MEXICO CITY — Inside her home of crumbling cement blocks and rusted tin, Amelia de la Hoz works through a bowl of homemade dough, using her petite, wrinkled hands to turn the corn flour and water into a stack of fresh tortillas for dinner. With some scrambled eggs and a little shredded beef, she will feed her family of four in their one-room home decorated with images of the Virgin of Guadeloupe. Before they eat, she will pray for her neighborhood, where police regularly find corpses on the street, and she will pray for her family's safety: "Lord, help us through this day."
De La Hoz, 64, is one of the millions of faithful Catholics in Mexico who live each day in brutal poverty, struggling to put together a family meal and survive violence-plagued streets avoided by law enforcement and other government officials. She, like many other churchgoers, was thankful this week as Pope Francis toured Mexico's most impoverished and murderous neighborhoods, casting a spotlight on the nation's growing poverty crisis that saw 2 million more people fall into hunger and homelessness in recent years. But she had little hope the pontiff's visit would usher in significant change.
"This is our home and we know what happens here," she said on a recent day as she cooked dinner for her husband and two adults sons in Ecatepec, a crime-ridden neighborhood visited by Pope Francis Sunday to much fanfare. "After the pope's visit, the poor will continue to fight for peace, and he will return to the Vatican with pretty prayers, but it will be the same."
Pope Francis has pledged to highlight violence and corruption in Mexico during his weeklong tour of the embattled nation. His visit comes as Mexico's poverty rate has skyrocketed since President Enrique Peña Nieto took office in 2012. In all, roughly 80 percent of all Mexicans in Latin America’s second-largest economy are destitute or on the edges of poverty and nearly half of all families get by on $4 a day, or $136 a month. While the pontiff's travels will take him to some of the country's poorest enclaves, Mexico's many faithful Catholics expressed doubt he would address a widespread perception of failed national leadership or effect change. The lack of hope is noteworthy in a country with the world's second-highest number of Catholics, many of whom are eager to express solidarity with the first Latin American pope.
The pope arrived in Mexico City Friday, where he was greeted by the first family and a mariachi band, as well as thousands of jubilant Mexicans who chanted his name and waved banners featuring his image. Throughout the week, he will visit the troubled states of Michoacán, Chihuahua and Chiapas, where poverty and drug cartel-related violence remain rampant, before returning to the Vatican Thursday night.
Poverty and extreme poverty have increased in recent years in the states of Morelos, Veracruz, Oaxaca, Mexico, Sinaloa, Coahuila Hidalgo and Baja California Sur, while the nation's overall poverty rate grew from 53.3 million people in 2012 to 55.3 million people in 2014, a 3.7 percent increase representing 46 percent of the country, according to the most report from the independent National Council for the Evaluation of Social Development Policy, or CONEVAL. Another 11 million people, or 10 percent of Mexicans, live in extreme poverty, while 40 million more Mexicans are considered vulnerable to poverty because of falling income.
The poverty level in Mexico is set at a monthly income of 2,542.13 pesos, or roughly $136. In rural areas, it is 1,614.65 pesos, or $86. Mexicans typically earn a minimum wage of roughly 70.1 pesos a day, or about $4.
"There are different types of poverty today. Urbanization is changing poverty. Mexico City is urban poverty compared to Chiapas poverty. Those are the people who have never been given access to life in modern Mexico," said Christopher Wilson, deputy director of the Mexico Institute at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C., where he focuses on regional economic integration and U.S.-Mexico border affairs.
Declining oil production and a slowdown in China, a major trade partner, have contributed to Mexico's economic woes. In November, the International Monetary Fund downgraded its economic growth forecasts for Mexico from 2.8 percent to 2.5 percent because of declining oil production, which funds nearly a third of the country's budget.
Mexico's diminished peso is another concern. The Mexican peso has dropped 10 percent this year, becoming one of the world's worst-performing major currencies. For Mexicans, the growing exchange rate has made it more expensive to travel to the U.S. or buy U.S. goods.
"Everything is more expensive, but the pay is the same," said Gerardo Manuel Barros, 47, an Uber driver who works two jobs to support his wife and their daughter, 12, and son, 10, and to eventually buy his own vehicle to transport tourists and upper-class Mexicans across the city. "We spend 1,000 pesos every week on groceries, and it's hard, but what about the people who don't have that to spend? How do they exist?"
