Thursday, April 21, 2016

Wha' Happened in Oaxaca: Day 6

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.

Hostel atrium
In the morning, we gathered our backpacks, sleeping bags and food for our host families in the hostel atrium to take to the village of Teotitlán del Valle. Eric and Chris were still sick and stayed behind with Debi and our medical coordinator, Maria Elena.

Our first stop of the day was CAMPO (in English, “Support Center for Oaxaca’s Popular Movements”), where we gathered under a large tent to listen to 3 animated speakers. I guess the 3rd guy wasn’t as animated, but he was still entertaining, as I recall.

From the delegation folder: “CAMPO is a non-profit organization working for rural sustainable development. It works to promote human rights, community rights, women’s rights and indigenous rights, in addition to improving the environment and creating sustainable communities with a good quality of life.”

The speakers emphasized the futility of working through official government channels, given the corruption endemic to the system. This necessitates direct actions of resistance, local organizing and community self-government.

The sun was fierce that day as we toured the grounds, checking out the adobe buildings, the compost vermiculture, aquaculture and hoop houses.

Then it was off to the village. We cruised along the highway to the bone-dry boonies and got off at an exit with stores that looked like they were out of a western. I tried not to think of Speedy Gonzalez.

Liz, Charlie & Andrew in Teotitlán del Valle
The town was several miles off the highway. Concrete walls lined the streets, usually hiding the state of the homes within. Only the wealthy residences offered a peek inside through a barred gate. Our bus wormed its way into the center of the town until the streets became too narrow to allow deeper penetration.

We unloaded our things, and the bus backed out. We took everything to the Vida Nueva (“New Life”) weaving cooperative a block or two away. Every host family included a member of the cooperative. There we sorted the food. Each group brought eggs and produce to ease the burden of our visit. Then we split up to go to our hosts’ dwellings.

Aaron, Rick and I went with Petrona and her husband, Juan, a diminutive, middle-aged couple. Aaron and Rick were proficient in Spanish, so they led the conversation. I was able to pick up most of what was said, even though I hadn’t studied Spanish since high school 20 years ago.

They said their place wasn’t far, but it took 10-15 minutes to walk there. They had a courtyard behind their wall, but the homestead was of exceedingly meager means. It was like walking into a commercial for one of those Third-World charities, UNICEF or Feed the Children.
Aaron checks out Petrona and Juan's kitchen.

There were clotheslines occupying the same airspace as my head. There was an outdoor kitchen under a ramshackle roof. The ground was dirt, out of which grew several avocado trees, but that was the only apparent abundance. The bathroom was a toilet in an open room behind a curtain. The house was a concrete slab with 2 rooms. On the right was another building with one large room containing a loom and little else. A few chickens and 2 little, filthy dogs patrolled the grounds.

They showed us to our room: 12’ x 12’ with 2 beds, a bunch of luggage, a table and 2 chairs. The beds were covered with random blankets in decent shape, like you might find in a dorm room. The table had a power strip, incongruously sleek fax machine and a smattering of bric-a-brac. Amidst the detritus was a CD whose title, Morir de Amor (“Dying of Love”), cracked me up. The band on the cover was a bunch of guys in cowboy gear.
Rick, me, Aaron, Petrona & Juan.

They invited us to the dining room next door for lunch which, as Maggie told us, typically took place in the late afternoon, post-siesta. The table was on the left. In the front left corner was an oven. On the right was the fridge, a china hutch and the water jug. We sat down at the table, which was covered with a plastic, blue gingham-printed tablecloth.

It was only then I realized Petrona was blind. She’d navigated so naturally on Juan’s arm out on the street that I didn’t notice her disability. As we talked, they told us she had diabetes and went blind 5 years ago.

Juan’s sister joined us. We had tea and coffee, soup and tortillas. It was good. We chatted for a while, getting to know each other. Then we took a walk with them to the high school on the edge of town. Only later did we learn that Aaron threw up into his hand as we were leaving the house. Just another classic moment on a classic trip.
Mountains around Teotitlán del Valle

The mountains and fields were gorgeous in the late afternoon sun. Too bad I was still wrapped up in anxiety over the poverty of our surroundings. We passed a harvested cornfield. The dogs, a black-and-white spotted mutt aptly named Panda and a white one whose name I don’t recall, tagged along and occasionally ran afoul of other dogs.

Mexico is the Land of Stray Dogs and No Cats, which was disappointing for me as a cat person, although I thought about it and figured I’d rather deal with stray dogs than feral cats. Cats are less people-friendly than dogs though, so maybe they were hiding.

The high school was still partly under construction and surrounded by a fence that enclosed a wide expanse of athletic fields and a basketball court. One area was dug up in preparation for a garden. The dogs visited the chickens at a house nearby before we turned back.

It took about an hour to get there, so the sun was low by the time we headed back into town. We met up with a herd of cattle led by a young man. They were the chill-est cattle I’d ever seen, not at all bothered by the dogs or the people with whom they serenely shared the road. They were nothing like my Grandpa’s (now my Uncle’s) beef cattle in Iowa that spooked so easily and took a few helping hands and eyes to move from one pasture across the road to another.

Teenagers, kids and other folks moseyed into town with us, joining and leaving our free-floating flotilla as our paths crossed. Juan and Petrona talked to a few of them.

Upon returning, we chilled in our room for a while before reconvening for supper. The conversation lagged a bit to start with, but eventually picked up again. Their son, David, showed up around 9:30-10 and chatted for a while.

He was working in the office of a construction company. He’d been in the first semester of college when he had to drop out due to Petrona’s medical bills. Most would consider that a bad break, but the work experience could give him a leg up in the job market. (I haven’t found my liberal arts degree terribly useful.)

We retired to our by-now-sultry room for the night. Despite my discomfort in sharing a bed, I let Aaron take the solo bed since he was still under the weather. I have no complaints about him as a bedmate; I’m just not down with sharing a bed.

Rick put his sleeping bag between us, which I initially thought was meant to be a barrier, but later realized was just so we could both use it to cover up if we got cold. I didn’t think that would happen, but it was a little cool by morning.

Petrona and Juan mosey back into town.
There was a radio playing and a light on in the courtyard which, when combined with the heat and the sleeping arrangements, made it tough for me to fall asleep. Through the window, Juan asked a few times if we were sleeping. I finally answered, “No.”

He then offered us something. I couldn’t tell what he said. I had to wait for Rick to take his head out of the sleeping bag. Juan repeated the offer, and Rick declined. I asked Rick what Juan had offered. He said curtly, “Never mind,” and wrapped his head back up in the sleeping bag.

After an hour or so, the light and radio were turned off. It took me a long time to fall asleep, but I got there eventually.


  1. That's Liz not Debra in photo with Charlie and Andrew.
    Fun to see these photos & read all of this!