Héctor Castillo Berthier
In many ways, Mexico continues to be a class society where inequality is one of its primary characteristics and where barriers and delineation are particularly acute for young people. A small percentage, the privileged classes, find access to the best schools and post-secondary training abroad. For the rest of the population opportunities are severely restricted. For instance, the average length of schooling for the population over the age of 25 is under five years. Extreme misery exists in the large metropolises. The homeless, destitute, street children and garbage and food scavengers, many of them young men and women, epitomize the growing disparity between rich and poor and are a daily reminder of the difficulties facing young people in Mexico.
Young people have responded by developing social survival mechanisms with distinct traits. Their dress, language, preference for non-commercial original music and art, rejection of authority, and their inclination to band together in gangs set them apart from mainstream society. At best they are misunderstood; at worst, they are ignored. Lack of opportunity coupled with the social gulf between rich and poor gives way, at times, to a darker side of delinquency, vandalism, nihilism or, in extreme cases, much more violent behavior.
Bridging the gap between the sectors and creating opportunities and a social space for self-expression that can take many forms, Héctor's solution is addressing some of these deep-seated problems.
After several years of dogged lobbying of the city government, Héctor succeeded in convincing the Mayor to donate an old cinema which has been converted and christened The Flying Circus. Located in the heart of one of Mexico City's oldest neighborhoods, La Merced, The Flying Circus was inaugurated in September of 1997. The center hosts training courses, expositions, round tables and conferences, video, theater, radio productions, and concerts.
With the center established, Héctor is now working on his long term goals. First, he is creating a program called Youth Observatory of the City of Mexico, with the participation of researchers, teachers and students of universities, and higher education centers, together with citizen organizations. Here, youth will come together to discuss current issues, conduct research, and create a social cartography of the situation facing youth in the City of Mexico. Secondly, Héctor plans to initiate a monthly theme for the center that will examine different social problems faced by youth. They will invite nongovernmental organizations from around the city to present workshops, explain their services, and involve the community in problem solving on areas of common concern. Some examples of the issues he hopes to address include AIDS prevention, reproductive health, assistance to street children, domestic violence, crime prevention, urban environmental awareness and preservation, civil education, and family life.
Héctor also continues to pursue one of his original social change strategies: to spread knowledge and solutions through research. For the past several years, he has been tracing the history of the project and its primary actors and has complemented the sociological aspect with a compilation of art, music, and photography of the gang members. He expects that this will both inspire and provide a basis to replicate his approach and model in other areas of Mexico City and other urban centers.
Héctor completed his university training in sociology. For his dissertation research, he explored the underground "garbage society" in Mexico City and in the process gathered statistics on industrial and domestic waste generation. His research quickly turned to the social implications of the waste disposal process in Mexico City. He conducted the research by first working as a trash collector, then moving up to become a garbage truck driver, and finally establishing himself in the squatter communities that existed on the dumps and gaining the confidence of the "kingpin" who controlled the communities. The book he published based on this experience provided seminal research about the realities of this sub-culture and led to a city-wide reform effort to battle the corruption and address the needs of the communities.
Having perfected this method, Héctor applied a similar approach to his work with youth. This research experience–along with its important results about the reality of urban life–and his proximity to the young people led him to take advantage of the opportunity to immerse himself in the lives of these people and to commit himself to the Flying Circus. A music lover, Héctor has been allowed access to and gained the confidence of the young by virtue of his status as a drummer in a rock band. He wears his hair in a ponytail which, in his words, makes him "one of the guys" (though he is twice their age).
Héctor has established for himself an unusual presence in academia. He has enjoined social research with direct social application, providing long-term solutions to create positive change while documenting the experience and developing new methodologies. His relationship with the young people and his standing in the university and academic community give him a unique position and opportunity to bridge sectors and worlds that are far apart.
Hector's strategy is to continue to employ this project in other areas of Mexico City and internally throughout the country, not excluding direct or indirect participation with other organizations or government authorities. This remains an inclusive non-profit organization.