Mezcala is a lakeside town founded by the the indigenous Cocas in the late 13th century, over 200 years before the Spanish arrived in Mexico.Based in the western state of Jalisco, the Cocas have had to fight off waves of invaders over the centuries.The latest threat to their land? A wave of American retirees heading south. Thousands of American and Canadian retirees have settled in the neighbouring towns on Chapala and Ajijic in recent decades to take advantage of the cheap living costs, year-round sunshine and stunning views of Mexico’s biggest lake. Now known as the “Chapala Riviera”, the area is brimming with boutique hotels and gated communities. Foreigners are driving the growth, having spent morethan twice as much as locals on housing and tourism in 2015. An estimated 7,000 expats live there all year round, with up to 10,000 “snowbirds” joining them each winter. Expat community leaders say their population could double within five years. Property developers have long coveted nearby Mezcala, the home of 5,000 Coca people.
Santiago Bastos, an anthropologist who has spent eight years studying Mezcala, notes that (pdf) the arrival of foreign retirees and wealthy Mexicans from nearby Guadalajara saw indigenous residents ousted, often illegally, from prime plots of land, while prices shot up, making the lakeside area unaffordable for many locals.
“We’ve always had invasions by people who want to take control of our land,” says Manuel Jacobo, a 30-year-old activist. “We inherited it from our forefathers who fought and gave their lives for it. Our grandfathers used to tell us the myths and legends. We don’t want future generations to lose the land.”acobo, the Coca activist, also feels his community’s potential goes unrecognised by authorities who would rather their land be developed for the benefit of wealthier Mexicans and American and Canadian immigrants. “We’re not stupid, we have the knowledge and organisation to develop our community,” he says, describing how the challenges the community faces partly spurred the organisation of recent talks about how to protect their way of life. We want progress but we want to own that progress. We don’t want to be sweeping up the crumbs of others because this land is ours.”
“We’re not against progress,” adds Vicente Paredes, a Coca spokesperson. “But if there’s urbanisation then let it be carried out by our community, not outsiders. We’ve seen the problems that happened in Chapala and Ajijic, where the original inhabitants have been forced to move into the hills and live as third-class citizens.”
There have already been some unwelcome attempts to develop Mezcala’s 3,602 hectares (8,900 acres) of communal land. Guillermo Moreno Ibarra, a wealthy local businessman built a hillside mansion on 10 hectares (25 acres) of their land. The townspeople claim Moreno seized the land illegally, diverted a local stream, sent armed men to intimidate them, and falsely accused several locals of property damage. Th Moreno family owns a mining firm and has shares in exclusive housing developments along the Riviera.
Mezcala residents have also had to begin patrolling their territory to defend their forests and water from illegal logging or pollution.