IOPD Interview: Municipality of Iztapalapa (Mexico City)

The IOPD organised its 19th Conference in Iztapalapa in 2019.

The IOPD interviews Rocio Lombera, cabinet advisor to Iztapalapa Mayor Clara Brugada, on the occasion of the opening of the twelfth UTOPIA (Transformation and Organisation Units for Inclusion and Social Harmony), spaces for social and urban transformation where people have access to artistic and cultural activities and trainings. In 2019, the IOPD organised the 19th IOPD Conference in Iztapalapa under the theme "Participatory cities with full rights: participatory democracy and the right to the city".


1. Rocío, can you tell us about the social and historical spatial configuration of the Iztapalapa municipality?

Iztapalapa is located on the eastern periphery of Mexico City. It is the gateway for all the poor people from the southeast of the country: from the states of Oaxaca, Chiapas, Puebla, Veracruz. Therefore, it has been populated by these people who have come to settle in Mexico City to work. It has also been populated by internal migration: when there have been problems of earthquakes or evictions, the population of the central zone of Mexico City has migrated to settle in Iztapalapa.

Iztapalapa is historically an originary town. It was a peninsula between two lakes in Mexico City, which is a lacustrine city. This peninsula was divided into a freshwater lake called Xochimilco, which still exists but has decreased, and Lake Texcoco, which was drained to generate real estate and occupation processes, which fortunately stopped. Iztapalapa is located in this area, with a strong problem of land desiccation, which also causes strong problems of soil cracking, as water has been historically extracted generating other types of settlement problems.

Another characteristic is that it has historically been the backyard of the city, where rubbish dumps were located, and now we have five prisons in our territory. This type of use has been prioritised and not the infrastructure and basic services for the communities.

We have a population of almost two million inhabitants with the characteristic problems of the peripheries of our central cities: 43% of Iztapalapa's population is poor, between moderate poverty and extreme poverty; 33% of our population is young, between 15 and 30 years old, which is an important potential. Economically, Iztapalapa is characterised by commerce and service activities, although we are also the second place in the manufacturing industry in Mexico City, contributing around 7% of the Gross Domestic Product in the city.

In Iztapalapa we have a quarter of the population of Mexico City, we govern this large amount of population and it is also worth saying that the population, because of its needs and characteristics, has always fought to build a city and to have a decent place to live.

2. In this context, what are the challenges and opportunities for citizen participation in Iztapalapa?

We are fortunate to come from indigenous communities with communal traditions which are still preserved. In Iztapalapa we can find many towns that still preserve the tradition of the comparsas and the mayordomías, which are closely linked to religious and community matters. Iztapalapa is striving to become a World Heritage Site for the Easter celebration, which has been celebrated annually for more than 180 years and is a purely communal production. 

The Easter celebration is a mass theatrical act, where the actors are the inhabitants of the central neighbourhoods of Iztapalapa, which are known as the eight original neighbourhoods of the Iztapalapa peninsula. These traditions are preserved here and it is a matter of totally autonomous organisation with the support of the government so that they can carry out this great theatre production that travels through the central streets of the municipality. This is an element that helps us a lot in terms of participation because the people of Iztapalapa will always be organised and participating to improve their living conditions, but also for all their traditions and festivities.

Another issue is people's needs, which have led them to demand basic infrastructure services and community facilities. The people are demanding because they have been able to solve for themselves, but also because historically, they have been able to make their own decisions. The people are exigent because they have been able to resolve the problems by themselves, but also because historically, social organisations have been formed that have fought for more than fifty years to build the city: they organised themselves to build their neighbourhoods, put in drainage, water, streets, lighting and build their houses. There are many self-management processes and organisation also of people who have arrived after having to leave their homes in the centre because of the problems we have already mentioned, and have organised themselves to populate Iztapalapa.

Countless projects and organised social practices have emerged from these organised struggles, which have resulted in many of the city's public policies. It is from these struggles that emanates our mayor Clara Brugada, who is a historic social leader in Iztapalapa. She has been involved in these social movements from a young age and moved to Iztapalapa, where she continues to live. She and the team in general come from social processes of struggle. We say: "the Iztapalapa municipality is a movement made government". It is a self-government of social movements and, in this sense, participation is a force that we recognise through this history of struggle and the force of participation is the organised people and community. Therefore, our public policies of participation have to do with how we strengthen community organisation for more effective participation.

3. What policies and initiatives are implemented by the Iztapalapa municipality to promote a more participatory democracy?

There are two important processes that converge and that we have promoted in Iztapalapa. The first is the process of decentralisation to ensure close and proximate governments that generate trust and effectively attend to and resolve the problems of the population. In this sense, since the first administration of the mayor, we have been decentralising the government of the mayor's office: we used to have five territorial directorates, which are the ones that deal more directly with the territories. They are like "little local governments", the equivalent of what Bogotá calls "minor mayor's offices" because of the size of the population. 

