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Puro Tequio
November 14, 2000


On October 10 we went up to Juanito's apartment where he was serving birthday beer and paella on his roof. To get out onto the roof you climb through a tiny rock door like Alice in Wonderland and I whacked my skull, so I had to drink quite a bit of beer to quiet the pain. Anyway, we met this woman who is from Ixtlán, up past Guelatao in the Sierra Norte, and we planned to go up there in Juanito's car and visit Maria del Carmen's brother and other family members who live there. Then Juan went off to Mexico DF on some business, and tonight we walked over to Carmen's to see if the trip is on, but Carmen wasn't home. Her father-in-law took us to her grandfather's to call Carmen's other brother, but the other brother said Carmen won't be back until tomorrow, although nobody seems to know where she went. The grandfather's house, behind the usual iron garage-style doors and cement walls, is very Mexican middle class, with photographs of Hollywood perfect family members and framed architectural scenes, a big chair in front of the TV, a glass lamp made of stacked colored bubbles in the shape of a Christmas tree, and a china cabinet filled with stemware and cups. The bookshelf displays a book on women's health, sex, and the Golden encyclopedia; the refrigerator is comfortably at hand behind the dining room table. Best of all, the floor is a lovely tile mosaic, of eternal multicolored flowers.

            We hope Maria del Carmen gets back and Juanito does too; we really want to go up to Ixtlán because I have renewed interest in checking out the communal politico-social system used so widely in Oaxaca, of Usos y Costumbres, Uses and Customs, which I think initially we applauded more on romantic faith than on any hard facts. Well, as in Chiapas, also highly indigenous, the system works fine. The hard facts may be bad.


A small man shook out his banner, Exigimos... (We Demand...) painted boldly on a piece of white cloth. He placed it onto the stones of the sidewalk. He lay down on the cloth and fell asleep. This was the second day of the protest. I stationed myself on one side of Llano Park and George went to the other.

      San Pablo Güila is a town of Usos y Costumbres in the Oaxaca mountains. The system of voluntary work for the community in San Pablo Güila requires four days of unpaid labor, called tequio, per week per man, and, as is common, the cargo (responsibility) for management of the town falls to chosen men who for one year at a time fulfill this cargo without salary.        

      Five thousand men and women marched briskly around four sides of the park across from the Chamber of Deputies. Various banners demanded government money for potable water, education, sewage treatment, roads, etcetera: in other words, all community’s needs.

Tomasa, her hair westernized with henna and wearing stretch pants and sneakers, leaned against one of the trucks loaned to the demonstration. The trucks too are tequio. Tomasa stood on duty as First Aid dispenser although she's a midwife. First Aid consisted of aspirin and a swallow of water. The demonstrators, sleeping at night under the trees, brought only tortillas for food. There are no bathroom facilities nor drinking water. As usual, the park stinks.

      Tomasa speaks Spanish well, along with Zapoteca. Most of the protesters speak Zapoteca - one of the six different versions -, although they live in a region designated Mixte. While George was getting an idea of the geography of the district of Tlacalula, and within that, the municipality of Matatlán, and within that, the Agencia of San Pablo Güila with 4,800 people, and beyond that, its many rancherias which each support from 80 to 300 people without electricity, telephone or running water, I brought Tomasa a gift of six liters of bottled water and two more boxes of aspirin, and began to chat.

”So it's puro tequio," says Tomasa, nothing but work for the common good, no cash. How then could people obtain even the minimum necessary for bettering the infrastructure? But yes there is money. Oh, yes, it was sent down from the state government to the municipio of Mazatlan, where officials work for salaries. The pipeline stopped there. Tomasa did not say the funds were stolen, but those people are used to cash income, and the money came no nearer the Agencia of San Pablo Güila.

      Another version is that the money actually went to Matatlán as bribes before the election, to officials who were supposed to get out the vote. They didn't. But how to disguise several millions of pesos required some ingenuity, such as claiming it was money designated by the government for civic improvements. Live with that, you rascals. The protesters are here to demand that the government force Matatlán officials to hand over the promised funds for water, schools and sewage.

