Wednesday, January 15, 2020

Love from Oaxaca

Blessed in Oaxaca, Mexico

January 15, 2020

updated January 19

One thing leads to another on the internet and I may have an explanation for what is happening to me here in Oaxaca, but maybe just in general, too. “Jerusalem syndrome” or in my case, “Oaxaca syndrome” or maybe “Goddess syndrome,” where suddenly people become overcome, even psychotic, while visiting foreign places of holiness and great beauty, or in the case of the Goddess, being a person in whom she sees an opening to “play and create” (in the words of Octavio Paz) with me and boy, does she ever go to town.

This could explain why I can suddenly understand more of the spoken Spanish, and as the days go by, I even am able to speak it better and better. Also, this could explain why I seemed to merge into the flow of humanity during the Saturday evening paseo around the zocalo, though I was sitting on the sidelines, and why this Zapotec necklace leaped out at me and now everyone comments on it, though only one person, an old man at a restaurant, knew the symbolism.[1] Why I stumble around and have the most fantastic time.

This is the fourth time I have visited Oaxaca, but it is really the first time I have experienced it on a deeper, personal level. That is probably due to the fact that I was with other people on the other three trips, tending to their needs and even having to play tour guide which was a complete distraction from experiencing my own feelings about the people and the place.  

Now that the air has cleared, I find that I really love it here.  I love Mexican colonial cities which is where I want to spend my time in Mexico anymore, avoiding the beach scene which I find mostly obscene and soulless, unless there is a quiet little place somewhere that someday calls to me. 

Oaxaca is much bigger than another of my favorite colonial cities, San Miguel de Allende.  Oaxaca has many more indigenous people and a more authentic Mexican feel as the norteamericanos and other tourists are far outnumbered and tend to disappear in the crowd, except for the tallest ones who tower over these short people.  

It is a life of exquisite privilege for me to be among them.  My hotel, Las Golondrinas, The Swallows, is gracious with small, basic and clean rooms clustered around the lush inner courtyard.  We have our breakfast under a roof of bougainvillea, with colorful birds darting in and out.  It is quiet and serene; the other guests do not speak loudly if they speak at all, and for that I am grateful.  I am not in the mood to chit chat so after the first courteous Buenas dias, I sit by myself and write.  

All of my favorite things to do are here: art, crafts, museums, colonial churches, mercados, walking, excursions to the villages and ancient sites, people watching, street music and performance art, street vendors, great food (though the chapulines, fried grasshoppers, are an acquired taste for me), even mezcal which I never tried before but find that I like its mellow flavor more than tequila.  There are innumerable cafes, churches, parks and public spaces to sit and write in, and no one is in a hurry to get rid of you. 
The zocalo is a fiesta all day, every day.  All of life, the Indians, mestizos, criollos, other ethnic Mexicans, foreigners and tourists of many nationalities, flow by from morning until late at night.  All you have to do is to get a ringside seat at one of the many cafes on the zocalo and wait for it all to come to you in the form of musicians and peddlers of all varieties.  It seems impossible, but this happened to me, that you can have delicious food (guacamole/chips and squash blossom/vege soup), all while sitting alone on a terrace with the most stunning view to the mountains and
two cathedrals, while watching the sun set as the sky lights up in changing shades of pink and blue, with shadows playing on the mountains.  Blessed.

I went to the bank to get a bunch of 10 peso coins, which I have vowed to give to each indigenous lady (usually old-looking, but they are probably younger than me) who asks me.  It is a sad fact of life that there are no lack of beggars here, mostly women with or without children, but the occasional man, too, who tends to be blind or physically disabled in some way.

My Mexican American friend, Guillermo, told me before I left Portland of the hope he has for the policies of the new Mexican President, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, or Amlo, as he is affectionately called here.  He is a President who has some background in standing with the poor, which has gotten him labelled the “Mexican Messiah” by some of his detractors.  But he won in a landslide and the poor people have taken him at his word and daily line up to serve him their heartfelt petitions for help in the often tragic circumstances of their lives. 

Amlo has vowed to cut down on government and police corruption, implement more social safety nets especially for seniors, improve access to education, implement economic development programs aimed at helping farmers, decimated by Nafta, reclaim a livelihood, and deal with the rampant crime fueled by the drug cartels.  Since the former President Felipe Calderón’s “war on drugs” began in 2006, it is estimated that over 62,000 Mexicans have disappeared at the hands of the cartels.  And that may be a very low estimate.  One report I read quoted an official speaking about this tragedy by reminding people that all of these people have left behind families and friends who must deal with the fact that their loved one is most likely dead somewhere, and without a body to bury, their absence hangs in the air, making life even more difficult and painful.

