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Dossier: Mexico City

  • Written by  Charlie Furniss
  • Published in Cities
Mexico City Mexico City Shutterstock
27 Sep
Twenty years ago, Mexico City was considered the ultimate urban disaster. But, recent political and economic reforms have transformed it into a hub of individualism, cultural diversity and consumerism

It’s 9am on a Monday, Paseo de la Reforma in the centre of Mexico City is beginning to wake up. Banks with marble foyers are opening up their doors and coffee shops with Wi-Fi are facing their morning rush. The ten lanes of traffic are already heavy with cars, taxis and minibuses, and at the intersection with Avenue Insurgentes, two policewomen wearing flattering trousers and bold eyeshadow direct the flow with sharp blasts of their whistles.

On the broad, tree-lined pavements, there’s a steady flow of chilangos – as the residents of Mexico City are known – scurrying to work. Among them is 23-year-old Jael Cedillo Rodriguez. Dressed in a pink, tailored jacket and four-inch heels, she hurries through the crowds clutching a clear plastic briefcase, listening to Shakira on her iPod. Diligent, switched on, ambitious and open-minded, Cedillo is part of a new generation of chilangos who are embracing a new way of life.

Her days are typically busy. By the time she reaches her desk at a travel agent at a little after 9am, Cedillo has been up for four hours and fitted in half an hour’s exercise and two hours of lectures on tourism management. When the office closes at 6pm, she takes two buses and the metro to the university, where she attends an English class every night from 7pm to 9pm. Then it’s another bus and a metro ride home, where she does her homework and eats a bowl of cereal before bed.

She repeats the same routine every weekday; on Saturdays, she guides tour groups around the city. In her spare time, she likes karaoke, watching horror films and going out dancing with her friends. On Sundays, she might go to a mall to shop for clothes and jewellery or play Chopin and Mozart on the upright piano in her mother’s flat. She doesn’t drink; she eats most things apart from fast food; she smokes one cigarette a day, which she buys every evening after work.

Although she has been with her a boyfriend for two years, she’s in no hurry to marry. ‘We may move in together in a few years’ time,’ she says. ‘But I’m not sure. I’m not really thinking that far ahead.’ What she does know, however, is that one day she would like to travel.

By Western standards, Cedillo’s life may not seem remarkable. But this isn’t London, Paris or New York. This is Mexico City, a sprawling metropolis once considered to be the ultimate urban disaster, where uncontrolled population growth combined with a chronic lack of infrastructure, pollution and endemic corruption and crime consigned all but the richest of the rich to a miserable life of poverty. This stereotype continues to inform most people’s impressions of Mexico City today.

But while it still has its problems, political and economic reform have transformed it into a thriving, cosmopolitan conurbation of tremendous opportunity where poverty is declining and chilangos are embracing the joys of individualism, cultural diversity and consumerism.



Mexico City lies in an upland basin some 2,240 metres above sea level surrounded by a ring of mountains and active volcanoes. Once confined to an area almost the size of Greater London, referred to as the Federal District of Mexico City (DF), it has since spilled over into the states of Mexico and Hidalgo, more than doubling its size in the process. As such, it’s officially known as the Metropolitan Zone of the Valley of Mexico (ZMVM).

If it were to be branded with an advertising slogan, it might well be something along the lines of, ‘1,000 Cities in One’. With its statues of heroic historical figures, Paseo de la Reforma is its Champs Elysées. Upscale colonias, or neighbourhoods, such as Jardines del Pedregal, Lomas de Chapultepec and Villa Verdun conjure up the exclusive detachment of Beverley Hills. And Avenue Presidente Masarik, where ladies of leisure shop at Luis Vuitton, Tiffany’s and Chanel, is Mexico’s Rodeo Drive.

Across Bosque de Chapultepec – the city’s Central Park – the pavement cafés, organic delis and quirky boutiques of La Condesa reflect the genteel bohemia of Berlin’s Kreuzburg district, while the grand palaces of Zócalo have more in common with Madrid, and the shady plazas of San Angel, Tlalpan and Coyoacan with the hilltop towns of Andalucia. Santa Fe is Mexico’s rapidly growing new business district, a kind of Docklands on steroids.