Barros had hoped to see the pope in Mexico City during his visit, but he couldn't get the time off from work. "The people who will go see him are the ones with money and time," he said. "I have faith, but faith doesn't pay the bills."
In the past, Mexican officials have cited papal visits to legitimize structural reforms and privatizations. Mexico, behind Brazil, is home to the world’s second-largest population of baptized Catholics—109 million, or 92 percent of the population.
But Mexicans' faith in the Church has been shaken by a wave of corruption scandals. Only four in 10 Mexican Catholics go to church every week, and while a handful of bishops have begun to call for political reform in recent years, the church in Mexico is still associated with the practice of narco-limosnas, or accepting generous donations from drug traffickers. Barely half of the 80,000 volunteers requested to form a 25-mile-long human shield for Pope Francis during his visit to Ciudad Juarez Wednesday registered for the task, according to the Juárez Diocese. When the pontiff visited Mexico City's main square Saturday, stands that had been erected for worshippers remained half-empty and only a few rows of admirers arrived to greet Francis as he drove through the downtown streets.
"There is double-talk. The government says everything is fine and it's not. Most people live with less than $3 a day and many live with less than $1 a day," said Yves Bernardo Roger Solis Nicot, a researcher who specializes in religious history at the National Autonomous University of Mexico in Mexico City. "It's not that the Church has to help the poor. It's that the Church has to focus on the body of the Church, not just the head. We all have to be well so that the body of the Church is well. The Church has to be closer to the poor because they are part of the body of the Church."
Those who waited hours in winter morning temperatures expressed hope that Francis would bless Mexico and share a message of faith, but even the most ardent believers were unsure his visit would amount to lasting change.
"He is a different pope. He likes to visit the poor," said Maria Sierra, 54, a housewife who traveled from a small village outside Mexico City on a bus with her husband to catch a glimpse of Francis Saturday morning. "I am not sure how he can help. Mexico has so many problems. But it is good to see him here and receive his blessings."
Miguel Gonzalez said he rarely goes to mass but considers himself Catholic. He came by himself to see the pope greet Mexico City before his meeting with Peña Nieto. "I want him to say that everything needs to get fixed and give a message of peace," Gonzales, 47, said. "Everyone is talking about him. He is a nice distraction."
Previous papal visits resulted in few civil changes in Mexico. John Paul II visited in 1979 and then in the 1990s and early 2000s, wearing a sombrero at one point and urging the church to play a more activist role in bringing justice to the poor. Pope Benedict traveled to Mexico in 2012, calling on the faithful to overcome “all evil and to establish a more just and fraternal society.”
Francis, the former archbishop of Buenos Aires, signaled ahead of his visit that he would be more confrontational. "You are living your little piece of war," Francis said Feb. 3 in a video message to Mexicans via the semi-official Notimex news agency. "The Mexico of violence, the Mexico of corruption, the Mexico of drug trafficking, the Mexico of cartels, is not the Mexico that our mother [the Virgin Mary] wants. I, of course, will not cover any of that up."
He went further during a meeting with Peña Nieto Saturday, noting that political leaders had a "particular duty" to ensure their people had "adequate housing, dignified employment, food, true justice, effective security, a healthy and peaceful environment." "Experience teaches us that each time we seek the path of privilege or benefits for a few to the detriment of the good of all, sooner or later the life of society becomes a fertile soil for corruption, the drug trade, the exclusion of different cultures, violence and also human trafficking, kidnapping and death," he said in his address to Peña Nieto, the government and foreign diplomats.
In Argentina, Francis often chided the husband-and-wife presidency of Néstor and Cristina Kirchner for not doing more for the poor. But he has been reluctant to directly criticize governments during his papal visits.
"The pope is coming with his own message. He was invited by the government, he will be visiting the president, he will be respectful in all of his statements, he won't be blatantly critical of the government, but he will bring up the issues that he feels are important," said Wilson, of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. "The pope is going to highlight issues of poverty, human rights and violence and, of course, the government's response will be that it is working very hard on those issues."