I had a painful personal experience with Mexican drug violence when I was visiting Los Angeles around 2011 and found out by reading the LA Times that a man I had worked with, Bobby Salcedo, had been murdered in a small town in northern Mexico while sitting in a restaurant with his wife.  Bobby was the vice principal of South El Monte High School which I had partnered with for my nonprofit youth-farm ministry.  He was only about 35 years old and just the nicest guy.  He and his wife were visiting her family over the Christmas school break.  I can’t believe that he would have had anything to do with drugs himself; merely an unlucky bystander caught in unmitigated violence.

The last time I was in Oaxaca was in 2014, and one day the streets were filled with people protesting something, which we found out was the 43 students who had disappeared in Guerrero at the hands of police and cartels.  As the New York Times reported recently, the pain and the mystery remain.  But this is also something that Amlo is trying to correct – to actually enforce the rule of law and do real investigations. He reopened the case in 2018 and designated a special commission to handle the investigations.  The Mexican people have an amazing ability to cope with these tragedies.  The Oaxacan artist Francisco Toledo painted portraits of the 43 students on 43 kites, and encouraged the people of Oaxaca to fly these works of art as protest.  

Oaxaca has seen violent unrest as recently as 2006, when striking teachers were met with violent government response resulting in 23 deaths and more violence continued into 2007.  Even the trees in the zocalo came under attack in 2005.  A local man, Francisco Verastegui, saw some suspicious bulldozer activity and stayed overnight in the zocalo, only to see workers, escorted by police, cutting down a tree at 2 am.  He led a popular protest and gathered 20,000 signatures on a petition against the cutting of the trees.  But officials responded by fencing off the zocalo for five months so no one could see that they were cutting down the trees.  Francisco went on to study the history of Oaxaca’s trees, some of which are very old, possibly even planted by Aztec people, and some had links with famous people in history.  He published his findings and in 2007 won the Colibri Ecotourism Award.  Now some of the historic trees allegedly have plaques and low fences around them, though I haven't seen any yet.

I feel cynical about what can be done in Mexico as over the years I have watched the country struggle and seemingly lose the fight with crime and drugs (fueled of course by voracious American appetites), seen poverty if not getting worse then not getting any better either for people in the rural areas, seen the promise of Nafta providing work in the maquiladoras descend into more murders and disappeared, all women (if you get a chance, go see a powerful play, La Ruta, about this), and the inability of Mexican farmers to compete with subsidized American corn, and so on.

Enoc, sweetest man in the world
But I trust that Guillermo knows more about Mexico than I do, so I am more than willing to also feel hopeful at this point in time.  I love this country and its people who deserve so much more than what they have been living with for so long.  My friend at the hotel reception here in Oaxaca assures me that things are quiet here now, and also in Chiapas where I will travel next.  But there are many Mexican states where violence and corruption reign.  When I was at the Douglas, Arizona/Agua Prieta, Sonora border in October, we learned that the Mexicans who were trying to get asylum were coming to that port of entry from Guerrero, but people in many other Mexican states also are highly threatened by police corruption and cartel violence.

That said, I always feel like I am coming home when in Mexico.  Though being here as a woman on my own and one with no children is still a horrifying and pitiful circumstance to most Mexicans, their natural graciousness and warmth makes me feel included anyway.*  I relate to this country of entrepreneurs, forced though they are due to lack of education and jobs, where even little kids of 4 and 5 embrace the charisms and subtleties of salesmanship.  Besides, they are cute as all get out.   

* My driver today (Jan 19) asked me why I travel alone.  I told him that maybe people think it is odd
Patricia, Mexican independent traveler
in Mexico?  I said that this way, I can do want I want.  No solving other people's problems!  That didn't seem to convince him, so I said that it was so I could go with whatever man I wanted!  He laughed.  Finally, I said that men don't like me, except for old men and now that I am old, even they don't like me.  He laughed again.  I said that I am like a priest in America, only female, and men are afraid of me, or think I am the Virgin of Guadalupe, and who needs that?  He said, you are funny! My friend, Patricia, at the Hotel Las Golondrinas assured me that many Mexican women travel alone nowadays; she does! 
¡Qué maravilloso!

