Saturday, April 2, 2016

Wha' Happened in Oaxaca: Day 1

From March 10th until the 20th, I was part of a delegation of Land Stewardship Project members, organized by Witness for Peace, who met with farmers and non-governmental organizations (NGO's) in the state of Oaxaca in southern Mexico. I'll be posting a recap of each day on this blog.

A hostel breakfast.
I woke up a bunch of times that first night, so I wasn't real chipper for my first day in Oaxaca. But I soldiered on through breakfast, putting a happy face on my sleep deprivation and anxiety. I’ve found that staying engaged with people gives me energy. An actor in one of my shows diagnosed me as an extravert, which was surprising. It doesn’t mean that I’m outgoing, just that I get my energy from interacting with people. As a friend later said, I have the misfortune of being a shy extravert. 

The hostel workers made us some great breakfasts and lunches during our 6 days there. Apparently, that wasn't part of their normal job description, but they really went above and beyond the call of duty. There were all kinds of local delicacies, and only a few were too spicy for me. I wasn't blessed with a cast-iron stomach, but so far I've avoided my mom's fate of relying on a food pyramid of Jell-O, PBJ’s and flat Coke. 

The dining area was another atrium mostly covered with a white screen. There were wooden chairs and tiny wooden tables, each seating 3 or 4 of us as we shrank our American sense of personal space. I began the process of chipping away at my social anxiety by making small talk, but mostly through listening, as is my way. 
Hostel dining area

Following breakfast was our first check-in, a group gathering on the roof in the glorious sunshine and slightly nippy morning air. Even though the hostel was only two stories tall, we had a panorama of the city, as only a few buildings exceeded 3 or 4 stories. The city of Oaxaca de Juárez spread out around us, overrunning hills and filling up the valley. Shanties climbed the steepest slopes, stopping well short of the summits. 

We stood in a circle throwing a ball around to determine whose turn it was to say why they'd come on the trip. I enjoy the structure of such activities and the audience it affords me, so those were invaluable for me to share my thoughts and feeling with the group. It's much easier for me to talk and open up emotionally when I have formal permission to do so. 

Check-In on the roof.
We took a bus to a farm out in the country, passing through many poor, rundown neighborhoods (colonias). We never did get to the ritzy part of town, but I’m guessing it exists, tucked away in a few heavily-fortified compounds. The city was poorer than I expected. It reminded me of Tijuana, where I spent a week in '94 on a mission trip through my Catholic high school. There weren't people selling chicle (gum) to cars at stoplights like in Tijuana, but there was more than enough poverty to go around. 

The family farm we visited was located on the edge of a town called San Juan Chilateca. (All the towns seemed to be named after local saints.) The farm was called Espacio Kruz, espacio being the Spanish word for "space" and Kruz being the name of the family who runs it. The buildings were made of adobe and a local cane that resembles bamboo, with plastic bottles in the door thresholds. Inspired by the Zapatistas, they've set up a center of grassroots resistance to government and corporate efforts to impose the neoliberal economic model locally, especially the precepts of NAFTA.
Our usual bus, parked by the hostel.

That trade deal mandated the policy of Descampesino (literally, “un-peasant”), emptying the countryside of small farmers. It’s been highly successful, thanks to the influx of cheap, highly subsidized staples like corn and flour from the U.S. Also, most land is collectively owned and could not be sold, until the government changed the law in ’94. That, combined with the Narcos’ violence, has accelerated emigration from Oaxaca to the U.S. and northern Mexico.

Sara and Paul at Espacio Kruz.
The patriarch, Román, did most of the talking, but his wife and daughter chimed in too. He talked about milpa, what we in the U.S. call the Three Sisters: the plant guild of corn, squash and beans. They're trying to preserve these traditional practices despite extreme economic and political pressure, and even violence, to sell their land or adopt the industrial agricultural methods of monocropping, chemical fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides.

Román said there are 65 varieties of corn in Mexico, but GMO corn has overtaken northern Mexico, displacing all native breeds. GMO corn is illegal in Oaxaca, although a “hybrid” strain is legal, allowing GMO a foothold in the state. Luckily, the hybrid seed is sterile. 

