2021-10-14 09:00:11 Exuberant Art and Cable Car Can Lift a Poor, Violent Place Only So High

Exuberant Art and Cable Car Can Lift a Poor, Violent Place Only So High

MEXICO CITY (AP) — The city is a sea of concrete stretching to the horizon, interrupted only by clusters of skyscrapers and the remains of ancient volcanoes, as seen from a soaring cable car. Iztapalapa, a warren of winding streets and alleyways, is 60 feet below, its cinder block houses encasing the neighborhood’s hills in insipid gray.

Then, on a rooftop, there was a burst of color: a massive monarch butterfly perched atop a purple flower. A toucan and a scarlet macaw stare up at passengers as they travel along the route of Mexico City’s newest cableway. Later, on a canary yellow wall, there is a young girl in a red gown, her eyes closed in complete bliss.

According to the city government, the 6.5-mile line, which opened in August, is the world’s longest public cableway. The cable car not only cuts commute times for many workers in the capital’s most populous borough in half, but it also has an added attraction: exuberant murals painted by an army of local artists, many of which can only be seen from above.

“There are paintings and murals all along the route,” said César Enrique Sánchez del Valle, a music teacher, as he rode the cable car home one recent Tuesday afternoon. “It’s nice to see something different.”

The rooftop paintings are the latest step in Iztapalapa’s government’s beautification project, which has hired 140 artists over the last three years to blanket the neighborhood with nearly 7,000 pieces of public art, creating explosions of color in one of Mexico City’s most crime-ridden areas.

“People want to save their history, the history of the neighborhood,” said Clara Brugada Molina, the borough’s mayor. “Iztapalapa transforms into a massive gallery.”

Iztapalapa, located on the outskirts of Mexico City, has 1.8 million residents, some of whom are among the poorest in the city. Many people work in more affluent areas, which meant long commutes before the cable car.

Iztapalapa, like many poor urban areas in Mexico, has long been plagued by a lack of basic services, such as running water, as well as high levels of violence, which is frequently linked to organized crime.

The mayor’s art initiative is part of a larger plan to make Iztapalapa safer, including the installation of street lamps that now illuminate the main roads, which were previously dark.

The murals depict Aztec deities, revolutionary leader Emiliano Zapata, and Frida Kahlo, who has a splash of turquoise across her eyes.

There are also nods to other local heroes.

A short-haired woman smiles at the viewer against a scarlet backdrop with blue, yellow, teal, and lime-green shapes floating behind her: Lupita Bautista, a world champion boxer from Iztapalapa, is almost as colorful in real life.

Ms. Bautista, 33, walked into her gym on a recent morning wearing fluorescent green sneakers, a pink beanie, and a rainbow tie-dye sweatshirt with her name scrawled in fuchsia glitter across the front.

“I love that the colors are so strong,” she said of the government-funded project, which has turned the neighborhood where she trains into a colorful mosaic by painting the cinder block houses in bright colors, a paint job that would be out of reach for many residents. “It breathes new life into it.”

Ms. Bautista’s childhood story is one that many people in the borough have heard. When she was younger, her house in Iztapalapa had no electricity and was only lit at night by the glow of candles. Her neighborhood lacked sidewalks and even paved roads.

“It was all gray,” she recalled.

Crime was also a problem, with robberies and murders so common that Ms. Bautista said her mother never let her or her sister leave the house unless they were going to school.

“I was terrified,” she confessed. “I had a feeling something bad was going to happen to me.”

Ms. Bautista said she felt much safer jogging after dark now that many avenues are well-lit.

“I was built running through the streets,” she said of her childhood spent weaving through the avenues and alleyways of her neighborhood long before she became a champion fighter. “Now you can run with a lot more confidence and focus, not worrying about when someone will jump out and scare you.”

Despite the government’s efforts, most people in Iztapalapa remain fearful: According to a June survey conducted by Mexico’s national statistics agency, nearly eight out of ten residents reported feeling unsafe, which is among the highest rate of any city in the country.

Women, in particular, face widespread violence in Iztapalapa, which ranks among the top 25 municipalities in the country for femicide, or the killing of a woman because of her gender. According to a 2019 report from the National Autonomous University of Mexico, from 2012 to 2017, city security cameras in Iztapalapa recorded more instances of sexual assault against women than in any other Mexico City borough.

According to the mayor, gender-based violence is what prompted the mural and lighting project in the first place: to create pathways where women can feel safe walking home. Many of the murals honor women, whether they are locals like Ms. Bautista or historical figures, as well as feminist symbols.

“We’re attempting to reclaim the streets for women,” said Ms. Brugada.

However, not everyone believes the strategy is effective.

Daniela Cerón, 46, grew up in Iztapalapa when it was still a rough community with open fields where farmers grew crops.

“It felt like a small town,” Ms. Cerón recalled. “You used to see the lovely hills.”

The area began to rapidly urbanize in the 1970s.

“You’d see a little light here, a little light there from one minute to the next,” Ms. Cerón explained. “Until, all of a sudden, it started filling up with people.”

The increase in population, caused by both families leaving inner Mexico City and migrants arriving from rural areas, resulted in an increase in crime. Ms. Cerón, who is transgender, had to face not only the widespread violence, but also the prejudice of living in a conservative religious neighborhood — Iztapalapa attracts millions of congregants each year for a massive re-enactment of Christ’s crucifixion.

“That religious stigma counts against you,” Ms. Cerón explained.

In terms of the murals, she says they’re beautiful but haven’t done much to make her feel safer.

“Having a very pretty painted street means nothing to me if they’re robbing or murdering people three blocks away,” she explained.

Alejandra Atrisco Amilpas, an artist who has painted 300 murals throughout Iztapalapa, believes they can make residents proud of their community, but she admits they can only go so far.

“Paint does a lot of good, but it can’t change the reality of social problems,” she says.

“Whether you care about the woman being beaten up on the corner, a mural isn’t going to change your mind.”

Ms. Atrisco, who is gay, said she encountered conservative attitudes throughout the project, including male artists who questioned her abilities and local officials who barred her from painting L.G.B.T.Q.-themed murals.

“Violence against women, yes, but not against lesbians,” she said ruefully.

Nonetheless, Ms. Atrisco believes that by depicting the characters of Iztapalapa in full color, she can make a difference in the lives of the people who live there.

“Every day brings a new challenge, a new wall, and a new story,” she explained. “You make a little bit of a dream come true — you become a dream maker.”

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Exuberant Art and Cable Car Can Lift a Poor, Violent Place Only So High