Beyond the confines of the DF, a series of enormous low-rise housing developments make Milton Keynes look like Camberwick Green, while huge open dumps, with their resident populations of rubbish pickers, recall Dharavi in Mumbai or Manshiet Nasr in Cairo.

In the north of the ZMVM, warehouses, factories and disused railways tell of the city’s recent industrialisation. The city is transected by gigantic eight-lane highways, an American suburban distopia where billboards, shopping malls and drive-through restaurants provide the only relief from wall-to-wall concrete.

When the Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés arrived here in 1519, the magnificent Aztec city of Tenochtitlan was home to more than 200,000 people. As such, it was one of the largest in the world, and certainly bigger than any in Europe. Built on an island among a network of lakes, Tenochtitlan hosted stone palaces and pyramids, two terracotta aqueducts and three giant causeways connecting it with the mainland, each of them wide enough for ten horses.

The Spanish razed and rebuilt the city according to their own conventions, with grand churches and mansions on a grid pattern based around a central square, or zócalo. Although it expanded during the colonial period and again following independence in 1821, by the 20th century, its population was less than 600,000.

However, a programme of highly centralised industrialisation during the mid-20th century changed the city irrevocably. A huge demand for labour, particularly in manufacturing, attracted hordes of peasant farmers from the countryside. With growth rates exceeding six per cent, the population swelled from 1.6 million in 1940 to almost 14 million in 1980.

In 1984, the UN reported that the population had reached 17 million, and with more than 1,000 migrants arriving every day, it was poised to overtake Tokyo–Yokohama as the biggest city in the world.
That year, Time magazine described a megalopolis of slum hovels cloaked in a cloud of poisonous smog on the verge of humanitarian disaster. More than two million people had no access to water, and more than three million no sewage. Every day, 6,000 tonnes of rubbish was left to rot, and the three million cars, 7,000 buses and 130,000 factories were belching out 11,000 tonnes of chemicals causing 100,000 deaths a year. A series of economic crises had left inflation fluctuating between 60 and 100 per cent, and caused Mexico’s international debt to soar from US$37billion to US$90 billion in seven years. More than 40 per cent of the city had no formal employment.

At the heart of the city’s problems was overpopulation. Without wholesale revision of the country’s economic and political structure, said the UN, the number of people would reach 26 million by 2000. Others put the figure at 36 million. But with entrenched one-party politics that was inept, inert and corrupt to the core governing an intensely conservative society that prided itself on its stoicism, there seemed little hope of change.




1) Leisure has, until recently, been an important part of planning and development in Mexico City, and municipal football pitches, basketball courts, running tracks and exercise facilities are a common sight in many residential areas.


2) The growing number of office, commercial and residential buildings around Paseo de la Reforma and in Santa Fe reflects the health of Mexico City’s economy and, particularly, the boom in services, which now account for 80 per cent of all economic activity.


3) Traffic congestion is the bugbear of every chilango. There are more than four million cars on the city’s roads, 2,252 per square kilometre, as well as 50,000 minibuses, 103,000 taxis and 450,000 vehicles carrying loads.


4) When it comes to services, Mexico City’s infrastructure is relatively comprehensive. Ninety-nine per cent of homes in the Metropolitan Zone have electricity, 97 per cent have access to water and 96 per cent are connected to the sewers.


5) Mexico City has been leading the country’s rapidly increasing use of the internet, with as many as half of the estimated 22.7 million people with access in May 2007 living in the capital.


6) Children are more highly educated than ever in Mexico City. More than 95 per cent of 6–14 year olds and more than 60 per cent of 15–19 year olds attend school


7) Historically, the majority of Mexico City’s growth has taken place outside the DF in new developments on the city’s periphery, and this sprawl continues today throughout the Metropolitan Zone.


8) The Mexican government has introduced guidelines recommending five portions of fruit and vegetables every day, following a rapid increase in levels of obesity and associated chronic illnesses such as high blood pressure and type-II diabetes since the 1980s


In the event, the urban disaster never materialised. Instead, a catastrophe of another order precipitated a political and economic revolution that has transformed life in the city dramatically. Today, the population growth rate has dropped to 0.8 per cent, and the number of people in the metropolitan zone has only just reached 20 million.