      Puro tequio also means that, according to Tomasa, 80% of the men migrated to the US, and sustain their duty to San Pablo Güila with remittances. The statistics we usually hear for Oaxaca men gone to the US for income is 60%, so this area perhaps is harder hit. The soil will not produce enough to support a growing population, and there is no other source of income.

      A bigger tragedy for those who chose to migrate [within Mexico] is that in a great number of families, "the poverty increases because not all find well-paid or secure jobs", according to Ricardo Díaz Cruz,  State Coordinator for the National Program for Agricultural Workers (Coordinador Estatal del Programa Nacional de Jornaleros Agrícolas).The phenomenon of migration, he explained, is not a choice, "people are fleeing, the migratory flow increases because there's no other way to survive.  And on the other hand, the greater tragedy for the migrants is that their conditions of poverty don't improve. Often in this migration there are human losses, debts, and then the poverty is reinforced. In other cases families are destroyed and that generates more insecurity. The emigration generates and deepens poverty."

Díaz Cruz , responsible for PRONJAG,  a branch of SEDESOL, observed that despite government efforts, "more Oaxaqueños seek other sources of income, jobs and education. Now, as a new phenomenon, day laborers are leaving the principal cities for the farming areas..."

Previously the migration was exclusively from rural zones. In the last few years it's from populated districts, from the poor neighborhoods, from the "cities of Oaxaca, Huajuapan, Loma Bonita, Tuxtepec, Tehuantepec,  and Pochutla the population is leaving to become agricultural day labor."

      Sadly, he said, there is no great change in the country to generate employment. Development was prioritized  toward aiding large businesses and tourism, abandoning the micro and small businesses that could have generated more jobs.

      He estimated about 100,000 families go to work at day labor in different parts of the republic each year, not only to agricultural areas in the north of the country but also to Chihuahua, Jalisco, Morelos, San Luis Potosí, Veracruz, and Michoacán.

      The affected municipalities, he added, are not only the classic ones: Coatecas Altas, San Cristóbal Amatlán, San Miguel Mixtepec, Coycoyán de las Flores, and Juxtlahuaca; now there are other surprises like Santa María Chilchotla (Teotitlán de Flores Magón), Pochutla, Tehuantepec, and Loma Bonita " and that is a message that things are not getting better".


 (translated by Nancy Davies from Noticias de Oaxaca)


George and I have been translating subtitles for an indigenous video about women working in income-producing cooperatives, for example with coffee and pigs. Tomasa's immediate response to the idea of women taking more responsibility was negative; it's not part of traditional culture. It took her about ninety seconds to get over that. She herself came into Oaxaca to train as a midwife; she sees women stepping out of their homes. Truly, since there’s little choice, the women must share more of the responsibilities, and as the video women say, they're better at managing income; they don't drink it or waste it. Tequio in San Pablo Güila already includes women producing endless stacks of tortillas.


The folks from San Pablo Güila are in something of a bind, because the zócalo in front of the Oaxaca Municipal Palace is occupied by two camps already, one for the women of Loxicha wanting their political-prisoner husbands freed, and the other for Antorchistas, an anarchist group shamelessly soliciting government funds, and the hell with contradictions. (Later we were told the Antorchistas are fakes, actually in the employ of the PRI to divide campesinos and stir rivalries.) So the San Pablo Güila crowd resorted to using Llano Park, but today, the third day of their encampment, we saw they had been pushed to the back side of the park to accommodate another demonstration, of teachers demanding higher salaries. The teachers and their supportive students ignored the growing stench of piss and whatever, and blocked the street for a while, presumably to make perfectly clear that they could do so if they chose.

      Oaxaca is a place where the radio announcer's traffic reports are a list of blockades. This morning as he reported on Llano Park's environs he claimed that Oaxaca has more demonstrations than any city in Mexico, than any city in the WORLD, and added rather plaintively, "The government can solve this: just give them the money!"