In the first administration, 12 years ago, the mayor decentralised from five to eight territorial directorates. This is an important first step. Now that she has taken over again in 2018, the mayor's government has decentralised to 13 territorial directorates, that is, more than 60% of what we had when we had eight territorial directorates. Decentralisation is very significant because it is a great opportunity in many ways for our government and for participation: there is a much more direct connection between the government and the citizens, it is a more everyday issue and this generates links, dialogues, negotiations and trust in the government, in terms of being able to solve people's daily problems more effectively.

We also have participation mechanisms that we strengthen to establish a connection with citizens. We see participation as the people's decision making in public life. Of course, it has different levels of development. The first level has to do with listening: we have an important exercise, which is the citizens' hearing, held by the mayor with the entire government team in the public space of the mayor's office. It is an open and weekly process: every Monday the mayor, together with all the top-level public officials - all the territorial directors and the directors of the central areas are present - attend a hearing to what the people have to say. On Fridays there are territorial hearings: each territorial director opens a hearing with the citizens of his or her territory. There are also hearings for each area directorate, for example, the legal area is in great demand because of all the legal issues that people require advice, support and guidance.

The public hearing is a very important mechanism for listening and problem-solving, because many problems are solved in a concerted manner, which are sometimes very important and involve action in the territory with other actors, and where it is necessary to intervene through dialogue. The concertation at the working tables is fundamental because there are many conflicts. When there are demands, people come directly to request that we intervene through dialogue. Consultation at the working tables is fundamental because there are many conflicts. When there are demands, people come directly to request attention to the problem, for example, in a school. So the task at the roundtables is to process these problems and reach a final resolution that satisfies the parties in conflict.

We also have very participatory processes, which have to do with participatory planning in the neighbourhoods. For example, the participatory planning of the Utopías, which at the time was like the participatory design of many spaces. These are slightly longer processes where we have gone from house to house to establish a dialogue and call on people to participate in the planning of their neighbourhoods. A work process is established to be able to design their neighbourhoods for the future, a community agenda for local development so that people can set the vision of their neighbourhood in the future, with the strategic axes for action and the main projects in which they themselves are also involved in the development of these projects. These are more solid processes where we are also building citizenship at the same time. 

Our perspective is the construction of citizenship because there is a lot of disenchantment among citizens in terms of politics and intervention in the public sphere. We start with their community because it is the closest and we always link their problems to other issues in the city and the world. Today, there are many problems that we share: climate change, violence, infodemics. These issues are not external to the communities; on the contrary, they link us to the global level. That is why, from the construction of citizenship, we seek to ensure that these links with the global are understood by the community and that we can, from our own home and our own neighbourhood, contribute a grain of sand for the benefit of humanity, nature and the planet. There are various mechanisms that we have and that we set in motion on a daily basis because they link us with the population and with ourselves, recovering their citizenship and their voice in public decisions.

4. To act from the local level with a global perspective, what international cooperation mechanisms are key for the Iztapalapa mayor's office to promote a more participatory democracy?

One very important mechanism is the exchange of concrete experiences. That is where we learn, for example, how to get young people to participate, because our challenge here is how to involve young people a little more in public life, in decisions that affect everyone, and for them to see the importance of this. The systematisation and exchange of experiences is a mechanism that we see as very important to learn more about how we can incorporate different types of population, to have more proven methodologies that can be useful, of course we will always have to adapt them to our own reality, but we learn a lot from that and this exchange with other cities that have had successful experiences of participation and participatory democracy helps us a lot.

Cities are an important resource because they are the closest cohabitation of the population and the relationship with local government is vital because it is the closest to the inhabitants. That is why cities and local governments are the spaces where we can learn the most in order to design better participatory processes and generate an active, critical and participatory citizenship because it is directly linked to their daily lives. In fact, we are the first governments to receive any demand, even if it is not in our scope to solve it directly, because what people see is their local government. That's what we want: to establish that link and play that role.

Learning from other local experiences is fundamental for us, that is why the work that the IOPD does is very important: to be able to generate a space for us to promote this learning, even to be able to systematise our experiences through the IOPD Distinction because, based on the awarded practices, it helps us to think and organise well how we carried out a certain process and also to generate an annual space where we can share and dialogue on what problems, challenges and opportunities we have to generate citizen participation. We are grateful to the IOPD because more and more cities are able to support this initiative, to exchange and strengthen our own experiences.

5. Who are the population groups that are usually left out of the participation processes in the context of Iztapalapa and what actions do you implement to include them?

The most participatory population, due to their own historical experience, are now mainly adults and older adults, but there have been second and third generations of these organised movements that are now taking up again. Also, the greatest participation we have is definitely from women because historically they are the ones who have carried the construction of this great mayor's office on their shoulders. They are the ones who stayed at home and watched how the drainage system was put in, for example. This active participation helps us to see how we can reach the youth, who are the ones we see that, due to the current context, their interests, ways of life and ways of relating are others that do not necessarily have to do with public life and public space. 

