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Episode 53: Un hogar en tierra prohibida (A Home on Forbidden Land)

By Duolingo on Thu 16 April 2020

When María Elena Paz moved to a plot of land on the outskirts of Mexico City, she was shocked to find no water, electricity, or roads. She and her neighbors weren't even supposed to live in the ecologically protected zone. But María Elena was ready to move mountains to show her community that the power to improve their living conditions was in their hands.

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Transcript

Martina: One day in 2002, María Elena Paz found herself entering a big office building in Mexico City. In her sweet, soft-spoken voice, she asked to talk to the most important person there.

María Elena: Yo llegué a la recepción donde estaban los guardias de seguridad. Ellos me preguntaron qué quería y yo les dije: "Quiero hablar con Carlos Slim". Inmediatamente, empezaron a reírse de mí.

Martina: Carlos Slim is a Mexican billionaire—one of the richest people in the world. And María Elena was a single mother juggling three jobs. Yet here she was, at the doorstep of Telmex, a telecommunications company owned by Carlos Slim, to request phone lines for her neighborhood.

María Elena: Ellos se sorprendieron porque yo quería hablar con el jefe. Pero, en realidad, yo no sabía quién era Carlos Slim, ni lo importante que era. Aún riéndose, los guardias me dejaron subir al piso más alto para hablar con un asistente de Carlos.

Martina: The guards were laughing, but María Elena was dead serious. She had tried and failed to get her local township to provide the phone lines, so she'd looked up Telmex headquarters in the phone book and found Carlos Slim's name. Now, she was in the halls of power.

María Elena: La oficina era muy bonita y lujosa, con una alfombra de color azul. Yo miré al asistente a los ojos y le dije que las líneas telefónicas eran una necesidad para las familias y las escuelas de mi comunidad, no eran un lujo.

Martina: The phone lines were a necessity, not a luxury, or lujo. So she asked for them. And she got them. Carlos Slim's assistant agreed to put María Elena in touch with an engineer who would get the phone lines installed.

María Elena: Cuando bajé a la recepción los guardias me preguntaron si había hablado con alguien. Yo les dije: "Sí, claro", y salí muy contenta de ahí.

Martina: It was a hard-won victory with a major payoff. María Elena had just significantly improved the quality of life for her entire neighborhood. But what she didn't realize that day was that she was training for her biggest challenge yet—to inspire a whole other neighborhood in Mexico City to fight for a sense of home and a higher standard of living in their town.

María Elena: Mucha gente no lo creía posible, pero yo sé que si pensamos de manera positiva, podemos obtener todo lo que necesitamos. Yo nunca dejo nada a la mitad. Si empiezo a hacer algo, lo termino.

Martina: Bienvenidos and welcome to the Duolingo Spanish Podcast—I'm Martina Castro. Every episode, we bring you fascinating true stories, to help you improve your Spanish listening and gain new perspectives on the world.

The storyteller will be using intermediate Spanish and I'll be chiming in for context in English. If you miss something, you can always skip back and listen again. We also offer full transcripts at podcast.duolingo.com.

Martina: María Elena Paz is the first to admit that she's always been headstrong. She married young, against her family's wishes. And by the age of 26, she was divorced with two daughters and a third child on the way. So she moved back in with her parents in Tlalpan, a neighborhood in Mexico City.

María Elena: Yo crecí en Tlalpan y viví ahí hasta que me casé. Es una zona muy urbana. Hay muchos hospitales, escuelas y un buen servicio de transporte. Es un buen lugar para vivir.

Martina: But Tlalpan wasn't without its problems. And here's where María Elena's headstrong nature was an advantage—when she noticed an issue, like with the drinking water or drainage system, she wouldn't wait for others to fix it. She would figure out how she and her neighbors could tackle it themselves.

María Elena: Juntos construimos un terreno para jugar basquetbol y pintamos la escuela. También recolectamos firmas para la construcción de un puente peatonal. Después de eso, decidí ir a la oficina de Carlos Slim para hablar con él y pedirle líneas telefónicas para mí y para mis vecinos. Así fue como comencé a dedicarme a mi comunidad.

