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A master project to improve Las Cuevitas

By Antonio De Jesús Aguado

Las Cuevitas is one of the oldest neighborhoods in the city and is the location of one of the oldest chapels. However, it is also one of the poorest neighborhoods in town. It is not unusual for residents walking through the streets to see people of all ages sniffing industrial solvents from plastic bags or drinking alcohol. The residents of this barrio know that the area is a dangerous place, as much for them as for those coming from other neighborhoods. In the past, a community center had offered workshops on job-training skills, but it closed because of the low number of attendees. The dream of improving this barrio persisted, though, and a bigger centro de barrio (community center) is being built on Calzada de la Estación to serve people from more than 20 nearby neighborhoods. Construction could be completed this year.

The neighborhood

According to Pablo Moreto, president of Dishani (a nonprofit organization that provides training programs and other types of organizational support), the name “Cuevitas” was given to this barrio because the native inhabitants used to live in caves, and “nowadays some families are still living in caves, without basic services such as electricity, drainage or potable water.” In Las Cuevitas there is a chapel dating from 1940 where some traditionalists still worship the Lord of the Conquest. Las Cuevitas is a place where extreme poverty, lack of education, racism and unemployment are evident. A few artisans, musicians and dancers do their best to preserve their ancestors’ skills. The neighborhood is inhabited by about 200 families, and half the residents are children of single mothers who need care. Children’s parents are busy most of the day, working from 7am to 7pm, and they leave their children at home, without access to education and at risk for accidents. Those who are lucky stay at home, but others are at the mercy of older people who lead them into addictions or street fights.

Those who do have stable jobs usually earn no more than 1,480 pesos a month. The low incomes and precarious living situations in Cuevitas can foster addictions, crime, malnourishment, domestic violence and insecurity. Even though some families try to improve their living conditions, it is not an easy task, and they need some support from the local government and nonprofit organizations. Regardless of their extreme poverty, according to Moreto, “the descendents of the indigenous people from Las Cuevitas hold hope of self-improvement in order to rescue their barrio from its current situation.”

Some inhabitants of Las Cuevitas

“I was framed, and I was taken to jail for six years on charges of car theft,” said Carlos (an alias), who was walking along callejón de Las Cuevitas and stopped to talk with us. “Look!” he said, holding up a plastic bottle. “Do you know what this is? It is paint thinner, and I am inhaling it because I like it.” Carlos, who has several tattoos, one of them with the initials SMA, was walking with his wife and drinking alcohol on the street. He said it has been a long time since he has had a job. Some of the neighbors commented that he is the most dangerous guy in the colonia.

On Calle Río Nilo an entire family was walking, and in front of them a man was inhaling something from a plastic bag. But that was a normal sight for the family—they just walked by and did not say anything. “If you do not bother them they will not bother you,” said María Luisa González, a 70-year-old native of Las Cuevitas. “Years ago we used to live very safely. There were no drug addicts, everything was more tranquil, but now it is a big problem. During the night there are always fights, they break glass, they run through the streets, and I am scared. This is the most dangerous callejón [Privada del Nilo]. Sometimes the police come, but they do not do anything. They are scared, too.” A gang of teenagers was gathered on calle Río Nilo, among them Raúl Ramírez, a 14-year-old who does not attend a secondary school because his parents cannot afford the expenses. “I was working in maintenance jobs before, but the work ended and nobody wants to hire me. They say I am too young, but I think that at my age I can learn easily,” he said. Now he is going to try to finish secondary school, and high school if he can.

“A friend of mine was helping me to find a room to live, and when we were looking for it he forgot where it was, he was so high,” said Jorge Luis, an 18-year-old. He works at a car wash and makes 450 pesos a week. Currently, Jorge does not have a place to live; he stays with a different friend every day. He has some tattoos, one of them a depiction of Cerberus, the multiheaded dog of mythology that guards the gates of the Underworld.  He explained that he got this tattoo “because we all are going to go to hell, and it will be easy for me to get in and out if I want to.” With wounded hands and several tattoos, Pablo González (an alias), a 27-year-old resident from Cuevitas, commented that he is a painter but does not currently have a job. He loves graffiti, and proudly showed a Virgin of Guadalupe in progress. He has not finished it because he had an accident and his tendons are damaged. “The most dangerous area in Cuevitas is Calle Río Nilo, where many people gather to sniff PVC. I do not like drugs, just alcohol,” he remarked. And the stories are the same most of the time: Many use drugs or have family or job problems and feel a lack of support from local and state governments.

Community centers

Callejón de las Cuevitas has been improved somewhat. The street is paved and there is controlled graffiti, and the façades are very colorful. A community center located on this street was opened to help the inhabitants, but it later closed because they stopped attending the training courses and workshops. “This first center was constructed because of a petition from the neighborhoods,” commented  Moreto. “Because of the poverty and lack of employment and social assistance from the government, five-year-old children used to inhale toxic solvents. That really motivated us to construct the community center, which was built with financial resources from the Dishani and SIMAI associations, as well as from the Conservatorio de Música de las Cuevitas and the local government.” The civil organizations purchased the land and had plans for the construction of a children’s home, a school of arts and even a multipurpose room. The construction of the center was not accomplished for lack of financial resources. Regardless of that, some workshops were held by Zumar Fidepo, teaching such skills as wood carving and nursing and offering social and educational training for parents. When the center was closed, Fidepo and the association headed by Moreto came up with a bigger dream: the construction of a community center near the slaughterhouse grounds, where they want to have a library and a computer center for virtual education (secondary, preparatory and university), a playground area, four rooms for training people in arts and professions, and a store to sell arts and crafts produced by locals.

Currently, 8 million pesos have been invested in the 25-million-peso project. According to Moreto, 4 million more pesos will be invested, and the local government and other organizations will provide more money. He is expecting to finish the construction this year. “The project is a necessity for Las Cuevitas,” said Moreto.


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