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Return Trip: On Leaving Cuautitlán and the Tren Suburbano

Infrastructure gives shape to the city, the same way a trellis gives shape to a vine. Along with natural and topographical features—primarily the hills and mountains that encircle the Valle de México and the traces of the now-desiccated lakes—it’s infrastructure that gives shape to the grey blob of urbanity that is Mexico City as photographed from a satellite. You can tell a lot about a city’s development simply from looking at an unlabeled “photographic” view like that of Google Maps, as well as you can staring out the window of the Tren Suburbano as you ride home from a day in the city.

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Satellite view of the Valle de México. The lighter gray shades mark urban growth, while darker shades capture vegetation—much of it the steepest hillsides, least suited for building. Imagery from NASA’s LANDSAT, click to enlarge.

This is all a long way of saying that the development of Cuautitlán, my home for the month of December, and the construction of the Tren Suburbano, or suburban train, are intrinsically connected. Opened only six years ago, in 2008, the Tren Suburbano provided my route to and from central Mexico City, and a route to shop, work, and visit for the hundreds of thousands of residents of municipalities in the Estado de México along the train’s path. My landlord and neighbor in Galaxia has lived in Cuautitlán only since the train opened. Of course, even the life-long residents of the municipality, like the cab drivers who recalled it being little more than a pueblo and who now lived in the subdivisions, were newcomers to those subdivisions as well; colonias like Galaxia, la Guadalupana, las Haciendas and the like had all been completed around the time (or since) the commuter train arrived.

Cuautitlán had had trains before, of course, in the form of the passenger and freight lines between Mexico City and Querétaro, and points further north. In a way, it had to: the valley in which the capital of both the Mexica and the Mexican peoples has always sat is hemmed in by mountains far too steep for a train to pass on roughly half its circumference. A train through the north or southeast can be built at a reasonable grade, while to the west and south, the task is difficult to conceive of even now, much less when tracks were being laid at the end of the 19th century. Consider that, when the government was recently considering bids for a system of high-speed trains, that a proposed 200-mile route in the Yucatan, in coastal southern Mexico, would cost U.S. $1.2 billion, while the 47-mile route over the western lip of the Valle de México, to nearby Toluca, would cost $2.9 billion.

View of the old Cuautitlán train station, with peseros traveling from the Tren Suburbano station visible in the background.
Photograph by Michael Waldrep — click to enlarge

The old passenger station at Cuautitlán lies mostly in ruin now, though. Train service, built by private (often foreign) owners in Mexico’s early industrial history, was nationalized in the wake of the 1910-1920 leftist revolution, then privatized and sold back to private hands in the 1990s. The new private owners quickly eliminated passenger service nationwide in favor of freight service, with a handful of exceptions for tourism. Passenger train service wouldn’t reach Cuautitlán for roughly a decade.

But even in the dearth of planning and public transportation infrastructure, the north of the city grew. The same passes through the mountain wall that allowed for the train to the north allowed for the inter-city highway from DF to Querétaro, along which commuter homes popped up. The archetypal city in the U.S. invites the middle class family to “drive until they qualify” for a new home. That is, to allow themselves to be flung out of the city’s core by the centripetal forces of real estate markets and rising taxes and to grab hold of a piece of land—and a home—at a distance from the city that allows them to afford it. In the hills above Tultitlán and Tlalnepantla, of course, the homeowners are not qualifying for formal home loans, the likes of which the government lender INFONAVIT has laid out en masse in places like Cuautitlán. But the decisions balancing the cost of land against the cost of transportation, multiplied by tens of thousands of families, gives rise to the informal settlements just outside of the Federal District of Mexico just as it gives rise to formal subdivisions in Galaxia or the neighborhoods in the San Fernando Valley of L.A. in which I grew up.

Riding the Tren Suburbano south, from Cuautitlán to the center of the city, where I’ll be living for the rest of my grant, I find myself staring out the window, convincing myself I can see the density of housing and industry slowly rise as we head towards and then cross the line into the Federal District proper. I can see the industrial plants roll past: the Ford plant in Cuatitlán, built in 1964, exporting cars north to the U.S. via rail, the breweries, shipping beer south into the millions of dry mouths of city, the other plants, the purposes of which I can’t quite even begin to guess at, but can trust are important.

View of informal housing in Buenavista, Tultitlán, Estado de México
Photograph by Michael Waldrep — click to enlarge

Many of the Mexicans that I’ve spoken to here in the city were surprised, and a bit confused when I would tell them I was living so far north in Estado de México. More than a few of those seemed almost disgusted, the idea of Cuautitlán slightly repulsive, for its supposed lack of culture, character, of trees, and for its distance from “the city.” The people I spoke to in Galaxia, though, liked it for its tranquility, its affordability, and in fact often found the commute, thanks to the Tren, rather manageable. From end to end, the ride is something like 40 minutes, shorter than many typical rides on the Metro, and far less crowded. For my landlord, who works close to the end of the line at Buenavista, the commute is actually rather nice, albeit a bit expensive — three times the fare on the Metro.

But then, very few of the people for whom Cuautitlán seemed to leave a bad taste in their mouths knew anyone who lived there. Most often, they hadn’t spent any time there. Perhaps they hadn’t ever ridden the Tren Suburbano at all. They had seen it, though, fleetingly, and from a distance, a sign for an offramp from the freeway to Querétaro, San Miguel de Allende, Guanajuato, or other, more charming points north.

Los Angeles native Michael Waldrep is a documentary filmmaker, multimedia artist and researcher, currently in Mexico City to document the city, its neighborhoods and its 22 million inhabitants through writing, mapping, data visualization, photography and video. He is one of five inaugural Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellows.