From Independence Day in September to Christmas, Mexico City is bursting with piñatas–colourful papier maché sculptures that are hung from the ceiling and then beaten with sticks until they break, releasing a shower of trinkets and candies. They’re the perfect festive accompaniment to any party, and fall is party season in Mexico.
Piñatas are just one of the items made in the workshop at L’Arche Mexico City, located on a picturesque cobblestone street in southern Mexico City. On weekdays, it is a hive of creative energy. Nine members with an intellectual disability who live in L’Arche’s large historic home combine their talents with a team of assistants and 15 external workshop members to paint, draw, embroider, and make piñatas. All their products are on sale.
“They’re not hard to make,” says Oliver Reyes, 30, a member of the workshop who lives with his parents not far from L’Arche’s property in San Pedro Mártir. “It just takes time.”
Through this workshop, L’Arche Mexico City provides an opportunity to learn new skills and to build community with those who all too often fall between the cracks of the services available to Mexicans with intellectual disabilities: adults who are too old for programs for children, but too young for senior care programs.
It’s estimated that 1,590,583, or about 1.3%, of Mexicans live with either a mental or combined physical and mental disability: nearly half of these are between the ages of 15 and 60. While schools and institutions do exist to provide education and vocational training to people with intellectual disabilities, most of them only serve people under 20 years of age.
This means that during their adult years, many people with intellectual disabilities in Mexico become wholly reliant on their families for economic, social, and medical support–support that can be very difficult for working class families to provide. Economic challenges, along with social discrimination, mean that it is by no means unusual for an adult with intellectual disabilities to end up isolated at home, with little opportunity to develop their talents or play much part in society.
“There’s nothing for them [after they become adults], almost anywhere,” said Oliver’s mother, Elena Arroyo Reyes. “We looked everywhere, and there really was nothing until we found L’Arche.”
L’Arche Mexico has always had a workshop program, although before 2019, the team was much smaller: the disabled members from the L’Arche house in link with some work assistants. But when the community decided to move from their cramped location in the working class district of Iztapalapa to a new – larger setting in neighbouring Tlalpan, they started to have conversations about how L’Arche could best serve their new neighbours.
“Opening up another home is complicated, right, said Guadalupe González, director of L’Arche Mexico City. “So we wanted a workshop supporting families and offering something to the surrounding community; a recreational and occupational workshop to start with, but in future we want it to be more like a workplace.”
So they began converting an outbuilding on the new property into a workshop, opening it to external members in January 2019. New members joined, all women. But it wasn’t long before Covid-19 arrived in Mexico and they were forced to shut down. But in 2022, as more and more Mexicans were vaccinated, the pandemic began to subside: so the workshop reopened and began welcoming new members. Now 15 externs with intellectual disabilities – mostly from working class families in the local area- are playing their own role in its ongoing development.
Like L’Arche anywhere, the primary aim is to support each person to develop their skills as ‘a community builder’. Naturally, some members have very specific needs, and the professional care support L’Arche offers combines well with a community outlook, where warm relationships across many kinds of difference are at the heart.
“It’s about creating activities and opportunities to develop in different ways: manual dexterity and mental agility, and also socially, having relationships with friends; meeting people, integrating themselves,” said workshop coordinator Juan Carlos Guzmán.
Elena Arroyo Reyes heard about the workshop as she was searching for options for Oliver. She was surprised–they live nearby, and she had passed the building several times, but had no idea that behind the unassuming blue wall was a workshop for people with intellectual disabilities. One day, she simply rang the doorbell and asked if they worked with people with disabilities. After a visit to the workshop and an interview, as well as an invitation to the 2022 Christmas party, Oliver started attending the workshop in January of 2023.
“Every day is a challenge, but here we’re moving forward; with L’Arche’s help we feel much calmer,” said Arroyo Reyes. “He’s happy here, he has friends and socializes, he’s not just at home alone, which before would have been the only option.”
Oliver agreed. “I like to paint, and make piñatas,” he said. “I’m happy at L’Arche.”
The workshop has been so successful that it quickly reached capacity, but Guadalupe and Juan Carlos are hopeful that with the right support, they’ll be able to expand it.
“I hope we can keep growing,” said Guadalupe. “I hope that the workshop will not just create personal autonomy, but also economic autonomy, and that it can open up new pathways, especially for our members with disabilities to fulfil their dreams.”