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January 20, 2002


We perched on wooden chairs in the dining room of Juan Arelí Bernal Alcantara’s home. The cement walls held no heat.  A faint mold colored them,  from the constant moisture of fog and clouds high in the Sierra Mixe. The air felt bone damp, dim in the light of one bulb. Juan Arelí wore a heavy sweater beneath a white wool poncho draped over his head and down the back of his wheel chair; a red wool scarf wrapped around his neck covered his chin. To speak, he pulled the scarf off his mouth, and then in the room’s chill, pulled it back up. It was seven in the evening. Juan Arelí had invited us for supper, but at that hour la comida was scarcely finished. Fifteen family members were visiting. His sisters were on non-stop cooking duty. They brought us chicken in mole, but Juan didn’t eat again.

      The population of Totontepec is 2,700 people. On the fiesta of the town’s patron saint, San Sebastian, the population doubles; everyone who can come home, comes. For Carmelo Reyes, whose cargo (responsibility) is decoration of the church, the fiesta lasts two weeks – one week putting up the draperies, streamers, banks of flowers, washing the saint and the simple interior. Carmelo comes twice a year, January and August, to fulfill his duties.

      Juan Arelí, in contrast, rarely leaves. Totontepec is a difficult trip on roads the perfect advertisement for Dramamine: unpaved, bumpy, dangerous in rain, dusty in dryness, twisting and turning in stomach-convulsing turns. From Oaxaca, the bus ride lasts six and a half hours, going up. The Sierra Mixe ranges soar 3,396 meters (10,000 feet). Totontepec lies in one of the many crevices, at about 2700 meters. Isolation characterizes the high Mixe towns.                                                               

      I suspect isolation is a key to Juan Arelí also. He has made preserving and improving the town his task, and perhaps the town doesn’t know exactly what that means. He is their philosopher, their spokesperson, their university graduate and resident intellectual. Because of Juan’s efforts the town now offers its youngsters not only secondaria but also preparatorio level education. Juan’s goal is to create a Mixe university to serve and save Totontepec.

      The question of the town’s survival is intricate. It involves a discussion on many levels, ranging from the basic issue of  marginal economy, to the human desire to seek, to voyage beyond this small fold in the earth. Cultural purity is only a fiction. In reality, the “pure” culture was diluted when the Spanish arrived, and now the people wear cheap manufactured clothes and use plastic forks from Taiwan. Not everyone speaks Mixe, and if one were to define an indigenous culture as language and custom, only custom endures. Among the faces many were reminiscent of the Olmec, but also Aztec and European, in fact, an undecipherable mix, like all Mexico.

      Outside in the church courtyard the tower for fireworks loomed like a dangerous tinker toy. The corral for rodeo occupied one area, and the ceibu bulls were tethered in a small declivity off the main path. People strolled, booths sold cheap clothing and blankets, the municipal zócalo blared music from four different bands. The people were home and happy. Extraordinarily courteous, they greeted us as we passed, with a cheerful good morning or good evening, wherever we walked. When we chatted, the input was uniformly the same – Totontepec is a good place. How so? There’s been no murder in this town within memory – maybe never. It’s peaceful. Occasional theft is punished by the town authorities with a fine, or perhaps jail time. The question of why the town’s unusually stable, brought forth different responses ranging from “God is here” to “The town is well-organized – really has it together.”

      Totontepec is governed by the traditional indigenous method of Usos y Costumbres, Uses and Customs, which apparently precede the Conquest. Usos y Costumbres really means the town is self-governed by men who, from boyhood on, assume certain responsibilities, and as they grow, so do the seriousness of their duties. At all times some function as chosen Authorities, whom Americans might compare to aldermen, and a leader comparable to a mayor. In most such towns, the vote is by family, i.e. the male head of household casts the family vote. The town’s decisions are made by consensus. For this fiesta a decision was taken to spend 20,000 pesos on fireworks, and bring in an outside professional band to supplement the Totontepec players. The town boasts not only a music school but also four local composers.

      Sitting at the long dining table of his home Juan Arelí said, first in importance for maintaining the town’s cultural integrity is Usos y Costumbres, and music comes second. We were exploring why the town “works” – why it’s still alive despite the pressures to migrate, and the isolated life. Juan’s chief worry is that the town won´t endure, at least not in its present aspect. The cultural undermining from outside is a concomitant of the essential income from outside – monies sent back by men who left to find work.