Me, Román, Maggie & Maria Elena at Espacio Kruz.
For lunch, they served us a soup of tomatoes, chicken, chiles and olives, with tortillas on the side. The chicken bones were a bit perilous, but otherwise it was a tasty meal. To drink there was juice (jugo) or tea. I had to adjust to the near-total lack of sweetness in Mexican juice. It tastes like they don’t add any sugar. (Kool-Aid would ruin this place.) Dessert was roasted squash, also unsweetened, but good, and a shot (or two) of mezcal, the agave-derived, tequila-adjacent alcohol for which Oaxaca is known.

Jasmin shows off a squash.
Our visit stretched well into the afternoon, the first of many instances when the Mexican concept of time was a drag on our schedule. But it was a lovely place with lovely people, so, despite my anal-retentive tendencies, I couldn’t really complain. We toured the gardens and saw radishes, quelites (edible weeds that comprise part of the milpa) and other plants. There was a demonstration milpa they were watering. (Normally, the milpa is planted in the rainy season, and we had clearly arrived during the dry season.)

We then returned to the city and went to a convent for that day’s group discussions. First was an  exercise to spur debate on the effectiveness of violence, followed by a round of “Consensus” decision-making to establish ground rules for discussion or, as Maggie put it, "Group Agreements." 

Lunch at Espacio Kruz.
Inwardly, I rolled my eyes. My favorite blogger, the Archdruid, took Consensus to task for crippling the Left for about the last 35 years and killing the Occupy Wall Street protest at Zucotti Park. But, in my neverending quest to not upset anyone (following in my mom’s footsteps), I held my tongue. The process actually allowed me to block a resolution, so I guess I can’t be too mad at Consensus. 

The resolution in question was for everyone to qualify our statements as personal opinions instead of facts. I felt this would be too discouraging to open debate, that we would be too worried about offending each other and over-censor ourselves. The group agreed to change the resolution to say we would try to frame our statements as opinions rather than facts. I was satisfied with the change.

Oaxaca City
After establishing a few more ground rules, we walked back to the hostel and went out into the world to fend for ourselves for dinner. Again, my memory of dinner has abandoned me. I don’t remember going out at all that night. 

I had no desire to stay out late due to my (relative) lack of sleep the night before, so I stayed in. I was one of 4 guys to move to another room upstairs for accommodations, where we had 6 bunkbeds between us, plenty of bottom bunks to sleep on and room to enjoy some of that American-sized personal space. 

Consensus decision-making at the convent.
Having the room to myself that evening, I indulged in some much-needed solitude and did my daily writing exercise: 3 pages of stream-of-consciousness, known in The Artist’s Way as the Morning Pages. I also had time for a much-needed shower, although I made the mistake of using the showers in our room despite being warned about the cold water. As it turned out, the water temperature wasn’t the real issue.

There were two showers in our bathroom. I tried the first, but turning the two dials only activated the sink faucets. It would’ve been hilarious to anyone watching. Unfortunately, I was not in a good mood. But, as Samuel Beckett apparently said, “Nothing is funnier than unhappiness,” so if someone had filmed me, I’m sure it would’ve gone viral. I was probably ripping off a Fatty Arbuckle routine without realizing it. 

Karissa admires our Group Agreements.
In the second shower stall, one dial again activated a sink faucet, while the other finally brought a meager measure of success. Most of the water came out in a fountain above the showerhead and brought precious little moisture to the body of the bather. 

I gasped a few times in the scattered spray, although my reaction seemed to have less to do with the coolness (or "coolth") of the water and more to do with finally letting my guard down with no one around. My anger and anxiety seemed to be leaking out under these extreme conditions, forced out by the frustration and discomfort of this showering ordeal.

Oaxaca City
I managed to wash off the film of sweat, grime and self-consciousness that had built up over the previous 2 days. It was a military-style shower (or “navy shower,” according to Wikipedia), which I learned during a week-long visit to Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage in NE Missouri (another group that practices Consensus). 

I ran the shower just long enough to get wet, which took longer than usual, then shut it off and lathered up before rinsing off. This approach uses much less water than the traditional First-World shower, and it comes in mighty handy when the water is cold. I rarely make that sacrifice in the fall and winter, but I often do it in the summer.

Finally free of that emotional baggage, I settled down early for a restful night’s sleep.


  1. I loved all the wonderful detail of that first day you recaptured. Well written, Micky!
    I'm still struggling to transpose my 45+ pages of notes onto Google Docs for all to read.I feel like I'm letting the group down until that's done. I'll get there.
    Keep's great!

  2. Thank you! I'm glad you enjoyed it.