A Militant Way of Living

Fifty years ago, Cooperativa Palo Alto became the first housing cooperative in Mexico City. Members have been working to protect their community ever since.

Lush pedestrian street with plants and colorful flags.
An andador or pedestrian street in Cooperativa Palo Alto, 2022. [Ivonne Santoyo-Orozco]

Almost 50 years ago, the founding members of Cooperativa Palo Alto chose four large lots on their newly acquired land on the outskirts of Mexico City, and dedicated them to future generations.1 For this group of 247 working-class cooperativistxs who had come together to resist displacement from their self-built homes on the Palo Alto parcel, the reserved lots represented a promise to their children and grandchildren regarding a right to the city. Today, these lots, carving through the western parts of the low-rise neighborhood, stand empty against proliferating high-end development that encircles the cooperative, literally casting it into shadow.

On my most recent visit, last summer, the drone of heavy machinery reverberated from a quartet of residential towers under construction at the community’s southern edge; the starting price for a two-bedroom apartment in this complex is around eight million pesos, or about $425,000. 2 Before such gaudy architecture dominated the skyline, few upscale buyers would have dared set foot in this part of the city. 3 Indeed, Palo Alto was the first low-income neighborhood in the area to be built in consultation with an architect. It was established in 1973, when founding members gained the legal right to collectively purchase 4.7 hectares (a little more than eleven and a half acres) in what was then a vast terrain of exhausted sand mines. Over the decades, Palo Alto homeowners have seen their surroundings transform from the exhausted mines, to a collection of landfills, to the present expansion of one of Mexico City’s most exclusive districts, Bosques de las Lomas.

Residents of Palo Alto have been bound together by the social relations intrinsic to collectivized property, even as the landscape around them is refashioned.

Even as the landscape around them is refashioned, the residents of Palo Alto have been bound together for half a century by the social relations intrinsic to collectivized property. If their unbuilt lots hold promise, it is not simply of growth in the expansionist, capitalistic sense. Instead, the reserved lots lay claim to a collective future that community members must forge together every day. Meanwhile, more than external pressures loom over the cooperative. For almost three decades, a rift has split the majority of members, who are convinced that collective tenure should continue, from a minority interested in privatizing their ownership. The latter, who have sought to withdraw from the collective arrangement, are often referred to by the former as “dissidents” or, sarcastically, as escriturados (private-deed holders). The first sign of dissidence coincided, in the late 1990s, with construction of the first upscale development adjacent to the cooperative, a pair of office towers connected at the top by a four-story lintel and known colloquially as El Pantalón (“The Pants”). 4 This building heralded a boom of neoliberal urbanization in the district, and the aggressive architectural contrast to the modest self-built homes in Palo Alto has been matched by an aggressive increase in property values. Despite the unwavering support of the majority, the temptation of lucrative opportunities raised the specter of a forced liquidation that staunch collectivistxs have been resisting ever since.

Two large office towers, photographed from the air in densely built neighborhood of Mexico City. In the foreground at left is a cluster of small colorfully painted houses.
The Arcos Bosques office and shopping complex (including the building known as El Pantalón, “The Pants”), 2016. Palo Alto is in the foreground at left. [Gobierno CDMX via Wikimedia, in the public domain]

Two women working in a garden, with large office tower in the background.
Fabiola Cabrera Saucedo and Felipa María in the garden of Casa del Adulto Mayor, the senior center in Cooperativa Palo Alto, 2022. [Ivonne Santoyo-Orozco]

Two women walking through empty lot with office towers on all sides.
Empty lot at Cooperativa Palo Alto held in reserve for future generations, 2022, [Ross Exo Adams]

This ongoing battle has taken a toll. Some families have been internally divided. Others are now involved in the cooperative only indirectly, and seem exhausted by years of legal limbo. Some houses belonging to dissidents have been vacant since 1996 and stand boarded up, uniformly painted in black and white, their mute presence a contrast to the colorful and well-maintained facades that otherwise dominate the streets of Palo Alto. There, in the streets and in the 221 houses that currently are home to almost 1,400 inhabitants, the political energy of those still believing in a common future vivifies the neighborhood. 5 Each time I visit, I have encountered banners declaring “Palo Alto no se vende; se ama y se defiende” (“Palo Alto is not for sale; it’s loved and defended”). Murals recalling the collective’s history, and posters reminding cooperativistxs of upcoming meetings, parties, and other events, decorate the main square, lampposts, gates, and houses. Kids run undisturbed in the andadores (pedestrian streets), open areas, and playgrounds, watched over by neighbors. Friendly glances and greetings are exchanged. There are sports facilities for everyone — a soccer field, a basketball court, an outdoor gym, a center for the elderly with massage tables and treadmills. Outside the shops, displays of merchandise spill onto sidewalks, which also furnish grounds for religious altars, space for lush garden plants in pots, and opportunities to linger in conversation. The neighborly tranquility that one observes along these sidewalks — up and down this infrastructure for social life — reflects the staunch commitment to solidarity.

Palo Alto women understand that collective property creates an alternative to structural dispossession and is key to organized political resistance.

Palo Alto was the first housing cooperative ever established in Mexico City. Workers’ cooperatives had been common in Mexico since the early 20th century, but the model began to be consistently applied to housing only in the 1970s. It was a period of activism among low-income city dwellers seeking better living conditions, a campaign that has come to be known as the Movimiento Urbano Popular. The MUP sought in part to fulfill ambitions laid out in the General Law of Cooperatives of 1938, a statute promoting equity for impoverished communities. 6 In this context, Palo Alto emerged and has persevered as a powerful precedent against what anthropologist Rita Segato calls the “process of urban concealment” — the violent production of space that, in the name of progress and development, displaces and dispossesses the urban poor. 7 The deepest achievement of Palo Alto members remains their effort to safeguard collective land tenure from the slow violence of rent, debt, and dislocation.

