Knowledge for self-determination: Mexican construction and community organization manuals


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Pablo Landa has been coordinating Nuevo Norte, a collective effort to document migration ethnographically and to develop projects with and for migrants in Mexico, since January 2017. In conjunction with local universities, architecture studios, government agencies and activists, he has facilitated workshops in Tijuana, Guadalajara, Monterrey and Mexico City. In 2016, Landa curated Mexico’s pavilion for the Venice Architecture Biennale, which featured 34 works of participatory architecture. Before and after the pavilion’s opening, Landa led an ambitious program of workshops, roundtables and tours that activated a national conversation on the social dimensions of building and design. In 2017, the show traveled to Mexico and was presented at Instituto Politécnico Nacional. Landa curated an exhibition for Fototeca Nuevo León on the urban history of Monterrey that will be presented in 2018 in major public spaces in the city. Also, with a growing coalition of architects, scholars and construction experts, he has begun a research project on traditional architecture in northeastern Mexico that will result in a design sourcebook and in manuals on vernacular building techniques and housing typologies. @PabloLanda

Building and community organizing manuals in Mexico have not only been a strategy to democratize technical knowledge but have also helped establish a balance of power between state authorities and organized communities.

Manuals gained an institutional foothold in Mexico in the aftermath of the government’s sluggish and ineffectual response to the 1985 earthquake in Mexico City. Communities in many central working class neighborhoods had a history of organizing to prevent evictions and the collapse of apartment buildings. They were at the forefront of street protests to demand government action. They marched three times to Los Pinos, the president’s residence, winning their group of community leaders–who had been working in tandem for many years–an invitation to a meet with President Miguel de la Madrid.

At the meeting, the group presented what they considered their consensus: “Project for the Reconstruction of the Guerrero and Morelos neighborhoods”, an eight-page, illustrated pamphlet that argued against relocating the earthquake’s victims. It advocated instead that the land of collapsed or damaged rentals be expropriated and rebuilt in a community-based, participatory process with local labor and management complemented by technical assistance from architects, engineers and lawyers. A few days later, Miguel de la Madrid issued an expropriation decree and established a trust to fund reconstruction. Thousands of housing units were rebuilt over the next two years.

Vecindades were the dominant housing typology in Colonia Guerrero and other neighborhoods greatly damaged by the earthquake. They consisted of small apartments organized around central patios, with shared bathrooms, washing areas, water tanks and other amenities. As community leader Yolanda Tello explains, the proximity of apartments in vecindades meant that “everything we did involved some sort of negotiation”. This fostered strong community bonds. If the earthquake’s victims had been relocated, the relationships they had formed over decades—the basis of their political organization—would have likely disappeared.

However, residents of vecindades who participated in their reconstruction recognized that the social and the political depended not only on the configuration of space, but also on its ownership, management, and the personal connections among its users. A reconstruction that simply recreated old buildings would be incomplete so they sought to build a base of shared knowledge that would sustain their identity and direct it towards purposeful organizing. They produced pamphlets similar to the one presented to the president. To reach wide audiences, many were rendered in comic book form. Among them were “Social organizing for reconstruction;” “Neighborhood assemblies;” and “What is private property?”

Manual Tolteca de Autoconstrucción y Mejoramiento de la Vivienda

Analysts have credited port-earthquake mobilizations for cracking the country’s monolithic, one-party system. For a country used to abuse of state power and neglect of the poor, the processes initiated in Colonia Guerrero represented a significant shift. But synthesizing and sharing knowledge in didactic publications to facilitate community-based processes had a long history in Mexico. An early example is Cartilla de alfabetización, issued by the Ministry of Public Education in the forties. This handbook provided tools for those who knew how to read and write to teach others in their town or neighborhood. This measure—a response to high illiteracy rates and teacher shortages—produced a radical alternative to public instruction: schools did not depend on buildings or state institutions. The Cartilla brought people of all ages together to learn from each other, on their own terms.