      Furthermore, one cannot discount a natural desire for less drudgery and more information. Television arrived. At present, the town has four telephones. When a call comes to the phone station, a loudspeaker broadcasts over the two main streets, alerting the recipient, who runs to answer. Juan bought  by mail a Dell computer with, he boasted to me, Pentium 4. But lack of phone service precludes e-mail for the present.

      Will the town survive? Juan depends on the town’s existence for his own. That was clear to me. Not only that his sisters and father who care for him do so in this very special context, but that the town is his life’s work.

      The university is a fabulous idea, in the true sense of the word. The basketball court which fills the space between the municipal buildings is, literally, concrete. Basketball is the most popular local sport in Oaxaca, probably because it involves minimal space and cost. Oaxaqueño basketball tourneys replace the church as an organizing structure abroad. The game creates cultural bonding that sustains Oaxaqueños working in the United States, where basketball is readily accepted, not “foreign”.  Music instruction serves as an organizing structure at home, and the “philharmonic band” represents its town in festivities beyond its borders.

      A university would keep the young in the mountains. The university could  offer dormitories for students from other Sierra Norte towns in the Mixe, Choapan and Villa Alta district, but provide  lodging and food at much less cost than a city university. Moreover, Juan believes, the education would be better. Juan believes in the importance of keeping alive the Mixe culture – or what’s left of it. He lists bi-lingual education (and the challenge of three indigenous languages in the region), native medicine, and traditional justice as probable courses, along with technology and modern eco-biology. The danger, in Juan’s mind, is that if the government funds the university, the government will control the curriculum. Juan wants something more independent, more suited to the people of the Sierra Norte. For that, he may need supplemental private funding.

      The question of adequate local earning ability for these future university graduates, has scarcely been addressed.

      It’s certainly true that the local population, celebrating its Catholic saint’s fiesta descended from the Conquest, knows little about  the origins of its own customs. We asked three different people to explain the story of the dance performance. One replied it was Romans persecuting and slaying San Sebastian with arrows for his profession of Christianity. Another believed it was a story of Jews persecuting Christians. Juan told us the story was a reenactment of Christians driving out Moors from Spain. What we actually saw was a troupe of fifteen boys, half of them clad in costumes that resembled soldiers’ uniforms, and the other half wearing bright red costumes with strange caps. The caps fitted like helmets, multicolored, with arch designs on them. The pantaloons came down to the shin, showing stockings beneath, and one kid’s legs so thin his stockings sagged wrinkled. The boys in red did wicked things, fighting among themselves, spray-painting the hair of girls in the audience, toting rubber baby dolls which were intended to represent idols, but which the boys treated like nursing infants. Also in the troupe one younger boy carried the Mexican flag (because it’s no longer cool to carry the flag of Spain) and one carried a banner with stars and crescent moon, for the Arabs.

      Among the dancers one dressed to resemble a Spanish grandee, and one dressed to resemble a Moorish king, although most people mistakenly identified the latter as San Sebastian, perhaps because beneath his cape he wore a white shirt and tie. The boys danced for fifteen minutes in a repetitive series of steps and patterns. One man told me that if a boy refused to participate in the annual dance, he or his mother or father would surely fall ill.

      Within Juan Arelí’s family, one youngster participated  in the dance of the feathered headdress. That one clearly represents Aztecs submitting to Spaniards. It was more athletic and required more skill than the religious dance. But all in all, one sees that the origin and meaning of these dances is long gone. The Mixe are not Aztecs, nor, for that matter, Spaniards expelling Moors. The binding aspect is the participation, traditional and popular – and the music.

When I asked one townsperson why San Sebastian was their chosen patron, he told me a clay statue was found out in the field. Archeological ruins have been found since, and there’s some indication that the original Mixe were related to the Olmec civilization, at least linguistically. The statue from the field was carried to a priest who identified it as Saint Sebastian! – but that was long ago.

      Later on Sunday afternoon I stood by the side of the road to admire the wild flowers – the first fuchsia I’d ever seen in its natural state, and little yellow globes which I thought resembled orchids. An elderly man paused to ask me what I was looking for, if I had lost something. I asked if he knew the names of the flowers. He didn’t. An old woman who also greeted me knew the name in Spanish for wild mustard. She knew the Mixe name for one species of flower. It struck me that the level of wildflower information is about the same in the United States as in the Sierra Mixe. Some knowledge is universally lost, or maybe never existed.