In examining the community’s history, therefore, my aim is to consider housing cooperatives not only as a social process uniting members in intimate solidarity, but also as a viable model of collective resistance against hypercapitalist urbanization. I also seek explicitly to center the voices of Palo Alto women, who have understood from the outset that collective property creates an alternative to structural dispossession, and is a key to organized political resistance. “Without collective property, there is no cooperative,” cooperativista María Paula Hernández Ángeles tells me in an interview recorded last summer. “Without it, for us, the urban poor, our only destiny would have been eternal rent, and what I call the ‘salaries of death’ — because you only stop working by dying.” 8

Red-and-black flag on flag pole.
The main square in Palo Alto flying the red-and-black flag of anarcho-syndicalism, 2021. [Unless otherwise noted, all photographs courtesy Cooperativa Palo Alto]

If the central square in Palo Alto appears like that in a regular Mexico City neighborhood, with its greenery, library, tortilleria, and gazebo for social events, the assembly hall sets it apart. This is where decisions are taken, conflict is confronted, and each cooperativistx has a voice; it is where members self-organize. That the square is occasionally adorned with a red-and-black flag is no coincidence. Palo Alto shares the symbol with many movements for social liberation — labor unions, syndicalists, anarchists. Supporters of the cooperative make no attempt to mimic the lifestyles of residents in the shiny new towers around them. They wish, instead, to maintain their alignment with other long-term movements for liberation, and to renew internally the radical social process that united them 50 years ago.

They seek, moreover, to share what they have learned. As cooperativisto Luis Márquez Cruz explains to me, “for our model to be proven successful, we must not only succeed within our boundaries. We must reproduce that model and support it elsewhere.” For such reproduction to be possible, the cooperative must be understood not simply as a discrete solution to a local housing crisis, but as an adaptable spatial tool with which to collectively oppose structures that create and perpetuate such crises in the first place. Collective life is irreducible to a property deed. It must be lived with others, militantly. In Paula’s words: “We are not just a housing cooperative. We are a cooperative of resistance.”

The Plundering: Before Palo Alto

“The cooperative was never the product of a plan,” affirms Gloria Valdespino Domínguez, another active member. The story began in the 1930s, when Gloria’s parents and those of many present-day cooperativistxs emigrated to Mexico City, mainly from the rural areas of Michoacán, Querétaro, and Puebla. Their search for employment led to sand mines owned by Efrén Ledesma Santillán on what was then the city’s western edge. The site of the cooperative is a small part of the territory once occupied by these mines. Today, the only visible traces of the sand pit are massive concrete retaining walls that shape Palo Alto’s boundaries — terraformed walls that have buttressed the cooperative as a negative space amidst the real estate speculation all around it.

Man in cowboy hat walking beside makeshift shack; quarry cliff in background.
Gregorio Ortega (a founding cooperativisto) in the mining settlement, early 1960s.

“This land, where the mines were and our cooperative is today, was the countryside,” Gloria tells me. “Beyond the cliff of the pit, the land was full of oak trees. It was a beautiful thing.” Gloria and Paula grew up in mine workers’ settlements. “Entire families lived in improvised shacks,” says Gloria.

There was no water, no electricity, no sewage, no insurance; there were no roads,no doctors, no rights, no labor guarantees. We had to fetch water from almost a kilometer away. And yet, we still had to pay rent to the owner of the mine to use our small pieces of land, about four-by-eight meters each, where we improvised our houses.

In the 1940s and ’50s, Ledesma’s enterprises fed a rapid expansion of Mexico City with a fundamental material of modernity: the sand used as aggregate in concrete. This was also a period during which growth across the Distrito Federal (as the city was called at the time) exacerbated sociocultural and spatial disparities between center and periphery — a center that consolidated its modern built form with support from a working periphery that was, at the same time, being abandoned in infrastructural and economic terms.  It was here, on the disenfranchised periphery, that the Cooperativa de Vivienda Unión Palo Alto, S.C.L. was founded in 1972. 9

The story began in the 1930s, when the parents of many present-day members emigrated from the countryside to Mexico City in search of work.

When Paula recalls her adolescence in the mining settlement, her emphasis is not on poverty per se, but on its psychological effects. “To have emigrated from rural communities in order to improve your life in the capital, and never to have achieved it — this was the greatest frustration for men,” she explains. “Their frustration made of most men alcoholics, which turned most women into victims of an inescapable domestic violence.” Miners faced the constant threat of accidents, even death; their meager salaries changed from week to week in relation to the quantity of sand extracted. Gloria remembers the same uncertainty in her childhood. “Everyone felt the pressure of the mine. The boss not only owned the mine, but also the minds and bodies of the miners.”

Group of shacks constructed at the bottom of a quarry.
Temporary dwellings in the mining settlement; miners occasionally sheltered in caves in the cliff; ca. late 1960s.

Diptych showing group of people gathered for a meeting under a tree.
At left: Members of the mining community meet under a pirul tree to organize collective action, ca. 1969; at right: community members, including Teresa Domínguez Angeles (in blue shawl) and Pedro Valdespino (in blue shirt, behind speaker), the parents of Gloria Valdespino Domínguez, attend an information session, ca. 1971.

After decades of building livelihoods from the sand pits, families like Gloria’s and Paula’s had no other homes. But, by the 1960s, the mines began to show signs of depletion. Miners were warned that, when closures came, they would have to move. As Gloria puts it: “Saquearon y nos sacaron” (“they plundered, and they threw us out”).

Conscientization: The Formation of Cooperativistxs

Resistance to impending displacement grew in the mining community via an unexpected turn of events involving a nearby institution, the Colegio Merici, a private Catholic school for girls founded by Ursuline nuns in 1959. Gloria and Paula recall how the poverty of mining families drew attention from the nuns and the schoolgirls’ wealthy parents. Paula worked for four years at the school. “As ‘good Christians,’ most often they gave us their leftovers — an old dress, undesired pantry items … mainly charity,” she says. “And charity has nothing to do with sharing. Cordiality and good intentions are not the same as solidarity between neighbors.”

Nevertheless, it was through connections between the school and the Secretariado Social Mexicano (or SSM), a Catholic organization committed to social work, that the miners encountered a group of volunteers who would be crucial to formation of the cooperative. 10 The group was led by an SSM member, Rodolfo Escamilla García, a.k.a. Maestro Escamilla, a Jesuit priest who believed strongly in syndicalism, and promoted liberation theology — disparagingly described by the CIA in 1966 as the doctrine of a “Marxist Church.” 11 For the miners, Escamilla became a beloved teacher. “The most beautiful thing about Rodolfo was his pedagogy,” says Gloria. “He showed us how to understand our social reality, oppression, and struggle. He taught us about class consciousness — one of the first things that led us towards collective action and organization.”

