Mexican Travel Blog 2: First Contact – El Faro

In this second instalment of my Mexico City travel blog I focus on a first visit to a visionary project, El Faro de Oriente, in Iztapalapa, an eastern suburb of the Federal District.

A few days ago I had the chance to travel out east, to visit the furthest corner of the Mexico City eastern suburb of Iztapalapa. The area is one of the most disadvantaged in the district, with almost 2,000,000 inhabitants and virtually no infrastructure at all to support them. The majority of the people living in this area are from indigenous communities, poverty is extreme, and many find themselves marginalised culturally, economically, geographically, linguistically and ethnically from mainstream Mexican society. Drugs provide an alternative economy for some, with the related criminality and health issues that brings to the area, and violence, for example  between gangs; as are all the other issues that we are familiar with in urban disadvantaged areas in the UK: teenage pregnancy, mental health and stress issues, domestic violence, and so on. Having said all that, as with any community these problems are only one aspect of local life, and the dusty streets are buzzing with activity.

Travelling out from the centre of the metropolis to Iztapalapa guides the visitor slowly through stages of increasingly obvious poverty, and the buildings get lower, the sky wider, the air hotter, and the trees increasingly rare. The backdrop is the stunning, snow-topped volcanic peak of Iztaccihuatl (‘the sleeping woman’) and its neighbour Popocatepetl.

I’m on my way in my host Vlady’s bashed-up avocado green beetle, to visit El Faro de Oriente, which is a beacon arts and cultural project in the heart of Iztapalapa. Housed in a former white elephant administrative building that was never completed, it has been funded for over 10 years by the city’s government, who are well aware that such a project saves them considerable money in the end, through helping to turn around the lives and prospects of numerous young people, and re-engage older inhabitants who have ‘lost their way’.  The name ‘Faro’, which is an acronym for Fabrica de Artes y Oficios (Factory of the arts and the crafts guilds), also means lighthouse or beacon, and the symbol of the Faro is a light in the darkness. There is a network of five Faros across the city, this one the Faro de Oriente – beacon of the East, was the first, and still the strongest.

We finally arrive at a high perimeter fence, around which there is a street market like no other I’ve seen. Vlady calls it ‘the flea of the flea market’. There are piles of second hand (or third or fourth?) goods sorted into types, such as broken Barbie dolls in one pile, various car engine parts in another, shoes and boots in another, a spaghetti of mobile phone cables in another, and broken cutlery in another, and so on. My favourite was the pile of at least 1,000 pairs of identical silver nail scissors, shining bright in the midday sunshine.

Once inside the fence, the contrast with the noisy market is immense – the Faro compound is very large, with some trees and green banks. The buildings are all concrete, and these have been decorated throughout with vast murals. There are murals upon murals, as successive younger groups of Faro participants reach the point of wanting to make their own mark.

Photographer: Vlady Díaz

Photographer: Vlady Díaz

Photographer: Vlady Díaz

We enter the building, and find a huge, peaceful space where people are getting on with jobs or creative activities in a relaxed atmosphere.

We are introduced to the director of this project, José Luis, who takes us on a long tour of the various workshop spaces – some immense, some intimate – then gives me an extensive interview, describing the work of the Faro and its place within the community. There are over 50 facilitators, most of them artists, leading workshops here each week, in woodwork, metalwork (both experimental and functional), dance and movement, drama, music, performance art, drawing, animation, sculpture and plastic arts, ceramics, photography, glasswork, and a range of communication skills and education workshops including literacy, poetry, history of art, journalism, and so on. It is a place of cultural sustenance and artistic experimentation.

Photographer: Vlady Díaz

Photographer: Vlady Díaz

Photographer: Vlady Díaz

Whilst not officially termed a health project, the Faro’s links with health improvement are clear, for example artists run issue-based sessions on some key health areas with young people, and local doctors regularly recommend to community members suffering with a range of conditions that they spend some time at the Faro and become involved in the creative activities.

