April 18, 2008

Maclovio Rojas: 20 years of struggle for dignity

By Pablo Sainz

TIJUANA – Jacqueline Hernández was 10 years old when her family arrived in a place in the middle of nowhere that today is the community of Maclovio Rojas.

She remembers how the area was a deserted, dusty spot some 10 miles from Tijuana on the free road to Tecate.

There were no modern housing developments nearby nor large assembly plants where many of Maclovio’s residents work.

The Hernández family was one of 25 that founded the community in April 1988, and even though she was just a girl, she remembers the obstacles they faced to settle there.

The families were made up of farmers, many of them Mixteco Indians from the southern state of Oaxaca who were searching for a place to live. They settled on land no one else wanted.

They named their community after Maclovio Rojas, a Mixteco leader who had been fatally struck by a car in the San Quintin Valley in 1987.

“We have achieved much since then,” Hernández says.

The residents have opened two elementary schools and one middle school, a trade school and a Casa de la Mujer, where the women receive social services.

They also have developed a vibrant micro-economy thanks to the small businesses that sprang up along the road and the mobile carts that sell all types of wares.

Leticia Barrios works in the Maclovio Rojas cultural center and has lived here for 10 years.

Hernández continues to live at Maclovio, one of the isolated, poor colonias east of the city. Just as she did, her two sons are growing up there.

She says she’s proud of the advances the Maclovianos have made in their community, despite lacking such basic services as power and drinking water.

She works as the administrator of the Aguascalientes Community Center, where the residents hold meetings and organize social and cultural events.

Murals painted on the center’s walls tell the settlement’s history, and the challenges its families faced to get ahead.

An estimated 2,500 families live there now, some 12,000 inhabitants.

Those who can afford them live in brick houses. Those with less, build their houses of laminate, wood and even cardboard.

Twenty years after they arrived here, its residents continue to wage a battle to obtain title to their land, which, in the eyes of the law, belongs to the Ejido Francisco Villa, a neighboring farm cooperative.

Last year representatives of the residents’ association staged a hunger strike and a sit-in at the state government building in Tijuana, demanding better services for Maclovio.

Since the residents do not have the necessary documents, the federal and state governments consider the settlement to be illegal. That’s why state officials can’t take drinking water there, even though the water company’s central plant is located beside Maclovio.

Resources are very limited here.

Parents themselves built one of the schools, which has only three rooms.

To survive, the Maclovianos have hung “diablitos” from the cables near the federal highway to steal power. And they have illegally tapped into the aqueduct that runs under their lands to supply water to their homes.

“We are not shameless; we are working people,” says María Luisa Romero, a 61-year-old woman who has lived the last 15 years in the community. “If we do these things, it’s to survive, because the government does not give us any services. As Mexicans, we’re entitled to them.”

Maclovio Rojas has become a magnet for social activists from all over the world, including the United States. They point to large, multinational companies like Toyota and Hyundai, with nearby plants, and claim they want to control Maclovio’s land.

“The foreign activists even see the community in a spiritual way, an example of what Mexico could be,” says Michael Schnorr, an art instructor at Southwestern College, in Chula Vista, who has done social work at the settlement for 12 years. “There’s more democracy in Maclovio Rojas than in the rest of Mexico.”

To build the schools and social centers, the majority of Maclovio’s residents give money or construction materials. The cooperation is voluntary. They also hold community meetings where important decisions are made by those who want to participate.

“The majority of these people are very poor, but at least you have enough land to have a garden, a place where your kids can play,” he says.

“We’re tired of not having basic services the regular way,” said Digna Reyes on a recent morning while she washed clothes on the stone washboard of her house made of wood and fiberglass pieces. “We try to survive daily.”

Hortensia Hernández, a community leader and one of the original settlers, lives in hiding because there’s a warrant ordering her arrest for stealing water.

She denies the charge, alleging that the state government made it up in an effort to dislodge the settlers.

“They won’t let us progress,” she says.

Even in hiding, she says she has been able to contribute to the community’s future plans, among them creating a community market and a sports center with basketball courts and a futbol field.

“We have the infrastructure, we have the vision, we have the ambition,” she says. “We’re going little by little. We don’t have much money, but we’re doing our projects.”

María Luisa Romero, the woman who lives in a tiny house she built herself, says that with the money she makes cleaning homes in nearby housing developments she can afford the basics.

“I’m happy to live in Maclovio Rojas,” she says. “It’s a community that opened its arms to me when I arrived 15 years ago.”

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