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In Palo Alto Co-op, a Microcosm of Modern Mexico City History

The government closed the quarry in 1969 and its owner ordered the workers and their families to leave, expecting to sell the property as part of the upscale suburb Bosques de las Lomas.

But the families were helped by wealthy parents whose daughters attended a nearby convent that had opened a primary school for the workers’ children. Several parents had the ear of leading city officials.

At the same time, an activist priest, the Rev. Rodolfo Escamilla, infused with liberation theology, began to organize the community as a co-op.

He was murdered in 1977; his killers were never found. A mural of the priest adorns a wall in Palo Alto, which celebrates his birthday every year.

After two years of negotiations with the authorities and a face-off with the landowner — whose claim was tenuous, Mr. Ortiz said — the city seized the land.

One summer night, Caratina García, then a mother with two young children, and a few other women stood up to the police who had been sent by the quarry’s owner. “They threw tear gas, but even then they couldn’t remove us,” said Ms. García, now 67. “They never came back.”

“We had the right” to the land, Ms. García said. “We had been paying rent all along.” Somewhere in her tidy room she still has all those rent receipts.

In 1973, the Palo Alto co-op took possession of the property, agreeing to pay 1 percent of what land was selling for in the neighboring suburb.

“Escamilla said everybody was a leader, but the women were the ones who carried out a large part of the process,” Mr. Ortiz said.

But in the 1970s, women had few legal rights, and all but a few of the co-op’s 247 founding members were men. Some signed the founding document with only a thumbprint.

Co-op ownership would provide a bulwark against real estate speculation, Father Escamilla reasoned. All decisions were made in a weekly meeting of all members.

With possession of the land assured, Mr. Ortiz led a team of idealistic planners and architects who designed a self-contained community with the same road leading in and out of Palo Alto, to fend off speculators trying to chip around the edges.

Each house had the same layout, with options to expand as families grew. There was little money to pay construction workers, Mr. Ortiz designed brick and ceramic building panels that women and children could make. Houses went up over the next several years, and the community was established.

In the 1990s, as development began on the towers of the Arcos Bosques office complex next to Palo Alto, the co-op rejected an offer to sell.

The co-op remains a small town with soccer matches on Sunday and events in the plaza. Streets are safe.

“What really stands out is how it’s possible to live in such a capitalist city with such a good quality of life without having much income,” said Virginia Negro, who is writing a doctoral thesis on Palo Alto.

Two decades ago, about 40 co-op members demanded the right to sell their property. The dissidents, as they are known, sued, creating a conflict that persists today.

A 2015 court ruling guaranteed Palo Alto’s residents the right to their housing. But they must buy out the dissidents, at a cost Mr. Márquez estimated at more than $ 1 million.

Most of those who grew up in Palo Alto and emerged from its poverty treasure the co-op. As dusk fell across his lunchroom Mr. Ortega finished his story. But Ms. Campos had the last word.

“The story of Palo Alto is a pearl,” she said, “and somebody has to polish it more.”

Source: NYT > World

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