Six centuries ago the slum city of Texcoco was a bird-filled paradise set like a luminescent jewel upon the shores of the great lake system that then floored the Valley of Mexico, the cradle of Aztec-Mexican civilization. Presided over by the poet-king Nezahualcoyotl, Texcoco was a cultural center whose artisans and musicians, dancers and poets, were celebrated throughout Meso-America.
Nezahualcoyotl, who reigned for 40 years, was also an hydraulic engineer who constructed a nine mile-long dike that mitigated yearly killer flooding on the island of Tenochtitl?n (now Mexico City) and reduced salinity that threatened fish life.
But the conquering Spanish pulled down the dike, one of the largest earthworks in central Mexico, and Mexico City was perpetually inundated until finally, the Europeans had cut down all the mountainside forests; the lakes dried up and blew away. Somewhere in all of this gratuitous destruction, the tomb of King Nezahualcoyotl was misplaced.
In life the poet-king was painfully aware of the ephemeral beauty that surrounded Texcoco: ?although you are of jade/ you will break/ although you are of gold/ you will tarnish/ although you are the feathers of the Quetzal bird/ you will come apart/ we are not here for always on this earth/ only for a little while.?
Now the descendants of those long-ago lake-dwellers are threatened with eviction to make way for a futuristic $2.3 billion brand-new Mexico City airport. Last October, after 30 years of hemming and hawing, the Mexican government defined its plans for a new international airport to be sited on 25,000 acres of what is euphemistically labeled the ?ex-lake? Texcoco. The new airport will replace the megalopolis’ over-stuffed and hopelessly backlogged facility.
The Texcoco site is only five miles east of the city limits and won out over a competing project in Hidalgo state that would have put the airport an hour and a half from downtown. The Texcoco site has long been pushed by Mexico state land speculators such as the Hank family whose late patriarch, Carlos Hank Gonz?lez, was governor and kingmaker in this entity that surrounds the Federal District of Mexico City. Coveted by developers, Mexico state farmland is being gobbled up by industrial parks and subdivision builders at a heady clip, igniting a series of conflicts between campesinos and authorities.
Development has stirred widespread opposition from environmentalists and urbanologists?and from Indian farmers who vow they will never abandon the lands of Nezahualcoyotl. Although the lakes have long since dried into windswept, alkaline flats, vastly diminished wetlands still attract a migratory bird population that could be dispersed by the new airport, warn environmentalists. The Texcoco siting has disrupted the long-standing alliance between the Mexican Green Ecology Party (PVEM) and President Fox, in addition to inciting the ire of the Group of 100, a prestigious assembly of literateurs headed by poet Homero Aridjis, and the U.S.-based Ducks Unlimited, a hunters’ lobby that opposes wetland destruction. The bird-lovers argument that the project places the remaining migratory population at extreme risk could wind up in the lap of the environmental panel established by the North American Free Trade Agreement. (Migratory birds are the responsibility of all three countries in the trade pact.)
“Birds and airplanes have a difficult time co-existing and the birds often prevail – they are very persistent,” U.S, Fe-deral Aviation Authority (FAA) Edward Cleary told a recent conference here. Although birds sucked up into airplane exhausts or smashing into cockpit windshields have caused major air disasters around the world, efforts to shoo the winged booby traps away from airport flyways have often met with failure. Urbanologists are also aghast. Be-cause Texcoco stands five meters above Mexico City with nothing but a dead lakebed between them, airport construction could mean “catastrophic flooding of unimaginable proportions” during intense summer rains, frets Jorge Lagorreta, a university professor and former Mexico City official. The capital’s mayor, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, who is skeptical about the project, urges Fox to expand current facilities instead.
Rejuvenation of the Valley of Mexico lake system has been on the drawing board for a decade. But when government officials unveiled their plans, the lakes were not depicted. Instead, authorities explain that the recreation of the lake chain will be financed by airport revenues. But the economic viability of the venture is challenged by a post-9/11 slowdown in international infrastructure investment in Mexico and other globalized markets in what used to be termed the Third World. Recently Mexico state governor Arturo Montiel was scouring Germany for fresh investors and operators, his eleventh trip out of the country to promote the airport in the last year.
How much the Fox government anticipates paying off irate local farmers is still not certain. Early estimates say about $8 per meter, which translates into per capita pay-outs of between $7,000 and $20,000 for the nearly 5,000 members of the seven ejidos (villages organized as rural communal production units) affected. Ejido members are reportedly holding out for $30 a meter, but as of now the land is not up for sale.
