Living in Mexico City in 2016, I attended several delicious communal meals at an autonomous art space. When I asked where the food had been grown, I was astonished to here they had been grown here in the city. “One day, I’ll take you there, to the chinampa,” my friend told me. Yesterday, I finally made it. I woke at dawn (or a little after) to travel to Xochimilco in the south to work in the chinampas. Just an hour by public transit from my home near the center of the city and the landscape was entirely transformed. The air is cooler, fresher and we were surrounded by trees, the klaxons replaced by birds and the distant hum of moto-tillers.
Chinampas are an agriculture landscape cultivated since precolonial times, the accumulation of generations of practice and technique by which humans cultivate “floating” islands in the shallow water of a lake, creating small plots of incredible fertile land connected by a series of canals. The land is fertilized by the mud from the canals, and is highly productive. One plot of land can be harvested up to six or seven times a year, producing vast amounts of food, on par with the most chemical intensive forms of agriculture developed over the previous century.
The chinampas are vibrant ecological spaces — birds chirp and fly above, the soil is teaming with various insects, fish, the endangered axolotls swim in the water, and mountains sit quietly watching in the distance. The Chinampa represents a different possible relationship with the natural world, one attentive to the relationships that sustain life which, in making the world habitable for humans, also produces habits for a broader and interconnected set of more than human beings. How improbable to find such a space at the edge of one of the largest cities in the world.
The chinampa I visited was run by La Casa de La Chinampa in San Gregorio Atlapulco, a place known for once having hundreds of natural springs. The people there are hardworking and are the descendants of the original builders of the chimampas. The struggle to retain their form of life in this megalopolis through the rise and fall of various empires is captured in the reputation of these people. They are called “chicuarotes”, after the chile they grow on their chinampas: these are fiery and rebellious people, insumisos y insurrectas.
Today, their struggle is tied up in the economic and ecological conjuncture that Mexico finds itself in. Their vegetables are harder to market and children choose to leave the life of the chinampero behind for the usual attractions of the metropole. Furthermore, the land which was once known for hundreds of natural springs now is home to large pumps, feeding what my friends call the Ciudad Monstruo: a monstrous city whose unquenchable thirst has dried the lake upon which it was built, and is now lowering the level of water in the chinampas. The signs of ecological crisis are unnerving: for as long as anyone can remember, the chinamperas could arrive at their chinampas by canoe. Yesterday, we had to walk. Faced with this complex array of problems, more and more chinampas are left fallow, the long history of struggle to establish a relationship to the land that could sustain diverse forms of life abandoned to the homogenizing and extractive thirst of capitalism.
In the midst of this megalopolis, with the sun on our backs, we joked and laughed and learned some the the time honored techniques used to grow food in the chinampa. We hoed a large section and planted verdolaga seedlings germinated a few weeks before. We got thirsty, so one of us headed back to town for water and hopefully some pulque. We joked that he got lost, and then, as we got worried and more thirsty, pondered whether we had stumbled into some sort of horror movie. He came back, and we were so relieved to get some water that we forgave him for not finding pulque. Walking back a few hours later, we stopped to harvest kale, chives, nopales and more. There are Chicuarotes chiles growing too, that rebellious chile whose dignified rebel spirit is reflected in the chinamperos. There was more food than we could carry, more food than it seemed possible our group could harvest. Next time, I will bring more friends.
The Chinampa is an example of another way of inhabiting the city. Today, we live in a world where the majority of our fellow humans live in cities. The question of how to care for the relationships that sustain this concentration of human life without harming the larger web of relation upon which life itself depends is open and pressing. The Chinampa is one answer, a peri-urban form of dwelling and inhabiting built over centuries of experimentation and defended against multiple attempts at incursion. Cities need not be spaces of ecological death, but could instead be habitats that foster relations complex enough to sustain myraid forms of life. This is the wisdom of the Chinampa. The chinampa is an experiment in living, a project of life, dating back many hundreds of years that doesn’t base itself on the subtractive logic of extraction but the additive logic of ecological growth. There are limits to extractive growth, but not to the complexity of relation we can build with we consciously enter into relation with other forms of life.
We, like the amphibious Axolotls at home in the chinampas, must learn to straddle to two separate environments, to push the distinction of the city and the country to a point of undecidability. And like the Chicuarotes, the chinamperos of San Gregorio Atlapulco, we will only be able to do so by cultivating a rebellious ethos, one that produces spaces of life while remaining steadfast in the determination the repeal the forces arrayed against life-projects. Porque cuando sembramos la chinampa, cosechamos autonomia, y como nos enseñan los zapatistas, la autonomía es la vida.