Akash Dhiman,
January 30, 2018

An hour in Colonia Renovación

On January 26th, Thursday, I went to Colonia Renovación, zone de pepenadores (area of rag pickers). It is a major garbage dump site in Mexico City operating for 50 years and is one of the most important sites for my research on informal e-waste recycling in Mexico City. I was invited by a fellow researcher to visit the site. He is a sociologist student and recycler. To keep confidentiality “H” will be used instead of his name in the rest of the article.

“Please, my friend be very discreet. It’s dangerous. Only wear dirty clothes. I’ll bring extra dirty clothes in case you are not dirty enough.” - H

Those were the instructions given to me by H over a skype session a day before. We met at the Guelatao metro station. He passed me his dirty unwashed sweater and used a beanie to wear. I rubbed some mud on my jeans and shoes and got already as a worker. He himself was wearing a turned-off shirt, old jeans, and worker shoes. We walked for half a mile talking about the situation of waste in Mexico City and I told him briefly about my previous work. We took the minibus and got off the bus near a marketplace. The place was filled with open tents, and goods were arranged on the floor over a piece of cloth, it looked similar to the vegetable market in India.

They were selling everything from new to used shoes, old clothes, broken remote controls, iPads with broken screens, old generation dell laptops, mobile phones, perfume bottles, toys, small bicycles, hard drives, automobile parts, and a lot of other things which I believe were taken from the trash, restored and now being resold. The place was vibrant and had a fine gathering. As told by H, it was a pop-up black market, that only opens up from Saturday morning to evening.

The market was right in front of the colony. After roaming around a while we entered one street going inside the colony. It was quite wide and almost every house had 2 stories. Some of them were used as a warehouse to store trash, some of them looked newly constructed and some were old with anchors coming out of the roof. There were trees on both the pathways and inside the houses. I saw three people on the left side of the street seating on the curbside just outside the house. They were working with some sort of plastic and electronics. To me, it seems like they were separating things. The woman on the right was surrounded by motherboards, casing, and cables. She was separating the wires from the board and throwing the board on the right, accumulating into a green heap. The young-looking guy in front of her was also sitting low on the floor surrounded by electronics and separating them. Inside, there was a heap of trash that looked like old CPUs. A guy in far was moving the big bags. Also, there was a dog just sitting outside.

Move fast my friend” H whispered.

I only had the privilege to take a glance at things as I was supposed to not attract too much attention. This is because only an outsider will observe things with strange looks and outsiders were not taken lightly in this place. Therefore, I was trying my best to be someone who walked the streets of Colonia Renovación a million times. We kept on walking straight. I was quiet, observing as much as I can and spitting on the road once in a while. I guess that would make me look like one of them. My walk changed and my expression became serious.

The site was as normal as any other colony. There were people on the streets wearing decent clothes, women carrying infants, and kids strolling in the middle of the streets. I don’t know if they were happy, but they didn’t look sad or in need of some sort of help. They were fine. Normal. There were shops and stalls within close proximity of the workshops. The more I walked, the more I saw houses and mini trucks filled with garbage. It varied from plastic casings to computer parts, displays, CPUs, and motherboards stacked on the side of the streets and in big bags inside.

We took a right and there was a small vegetable market on the streets. Women, men, young girls, and small kids were all around, chatting and playing, just like in any other society. In the lane, perpendicular to me, on the right side, there was a big crane being used by 2 men wearing orange suits. It looked like they were laying out electricity lines over the poles.

We took another right after a while. The house on my right had nice orange paint with plants climbing up the wall and the house on my left was all filled up with big bags stacked up to the first floor. There was a nice blue ford mustang on the right side followed by a CDMX taxi. It gave me a sense of wealth distribution and the occupation of people living there.

I saw more people sitting on the curbside surrounded by bags of trash, standing next to them was an old ford mini truck with broken windshields filled with trash bags heaped in the back and inside. People were working with some sort of plastic and metal casing, taking them apart with their hands. Another guy was beating, what looked like a burned roll of wire cable, with a hammer. It looked like he was trying to separate the plastic from the copper inside. A big dog was chained to the nearby pole.

We went on a little further and saw more similar sites along the streets. After a while, we came out on the main street and took a right alongside the boundary of the colony. H was constantly passing me warnings. It was the first time he brought an international person to this area.

“be more natural bro”,

“walk fast”,

“be careful”,

“let me do the talking”,

H told me he was friends with some of the workers and we are going to their house now. On the main street, I saw CDMX garbage trucks and other trucks almost filled with black bags of municipal trash. They were parked on the left side with men and women separating the waste with hands and putting them into different bags. The bags were placed out on the streets around the back side of the truck filled with crushed Plastic bottles, biodegradable substances, and other household garbage. On the right side, there were big furniture shops with office chairs, tables, and other furniture placed on display out on the streets. The furniture looked cleaned and refurbished. My assumption was that they found it in the trash and now reselling it after some repair.

One man’s trash, that’s another man’s come up.

