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For Homeless, Auto Plant Is Luxury Living

September 25, 1985|LOUIS SAHAGUN | Times Staff Writer

MEXICO CITY — They used engine racks for beds, insulation for mattresses and conveyor belts for tables, but the 612 people now living in an automobile plant are among the fortunate of this city's tens of thousands of homeless.

The Ford Motor Co. plant in Colonia La Villa, closed in 1982 in the wake of Mexico's drastic devaluation of the peso, has come alive again, this time with the sounds of children and guitars.

"We have a roof over our head, food to eat, a place to bathe and sleep," said shoemaker Porfirio Valdovinos, 43, whose family of nine was forced into the streets when their apartment crumbled Thursday.

Brought by Volunteers

Along with six other large families from the same apartment complex on the north side of the city, the Valdovinos family was brought to the shelter Sunday by volunteer rescue workers.

"They found us in the streets," Valdovinos said. "We spent three nights there."

On Tuesday, Mexico City was teeming with homeless, like the Valdovinos family, who were forced from their residences by last week's earthquakes. They were living in stadiums, auditoriums, union halls, on the streets and even in such odd places as the Ford plant.

Many of them are working-class people and professionals who lived in or near the heart of the city, which was built on a soft lake bed that is particularly vulnerable to ground shaking.

The millions of poor who live on the outskirts of the city in a sea of shacks and humble homes built on firmer ground were least affected.

At the Ford factory, shoemakers, factory workers, business owners, truck drivers and housekeepers were busily rediscovering the basic rhythms of life.

Where Mustangs once rolled off the production lines, children played soccer and table tennis. Their parents washed clothes in factory sinks, swept the expansive concrete floors, strummed guitars and studied Bibles.

Others were not so lucky. Outside the gates of the factory were dozens of expectant families hoping to gain entry. But officials said the shelter was full.

"We can't help you; we're full. Go someplace else," a guard told a group of 12 that included Lidia Davila Martinez, 20, and her six-month-old child.

'My Baby Is in Pain'

"Please," she implored, "my baby is in pain and needs milk."

Another woman, holding out a small photograph, begged a guard to see if her daughter was inside.

Elsewhere in Mexico City, thousands of the homeless tried to make do by camping under trees or living out of cars and tents. Manholes were used as toilets in some places.

Near the sprawling government housing project of Tlatelolco, which once housed 100,000 people, former residents had erected a tent city amid ancient Aztec ruins.

Some of the tents and lean-tos were constructed out of torn curtains, bent metal rods and boards, some of them spotted with blood, found in the remains of demolished buildings.

Many of the hundreds of refugees at the Plaza de las Tres Culturas were staring blankly at their former homes a few hundred yards away. Nearly all wondered when they could return to work.

Jackhammers, Rock 'n' Roll

A rock song by Cyndi Lauper blared from a transistor radio inside one of the tents and mixed with the sounds of jackhammers and cranes in the distance.

The most pitiful tents were no match for the rain that drenched Mexico City on Monday night.

"Last night, it took four of us to hold the roof up," said mechanic Ismael Garcia, 24, who shared a lean-to with three friends also evacuated from the Tlatelolco complex.

Garcia spoke of his plight beside a torn wedding picture of the parents of a friend. The man and woman died when Tlatelolco's Nuevo Leon complex collapsed on as many as 1,000 people.

Garcia's dog shivered outside in a cramped shelter made of cardboard, splintered wood and wet blankets.

"We'll be living here until authorities say we can move back in our apartments or find housing somewhere else, which could take months," he said.

Sharing Rice, Bread

A few feet away, schoolteacher Sergia Villa, 38, sat on the rain-soaked grass and shared a plate of rice and bread with her five children.

Villa, among others, complained that the refugees were being exploited by price-gougers.

"Today, we bought a 20-liter (5-gallon) bottle of water for 160 pesos (50 cents)," she said. "Before the temblor, it was 80 pesos (25 cents)."

She added, "I bought an electric heater for 6,000 pesos ($18) that used to cost 2,000 pesos ($6). They are making money off the suffering."

At the southern end of Mexico City, hordes of middle-class refugees lived out of tents at an emergency shelter set up at the National Council for Resources to the Attention of Youth campground.

This tent city, built on a hill covered with trees and tropical plants, was well-ordered, clean and stocked with most of the refugees' needs.

Building With Fountain

Dozens of medical students, doctors and psychologists tended to the displaced out of a modern office building fronted by a flowing fountain. A cafeteria, bathrooms, showers, a small hospital and potable water were available to all.

These facilities could hardly ease the pain of the uprooted or the strain of wondering whether their vacated or destroyed homes had been robbed.

"I don't feel human anymore--more like an object being shuttled from camp to camp," said anesthesiologist Concepcion Rios de Amador.

Rios said she was ordered out of her damaged apartment complex in Colonia Pardos de Coyoacan on Friday.

Wearing a print blouse, beige pants, bright red earrings shaped like hearts and a red scarf tied smartly around her neck, Rios applied makeup under a shade tree and said, "It usually doesn't happen this way, but in this case, professionals were hurt the most."

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