On a street in Mexico City's Colonia Juarez, in an area bounded by muffler shops on one end and a craft beer garden/gourmet food court on the other, there exists a tiny altar. Inside is the figure of a woman, about 12 inches tall, her hands clasped in supplication.
Blessed mother, saint, and daughter
Save me from eviction, from rising rents and property tax
Save me from greedy landlords and corrupt developers
Save me from gentrification
So goes the prayer of Santa Mari La Juaricua, the saint that protects residents of the Mexican capital from a problem that knows no borders and has no apparent solution: gentrification.
At least that's what artists Sandra Valenzuela and Jorge Baca would have you believe. Valenzuela, a visual artist and graphic designer, and Baca, a sculptor, collaborated to build the altar to this invented saint. Their goal is to draw attention to the growing inequality in some of Mexico City's most historic neighborhoods.
"We wanted to put a face on the issue," Valenzuela says over tea in her ground-floor apartment, whose storeroom has a street-facing window that houses Santa Mari's altar. "You tend to hear about gentrification as just a positive thing; the neighbors say things like: 'Look, there's more trees! They fixed the sidewalk! The streetlights finally work!' But they don't take into consideration the fact that it's getting so expensive that soon they won't be able to afford to live there anymore."
With the Mexican capital topping so many travel magazines' "hot lists," the Airbnb effect (among other forces) has led rents to more than double in some parts of town in just a few years, including in areas like Colonia Juarez, where Valenzuela lives, and Santa Maria La Ribera, where Baca's family has been rooted for four generations. Developers eye these leafy, walkable neighborhoods, centrally located and lined with gorgeous but crumbling turn-of-the-century mansions, and see dollar signs.
In Mexico, which rivals the Democratic Republic of the Congo in income inequality, displacement by gentrification has only made things worse. And the artists say corruption from real estate speculators and local politicians—even the agencies charged with protecting landmark buildings from predatory development—ensures that the process continues almost unimpeded.
Registered historic buildings are illegally torn down all the time, says Baca, and there are rarely any consequences.
"We'd go and say, 'Hey, this is against the law!' and nobody cared," he says. "When we saw just how lopsided this war is [between residents and the powers that be], we said: 'OK, you guys are using the laws of the material world against us. We're going to use all of the divine powers against you."
It all started when Valenzuela, a self-identified "first-wave gentrifier," bought a derelict apartment in Baca's neighborhood, a once-aristocratic area where lower-middle-class families rub shoulders with bohemians and musty cantinas compete with cafes slinging organic almond-milk cappuccinos. While sorting through the items left behind by the previous tenants, Valenzuela found the icon that would become Santa Mari.
"She had no feet, her face was falling off, her clothes were all torn. She was really damaged,' says Valenzuela, who suspects the statue was part of an altar kept by a religious couple that once lived in the apartment. A restorer estimated that the figure could date back as far as the late 18th century.
At the time, Valenzuela was embroiled in a high-profile dispute with her neighbor back in Colonia Juarez, an entrepreneur who'd recently bought the 100-year-old mansion next door. Valenzuela worried that he planned to tear down the building and put up luxury condos.
"I saw how the demographics of the street had started to shift. All of a sudden Louis Vuitton purses started appearing on my block," she says. "I thought, 'Great, now they're gonna kick me out.'"
That’s when she and Baca had the idea to turn her unused storeroom into a makeshift art gallery. They restored Santa Mari and dressed her in a white gown with a purple sash—morada, the Spanish word for purple, also means "home"—and some hipster eyeglasses.
"In Judeo-Christian iconography, [these] virgins were shown praying while standing on top of a demon or a serpent or a dragon, representing their power to protect the Earth from evil," Baca explains. So they placed a toy dog, who they nicknamed Banqueta ("Sidewalk"), at Santa Mari's feet to symbolize the demon of rising rents and gentrification's other ills, which they enumerated in a lengthy prayer they wrote to accompany the altar. They arranged it all in the small display case next to Valenzuela's storeroom, installed lighting, and debuted Santa Mari to the world, a not-so-subtle dig at Valenzuela's neighbor next door.
The neighbor didn't demolish the building after all—perhaps because Valenzuela made a stink with the local authorities, or maybe he was just good-natured, it's hard to say. In fact, he opened an art space. That wound up making Santa Mari famous when a journalist stumbled upon the altar while attending an opening next door. That led to more media coverage, and soon the saint had taken on a life of her own, adopted by neighbors as a symbol of resistance.
"There was a march through the streets with Santa Mari at the head, and tons of people came," says Baca, adding that the protesters briefly shut down the capital's main artery, Paseo de la Reforma. Some even swear that the saint has performed miracles.
"One time we were out there replacing the light bulb in the altar, because someone had stolen it, and a woman came by," Baca says. "I didn't tell her that Santa Mari was a piece of contemporary art."
The woman said she lived nearby, and that a few days prior someone had come around trying to evict her and her neighbors. Just then, a lady in a white dress and glasses showed up and intervened. She turned out to be a lawyer and was now helping the neighbors stay in their homes: Santa Mari incarnate.
Valenzuela and Baca don't pretend to have the solution to gentrification, but they say engaging with gentrifiers, like Valenzuela did with her neighbor, is not a bad place to start. The point of Santa Mari, they say, is not to keep out or demonize newcomers, be they gallery owners or hipsters. Rather, the goal is to raise awareness of the issues and generate empathy on all sides.
"It wasn't meant to be, 'Hey neighbor, I hate you because you're a rich businessman,'" Valenzuela says. "It's more like: 'Look, I understand where you're coming from. How 'bout you put yourself in our shoes for a minute?'"