Free arts instruction improves shattered lives in Mexico City

Mayela Sanchez for GPI – WNN GlobalARTS

The Fábrica de Artes y Oficios de Oriente - Arts and Crafts Factory in the east side of Mexico City, Mexico
The Fábrica de Artes y Oficios de Oriente (Arts & Craft Factory of the East) in Mexico City, Mexico has worked for 12 years to serve the needs of those who live under poverty in the worst part of the city known as the eastern ‘Iztapalapa’ neighborhood. As a community cultural center Fábrica de Artes y Oficios de Oriente offers a wide variety of art instruction for free, including theatre arts. Image: Mayela Sanchez/GPI

(WNN/GPI) Mexico City, MEXICO, AMERICAS: The last time that Julieta Ángel exercised was when she was a student. Now, the 72-year-old practices yoga twice a week at the Fábrica de Artes y Oficios de Oriente, a center that has brought arts and culture to one of the most marginalized areas of Mexico City.

“I was afraid of yoga,” Ángel says. “I heard the name, and it scared me [because] they say that there, you lose yourself, that you vanish.”

Ángel learned about the unique cultural center when she brought her grandchildren there to see a play. But it was thanks to a TV show that she learned that the center offered free workshops.

The first workshop she took was gardening, where she met a woman who persuaded her to try the center’s yoga classes. She has now been practicing it at the center for two years.

“I feel good coming,” she says, leaving the final class of the trimester. “I have bettered some little ailments in my body and in my character. I was very tense, very grumpy, very nervous. And now, I don’t complain about anything anymore.”

Fábrica de Artes y Oficios de Oriente is located in Iztapalapa, a borough in the eastern part of Mexico City, the country’s capital and an independent federal district. It also aims to serve communities in the neighboring Mexico state, where marginalization is also rife and cultural spaces are lacking.

Ángel is from one of these neighboring municipalities, Nezahualcóyotl, which is on the border of Mexico state and the federal district. To reach the center, she travels one hour from her house – half by bus and half walking – with her mat and wooden block for yoga.

But she doesn’t complain about the weight or the distance. She just wishes that her town, located in Mexico state, offered an equivalent cultural opportunity.

“There in the state, they don’t take us into account,” she says. “They say that there is no money. We have it very bad in comparison with the federal district.”

For more than a decade, Fábrica de Artes y Oficios de Oriente has been bringing arts and culture to a marginalized area of Mexico City. It also serves as an informal school where participants learn trades through which they can earn an income and improve their living environments. All are welcome at the center, where women play a large role and, in doing so, break traditional gender roles. Also offering health services and conferences, the center strives to be an agent of social change. But directors admit that more of these centers are needed in order to significantly lower rates of crime and violence.

Iztapalapa is the most populated borough in the federal district, according to the 2010 census. It also had the highest crime rate as of 2011, according to the district attorney general’s office.

With the exception of Fábrica de Artes y Oficios de Oriente, the lack of cultural centers is common in the eastern part of the city, says José Luis Galicia Esperón, deputy director of the center. Until the Mexico City government founded the center 12 years ago, there was only a museum, unlike in the central and southern parts of the city, which offer vibrant cultural activities.

The acronym for this unique cultural space – FARO – means “lighthouse” in Spanish. True to its name, the center has served as a light of hope in a zone historically denied access to arts and culture.

The Mexico City government funds the Fábrica de Artes y Oficios de Oriente, though it also draws funding from the private sector. Tania Basilio Navarrete, the center’s workshop coordinator, says tax dollars enable the services to be free.

“These services are already paid for beforehand with our taxes,” she says, stressing the importance that people understand the government’s responsibility to provide access to culture to all citizens.

Citizens say the center has driven their personal and professional development.

María de los Ángeles Pérez Acosta, says she learned about the center through her daughter five years ago. She has since taken workshops in stained glass, carpentry, bookbinding and yoga, she says proudly.

“[For] the depression that one soon gets for spending so much time in the house doing chores, this helps you quite a lot,” she says.

At first, the industrial look of Fábrica de Artes y Oficios de Oriente – “fábrica” means “factory” in Spanish – struck Pérez Acosta as ugly. The area used to serve as a garbage dump. But it is now full of color: Graffiti artists painted murals on the outside. Inside, posters featuring cultural events decorate the walls of the space, filled with worktables. There is also a gallery to exhibit art.

A second building houses workshops that require machinery, like carpentry and metal engraving. Completing the trio is a theater. The center provides frequent cultural offerings to the eastern area of the city, including expositions, concerts, plays, dances, movies and storytelling.

Inside these buildings, there are also a library, a residence for foreign artists and a cafeteria that serves free meals to the entire community. The center also has its own radio station and publishes a magazine, which it distributes for free.

Although the main building is a closed spaced, it gives off the sensation of being permanently open. Perhaps because it offers open spaces for some workshops, like making “alebrijes” – brightly colored Mexican folk art sculptures. Or because of the friendly disposition of the people who work there. Or the free workshops open to all.

