“I invite you to learn the history of this part of la Roma,” read a sheet of printer paper, slipped under the front door of my apartment building. “I’ve lived in this area for 76 years, and my desire is to share what I know about the neighborhoods of Roma, Roma Sur, Hipódromo, Hipódromo Condesa and Condesa,” the note continued.
I took a photo of the announcement on my phone and walked out the door, past the hipster coffee shop, the comida económica restaurant, the bicycle repair workshop, and the artisanal bakery—a collage of different pieces of the city, a city which I love so deeply, and also, I’m often reminded, which I know so little about.
A few days later, my partner Ricardo and I met up with Fernando Fuentes y Ducoing, the man who had left the invitation in our building and many others like it. We were joined by a young woman who had learned of the tour the same way we had.
When I asked Fuentes how many tours he had given, he laughed. He gave his first tour in 1964, at age 19. He was born in la Hipódromo, on Calle Amsterdam, and grew up bouncing around different apartments in the area. As a teenager, his father told him he should research why the street was called Amsterdam, when the majority of other streets in the area were named after Mexican cities or states. He began asking, and researching—and he didn’t stop.
These days, he gives two tours a week, alternating between five routes. He pulls out photos, guarded in sheet protectors, and passes them among the three of us.
We learn about the Estadio Nacional, inaugurated in 1924, which hosted the first Juegos Centroamericanos y del Caribe in 1926 and the inaugurations of four Mexican presidents. The stadium was eventually replaced by a multifamily housing complex, and today, a public park and shopping mall. We walk by a large public school, Escuela Benito Juárez, which, Fuentes says, is the alma mater of presidents José López Portillo and Luis Echeverría. Across the street is a house once lived in by another former president, Pascual Ortiz Rubio.
“What would it cost them to put up a plaque?” Fuentes repeats as he points out landmarks, reiterating his frustration that the city hasn’t done much to protect the historical record of a rapidly changing area.
What Fuentes does in his tours—look toward the past—felt surprising to me because it was so different from the inertia I’d felt thus far in my neighborhood, an inertia focused on barrelling toward the future, toward what is “hip” and “new”: artisanal ice cream shops and craft beer breweries and pet boutiques.
The neighborhoods where Fuentes offers tours are some of most gentrified of Mexico City, a city with a long and complex history of gentrification, wrapped in a web of classism, racism and colorism, and political and economic opportunism, which play out in both familiar and unique ways, depending on where you are. As Martha Pskowski writes in a City Lab article analyzing displacement in the city’s historic center and forced evictions in the neighborhood of Juárez, which borders Roma Norte, “While gentrification in Mexico City is often understood in terms of class, Juárez neighbors also use the term ‘blanqueamiento’—whitening.”
Similar dynamics play out in Hipódromo’s Parque Mexico and the surrounding Calle Amsterdam, where you’re about as likely to hear English spoken as you are Spanish. These days, the park and nearby walking path are full of unmasked gringos and Europeans. Accelerated by the explosion of Airbnbs in the area, it’s a zone dominated by ”tourist gentrification”, which, explain researchers from the Instituto Mexicano para la Competitividad in a report on Airbnb in the city, refers to when “the tourist attraction and promotion of a place has gradually blurred the boundaries between residential and tourist areas, displacing residents to the point of transforming neighborhoods into touristic destinations.” You can rent a two-bedroom Airbnb near the park for US $4,000, or a one-bedroom for US $2,300 (there are cheaper options, but they’re getting harder to find).
Fuentes lived a block away from Parque México until 2010. Rent freezes first implemented in the 1940s allowed his family to live in their apartment for decades, as newer renters circulated through their building, paying more each year. But eventually, the constant attempts by landlords to raise rent to an untenable level or force the family out, paired with hovering legal threats, became too much. Fuentes and his family left, moving into neighboring Doctores.
Since then, Fuentes has watched the area—where he spends a great deal of time, exercising and giving tours—continue to transform. The neighborhood life they once had, he said, doesn’t exist anymore.
The story of gentrification in Mexico City is one of displacement and loss, but also one of creative and powerful resistance, which takes many forms—organized legal, monitoring and public advocacy movements; an anti-gentrification patron saint created by artists; and the everyday work of residents like Fuentes, who are committed to keeping the story of their home alive.
At the end of the tour, Fuentes gives us a packet with 35 captioned photos, each representing, he writes, “the historical memory of this neighborhood.” Neighbors who join him on all five of his tours will walk away with a total of around 200 photos. And that, he hopes, will be his legacy—that when he’s no longer around, the knowledge he’s spent his life collecting won’t be boxed away.
“The photos that I have, you’ll have them…and the knowledge,” he said. “That’s my hope.”