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Frederik Caselitz / Francisco Mata Rosas

The People of Tepito

Tepito is Mexico City’s most notorious quarter. While the media generally focuses on violence and crime, Francisco Mata portrays the barrio’s inhabitants.

In Mexico City, saying and myths about Tepito abound. At the very heart of the giant metropolis, the quarter is infamous for poverty and criminal activity. Most Mexicans avoid it whenever possible. Tepito is a large marketplace, primarily a black market, and according to one local saying, “you can buy anything in Tepito except dignity”. Those in the know can get whatever they desire, from counterfeit designer clothes and pirated copies of the latest Hollywood blockbusters to Kalashnikovs and turtle eggs. Rumour has it that the services of contract killers are on offer as well. But many forget that Tepito is also a residential neighbourhood where many people earn a living each and every day. For marginalised groups in particular, outsiders, transsexuals, Tepito also represents a place of refuge.

Tepito’s reputation is often exploited by the media for lurid headlines. Although – or maybe because – the drug war has had a fairly limited impact on Mexico City, Tepito often has the dubious honour of a source of terrifying stories, and stereotypes are employed and perpetuated enthusiastically. So Tepito is familiar to many only as a dangerous no man’s land, while its other qualities are completely ignored or swept under the rug.

“Being Mexican is a source of pride, but coming from Tepito is a gift from God.”

The pride most Tepiteños feel about their urban neighbourhood turns these negative clichés on their heads. One local saying has made the quarter famous: “Being Mexican is a source of pride, but coming from Tepito is a gift from God.” The symbolism associated with quarter is based on centuries of history. Unlike the impoverished parts of many other large cities, this “bad” area is right at the heart of Mexico City and not at the outskirts where cities prefer to push their poorer residents.

Tepito’s history goes back to pre-colonial days. The former small fishing village was conquered by the Aztecs, who forbade residents from selling their wares at the nearby Tlatelolco market. So Tepito became a place for traders to congregate and seek accommodations and a black market grew up around the cavalcades of goods. The structure of Tepito survived colonialism largely unchanged. Traders driven out of the city centre chose it as alternative location for doing business and the black market became an integral part of the barrio. The introduction of the railroad meant suppliers no longer needed a temporary place to stay, and Tepito was transformed into a residential neighbourhood.

A number of world champions learned to box in Tepito (…)

Tepito gained even more importance in 1901 when the last tianguis (a traditional Mesoamerican market) shuttered its stalls for good at the centre of Mexico City. Tepito made a name for itself as a market for cheap goods. While middle-class citizens still lived in Tepito at the start, increasing numbers of poorer citizens were relocated there. Migration reached a peak when refugees fleeing the Guerra Cristera flooded the barrio from Northern Mexico. Many buildings were converted into mass accommodations with no sanitary facilities. Rents were frozen following World War II, and to this day residents continue to resist all efforts by the city or landlords to increase rents. Inexpensive living spaces attracted a lot of criminals and prostitutes, permanently altering the area’s social structure. In the 60s, the tough living conditions in the barrio increased the popularity of boxing, now an integral part of the culture there. A number of world champions learned to box in Tepito, going on to win titles for Mexico, most notably at the 1968 Olympics. Every station in Mexico’s metro system is assigned a symbol to allow those who can’t read to recognise their destinations. Tepito’s logo is a boxing glove.

Another wave of migrants swarmed Tepito in 1985 when an earthquake destroyed the homes of many chilangos, as the inhabitants of Mexico City are called. The city responded with a concerted effort to clean up the barrio and drive out its current inhabitants. But many residents have successfully resisted, backed their neighbourhood’s powerful internal organisational structure. The rank and file elect representatives who negotiate with the various arms of the city government.

The organisational forms found in Tepito have often awakened academic and artistic interest. In 1991, post-development theorist Gustavo Esteva penned an homage to Tepito entitled “Tepito: No Thanks, First World”. Actor and star Daniel Gimenez Cacho organized theatre plays withing the quarter and did a related documental series in Tepito, and Al Wei Wei visited the Barrio Bravo in August 2016.

…Tepito is first and foremost a residential neighbourhood whose residents are not the perpetrators, but primarily the victims of violence.

The infamous quarter is uniquely enthralling, as photographer Francisco Mata would agree. His work focuses less on the scandalous side of Tepitos with its negative clichés, and more on the people who live there. His “Tepito – Bravo el Barrio” exhibition and accompanying book portray a range of Tepito residents, each introduced with a brief biography. It reflects the real faces of the neighbourhood, and represents an important step in promoting the understanding that Tepito is first and foremost a residential neighbourhood whose residents are not the perpetrators, but primarily the victims of violence. As such, any efforts to mitigate crime can only succeed if they elicit support from the people who call Tepito home.

Text by Frederik Caselitz / Fotos by Francisco Mata

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