On the outskirts of Mexico City, an experiment in alternative living has been unfolding for more than three decades.
About an hour south of Mexico City, nestled in an extraordinary range of mountains called the Sierra del Tepozteco, whose fantastical rock formations studded with forest resemble those in ancient Chinese painted scrolls, an experiment in alternative living has been unfolding for more than 30 years now. The self-described “ecovillage” of Huehuecoyotl, where a group of itinerant artists from Mexico and elsewhere came to rest after traveling the world together for 15 years, has become a kind of seedbed for visionary and transformative projects, particularly ecological ones. The multitude of such efforts, their persistence and success, is one of the stories buried under the avalanche of horror that characterizes the mainstream news from Mexico.
Huehuecoyotl (pronounced “way-way-KOY-ott”) is a Nahuatl word that means the Very Old Coyote, patron deity of creativity and sensuality to the pre-Hispanic Mexica people. Its story begins with two radical students, Alberto Ruz Buenfil (son of a prominent Mexican archaeologist) and Andres King Cobos, fleeing impending repression of the Mexican student movement in 1968. They went to Europe to pay their respects to the Danish Situationist Jørgen Nash, and ended up collecting an eclectic group of followers (including one of the Situationist’s daughters, who became Cobos’ first wife). Together they formed a street performance troupe, traveling Europe, Asia, and North America in the 1970s as a kind of rainbow tribe, without passports, with only the money they could raise dancing, drumming, miming in the streets of cities and remote villages, having children, switching partners, attending or participating in many of the radical social experiments of the time on three continents.
A building within the “ecovillage” of Huehuecoyotl in Mexico. (Photo: Scott & Emily www.wegoslow.com/Flickr
At the end of the decade the two Mexican founders felt the call to return to their home country. A group of 26 accompanied them, including Europeans, U.S. Americans and other Mexicans, most parents with growing children now. They began to travel to different parts of Mexico, looking to be “called” by some place in particular. The place they found in the Sierra del Tepozteco in 1982 became their final and enduring home as a group.
They spent the early years living rustically on the undeveloped land in the brightly painted school buses and vans in which they had traveled the roads of North America at the end of the ’70s. For their own children and the locals, they started an alternative low-cost primary school in Tepoztlán, the nearest major town. It was collectively run, and lasted for 16 years, involving over a hundred children and their families.
As they began to build infrastructure on their land, the “Huehues” studied and mimicked the integrated suite of sustainable construction and water conservation techniques of San Pedro Muñoztla, in Tlaxcala state. This was a poor village transformed in the early 1980s by the work of a visionary priest, who sought to make it more self-sufficient ecologically and economically so that its population would have reason to remain instead of fleeing to the cities. Its approach has since been widely studied and used as a model in other communities in Mexico and beyond.
Picturesque, steep-streeted Tepoztlán, meanwhile, with its cliff-top temple to the Mexica god of pulque (described below), was becoming known as a haven for New Age crystal gazers and other spiritual questers. But it was also a place where militant battles to preserve local culture from large-scale commercial development were fought. Members of Huehuecoyotl participated in the multi-year struggle to defeat a golf course and mega-hotel project there. It was ultimately successful, a landmark David and Goliath battle that was chronicled by activist filmmaker Saul Landau in We Don’t Play Golf Here.
The families of Huehuecoyotl were avatars and early adopters in Mexico of a “deep ecology” perspective. Together with local activists, they started organizing large gatherings in different rural areas of Mexico called “Earth Guardians Vision Councils.” Hundreds came together in these weeklong camps to learn from indigenous leaders about their earth-centered cosmovision and their stewardship practices. They also learned the theory and techniques of permaculture and bioregionalism, which the Huehues were among the first to disseminate in Mexico.
In 1994, Ruz Buenfil, feeling the call of the road again, decided to launch a new itinerant project, a caravan that would travel the Americas all the way to Tierra del Fuego, teaching permaculture and promoting respect for indigenous traditions and local cultures through music, dance, and street theater. The Caravana Arcoiris por la Paz’s (Rainbow Peace Caravan) 13-year journey, which took a changing cast of international participants to almost every country in Central and South America, culminated in an official position given them by the Brazilian Ministry of Culture (directed at that time by iconic Brazilian musician Gilberto Gil) to serve as teachers and event organizers promoting ecological sustainability through art and culture.
