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Defeating Fear: Lessons From Mexico’s Housing Movement

Los Panchos has taken back land and collectively built thousands of homes since the late-1980s.

“The biggest challenge was to defeat our fears,” proclaimed Mexican housing activist, Enrique Reynoso on a recent visit to London. As one of the epicenters of the European and North American housing crisis, London was an important stop on his recent European tour of grassroots movement spaces.

Enrique has been active in the Francisco Villa Popular Independent Leftist Organization (FPFVI in Spanish) since the 1980s. With even a glimpse into what Los Panchos (a shorthand for the FPFVI, based on the nickname of the Mexican revolutionary for whom the organization is named) have achieved since the mid-80s, this quote can sound like an oversimplification of some magnitude.

Can the creation of an alternative society of many thousands, built over decades on the principles of solidarity, cooperation and mutual aid, within what has been called “the perfect dictatorship,” really be chalked-up to “defeating fear”? But as simple as it sounds, the statement holds a profound and fundamental truth — that for most of us, collective power is daunting, even if we intellectually desire it and want to work towards it. Wherever we find ourselves in the world, fear is a barrier to change. But as Los Panchos have demonstrated, it is not an insurmountable one.

As cities across Europe increasingly-become domains of the ultra-rich, and as the many Global North housing movements remain largely wed to attempts to influence the machinations of representative politics (with notable exceptions), Enrique’s insight comes at a particularly critical moment. Will we keep repeating the patterns of A-to-B marches and petitions, or will we act together to find, create — and, when necessary — take, what we need to collectively survive in a housing market that is leaving more and more of us behind?

Survive and Organize Together

As with the housing movements in London, New York, Berlin and beyond, the emergence of Los Panchos was a response to rising property prices in the twenty-million-dense Mexican capital. “You can buy or sell everything in Mexico,” Enrique told the small gathering in South London, “but the poor couldn’t afford the basics after housing became a commodity. In the cities, land had been given to developers to build housing that people who live and work there couldn’t afford. As the price of land increased, we realized the only way we could survive was to organize together.”

So that’s what they did. Following on the heels of a failed attempt by party-political forces to provide basic housing for 500 families on disused land in the suburb of Iztapalapa in 1984, many families stayed behind and fought for the land without institutional support. They formed the Allepetlalli cooperative and negotiated the space for 384 homes to be built in 1987.

With the wind of this landmark victory in their sails, Los Panchos was formed in 1988 with the explicit aim of taking back land. With the Mexican state having so recently demonstrated its inability to provide for peoples’ needs, Los Panchos began to occupy another tract of land in the Iztapalapa neighborhood, establishing the El Molino settlement and building homes with whatever materials they could get their hands on.

Initially things were basic; a mix of wood and cardboard structures dotted the settlement. But the humble resources available were no impediment to construction. “The dignity of housing comes from the people who live in it,” Enrique reminded the London crowd. “Even if materials were at first basic or precarious, the houses were dignified.”

Of course, property owners were not immediately ingratiated by this demonstration of collective dignity. Mexican police were dispatched — as they had been in the early days of the Allepetlalli coop — and innumerable battles ensued as the occupiers defended their new homes from regular violent eviction attempts.

It Starts With Housing…

The battles made clear that more than housing was required, as injuries required greater healthcare provision than was typically available in one of Mexico City’s poorest suburbs. Thus, as the community fortified their living spaces, day-by-day, they also began to train one another in First Aid and other essential medical skills to maintain the community’s wellbeing, while living under sporadic states of siege.

As the number and quality of homes increased between police raids, the movement began to negotiate with the land owners for a selling price that they could afford to pay. Their steadfast presence on the land offered a strong incentive for the landlords to make a deal and cut their losses.

Alongside the financial negotiations, Los Panchos established a security commission, coordinating voluntary community patrols and establishing borders to keep the police out (unless their guns were left outside and they were accompanied by members of the community). Once established, (as has been the case in other such experiments in Mexico where police have been barred from a community), Enrique told us that “the crime rate dropped to almost zero.” Even some of the movement’s early critics came around to supporting them as the community solidified its presence in the area: “When we first took over the land, the neighbors viewed us as criminals,” Enrique remembers. “Now the neighbors join us on community patrols.”