Martina: But as María Elena worked to improve Tlalpan, it was getting increasingly expensive to live there. María Elena's parents had just enough to make ends meet, so she had to hustle to help out.

María Elena: Yo era mamá soltera y tenía que trabajar mucho para poder pagar el transporte, comprar la leche, la comida y otras cosas.

Martina: She threw herself into three jobs at once—in school administration, at a law office, and for the national election commission.

María Elena: Para poder tener más dinero, en mi día de descanso yo vendía elotes.

Martina: Elote is an ear of corn slathered in mayonnaise, cream, chile, and lime. But all of these jobs weren't enough. As the family's cost of living continued to rise, María Elena's parents said they couldn't keep supporting her. She had to pay rent or move out.

María Elena: Yo estaba muy triste porque había vivido casi toda mi vida en Tlalpan y ahí estaba mi familia. No me quería ir.

Martina: Right around that difficult time, María Elena took a liking to one of her co-workers at the election commission. He was a kind man named Palemón.

María Elena: Cuando lo conocí, nadie podía cuidar a mis hijas, entonces yo las llevaba a la oficina y las dejaba sentadas frente a una mesa, escribiendo y dibujando. Palemón llegaba y jugaba con ellas.

Martina: Palemón asked María Elena if she had ever thought about giving love another try.

María Elena: Yo tenía miedo porque mi primer matrimonio no había funcionado. Pero él me dijo: "Dame una oportunidad para hacerte feliz a ti y a tus hijas". ¡Yo sentí que estaba en un cuento de hadas!

Martina: It was like a fairytale—un cuento de hadas. Not only did they quickly fall in love, but Palemón's mother offered them a part of her land. It was in a tiny community called Tehuixtitla, on the outskirts of Mexico City, about an hour from where Maria Elena had grown up.

María Elena: El terreno era grande, así que podíamos construir una casita. Era una oportunidad increíble para empezar una nueva vida juntos.

Martina: What María Elena hadn't realized was how different Tehuixtitla was from her hometown. She'll never forget the day she moved in.

María Elena: No había luz, no había agua… Yo caminaba en la tierra y en la oscuridad.

Martina: The terrain was nothing but rocks and dirt. Rickety fences marked property lines. Donkeys and chickens wandered about, and the humble houses were a hodge-podge of red brick, stones, and corrugated sheet metal.

María Elena: Me sorprendí mucho al llegar. Nunca imaginé que iba a tener que vivir así, en un lugar tan rústico.

Martina: The fairytale life she had envisioned with Palemón seemed like it was starting to unravel. This was her new reality.

María Elena: Me pregunté: "¿Qué hago aquí? ¿Por qué me vine a vivir acá?".

Martina: With a population of 21 million, Mexico City is dense and sprawling. On the outskirts, people have long been creating neighborhoods like Tehuixtitla—which are beyond the limits of where local government offers basic services.

María Elena: Los primeros habitantes llegaron a inicios de los años ochenta. Ellos tenían pocos recursos y no tenían un lugar para vivir. El gobierno vio que había mucha gente, así que tomó una decisión y les dijo: "Se pueden quedar aquí, pero tienen que seguir nuestras reglas".

Martina: They had to follow rules because they had unintentionally settled on top of a very important aquifer—a natural water source designated an ecological zone. It's protected by various laws.

María Elena: Por ejemplo, está prohibido poner pavimento en las calles, construir casas muy grandes, o encender fuego en las áreas abiertas. Y todas las casas deben tener áreas verdes.

Martina: They also can't dig a hole in the ground for a latrine, no tree removal is allowed, and residents are required to keep the neighborhood streets spotless.

María Elena: La regla más importante es la siguiente: "Está prohibido contaminar el ecosistema".

Martina: All the rules made it difficult for María Elena to feel at home in Tehuixtitla. To make matters worse, she and her neighbors were always at risk of being kicked out.

María Elena: Nosotros teníamos que hacer las cosas con mucho cuidado porque siempre estaban buscando una razón para sacarnos del territorio. Vivir allí era muy difícil.

Martina: Local officials did agree to help the town's 1,000 residents understand how to live on protected land. But the city refused to provide any basic services, and María Elena's new neighbors seemed resigned to the lack of support. So María Elena did her best to adjust to the new rhythms of her daily life.

