In Mexico City, the taco stand is the great leveller. People from all walks of life mingle as they partake in their country’s most famous cuisine. Whether it’s office workers grabbing dinner on their way home or late-night revellers fuelling up before heading out to the bar, these are places where everyone comes together.
Photo by Andrew Griffith
But this particular taqueria, located at the corner of Manzanilla and Chiapas in the fashionable Roma neighbourhood, is a little different. The haircuts are trendier, tattooed patrons are more common, and loud punk rock replaces the traditional Méxican music normally heard through crackling speakers. The biggest difference though is what’s on the menu. While Por Siempre Vegana Taqueria may offer up the traditional tacos al pastor and chorizo flavors, the food here is completely vegan. In many ways, this taco stand is a reflection of a city in flux.
One of the city’s transitions has been around animal rights: A new constitution, published in February of this year, includes some of the most powerful pro-animal language of any constitution in the world, according to its authors. In a country where bullfights and cockfights are part of everyday life, how did we get some of the most stringent animal rights language?
Mexico City is the most populous city in the Western Hemisphere, but it’s density is difficult to explain. Nearly 9 million people live there, but that number more than doubles when you include the surrounding state. Though the streets and buildings blend seemlessly between the city and its suburbs, the new constitution doesn’t stretch that far, and applies only within city limits.
Broad political changes are taking place in the city. For the last hundred years or so, La Ciudad de México has been run similarly to Washington, DC — the federal government has been in charge of administrative and budget decisions, rather than a state or local entity. Currently, however, the city is becoming something more akin to a state in its own right, which is how the new constitution came about.
A strong rebranding campaign has also been underway to modernize the city, which has included changing its official name from Distrito Federal (or simply DF) to CDMX (for Ciudad de México). The city is the art and cultural center of Mexico and serves as a liberal bastion in a largely conservative country. Recent moves have been made to legalize marijuana, and the city is one of a handful of municipalities where same-sex marriage is legal.
Anton Aguilar, executive director of Humane Society International, Mexico, refers to the capital as a punta de lanza, or spearhead. “Mexico City is a global city,” he says. “Certainly several political issues are developed first in Mexico City and then they are spread throughout the country.”
That’s what the authors of the animal welfare language are hoping to achieve with this new constitution. Jose-Luis Sánchez, a Mexico City lawyer with a specialization in constitutional law, says the process of developing the constitution has been fairly unique. In 2016, citizens voted to choose the representatives that would draft the document. Those chosen came from different political parties and with disparate ideologies. But one of the most unique factors, says Sánchez, was the involvement of everyday people. “They opened the process for the citizens to go and say their opinions, what they worry about. So it’s like a new process. I think it’s positive for the democratic process in Mexico,” he says.
Citizens were called on to petition the government over issues they cared about through the site Change.org. If enough signatures were collected, a committee from the mayor’s office would meet with the petitioners to discuss the ideas. This mechanism offered an opportunity for activists to get stronger protections for animals enshrined into law. Many people petitioned the government to include protective language in the constitution. But ultimately a proposal by Victor Hirales, president of animal rights group Derecho Sin Fronteras (Right Without Borders), was the one activists gathered behind.
“We were looking for animal rights since they were not [previously represented] in the constitution,” says Dulce Kim, president of México Renace Verde A.C. Kim had written her own petition, but eventually abandoned it to support Hirales’ version. To Kim, the new constitution presents an ideal time to raise awareness of animal rights. “Now there is more education on the subject in the city,” she says.
Under Section 13-B of Mexico City’s new constitution, animals are recognized as sentient beings deserving of moral consideration. The constitution states that “every person has an ethical duty and legal obligation to respect the life and integrity of animals,” and that “the City shall ensure the protection, welfare, as well as the dignified and respectful treatment of animals and shall foster a culture of responsible care and protection.”
The constitutional language is only a first step, and specific laws still need to be created to implement the mandate. Still Mexico City’s bold language stands out, as there are very few examples of similar guidelines enshrined in constitutions at either the local or national level. For example, animals in the United States and Canada and are largely relegated to the realm of personal property under the law, and their rights certainly don’t appear in the countries’ constitutions. While it’s a punishable offense to hurt or neglect them, an animal is given little more protection than a car. Germany enacted legal animal protections in its constitution 2002, and similar conversations have been ongoing in India. But those two countries are exceptions to the greater trend.
The very fact that these protections are enshrined in constitutional language makes them unique in the Western Hemisphere. And according to Aguilar, since the constitution “acknowledges animals as sentient beings” and puts the onus of protection on the city’s citizens, this new constitution is one of the most animal-friendly constitutional texts in the Americas.
When it comes to Mexico specifically, Sánchez says this constitution is unique in its language. “I’m sure that it’s the strongest language about animal rights in a Mexican constitution,” he says. “Including the federal [government] and states, and also in Mexican history.”
It’s been a hard push for animal activists in Mexico. Gerardo Watko has been involved with the movement for nearly 20 years, helping to organize the First Animal Summit in his home city of Monterrey in 1996. Watko says almost 300 people attended that summit, most of whom were young and passionate about the cause. “I started to get to know this young crowd,” he says “Since then we’ve been talking and I’ve been seeing more and more effort to do coalition work that has done a lot of very good things for Mexico.”