Glitter Mittens tortuga gourd and alebrije
The art and craft scene here is so amazing, with lots of craft booths set up at the zocalo and side streets, and three or four permanent markets where you can buy just about anything.  

Mario Chavez, Zapotec jewelry maker
Mario Chavez, the jewelry maker, is part of a cooperative, La Casa de las Artesanias de Oaxaca, which is comprised of 54 artists from a variety of indigenous tribes and other Mexican backgrounds.  Not only do they share in the business, including maintaining the building, but he explained to me that they are a true community of friends.  “If I need this xxx from you, you will give it to me; and then I will give you what you need in return.”  It seems to me that he has the best job on earth.  He gets to make a living doing what he loves, creating beauty and making people happy, while sharing in the business enterprise with friends.  And his entire family gets to participate in it with him.  Where in the US do we have this kind of a job with so much dignity?

You can travel to the outlying villages to learn about the wool rug making using natural dyes, the weaving, the wood carving and meticulous painting of the fanciful animal alebrijes, the green and black pottery, the embroidered huipiles, dresses and other items and on and on.  Truly, this is an ascent to heaven for me.

Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz
Like in many countries, women are revered and yet not.  They lead complex lives.  Many of these Indian women don’t even reach five foot tall.  Some are carrying heavy breasts on bodies with short but sturdy legs.  These women are quite strong, I am sure.  I think of what they have gone through in history, and what many, too many, go through now, with poverty, illiteracy, lack of health care, lack of access to abortion, church injunctions against contraceptives, and epidemic levels of domestic violence and sexual harassment and assault.  The Mexican machismo runs deep and has a powerful grip on the culture. This affects all women, not just the poor.  Just a few days ago, activists placed hundreds of painted-red women’s shoes on Mexico City’s main square to call attention to gender-based violence.  It is reported that in Mexico, 10 women and girls are murdered each day and less than 10 percent of the cases are ever solved.
Official statistics say that only about 40% of Mexican women work outside the home, but from what I have seen in indigenous communities, 100% of the women work, and are often the only ones who are keeping their families afloat economically.  It is mostly women you see sitting in the market selling their tamales, chapulines, vegetables, crafts, and so on.  As mentioned above, their work can bring them into dangerous territory, as with the pervasive, and unsolved, wave of femicides among the maquiladora workers.  In fact, Mexican women are the ones who first coined the phrase, femicide, which has been found to be a truth not only throughout Mexico, but internationally as well.  In the USA and Canada, there is an ongoing struggle to address this evil known to be perpetrated especially against Native women.

The indigenous Virgin of Guadalupe
But as author Lacy Johnson points out, women are strong, too.  Indigenous women and all women will survive all of this, I am sure.  And then we will save the world.  I am also sure of that.

A woman, indigenous most likely, will lead us, and we will find the babe in the poorest, most remote village on the planet, where worship is still in the old way, through story and myth and legend and the rhythm of the seasons, with the earth and stars and water and air and all the living beings laughing in beauty and flowers.  From this our indigenous woman savior will arise, a modern day Joan of Arc, led by visions and voices and, ignoring all naysayers, she will give us life and a future.  This is the dream I have been given here.[2]

[1] I was lucky enough to be able to talk with the Zapotec jewelry maker, Mario Chavez, about the necklace, which is coral and silver.  He said that it is Zapotec/Christian syncretic symbolism, the small hearts being Milagros, meaning "miracle" in Spanish, which are religious folk charms used by contemporary Mexican and indigenous peoples to petition for help or protection from the Christian God, Virgin of Guadalupe or Saint.  So the heart Milagros would be used to help heal a broken heart, for instance, or a sickness of the heart, or the celebration of love within the heart. The two hearts with a horizontal line going through it signify Jesus’ crown of thorns.  One of the hearts has a sun on top, obviously an important element in Zapotec culture.  The hand, which I had assumed to be similar to the Hand of Fatima I learned about in Morocco, turns out to be more than just protection from “bad people” or “bad energy,” though it can be used that way by waving the hand around your head and body similar to USA Native American sage smudging.  He explained that the hand is also reaching out to the large heart, symbolizing a deep friendship or passionate connection of mutual protection, help and love.  I am so grateful that I am the one who got to buy this wonderful necklace!   

[2] And though she may be young and sexy, she will not be doing all of this naked as depicted in a painting I once saw in a museum in Dolores Hidalgo.

Copyright 2020 Constance B. Yost. All rights reserved.