Tepito, the Mexico slum where one day you’re alive and the next you’re dead
Tepito is a tough neighborhood whose name in Mexico immediately evokes crime and drug trafficking, and where people live intensely every day because death can strike at any minute.
The streets of the slum are more alive by day and by night than any other part of Mexico City, with death a daily reality due to the bloody gang rivalries in drug trafficking and many other businesses.
“If God gives us life, Tepito feeds us,” is the maxim of the slum’s inhabitants, who are never given anything for free.
From childhood they scratch out a living in their hardscrabble world, between crowded street markets and police raids.
The out-of-control war between the Union, the Anti-union Force and other criminal gangs is set in the streets of Tepito and other avenues of the historic downtown area.
Extortion, express kidnappings and demands for protection money are the order of the day. And the main victims are small business owners who also feel they are victims of the government and police.
Small-scale drug dealers abound and shootouts are commonplace, but the guilty parties seldom get arrested.
Under these circumstances, Tepito survives by obeying its own rules and knowing how to dodge the bullets.
“What it means to live in Tepito is hard to define - it’s a way of life, a kind of spirit, a state of mind,” according to Alfonso Hernandez, Tepito’s official chronicler and president of the Mexico City Journalists Association.
“Living in Tepito means keeping your guardian angel very busy. Our grandparents taught us that, and to eat well, make love and tell death to get lost,” Alfonso Hernandez told EFE.
Born, raised and living in Tepito, the toughest slum in Mexico City, Alfonso Hernandez for decades has been the official chronicler of one of the most stigmatized of all Mexican neighborhoods.
With the air of a librarian, Alfonso, at his more than 70 years, defends the neighborhood without getting political - he rather talks about the pleasant architecture, culture, and associations of citizens, storekeepers and academics.
Alfonso is also a master of puns and conductor of the Tepitour, a trip deep into this infamous slum with its unbelievable informal economy.
“The word Tepito in Mexico, just like the word Mexico in the rest of the world, is synonymous with violence and toughness. I’m not saying we haven’t contributed to creating the image of a tough neighborhood, but in such a chaotic city you’ve got to earn respect,” Hernandez said.
Self-taught, Alfonso has traveled the world, has won architecture prizes for Tepito, has hosted the late Anthony Bourdain, the artist David Hammons whose work is exhibited at New York’s MoMA, and Spain’s Manuel Castells Olivan, sociologist, economist and professor of sociology and urbanism at the University of California, Berkeley, among others.
But the neighborhood’s personality comes from its inhabitants, so Alfonso does not want it taken over by big real estate investors with their skyscraper condominiums and their Airbnb, as, he said, is happening with a neighborhood as iconic as Lavapies in Madrid.