The eighth-richest city in the world, Mexico City has one of the world’s fastest-growing economies outside China and is set to double its GDP by 2020. Nowhere illustrates the extent of Mexico City’s transformation better than Nezahualcoyotl, or Neza as it’s known, a suburb the size of Glasgow that lies beyond the eastern perimeter of the DF. Named after a 15th-century Acolhuan king whose name means ‘fasting coyote’, Neza was founded on a dried-up lake bed during the late 1940s at the height of the city’s industrial boom. Migrants from poor rural states were lured by marketing campaigns promising a comfortable suburban life in neighbourhoods with such names as The Sun, Little Jewel and Beautiful Hills.

Nothing could have been further from the truth. The first settlers arrived to find houses, but little else. ‘There was no water or electricity. The streets weren’t paved, and there certainly weren’t any schools,’ says 76-year-old Simón Martinez Hernandez, who arrived in 1965. Yet with Mexico City generating almost 40 per cent of national GDP, the prospect of regular work there continued to fuel immigration. ‘There was no choice,’ continues Martinez. ‘If we’d stayed in the country, my family would have starved.’

By the mid-1980s, Neza was being described as the world’s largest slum. Attempts to develop infrastructure couldn’t cope with its reported 2.7 million people. The sewers overflowed when it rained, less than half the roads were paved and inadequate pressure forced most people to collect their water from wells and tankers. To make matters worse, its streets were plagued by gangs of thieves. It was the ‘cancer of the city’, the ‘bastard of urbanisation’, a ‘ghetto in which the men go to prison, the women to brothels’.

Visiting Neza today, then, is something of a surprise. Although it was built outside formal planning regulations, it was nevertheless laid out on a supersize grid of more than 20 one-square-kilometre blocks. Each of these was centred around a market or a park – and today houses more than 100,000 people. Just about every house has electricity, running water and efficient drains. There are pavements, street lights, traffic lights, roundabouts and neatly trimmed hedges in the central reservations. Unusually for a city where the car is king, there are pedestrians and cyclists. Indeed, off the main highways, savage speed humps put drivers firmly in their place, and the markets are buzzing with life.

There’s no doubt Neza’s economy is flourishing. Every square centimetre of commercial space is occupied, and an astonishing variety of products and services is available. In a single block of Avenue Lopez Mateos, one of the principal struts of Neza’s gigantic lattice, there are three banks, four hotels, a gym, a gay club, two strip clubs, three internet cafés and a clinic offering laser depilation, homeopathic remedies and something called ‘chocolate therapy’.

The shops sell everything from bathroom tiles, carpets and fridges to mobile phones, electric guitars and car stereos. There are more than 20 restaurants, among them an Argentinian establishment where the best steaks cost 300 pesos (£14). That’s not to mention the hundreds of street vendors flogging fake Nike trainers, Shrek DVDs, Calvin Klein underwear and Iron Maiden t-shirts whose brightly coloured stalls line the side roads. And the multinationals – McDonald’s, Burger King, KFC, Domino’s, Pizza Hut, Wal-Mart and BMW – that consider Neza worth a punt.

According to Father Arnulfo Contreras Padilla, Neza’s transformation has come about through the accumulation of wealth over several generations. ‘At the beginning, the people who came to Neza had very poorly paid jobs – as seamstresses or masons, for example, or in factories or supply centres. They had very little education. But as time went by, they were able to make enough money to support their children’s education, so now we find a lot of lawyers, doctors and professionals in every field.’

Indeed, with three university campuses, 86 colleges and more than 800 schools, education is very much a priority for the residents of Neza. Jesus Lezama Garcia certainly thinks so. ‘My daughter left school as a teenager,’ says the 36-year-old, who works in a tortilleria. ‘She got married very early and now has a child. But since then, she’s been able to return to school and finish her secondary education. That wouldn’t have happened when I was young. Back then, primary was considered enough. There were certainly no opportunities for adult education.’

