2002, Number 4
Salud Mental 2002; 25 (4)
Espacio urbano, la vida cotidiana y las adicciones: un estudio etnográfico sobre alcoholismo en el Centro Histórico de la Ciudad de México
Natera G, Tenorio R, Figueroa E, Ruíz G
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This study is exploratory and descriptive in nature. Its principal objective is to explore the influence of urban space on the individual as regards alcohol consumption. For this purpose, an ethnographic study of the area was undertaken, focusing on a special group of alcohol consumers known as teporochos (for whom the equivalent term in English would be homeless alcoholics). The assumption is: The availability of alcoholic beverages and the infrastructure, together with the hyper-urbanization of the area, and the agglomeration of general production conditions (added value of the space, circulation of capital, commerce, production of cheap labor, etc.) has contributed to the creation of unusual groups of alcohol, and more recently, drug users. The first part of the study includes a theoretical description of the principal categories used: a) the concept of city, b) urban infrastructure and c) everyday life. Included in the results is a description of part of the context in which consumption takes place and to which two of the aforementioned groups of alcoholics belong, namely homeless alcoholics and stevedores; the way these groups are perceived by the neighborhood is also described.
The study was based on field diaries and a semi-structured interview. The procedure consisted of surveying a total of 668 blocks corresponding to the historical area, and registering the places where alcohol is sold and consumed. The lifestyles of the groups being studied were reconstructed on the basis of interviews and the data recorded in the field diaries of events linked to the production, sale and consumption of alcohol in the area. Twenty-six social workers participated in the study. The Historical Center of Mexico City, where this study was conducted, is so called because it was the site of Mexico-Tenochtitlan, the capital of the Mexicas (the indigenous people which founded Tenochtitlan), as a result of which it still preserves the remains of pre-Hispanic constructions. The grid of what is now Mexico City was drawn up in the sixteenth century, retaining elements of the ancient pre-Hispanic grid consisting of districts intended to be exclusively inhabited by Spaniards, although this was never in fact achieved, since the Spaniards required the services of the indigenous population to enable them to lead comfortable lives. Squalid slums sprang up around this area which were gradually integrated into the supposedly exclusive capital, making it one of the oldest cities in America. During the period of Spanish domination, this area was the seat of viceregal power and therefore the center of the political and social life of New Spain. Since the beginning of the nineteenth century, the Historical Center of Mexico City has been the site of the most significant events in national history, from the independence movements, through the defense of national sovereignty to the triumph of the Republic and the Mexican Revolution. Since 1824, it has been the seat of the Executive, Legislative and Judicial powers. For those researching the field of drugs and alcohol, the city center is virtually synonymous with the consumption of these substances. For observers, the easy availability of alcohol reflects the ease and affordability of consumption, since all types of alcohol are sold, ranging from 96° alcohol sold in bulk to a quarter of a liter at a very low cost (25 US cents).
Despite the changes in its appearance, the area has maintained its specific local identity, even though the slums have been destroyed and divided. Those of its inhabitants who were not forced to leave remain closely attached to their territory. This has been observed by the professionals who have worked at the center for over twenty years. Now the most noticeable difference has involved the increase in violence, street consumption of drugs, the greater concentration of poverty and destitution, the politicization of citizens and the increasingly intense expression of national discontent manifested, on an everyday basis, by the population outside the neighborhood, by the symbolism of “occupying the most important square” in Mexico, the "Zócalo." A total of 607 places selling alcohol were registered, including 364 restaurant-bars, 103 saloons, 100 wine shops, 25 night clubs, pulque shops and 3 dives. There is at least one shop selling alcoholic beverages per block; few other services are as common. Along the main avenues (such as Circunvalación), there may be up to five or six wine shops in a single street.
In recent years, there has been a reduction in the number of pulque shops which have mainly been replaced by clothes shops in the city center, perhaps because they are more profitable. The few remaining pulque shops are located in the La Merced, Tepito and Guerrero areas, among others. These shops are mainly frequented by people of a low socio-economic level.
