Narraciones para Tlatelolco

by Oliver Fiegel 

Six days a week after finishing work at his home office, Percibald Garcia, a 28 years old architect from Mexico City, grabs his black tote bag and his speaker on wheels and starts walking under the characteristic roofed walkways that connect the buildings of modern Tlatelolco. His first stop is one of the many central plazas in the historic housing community.
A dozen children and their parents, filled with anticipation of his arrival, are already waving from their windows calling his name. Percibald reads to children in lockdown in Conjunto Urbano Nonoalco Tlatelolco, a massive Sixties housing project close to the center of Mexico City (CDMX), where he was born and raised and still lives with his mother and grandmother. 

As his mother chose to raise him here, in this former showcase project of the administration of President Adolfo López Mateos, he was born in a place that is essential for the history of Mexico. And the experience of growing up here, directly and indirectly influenced Percibalds life and formed a strong bond between him, Tlatelolco and the community that lives here.

Mexico City is a gigantic sprawl so it’s not obvious anymore, but Tlatelolco is built on an Island. Once surrounded by the vast Lake Texcoco, the island housed the capital of the Atztec empire until 1521, which according to legend, gave modern Mexico its name. Within the confines of the 90 buildings remaining of the original housing project, universal lessons of humanity are hidden under the shaky surface of earthquake-stricken soil. It’s hard to ignore the atrocities that happened here after you learned about them, but ultimately this is a story of hope. 

Before the pandemic, Percibald was working on a social reconstruction project in the town of Malinalco southwest of CDMX, that was severely damaged in the big earth quake of 2017. Parts of that project were awarded to his architecture studio, Tatiana Bilbao Studio, in 2018. His job was on the social side of planning, and he had been working on it for almost 2 years when he realized that their approach to integrate the inhabitants into the initiative, especially children, was flawed. And he was not alone in that assessment. At the time his studio re-built single family homes, yet ignored the needs of the community as a whole. Fundación Comunitaria Malinalco, an NGO in Malinalco made the same observation and started working with anthropologists and sociologists concluding that the social tissue was completely destroyed. The NGO decided to raise funds and award grants to reinforce the social structure.

Percibald and three of his friends developed a project themselves (https://nierika.ibero.mx/index.php/nierika/article/view/25/4), applied for a grant and won. 

Their concept was to work with the children of the city, to encourage them to think and feel about how they wanted their new school to be designed, since nobody had asked them before. They also strongly believed that after the trauma they went through with hundreds of houses destroyed in the community, they needed a voice. The children got the chance to co-author design choices in workshops that the group created. In the middle of putting the first results into action, the children preferred open spaces instead of confined areas, they had to put the project on hold, since the pandemic started. Percibald had to return to Mexico City and lockdown went into effect. 

When he was home in Tlatelolco he remembered that Malinalco had a daily low-tech community broadcast, from a simple speaker, sharing news from the community. During a conversation with one of his friends, he came up with the plan to go back there and use that community platform to read stories to the children, to help them get their minds off of the sincerity of the pandemic.

But children aren’t exclusive to Marinalco and shortly after the conversation with his friends, he heard one of his neighbors scream out loud what a lot of people in his own community must have felt:    

“I am so bored!”

And so the idea of Narraciones de Tlatelolco was born. 

Tlatelolco as a housing project only saw three happy years after its construction was finished in 1965. In the late 1960s, just when people, including Percibalds grandmother with her then 15 years old daughter, had started populating the new neighborhood, civil unrest began brewing all over the world, and didn’t spare Mexico. Students, as a historically extremely marginalized group in Mexico, had been demonstrating for months against the ‘68 Olympics that were to be held in CDMX. The Olympics was supposed to be a prestigious project for the administration, and garner international acceptance. In addition it was to be the first Olympics ever held in a Latin American country.

In late August of ‘68, 500.000 Students held one of the biggest protests in Mexico City. As a response president Gustavo Díaz Ordaz ordered the University to be occupied by police, but students moved the protests to the Plaza de Tres Culturas, the historic site in the center of Tlatelolco to continue their protests shouting their slogan

 ¡No queremos olimpiadas, queremos revolución! 

On October 2nd, ten days before the official start of the Olympics, the president ordered the Mexican Armed forces to barricade the exits of the plaza. Snipers were placed on the buildings around the square and as later confirmed by an independent research committee, opened fire on fellow troops who then started to slaughter the protesters without provocation. A recently declassified documentary filmed by Leobardo López Areche follows the protests in 1968 and can be watched now, after the last two decades have seen more honest efforts to provide a forum for victims and to work through this national trauma.

To this day it’s not entirely clear how many people died, but if you talk to eyewitnesses, more than a thousand students were killed and several thousands more abducted just days before the world turned its attention to the staged glory of the games of ‘68.

Percibalds mother, who was part of the student movement at the time, survived thanks to warnings that the community received just shortly before the shooting started. His grandmother had heard that the army was moving in and was scared out of her mind for her daughter. She was able to find and intercept her before she got to the plaza and hid her in a closet. They were lucky. After the massacre the army searched the whole complex for survivors and dragged them out of their apartments, but she wasn’t found. 

The memorial that was erected in memory of the victims
The three cultures at Plaza de Tres Culturas. Mexica (Aztec), Spanish and modern in the background

That day marked the early beginning of the demise of Tlatelolco. For a lot of people the trauma of the massacre was unbearable and they either left, or cancelled their plans to move in all together.
The next big catastrophe was already on the horizon when the big earthquake of 1985 collapsed one of the 13 story buildings and left the remaining buildings heavily damaged. That shattered what little trust and believe was left into the former urban utopia even more. 

Percibald’s mother moved away from Tlatelolco for more than a decade, but returned to raise him and his brother a few years after the earthquake. The municipal government in the meantime had already tried to improve the reputation of the city within a city by renovating and reinforcing buildings, yet the occupancy rate remains around 30% today. 

Tlatelolco once was built as a model for modern sustainable urban planning, as an integrated city, a human habitat that provided parks, schools, shops, offices and even a few movie theaters. Revolutionary at the time, its ideas couldn’t flourish for obvious reasons, and there was little motivation to invest large sums after what had happened. As a result the remaining elementary public schools were underfunded and inadequate. 

In his early years Percibald attended a private school far away from his neighborhood and as a result did not have many friends or much of a connection to his community.  But after school his grandmother and mother would take walks with him and tell stories from the community that they were deeply connected to. 

His mother was  a scientist and would talk about what was done to prepare the houses from collapsing. His grandmother was a real storyteller, enchanting him about the people that lived in the community. 

These stories formed his love for planning and storytelling. Later in life these stories influenced his switch to a community based approach rather than a technical approach to urban planning. Because he can help but always consider what effects it can have on the social structure of a community. 

Decades later, when the circumstances of the pandemic forced him to rethink his plans and made him spend more time where he grew up, his life came full circle when he started to help his community with reading and explaining the stories from the books that he, or sometimes the children he meets have chosen.

It is beautiful and moving to see him and the other members of the group that has formed, put down the book after the story ends, and start a conversation about what the words mean and how they apply to the real world. Again he is offering a forum for the questions or needs that children might have in a world that can be frightening and difficult to understand. 

At this point Percibald has become somewhat of a celebrity in Tlatelolco, and others, among them writers, poets or like -minded people learned about him and joined him in his effort to give back and make Tlatelolco a place worth living. It isn’t clear how things will evolve in Mexico as in much of the world, but even if things will go back to normal in a few months, Percibald has created something that will stay in the community because others will take over the reigns.