By Moonyeen King
The barrio of Tepehua is just West of Chapala. One of five barrio’s, each as poor as the other. The poorest area in Jalisco. Although all snuggled together on the hillside, they are isolated from each other by tribal instinct and a sense of survival. Which poverty always brings. Isolated too from Chapala, the Tourist town that Tepehua overlooks, by a disdainful indifference of local authorities.
To quote Susan Netherton. “The terms Tepehua and Tepehuan look and sound very similar, but they refer to different groups of people and different languages. Tepehua is from the Totohuan family, whilst Tepehuan is Uto-Aztecan. Tepehua is spoken in the Eastern part of Central Mexico. Tepe means ‘mountain’, ‘Hua’ means ‘owner of’. So Tepehua means basically, ‘Mountain People’.”
Tepehua Community Center rose from the ashes of the deserted Love in Action Orphanage. Love in Action moved from Tepehua to Central Chapala, leaving the sturdy old building in the hands of squatters. The rooms that once rang with the sound of children were now desecrated by the homeless and vandals, whose desperation allowed no respect for the property.
Even the police shunned the area, although it was infested by drug gangs, the rape of young girls—the usual mayhem that follows drugs. Police would go after the fact, and never patrolled the area for prevention.
Tepehua is a maze of stairs and gully’s, no access by car in some parts, lean- to tents, make shift houses, breeze block rooms you cannot call a home, with no running water or electricity. Like little diamonds, a well kept house of two levels will be sandwiched between two shacks. It is a place of contrasts and graffiti.
Its people are the same, the educated, somehow trapped into poverty, and the illiterate, whose burden is made heavier by very large families.
Tepehua also has magic in the smiles of the street children, and of the women who can love, in spite of the ravages of poverty. They can make a fiesta out of nothing. When a girl comes of age, she will have the special dress needed… somehow they make it through. Improvisation is a friend here, active and healthy… an art forgotten in the societies of plenty.
The streets of Tepehua are strewn with garbage, skinny cows, mules and horses are tied to electric poles, looking for weeds between the debris and partially finished buildings, abandoned by owners who had run out of money. For those with running water…water delivery by the city is twice a week, many times the water gets cut off once a day for preservation. For those who can afford it, bottled water is used. The City’s well water is unfit to drink, and many of the illnesses are from water born diseases.
Behind the magic lives the threat of violence, children’s play is colored with violence. Dog fights and cock fights start at a very young age. Compassion for the animals they torture has never been learned. Violence in the home is also a way of life, the cycle of which is hard to break. A small group of strangers bought a 99 year lease on the property known as the old Love in Action Building… believing they can bring about change and empower the women. That was in 2010. It was not to change religion or culture. It was to change a village by teaching them to help themselves. Not to wait for their world to change, but to change their world around them.