María Elena: Todo era completamente nuevo para mí. Yo me tenía que levantar temprano para poder hacer todas las tareas del día. Cuidaba a mis hijas y a Palemón bajo condiciones muy difíciles.

Martina: One problem was that they had to walk everywhere.

María Elena: No había medios de transporte porque los vehículos no podían subir la colina. Solo había caminos de tierra y piedras. Pero el problema más grave era el acceso al agua.

Martina: To get water, María Elena had to hike down a steep dirt path every single day, and then trudge back up the hill with a little donkey hauling her water jugs.

María Elena: Cuando terminaba de buscar el agua, yo me tenía que bañar, limpiar la casa, preparar la comida y, por último, hablar con los vecinos sobre cómo mejorar nuestra vida. Después de eso, Palemón llegaba del trabajo y nosotros pasábamos tiempo juntos con mis hijas.

Martina: One day, María Elena witnessed a neighbor nearly give birth on the hillside because she had no way of getting down to a hospital. That was it, she thought. Something had to be done.

María Elena: Yo hablé con mis vecinos y les pregunté: "¿Qué vamos a hacer?". Es muy fácil criticar, pero teníamos que ser positivos y ponernos a trabajar.

Martina: At first, people didn't really know how to respond to their new assertive neighbor. Prior to María Elena's arrival, disagreements over property lines, land usage and adherence to the rules threatened to tear neighbors apart.

María Elena: Había muchísimos conflictos y era muy difícil llegar a un acuerdo.

Martina: María Elena was convinced that if the community got organized, and managed to get along, they wouldn't have to wait for the government to give them a better quality of life. They could make improvements themselves. So as a first step, she joined the community's leadership committee.

María Elena: Yo era la única mujer. La última vez que hubo una mujer en el comité, ella se fue después de una semana porque era un ambiente demasiado machista. Pero yo les propuse algo original, un plan con cinco objetivos: agua, calles, luz, líneas telefónicas y convivencia.

Martina: Eventually, the men on the committee accepted María Elena, and she convinced them to get behind her five-point plan. The first thing she wanted to tackle was access to water. So she got in touch with the pipas—private water trucks—to see if they would climb the hill and deliver water to their houses.

María Elena: El comité contactó una empresa de servicios de pipas, pero nos pusieron una condición: tener calles seguras para subir la colina.

Martina: So first they'd have to fix the roads. María Elena had gotten in touch with the municipal government to see if they'd help by donating water tanks. They said no, but…

María Elena: El gobierno estaba ofreciendo material para construir un camino ecológico.

Martina: These paths were a more economical and environmentally friendly way to build roads on a steep hillside. They're essentially paved tire tracks, with the rest filled in with grass and rocks to allow water to seep into the ground and make its way into the aquifer.

María Elena: Estas calles podían ser utilizadas no solo por las pipas, sino también por las ambulancias, la policía u otros servicios para ayudar a la comunidad.

Martina: So they took the material that was donated to them by the municipality and they got to building these ecological paths. The neighbors came together to do all the work themselves.

María Elena: Nosotros nos organizábamos por grupos y empezamos a trabajar en los caminos los fines de semana. Tehuixtitla significa "lugar de piedras", porque, como su nombre lo indica, es una zona con muchas piedras. Las mujeres las buscábamos y los hombres preparaban la mezcla con ellas.

Martina: Once they had built eleven roads, María Elena went back to the pipas. They approved of the tracks and agreed to start delivering water two days a week.

María Elena: Dos años después, prácticamente todas las casas recibían agua. Fue algo muy emocionante porque no fue un trabajo fácil. Cuando la primera pipa subió a llevar el agua, mis vecinos estaban contentos porque fue un gran cambio para todos.

Martina: Unfortunately, María Elena's victory didn't last long. Sometimes the water was dirty, and after a change in government, one of the biweekly water deliveries mysteriously stopped. So María Elena turned to Plan B: collecting rainwater. She contacted an NGO called Isla Urbana to see if they could help, and they agreed.

