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Iztapalapa, a district in the eastern part of Mexico City, is home to two million of the city’s poorest inhabitants. Far from the constellation of museums and galleries that run from touristy Chapultepec Park to Mexico’s National University, it’s not a place that one would traditionally visit to see an art exhibition.

Yet that is precisely what I did one Wednesday morning. The trip consisted of a one-and-hour commute, a walk through a gritty avenue with car-repair shops and through a street-market where broken-down families sold used toys, clothes, and electronics. Finally, I entered a fenced area and a warehouse-structure where a painting exhibition was taking place.

The 1,500-square-metre building, originally designed to house a government office, was altered by architect Alberto Kalach in 2000 to resemble a boat (as a sort of homage to Mexico City’s now dried up lake basin). It features a school of arts and crafts, dance studios, three art galleries, a children’s game centre, a library, and a professional performance space for dance, music, and theatre. All of this located within a 16,000 square metre area with a garden and a terrace.

A new form of community empowerment
Based on the educational and cultural theories of Paulo Freire and Ivan Ilich, the intention of La Fábrica de Artes y Oficios, FARO de Oriente (‘The Arts and Crafts Factory’ or ‘Lighthouse of the East’) was to bring high-quality arts and culture programming to an underserved zone. Since then, the building has served Iztapalapa’s poorest residents, becoming an iconic centre for community development and one of Mexico’s most renowned social policy programs. 

“At first, I couldn’t believe that a space so full of culture and life existed in an area so prone to gang violence,” said Mirella Hernandez, who started working in FARO as an intern in 2003 and now runs the kids’ arts and crafts program, as she sat in front of a wooden table marked with paint spots. “The place just has a magical energy that is unexpected if you take into account the outside context.”

Conceived by Mexico City’s first democratically-elected government, the FARO de Oriente’s main goal was to provide education and job opportunities to young adults living in the city’s periphery. A large population Iztapalapa’s youth drop out of high school or never attend college, so by teaching them a useful craft, FARO created a buffer-zone where they could express their identities without descending into organised crime. 

The place just has a magical energy that is unexpected if you take into account the outside context.

Mirella Hernandez, responsible for the kids’ arts and crafts program

Social infrastructure as a form of urban resilience
In Iztapalapa, cultural infrastructure might seem like a luxury, considering that most residents regularly suffer from water and electricity shortages. But, as NYU sociologist Eric Klinenberg argues in his recently released book “Palaces for the People”, social infrastructure is vital to construct resiliency. 

The social bonds generated within these buildings can be life-saving, especially in case of natural disasters, Kleinenberg argues: “When hard infrastructure fails, as it did in the great Chicago heatwave, it’s the softer, social infrastructure that determines our fate.”  

True to its name, FARO de Oriente has drawn international attention. The initiative received the Coming up Taller Award, given by the former first lady of the United States Laura Bush, in the White House. In 2004 it partnered with MIT—as part of a joint-program with Boston’s Museum of Science—to install a Club House Computer Centre in the main building in an effort to breach the population’s digital divide.

A city of lighthouses
But perhaps the most visible sign of success has been the city-wide replication of the model. In 2006, FARO Tlahuac—located inside a 52-hectare park built over the debris of the 1985 earthquake— opened its doors. Besides hosting traditional indigenous ceremonies, this FARO is unique in that it mostly serves young women and single mothers who dropped out of middle school. 

That same year, the FARO in Milpa Alta, an area where suicide is the third most common cause of death for adults between 19 and 30, also opened its doors. Because of its confined space—originally 600 square metres— this project innovated by developing a “FARO outside of FARO” program, with the workshops taking place in smaller venues closer to people’s homes.  

Currently, there are 6 different FAROS across the city, with two more due to open this year; one of them, FARO la Perulera, is inside a beautiful Seventeenth-century colonial house. 

The model is also being replicated in smaller versions, Claudia Sheinbaum, the Mexico City’s mayor, has promised to create 300 mini-centres called PILARES (PILARS) further decentralising cultural and education efforts following a strategy that urbanists call “urban acupuncture.” 

Although each FARO is independent and caters to its specific community, there are coordinated events—like Earth Day, or Dance Day—in which each one participates  to showcase the best of the local talent. Most of these encounters take place in the original birthplace, FARO de Oriente, sill the largest venue of the network.  

The future of the lighthouse network
“The goal of this incoming administration is to create more synergy between each FARO,” Yojana Jautzin, coordinator of the network, told me. According to Jautzin, the whole operation costs 50 million pesos (≈ USD 2.3 million ) a year and involves over 400 different teachers.  There are no official numbers of the city-wide impact of the network, but one can gain a sense of the scale, noticing that FARO de Oriente alone reports an average of 300,000 regular users per year. 

At the end of the day, it’s how individuals relate to these spaces that matters. Erith Arista Gonzalez, a mother who has accompanied her children to take classes in FARO de Oriente for six years, told me that she decided to become an active member of the community because of the way she felt when hanging around waiting for her kids to finish their class. 

“I feel very different here than when I go with them to their school. There I feel constricted; the relationship with fellow mothers is a bit forced,“ she told me sitting inside the massive warehouse of FARO de Oriente, ”in the FARO you feel like anything is possible. You breathe a different type of air."