After decades of building livelihoods from the mines, workers’ families had no other homes. But, by the 1960s, the sand pits were depleted.

Palo Alto today is a single neighborhood. But in the mining days, families were scattered in smaller settlements, each tied to a different mining boss. Unity was not a given; it emerged gradually from Sunday gatherings, through which Escamilla’s group and young people in the settlement established what was then called a Base Community. 12 Base Communities were crucial to the pedagogy of liberation theology, seeking to instigate nonhierarchical discussions around practical applications of the Bible, with the larger ambition of organizing resistance against dispossession. “Ideologies clashed,” Paula says, “between two faces of the church attending to the poor: between those who sought charity as an end, and those, like Escamilla, who sought instead the transformations of the conditions of the oppressed.”

Black and white photograph of two priests, one young and one elderly, with a group of young people.
Father Rodolfo Escamilla García and Father Joseph Cardijn with a group of young worker-leaders at the Second International Council of the International Young Christian Workers (or International YCW) in Rio de Janeiro, 1961. [Courtesy Australian Cardijn Institute]

Black-and-white photograph of mural with people standing in foreground.
A group of cooperativistx, including founding members Manuel Villalba and María Escobar (at right), with a mural celebrating Father Rodolfo Escamilla García, mid 1980s.

Most cooperativistxs with whom I have spoken note that, for years, they didn’t realize Escamilla was a priest. They saw him as a teacher dedicated to the working poor. Indeed, before Escamilla devoted his life to Palo Alto, he had already aligned with popular workers’ movements. 13 In the early 1950s, his teaching touched the lives of 850 factory workers in Zacapu, a town in Michoacán, who learned from him not only how to read, but how to organize. 14 By the late 1950s, Escamilla had already institutionalized his social work in favor of the working classes by founding Juventud Obrera Católica, the Mexican branch of the organization Jeunesse Ouvrière Chrétienne or the Young Christian Workers, which mobilized thousands around the world into taking public action against social exclusion. 15 By the time Escamilla began working with the mining community, his pedagogy of conscientización was influenced by the YCW method known as “See, Judge, Act,” by Marxist-inspired labor movements, and by the Brazilian educator Paulo Freire and his practice of conscientização or education for critical consciousness. 16

As Gloria tells me, “becoming conscious of our class and our oppression was the spark that ignited our quest for social transformation.” According to Maria Graciela Martínez Ochoa, a social worker and member of Escamilla’s team, “Escamilla believed that the source of struggle for the miners was not simply the lack of material goods, but in fact stemmed from their relation to the capitalist system.” 17 Palo Alto member Fabiola Cabrera Saucedo reflects this understanding when she explains that “to be a cooperativistx is not a matter of birthright. It is an active way of living that must be forged both through empirical intergenerational knowledge and a strong political formation.”

Their teacher was a Jesuit priest who promoted liberation theology — disparagingly described by the CIA in 1966 as the doctrine of a ‘Marxist Church.’

Today, many are concerned that such political consciousness is receding, especially among younger Palo Alto residents, who are often estranged from the historical struggle that shaped the cooperative. Jazmín Zamarrón is 20 years old, a fourth-generation cooperativista studying political science. She describes the temptation towards apathy and alienation as an “internal noise.” Yet Jazmín believes this feeling can be overcome by remembering that “to be a cooperativistx is to abandon individual interests for the concern for others.” Many are working, now, to reinvigorate such values in the rising generations. Kids learn about Palo Alto’s history through games, art activities, and movie nights. For younger adults, forms of engagement range from social events to participating in the groups that oversee the organization; contributing to maintenance work; taking part in protests against the threatened liquidation; and attending the cooperative school, the Escuela Regional de Formación Cooperativa.

Diptych of signs celebrating Cooperativa Palo Alto, each with glass office tower in background.
At left, a banner outside the home of Gloria Valdespino Domínguez that reads: “The cooperative is not for sale; it’s loved and defended”; at right, a banner reading: “Cooperativa Palo Alto is not for sale,” 2021.

The free school is open to all in Palo Alto, as well as to members of other cooperatives, and other allies. The school hosts seminars on the history of Latin American social movements taught by volunteer professors from local public universities; convenes conversations with allies from other Latin American cooperatives; arranges roundtables discussing spatio-political history; and sponsors activities that encourage social cohesion. For Fabiola, the ambition is clear. “Without a political formation, cooperatives cannot succeed,” she says emphatically.

With the school, we seek political awareness for cooperativistxs; we seek to discuss why housing is not a commodity, but a way of life. The curriculum promotes the understanding of social movements in historical context, an awareness of what it means to live collectively, and reflections on class consciousness and political economy. For me, the task was and continues to be very clear: first, we need to form cooperativistxs, and then a cooperative. 18

This, after all, was how Palo Alto took shape in the first place. It was a crucible for political education. The implications for housing justice and spatial organization emerged later, as the product of the members’ struggle.

Collective Ownership and Mutual Aid

“We learned about collective property through the teachings of Escamilla,” Gloria explains. The priest “initially proposed it to the women and young generations of Palo Alto in the late 1960s, as the ideal tool to protect future generations against the alcoholism of men who lost themselves in substances to evade their difficult reality and their frustrations — who could risk giving everything away.” Paula recalls, “we didn’t have a reference in mind of what a cooperative was. But the moment the women understood that we could have houses for our kids — from the moment we heard this, we were hooked on the idea! Ever since, we have never let go of the project. That’s why we are still here. For all of us, that was a dream.”

The women’s demand was simple: to own a shared piece of land, collectively securing their right to remain in the city after the mines closed and the mining settlements were disbanded. The women and young people convinced husbands and parents to approach Ledesma, the owner, about selling. “The owner laughed,” Gloria remembers. “Laughing at us, the owner said, ‘how do you think selling you a lot could be possible? These are lands for the wealthy.’” Paula felt the same: “he was a terrateniente” (a large-scale landowner and rentier). “He had other mines, and he owned most of the land we know today as the fancy Santa Fe district. For him, Palo Alto was probably nothing.”