According to Mexico’s first census, in 1970, there were three jobs in Neza for every 100 people. As a result, most people had to make an arduous three-hour commute to the factories and plants in the north of the city. Today, there are 25 local jobs per 100 people. ‘With the average family size falling from 5.5 to 4.1 during the same period,’ points out architect Jose Castillo, ‘there is now a local job for every family in Neza.’

So good are Neza’s prospects today that many people now commute there from other parts of the city. Indeed, the demand for property has seen prices rocket, so much so that young couples from Neza are having to look elsewhere for an affordable first home. And when Carlos Slim, the world’s third-richest man, moved into the property and development market, one of his first acquisitions was an enormous rubbish dump on Neza’s northern edge, where he plans to build a shopping mall, two schools, a university and a park by 2010.



Every chilango who is old enough remembers 19 September 1985. At 7.19am that day, an earthquake measuring 8.1 on the Richter scale shook Mexico City for four devastating minutes. More than 100,000 houses were destroyed, along with hundreds more public buildings. Although other towns and cities were closer to the epicentre – around 350 kilometres away in the Cocos Plate subduction zone under the Pacific Ocean – the capital suffered disproportionately because the silt and sand on which it’s built amplified its effect.

The official death toll of 4,541 is considered a gross underestimate. The real total may be more like 30,000, although some claim it was as high as 100,000. Whatever the exact figure, the fact remains that pretty much every chilango lost a friend or relative.

While 19 September 1985 was a black day for most chilangos, it has come to represent a turning point in the city’s fortunes. ‘After almost 60 years of one-party rule [by the Partido Revolucionario Institucional], the earthquake precipitated a new political and social consciousness in Mexico City,’ says Miguel Angel Jimenez Godínez, lecturer in political science at the Instituto Tecnológico y de Estudios Superiores de Monterrey and a Neuva Alianza member of parliament. ‘When the government failed to mount an adequate response to the disaster, many people organised themselves to do the work instead. As a result, an enormous solidarity grew, and people began to form political parties and non-governmental social organisations.’

Sensitive to these developments, in 1988, newly elected president Carlos Salinas de Gortari handed a greater level of autonomy to the DF, creating an Assembly of Representatives to manage the city, including its reconstruction and regeneration. The following year, he stepped up a programme of economic liberalisation that had begun tentatively during the early 1980s. He privatised the banks and financial services, and subsequently sold off more than 1,500 companies during the early 1990s. And in 1992, he signed the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) with Canada and the USA.

With the majority of the newly privatised companies based in the capital, the impact on the city was enormous. The NAFTA, which came into force in 1994, prompted much needed decentralisation as many companies, particularly those involved in manufacturing, moved closer to the US border. As they left, the economy reoriented towards services.

For the people that remained in the city, privatisation created new economic incentives. Under the state, the workers were poorly paid, so there was little generation of wealth, says Jimenez. Once in the hands of the private sector, however, companies reset their priorities. ‘Private companies could offer well-paid jobs to better-qualified people, so there was an opportunity for chilangos with skills to be part of a new dynamic.’

More flexible conditions in the workplace allowed opportunities for employment that weren’t available under the rigid bureaucracy of the state. ‘Mothers and housewives found they were able to work part-time – for example, in supermarkets in the mornings while their children were at school – and students to get weekend jobs in restaurants and clothes shops,’ says Cristina Inclan Valadez, a postgraduate researcher at the London School of Economics. There were also non-financial incentives. ‘Training and participation in meetings allowed part-time employees access to a new entrepreneurial spirit.’

At the same time, private companies were able to diversify their operations and change the way the market operated. ‘Under the state, a company such as Telmex [Mexico’s biggest telecommunications company] concentrated rigidly on landlines,’ says Inclan. ‘But as a private company, it was able to offer a range of other products and services – landlines, mobiles, computers – and to open its stores when and where it wanted.’

This process laid the ground for the emergence of a new generation that in the past ten years has been transforming the way chilangos live.



