Story by Karina Roldan
Video by Alice Nalepka & James Coreas

The Ponce family used to work the land, harvesting beans, wheat, corn and peas before the land suddenly vanished before them.

For more than 40 years, the lives of the 11 Ponce family members revolved around a simple way of life: farming. But that routine ended in 1947 when the federal government built a dam in this hilly, western town in the State of Mexico.


These days most of the families from Valle de Bravo depend on tourism. Traffic increases on the weekend, bars stay open until dawn, and the lake turns into an aquatic sports scene. That lake, which displaced many families years ago, is the same one that today attracts foreigners and wealthyamilies from Mexico City.

The Ponces, who had never ventured away from their home, were abruptly exposed to the world. After 60 years, they have never recovered from their loss.

“The dam relocated us,” Irma says. “Many people in town died from sadness.”

Ever since, they have been searching for a place to call home. First they went to “La Peña,” a mountain that overlooks Valle, and then to the outskirts. They never found home.

But in a time of great transformation – politically, socially, economically – they have always clung to each other for better or worse.

The Ponces have lived in a borrowed house for six years: Carolina, 73; her mother Jobita 93, her sisters Irma 64, Josefina 68, and her brother Manuel, 70. They depend on their own solidarity and the support of local people.

They have never owned a house. But twice they have lost their home. The first time was in the 40s, when about three thousand acres of agricultural land in Valle de Bravo were flooded to build the hydroelectric dam, which now provides water to Mexico City.

Many locals abandoned the land. “People said that we would starve if we stayed,” Jobita says.

They found another home in “La Peña.” The owners lent the land to the Ponces, in exchange a third of their harvest. But when the owner decided to sell the land, the Ponces had to leave again.

The Ponces moved to Colonos about seven years ago, a neighborhood in the border of town. They brought along the few belongings they owned — even the old blue pots that now decorate the garden.

“The dam relocated us,” Irma says. “Many people in town died from sadness.”

Irma is in charge of planting and watering the garden. Purple and red flowers, a grenade fruit tree and a tomato plant grow right in the yard in the middle of the house. The careful skills of cultivation are a vestige from her farming past.

It’s noon in Valle de Bravo. The sun begins drying out the moisture left by the morning rain. Irma Ponce, a tiny 68 year-old woman, props open the door of the gate with a stone. At the entrance, she places a table. There is a Victoria-beer tray on the table, with plastic bags filled with toasted-pumpkin seeds. Irma sells them for five pesos.

Irma sits down on a small wooden palm chair. She watches how a passing car splashes mud on a mother who walks hand-in-hand with her little daughter. After a while her sister Josefina walks upstairs and sits without saying a word. A child stops by to buy a bag of seeds. They spend the rest of the afternoon in silence.

Irma buys the pumpkin seeds every morning. She cleans them and lets them dry under the sunlight in the afternoon. Then she toasts them on a griddle. Her kilo of seeds costs 50 pesos, 13.77 pesos less than the minimum wage. Sometimes the money is not enough, and they have to borrow some. There are some days when there is no money for food. “In the field we had food to eat and that was happiness,” Irma says. “We’ve got nothing here. We’re in a cage.”

Their loss has left a feeling of emptiness in them. They long for their field, their home, the one the family harvested for 43 years. When they left the farm, their father became depressed.  “My dad would remain sitting down without doing anything,” Irma says. “He would sometimes chop wood.”


Their farther, Bernardino Ponce, became an orphan when he was a child. He was poor, a hard worker and a very strict father and husband. Carolina remembers the day when he died, three years after they came to Colonos.  He was 94 years old. It was Holy Thursday when Carolina and her sister Josefina came back from Mass and found their weakened father lying in bed.

“He ran out of strength gradually,” Carolina says.

It’s Sunday, and there’s a clear sky. Manuel walks into the kitchen clad in blue-patched pants, rubber boots, and a dirty baseball cap. Piles of wood are stacked and lay on a brick wall. He slowly takes one of the pieces of wood and puts it on the floor. He takes the axe with both hands, raises it above his head and splits the wood into two.

Josefina walks barefoot into the kitchen with dough ball in her hands. The roof made of foil sheets keeps the room dark and cold.  The wood burns inside the cement oven. Smoke fills the air. She soaks the dough and spreads a slice with a metate. She kneads it with her wet hands to form a thin paste. Then she sets a fire and flips the tortilla a few times that gradually inflates. Josefina puts the tortilla in a wicker basket. She learned to make tortillas when she was eight years old. Her hands were so small that she would bruise her hands with the metate.

Josefina walks downstairs with the tortillas basket. She walks into an almost empty room, where there are only wooden chairs carefully lined up against the walls. A small shrine stands out in one corner. The Lady of Guadalupe image, white flowers, and a candle are the only decoration.

Her brothers and mother are already sitting at the table; there is a pot with beans, pickled peppers and a few bananas that a neighbor gave them. Josefina passes a tortilla on to her mother. They understand each other without saying a word. Silence paces the meal.

The four siblings become older and the fear of loneliness grows. They have nothing; they only count on each other.

It is almost afternoon. Irma and Josefina comb their grey hair making a thin long braid. They wear plain and worn-out clothes, which they hand-sewed. Before leaving home, they put gray shawls on their shoulders. They walk swiftly to church because the mass starts at one.