Woman and three children outside makeshift lean-tos.
A family with temporary structures built soon after Palo Alto’s founders took collective possession of the land. In the background, a soldier interrogates occupants of the lean-to, 1973.

The achievement of collective ownership took years of dedicated work. The group’s first official step, in 1971, was to establish themselves as a neighbors’ union, Unión de Vecinos del Km. 14 al 15, Carretera México-Toluca, D.F. They had about 150 members, whose main task was to assert, collectively, their right to purchase land where they had worked for decades. This request set in motion a complex bureaucratic process involving negotiations with Ledesma as well as appeals to the authorities to halt the looming displacement. In February 1972, the Unión de Vecinos signed a sale agreement with Ledesma. 19 However, as Paula remembers, the authorities asked both parties for certain documentation: the mining community for proof of their establishment as a neighbors’ union, and the proprietor for proof of ownership. Ledesma failed to provide this, and the issue of ownership went to court.

Palo Alto was a crucible for political education. The implications for housing justice and spatial organization emerged later.

To reaffirm their unity during the trial, the Unión de Vecinos not only began saving money, collectively, in the National Development Bank, but registered officially as a cooperative society. 20 This was made legally possible through the 1938 Law of Cooperative Societies, established during the administration of Mexican president Lázaro Cárdenas. For Cárdenas, cooperatives were fundamental to a redistribution of wealth, a means to “enact the social project of the Revolution” by socializing land ownership for the working classes. 21 On July 31, 1973, the judge ruled in the cooperative’s favor, allowing them to purchase the 4.7 hectares they were seeking. “The so-called ‘owner’ never proved possession,” Paula tells me. Now prepared with collective savings, a legal framework for their organization, and a clear path to securing land rights, Palo Alto was on track to become the city’s first housing cooperative.

Collective ownership was, from the outset, complemented by shared self-management. “About 60 percent of the original families of Palo Alto working in the mines were from Contepec, Michoacán,” Paula explains, “and many had long established kinships supporting one another. So, to imagine working together to build the spaces of Palo Alto came instinctively for many.”

Diptych of brochure showing small two-story concrete houses being built, and drawing of plan for those houses.
At left: An early phase of building at Palo Alto, pictured on a poster celebrating the 20th anniversary of COPEVI, (the Operational Center for Housing and Population), a nonprofit that has long supported the cooperative, 1985; at right: floor plans of the incremental house or pie de casa designed for Palo Alto by Enrique Ortiz Flores and his team. [Published in Rocío Lombera and Leonardo Páez, Palo Alto, esfuerzo colectivo y organizado (México: Centro Operacional de vivienda y Poblamiento, Habitat International Coalition), 1987.]

Small white two-story concrete houses under construction.
In the foreground, houses built during the first phase of construction at Palo Alto; in the background, temporary housing for cooperativistxs. Late 1970s.

Photograph of houses and apartments under construction.
Palo Alto apartment building under construction, 1989.

Even before specific architectures could be imagined, cooperativistxs claimed the site with temporary structures. Gloria recalls being threatened during their early days by granaderos (riot police) and by Ledesma’s heirs, who tried to use their governmental connections to intimidate Palo Alto families. In haste and under duress — but with much excitement — the cooperative’s founders cobbled together shelters from cardboard, sheet tin, irregular pieces of timber, and whatever else they found. Simultaneously, they began to level and compact the ground with a small rented tractor — one of the first expenses they assumed collectively. Soon, weekly assembly meetings became a norm. The assembly was so important that their first collective building project was the hall where meetings are still held.

The first of its kind in Mexico, and arguably in Latin America, the incremental housing design afforded the flexibility of expansion.

Designs were agreed upon during assembly meetings with Ortiz and his team, who were joined by Carlos Acuña Juaregui, better known by the community as Tito Acuña, a Uruguayan architect who had fled to Mexico City to escape the dictatorship in his own country. Through a participatory design process led by Ortiz and Acuña with the active input of the community, they agreed on a model: an incremental two-story house of 52 square meters, on a plot of roughly 108 square meters. The first of its kind in Mexico, and arguably in Latin America, the incremental plan helped the design team to avoid the conflict of reconciling individual requests, and also afforded the flexibility of expansion, key for families that often numbered more than six persons. The original 52 square meters constituted the core of the house or pie de casa, and provided the necessities: kitchen, living room, bathroom, and one bedroom. Expansion could accommodate two more bedrooms and an additional bath. 25 The same participatory team also designed a three-story apartment building, with upper-level duplex units intended to grow with a family. These were planned with two bedrooms and one bathroom; today, many comfortably comprise three bedrooms and two baths. The apartments on the ground floor have two bedrooms and one bath. All housing units in Palo Alto are spacious and full of light, and most households remain multigenerational. 26

Men, women, and children assembling brick slabs.
Palo Alto members assemble prefabricated slab components of reinforced brick, ca. 1976.

During the construction process, cooperativistxs shared all costs, each paying at their own pace in a good-faith process. In addition to the collective savings, they sought low-interest loans; the first construction phase of 75 houses was accelerated in 1976 when Palo Alto secured a loan for building materials from the nonprofit FONVICOOP (Fondo de la Vivienda en Coordinación Popular, or Fund for Housing in Popular Cooperation). 27 This was unprecedented, “the first time in Mexico that credit was allocated to a collective, instead of to individuals,” as one scholar has noted. 28 Three additional construction phases followed, adding 57, 34, and 23 single-family houses respectively. Finally, in 1986, Palo Alto built 32 apartments to be reserved — like the unbuilt lots — for the adult children of cooperativistxs. 29 By the late 1980s, in short, the group had built 221 housing units. Since then, they have made several attempts to construct an additional apartment building on one of the empty lots. Due to the legal dispute with the dissidents, these plans have stalled.

Designs decisions were made in assembly meetings. Work teams laid foundations; fabricated bricks, doors, and windows; and assembled prefabricated elements.

