Mexico City's Island Life: Enchanting and Endangered
Story and photos by Lydia Carey

Mexico City was built atop a series of lakes and canals and the waterways that are left may be the key to its survival in the future—and a key source of quality food.

Chinampas near Mexico City

Despite a certain oily slickness on the water, Mexico City's Xochimilco canals are alive with the buzzing of a thousand insects and the call of dozens of birds. Speckled gray cormorants, tall, white herons, and ducks of various shapes and sizes search for breakfast in the canals' heavily-sedimented water.

A few aging farmers hoe their fields in the morning sunlight and solitary cows watch us glide past from grass-covered islands. If I close my eyes and ignore the sound of water lapping against the boat, this could be any other farming community in Mexico—the distant sound of dogs barking, the shuffle of cattle moving in the grass, the creaking labor of a wooden plow pushing its way into the the earth. But when I open them again I'm reminded that this is no normal farm town, instead it's one of the world's oldest and most efficient agricultural systems.

On the weekends, wildly painted boats carry tourists through the main canals of Xochimilco to the strains of marimba music and the clinking of ice-cold Coronas. The Xochimilco canals are in every guidebook. They have become an essential part of the Mexico City experience. Like most who moved here from abroad, I've been on quite a few rides out into these waters with guests and family visiting the city. For a long time I believed those handful of aquatic avenues were all that was left of the ancient lake bed that lies below the metropolis, but I was wrong, and today I am hitching a ride into the lesser-transited canals that make up the chinampas, the labyrinth of canals and islands that reside outside of the main tourist waterways.

Growing on an Inland Island

SantanaMy guide for the day is Giovanni Santana, whose family has been farming here for generations. He is the last in a long line of chinamperos (chinampa farmers) that date back to the Aztecs, who built the original islands when they arrived in the Valley of Mexico. Hedged in by Mexican willow trees whose roots have kept centuries of earth in place, the chinampa islands were fundamental to the flourishing of one of the greatest pre-Colombian civilizations in the Valley of Mexico over 2,000 years ago. Similar to the ancient Mesopotamians and the Chinese, the Aztecs were able to develop the intricacies of their culture—complex religious practices, stunning art, a robust culinary tradition—because they had a stable, year-round source of food.

Today Santana is taking me out to see a few of his floating fields. He speaks low and soft, and I strain forward to listen over the buzz of the engine as he tells me that his family farms a total of 20 chinampa fields in the area. It sounds like a lot until you consider that today there are a shade more than 4,400 acres of chinampas fields and just a century ago there were almost 50,000. Most of Santana's family is growing for the city's main produce market, the Central de Abastos, in Itzapalapa. They will grow monocrops of broccoli or lettuce or verdolaga (purslane) and every fifteen days or so harvest the entire field and start again. They sell in bulk and they sell cheap, making very little for their effort.

Shack at the farm

From the prow of Santana's boat I can see a tiny shack, brightly colored, built on the edge of the field of romeritos, seepweed in English. It looks a little like the bottom of the ocean, pale-green waves of succulents that thrive on the salty soils of the chinampa islands. Santana surveys the scene, the years of a much older man settled on his 31-year-old face. He has been harvesting in these fields since he was a child, rambunctious and wild.

“I would always rush and cut [the romeritos] wrong, and they would tell me to slow down and do it right,” he says, smiling at the memory.

“Sometimes my grandfather would say to me, 'Let's go out to the chinampas and keep an eye on the cows—because if you didn't people stole them. He would make these shelters out of sheets of tin and we would hang out. I liked that.”

Cow at the farm

An Endangered Habitat

It's possible that Santana might be the last generation of chinamperos with those kinds of stories to tell. According to a 2015 documentary called Reflexion, 95% of the chinampa fields are now abandoned. Why? Well, according to Santana, friends, cousins and neighbors have left the chinampas for shorter hours and easier money in the city.

“There used to be lots more people,” he tells me, “but farming is tough. You're vulnerable. One day is good, another day is bad. Chinampa kids go off to study and then they aren't interested in farming anymore.”

“We don't respect farmers the way they should be respected,” says Luis Zambrano, scientist with the Ecological Restoration Laboratory (Laboratorio de Restauración Ecológica) that is focused on restoring the chinampa eco-system. “Someone who gets up at 4am and works in the fields all day shouldn't be paid 200 pesos for his labor. We have to pay farmers what they deserve and restore their place in our society.”

Zambrano has been working for the last 15 years on a project to bring the axolotl population back to the chinampas. Axolotl are an amphibian species endemic to the lake bed the chinampas have been built atop of. They look almost mythical—part fish, part salamander—and like many amphibians that breathe through their skin, their presence is a major indicator that water is healthy. So their absence is a big problem.

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Read this article online at: Mexico City's Island Life: Enchanting and Endangered

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