As well as this role, the Faro serves as a sanctuary within the community. This is a place free from violence and stress, no activity costs anything to join, and nobody is excluded. People wander in after work, or spend all day here, and some move from one activity to another, sampling and experimenting. There is a free lunch offered at 2pm. The age-groups served are between 3 months and 99 years or beyond, so the work is often intergenerational, as well as offering family-specific sessions, for example for young mothers with infants. In the space around the buildings we see groups of young people hanging out, some just socialising but some are playing with ideas, exchanging music, or working on circus skills in a truly relaxed way. There is space here….

Within the Faro, director José Luis explains, there is a very strong philosophy which governs the whole space and all activities, which is open and non-judgemental, non-violent, as equal as possible, inclusive and positive. For example they hold free outdoor music events here attended by literally thousands of local young people. When these first began it was obvious that weapons were coming into the gigs, creating potential for dangerous clashes between rival groups. The Faro therefore developed a strategy over the years, without the involvement of police or authorities which they knew would result in many of the most vulnerable local young people never using the space, of requiring young people to hand in any weapons as they enter through the gates – with a ticketed system for reclaiming them at the end of the gig. There is a policy that drugs cannot be taken on the premises, but the sanction if anyone is found breaking this rule is discussion about the impact of drug taking rather than ejection from the space.

José Luis explains that violence locally is reduced by Faro activities – not only because they are diversionary (engaging people in other things), but also because the philosophy of the Faro has been taken out into pockets of the community by Faro attendees.  There are neighbourhoods where people are using the non-violence principles echoed from the Faro to create a sanctuary on a piece of land, or to protect a piece of sculpture they have sited somewhere. Parents use banning access to Faro activities as a sanction to help contain their children’s behaviour, and it seems that access to what the Faro offers is highly prized – (there is little, if no other, cultural access in the whole of this vast community, which is partly why the government began funding the project over 10 years ago).

After considerable time with José Luis, we meet and talk with two of the artist facilitators – Hugo Pelaéz who leads sculpture and ‘making’ workshops, and Miguel Peña, who offers creative woodwork, metalwork and ceramics. Both these artists have been at the Faro for over 10 years, and tell us about their relationships with their groups and individual mentees, some of whom have been attending the Faro from adolescence into adulthood. These artists’ warmth and commitment is inspirational.

Anni Raw interviews Miguel Peña. Photographer: Vlady Díaz

For me, one of the greatest testaments to the value of this project is found in a group of young people who, after spending years working with Hugo, have now formed their own artist collective known as ‘La Collectiva Última Hora’ (a cheeky skit on a common stereotype of artists’ working patterns, as it translates as ‘The Last Minute collective’.). These young artists, from the Iztapalapa community, now have highly developed creative skills and huge imagination and commitment. They work brilliantly as a team, and are beginning to win professional commissions. They have even offered their own workshops, rooted in their own experience of Hugo’s facilitation at the Faro. They entered six magnificent Alebije’s into the competition and exhibition I discussed in my first blog post, which is where I first became aware of their work.

I’ll return to this group in my next blog, as I follow them into the final stages of an important commission for the Day of the Dead celebrations.

About anniRaw

Anni is a post-doctoral research associate with the Centre for Medical Humanities at Durham University. Her doctoral thesis (http://etheses.dur.ac.uk/7774/ ) characterises and theorises a core practice amongst artists working in community and participatory arts. The study incorporates an exploration of artists’ current practice in the UK and in Mexico, and suggests that a transnational core practice - conceptualised as an 'assemblage' of six consistent, multidisciplinary elements which together achieve a creative 'workshop ecology' - can be identified in this work. With a background in community music and the voice, and participatory evaluation of community-based arts interventions. An ethnographic anthropologist by approach, her current research interests include the nature and function of creativity, creativity and the arts in participation and activism, and international perspectives on participatory arts practices.
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