the snails are still scooting around in the back patio, taking to the tiles during the evening rains and nibbling on the carrot peels from yesterday's salad when the night takes over. this morning, we were greeted in the kitchen by a particularly fat one, plastered onto a window pane like patricio does sometimes, mashing his nose and puckered lips against the glass to send me a kiss from outside. i rounded them up this morning in the old clothes-scrubbing sink, and found that the population has increased to nine. it seems that before long, we'll be sharing our space with a veritable little community of shell-dwelling citizens.
in a snailshell, their situation is this: they wanted a place to call home, a place where they could eat well and have room for baby snails, a place they could inhabit for free. they came without permission, their presence wasn't good for our garden, so we moved them to a place less edenic, though sufficient to satisfy their needs without jeopardizing what belonged to us in the first place, namely, our well-loved flowers.
it's a story that runs parallel to one we see when while driving toward the ranch in cahuacán, unfolding on a much larger, more complicated, human scale. the needs that initiate the story are largely the same. it's the end of the tale, however, that's different.
instead of snails, the protagonists are squatters. instead of our garden, the setting is a hill on the outskirts of town. instead of threatening the well-being of our plants, the conflict lies in a threat to private property and the surrounding environment. that's the deal, stated in simple terms. but a wider look at the circumstances show them to be so much more knotty and complex; i certainly don't claim to know the whole scope of the situation.
the term used for "squatter" here lends a bit more dignity to the person, if only in the imagery it calls to mind: paracaidista, or parachuter, does a better job in a single word of describing the risk involved, a descent more graceful than squatting to the ground, and the blink-of-an-eye quickness in which the people land and stake their claim. but the connotations remain similar: people either in need of space to live, or with a penchant for making a statement against the government, taking over someone else's land and setting up a place of their own, quickly, illegally and often permanently, and rarely welcomed by the surrounding community.
the poverty in this country creates a wide base of willing volunteers, and the law makes it much easier to pull off. in some cases it's become something like a business. in others, a squatting effort can become an entire city; ciudad nezahualcóyotl, now with a population equivalent to chicago's, began in the post world war II era as a series of shantytowns built over the dry lake bed of texcoco. a classic example of the "lost city," or ciudad perdida, it continued to grow, accommodating newcomers, crime and continued poverty. still a part of mexico city's suburban spread where even patricio treads nervously, it nevertheless inspires something like awe to see how far the area has come. literally and figuratively.
the shelters built by the paracaidistas here in nicolás romero aren't likely destined to develop into anything like ciudad neza, but in five to ten years, if things go as planned, they will be transformed into houses complete with running water and electricity.
the scenario often begins with a person experienced in establishing settlements on private property. recruiting folks who need a home or better conditions and the promise of owning their own place someday, the leader organizes a plan and the people to begin building shacks in an uninhabited expanse of land. the legal property owner is then placed in a precarious position: in order to remove the paracaidistas from his or her land, a lawsuit must be filed against every single squatter family. this can be very expensive, and it can take a very long time. if five years have passed and the property owner hasn't had the means to file suit, the paracaidistas can try proving legal possession of the land in a claim called mala fe, or bad faith. this entails finding someone to rig up a document stating that the property owner signed over the land. whether or not the document is true is another story, and sometimes it simply doesn't pan out. five more years can fix that, though. if the property owner still can't afford the legal process to reclaim the property, the squatters can file for ownership in buena fe, or good faith, and the government will almost always grant it, reasoning that the squatters have not displaced anyone and have peacefully inhabited the land for a decade. the government is then obligated to provide city services; water and sewer lines are installed, electricity is extended to the area, as well.
i'm going to rail on the system now. since the government is neither successful in providing adequate housing for its citizens nor in reevaluating the law, people are either forced into stealing property or tempted to do so because they might possibly get away with it. the government still pays for services after the determined set of years, but it is less expensive than investing in suitable housing solutions, because the actual cost of housing is shouldered by the squatters. since no architectural or urban planning goes into the establishment of these settlements, the consequences are easily imagined, especially given the fact that for at least five years, residents are living in the area without a sewage system. in terms of health and the environment, each settlement is a small disaster; the living conditions residents endure in order to own a small section of real estate one day are dreadful. and in the meantime, a legal property owner loses a parcel of previously undeveloped, uncontaminated land.
the right to a suitable place to live is, i believe, a very basic one. the responsibility of a government to both protect and help provide for its citizens is, i also believe, fundamental. watching the paracaidista settlement grow on the edge of town is a glaring testament to the failure of those ideals' fulfillment. it's heartbreaking, on so many fronts. it's nothing near as simple as sheltering the snails, and i really wish it weren't so.