In Gloria’s estimation, “participation in cooperative construction work gave everyone new energy. Many men left alcohol behind and entered into the work of the cooperative.” (Gloria’s father was one of these.) With Ortiz’s team, members devised a construction strategy. The architect recalls: “the idea was that instead of buying materials and paying higher prices and transportation costs, cooperativistxs produced their building components, controlled the process and, simultaneously, benefited economically.” 30 Those with construction experience were paid a salary from collective funds, and the rest volunteered on weekends. Tito Acuña taught them how to make ceiling components with a reinforced-ceramic technique that he had adapted to his work in Uruguay, which saved money that would otherwise have been spent on formwork. 31 Other groups readied the site for laying foundations; fabricated bricks, doors, and windows; and assembled additional prefabricated elements, including reinforced beams, columns, and slab modules. Everyone played a part, with women and kids helping to prepare the prefabricated parts.

Triptych of community members (including women and children) working at construction site.
At left, top and bottom: Palo Alto members building the assembly hall, ca. 1974; at right: women and children working with prefabricated slab components, ca. 1976.

Today, this emphasis on mutual aid makes Palo Alto a paradigmatic example of a solidarity economy; indeed, Paula recently represented Palo Alto at a governmental conference on the subject. At the same time, as she tells me, the cooperative has never required such theories to sustain its work.

I sympathize with the ideas of Euclides André Mance from Brazil. But I only heard about these ideas twelve or fifteen years ago, whereas we have been engaged with practices of social and solidarity economies for almost 50 years. We have shared all the work, all the trust, and everything we had. We learned together to manage our community. We persevere together on a common project. We take decisions together in the General Assembly. We have been fully immersed in a cooperative life. Today they call this the social and solidarity economy. 32

A Masterplan Without a Master

Construction was underway in 1977, when the beloved Maestro Escamilla was brutally assassinated in Mexico City. Interpretations of his killing vary; some have seen the murder as an act of state violence, others as a random hate crime, others as revenge on the part of powerful enemies created through Escamilla’s organizing work. As historian Jaime M. Pensado argues, this debate about motives must itself be understood in the context of Cold War repression under the administration of Mexican President Luis Echeverría. 33 Escamilla’s death shocked the cooperative emotionally, but his memory remains alive. His teachings have been passed from one generation to another. His face appears on murals in Palo Alto, and the main street is named for him. More importantly, through the evolving masterplan, his vision of social consciousness has been made spatial and material.

Identity cards spread out on table.
Identification cards for members of the Unión de Vecinos del Km 14 al 15, the precursor organization for Cooperativa Palo Alto, laid out in the home of Fabiola Cabrera Saucedo and Luis Márquez Cruz, 2022.

Young couple in their kitchen; in the foreground on the counter are stacks of archival paper ID cards.
Fabiola Cabrera Saucedo and Luis Márquez Cruz in their kitchen in Palo Alto, 2022. [Ivonne Santoyo-Orozco]

To avoid fomenting competition among cooperativistx, the original distribution of houses was carried out by lottery, phase by phase across the cycles of construction. Access to the lottery was based on seniority, beginning with founding members. The masterplan also emphasized infrastructure intended to promote collective life; the assembly hall, along with the pedestrian streets, parks, church, library, sports fields, playgrounds, commercial areas, and Casa del Adulto Mayor, the senior center, were planned from the outset. Fabiola says with satisfaction, “I dare to say that among low-income neighborhoods in Mexico City, we are the ones with the most urban amenities.”

Electricity was installed in the late 1970s, but it was not until the early 1980s that cooperativistxs managed to bring in a sewer network.

Palo Alto’s layout may sound like a typical modern urban plan. But there was nothing conventional about it. “Feeling the pressure of the real estate agents on the growing value of their property, in the early days of the cooperative, it became imperative to demonstrate that it was permanently settled by building first the houses. Services were negotiated with the authorities later on,” reflects Enrique Ortiz. 34 Paula remembers a latrine in the patio of each house during the first years. Gabriel Cabrera, a young cooperativisto, shares with me his mother’s stories about two public taps that provided water. Electricity was installed in the late 1970s, but it was not until the early 1980s that cooperativistxs managed to bring in a sewer network. Paula recalls, “The authorities told us that they had no budget. But they couldn’t reject us when we assembled our own workforce to excavate and facilitate the installation of sewage and water services. Demanding and working together always gave us an advantage.”

This hard-working savvy still benefits the cooperative, as Fabiola affirms: “Due to its cohesive organization, Palo Alto has been and continues to be a candidate for governmental programs for low income neighborhood improvements.” In recent years, they have received government funds to help maintain facilities, allocating these resources through a community vote. Even minor decisions are taken together and implemented by volunteers, and caring for their shared spaces is understood as caring for each other. Not surprisingly, Palo Alto has begun to be recognized by as a model community. 35 But while cooperativistx have sought to create an affordable oasis, the surrounding area has not been urbanized in ways that fully support low income neighborhoods. There are public schools within walking distance, and public health workers visit the community periodically. Yet transportation is a challenge, with the closest metro station about 30 minutes away. Palo Alto remains an exception in a sea of excess.

Playground with high concrete cliff and office tower in the background.
Playground at Palo Alto, with cement-reinforced cliff and high-rise development in the background, 2022. [Ivonne Santoyo-Orozco]

White gate painted with colorful flowers and sign reading "CASA DEL ADULTO MAYOR."
Entrance to Casa del Adulto Mayor, the senior center at Palo Alto, 2022. [Ivonne Santoyo-Orozco]

Temptations of Private Property

If the 1970s and much of 1980s were marked by solidarity, by the 1990s militancy had begun to wane. This decade marked a turning point, not only in the internal history of the cooperative, but in the market value of their surroundings. For the first time, the temptation emerged to individualize holdings — to abolish collective property and, perhaps, to sell off the land altogether.

For the first time, in the 1990s, the temptation emerged to individualize holdings, to abolish collective property and, perhaps, to sell off the land.

