MEXICAN PLUMBING: It’s Come a Long Way
By Margaret Van Every
Availability of indoor plumbing is a basic criterion used to measure a country’s standard of living, with implications for related standards like infant mortality and disease due to unsanitary drainage and waste treatment. In this brief history of the progress of plumbing in Mexico, I describe my personal experience, which spans some 40 years and is limited to cities where I’ve lived or traveled. I’m writing this in part because recent comers have no awareness that in many of the towns and villages they visit, there has transpired a dramatic revolution in Mexican plumbing in a relatively short time. Census statistics corroborate my observations.
My introduction to Mexico was during the 1970s, when only 41.4% of households, mostly concentrated in big cities, had the luxury of indoor plumbing, i.e., running water and sanitary drainage. For two years I lived in Cuernavaca in a middle class neighborhood with my husband and three children. As far as we could tell, everything was on a par with our house in Florida, except for the tinaco on the roof, a necessity during the dry season water shortages. I never thought much about how the vast majority of Mexicans cooked, showered, washed clothes, or disposed of their waste. We had purified bottled water delivered in garrafones, but we also had running water from our kitchen and bathroom faucets. Our garden was always green, our swimming pool full. Our toilets reliably flushed.
Then little by little I observed drastic plumbing inequalities. I realized why village women wore long skirts and why the sides of buildings and walls reeked of urine. For lack of indoor plumbing, the skirt was the poor woman’s tent of privacy. This was made clear to us when bucket brigades from the adjacent barrio lined up outside our gate when their own spigots where dry.
The stinking walls were every man’s urinal. Incoming fresh water and outgoing drainage pipes that serviced our subdivision abruptly stopped where poverty began, just a few yards beyond our walls.
We had our showers at home, but what did they do? A Mexican introduced me to the public bath house near the zocalo, where I discovered first-hand how the unwashed washed. When they felt the time was “ripe,” they paid a couple of pesos and received a towel, a small bar of soap, and a disposable Aztec washcloth, which was a wad of coarse sisal that was perfect for exfoliating the week’s grime and some dead skin, too. The priceless thing one bought for that pittance was privacy, the scarcest commodity of all in a poor village. Here was one of the few places where they could lock the door, and that made it a convenient alternative to la Gloria (heaven), colloquial for the-no-tell motel. There was a vestibule with hooks for towels and clothes and there were single and double shower rooms, both lined with wide cement benches. For the pueblerino it was luxury on a scale with a spa. They could open a valve and the cubicle filled with steam. They could inhale moisture during the dry season and relax in a quiet sanctuary apart from the deafening buses and radios on the nearby street. There must have been a time keeper or people would have steamed in bliss for hours. These days, in all my travels in Mexico, I have yet to see a public bath house in even the poorest villages.
During one year of my time in Cuernavaca, 1978, I shared a live-in studio with Mexican starving artists, and they had their own version of a shower. Outdoors in the laundry space, they had rigged a bucket high up, which they filled with water that trickled over the shivering bather through a tube pinched off with a clothespin. The water in the bucket was just barely enough for one shower if used sparingly, plus perhaps a hair washing if the hair was short. But did I mention that the water wasn’t heated? Thus, you can bet it was used sparingly, especially during the winter when it was torture just to be naked outdoors, let alone naked and wet.
Getting back to public toilets, if you were a jeans-wearing gringa, your reduced intake of fluids risked dehydration. In an emergency there were a few public toilets where you paid a career gatekeeper a few pesos to use a smelly, unhygienic stall with a seat-less commode and no sink. As a bonus, she gave you a few sheets of paper directly from her hand, and might I say she was skilled in the art of portion control? Even though public toilets today are more plentiful and cleaner, the advice of resident Mexicans is still to always BYOP. The other thing that hasn’t changed in 40 years is what to do with the used tissue. The Mexican rule is to never flush the paper down the toilet lest it clog the ancient pipes. The hand eventually learns to automatically drop it into the basket at the side of the toilet. Now some newfangled systems in Costco and at malls confuse the hand. There are signs saying to please put the paper in the toilet, but the hand, an incurable creature of habit, continues to drop it to the side, if only on the floor.
Where have all the bath houses gone, you may wonder, and why are the Mexican señoras now emboldened to wear trousers and those teensy-weensy skirts? As you would hope, indoor plumbing has greatly improved since the ‘70s. The government census for the years 2000-2010 reports that Mexicans living in houses without sanitary drainage dropped by two-thirds from 9.9% in 2000 to 3.6% in 2010. Those without piped-in water went from 11.2% to 8.6%. It is common that those with indoor toilets flush them only once or twice daily with a bucket of water hauled into the house from an outside source, as they lack piped-in water for that purpose. Sanitary drainage requires only pipes and gravity, whereas incoming piped water requires pressure-holding plumbing and pumps driven by electric or diesel power. Both sanitary drainage and piped-in water are crucial for public health. Let us hope Mexico will continue to make this a priority. Then the only thing lacking will be—as it is now—an adequate water supply.