Mexico City’s “Vecindades”: A Cultural Icon

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In Spanish, the word “vecindad” means neighborhood — neutral and nonspecific.

In Mexico, though, it also means something else: a kind of tenement where individual apartments encircle a central patio, and residents often share facilities such as bathrooms and kitchens. 

The housing type became central to the popular conception of Mexico in the 20th century — as well as an on-the-nose symbol of the country’s colonial history. Vecindades originated as grandiose Spanish construction, influenced by existing Indigenous culture and tradition. Later, they emptied of aristocratic European inhabitants and were eventually taken over by the Mexican working class.

The history of these structures in Mexico City is rich and deep; they tell a story about the city’s development into a megalopolis, not to mention the country’s myriad — and sometimes seismic — economic and political shifts from the 17th century onward. Today, the number of vecindades in the city has dwindled, and the ones still standing are often in serious disrepair; but they continue to mean something to the urban landscape and to many people living in it, for whom the old buildings form a nostalgic but essential part of what it means to be Mexican.

Housing for the Elite

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While they were later associated with working and lower middle class tenants, many central vecindades were originally grand housing built for the elite. Photographer: Alejandro Cegarra/Bloomberg

The buildings that would eventually become vecindades began to be constructed in Mexico City’s historic center in the 16th century, right after the arrival of Spanish colonists. During Spanish rule, wealthy families built large homes in a classic Andalusian Spanish style, with rooms spanning multiple stories encircling an open-air patio — a descendant of the Roman Atrium that may have remained popular in Spain due to the influence of Islamic architectural traditions, which favor inner courtyards. This structure kept the space cool, encouraging airflow between rooms in the home. The layout was also used by the Catholic Church  when constructing convents, hospitals and schools.

These buildings, usually between two and five stories high, had windows facing inward toward the elongated patio, says José Castillo, an architect and urban planner in Mexico City. They tended to be on very narrow lots, about 10 meters wide, and made of compact stone or brick. The rooms themselves also tended to be narrow, around 3 square meters, albeit with high ceilings as a cooling technique. While some of these courtyard mansions were plain, many had stone facades and intricate stonework or other decorative elements, including portraits depicting old Spanish families or religious figures — all denoting their owners’ wealth. This model continued into the late 18th century, from which many vecindades date.

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Illustrator: Josh Kramer/Bloomberg CityLab

Upheaval in Mexico meant that they were not destined to remain as elite residences or church property for long. The 19th century brought industrialization and the collapse of the country’s largely agrarian past, leading thousands of people to migrate to cities in search of work — particularly to the capital city. The wealthy began to flee the city center, while mid-19th-century Reform Laws saw church property nationalized. Slowly, these buildings began to empty and working class renting families moved in, as the rooms around the patios were the only housing they could reasonably afford.

A Cultural Icon

These families slept in cramped conditions, with multiple people occupying rooms originally meant to be sleeping quarters in a larger, single household. While in more recent decades, residents have added indoor cooking and washing facilities and mezzanines that create extra space, the vecindades originally lacked  private amenities, making the central patio a hub for daily activities. That setup created a deeply communal way of life for inhabitants — relationships with neighbors grew as complex, involved and profound as those with one’s own family. 

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Typically small and rather cramped, vecindad apartments are often converted with mezzanine sleeping platforms to free up more shared space below.Photographer: Alejandro Cegarra/Bloomberg

It’s this semi-communal character that gave the vecindades their name, whose etymology, Castillo explains, comes from the word “vecino,” or “neighbor.” The term “relates to the fact that this is less an architectural typology, but starts from a communal or social way of living,” he says. “It’s a social process of understanding housing rather than an architectural process of understanding housing.”

While the vecindades were relative havens of affordability for ex-rural migrants, there were still hierarchies even in this democratic and communal space. To avoid steep walk-ups, families desired apartments closer to the ground floor, says Castillo — although not on the ground floor itself, which tended to get little light and to be exposed to the patio’s noise and activities. In vecindades with multiple internal patios, it was considered desirable to live on the one nearest to the street (hence references in Mexican popular culture to “el quinto patio,” the fifth patio, being synonymous with poverty). 

Such communal housing arrangements  are in fact common across Latin America, albeit under different names; conventillos in Buenos Aires, quintas in Peru  and so on. But despite their ubiquity in the Americas, Mexican vecindades have become a badge of distinctly local identity. Although many hold Mexico City’s vecindades in disregard for the poverty of residents and perceptions about cleanliness and crime, they have become synonymous with a particular idea of Mexico and nostalgia for a certain period in its history.

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“There’s this mystique” around vecindades, says Celia Arrendondo, a professor emeritus of architecture at the Tec de Monterrey in Monterrey, Mexico. “Of romances happening there, of the matriarch of the vecindad taking care of the kids, of people coming to her for advice and food. They would share bathrooms and areas where they do the washing, and that’s something that would create community.”

These neighborly relationships have made the vecindades a place Mexican culture frequently returned to, as movies, shows, soap operas, and songs celebrating them formed part of how Mexico visualized itself in the 20th century. https://www.youtube.com/embed/oNDL4SaXHSg?rel=0

During the Golden Age of Mexican cinema (spanning the period from the 1930s to the late 1960s), movies like Nosotros los Pobres (We The Poor), El Quinto Patio (The Fifth Patio), Casa de Vecindad (“Vecindad house”, featured in the scene above) and El Rey Del Barrio (The King of the Neighborhood) helped create a national image of the vecindad and its inhabitants: a tightly knit community where hardworking laborers, family matriarchs and kooky personalities formed a community that fought, loved and supported one another — and often dreamed of eventually leaving.

This archetype ultimately moved onto television. When comic series El Chavo del Ocho (The Kid from the Eight)debuted in 1973, it became an iconic show across Latin America for its portrayal of a prototypical motley crew of vecindad neighbors: the orphaned boy, the stuck-up child and his haughty mother, the gentle old man in charge of the mail, the spooky single woman dubbed “the witch of number 71” by her neighbors.

Source: El Financiero

The Mexico City Post