Among the dissidents supporting privatization, some argued that “their collective alliance had already fulfilled its goal in providing them with housing in the city.” 36 Others alleged corruption in the cooperative’s administration. 37 Others simply hoped to make a profit. By 1994, this dissenting group of 40 or so members solicited the General Directorate of Cooperative Development — the government agency that regulated cooperatives according to the 1938 law — to dissolve the Palo Alto charter. 38 The 1938 Law of Cooperative Societies required two thirds of a cooperative’s membership to ratify the procedure. 39 In Palo Alto, this would have meant an explicit vote to dissolve, taken during a general assembly. Such a vote never took place. Nonetheless, to the surprise of the Palo Alto majority, the request to dissolve the charter was accepted by authorities. In a disorienting turn for the majority, the cooperative lost its official status.

A few months later, the 1938 law was itself superseded. This confusion, which to this day remains unresolved, means that Palo Alto’s future will eventually be decided in court, either under the terms of the overturned law, or under the replacement legislation of 1994, which reflected the era’s neoliberalizing mood. Cooperative members have lodged appeals and organized protests. Dissidents have sued some stalwart members. Even young cooperativistxs remember the mid ’90s as particularly fraught; even children on their way to school, says Fabiola, were harassed by dissenters.

Boarded up concrete house.
Boarded-up houses of dissident cooperative members or “miembros del ’96,” 1996.

In 1996, the tension took a violent turn. Recounting those days remains emotionally difficult for my interlocutors — not only because the cooperative has been in jeopardy ever since, but because the conflict split some families internally. “The aggression started when the dissidents injured a few cooperativistxs,” Paula remembers. “Within the assembly, the core organization called for nonviolence and non-retaliation. But, at some point, some cooperativistxs got tired of the assaults and grew fearful of the dissidents’ threats, so they decided to defend themselves. We had a few difficult days.” According to the newspaper La Jornada, a dispute in May 1996 left eleven people injured, along with three houses damaged and three cars destroyed. 40 “The confrontation is the consequence of the economic offer that a group of entrepreneurs … made to the inhabitants,” the Jornada reporter explains, going on to quote Ricardo Cayetano Luz, then president of the cooperative: “They offered 300 thousand pesos for each lot. This was what awakened greed.” 41

The violence led city officials to involve themselves in negotiations between the two groups. According to Gloria, this resulted in an agreement by which the dissidents would give up their shares in the cooperative; the cooperativistxs were asked to buy them out. 42 The dissidents left Palo Alto that same year. (They are sometimes called “miembros del ’96,” “members of ’96.”) Their houses were boarded up, and have been empty ever since. Despite appeals from the majority of cooperativistxs, and before they could buy out the dissenters’ shares, however, the cooperative was officially declared to be in a process of liquidation, plunging both parties into a legal limbo that, 26 years later, has no end in sight. 43

White-painted vacant house and occupied house painted bright pink.

Occupied house painted turquoise and vacant house painted white.

Vacant house painted white, with office tower in the background.
Boarded-up houses of dissidents or “miembros del ’96,” painted black and white, 2022. [Ivonne Santoyo-Orozco]

It could be said that this internal fracture struck at a time when the cooperative already lacked cohesion. But it is also true that this difficult passage reinvigorated members’ collective values and revived their militancy. In the aftermath of the violent events, remaining cooperativistxs organized cuadrillas de vigilancia, public safety cadres, that staff Palo Alto’s main entrance. They also established an ad-hoc community kitchen where neighbors can check on one another’s wellbeing.

The cooperative has been in jeopardy ever since, and the conflict has split some families. Yet the process of dissolution has been contested at every phase.

The process of dissolution has been contested at every phase. By law, the cooperative must be represented on what is called the comisión liquidadora (liquidation commission), whose function is to submit to a judge a detailed proposal for termination. However, Gloria and many others argue that the “commission” as currently composed does not represent Palo Alto members, and that the participants are in fact dissidents. According to Luis, three plans have been proposed, the most recent including a full appraisal of the cooperative’s value, a letter from an unidentified potential buyer, and mention of a hefty bonus for commission members. While most cooperativistxs continue to organize demonstrations and sit-ins, some are tempted by the proposed amount, approximately four million pesos for each member.

Luis Márquez Cruz — who is not only a resident of Palo Alto, but has served as the cooperative’s lawyer — assures me, “we will continue to reject the liquidation proposal. It is full of legal anomalies. For the dissidents, the geographical location of Palo Alto represents a lucrative affair. For us, it is a collective history, an intergenerational legacy. We want to continue being cooperativistxs.” 44 The temptation to sell to the highest bidder, Fabiola says, “will continue to increase with the value of our land; the only antidote to this lure created by the real estate cartels is to understand class consciousness, to continue forging the new generations with a political formation.” Similarly, reflecting on their struggle, Paula and Gloria tell me that it would be impossible to compare their community to what money can buy. “Palo Alto is not an alternative only for us,” says Paula. “It’s a solution to housing justice internationally. Not for the past, nor only for the present, but for the future.”

Militant Women

The battle against the cooperative’s dissolution is being led by founding members and an active group of young cooperativistxs — and, most importantly, by Palo Alto’s women. Cooperative work has redefined gender relations both conceptually and logistically in the community. In practice, the effort of organizing, building, and sustaining the organization has been shared without gender distinctions. Yet, on paper, the story is different. The official founders were primarily male heads of households, jefes de familia. Women are a minority in official paperwork; in records of the neighbors’ union of 1971, only 24 of the 154 members listed are women, most of them widows.

Two women seated in sun-filled living-room.
María Paula Hernández Ángeles and Gloria Valdespino Domínguez in Paula’s living room, 2021. [Ivonne Santoyo-Orozco]

Gloria has lived in the cooperative since the very early days. But she didn’t become an official member independently from her father, who worked in the mines, until the second construction phase in the late 1970s. “Many told me that the official membership was only for the sons, not for the daughters. But, I thought, I didn’t make those distinctions when I worked for the cooperative .… Eventually they agreed and supported me, but it was not an easy topic.” Some male members, she says, tired at the end of their workdays, used to send their wives to assembly meetings. “The official voting meetings were full of men, but women were present every week in regular meetings, working ceaselessly behind the scenes.” Paula adds, “men sent us because, according to them, we didn’t have proper jobs. But we always had multiple jobs, in the house, the cooperative, and in supplemental work we created for ourselves beyond the cooperative.” (Needless to say, those men were undervaluing housework as form of labor.) “We women lost the fear of holding an assembly faster than the men,” Paula continues. “Even if our voices trembled, even if we shook like jelly, we never said ‘no’ when we had a turn to coordinate the assembly or join the administration. We didn’t fear speaking to authorities. We were and are fully involved.” She recalls a protest outside the Supreme Court of Justice: “When men wanted to cede, women resisted. Women took to the streets and didn’t move until we found a more solid path for resistance. The struggle only made us stronger.”

