Exuberant art and funicular can only lift a poor, violent place so high

MEXICO CITY — Observed from a soaring funicular, the city is a sea of ​​concrete stretching to the horizon, torn only by clusters of skyscrapers and the remains of ancient volcanoes. About 20 meters below is the Iztapalapa neighborhood, a warren of winding streets and alleyways, whose cinder-block houses envelop the neighborhood’s hills in dull gray.

But then, on a rooftop, a sudden burst of color: a giant monarch butterfly perched atop a purple flower. Further along the route of Mexico City’s newest cable car, a toucan and a scarlet macaw stare at the passengers. Later, on a canary-yellow wall, a young girl in a red dress stands, her eyes closed in an expression of absolute bliss.

Inaugurated in August, the 6.5-mile line is the longest public funicular in the world, according to the city government. In addition to cutting travel time in half for many workers in the capital’s most populous district, the funicular has an added attraction: lavish murals painted by an army of local artists, many of which can only be viewed from above.

“There are paintings and murals all along the route,” said César Enrique Sánchez del Valle, a music teacher, who recently took the funicular home on a recent Tuesday afternoon. “It’s fun, something unexpected.”

The rooftop paintings are the latest step in an beautification project by the government of Iztapalapa, which has hired some 140 artists over the past three years to cover the neighborhood with nearly 7,000 works of art in public spaces, 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 the mayor of the municipality, Clara Brugada Molina. “Iztapalapa is going to be a giant gallery.”

Stretching to the outskirts of Mexico City, Iztapalapa has a population of 1.8 million, some of whom are among the poorest in the city. Many work in wealthier neighborhoods, and for the cable car, this often meant hours of commuting.

As with many poor urban areas of Mexico, Iztapalapa has long been plagued by both a lack of basic services, such as running water, and a high level of violence, often linked to organized crime.

The mayor’s art initiative is part of a wider plan to make Iztapalapa safer, including street lamps now bathed in light from the once-dark roads.

The murals feature national icons such as Aztec gods, the revolutionary leader Emiliano Zapata and Frida Kahlo, with a touch of turquoise before her eyes.

But there are also nods to more local heroes.

Against a scarlet background with blue, yellow, teal and lime green shapes floating behind her, the image of a short-haired woman smiles at the viewer: it is Lupita Bautista, a native of Iztapalapa and a world champion boxer almost as colorful in real life. life.

One recent morning, Mrs. Bautista, 33, stepped into her gym wearing fluorescent green sneakers, a pink beanie hat and a rainbow tie-dye sweatshirt with her name scribbled in fuchsia glitter on the front.

“I love that the colors are so strong,” she said of the government-funded project that, in addition to creating the murals, has transformed the neighborhood where she trains into a mosaic of colors through the cinder block houses in to coat bright hues, a painting job that would be prohibitively expensive for many residents. “It gives a lot of life.”

Mrs. Bautista’s childhood story is a well-known story in the municipality. When she was young, her home in Iztapalapa had no electricity — lit at night only by the glow of candles. Her neighborhood had no sidewalks or even paved roads.

“Everything was gray,” she recalls.

Crime was also an issue, with robberies and murders so common that Mrs. Bautista said her mother never let her or her sister out of the house unless she had to go to school.

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

With many avenues now brightly lit, Ms. Bautista said she felt much safer jogging in the dark.

“I was built for running through the streets,” she said of her childhood spent weaving through the neighborhood’s avenues and alleys long before she became a champion fighter. “Now you can run with a lot more security and focus — not thinking about when someone jumps out and scares you.”

But despite the government’s best efforts, most in Iztapalapa still live in fear: According to a June survey by Mexico’s National Bureau of Statistics, nearly eight out of 10 residents said they felt unsafe — one of the highest rates. for every city in the country.

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

According to the mayor, that gender-based violence was the main reason for the mural and lighting project: to create paths where women could feel safe home. Many of the murals celebrate women, either locals like Mrs. Bautista or famous figures of history, as well as feminist symbols.

“We’re trying to reclaim the streets for women,” said Mrs. Brugada.

But not everyone is convinced that the strategy works.

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

“It was like a small town,” recalls Mrs. Cerón. “You used to see the beautiful hills.”

In the 1970s, the area began to rapidly urbanize.

“From one minute to the next you saw a light here, a light there,” said Ms. Cerón. “Until the boom, it started to fill with people.”

The increase in population, both of families leaving central Mexico City and of migrants coming from rural areas, also fueled an influx of crime. For Ms. Cerón, who is transgender, that meant confronting not only the widespread violence, but also the prejudice of living in a conservative religious neighborhood – every year Iztapalapa draws millions of parishioners to a massive reenactment of Christ’s crucifixion. .

“That religious stigma weighs against you,” Ms. Cerón said.

As for the murals, she says they look nice, but have done little to make her feel more secure.

“I don’t care if I have a very nicely painted street if they rob or kill people three blocks away,” she said.

Alejandra Atrisco Amilpas, an artist who has painted some 300 murals in Iztapalapa, believes they can make residents more proud of where they live, but admits they can’t go that far.

“Paint helps a lot, but unfortunately it can’t change the reality of social problems,” she said. “A mural won’t change whether you care about the woman on the corner getting beat up.”

Ms. Atrisco, who is gay, said she encountered conservative attitudes during the project, from male artists who questioned her abilities or from local officials who prevented her from painting LGBTQ-themed murals.

“Violence against women, yes, but lesbians, no,” she said with a remorseful smile.

Nevertheless, Ms. Atrisco believes that her work can influence the lives of the residents by depicting the characters of Iztapalapa in color.

“Every day you face a new challenge, every day a new wall and a new story,” she said. “You kind of make dreams come true – you become a dream maker.”

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