Sunday, April 10, 2016

Wha' Happened in Oaxaca: Day 2

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.

I was much better-rested than the day before, which helped a lot. Breakfast was followed by Check-in and Reflection on the roof. We took 6 taxis to the first location. I should've known something was wrong when the cabbie asked if we were going to Monte Albán, a local archaeological site. (We were visiting a completely unrelated NGO.)

At the wrong place, before the truth sets in.
Our taxi dropped us off at what looked like a school. We were one of 2 carloads taken to this compound with a mural of a crest that mentioned something about the police. We figured we were early or the others were lost. It was about 15 minutes before we realized we were the lost ones. The guard at the gate came over and spoke with Aaron. Sue told him not to mention Witness for Peace, which I thought was paranoid, but in hindsight may have been wise. There were teenagers loitering by the entrance, which is what gave it the appearance of a school.

We got on the horn with the other folks and learned we were off by a mere 2 blocks, so we walked to our original destination, EDUCA (which stands for the Spanish equivalent of "Services for an Alternative Education"). It was housed in a much smaller 2-story building, but still had a wall and a formidable door. I didn't like being cooped up in a classroom on such a nice day, but I enjoyed the subject matter.

Alan speaks up at EDUCA as Sue Ellen and Terry look on.
EDUCA was formed in 1994 to promote civil participation, indigenous rights and indigenous leadership. That year was a turning point in the history of Mexico. NAFTA took effect and, in response, the Zapatista uprising began and Mexican civil society emerged. EDUCA was inspired by the Zapatistas to organize indigenous communities on the local level. There are 10,000 such localities in Oaxaca.

The speaker, Miguel Angel Vásquez de la Rosa, outlined 6 Pillars of Indigenous Resistance: language (the indigenous mother tongue), territory (80% of Oaxacan land is communally owned.), the community assembly, community work (tequio, which is unpaid), volunteer positions (cargos) and celebration (fiesta, na-doy).

They've come up with a word for the government they want to create: "communalocracy," rule by the community. The word "democracy" has been discredited by its association with the Mexican (and U.S.) establishment. They want to replace the nexus of corporate and government power that has impoverished Oaxaca, especially its indigenous inhabitants.

The Mexican government has been supporting energy and mining mega-projects in Oaxaca. These have ruinous environmental and economic consequences for the locals, even the wind farms and hydroelectric dams. The overriding effect (and, likely, the purpose) of these projects is to dispossess indigenous people.

This has led to emigration from Oaxaca to northern Mexico and the U.S., which has caused disintegration of the social fabric, poverty and violence. Even many of the Tachuatl, or "Snake People," the traditional guardians of the land, have been forced to leave. EDUCA believes these issues can be primarily remedied on the local level.

Pochote organic market
Thence, we took another fleet of taxis to Pochote organic market. I struck up a conversation with our cabbie, asking Sue what the word for "driving" was and carefully forming the sentence in my head: "Manejar es mucho más fácil en los Estados Unidos." ("Driving is much easier in the United States," I think.) The driver seemed to agree, although I couldn't quite make out his reply. Sue spearheaded the rest of the chat, as her Spanish skills far outstripped mine.

At one point, she was struggling to translate something he said for the rest of us, when he interrupted her to explain it in English. She playfully scolded him for hiding his English skills from us. He claimed his English was poor, but he sounded fluent. The discussion flowed more smoothly thereafter.

Eric and Rick at Pochote market.
He'd lived in Mexico City until the age of 4 when his dad split and his mom returned home to Oaxaca. Sue said, "Qué lástima." ("How sad.") As we paid him 50 pesos and bid him adieu, I wondered if we could've done more to help him. People in need pass through our lives all the time, and we rarely take the time to make even a token effort.

The needy in Mexico were more obvious and numerous than those back home, but poverty in the Twin Cities has become more visible in the last few years. There are so many needy and so few rich wherever you go. I think spare change can help, but big change, like repealing NAFTA, is what's really needed.

The Pochote market was in a picturesque old square with a church. There were two guys with a marimba, and Rick asked them if they knew the name of a Mexican song he'd been trying to identify. He hummed a few bars for them. One guy recognized it and played some of it, telling him the name. I asked the name of another song they played, and the other guy said, "Cielito Lindo," a famous traditional song also known as "The Ay, Ay, Ay, Ay Song" (according to Wikipedia).

Debra at Pochote market.
We had lunch at the tables in the middle of the plaza under a tree. I mooched some ceviche off of Liz and Debra and something like fried tortillas off of Sue. I felt kinda guilty about that, but the ceviche was damn good.

