In the 1970s, before workers laid the asphalt that became a two-lane highway connecting Mexico City with Milpa Alta, the southernmost of the city’s 16 delegations, Javier Galicia-Silva’s grandmother would hike down the hills to Xochimilco each day at 04:00. From here she would take a chalupa (a large water taxi) along the ancient canals that lead towards downtown, where she’d spend the day selling fresh produce in the La Merced district near the grand Zócalo (historic centre). With a bit of money and some supplies loaded on her back, she’d return to the village around 20:00 in time to sleep and do the six-hour round trip all over again the next day.
Although farmers from Milpa Alta now make the trip by road, bringing nopal (an edible cactus), mole (a traditional Mexican sauce), honey and tortillas fresh from their homes and gardens to sell in markets and on street corners across the city, not much else has changed.
Milpa Alta (‘high cornfield’ in Spanish) couldn’t be more different from the smog-laden city to which it formally belongs and that it overlooks from its mountainside location. What used to be known as distant farmland and Nahua villages has slowly been ceded into the city. Although literally part of Mexico City, it’s rarely visited by other Mexico City residents. Foreign tourists are even more unusual. And although it’s officially within the city limits, the people of Milpa Alta in many ways live as they have done for hundreds of years.
Many people here speak Nahuatl, the language of the Aztec empire, and they still use the pre-Columbian milpa system of crop rotation. The delegation is approximately 50% forest, and the fields are mostly pesticide free, watered by the rain and ploughed by horses. Insects and various heirloom corns (including blue and red varieties) are still very much part of the diet in this municipality that produces a huge quantity of food for the city, just as it did for the inhabitants of Tenochtitlán (the ancient city of the Aztecs, now known as central Mexico City) more than 500 years ago. Of Mexico City’s delegations, Milpa Alta is the greenest and least populated. It’s a land of forests and fields, not of concrete shantytowns common among the city’s sprawl.
Despite the relatively new road, getting to Milpa Alta still requires an effort. The congestion of Xochimilco, its neighbouring delegation, makes for a long bus ride from either the train station in Xochimilco or from Tasqueña, the city’s southernmost subway station and transportation hub. When I visited, it was two hours of stop-and-go along one-way roads. The traffic out of Mexico City slowly lightened, the road began to switchback and the air cleared. The bus slowly emptied and the mountains that are often invisible from within the central city suddenly loomed above me. It was clear that I was headed somewhere else, a place somehow distant. When the complex, sweet scent of mole began to waft into the bus, the driver announced the stop for San Pedro Atocpan: the first of the 12 pueblos in Milpa Alta, and a world away from the urbanity of Mexico City.
Read more: BBC