      Unlike some US cities where a blockade evokes frantic response from cops in gear with guns, in Oaxaca they send small neat police officers to re-route the buses, taxis and cars; and the encampments, blockades and pissing in public parks continue undisturbed by the forces for law and order. Once in a while a man in a suit ambles out of the Chamber of Deputies and speaks to the crowd, ambles back inside where the spokesmen for whatever protest stoically wait for a resolution or at least a promise.

      Tequio lasting four days in San Pablo Güila, I supposed the demonstrators would rotate, but 4,800 is the whole town. So it's puro tequio nothing but tequio, all the way.


Our trip to Ixtlán came on November 11. It was after dark when Juanito, his friend Desirée and George and I piled into Juan's car to pick up Maria del Carmen and her eight year old daughter Mai Lan. Finally! But first we have to stop at the local store to buy water, ham, cheese and canned tuna to supplement the bread, fruit, cheese, almonds and raisins George and I already packed. And then we had to buy gas.

Well, off we go, up into the Sierra Madre del Norte, with Juan driving about thirty miles per hour over the rutted roads on the hairpin turns in the dark. As we entered Ixtlán Carmen wanted us to stop first at the new museum in the town square, to see what her brother has achieved. The museum formerly was the Municipal Palace, now replaced with a spanking new building. And a basketball court. And a clinic. Ixtlán also sports a magic clock tower in which the clock, a technical masterpiece, actually rings and runs, mechanically, soundlessly within its deep stone fortress. And Ixtlán's crowning glory is the adjacent old church of gothic dimensions and motif, interior high gilt, now under repair for the tourist industry. Ixtlán has two hotels already...

      Carmen's family consists of a sister and two brothers who are both biologists. The one responsible for rescuing the old municipal building and having it renovated, turned it into a biological museum housing the town's collection of flora and specimens of the enormous bio-diversity of the region. But the museum was locked, since by now it was almost ten o'clock. Undaunted, Carmen, as soon as we drove through the metal door into her family's premises, showed us the adobe structure at the rear. Open Sesame, it's filled with computers and files; this brother works for SEMARNAP, the government organization responsible for monitoring the forests, agricultural areas, environment, etc. (SEMARNAP, the good guys in Oaxaca, are also responsible for reforestation efforts in Chiapas which disguise military encroachment: the soldiers who hi ho hi ho all day plant trees and build roads. Worse, the reforestation, instead of being native woods, serves the international paper companies with fast-growing eucalyptus, a tree which diminishes soil and water resources.)

      Well wait a minute. Here we are inside the walls of Carmen’s home. The structure is two stories of mixed brick, adobe and cement block, constructed around the patio occupied by two cars as well as Juan's. Each sub-family, of grandparents, sister and two brothers, has a suite. The grandparents moved to Oaxaca city, and so a bedroom upstairs is empty for George and me. That painted-cement room contains a double bed, a table, a single bed, a 1999 calendar, and an assortment of child's toys, empty plastic containers, cardboard boxes and mold. Next to the room is a non-functioning bathroom; then another suite, where the sister, husband, seven-month old baby and the baby's fourteen year old baby-sitter and maid of all work live. Decorating the outside patio on this level a lot of baby laundry waves, strung on clothesline.

      Downstairs in this same side of the building is the room in which Juan and Desé will sleep, a Mexican-style bathroom (no toilet seat, no tank cover, occasional sink water, buckets for flushing or bailing as the situation may demand), a dim unused huge dining room, and a kitchen with no windows and no sink - the sink is outside in the patio.

We park our food offering in the kitchen. Everyone is starved. Sandwiches in a hurry. The cats prowl for mice and dogs come and go. One dog, a handsome black Lab, is totally blind from birth. He gets around, but not quickly.

