Notes from ChicanAztlan: Miriam's Electricity War Part 2

In Tijuana, a lot of families had gone into debt, just a month before Christmas, in order to install their electrical posts and

By John Edward Rangel
Published on LatinoLA: December 18, 2014

Notes from ChicanAztlan: Miriam's Electricity War Part 2

Notes from ChicanAztlan: Miriam's Electricity War Part 1

When the rumor began circulating throughout Lomas del Encinal that not all the houses would get connected to the city's power grid before the holiday's Miriam was furious. The Developers, who had cut off their electricity didn't appear to have any intentions of reconnecting those homes that the CFE had been unable to connect so far. The result was that many people were left in electricity-less limbo.

A lot of families had gone into debt, just a month before Christmas, in order to install their electrical posts and meter boxes. Now they were hearing that those boxes would not get a meter until the spring of 2015. Another four months away. Four months without electricity!

"What are they thinking?" Miriam wondered to herself. 'Don't they know how much we have to deal with already?'

The people who live in Lomas del Encinal have a drainage system, pirated electricity (diablitos), and no running water. Most of what little greeenery exists is planted by the residents. Ficus and California Pepper trees appear to be the preferred choices with peach trees running third. Tijuana has a severe shortage of parks and trees. So L del E is typical in that respect.

Much is made of crime in Tijuana and yes it does exist. All the types of crimes that every city suffers from can be found here. As a native Angeleno, I can attest to what street crime does too neighborhoods.

The majority of the families who live in L del E are hard working folks who own the tiny plots of land that their modest dwellings sit atop. Many of the families live in extended clans and everybody knows everybody here. There are no police patrols here after dark but anybody who doesn't live here gets noticed pretty quickly.

What crime that does exist is usually fomented by drug addicts. Many of whom were raised in the United States before being deported. They tend to be the most aggressive of the petty thieves up here. One of their favorite things to steal are the electrical wires that the residents string from the poles to their breaker boxes. The thieves melt off the rubber insulation(usually in the middle of the night to hide the incriminating thick black smoke) and sell the copper. Apart from ruining the atmosphere, residents left in the dark, loathe these criminals who do that and around these parts it is equivalent to stealing a fellow's horse during the days of the Old West.

For many families the first night or two without light, music or television was kind of interesting but that quickly faded when they found out how long the lack of electricity might last. Miriam's five year old son is afraid of the dark so she never had any grace period with the loss of power. For her it was candles and batteries at a pace that could not possibly last for very long.

Miriam didn't know what to do at first but she was positive she wouldn't just sit. She heard of a meeting that was going to be held amongst the residents affected by the electricity cut off and decided to attend. One meeting down the street turned into more meetings there, as well as at an office on Blvd Cucapah in eastern Tijuana and finally the larger office in downtown Tijuas itself. Bus fare and time added up and before Miriam realized it she was up to her neck in local grassroots activism.

Here in Oak Hills(LdelE) not everybody has smart phones. What they have is a homegrown network that I call "Chisme(Gossip)Net.

I once read that Golda Meir, the great Israeli leader held some of her most important meetings in her kitchen around cups of coffee. Miriam's kitchen is a hangout for many of the mothers in the barrio. Especially those with schoolchildren the same age as Miriam's kids. As such it is a sort of info HQ. If Miriam didn't hear it herself then some mom told her over a cup of Nescafe Clasico or the much harder to find Nescafe Tasters Choice (The American Nescafe),

The information that Miriam had to work with, substantiated or not, was as follows;

The concrete power poles installed so far could only reach the first three houses on Miriam's block. Beyond that two additional concrete poles had too be added. According to the CFE, it was up to the developers to install the new poles,in place of the dilapidated, old wooden ones. Unfortunately, this part of the story has a wrinkle because 'allegedly' the CFE is suing the developer for not paying for all the electricity there residents have been using all these years. The same electricity the homeowners assumed was coming out of their monthly payments. Once again, allegedly, this was the reason why the power was cut off so suddenly when the CFE arrived to install meters.

As if matters weren't complicated enough, a person claiming to be the real owner of the land showed up and threatened to sue the CFE if they installed the meters. We'll call this wrinkle number two. So owner A (the developers) were being sued by the CFE, who in turn was being sued by owner B (a claimant to the land), who didn't want the CFE 'legitimizing' owner A's claim by installing meters(The homeowners themselves apparently were in no harm of being dislocated. Owner A might owe owner B a grip of money is the basic issue there). And of course there were the Antitorchistas, who were still making noise.

Obviously, this was not something that was going to be sorted out any time soon. In the meantime, a large swath of the humble neighborhood where Miriam lives huddled in the cold, dark nights. Only one house in the area had electricity and Miriam told me why. At a meeting with the highest ranking CFE official who would see them, the residents were voicing their grievances when another woman who lives in the barrio came in carrying a child in her arms. The child was severely handicapped and needed electrical devices to help her live. When Miriam told me the story tears welled in my eyes as I imagined the scene. The CFE official made one phone call and the mother and child had electricity. Lawsuits be damned.

Things were moving slower for the rest of the affected residents but at least they were getting answers. Maybe not the ones they wanted to hear but answers nevertheless. The residents installed their boxes, either individually in each yard or in clusters of two dozen or more at the end of each block. The homeowners living on the block next to Miriam had just such a set up. The rumor was that this block would have meters first before Miriam's more inaccessible block which, as mentioned earlier, would require extra poles and individual meters per lot.

Miriam came up with a plan. If she could take her metal box off of its pole and place it with the several dozen belonging to the next block over, then when they get meters she would get one too. Every time Miriam saw the on site CFE supervisor, she would gather up as many of the women and children on her block as she could muster and march over to where the beleagered man was overseeing operations. She explained her plan to him. If they could get one legal, metered box to their block then they could share the power and split the costs until spring when everything would hopefully get settled.

The supervisor said that wasn't according to regulations but by now he knew Miriam. Still he tried. He told her if he installed the box it would be temporary and then have to be moved back in the spring.

"I know," Miriam replied.

"And the amount of cable you'd need would be very expensive," he added.

"I know," she repeated. "Now can you do it for us?" He finally capitulated after telling her she was becoming a bit of an irritant but would get her way. When she told me this I laughed and said to her, "In the USA we have a saying. 'The squeaky wheel gets the grease.'"

Unfortunately, all this became moot when the holidays arrived and work slowed then ceased. That was when residents took matters into their own hands and connected to whatever lines they could. The diablitos reappeared and the lights came back on in Lomas del Encinal(Oak Hills). Within a few days the firt scraggly strings of christmas lights appeared. Most were leftovers from last year because the residents had exhausted their cash on the whole electricity dilema. With the streetlights back on the children on Miriam's block could play long after the early sunset that comes this time of year.

On December7th, Miriam went to the developer's office to make a payment and was told the two concrete poles on her block would be installed in January. Later that day the CFE Supervisor told the residents on the block next to her's that the diablitos were ok because the CFE hadn't been able to finish their work before the holidays.

The last time I spoke with Miriam, she was tired and broke but undaunted. If the cost of 'legal' electricity for her family and neighbors meant a sparse christmas endured then as they say in Mexico, "Asi es."


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