      We watched the rodeo from safe ground beyond the iron structure that served as a corral. Again, I speculated. First of all, the bulls are not native to Mexico –no domesticated animals at all inhabited the western hemisphere (except lamas) until the Spaniards arrived. These particular bulls are ceibu, which I think were imported from Indochina. The rodeo as a concept – I don’t know its origins. But clearly, for those who like to think of indigenous peoples as having innate empathy with nature, riding a bull is a shocking and cruel spectacle. The reluctant animals were heaved and pulled up from their pasture to the ring, and goaded into running and bucking. What we witnessed represents a very different theme in man’s history – dominion over fowl of the air and fish of the sea, and whatsoever walks through the paths between the seas‒ a concept that originated where domestic animals originated, and imported to the western hemisphere along with cattle, horses, goats and chickens.

      After our supper with Juan Arelí we left to see the castillos, the firework structures, high bamboo castles. It was a wild affair, initiated by men carrying on their heads flaring and burning rockets mounted on armatures to resemble bulls. The little boys ran screaming with glee while the men chased them. After that, the tower of fireworks reading TOTONTEPEC 2002 was ignited, but in the middle of its display a small boy came screaming to his grandfather, Otilio Bernal, the eighty-three year old father of Juan Arelí. The child had been hit in the forehead with something – maybe a burning cinder. He was bleeding, and the old man hastened with him as fast as his rheumatic knees allowed, to find his daughter at the other end of the zócalo. I hurried alongside, to lend a hand with a sterile moist pad until the mother, Miriam, could take over. She sprinkled salt on the boy’s forehead and rocked him.

      Don Otilio is a real dude. He danced with me on the thronged basketball court our first night, whirling me around to the traditional Mexican music until I was dizzy. He dresses impeccably, and carries a wardrobe of canes to complement his clothes or mood, I don’t know which. He went to the USA to work as a young man, and firmly commanded us, “Lessgo! C’mon! Lessgo!” The old man is hospitable to a fault, perhaps to offer more opportunities to display his son’s erudition, or maybe  because he himself is innately extroverted and generous. He grasped my hand firmly crossing the ground in the darkness – and I couldn’t say which of us was assisting the other.

           After the accident at the fireworks we stayed to listen to more music, coming over the loudspeakers at decibels difficult to endure. Since the Monday bus supposedly departed for Oaxaca at 6:00 A.M., we retired early, to the town’s new and only hotel, a nice stucco structure with bathrooms and continuous hot water, but no toilet seats. Toilet seats are the exception, not the rule, in rural Mexico.

            Anyway, we asked to be roused, but as we anticipated were not, so we roused ourselves, setting out in the dark of morning to find the bus. Don Otilio himself, along with several others, warned me that if we wanted seats we had to board the early bus. A small group arrived at the same time we did, to the parked buses. They banged on the sides to rouse one driver, who poked out his head and said he was leaving at seven, but another bus would leave earlier. We trooped down the road and found the “first” bus. Again, bangs and knocks. No response. More banging. Finally the driver awoke and said he would be ready in half an hour. And so we set out for Oaxaca at 6:50 – not bad, all things considered. The bus was loaded as predicted, with people returning from the fiesta. Most of us slept.

            Juan Arelí’s grasp of the Totontepec reality is clear. He’s given considerable thought to what impact the latest archeological discovery, close by, might  have. Would it be a source of income, of pride, of corruption by tourism – those questions are on-going in Mexican life. The government finally values its indigenous population – as museum artifacts.

             Before we left I asked Juan Arelí what he would like us to write about Totontepec, since we have internet access right now; and he answered, whatever were our impressions. I pressed him – what’s most important in sustaining the town? Usos y Costumbres, i.e. independence. And then music.

            From what I saw, extended family. Small towns are not self-sustaining, except on the most basic subsistence level. A son who fails to participate in community activities invites disaster onto his parents. Certainly Totontepec relies on income from loyal family working away;  it tried harvesting coffee but prices collapsed. Some people sell other produce in Oaxaca, but it can’t be much. I saw a man bringing bread up, not down. The ride itself costs forty pesos each way.That leaves me to wonder  if the town survives by inertia, or by civic pride, or only by the spirit of Juan Arelí, as long as he lives, and people like him who love the high Sierra mystery of fog and  mountain spires of Cempoatépetl –the sacred mountain of the Mixes.

            Beyond that, as we witness world-wide threats to autonomy from neoliberalism, capitalism and domination by corrupt governments – lies the hope that communal bonds will continue to provide a viable way of life. Local government, even in Totontopec, responds to global forces, such as the collapse of coffee prices or the need for government monies to support education. But the people have something they consider their own. The mutual aid required to keep it,  is what life in Totontopec reflects.




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