A few days ago, the national congress passed a resolution calling for an end to smoking in all government buildings, and for no-smoking areas to be established in all restaurants, and for adequate exhaust systems to be installed so that non-smokers do not have to suffer from authorized fumes.

Does this mean that the millennium is at hand? Probably not: as usual there is neither money nor infrastructure to enforce this pronunciamento…


Ingrid and Heidi are Germans, but they wear huipiles, not dirndls. Youthful middle-aged widows with successful careers as academic and architect, they are part of the “other face” of expatriate Oaxaca: people who came to help, not to be served.

Ingrid first came to Mexico with her husband in 1965, when they were both graduate students in architecture. They were doing a one-year research project in Cuernavaca. They so fell in love with the city and the people that they ended up staying three years, and building their own house. Over the years, they visited Mexico when they could, and pursued their careers. Ingrid ended up as the chair of the School of Science and Architecture in Berlin, a job from which she retired not long ago.

A sleeping space for the students constructing the Etla project.

Five years ago, facing her coming retirement and feeling a need to provide a lasting and transforming experience for the young people grinding their way through the academic mill, she founded a practicum for architecture students: building appropriate shelter in “third world” countries. Students attend a special seminar in which they learn about local customs, available materials, health hazards, and language. By the end of the semester, they have designed a structure, put together a list of all materials needed (including, says Ingrid, how many nails), and formed teams for each project. Most years, there are three or four projects going on at once in different parts of Oaxaca state, involving a hundred students. Alex, one of the students working in Etla, has come every year since 2000.

Projects are designed to be completed in the two month winter break, between semesters. During that time, Ingrid and Heidi are traveling from site to site, supervising the projects and helping to solve any problems that may arise, although most decisions are made by the teams on site. This year, there are sites in Ocotlán, Etla, Zagache, and Lachixao.

The students stay on site, sometimes inside the building they are constructing, sometimes in housing donated by the municipality, and sometimes outside; usually sleeping in hammocks. Meals vary in variety and comfort, depending on whether they have someone local cooking for them, cook for themselves, or eat at a local restaurant.

There is a gas stove over in the corner of the Etla project cookhouse /diningroom, but the cook prefers a wood fire. The gas stove won’t handle the large pots she needs to cook for the large crew, and since they burn mostly wood scraps and sawdust, it is cheaper and more ecological, too.

Students must adapt to the conditions in which they find themselves. Since the first year, there have been no dropouts. Ingrid attributes this remarkable record to the thoroughness of the training and the enthusiasm of the participants: hundreds apply every year, and only a fraction are chosen. The visitors are joined by architecture students from the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM).

This peace mural adorns a space used for meetings in the house of a local priest. It occupies one corner of the Etla project property. The rest of the property was donated to the project.

Through a network of churches, social organizations, government bureaus and other contacts, Heidi and Ingrid spend a good deal of their two months in Oaxaca prospecting for the next year’s projects. They meet over and over with each prospective recipient, assessing the level of organization in the community, and the likelihood of successful implementation of the project meant to be housed in the building being asked for. They are very realistic about the problems of poverty, illiteracy, and lack of social structure that characterize much of rural Oaxaca, and are willing to do a lot of negotiating without backing down on their own requirements.

During the ten months each year when Heidi and Ingrid are not in Oaxaca, they are raising money. Most of their funding comes from a combination of government and charitable organizations, and with unemployment at an all time high in a newly reunified Germany struggling with integrating its’ two disparate populations, they are doing it all on less money each year. This year, for the first time, the students had to pay their own air fare. Nobody – including Heidi and Ingrid – has ever collected a salary for the work they do.

We were invited to accompany Ingrid and two friends from Germany on a trip to a small town in the Municipio (county / township) of Etla, about 30 minutes outside the city, where two of the crews were working in a compound that when completed will house a community center, a trade school, dormitories, a baño (showers and toilets), a warehouse, a temescál (a steam bath much like a kiva or a sauna, central to many indigenous religions) and a small house for the veladór (caretaker). Two of the buildings had been built in the last two years, with another planned for this year. When a glitch over excavation previously approved by INAH, the antiquities ministry, unexpectedly freed a crew in Tlacalula, that crew moved over to the Etla project, where they are putting up the caretaker’s house and the temescál.