Groups of drinkers
Homeless alcoholics are the ultimate manifestation of the process of becoming an alcoholic. They are characterized by the total abandonment of their appearance and by the fact that they organize their lives around alcohol, mainly 96°, since the latter has a number of advantages, including its high ethanol content, ease of purchase and the fact that it is extremely cheap. The name “teporocho” comes from the beginning of the 20th Century, when a “té por ocho centavos” (tea for eight cents) was bought by the most destitute drunks. This gave rise to the term “teporocho” used to designate a person who lives to drink, and is equivalent of the term homeless alcoholic, in other words, a person “whose primary night-time residence is either in publicly or privately operated shelters, or on the streets, in doorways, train station and bus terminals, public plazas and parks, subways, abandoned buildings, loading docks and other well-hidden sites known only to their users”.
A group of homeless alcoholics is easily formed; all it takes is for an alcoholic to walk only the street with his ¼ liter bottle, and to run into someone else with a hangover. He offers the other person a swig to get rid of his hangover and they strike up a conversation. Usually, the person asking for a drink offers “to pay for a soft drink”, to which the other replies, “All right, here’s something to help you get over it”, “particularly if you’re in a bad way, because here, one way or another, we all know each other”.
There are a number of groups who call themselves “the death squadron” because they know that they are together because they are going to die. They define themselves as “hopeless cases who only create problems for society, who have lost all hope and are of no use for anything except drinking”.
Most of these groups of homeless alcoholics are still at a productive age, between 24 and 50. They are mostly men, although there are a few women. They work just enough to be able to obtain alcohol, and generally do so by selling chewing gum, carrying shopping, begging for money or looking after parked cars. Nearly all of them have some sort of trade, and are either bricklayers, mechanics, drivers or manual workers. However, there are some homeless alcoholics who once belonged to the upper social classes and went to the city center to avoid being identified. These groups consist of 5-15 members, a figure which falls to 4-5 during the night, and are organized in a particular fashion. They identify each other by the name of the place where they gather, such as “La hielera”, “La tolva”, etc.
Groups of alcoholics regard addicts of other drugs as different. The difference lies mainly in the fact that they view them as marginalized, since they inhale glue. They are described as behaving in an idiotic way, “both mentally and physically”, and are called the dregs of society. “Once I saw them preparing their food in a one-gallon tin of chilies. I walked by one day, and then the next, and on the third day the food still hadn’t been touched.” According to the homeless alcoholics, what these people inhale “goes straight to their brains, it destroys their neurons, their stomachs and their lungs and after about 20 days they’re dead on the street”. “In that respect, they’re very different from drunks who will eat anything they find in the rubbish bin, throwing away what’s rotten and eating what’s good. Sometimes people feel sorry for them and give them food or clothes or give them money if they do a bit of work such as carrying boxes or the shopping and they give them a small tip so that they can buy their alcohol or they actually buy it for them. Society is more tolerant of drunks than of drug addicts. Drug addicts mainly use marijuana and glue, particularly glue, since it’s cheaper. A drug addict looks much worse than an alcoholic. They last about six months to a year, and then that’s it. However, an alcoholic lasts for several years.” Alcohol consumption and the use of inhalants is common among stevedores. They tend to drink mainly rum, pulque and occasionally beer. They drink every day, but not to get drunk. When a person gets drunk several days in a row, his friends take him back to his place of origin.
Poverty underlies the behavior of the groups we have studied and their interaction with the urban space makes them more vulnerable. As a collective infrastructure, the city does not have a homogeneous distribution of its neighborhood areas. Some of them encourage and recreate the everyday lives of the groups of consumers. Nowadays, the city center reflects all the social, human and economic contradictions.
The groups studied have also created their own selfhelp mechanisms in the heart of the city, where the State is not even able to provide them with water to ensure their survival. However, they do have a sense of solidarity, together with the rejection and lack of social prestige entailed by living on the street. They have reached this stage precisely because no one ever helps the homeless alcoholics or stevedores to prevent them from ending up like this, or at least, not as an inevitable result of poverty.
This brief, descriptive, exploratory paper has served as the first stage of a study that will prove extremely useful to the Treatment Center for Alcoholics and their Relatives (CAAF). It will also help researchers to plan a more structured study of aspects such as knowledge of the life histories of homeless alcoholics and enable them to determine the point at which their support networks ceased to function, forcing them to live in the street, particularly in the case of those who once possessed financial resources and even exercised a job.
The study will also help to find out more about mental health aspects and its manifestations, and show how alcoholics cope with this problem among themselves. In the long term, a comparison with homeless alcoholics from other countries will also be undertaken.