We feel that young people live in a particular sphere, so we have to use a certain language to reach these spaces. Young people from the second and third generations of organised movements have helped us a lot to generate a series of initiatives. For example, intergenerational and individual community orchestras have been created where young people want to express themselves and develop their creativity. From there, we can move closer together so that young people can contribute to their community: by developing something that individually satisfies them and then, based on the magnificent art they have developed, to show it in the neighbourhoods of Iztapalapa and in Mexico City. This begins to encourage them so that they start to generate an interaction with the public space and their communities: to express what they want to improve, for example, to create a mural in the public space. These are new ways that challenge us to incorporate young people in this case.

There are other populations that are much more excluded and it is important to include them in terms of their dignity and survival. This implies processes of social inclusion in terms of mental health nutrition, affection, psycho-emotional and physical issues, as well as physiological issues, which subsequently lead to their incorporation as active subjects in the transformation of their reality and in decision-making and public life, which is what we seek in citizen participation. 

We have had success stories of women and young people. One example is the case of "Women studying", a programme to support women over 30 years old who left their studies to take care of their families (children, parents or people with disabilities). This programme has reintegrated them, via financial support, so that they can resume their studies. They involve the whole family in participation: the women finish primary school together with their children or grandchildren, so that they themselves encourage them to continue studying. Thus, through a public participation programme, first a family inclusion is carried out and then an inclusion in community life, because they are part of a community network.

Another is the work we do with people who use psychoactive substances and their families as well. There have been cases in which we have managed to get people who had strong problems in this regard to overcome this issue and now they are participating in workshops as promoters of risk prevention of the use of psychoactive substances within our work programmes. These are people who have been drug-free for two years and who are now helping us to pass on their experience to another group of young people or people who are in this situation.

6. Can you tell us about the Utopias?

All of this takes place in spaces that we have created specifically to be able to reintegrate the population back into community life, which are the Utopias: Units of Transformation and Organisation for Inclusion and Social Harmony. This is what we call them because the objective is to transform lives, for the population to organise themselves into a community and for there to be an inclusive and harmonious coexistence between people.

The Utopias are a strategy of profound social and urban transformation in the midst of this reality of socio-territorial inequality that we live in Iztapalapa. They are beautiful and dignified spaces because here in Iztapalapa we say: "The poor come first, but for the poor, the best", so that the poor communities can really recover their self-esteem and dignity, so that the Utopias are their treasure and their community symbol and the possibility of moving forwards.

We have four social houses: the House of the Evergreens for women, the Day Care Centre for the elderly, the Hummingbird Centre for substance users and the rehabilitation centre for people with disabilities. All this builds up our care system, which will be complemented by other components. 

At the same time, in the Utopias we provide sports, culture, recreation and social activities and services: we have swimming, boxing and athletics schools. It is not only about offering daily physical activities and physical conditioning, which is useful for everyone, but also about generating high-performance athletes. We have had great success: in the Mexico City medal table we have gone from sixth to third place in the two years that we have had Utopias. These strategies are working to transform people's lives.

We have dance, film and photography schools. They have been a tremendous success because our young people have participated in Netflix series as actors and production assistants. More than two thousand people have attended the film and photography school with teachers who are renowned directors and artists. We also have 140 community orchestras that have developed first from the public space and then went on to specialise more in the Utopias, especially in our music school. Now the Mexico City Government is hiring our community orchestras for city events. We are very happy. 

This shows that social inclusion is in everyone's daily life. The question is how we generate public spaces for coexistence where people can develop their full potential as people, citizens and community entities, how we strengthen this sense of humanity, community and respect for nature. These spaces have been basic to be able to gradually build this new vision of the world we want. It is always said that utopias are unrealisable dreams, but in reality they are ideas that are realised and that can give rise to a better life and a better future for everyone.

The models of care in the Utopias are very holistic: they consider the different dimensions of people, whether they are women, older people or people with disabilities, all people have a great opportunity in the Utopias to be cared for medically, psychologically, with legal orientation or whatever is necessary for their particular problems and to develop more integrally.

The Utopias have played a very important role. We are celebrating the second anniversary of the first Utopias, now we have 12 Utopias that we have built and put into operation in four years. It is a great public investment and more than half a million square metres of deteriorated public space in the municipality have been transformed. We hope you will come and visit them live and in full colour.

7. Any message you would like to share with our IOPD membership?

Participatory democracy is an integral part of our lives as individuals and as communities, so together we all have to strengthen it every day. We have to find ways to reach out to all those who do not have the conditions and opportunities to participate actively and to integrate them into community life and the life of the city, to fight for their rights and to build a better future.