Shantytown Mexico: A Visual History of Ciudad Nezahualcóyotl

David Yee, History

The following presents photos of Mexico’s Ciudad Nezahualcóyotl (Neza) that span from the 1950s to the 1990s. The photos are the product of the hard work and dedication of the staff at the Centro de Información y documentación de Nezahualcóyotl (CIDNE), who have organized photos from government reports, family albums, and newspapers into a valuable collection for the center’s fototeca. The photos illustrate the gradual arch of change in Ciudad Neza, from an informal settlement to informal city of over a million people. Below, I include a brief sketch of Ciudad Neza’s history.

The area once ruled by Nezahualcóyotl in mid-1400s has been a lake, a desert, a swampland, a teeming shantytown, and an urbanized municipality. A thriving civilization grew around Lake Texcoco beginning in the 1260s. The largest of several lakes that once encircled Tenochtitlan/Mexico City, Lake Texcoco was central to the life of the villagers who fished in its waters and navigated its rivers to the bustling trading posts and markets on the eastern edges of Mexico City (then the Lagunilla Market). A series of public works projects drained Lake Texcoco over the years until much of it was depleted by the turn of the twentieth century. The salt deposits from the dried-up lake made the briny soil uncultivable. For most of the year, the dried-up lakebed was a barren desert. During the summer months, rainstorms turned its desert plains into marshy swamplands. The extreme environment and close proximity to Mexico City made it ripe for exploitation by land developers who began to market the area to poor city dwellers who were eager to leave behind the crowded tenements in the city for their own homes in its outlying areas.

The settlement of Ciudad Neza (then called Colonias del Vaso de Texcoco) began in 1945. In the beginning stages, a few thousand families built their homes on the desert plains that surrounded the Federal District. On weekends, families and neighbors made gradual improvements to their homes; mainly one-room cinder block shacks covered with corrugated steel roofs. Despite the promises and contracts from land developers that the land plots would come equipped with electricity, running water, and drainage, these services were non-existent or lacking through most of the settlements. Living conditions were harsh, however the housing deficit and rising rents in the city center pushed many residents and recent migrants out to Ciudad Neza. In 1963, the former lakebed became its own municipality. By the middle of the 1970s, a powerful social movement forced the federal government to expropriate the land from the private developers in order to have the state oversee land regularization and service installations.

These photos show the gradual transformation of Ciudad Neza. The images capture the living conditions of residents. They illustrate how in midcentury Mexico, the place one lived determined their access to basic services such as water and electricity. Residents squandered hours of time lugging buckets of water from truck distributors and rigging illegal electric set-ups to their homes. The time lost to daily tasks that more affluent families did not need to concern themselves with was a source of inequality. When access to education is based on where a child lives, spatial segregation plays a direct role in limiting that child’s access to educational services if they live in area bereft of schools. Despite these challenges, the photos included here show how residents were able to pool their resources together in the face of adversity.