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Indigenous Past, Ecovillage Future

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By Tracy L. Barnett

José Luis and Angelita Gutierez operate a small bakery and tofu-making business out of their home at Teopantli Kalpulli.
(November/December 2010)

San Isidro Mazatepec, Jalisco, Mexico. Past, present, and future meet at Teopantli Kalpulli, an ecovillage-like intentional community on 92 acres about an hour south of Guadalajara. Teopantli Kalpulli is a Nahuatl phrase loosely translated as “sacred bioregional village.” The community was founded in the early 1970s to create an earth-centered lifestyle incorporating the sacred traditions of the founders’ indigenous ancestors. With 21 families, Teopantli Kalpulli has become Mexico’s largest continually inhabited intentional community.

Native corn spread out to dry.
When I visited the community in 2009 it was harvest season and colorful native corn was spread on the ground to dry. My guide was Levi Rios, son of two of Teopantli’s founders and an architect who had come home to live in the community.

Our tour began at the center of the community, where a giant ceiba tree, sacred to the Maya, spread its leafy branches over a ceremonial circle. The prehispanic kalpullis, Levi explained, were villages where people grew corn and practiced a form of sacred dance and the temescal — the indigenous Mexican version of a sweat lodge. Teopantli, Levi said, was one of the first intentional communities in Mexico that invited indigenous leaders to share their teachings, and those teachings were incorporated into the ecovillage structure.

Teopantli members Levi Rios (our tour guide), and Celia Rubalcava, who makes yogurt and soy milk in her home for sale and trade.
“We believe that existence is divided into three levels, and this ceiba tree represents all three levels,” Levi said as we stood inside the ceremonial circle. “Its roots represent the underworld, and also the past; its trunk represents the present; and its branches, which extend to the sacred world of the cosmos, represent our future. This circle around the tree represents the wheel of life. There are four doors for the four important stages of our lives: the East represents birth; the South, our youth; the West, our maturity; and the North, old age and night. Then we return to the spring in a spiral formation.”

One of the adobe homes at Teopantli.
The community itself is laid out along the four cardinal directions, and has built sacred spaces in each of the four directions. In the north is a small pyramid constructed in the way of the Mayan ancestors; in the east, a sanctuary for yoga and meditation; in the south, a calihuey, the sacred temple of the Huichol ancestors, and in the west, a temescal (sweat lodge). Teopantli members hold celebrations throughout the year in each of these four sacred spaces.

“We learned from the Huichol people to link the planting of the corn with a calendar of activities throughout the year,” Levi said. Community members try to grow as much of their own organic food as possible, and they revere the corn and the Mother Earth as their ancestors did.

The community is designed for 55 families total, and is accepting new members. Ownership of the land is collective, Levi explained, with the community granting members permits to construct their own housing.

The one-room schoolhouse will be expanded to accommodate more classrooms.
Just to the east of the ceiba tree is the schoolhouse, where children were playing soccer. One of the top priorities for the community, Levi explained, is to expand the school to have different classrooms for the different age groups. Currently the 14 children all study in a common classroom. But the number of children is increasing, as two more families joined in the past year.

One change the village has seen over time is an increase in the educational level, Levi said. His parents were fortunate to attend college, but most of the other founders did not, and it was always a struggle to earn enough money to support the community. “Despite that challenge, they were able to build the infrastructure of this community through a lot of hard work and dedication,” Levi said. “Everything you see here we’ve put together ourselves, with no support from any foundation or government.”

Kids in Teopantli's playground between classes.
Part of that effort involved rebuilding the soil, depleted from years of slash-and-burn agriculture and overgrazing, and reforesting areas of pasture. “If I showed you photographs of this place when the founders first bought the land in the early ‘70s, you wouldn’t believe it — there wasn’t a tree or a bush to be seen,” he said. It’s true, I realized — we had just entered a lush oasis of hardwood forest and abundant garden spaces — nothing like the neighboring pastureland.

Nowadays, as Teopantli enters its second generation, more community members have gone to college and brought back a variety of skills. Currently 90 percent of the residents earn their living from community-based businesses, and only 10 percent commute to town for work.

The altar in Levi's house where sacred objects are kept.
“This is the Casa de Acuerdos,” Levi said, pointing out a comfortable-looking adobe building, “where we administer our resources and discuss our plans.” We continued on to the south, where he showed me the calihuey — the space where ceremonial objects from the Huichol tradition are kept: seeds, deer antlers, arrowheads, and other objects.