People at Colonia Renovación are earning an income out of the trash of Mexico City. This colony is playing a very important role in the waste management system for Mexico City but somehow it is perceived as dangerous and prohibited to visit by the western part of the city. Nobody is willing to go to this place which handles the last important part of the product cycle, recycling. It is strange how reality works.

We were still on the main street and but after a while, we stopped in front of a house. Two ladies were standing just outside the door behind a waist-size big white bag filled with circular plastic transparent trays. They were holding the trays in their bare hands and cleaning them with a stick. The trays looked similar to the ones seen in the laboratories and hospitals. After taking slimy stuff off it and they were putting them back in the bag. My friend talked to them for a while in Spanish and asked for permission to go inside. I was just following him and stood behind him the whole time and was pretending like an uninterested tired fellow worker.

We went inside a low-height door and ended up in a very congested center lobby of the house. There was a strong smell of soap. An old man wearing big green gloves standing in front of a blue drum. A woman came out from the room just behind the old man. A 5 to the 6-year-old kid was standing 5 steps from me and a big dalmatian dog was a foot away. I was standing in the 5 x 5 feet (approx.) space with 3 men, a woman, a child, and a dog. The roof of the ground floor was around 8 feet and the first floor felt reachable if I’ll just jump, hold the rail and pull up. The blue drum was filled with some sort of liquid and he was doing something in it using his hands. I was standing right behind H so my vision was blocked a little, it was not clear what the old guy was actually doing. On my 5’o clock, there was a small path leading to congested stairs with some gas cylinders placed alongside steps and boxes in the way. At my 2’o clock, there was a big guy in a small extended area of the lobby, standing in the front of the bathtub, wearing an apron and big green gloves with a stick in his hand swirling the water-based solution in the tub. There was a pile of fabric sheets in front of the tub. He seems to be cleaning the reddish clothes heaped in front of the tub alongside the wall. I was acting very disinterested, gave a friendly greeting node to the big guy, and avoided eye contact with the others. I think I passed away with flying colors with my acting.

H talked with both the old man and the lady for around 10 minutes. I couldn’t make out what he was talking about, but It was enough time for me to observe what was going on in that lobby. It was all medical waste. The slimy stuff on the trays was laboratory chemical, the reddish sheets were bed sheets used in the operation theater, probably covered with blood. The blue drum had some dissolving agent. Amongst all that, there was a little kid standing a few steps away. Somehow it was okay for the family. I am not to judge. H told me later that they were handling this business for 5 generations. Maybe it seems okay for them for a child to be around. The old guy is the grandfather of his friends who he speaks highly of. On our way out, he met another person dragging a cart. He greeted him and talked for a few minutes. The guy was the friend he hoped to meet in the house.

We carried on and crossed the main road to come on the left side. We were back where we started. The same market was on the right.

“What do you think bro?” H asked me.

“Give me a minute. Let’s talk after a while” I replied

We walked on the main road and took another left. Now, I was walking next to an elevated field, around 12 feet high like a mini plateau. We went up. On the top, It was a big empty land with an old basketball court on it around 50 meters away.

“This is the place where all the trash used to come in 1983” H told me.

“This land and the one on your right are all filled with trash underneath. The old guy we met in the house used to live with his family here. My friends were all small at that time. It is all filled up now. Also, the woman you met in the house is the political leader of pepenadores (rag pickers)” - H

The moment he said that I hit a bump on the pathway and stumbled a bit. We laughed but I was actually moved by that fact. I was in the room with a family that has ties with the union that has been running the place for years and is highly dangerous.

I have seen a community like this back in India, it was nothing I have not seen before in terms of low-than-average life quality, messy streets, small houses, and a child around dumb but the history and social context make this special in its own way. For 40 years, things have been the same. People of this community made their own homes and developed their own colonies next to these landfills. They created the union, worked with each other, know each other and protect each other. They made their own city inside the city. The trash never stopped coming. I did hear and read about the mafia control in this place but after being there I can say it is as real as it could get.

My visit concluded in an hour. Courtesy of H, the things and details I saw will stay with me forever. One hour was a short time to come to conclusions but it was enough to touch the surface of the situation. It has also left me with a lot of questions.

Q. What are the other places this waste is coming from, not only Mexico City?

Q. How much is the government involved?

Q. Why they don’t work together with these people to spread awareness about sustainable working techniques?

Q. Where does it all go after getting separated here? Other states in Mexico? Overseas?

Q. Do hospitals really take back the waste materials? What are the regulations on that?

Q. Are there any kind of training workshop about dismantling waste?

Q. How does one get a job as a recycler?

Q. Is the water contaminated with lead and mercury?

Q. Why this place is not a research ground for scientists?

Q. Why are people in this colony are looked upon as dangerous and low-class? They are humans nonetheless.

Q. Do they develop their own recycling methods and techniques? If yes. What and how?

Q. Why the new generation is getting into the family business if they have enough money to transform their life?

All in all, these are just a few questions from a 23-year-old guy, who was born in the third world, living in LA, and visiting Mexico City. There is still a lot that needs to be learned and addressed.