He points to the ban of animals in circuses, a movement that started in Mexico City in 2014 before spreading to the rest of the country, as an indicator of where the country could be headed. Still, it’s difficult for many people outside of the country to shake the idea of Mexico as the land of bullfights and cockfights, a reputation that Watko has a serious problem with. “I don’t think that’s a very fair assessment, and it’s also a bit racist,” he says. “It’s a shame to think that Mexico is not a place for animal rights because in the past 15 years Mexico has grown not just in numbers, but also in reforms. Mexico has done a lot of amazing things that not many countries have done for animals.”
Still, there is more work to be done. The tradition of bullfighting in Mexico is 500 years old. Activists and politicians have been pushing to ban the practice for years, but they’ve met with considerable opposition. The National Association of Bull Breeders, along with bullfighters and supporters of the sport, say that the industry creates jobs and adds roughly US $11.3 billion to the economy. However, members of Congress, including Rodolfo Olimpo Hernández Bojórquez, the president of the congressional Audit for Government Spending, have said they find that number to be exaggerated.
That’s likely why, despite the new constitution’s strong animal welfare language, exceptions have been made for bullfighting and cockfights. Those remain legal in the city, according to Aguilar The battle is a dilemma for activists, but Aguilar views the animal rights fight as a war of attrition. “It’s correct that the cockfights and bullfights are still legal and that is something that we want to work on as part of the secondary legislation that will be reviewed and updated once the constitution is enforced,” he says.
Aguilar says right now his organization is concentrating its efforts on rallying public support to outlaw dogfights. “There is a strong consensus against them and there is evidence of a link between dogfighters and other organized criminal activity. So we want to first consolidate our work against dogfights — at least [at] our organization — before working more heavily on other types of animal fights that, unfortunately, are still legal.”
Others see the practice as difficult to give up. Sánchez believes bullfighting may be too ingrained in the culture to do away with easily. “There’s so much money in those types of shows. There are bets and there are groups of specific interest in those kinds of shows,” he says. “In Mexico we have many rural places … and it’s part of the culture…. So I don’t think this is going to change.”
There is some evidence that the tides are turning though. A 2013 poll by Mexican research firm Parametría shows that in 2007, 82 percent of Mexicans believed animals deserve protection. By 2013 that number had grown to 94 percent of respondents who said animals should have rights.
For Aguilar, this is indicative of a generational shift. “For instance, I think attending bullfights was much more common in previous generations, but now I think young people don’t attend those kinds of spectacles,” he says.
Constitutional language is all well and good, but in an area with a population topping 20 million people, enforcing the laws poses a big challenge. “Many things that were embodied in the constitution are almost impossible to apply,” says advocate Dulce Kim. It’s a sentiment that both activist and lawyer can agree upon. Sánchez says authorities still need to decide how to enforce the language. “[We need] a lot of education and a lot of promotion so these laws become reality,” he says.
Currently there are a handful of government agencies responsible for the protection of animals, including Procuraduria Federal del Medio Ambiente (Mexico’s Federal Attorney General for Environmental Protection) and Procuraduría Ambiental y de Ordenamiento Territorial (Mexico City’s Attorney General for Land Management). Working on the streets is the Brigada Vigilancia Animal (Animal Surveillance Brigade), a division of the Mexico City police force. But resources for these departments are severely lacking. According to Humane Society International, the police have only three kennels to shelter animals in the entire city. But Aguilar says his organization is working with them to improve conditions.
“We provide training for them on how to assess animal welfare, if an animal has been abused or not,” he says. “We also provide training for them to plan logistically, financially, and strategically. How to deal with these extreme abuse cases. things like dogfights, hoarding cases, or puppy mills.”
There are also challenges beyond enforcement. Just recently, the Mexican Senate decried the new document as unconstitutional, claiming that some of the sections — though, not that on animal rights — contradict the federal constitution. What this means for the animal protection language in the document remains to be seen, but Aguilar says he’s hopeful it won’t be affected.
Sánchez says he thinks the language will remain in tact. “Even though the appeals the Supreme Court submitted against the Constitution of Mexico City will [challenge] some parts of it, I’m sure that the theme about animal protection won’t fall apart,” he says. “The political players do not really care about it, so they will leave it.”
Mexico City is a land of contrast, where storied traditions bump against new ideas and long-held family recipes are modified for modern dietary needs.
In recent years, vegetarian and vegan restaurants are becoming more popular, reflecting changing preferences and beliefs. “People are caring more about their consumer choices in terms of products being cruelty free. The broader public across Mexico are more and more concerned about cruelty and animal welfare issues,” he says.
Even outside of the capital, things are changing. Watko says his hometown of Monterrey is well known for its proclivities toward meat, but now the city boasts nearly 30 vegan restaurants. “So a lot of people are talking about veganism in Monterrey, a city that no one ever thought could become vegetarian even. So I think that we are on the right path in Mexico,” he says.
At Por Siempre, a group of young people cue up to wait for their orders. From behind the counter a smiling tattooed man calls out names, handing over vegan tacos that a decade ago would have been much harder to come by in this city. But things evolve. From the street corner taco stands to government legislation, things in Mexico City are changing.
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