Along the way Huehuecoyotl became a nexus point for all sorts of cultural cross-fertilization: ecological, artistic, and therapeutic, hosting many festivals and retreats. One of its founders became a professor at Goddard College in Vermont, and developed a program that brought students to Huehuecoyotl to study techniques for sustainable living. The community was also a founding member of the Global Ecovillage Network, which now includes over 200 sustainable communities on five continents. Another founder and former member started an international college-without-walls called Gaia University, which offers mentored programs in “ecosocial regeneration.” Thanks to these networks and others, a continual stream of alternative living advocates and practitioners passes through Huehuecoyotl each year from all over the world.
But the community’s role in Mexico is just as remarkable. One of the most interesting cross-fertilizations was set in motion by Helen Samuels, not a member but a long-time resident of Huehuecoyotl. A human rights lawyer brought up in Mexico as the child of blacklisted Hollywood film industry workers, she was at home both north and south of the border. She befriended a group of anarcho-punks from Mexico City’s mean streets who were eking out a living making recycled art from objects culled from the mega-city’s gargantuan garbage dump. Samuels talked to them about permaculture and invited them to come to Huehuecoyotl and learn how, even in a trash-strewn, concrete-walled city lot, they could grow their own food and increase their autonomy. The big-booted, pierced, black-garbed punks made multiple trips to pastoral Huehuecoyotl to work and learn in the community’s vegetable gardens. They joined the eclectic participants in the Earth Guardian Vision Councils – Mexican hippies, eco-warriors, alternative healers and indigenous teachers – some even traveling to the parallel gatherings coordinated by the caravan in stops along its South American route.
This connection continues to the present day, with some of the ever-morphing group of punks (many of them now parents with children) acting as Vision Council coordinators (the 15th council will take place in Jalisco state this coming November), and participating in other events to promote ecological awareness in Mexico. One group started a Mexico City nightclub six years ago that has become not just a go-to spot for young Mexicans and visiting foreigners, but a center for politically conscious art exhibits, concerts, and poetry readings. It also features the punks’ craft production of the Mexican fermented beverage pulque (made from the agave plant like its more famous cousin mescal). Pulque is a quintessential creation of Mexico’s rural poor, which the club is single-handedly restoring to favor among a younger urban generation.
Internally, Huehuecoyotl was never contradiction-free: its artist-founders allowed a higher level of individualism and personal consumption than many “intentional” communities would favor. For example, at this point (after spending much of their lives without them) most members own personal cars; there is no collective economic project; there is no longer any attempt to produce even a small amount of their food collectively. Regular coordinating meetings are not even held any longer – only the ownership and management of their land is in common, and that is by consensus agreement, not by Mexican law.
But several core members retain a fervent commitment to ecological activism. Ruz Buenfil has been dedicating himself to efforts to codify the Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth (now part of the code of law in Bolivia and Ecuador) in Mexico, and ultimately, in the U.N. King Cobos, a published poet, officiates at ceremonial gatherings in different parts of Mexico that strengthen indigenous spiritual traditions. Others have been involved in the hard-fought campaign to save Mexico’s more than 4,000-year-old cultivation of native corn from free trade-related dumping of cheap U.S. pesticide-intensive and genetically modified varieties, and to promote local, affordable organic agriculture as an alternative.
Huehuecoyotl still remains at the center of a web of visionary alternatives that extends far beyond Mexico. But the community is entering a phase that many collective social experiments have not survived: its founding members are all in their 60s and 70s, many no longer live in the community full-time, and none of their adult children are currently living on the site. New members in the last 15 years have been scarce as well.
Land speculation in this beautiful area not far from the sprawling capital city is high – although Mexico’s descent into extreme violence (it is now the third most deadly country from armed conflict in the world after Syria and Iraq) has put brakes on much of the buying and selling for the time being. Perhaps of even greater import to average Mexicans, their country is now among the top three most unequal of the 34 member countries in the Organization for Cooperation and Economic Development. The vast majority of the population thus lives in extreme financial uncertainty, and decent jobs outside Mexico’s biggest cities and tourist areas are nearly impossible to find. Mexico also has a disproportionate share of the world’s youth with neither jobs nor high school degrees. Most of Huehue’s next generation, like the majority of Mexicans, has migrated to the cities or outside the country to work.
So Huehuecoyotl’s future is no more guaranteed than Mexico’s. For now it stands, a testament to the possibilities that were unleashed in the tempest of liberation movements of the last century. They cling tenaciously against the unrelenting war that the far-more successful liberation of global capital has waged on them. Whether these alternatives can thrive or just survive in the coming years will depend on unforeseeable factors, since the one clear global trend emerging in the 21st century is increasing chaos: environmental, financial, social. But as long as such visionary projects continue to exist, they offer concrete examples of paths that might be taken, in Mexico and elsewhere.