      So now it's time to go out with the local gang. Carmen is clearly attached to her hometown friends, several of whom seem to be university students, also home for a weekend. The moon is full, with the Mexican rabbit leaping upward and the American Man smiling down. We drift down the quiet street and climb up into a field in front of an abandoned house. Quick work makes a fire of old wood, surrounded by stones to prevent the fire spreading. The night’s cool, we all wear jackets. The blind dog bumps into me, and stands poised sniffing the wind. Some youngsters perch on the abandoned cement horse trough. Others drag a log close to the fire. A guitar appears, and marshmallows to roast. Singing round the campfire. It's Juan who wants to feed the fire, to keep going the talk and laughter. Juan was thirty-six on that night of paella and my whacked head. He's no kid. But lost. Seeking roots and routes that never were his; his ancestry is Spanish, not indigenous. His skin doesn't darken despite hours in the sun; his brown hair neither darkens nor uncurls. He asks each of the young people about speaking Zapoteca (no) knowing the old stories(no) planning to live in Ixtlán - no. Carmen, who clearly loves her home, talks of emigrating with her husband and Mai Lan to Canada.

In the morning I woke at the sound of work in the street, Sunday morning radio music, somebody whacking something metal. Six A.M. Ugh. Four hours sleep. At eight I went out and watched the girl maid sweep dirt and an empty plastic bottle down the stairs. She leaned over the porch rim and called to her friend below, and then finished her chore and disappeared. The blind dog and I went out of the compound into the cobblestone street. I returned alone without the dog. At ten Juan got up and he and Carmen set off in search of a guide to the forests.

      The guide's name is César, and we’re his first clients in four months. Private business. He drives a pick-up truck, (we pay for gas) and George and I as old folks ride with him in the cab while the rest of the group (we've acquired another friend) bounce on the hard open metal bed of the truck.

      Ixtlán owns the forests as communal property, and logs it very carefully under the watchful vigilance of SEMARNAP. The computer room is recording tree ages, sizes, numbers and self-generating new growth; species and their Latin names and local purposes. A previously unknown species of oak is named rodriguez, Carmen's brother.

We go up up up. Nine thousand plus feet. Finally on foot, César explains the four forest ecologies: the cloud forest, high forest, dry and temperate. We stand on Mexico's continental divide. The pine-trees are stunted by the winds. Clouds throw their shadows on the surrounding mountains, the cool air frets our clothes. One can't help feeling the winds as gods; they are ever-present and pulling toward the four corners of heaven.

      Down we go for a picnic surrounded by insects, under a roof-shelter. The cloud forest level is shrouded in a type of plant reminiscent of Longfellow's description of Nova Scotia: "bearded with moss and in garment green." The humidity in the air condenses and runs down the trees to supply moisture in the dry months; the road is muddy. Lupine, yellow daisies. Something which seems to resemble mountain laurel and azalea, raspberries. Six varieties of oak. César says that from this spot one could walk five days before exiting forest.

Ixtlán is rich.

      We drive down toward the town where a trout farm, also communal, raises fingerlings into very respectable dinners, each fish roasted in aluminum foil, served by the men who pull the fish from their tanks. A chill river tumbling down from the mountains makes this enterprise possible. We were eight at the wooden trestle table; the bill for fish soup, trout and a bottle of soda each, came to 308 pesos total: $30. César says that on a weekend they clear about three thousand each day. Not much yet. But growing.

      As we exit the fish farm and drive back toward Carmen's home, a billboard alongside the road reads, "THIS TOWN IS COMMUNAL PROPERTY. NO LAND IS BOUGHT OR SOLD."


Two examples of Usos y Costumbres. Two towns, one in terrible condition, the other thriving. As in Chiapas, it all has to do with ownership of natural resources. The soil in San Güella is exhausted, the trees disappeared, and the men followed after.    

      What is very clear to me is that Ixtlán people are not into "Home Beautiful" arrangements yet. But there's a new furniture store opened across from the church. Cars for the middle-class, and some kids go down to the university. Fourteen year old maids, dropped out of school. Maria del Carmen, city resident with a husband who works in a bank, hoping for a chance to leave what she most loves. 

      We're back in Oaxaca exhausted. To Carmen I say, a thousand thanks for your wonderful hospitality! Which of course she accepts with a huge smile. Mai Lan waves goodbye and they disappear behind one of the huge metal doors in Oaxaca. Juan heads the car toward our street.      



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