María Elena: Nosotros empezamos a recolectar el agua de los techos. Isla Urbana nos enseñó un procedimiento de limpieza que nos ayudó muchísimo. El agua quedaba muy limpia y transparente.

Martina: María Elena says this was a total game changer.

María Elena: Nosotros recogemos el agua de lluvia de mayo a noviembre. Y esta agua sirve para todos los servicios, excepto para tomar.

Martina: Finally solving the water and road issues brought María Elena a lot of credibility with her neighbors. Her partner and her daughters were proud of what she had accomplished.

María Elena: Yo no hago nada sola, siempre he tenido la ayuda incondicional de Palemón y de mis hijas. Esas niñas son toda mi vida y me hacen seguir hacia adelante.

Martina: The success motivated María Elena to go even further. The next point on her plan was cell service. Again, she called in a favor at Carlos Slim's office. She secured the money for another cell phone tower. This time, in Tehuixtitla.

María Elena: Al principio, algunos de los vecinos no creían en mí y no entendían por qué yo tomaba tantas decisiones en su comunidad. Pero, después de un tiempo, me gané el respeto de casi todos. Me saludaban en la calle y me pedían ayuda. ¡Eso me hacía feliz!

Martina: With her community finally coming together, María Elena turned her attention to the next big issue: electricity. Some residents of Tehuixtitla had connected themselves to a nearby electrical grid, and they shared electricity with their neighbors. But for a long time, nobody wanted to let a newcomer like María Elena connect to their power lines.

María Elena: Yo vivía en la oscuridad, cocinaba con velas y usaba linterna para ir al baño en la noche. Entonces, decidí analizar la situación para poder encontrar una solución. Yo busqué y descubrí cuál era la cantidad necesaria de watts para ofrecerle electricidad a toda la comunidad.

Martina: María Elena learned that if they bought their own transformer, they could get rid of their dangerous patchwork electrical grid and have a more stable source of light. So, she organized a fundraising campaign with her neighbors. In just one month, they had the money they needed.

María Elena: Nosotros tuvimos que comprar todo el material y encontrar un electricista capaz de trabajar con esas corrientes porque eran muy altas y peligrosas.

Martina: It's been fifteen years since María Elena first decided to tackle the issues in Tehuixtitla. Today, she and her neighbors can do things like drive home, take a shower, and flip on a light switch. Simple, but life-changing acts. People are constantly giving María Elena tokens of gratitude.

María Elena: Yo respeto a mis vecinos y ellos me respetan a mí. Cuando necesitan algo, me lo dicen y yo busco la manera de ayudarlos. Pero yo no trabajo sola, somos un equipo y cada uno juega un papel esencial.

Martina: There's still work to be done. The water trucks still only come once a week, and big trucks sometimes break down on the steep neighborhood streets. But despite the room for improvement, María Elena has finally found the one thing that was missing from her life for so long: a stable, permanent home.

María Elena: A mí me gusta vivir en la naturaleza. Yo escucho los pájaros y siento la tranquilidad. No hay muchos carros y podemos caminar por la tierra tranquilamente. Todos mis vecinos plantaron flores afuera de sus casas. ¡Vivir aquí es una experiencia muy hermosa!

Martina: María Elena Paz lives in Mexico City. At the age of 54, she's studying social work at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, and she intends to apply what she learns to future projects in Tehuixtitla. She's also thinking about running for office someday.

This story was produced by Grant Fuller, a writer and editor based in Santiago, Chile.

We'd love to know what you thought of this episode! Send us an email with your feedback at podcast@duolingo.com. And if you liked this story, please share it! You can find the audio and a transcript of each episode at podcast.duolingo.com. You can also subscribe at Apple Podcasts or your favorite listening app, so you never miss an episode.

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The Duolingo Spanish podcast is produced by Duolingo and Adonde Media. I'm the executive producer, Martina Castro. ¡Gracias por escuchar!

Credits

This episode was produced by Duolingo and Adonde Media.

Producer: Grant Fuller
Narrator & Protagonist: María Elena Paz
Script Editor: Catalina May
Mixed by: Jeanne Montalvo
Sound Design & Mastering Engineer: Jeanne Montalvo