The hilly streets in town make the journey difficult and tiresome. They walk between cabs that slow down the traffic. Tourists stop to take photos with their iPhones. Irma and Josephina blend well with the architecture.

Outside the church, by a stand selling pudding, they run into a cousin they hardly remember. Lupita, their cousin, reminds them of her name. They explain to Lupita that their mother Jobita has lost her vision, and she cannot walk, so she does not leave home.

They enter the church. Their shawls cover their heads. They sit on different benches, far away from each other. Both of them kneel down and pray the third mystery of the rosary.

Since they were kids, they have come to Mass every Sunday. They thank God for everything he has given them, “although I can’t see him,” Josefina says.

Church was the only place their parents would allow them to go. Even “when we went to Mass, our parents would track our time away,” Josefina says.

The four older siblings have always been together. They never got married. Their parents were more strict with them than with the younger ones. The rules were tougher and work was hard, too. Their parents never let them have friends. It was a lifetime circumscribed by prohibitions and isolation. They didn’t know anything beyond what their parents and the church instilled in them.

When they grew up, they decided to be faithful to their parents, and they’ve remained by their side until now. “The younger ones rebelled,” Josefina says, “but we didn’t.” Respecting their parents is a very clear commandment for them.

The five younger brothers also live in Valle de Bravo. They married and left home when they were still young. Before Bernardino died, they went to apologize to their parents. Now, they visit their mother every fortnight. They bring her food and medicine.


Josefina washes her clothes on a stone in a manner that used to be common on riverbanks decades ago in Mexico. Carolina removes the wrinkles from her dresses with a metal iron. Days slowly pass on for the Ponce family. Their routine is simple and seems of a different era.

It is cloudy today. The dim sunlight reflects in the puddles. The pumpkin seeds still remain wet in a green sack. Irma, Josefina, and Jobita are sitting on the patio. Manuel stands next to the door with a small Eucharistic book in his hands. They look out and see the cars and people passing by. Carolina sits in the garden to embroider. Soon, Irma falls asleep in the chair.

The first raindrops begin to fall. Jobita is barely able to stand up from her chair. Josefina approaches her mother and patiently helps her down the stairs. The four siblings become older and the fear of loneliness grows. They have nothing; they only count on each other. They try to make themselves feel at home. With little money, job, and strength, where can they go?

In the end, Jobita says, only the cemetery will bring their long journey to a rest. “That will be our home and nobody will displace us again.”


When a 1947 federal government order caused massive floods to create a lake in Valle de Bravo, it left the Ponce family without a home. Since then, the four unmarried siblings and their elderly mother have managed to survive by sticking together and selling pumpkin seeds.

At 64 years old, Irma is the youngest of the Ponce siblings. The family lives together with their mother.


Photo Credit: James Coreas

Lake Presa Miguel Alemán in Valle de Bravo was created in 1947 by flooding a valley within the mountains. The land, once agricultural land, was the home to many locals who made a living off what they grew. Although the lake brought in an abundance of tourism for the city, it displaced many families, including the Ponces, from lifestyles they were accustomed to.


Photo Credit: Alice Nalepka


The Ponce family consists of (from left) Irma, Josefina, their mother Jobita, Carolina and Manuel. When they were displaced from their farm, sticking together was the family’s only chance for survival.


Photo Credit: Alice Nalepka


Jobita, age 93, was married to Bernardino Ponce for 70 years until his death six years ago. They worried about how the family would make a living outside of agricultural work. The couple knew no other lifestyle and did not prepare their children for different work.


Photo Credit: James Coreas


Irma walks home after purchasing milled corn for tortillas, a major staple in the family’s diet. They make tortillas daily and entirely from scratch.


Photo Credit: James Coreas


Every few days, Manuel, age 70, chops wood with a machete and axe. The family’s wood-burning stove provides their only cooking surface. They replenish their diminishing supply by collecting wood from around town and helpful neighbors.


Photo Credit: Alice Nalepka


Irma, age 64, roasts pumpkin seeds on their wood-burning stove. The pumpkin seeds, bought in town, must be washed and cooked daily before they are bagged and sold.


Photo Credit: Alice Nalepka


Josefina and Manuel wait by the doorway of their house for customers. The Ponces have never owned their own home. In exchange for taking care of the house, they live in their current home rent-free. The family relies on seed sales to cover the cost of water and electricity.


Photo Credit: Alice Nalepka


Josefina, age 68 accepts money for a bag of pumpkin seeds. Each bag sells for 10 pesos, roughly $1 each. They are only able to sell for a couple of hours each day because of the daily chores and having to care for their mother.

Photo Credit: James Coreas

Josefina and Irma recite prayers while at church. The sisters rarely leave the house except to attend church. The Ponces’ faith plays a large part in their life. Their parents wanted them to remain unmarried and used the fifth commandment, obey your father and mother, to enforce this desire.


Photo Credit: Alice Nalepka

“We don’t like living here because we feel strange and alone,” said Josefina. The cemetery bears their only hope for stability. “There we will find a home,” Jobita said. “No one will displace us.”


Photo Credit: James Coreas