Still, even the slightest rebuke of the government would be welcomed by a population fed up with the increasingly unpopular Peña Nieto administration. Peña Nieto was elected in 2012 to a six-year term, promising robust economic growth and to tame violent crime following years of drug war mayhem. But recent polls saw his support slide to 35 percent and more than 63 percent of Mexicans claim the country is headed in the wrong direction, a figure that has nearly doubled since Peña Nieto took office, according to the survey by polling firm Buendia & Laredo.
"Peña Nieto ran on this idea of stabilizing the security situation and getting back to economic growth. He’s failed on both counts. Narco violence is still raging, and now it’s raging not just on the border but in the interior, too. States like Michoacan, Guerrero and Mexico State," said Stephen Andes, an assistant professor of history at Louisiana State University, whose research is centered on Catholic social and political movements, Vatican policy and Mexico. "The presidency, congress and political parties have low confidence ratings... So of course Peña Nieto wants to leverage the symbolic power of the pope’s visit."
Angel Morelos, 26, had hopes that Peña Nieto would set Mexico on a new course when he was elected four years ago, but he said finding work has become more difficult in recent years and many Mexicans have directed their frustration and anger toward the president.
“I don’t know if the president or the pope could fix Mexico’s problems, there are so many. Even the Virgin Mary would ask, where to start,” he said on a recent afternoon in between shining shoes and selling gum to businessmen in the upscale Santa Fe neighborhood, where soaring condominium towers and an oversized shopping center anchored by a Saks Fifth Avenue underscore Mexico City’s vast income inequality.
Faced with public discontent, Peña Nieto has pledged to close the poverty gap in rural areas and raise living standards in the southern states of Oaxaca, Guerrero and Chiapas. His administration wants to help put cement floors in every home and increase access to health care, potable water and public education for millions. The government claims had it not been for public and private social programs, extreme poverty would have soared by nearly 12 percent in 2015.
"The price of goods have grown faster than wages," Gonzalo Hernández, executive secretary of National Council for the Evaluation of the Social Development Policy based in Mexico City. "There were reforms we were supposed to do that we didn't, there were changes that we needed to make that we didn't. Mexico can't change from year to year."
Critics of the Peña Nieto administration, however, argue that low-income Mexicans have not been a priority for the government, and the pope's visit will likely do little to better position such communities. Outside Mexico's metropolitan heart, poor Mexicans are often left to combat malnutrition and drought, said Raúl Hernández Garciadiego, director general of Alternativas, a Tehuacán-based non-profit that develops and implements sustainable living practices for indigenous villages.
"It's false there is less extreme poverty," he said. "Someone who doesn't have foods or basic services or access to health care... is still living under extreme poverty."
Manuel Molano, director of the Mexican Institute for Competitiveness, a Mexico City think tank dedicated to generating public policy proposals to boost competitiveness, said poor public planning has created vast income gaps that often marginalize the nation's poorest communities.
"There are two societies," he said. "There is a modern world that sends their children to private schools where they learn foreign languages. And then there is the majority, who are not very educated, only speak Spanish and cannot compete in a global economy."
Ecatepec, on the outskirts of Mexico City, is part of that majority with limited access to class mobility. The suburb of 2 million residents has a homicide rate three times the national average and is marked by decaying homes and fierce gang wars.
In recent weeks, government officials have re-paved roads, planted shrubs and painted over gang-related graffiti with colorful murals depicting Francis holding a dove, extending a blessing to the community and waving his hands in a green landscape. Hours before the pope arrived Sunday, throngs of Mexicans lined the route that would take him to a massive field where he later held an hourslong mass. A festival-like atmosphere took hold, with vendors hawking mango and lime sorbet, cotton candy, and T-shirts, hats and balloons bearing the pope's visage.
As giant television screens and towering speakers carried his message to a swelling crowd, Francis warned against the “three temptations” of wealth, vanity and pride. He reprimanded the elite who take the “bread” on the “toil of others.” “This is the bread that a corrupt family or society gives its own children,” Francis said.
A few blocks away, Victor Fernandez sold steaming bowls of Mexican pozole stew and beef and pork tacos in a humble restaurant built into the side of his home. Ecatepec, he said, had been ignored for at least two decades by government officials until the papal visit prompted a flurry of urban improvement.
"I am Catholic," he said. "But I don't believe in this. You see people with tears in their eyes, 'Oh, the emotion, the pope is here,' but then next week, what will happen? It will be another 40 years here before they fix another sidewalk, when the next pope visits."