Every day at around 4pm, the restaurants in La Condesa are winding down after a busy lunchtime. On the tree-lined pavements near the junction between Michoacan and Vicente Saurez avenues, satisfied diners sit hunched over empty coffee cups. In the road, chauffeurs wearing suits but no ties rest on the bonnets of double-parked Volvos, Mercedes and various SUVs. Over the chatter and clinking crockery, a busker struggles to be heard singing ‘Where the streets have no name’.

One of the most commonly held preconceptions about Mexico City is that it’s riven with inequality and that eating out, and leisure in general, is the preserve of a privileged few. While this might once have been true, today, almost everyone has the opportunity to enjoy themselves. Lupita Chavez, for example, a housewife from Ixtapaluca, spends most Sundays with her husband and three children at one of the local malls. ‘We like to have a nice meal – there’s a good Chinese restaurant where you can get different dishes for a fixed price – or to change our mobile phones. But mostly we just like to walk around and look.’

Ixtapaluca is a million miles from La Condesa. Until the early 1990s, it lay beyond the city limits and was home to a number of old dairy farms. Since then, the dignified old haciendas and lush green meadows have been replaced by eight enormous housing estates where more than 300,000 people have been squeezed into almost 70,000 tiny two-up two-downs – more matchboxes than shoeboxes.

Most of these new developments show signs of neglect. Weeds have taken hold in the cracks in the pavements and graffiti covers the walls. But even in these more deprived areas, there is still an appetite for leisure. When Chavez’s family moved into their house seven years ago, the living room was so small that they had to buy new furniture. Even so, there’s still space for a large flat-screen TV, a DVD player and hi-fi.

In many ways, the transformation of the city is a story of the increasing availability of what might loosely be described as a middle-class lifestyle. According to Jimenez, the political and economic changes of the 1990s mean everyone now has the chance to better themselves. ‘My generation was born in the 1960s and grew up in a social and political environment that was basically authoritarian,’ he explains. ‘We were constantly in economic crisis and there was no indication of how you could move up the social scale. The best chance you had of success was being employed in the public sector.’
Today, he continues, the incentives in Mexico’s market economy are oriented towards the individual. ‘We have this more American way of life where there are opportunities to make money quickly. You only have to be determined and have a certain degree of imagination, and with the minimum of budget you can improve your standard of living.’

Many of those who grew up under the old regime find it difficult to understand this new way of thinking, he says. ‘But it’s very common now to see young people taking control of their lives – running their own businesses, or studying and working part-time to earn their own money – and setting a new agenda.’

Karina Talamentes is typical of this new generation. At 26, she has already travelled to Europe and India and is currently doing a business studies degree and managing a boutique in the central colonia Zona Rosa. ‘There’s more freedom to live nowadays,’ she says. ‘Young people have more aspirations than our parents. Girls my age don’t want to be mothers so young any more.’

According to Jimenez, this new generation of ‘yuppies’ is not only changing chilangos’ aspirations, but it’s changing their culture. ‘We used to be a very standardised, homogenised society,’ he says. ‘Everyone listened to the same music, ate the same food and did the same things in their spare time. But we are now a very open, liberal society, not only in terms of the economy, but also in terms of taste.’

Looking around the city, this certainly seems to be true. Diners in La Condesa can choose between burgers, falafel, Argentinian steak, oysters, crêpes, pizza, Japanese, Malaysian, vegetarian, organic food, and pints of Guinness at an Irish pub. Office workers on Reforma in search of a quick lunch are just as likely to grab a tuna melt from Starbucks as they are a taco de bisteck from one of the street vendors nearby. And according to the papers, sushi is now a favourite in Neza.

While there are concerns from some quarters about the impact Mexico City’s diversification and extroversion will have on traditional culture and values, Jimenez remains convinced that chilangos are robust enough to withstand the change. ‘Mexico has a very strong cultural identity that, like in Cuba, was consolidated after the revolution as a way of resisting the threat of the USA,’ he says. ‘The Latin concept of the family is particularly strong, for example, so even though more people are going to McDonald’s nowadays, they are doing so as a family.’

The economic and cultural changes that Mexico City has experienced so far have been well assimilated by society, he continues. ‘We are happier with the new circumstances. People from all backgrounds are embracing this concentration on individualism, this diversification and toleration of difference, and as a result, our society and our city are flourishing.’

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