Next was a tour of the prolific garden. Nine hectares (22 acres) are plowed with an antique tractor and planted as a milpa (corn, beans and squash) the traditional “three sisters” of the ancestors. They also grow more than 100 plant species, including garlic, lettuce, cabbage, tomatoes, onions, celery, calendula, eggplant, beans, sweet potato, yerba santa, carrots, beets, dill, green beans, and much more.

“This is a region that’s not particularly fertile; as you can see, it’s very dry around the edges,” Levi explained. “But we have put a lot of effort into creating this space where we can garden using traditional methods that don’t damage the environment.” Levi exchanges vegetables from his garden with other families who produce whole-grain baked goods, honey, soymilk, tofu, and a variety of other items. “Barter in the community has come about naturally,” he added.

Esteban digging a ditch for the greywater system.
Around the perimeter of the common areas are the owner-built homes of adobe or brick. All have greywater systems which help irrigate the gardens. Recently the community created a sustainable design policy that will apply to all new houses, with specific requirements for water use, lighting, use of natural materials, and other sustainable requirements.

“Life is not easy here,” Levi explained. “You have to be able to make the economy work for you; you have to be able to live isolated from the economic system. If you can develop a professional activity in this rural area you can make it work — but it’s not for everybody.”

Few communities like this one have survived for this long, he said. “There are about five similar communities in Mexico, but none of them with as many people as we have now in Kalpulli.”

We stopped at a comfortably spacious community dining area, where Beatriz and her two children, Yuma and Maya, were enjoying the sun on the patio. Beatriz is Swiss and her husband is Mexican; they are one of the new families in the community. We stopped to admire Beatriz's beautiful organic linen sweater, which she designed and knitted. She has made a business selling these sweaters. This one, she says, took about 80 hours to make, and will sell for 700 pesos — about $56 US.

We continued on our way, meeting Celia Rubalcava, who runs a soymilk business in her home, and Isaac, who was using a hand-powered mill to shuck dried corn, while his children played at his feet..

Teopantli member Beatriz has a home-based business selling hand-knitted linen sweaters.
At the next house, I met Jose Luis and Angelita, who operate a small whole-grain bakery and tofu factory in their home. They showed me around and gave me a little pinol de maiz (a powder made of cinnamon, brown sugar and toasted ground corn), eaten as a snack or mixed with hot water for a delicious drink. Jose Luis was born in a traditional campesino (subsistence farming family), like millions throughout Mexico. Many campesions have turned to the use of fertilizers and semillas mejoradas (genetically modified seeds) in the past decade — but not Jose Luis, who firmly believes in the sanctity of semillas criollas (the native seeds). “The best way to save our native seeds is not to plant any transgenics,” he emphasized.

Next we visited to the temescal area, with small, domed structures ready for the next sweat lodge ceremony. Some of Teopantli’s sweat lodge ceremonies are open to the public, and others are just for the community. Here the community sponsors a type of semillero (training) ground for those who wish to conduct temescal ceremonies, spreading the tradition in this way throughout the larger Mexican society.

Hoops in the temescal (sweat lodge) area.
Finally Levi takes me to his home — a cool brick-and-adobe house with clean lines, a front porch with a hammock, and a beautiful altar overlooking the fields. He told me a bit about his decision to return to the community after eight years in Guadalajara, four years at a private university, and four more working with local architectural firms and construction companies. “I believe all people have a mission in life — or if they don’t have one, they should! — but for me, growing up in Teopantli has given me a special vision of community,” he said. “I wanted to go to the university precisely to broaden this concept of community.”

Now Levi serves as a member of Teopantli’s community council, and is responsible for long-range planning and development. The community council is comprised of members of four other councils: the elders, the children, the women, and the men.

Beatriz' daughter Maya.
Teopantli receives numerous visitors, sometimes up to 40 a week. Community members are happy to help educate the public about the ecovillage concept and don’t charge for tours. However, the large numbers of visitors have begun to create a burden for the community, and donations for their time are greatly appreciated.

And please see this video about Teopantli Kalpulli.

Tracy L. Barnett is a freelance writer and the founder of The Esperanza Project, an online magazine documenting sustainability initiatives throughout the Americas. At the time of this writing she was in Paraguay.

For more information about Teopantli Kalpulli, to volunteer, or to arrange a visit, contact Levi Rios at levisrios~at~hotmail.com. And please see video about the community.

Related articles:

What Visiting Huehuecoyotl Taught Me — May '09
Will Earthaven Become a "Magical Appalachian Machu Picchu"? — May '09
Ecovillage Tour: Our College Class Visits Dancing Rabbit — May '10
From Russia with Love — Nov-Dec '09
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