A decade later, the government could barely keep pace with housing demands in rapidly growing cities. Inspired by Cartilla de alfabetización, the Society of Mexican Architects produced La Cartilla de la vivienda (1954), a handbook to assist people in the construction of durable, functional houses that begins with the suggestion that people build together with friends and family members. The pages of this handbook were printed on only one side, so they could be cut out and placed on walls for easy community access. A few years later, the Mexican Social Security Institute printed a second edition. La Cartilla de la vivienda was used widely in the construction of Ciudad Neza and other working class suburbs of Mexico City. While both cartillas were produced or promoted by Mexico’s federal government, they were not aimed, as many other policies at the time, at consolidating state power. Instead, they facilitated local governance and self-determination.

Manual Tolteca de Autoconstrucción y Mejoramiento de la Vivienda

By the nineteen-eighties, the Mexican government had shifted its focus from social development to the management of the country’s economy. Other actors–like the community leaders after the 1985 earthquake–began producing manuals and handbooks. After a study showed that most cement in the country was sold sack by sack to families building their houses piecemeal, Cementos Tolteca and the Engineering School of the National Autonomous University (UNAM) produced a manual that became a ubiquitous staple in construction sites. Mexican cities were being built from the bottom up by their inhabitants and manuals gave certainty to the collaborative process.

In recent decades, a number of organized communities and civic organizations have produced manuals on particular building techniques, architectural typologies and community organizing strategies. The most notable among them harness and give visibility to existing forms of knowledge. After devastating hurricanes in 2013, the NGO Cooperación Comunitaria started participating in the reconstruction of adobe houses in the highlands of the state of Guerrero. Building on the vernacular typology, architects and engineers proposed the addition of buttresses and the use of larger, more resistant adobes, among other changes. Combining traditional and technical knowledge, they built a model home and produced a construction manual. The NGO also distributed wooden molds that advertised the proper size of adobes, reducing dependence on experts for production.

A state agency recently recycled information from the Guerrero manual for a leaflet distributed in Oaxaca, wrongly assuming the geographically transferability of construction practices. Nearby rebuilt adobe houses, one can find others by the government’s disaster relief fund, made of cinder block, and rendered from blueprints drawn up far away in the capital. They stand abandoned, now monuments to bureaucratic inertia and the danger of disregarding the local.

Like Mexico City’s post-earthquake reconstruction in 1985, Cooperación Comunitaria’s work recognizes that replacement of traditional housing typologies and building practices risks erasing a community’s history. The NGO’s adobe manual and mold are eminently local tools: they emerged from site-specific problems and offer situated solutions. In this way, they help sustain small-scale forms of organization that, at a time when national institutions are—once again—in a state of crisis, might help reconstitute politics in Mexico.

Vecindad, neighborhood, village or regional solidarities challenge the view that the role of citizens is to abide by the law, vote, and express their views to their representatives while government is the prerogative of the State. To the extent they are sites of knowledge, local communities can also be sites of sovereignty.

  1. “Lecciones políticas del sismo de 1985 en la Ciudad de México. Conversación entre Yolanda Tello, Manuel Rivera, Paco Saucedo y Cecilia Barraza,” Revista El Grito, no. 21, 2018. See also, Francisco Saucedo. “La experiencia organizativa en la colonia Guerrero y su trascendencia,” El Asunto Urbano, no. 4, 2016.
  2. The expropriation decree was issued on October 11, 1985. Three days later, on the 14th, the president created Renovación Habitacional Popular (RENHAPO), the trust in charge of reconstruction.
  3. Cited in Pablo Landa and Juan José Kochen. Despliegues y ensambles. 15. Muestra internacional de arquitectura de la Bienal de Venecia. Mexico City: Secretaría de Cultura, 2016, p. 66.
  4. The relationship between civic mobilizations and democratization in Mexico was famously narrated by Carlos Monsiváis in, Entrada libre: Crónicas de la sociedad que se organiza (Mexico City: Biblioteca Era, 1987) and, “No sin nosotros.” Los días del terremoto 1985-2005 (Mexico City: Ediciones Era, 2005).
  5. Manual Tolteca de autoconstrucción y mejoramiento de la vivienda was originally published in 1984. The most recent edition, from 2017, was presented as a gesture to aid reconstruction after the earthquake from September of this year.
  6. “Reconstrucción participativa: aprender de las comunidades. Conversación entre Isadora Hastings, Mariana Ordóñez, Lillián Martínez Villazón y Pablo Landa,” in Revista El Grito, no. 21, 2018.