Los Panchos were and are reclaiming the autonomy needed to live their lives beyond the dual tyrannies of the state and the market. It began with housing, but it couldn’t stop there. Today, 28 years on, El Molino, is one of ten occupied neighborhoods in Mexico City. The most recent, in the neighborhood of Tlahuac, was only established in 2012 and continues to grow.

The Acapatzingo settlement houses over 600 families and 2,400 residents. Between them, the ten communities are home to over 9,000 people who have managed to build alternative ways of living and working together, beyond government initiative or private property ownership.

Acapatzingo boasts education, health, sport and leisure facilities, all built and maintained by members of the community. Families take part in local assemblies in order to make collective decisions, and rotate representative roles for any decisions that require the input of other communities, beyond the immediate neighborhood.

“We don’t want to grow individual neighborhoods,” Enrique emphasizes, “we want our neighborhoods to inspire others to take action where they are. Rather than grow the scale of our assemblies, we want these assemblies to multiply in other places, in whatever ways are appropriate.”

Demonstrating a similar ideological openness, Enrique says Los Panchos are reluctant to impose or commit to any particular political dogma:

We have learned not to put ideological labels on what we do. We have learned from too many different places. We are all anti-capitalist, but there are many ideas within that. Like the Zapatistas, we want to build a world where many worlds are possible. Our comrades may not be committed to socialism or communism, but they’re committed to transforming the world we’re in today.

Before the Zapatistas, There Were Los Panchos

The FPFVI are signatories of the Sixth Declaration of the Lacondon Jungle, an initiative of Mexico’s foremost land defense movement, the EZLN, or Zapatistas. At the core of the EZLN outlook is the reclamation of land for community needs. It is not the state collectivizations of the Soviet Union, nor the social democrat model of state-based public ownership. This is a collectivity that happens much closer to home, with responsibility and accountability for common resources shared amongst those who are directly affected by them.

This outlook exists largely in the shadows of Global North political discourses, however. Debates on housing, food production, work distribution and land reform, have tended to be bound by the false dichotomy of state or market-based solutions (with rare shoots of cooperativism, worker-occupations and mostly-marginalized squatting movements, poking through around the edges). While the welfare state has often offered critical protections against the ravaging effects of the free market, it has perhaps also instilled a fear of change and dulled our abilities to imagine collective solutions beyond it.

However, Enrique’s view is that the differences between Mexico City and London are less-extreme than they can sometimes appear. In Mexico, too, people had to overcome fear, break unjust laws for the first time and learn countless new skills from one another before they were able to create the structures and systems they needed, together. “We are demonstrating that independently and autonomously, we can change things,” he reminded us.

Even through the pressures of the housing market, semblances of community still exist in the capitalist metropolises of America and Europe. Indeed, for those whom the state has failed for decades and centuries, informal economies, barter networks, mutual aid circles and generally-friendly neighbors have long-been relied upon to help make life under capitalism possible. And as distant as they can seem, these survival strategies are also the bedrocks of the Los Panchos communities.

Helping a friend with childcare, cooking a shared meal together, doing DIY work for one another when no one can afford a carpenter or a plumber — are the ways that we build up collective social muscle. These social muscles allow us to face confrontation with a sense of power and community, rather than fear and isolation.

In small ways, London’s housing movement has felt the early pangs of this muscle growth, through the Aylesbury, Guinness Trust, Carpenters’ Estate and Sweets Way occupations in 2014-15. So have LatinXs communities in Los Angeles, who have successfully stood up to would-be-gentrifiers, and untold numbers in Spain who have stopped thousands of evictions through direct action. It is not impossible. We have tasted it. And we need to believe in the places these kinds of actions can take us.

“When we wonder, ‘How did we achieve what we did?,'” Enrique boldly asserts, “the answer was: ‘we dared to dream.’ And we have to continue dreaming.” Wherever we are, the onus is on us to do the same.