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October 17, 1999


Those of you who enjoy the decor of my apartment on Beacon Hill will be happy to know the challenge of our little Oaxaca place is gradually achieving solution. For one thing, by a stroke of enormous good fortune the walls in both the living-room and kitchen are exactly the color of masking tape, permitting us to obscure some of the gouges made in the plaster by the prior removal of dozens of nails. We ignore those still evident everywhere. I'm happy to report I reduced the number of sombreros on the walls from eight to three, and the crates tacked to the walls to just one. This latter I achieved by taking down the other five and stacking them in the space in the vertical crèche in the living room wall. As yet we have no particular books, but the radio nicely fills one "shelf".

            Today George and I went to Tlacolula, a village about half an hour's bus ride from Oaxaca. We crammed into the bus with too many others, and most of the way stood admiring the scenery over the shoulder of the driver. Oaxaca sits in a valley where three plains conjoin, and around us loom the Sierras on every side. The ride to Tlacolula is level, following the international highway which is two lanes wide and a bit choppy, although the driver said the ruts were not caused by the recent earthquakes, not the biggest nor the thirty-three aftershocks. Just road in disrepair. So that was fine. 

            We disembarked at the Tlacolula bus station, which has a remarkably fine bathroom, for those of you who, like me, take serious note of public bathrooms. This one had toilet seats, doors on the stalls, and in mid-morning was quite clean, with a sink with water running in two of the four spigots, for washing hands. The toilet-paper person was on duty, so for just two pesos one could buy paper if necessary; of course I carry my own supplies since not all facilities are as adequate. They must keep it for the vast number of visitors.

Today was market day. The bus station empties directly into the midst of the stalls and wares, every variety of items imaginable in somewhat the style of our lost Woolworth's plus foods, filling the road on both sides so that we could barely pass. Foreign tourists were few; the Oaxacans were out in force to buy at auction pots and blankets, to eat the sweets and lunch foods, to examine hats and shoes, to finger plastic tablecloths and buckets, to admire dishes and ceramics. We toured the market, bought lunch at a stall and ate it sitting on a wall. George's was a sandwich; we recognized that. Our sense of adventure with food is holding well; since that first week's trip to the hospital nothing unexpected has occurred.

Afterward we went for a walk, the town is smaller by its sense of intimacy and indigenous population, more than by it physical size. We did observe some local people taking taxis. These taxis are bicycles pulling a high square carriage topped with a canvas roof for shade. The passengers sit quite upright, and seem to be enjoying a lark as we do in a horse-drawn carriage; in fact, the scene looked similar in all respects except the lack of horse-droppings. On the rear of each vehicle is a sign promoting its ecological benefits.

The cathedral, like most we see, has round Moorish-style domes, implanted with ceramic tiles. The interior ceilings are baroque, and intricately gilded, but outside the stone seems as weathered as if it were the original from 1590, despite years of earthquakes. We sat in one of the four naves for half an hour's rest out of the sun, watching the parade of Oaxacans drift in and out. Many carried long-stemmed flowers such as gladiola and carnations, which they brushed against the legs and reachable parts of the crucified Jesus and various other saints. These flowers were carried home as we saw on the return bus journey; touching a saint is dusting for blessings, and when the flowers release their scent in the home, their blessings scatter in the air. For the most part the church afforded, as do all the churches we have entered, a peaceful respite for informal family groups. People genuflected and then rested, some prayed in a nonchalant way; a man read in the pew behind us. When we left we refreshed ourselves further by buying the local popsicles, and Coca-Cola emptied into a plastic bag with a straw emerging from the knotted neck (this is to avoid having to pay for or return the bottle.)