“La Tierra Es Nuestra Madre – No Se Vende!” (“The land is our mother – it is not for sale!”) proclaimed a large banner carried by machete-wielding members of the San Salvador Atenco ejido where farmers stand to lose about 2,500 acres to expropriation, during a recent raucous rally outside the National Palace. When asked if their militancy is designed to bump up the asking price, ejido leader Felipe Alvarez reiterated that these ancient lands were not for sale: ?We will never abandon our king, Nezahualcoyotl!?
Imposing an ultra-modern, multi-billion dollar, triple-runway airport on the oldest lands in Mexico was bound to lead to conflict. Clanging their ever-present steel machetes and shaking their fists at those who threaten their land, the Indian campesinos of Texcoco prompt comparison to Japanese farmers who have battled authorities over extension of the Narada airport outside Tokyo for 20 years, sometimes burrowing underground to prevent planes from landing and taking off.
So far, the farmers of Texcoco have only dabbled figuratively in the underground?their struggle is endorsed by the Chiapas-based, rebel Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) and clandestine guerrillas in the state of Guerrero. For now, they battle the Fox government out in the open, seeking alliance with other Indian communities, campesino organizations, disaffected National University students, and workers (many ejidatarios are veterans of the nearly eight-year-long strike at a local soda ash mine). Other supporters include farmers from Morelos state who successfully fought off expropriation of communal lands for a private golf course.
Radicalizing at the speed of light are campesinos from the Atenco ejido who deposed a mayor favorable to the expropriation (about 300 members of the 1,100-member ejido support it), and have been encamped in their village plaza since October 22, when expropriation was announced. They declared Atenco ?a municipality in rebellion,? and ?an autonomous municipality,? in the Zapatista fashion, and painted a mural on their ejido house featuring the obligatory icon of revolutionary martyr Emiliano Zapata, ski-masked neo-Zapatistas of the EZLN, and the recently murdered human rights defender Digna Ochoa.
As their fight comes down to the crunch, the ejidatarios of San Salvador are in constant motion, organizing daily marches and caravans to pressure government officials. All roads in and out of Atenco are barricaded against police invasion and look-outs keep watch from nearby hills. When unidentified geologists tried to take ground samples, ejido members escorted them off community land and their vehicles were confiscated.
Such militancy has attracted police vigilance. Some 600 state judicial police are said to be posted in the Texcoco district and undercover agents are suspected of infiltrating the ejido. Helicopters buzz San Salvador Atenco during daylight hours and 25 warrants for activists? including ejido leader Ignacio del Valle, have reportedly been issued but not yet served. Authorities tell reporters that ?subversives? have taken charge of the ejido.
In a bizarre move to head off expropriation, ejido officials have hired a high-priced lawyer, Ignacio Burgoa, to stall expropriation with legal maneuvering until the Fox administration sweetens its offer to the farmers.
But what no doubt gives the campesinos? cause a bigger boost than recruiting a fancy lawyer is the recent discovery of ancient, pre-Aztec remains by anthropologists from the nearby Chapingo agricultural university. Doctors Luis Morrett Alatorre and David L?pez Monroy estimate that what they are now calling Texcoco Man, an approximately 40-year-old hunter-gatherer who appears to have died a natural death, may date back 11,000 years. The remains have been sent to England for more precise carbon dating. In recent years, such ancient remains have been popping up all over the lakebeds. The 1999 discovery of 17 sets of remains that are at least 5,000-years-old was considered a major find.
The area around the lakebed is indeed a repository of fallen civilizations that has yielded up everything from woolly mammoth bones to significant potsherds. ?Who knows what treasures are to be found out there, perhaps even the tomb of Nezahualcoy-otl,? reflects Felipe Alvarez, brandishing a long-bladed machete outside the National Palace. Ejido leaders say they will appeal to the National Institute for Anthropology and History (INAH) to halt the airport project because of the potential destruction of a rich archeological find.
And the machetes? “They are symbols,” Alvarez responds, “our work tools. We use them to cut weeds and sugar cane and now they will cut down the airport. But we are not terrorists.” “Tierra-istas,” he agrees, would be more appropriate.
John Ross provided the English version of Nezahualcoyotl’s poetry, based on the Aztec-to-Spanish translation by Miguel Leon-Portillo. The great Jos? Guadalupe Posada provided the art.