years of age.

Principal trading partners (1997): The US (85.4 per cent of exports), Latin America/ the Caribbean (6.3 per cent), the EU (3.6 per cent), Canada (2 per cent), Japan (1 per cent).

Manufacturing accounts for 86 per cent of all exports. Nearly half of this comes from the maquiladora (sweatshops) sector.

The maquiladora sector is made up mainly of border-based and foreign-owned assembly plants. In total 2.5 million workin maquiladoras.

An average of 14.9 per cent of Mexico’s population was living on less than $1 a day between 1981 and 1993.

In 1994 36 per cent of the overall population, 29 per cent of the urban population and 47 per cent of the rural population were living below the poverty line. In 1984 the comparable figures were: 34 per cent of total population, 28 per cent in urban areas, and 45 per cent in rural areas.

Also in 1994, 12 per cent of the overall population, 6 per cent of the urban population and 20 per cent of the rural population were living in indigence (unable to afford even sufficient food). The comparable figures for 1984 were: 11 per cent of total population,

7 per cent in urban areas and 20 per cent in rural areas.

That same year the Forbes ranking of the richest individuals in the world included 24 Mexicans.

The official figure for urban unemployment is usually in the range of 3-4 per cent. However, the government considers a person employed if they work only one hour per week. Other estimates give an unemployment rate of about 18 per cent, with under-employment affecting 25-40 per cent of the population and rising even higher in rural areas.

Foreign debt (1998): At US $174.4 billion, the second largest in the Third World.

This article first appeared in the Ecologist April 2003



The Ecologist has a formidable reputation built on fifty years of investigative journalism and compelling commentary from writers across the world. Now, as we face the compound crises of climate breakdown, biodiversity collapse and social injustice, the need for rigorous, trusted and ethical journalism has never been greater. This is the moment to consolidate, connect and rise to meet the challenges of our changing world. The Ecologist is owned and published by the Resurgence Trust. Support The Resurgence Trust from as little as £1. Thank you. Donate now.