Cooperative work has redefined gender relations conceptually and logistically. And today, for the first time, Palo Alto has a woman president.

Today, for the first time in 50 years, Palo Alto is represented by a woman president, María del Carmen Morales Jiménez. 45 The community’s small shops, most run by women, not only serve internal needs, but also those of low income workers in the swiftly gentrifying surroundings — construction workers, maintenance workers, low-paid white collar workers. A special cooperative commission on gender and equity supports LGBTQIA+ interests. Perhaps the most visible sign of respect for Palo Alto’s founding mothers and other female members was the decision, last spring, to commence celebrations of the golden anniversary not on the actual day, but on International Women’s Day (March 8). A banner adorning the main square reminded all: “Porque las mujeres cooperativistas sueñan por mejorar su entorno, hacen que sucedan y cambien las cosas. Sin mujeres, no hay cooperativismo.” (“Because cooperative women dream of improving their environment, they bring about transformation. Without women, there is no cooperative.”) Collective memory is thus being repaired. Yet, beyond Palo Alto’s boundaries, there is much still to be done to fully recognize the role of cooperativistas.

Mural celebrating women cooperativsts.
Mural and banner in the central square of Cooperativa Palo Alto on Women’s Day. The banner reads: “Because cooperative women dream of improving their environment, they bring about transformation. Without women, there is no cooperative.” March 2022.


The majority of Palo Alto residents have no interest, they assure me, in turning their cooperative into private property. Yet the dissidence and the signs of disengagement are unsurprising. Cooperative work, for the urban working classes, is militant work; a ceaseless process of organizing, strategizing, planning, maintaining, resisting, and caring for each other every day. Such a project cannot exist in a political vacuum; it must be cultivated through understanding of class struggle. Collective action requires moving away from commodification. Dominant ideology valorizes the curated worlds of individuals. But this form of cooperation asserts the belief that, in order to claim a space in the city beyond the strictures of private property, communities must engage a social process that ties neighbors to the land, to their buildings, and to one another. To be a cooperative, as Palo Alto shows, is to enter a social relation that binds your life to others.