We listened to two speakers there. The first was a woman who wrote a book on nutritional sovereignty in 2000, with recipes from the Mixe region. She said food involves many cultural elements: music, dance, celebration, mutuality. “Food is life. Food is knowledge.” Food gives us strength, health and unity. Food is sacred. They don't waste it. Even if a grain of corn falls, they pick it up and use it. They ask permission from the earth to produce the food and throughout the process. They thank the earth and interact with nature. They talk to the rain and to the earth. They give gratitude when they eat and when they harvest.

Quinceañera party
Food reinforces community organization. Kids participate, older folks measure out ingredients, women cook, men bring chairs and firewood. There are four kinds of food: common food, curing food, ritual food, celebration food. Mixe food is spicy and hot, with not much oil. Medicinal food includes broth, armadillo shell, different plants and stems. Ritual food is often different kinds of tamales for different ceremonies: the corn ceremony to give thanks for the harvest, at weddings for the parents of the bride out of her sight, for the Day of the Dead or for wakes. Festive foods include bean tamales and chicken soup. Unfortunately, traditional food is being displaced.

Oaxaca Cathedral
Then a local producer told us that the market performs an important function for campesinos and local farmers. He explained that it's difficult to organize a market like this with the transnational corporations dominating the economy. But they have managed to create this space for themselves locally.

He talked about how organic agriculture tries to transform nature in ways that aren't aggressive. Through this approach, producers are spiritually, economically and socially strengthened. Going to a market rather than a supermarket makes us more human; it links us together. We shouldn't be disconnected from the earth. These farmers cure their animals homeopathically, use their manure for compost and use their own saved seeds in double-dug beds.

Customers try to haggle, and the vendor has to explain why the food is worth the marked price. Sometimes the supermarket lettuce is actually more expensive than at the market. The farmers also eat what they produce; the excess is for market. They believe it's better to eat food without pesticides and that it's possible for everyone to grow food. They try to spread the message by sharing food and information.

The convent
After those presentations, we continued touring the market. Karissa and I visited the booth of a middle-aged woman with a clearly Western European accent. I didn't have the guts to ask where she was from; I thought she might be on the lam. (Seriously.) She asked if we wanted to try her "special creation." Karissa enthusiastically expressed her interest. I was more cautious, afraid my Minnesota Nice would compel me into my first psychedelic experience. But it turned out to be just pumpkin seed butter. It was good, like organic peanut butter.

From there, we walked to the convent to perform "NAFTA Reader's Theater," which sounds like the worst PBS public affairs show ever. But we got to put on costumes and act, so it wasn't all bad. (Unfortunately, the CEO's mustaches were a dud.) Hannah led us in a few songs for our Reflection. They were kinda hippy-dippy, as Hannah admitted, but it was nice to sing together. That's when our bonding seemed to manifest most clearly.

Folk dancers in the zócalo.
Then it was back to the hostel. I mustered the courage to go out on my own for the first time to buy soap so I wouldn't have to keep borrowing Andrew's. (I probably could've kept using Aaron's shampoo, but my conscience wouldn't allow it.) The cashier had just sat down for a rest when I walked up, but he smiled, got back up and we had a nice little exchange. He deduced that I was a gringo and helped me out with some English. It was a stark contrast from the behavior of most convenience-store cashiers in the U.S.

Mairi, Aaron and Sue Ellen in the zócalo.
We all went out to dinner that night at a restaurant on the nearby zócalo. The waitstaff pushed a bunch of tables together for us. People, who mostly looked indigenous, would come up to us on the patio selling wares. If you wanted to avoid the poverty, you had to sit inside. Aaron paid for a song from a guitar player, which was quite good and sounded electric, even though it was an acoustic guitar. (Apparently, 12-string guitars can sound electric.) The food was OK, but not as good as the hostel staff's breakfasts and lunches.

After that, we wandered the square, which was full of people. Even at 10 pm on a Saturday night there were a lot of families. People were dancing (in couples!) in bars. Indigenous women with babies were selling textiles or candy. In the shadow of the church, we made a circuit around the zócalo.

The zócalo after dark.
One side of the square must've been a government building. It was old, like all of the surrounding buildings, but it also looked abandoned. There were barriers in front, and a group sat on the steps with banners. I couldn't decipher them, but I'm guessing they were petitioning the government for a redress of grievances. Or something like that.

There seemed to be a disco next to the hostel, because we heard dance music late each night as we tried to sleep. It wasn't loud, but that kind of thing usually drives me crazy. In this case, though, I didn't really mind. Also, Karissa gave me earplugs, so that helped. (I was going to say she "lent" me earplugs, but that didn't seem accurate, as I don't think she wanted them back.)

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