"Wake up Temacans. If you don't act now your great-grandparents are going to rise from the dead and pull your feet at night."
So says Alfonso, a man in his 70s who was born in Temacapulín, a tiny village in the highlands of Jalisco, Mexico. Lovingly called Temaca by its residents, the village is sheltered by a remarkable system of hills and ravines, which protect it from the region's harsh weather. The yearly episodes of frost and hail that devastate neighboring harvests leave Temacan crops untouched. The locals say this is because of the good grace of the Virgin of the Remedies, their town patron, and the Cristo de la Peñita, a local rock formation that resembles Christ on the cross. Religion is at the center of peoples' lives. Faith keeps them going above all else.
To the outside world the Temacan way of life may seem underdeveloped. The village doesn't have paved roads, a supermarket, a movie theater, a drug store, a gas station or even cell phone reception. But Temacans do have spacious homes, patches of land to grow their own vegetables and corn, a school, a sporting field, a 250-year-old basilica and perhaps the cleanest tree-lined cobblestone streets in Mexico. The Rio Verde borders the town, providing families with an idyllic place to swim and fish.
This proximity to the river has made the utopian village a target.
If the National Water Commission (NWC) and the federal and state governments have their way, Temaca will no longer exist in 2013. It will be flooded, creating a reservoir to transfer water to the neighboring state of Guanajuato. The reservoir has been in the works for years, but it was only revealed in 2007 that three towns would be flooded: Acasico, Palamarejo and Temaca. The government initially told the residents that if the majority of them agreed to it, they would be relocated and compensated for their homes and property. When the townspeople said no, the government's tone changed. They said that if the people did not go willingly, their land and homes would be expropriated and they would receive nothing. In Acasico and Palmarejo, fear turned into submission and most people agreed to leave. Temaca, however, is a different story.
The town's opposition to the reservoir first became visible on its walls. A couple of years ago graffiti was foreign to Temaca, but suddenly the phrase, "no a la presa," (no to the dam) appeared on every street corner and lamppost. Soon complicated signs were designed, printed and posted on every surface. Religious images appeared alongside with defiant messages, reflecting the Temacans' strong belief that a higher power accompanies their fight.
"We feel a grief so deep it is like constantly mourning a loved one," says Isaura, one of the town matriarchs. She is 90 years old and doesn't like to drive, but she got in her truck and went to eight neighboring towns to ask their mayors to sign a petition in opposition to the reservoir. She was successful in every instance. Isaura also filed the first successful appeal against the reservoir on the grounds of unconstitutionality. While her win is no guarantee, it will delay the building process. Attorneys working pro bono on the case plan to file 500 appeals, one for each Temacan.
The Temacans' concern goes far beyond their individual homes; they see a heritage that needs to be preserved. The idea of flooding their basilica and their revered Christon the rock is nothing short of sacrilege. They are trying to get both declared National Cultural Heritage sites, which would offer them some legal protection. Archeologists have also found vestiges of human settlements in Temaca dating back to the 6th century and the villagers are trying to get support from universities to stop the loss of valuable historic artifacts.
Women are at the forefront of the fight. They spend the night before each protest preparing meals to share the next day. Every time government prospectors come to town to measure homes and calculate their value, a group of widows quietly lets the air out of their tires and writes "go away" on their windshields. Martha, a young mother of three, has simple reasons for wanting to save her town, "If I'm here in Temaca and I have no money, I can go to the store and get a kilo of tortillas on credit and my children will be fed. If I have to move to the city and go through difficult times, nobody will help me out." She understands that by flooding their town the government will not only be taking away their property but their community and safety net – things that take generations to build and may prove irrevocable.
Reservoirs and dams are the largest public works projects in Mexico. What is really at stake for the government is not the lives of over one thousand people but access to the 800 million dollars allocated for the construction of the reservoir that would flood Temaca.
Far from resigning themselves to a devastating fate, Temacans continue to believe in their village and they show it by investing in the upkeep of their homes, opening new businesses and trying to attract tourists and weekend residents. The more threats they receive, the more encouraged they feel. The town with no internet access now has two websites to inform people of their impending annihilation. Young Temacan men who had been living in bigger cities for many years have come back to the town to join their families in the struggle. One of them, Gabriel, comfortingly tells his mother, "Don't forget we have a plan Z. We will build a dike around the town if we have to." Faith, hope and this unbreakable spirit just might save Temacans from the water.
Monica Lopez is the Editor-in-Chief of Mexico Design magazine.