This roof-tile system is lightweight, inexpensive and long lasting. The tiles are manufactured locally by a women’s co-operative.

Made of adobe and wood, the buildings are simple and handsome at the same time. Nothing fancy here, just utilitarian construction built to last.

While we were there, we met the local priest who had donated the land, and two women who are very active in the life of the community. Emma and Sylvia are the directors of a project that is housed in one of the first structures erected by this program, a few minutes away from the community center by car. It is a women’s co-operative, making roof tiles. It is so successful, both as a business and from an organizing standpoint, that it was awarded second prize at a Latin America -wide conference: a source of considerable pride for the directors and workers, as well as the community.

Ingrid, Emma and Sylvia at the Etla project.

Teja (tile) TREIG sells inexpensive cement tiles made using a method developed in Switzerland. While there are now a few places that teach this method in Mexico and Central America, when Emma and Sylvia learned the craft it was being taught only in Nicaragua. Using a vibrating mold to smooth the material and take out all the air bubbles, and an especially fine sand in the cement, they make tiles that interlock in such a way that they do not slide off the roof in an earthquake – an extremely valuable feature in many parts of Mexico.

Through paying attention to the process, and an active imagination, the workers at TREIG discovered a new curing method. Traditionally, tiles were placed in a cement box and immersed in water to cure. TREIG elevates the drying racks, fills only the bottom with water, and covers the box with black plastic. The resulting steam cure is faster, and yields a higher quality tile. At 80 pesos (about 72 cents) each, these tiles are affordable as well as durable.

For more information about “Students Building Projects in Mexico”, email Ingrid at


With 80% or more of Mexicans strongly and vocally opposed to the invasion of Iraq, while the U.S. dominates the Mexican economy, it is no wonder that Mexican foreign policy is operating on two quite different tracks, one verbal and one in actual deeds; and nobody knows where it goes from here.

While refusing to endorse the U.S. invasion in the Security Council (no-one breathed a bigger sigh of relief thanVicente Fox Quesada‘s current U.N. ambassador, Aguilar Zinser, when the U.S. withdrew its’ “second resolution”), Mexico has quietly gone ahead with massive aid to its northern neighbor. Oil production was increased by 300,000 barrels a day, from about 1,700,000 barrels to 2 million, a move which arguably benefits the Mexican economy in the short run, but puts extra strain on the proven reserves, which now are predicted to run out in eleven, rather than thirteen years. Almost all Mexican oil goes to the U.S.

The factory where the roof tiles are made. The tiles are four years old and show no signs of wear.

Eighteen thousand troops have been shifted from regular duty to border security. This represents about ten percent of the total military. This makes Mexico the third largest contributor to the U.S. led “coalition”, after Britain. Military commanders are not happy about this. Like their counterparts in the U.S., they do not believe that the army’s place is to perform police duties. But more importantly, the army is now seen as the enemy, acting as it does to prevent illegal immigration to the U.S., the source of the country’s third largest chunk of income – and the only income in many impoverished villages.

John Ross, now returned to his home in Mexico City, writes that the EZLN (Zapatistas) is very nervous over the extra 3,000 troops dropped along the Guatemala border where they have their autonomous communities, as well as joint exercises held between the Mexican and U.S. navies near the Chiapas port city of Puerto Madero.

Mexico is now refusing visas to holders of passports from Arab and Islamic countries, and has remained silent on the issue of treatment of Mexican nationals caught by the new immigration authorities in the U.S., who under current laws may be held without bail or legal representation, and will be subject to interrogation by the FBI.

All these issues are going to come back to haunt Fox in the months to come. With interim term elections coming up this summer, it is not unlikely that the PRI will be the big winner – and democracy the big loser.