            From the church we rejoined the crowd in the zocalo, where a concert was in progress. I must admit I'm a fool for mariachi. Those falling notes, that whine for love, those falsetto cries of pain! I love it. We enjoyed more than an hour, sitting in  chairs arranged for the public in the concert space, while three musicians stood at their microphones looking hot and uncomfortable in suit jackets and neckties. They sang along with their guitars and bass, but even better were the guest singers, two men who obviously enjoyed a strong local following. Each song was sincerely applauded, sometimes during an exceptionally well-sustained falsetto note, and each was followed by cries of otra, otra, more, more. George was so enchanted that after we left the music he offered to purchase a tapestry rug, one of the thousands dyed and woven by hand by local artisans. We selected a scene of a village, with houses, women carrying baskets on their heads, and a lively pig chased by a man in a sombrero. We hung the rug on the living room wall, thereby bringing to a close the story of at least four more nails, their holes, and some three dimensional (not tapestry) straw hats. It's a pleasant scene, and very realistic, in that the weaver captured the crooked curves of the houses, each of which is woven in several colors; and in the background, in palest blue, stands a mountain.

            You know there will be an election in Mexico also in 2,000, for the Mexican congress and president. The national government with its single ruling party would like to hang onto power, of course; it's been ruling more than seventy years. The participation of workers, poor farmers, and popular and indigenous organizations one would expect to be minimal in a country where democracy has not yet taken hold. Several of these groups can't find adequate channels of participation. The inability of the system to incorporate them into the  official party’s structure generated protests, thus far to no avail. But I notice that the middle-class, or those we would more accurately think of as professional-poor, take little interest. They ignore struggles for power and participation and go right to the heart of maintaining some standard of living by whatever means possible. For example, the woman who cleans my apartment once a week with her teenage daughter is doing so for  extra money to send her three children to the university. They are not poor, but they see where the margin lies.

The state of Oaxaca sustains flagrant inequality and social injustice. Despite having enormous natural resources, 76% of its population lives in conditions of misery. As a consequence, a high degree of conflict and political violence has existed since remote times: land conflicts, "white guards", armed groups, etc. There's a lot of conflict generated by fraudulent electoral processes, despotic control by local bosses, and manipulation by party politicians, often bloody. It's made worse by concurrent use of two Systems of Election, both with legal recognition. One runs on rules of historic custom, "Derecho Consuetudinario" or Uses and Customs. That’s the system which so fascinated us three years ago, and whose "white papers" George has been translating. The other system uses rules of  political parties, "Derecho Positivo". In the last election of Municipal Authorities in October of 1998, of a total of 570 Municipalities, 418 conducted their election by Uses and Customs and 152 by political parties.

            You can be sure that the government doesn't want to lose the party system, but sometimes one can't be sure which system is worse. There's no doubt that earthquake and flood relief are being withheld by the PRI (the ruling party) so that just before an election the PRI will  buy votes by dispensing the aid donated by foreign governments or charities. But on the other hand, some of the traditional municipalities have entrenched families who don't make way when demographics change; new families move in but have no access to participation. So it's bad all over. Meanwhile I read in today's paper that 45% of Mexican children under the age of five suffer from malnutrition.

            All this is difficult to keep in mind while we are playing tourist and having fun. On the return bus ride from Tlacolula, also overcrowded, there were two elderly men. The one who sat next to the window was lugging several packages tied up in bags with string. The old gent who sat by the aisle declined to pay his fare, for the perfect reason that he had no money. The "conductor" gave up, and the old gent settled in. He ate a tangerine he carried, spitting seeds and skin onto the bus floor. Finally he took out a yellow apple, and lacking teeth, asked us to cut it for him. I opened my Swiss Army knife and carefully dropped into George's outstretched hand seeds and core, which George in despair finally threw out the window. The old man offered each of us a section of the apple, but we declined, having taken our risks for the day. When we reached the city, the senior next to the window was ready to get off. The old gent next to the aisle refused to get up; perhaps he thought he couldn't. This man has a very deep voice with rocks rattling in it. The window man handed his packages over the heads of other passengers, and then tried to get himself over the legs of the gravel-voiced gent, who the whole while growled (in Spanish of course), "fuck you, accursed son of a whore" and more of the same which happily I understood perfectly. So did the other passengers, and everyone laughed except the man trying to get out. He succeeded finally, listing badly with his bags and poor old legs. We followed. Immediately it began to rain, and so we ran home as happy as children, toting our rug and holding up my umbrella, repeating the curses in a mimic of the baritone growl, and laughing.

            Incidentally, the word for sun umbrella being parasol, it will not surprise you to learn that the word for rain umbrella is paraguas, but the rains will come to an end in a few weeks, I'm told.


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