The center’s 55 workshops for youth and adults range from art – dance, painting, theater, music, poetry – to various trades – carpentry, book repair and stained glass. There are also 10 community service projects.

The diversity in course offerings also reflects in the range of participants. Originally conceived in 2000 as a cultural center for young adults, the space now hosts students, housewives, workers, retired citizens and unemployed residents.

Nearly 60 percent are women, Basilio Navarrete says. “As long as one can hang on” is how employees respond to questions about age limits.

“It has become more plural, more inclusive,” Galicia Esperón says. “And that too has permitted a better development of the people who live here because it is very difficult sometimes to see a space where children, youth and adults can coexist in the same manner and under the same circumstances. It has permitted a healthy coexistence and very important communication ties.”

Women have played an important role in this plurality, he says. They have brought their children here as well as have broken stereotypes of trades that women can learn. They not only take clothing design and dance, but they also enroll in carpentry and blacksmith workshops.

In addition to promoting arts and culture, the center also aims to serve as an informal trade school. Although the workshops don’t receive official recognition, participants say they can use their new skills to improve their economic standings.

Magdalena Chávez, a 21-year-old mother with a 2-year-old to support, says she dropped out of school and had little faith in the education she’d receive at a Centro de Estudios Tecnicos Industriales y de Servicios, or technical school.

“I always wanted to study fashion design, but I never could until I finished secondary school,” she says. “In fact, I wanted a CETIS, but I found out that in the CETIS, they don’t teach very well.”

But now, she can achieve her dream by taking clothing design classes at the cultural center.

“I was investigating, and I realized that here they give garment design classes,” she says with youthful ease. “And that encouraged me.”

Verónica Graciela Ponce de León, 52, says a neck operation forced her to stop working. But thanks to the arts and trade center, she has learned how to design and make notebooks. This has served as a form of income – and more.

“[It’s] even like therapy,” she says.

Women not only learn untraditional trades, but they also show personal growth, Galicia Esperón says.

“We have had cases of women who come with issues of violence in their home or whose husband doesn’t give them money for domestic expenses, but who come to the space, begin to take workshops and begin to generate other dynamics,” he says, adding that this enables them to leave these bad living situations.

The center also aims to provide other services to the community, such as health screenings and conferences about addictions, HIV and AIDS prevention, abuse and human rights.

“FARO serves the cultural side,” Galicia Esperón says. “But we also are very focused on this social part. We say that we are a social project from the cultural sphere.”

Iztapalapa registers high levels of violence against women: 65 out of 100 women have suffered violence in a public setting, while 48 of 100 women have suffered violence in a private setting, according to the municipal government.

Addiction is another problem here. Of the 40,000 people with chronic drug addictions in the federal district, 8,000 live in Iztapalapa, according to the Instituto para la Atención y Prevención de las Adicciones, a Mexico City government agency.

A cultural entity like Fábrica de Artes y Oficios de Oriente is hardly a palliative, Galicia Esperón recognizes.

“Unfortunately, we can’t lower the crime rates to zero or very drastically,” he says, “although we believe that the work of FARO has functioned to lower those levels a little.”

But he predicts the center’s influence will continue to grow to relieve social problems in the area.

“We believe that further on, we should consider ourselves an agent of change so that all of the people who come to the space have that consciousness that here they can receive another type of education,” he says. “They can generate another type of circumstances for themselves and their environment that are friendlier.”

But he is skeptical about the influence the center can have on the reduction of crime and other problems in Iztapalapa, as it serves just 300,000 of the municipality’s 1.8 million residents.

“They would need 10 FAROs,” he says.

The center’s success has influenced the creation of three similar spaces in other parts of the city also plagued by insecurity and marginalization. But none has had the same impact as the pioneering force in Iztapalapa, Galicia Esperón says.

He says that a combination of conditions enabled this one to thrive: It began during a period of change when the city was governed by the left for the first time in more than seven decades. A large space was available to construct it, a rarity in a city. It has also avoided the fate of many public works – ostentatious structures that are useless.

It has also succeeded in fighting residents’ indifference and apathy, slowly changing their view of the eastern zone of the city as merely the protagonist in police reports in local newspapers.

“It’s also a potential place of creative growth,” he says of the area. “That they don’t label it the waste of the city, that is not wanted, that here there’s nothing more than people who rob, that the dangerous ones are here.”

Araceli Favila Pacheco, 50, says the center has changed her perspective. Working on a bust in a ceramics workshop, the mother says her daughters and husband encouraged her to go to the center to get out of the house.

“Apart from relaxing me, I forget about the problems of the house,” she says. “I am learning a trade, and that is good.

She’s had such a positive experience that even her husband has signed up for a workshop.

She says it’s the first time she has taken a workshop like this in her life. But she is confident in her work, which is a bust of no one other than herself.

“And why not?” she asks enthusiastically. “You never know. I said, ‘I’m not going to be able to,’ and yes, I can do it. You always says you can’t. And yes, here is the example of yes, you can. There are no limits to doing things.”


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