  1. The lots reserved for future generations represent an approximate total area of 4,000 square meters.
  2. According to Banco de Mexico (BANIXCO), the exchange rate at the time of writing was of 18.79 MXN to USD.
  3. This complex, by the real-estate development group Del Parque, is known as Agwa Bosques.
  4. El Pantalón, formally known as Arcos Bosques, includes a shopping center, a five-star hotel, and a helipad. It was designed by Mexican architects Teodoro González de León, Francisco Serrano, and Carlos Tejeda.
  5. According to the 2020 census, the population of Palo Alto is 1,364.
  6. The MUP brought together an array of nonprofit organizations supporting access to basic infrastructure and financial and technical assistance for self-constructed dwellings. See Juan Manuel Ramírez Saiz, El Movimiento Urbano Popular en México (Ciudad de México: Editores Siglo Veintiuno, 1986). The General Law of Cooperatives of 1938 was complemented by a tax reform, the Ley del Impuesto Sobre la Renta, which exempted cooperatives from income tax. See Jerónimo Díaz Marielle, “Experiencias del Cooperativismo de Vivienda en la Ciudad de México” in Repensar la Metrópoli III: Planeación y Gestión, ed. Roberto Eibenschutz and Laura O. Carrillo (Ciudad de México: ANUIES UAM, 2020), 413-427.
  7. See Rita Segato, Contra-Pedagogías de la Crueldad (Buenos Aires: Prometeo Libros, 2018). Cooperativa La Romana in Tlalnepantla and Cooperative Cohuátlan in Colonia Guerrero are contemporaneous with Palo Alto. See Enrique Ortiz Flores, Abriendo Brechas (Ciudad de México: COPEVI, 2015), 14-20.
  8. My conversations with Palo Alto members took place in person at the cooperative during the summers of 2021 and 2022, and virtually in November 2021. Unless otherwise noted, all quotations from cooperativistxs are drawn from these interviews.
  9. S.C.L. stands for Sociedad Cooperativa Limitada or Limited Cooperative Society.
  10. See Aida Robles Rendón and Hugo Armando Escontrilla Valdez, El Secretariado Social Mexicano y Jesús García: Sembrando Semillas (pdf), COPEVI, 2015.
  11. Jaime M. Pensado, “Silencing Rebellious Priests: Rodolfo Escamilla García and the Repression of Progressive Catholicism in Cold-War Mexico,” The Americas, 79(2), 2022, 263-289, https://doi.org/10.1017/tam.2021.146.
  12. Among the core members of Escamilla’s volunteer group were Luz María Lozoya and Maria Graciela Martínez Ochoa. See Guillermo De la Peña, “Civil Society and Popular Resistance: Mexico at the End of the Twentieth Century,” in Cycles of Conflict, Centuries of Change: Crisis, Reform, and Revolution in Mexico, ed. Elisa Servín, Leticia Reina, and John Tutino (Durham: Duke University Press, 2007), 325.
  13. See Pensado, 267-274.
  14. José Luis Domínguez Castro, “Zacapu: Un proceso de industrialización en un contexto rural,” Unpublished thesis (Centro de Estudios Antropológicos, Colegio de Michoacán, 1998), 19.
  15. See Pensado, 264. The JOC (initially known as the La Jeunesse Syndicaliste, the Young Trade Workers) was founded in 1919 by the radical Belgian priest Joseph Cardijn.
  16. De la Peña, 325. See also Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, first published 1968; trans. Myra Bergman Ramos (London: Continuum, 2005).
  17. Maria Graciela Martínez Ochoa, “Part 8: Rodolfo Escamilla,” Cooperativa Palo Alto: El Documental (video), 2018.
  18. The last school session prior to pandemic closures took place in October 2019, coordinated in association with COCEAVIS (Coordinadora Centroamericana Autogestionaria de la Vivienda Solidaria or Housing Cooperatives for Mutual Aid of the Central American Region).
  19. Gustavo Romero, “Las cooperativas de vivienda ante los movimientos urbanos y la problemática habitacional,” in Los Movimientos Sociales en el Valle de México, ed. Jorge Alonso (Distrito Federal: Centro de Investigaciones y Estudios Superiores en Antropología Social, 1986), 392-395. The neighbors’ union was supported by INDECO, the National Institute for the Development of Rural and Popular Housing, who determined the location and set the boundaries of Palo Alto’s lot. An appraisal of the parcel was conducted on their behalf by the Nacional Financiera, the National Development Bank.
  20. The official record in the Registro Cooperativo Nacional (National Registry of Cooperatives) is dated May 23, 1972, number 2300-C.
  21. From a speech by Cárdenas, May 1, 1934. Quoted in E. Nava-Hernandez and B. O. Barajas-Perez, “Cooperativismo, autonomia y poder: el movimiento cooperativista en Mexico durante el cardenismo,” in Cooperativismo y Desarrollo 23, no. 106 (2015): 29. Secretaria de la Economía Nacional, “Ley General de Sociedades Cooperativas” (Diario Oficial. Session Primera. Tomo CVI, Num. 37, Febrero 15, 1938). Article One, Section VI states: “cooperatives should not seek profit.” Section II states: “cooperatives should function according to principles of equality.”
  22. Enrique Ortiz Flores, Hacia un Hábitat para el buen vivir (Distrito Federal: Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung, 2016), 67.
  23. Ortiz has been awarded multiple honors, including the Lázaro Cárdenas Medal in 2010, the Nacional Prize in Architecture in 2015, and the Habitat Popular Prize awarded by the Panamerican Federation of Associated Architects in 2020. See Ortiz, Hacia un Hábitat, 78.
  24. Ortiz, Hacia un Hábitat, 84.
  25. These dimensions are larger than required for low-income housing in Mexico.
  26. The only current requirement for extension is compliance with zoning laws that stipulate an open surface area of 20 percent per lot, and a maximum height of two stories.
  27. Construction took place in four phases. By 1978, 75 houses had been completed; 57 houses were added the next year; by 1980, 34 additional houses had been completed.
  28. Lombera G. Rocio, Palo Alto Co-operative: Rural Migrants Gain Secure Housing in Mexico, ed. Bertha Turner (London: Building Community Books, 1988), 143. Support from FONVICOOP was made possible through international grants, especially from MISEREOR, a German Catholic aid organization.
  29. Funders included FONVICOOP, INDECO, and FONHAPO (the National Fund for Low-income Housing). Later phases were funded through a combination of grants and self-financing.
  30. Enrique Ortiz Flores, “Part 6: Construcción, 1974-1982,” Cooperativa Palo Alto: El Documental (video), 2018.
  31. Ortiz, Hacia un Hábitat, 86.
  32. An anthropologist by training, Mance is a theorist of solidarity economies as alternatives to advanced capitalism. See Euclides A. Mance, Redes de colaboración solidaria — Aspectos económico-filosóficos: complejidad y liberación. (Ciudad de México, UACM, 2006), and Hambre cero y economía solidaría: El desarrollo sustentable y la transformación estructural de Brasil. (Ciudad de México: UACM, 2013).
  33. Escamilla was murdered on April 27, 1977. See De la Peña 284-286.
  34. Ortiz, Hacia un Hábitat, 87.
  35. Politicians who have recognized Palo Alto as a model for collective housing schemes include Claudia Sheinbaum, Mayor of Mexico City, along with Francisco Javier Saldívar Camacho and Carlos Cervantes Godoy, members of the Federal Chamber of Deputies.
  36. Moisés Alejandro Quiroz Mendoza, Memoria, Identidad y Participación de los Jóvenes de la Cooperativa de Vivienda Palo Alto, unpublished Master’s Thesis (Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana, 2019), 94.
  37. José Luis Maldonado and Mario Arturo Pérez Mejía: Historia de la Cooperativa Palo Alto” (video), Consejo Nacional del Pueblo Mexicano, 2021.
  38. Mendoza, Memoria, Identidad y Participación, 95. The departure of the “dissidents” from Palo Alto has made it difficult to contact them. I have sought interviews, to no avail.
  39. Mendoza, Memoria, Identidad y Participación, 95.
  40. Gustavo Castillo García, “Enfrentamiento entre colonos en Cuajimalpa; 11 lesionados,” La Jornada, May 23, 1996.
  41. Castillo García, “Enfrentamiento entre colonos.” According to Cayetano, “the tension between cooperativistas is a consequence of the economic offerings to cooperativists from private corporations such as Televisa [a media conglomerate]and ICA [an engineering and construction firm].”
  42. Mendoza, Memoria, Identidad y Participación, 97.
  43. See Juzgado Quinto de Distrito en Materia Civil en el Distrito Federal, Sección Civil,Edicto,” Diario Oficial de la Federación, Tomo DXII. No. 8. Primera Sección: Avisos (May 13, 1996), 36. According to Paula, as part of the agreement, the government offered dissidents new land on which to build, but the departing individuals rejected the offered site, arguing that it lacked basic services. Instead, each dissident received a government stipend to cover several months’ rent at other locations.
  44. Luis Márquez Cruz, “Por la defensa de la Cooperativa Palo Alto” (video), Consejo Nacional del Pueblo Mexicano, 2021. On the current status of the legal case, refer to court file 136/2002 of Juzgado Quinto de Distrito en Materia Civil en el Distrito Federal Sección Civil, Mesa V.
  45. Palo Alto also remains involved in international and local networks, including COCEAVIS and Chicoace Calli, an alliance of cooperatives in Mexico City.
Ivonne Santoyo-Orozco, “A Militant Way of Living,” Places Journal, March 2023. Accessed 29 Sep 2023. <>

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