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Baptism and Beds for Dogs

Oaxaca vignette 1, December 18, 1999


Our street is lined with some small shops, and outside one in particular hangs a sign that translates as “Beds for Dogs. Small Dogs, Medium Dogs and Large Dogs.”

      I am pondering the meaning of this. Well, first, people keep dogs; the animals dwell unhappily on the rooftops, where they pace back and forth and gaze anxiously down on the passers-by. Some bark, so I suppose they are guard dogs.

      This brings point two, which is “affluence”; in quotation marks because affluence, all affluence, is relative. However, certain Oaxaqueños have sufficient household goods to require the guard services of roof dogs, and these dogs must be given some care, such as a Small, Medium or Large Bed.

      And third, our neighbor is a small business entrepreneur, a capitalist of the style in Oaxaca, who keeps the shop open seven days a week, 10:00 - 2:00; 4:00 - 9:00. This business person is presumably earning some sort of living from the sale of dog products: food, beds, collars. I say “some sort” because the average per capita income in Oaxaca falls below the legal minimum wage, which is $3.00/hour American.

      A glimpse of the dog bed business connects in my thoughts to the big socio-cultural questions we have of late been pondering: i.e., capitalism, and the meaning of communality. It’s about sharing. Or nor sharing.

      Our landlady kindly invited us to a family event at which her uncle served as baptismal godfather to two girls, ages five and nine, whose parents live in a small town called Zaachila, a Zapoteca town in the hands of the conservatives. The parents are both teachers, and the cards referred to them as Profesor and Profesora. Let me explain the cards. Each guest was given an ivory-colored occasion-card as a souvenir, with a coin of one or two pesos, based on the importance of the recipient I believe; the godmother received two pesos but I, an unknown guest of a guest, received one. These cards show on the back-side a precious painting of a cherub or saint or angel; on the front they are engraved with the names of the children, dates of births and baptism, the profesor parents. And of course the taped-on coin.

      The post-baptismal fiesta took place in a dirt patio, fenced with high cement walls. Standing outside the wall, with its painted advertisements and anonymous stone, I could not guess the size of the enclosure — big enough to hold tables and chairs for about two-hundred fifty guests, plus the two bands and the loudspeakers, themselves gigantic black oblongs whose pulse initiated a throbbing of my ribs, and a deafness in my ears. But never mind about the bands and the noise, here comes the food. I was seated between the landlady’s college-student son, home from law-school in Mexico DF, for the Christmas holiday, who noticeably didn’t eat, and the godmother/aunt.

      Everyone was first served bread and hot chocolate, traditional. Break the bread, dunk it into the chocolate. Along with the breads each family was handed two plastic bags, one yellow, one white. These were for taking home the uneaten bread, tortillas or meat; one doesn’t waste food. Certainly one doesn’t rudely disdain it. The guests knew the customs, and George and I were informed. After the bread and chocolate came the macaroni soup in its plastic bowl, and after the soup the main dish, a hunk of brown meat served with side portions of avocado paste and refried beans. Sodas, beers, rum and coke for those who wanted it. The aunt seized my plate and ate the avocado and beans I could neither eat nor carry. We bagged our bread and meat. We left early due to the noise level, but I’m guessing that a sweet dessert brought the meal to an end. That’s a lot of food for two hundred fifty people, a lot of paper napkins.

      Flies swarmed everywhere. The cooking house that I observed was the usual thatch-roof open hut. The residence itself was of stone, and seemingly of good size; we didn’t enter. In the patio, the smell of animal manure prevailed. But the little girls skipped about in white and pink satin gowns with bouffant skirts, hair wreaths, belt sashes. Politely, accompanying their mother who wore a long strapless black dress, they went to each guest and shook hands or embraced. The bands played in turn, one stationed at each end of the patio. And then the guests danced into the night.

      Or so we supposed. Our landlady told us that the idea was both to have as many people as possible in attendance (George and I were bonus guests), and to spend as much money as possible, or at least appear to spend. This family may raise their own animals for butchering. Evidently their own extended family served the meal, cousins tripping about the dirt in city high heels, wielding heavy platters of tortillas and beef. Lined up at the long tables people sat quietly; the music’s volume prevented any chatter. Nevertheless there was little of the intermingling one would expect among family or old friends, nor the convivial meeting and greeting of strangers. Nor were most specially dressed. It seemed to me a show of dutiful attendance for the guests. But it was a show of affluence for the hosts. So then I thought about the northwestern Indians of the US and Canada who showed their affluence by lighting a great bonfire and throwing all their goods into it; or maybe giving gifts of such value that reciprocity broke their neighbors. It was the idea of breaking your neighbors’ heart — or balls — with munificence that struck me in Zaachila. But of course they were sharing their happiness and their bountiful food.

      The Oaxaca theorist Gustavo Esteva, who apparently suffers from “noble savage” syndrome, speaks of an impoverished town where the neighbors share food in socially ritualized exchanges. I remember my Bostonian mother, circa 1950, lilac hair and brocade dress, going to dinner parties and bringing food, and indeed returning with some other dish. George and I still never go to a private home for a party or dinner without bringing something to eat or drink. Who doesn’t? Guests whose hosts are so rich it would look like an insult to bring a pint of Ben & Jerry’s for dessert. We were told not to bring food to Zaachila, and we didn’t.

      Instead George brought a copy of “Comunalidad and Autonomía”, plus a tape of radical music, because both are the work of a Zapoteca man, Jaime Martínez Luna. George wants to share, which for him takes the form of spreading radical awareness; how was he to know the parents are supported by the PRI government?

      Sharing is so instinctive, or so I maintain, that it’s difficult to corrupt. Intimate couples give food off their plates to each other, or put the fork directly into the mouth of the loved one, like a child is fed by his mother or a bird by its mother. We practice in kindergarten how to share, and when it’s birthday time, bring a cake for all the kids. Funerals, new neighbors, holidays — we bring food; and just as at the fiesta in Zaachila, we take home in bright yellow plastic bags the leftovers urged on us by our hosts.

      Capitalism is what made it possible for my father to raise his children. Capitalism is what made it possible for me to sell my services, and hence achieve economic independence when I needed it. Capitalism is what makes it possible for George to share. Capitalism is also what distorts, what permits the wealthy to exert power or cruelty or both. I think the dog-bed fellow is a capitalist because someone else stuffs and sews those pillows, someone hovers inside the open doorway to sell them, perhaps his wife, Large, Medium or Small. I doubt he’s sufficiently successful as a capitalist to be unkind. In Oaxaca, having a dog to guard your home is not a new concept, but having a bed for the dog is.

N.D., December 18, 1999

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