Engaging Global Themes in a Unique Mexican Context

Oaxaca, Mexico

Friday, August 3, 2012

"Everything has beauty, but not everyone sees it" - Confucius

My Mexican host sister is a beauty queen. No, really. Within an hour of moving into my new home here in Oaxaca, my host family had pulled out recent newspaper clippings displaying Carla, dressed in a white sparkling ball gown, crowned with a three foot tall tiara standing amidst a crowd of loyal supporters. Karla isn’t alone in her beauty – her sister has the same dark eyes, model-esque figure, and long silky hair, and one glance at her mother makes it clear where both girls get their good looks from.

Beauty in Oaxaca isn’t limited to people. Nested in the middle of the mountains, Oaxaca offers three hundred and sixty degrees of breath-taking landscapes. Everywhere you look, the mountains gaze back at you, making every sunrise spectacular, every gathering of clouds dramatic, and view a vista. Oaxaca is a city bursting with color – from the long flowing skirts worn by the street venders working in the busting Zocolo, to the handcrafted tapestries hanging in the artisan markets, to the patterned dishware used for daily meals. This city’s beauty extends past what is visible. Beauty is present in the warmth that seems to radiate between family and community members. It is there when families stop their work mid-day to return home and eat a home cooked meal together, and when communities come together for a fiesta that lasts long past the evening and into the morning hours. And when people from various different communal groups come together once a year to share and appreciate each other’s traditions, cultures, and lifestyles, the beauty expressed is unprecedented.

But Oaxaca isn’t all beautiful. The street vendors selling those brightly colored skirts are clad in tattered clothing that looks like they’ve never seen a washing machine. The festivals that celebrate indigenous culture are intensely politicized and can serve to increase tensions between groups. The clouds that spectacularly form around the mountains in the morning bring rain by the early afternoon. Oaxaca is a city of contradictions. Families that hardly seem able to afford their cell phone bill spend inordinate amounts of money to throw a party. The very rich live next to the very poor. Beauty is surrounded by the slums.

I spent the better part of my time in Oaxaca trying to reconcile these contradictions – trying to figure out how so many people who are so poor can live amongst people who spend outside their means. My last three weeks were spent researching a domestic servant who both lives with and works for a middle class family. My research helped me to see that beauty is what you make of it – poor is all in your definition. This woman who spends her life serving other people, who doesn’t have a home of her own and moved to the city without money and without means to support herself, is happy. She is making a living for herself. She has a family here and she values these relationships more than houses or money. If you ask this woman, she will tell you that she’s rich.

Now that I’m ready to leave Oaxaca with way more stuffed into my suitcase than I came here with, I see what beautiful relationships I’ve gained over the past two months. I may have helped the Mexican economy by purchasing souvenirs and eating in restaurants, but I’ve gained far more than I have spent. The mountains in Oaxaca are pretty, the people are warm and inviting, but the relationship s that form between friends and family show Oaxaca’s real beauty.

Saturday, June 30, 2012


Yesterday, we received the grand tour of Oaxaca’s outskirts.  We did not necessarily go into the city center (I have yet to see the touristy historical district, although I’m itching to get there!).   Instead, we traveled around the valley, up the mountainsides, to look at how the city is divided.  Mexico is a country of extreme disparity between the wealthy and the poor, and this was very easy to see during our drive.  We passed some amazing homes that have been built in the last 30 years (sponsored by the government), and we also passed the poorest of the poor – those living in shantytowns.

What surprised me the most, however, was just how organized shantytowns were.  At first glance, you look at the makeshift houses erected out of a hodgepodge of material, and you think “Oh, those poor people”.  While their living conditions are certainly impossible to comprehend for many of us in the United States, I was shocked to learn just how much agency they have.  Even though they are squatting on illegal ground, they are very wise in how they choose their territory.  In general, they try to select places that are “contested ground”, in which the boundaries are unclear as to whether the territory is state property or privately owned.  They also travel in groups of 50 or more.  One day, you may see an empty piece of land, but the next morning, there will be 50 squatters who have made their home there.

Of course, there are certain areas that everyone knows to avoid.  For example, squatter settlements near water distribution areas are strictly prohibited, and eviction will be enforced.  Generally, however, the squatters are aware of this, and avoid it altogether.

Many of the shantytowns that we passed were 4 or 5 years old, and they have yet to be uprooted.  Why, you ask?  Politics, apparently.  Many of the residents of these squatter settlements pledge loyalties to different political parties, in exchange for protection.  If you ally your settlement with one particular party, and show up with all of your neighbors to different political rallies, etc., in exchange, that politician (and his/her fellow party members) will ensure that you are not uprooted.  Further, they often receive free clothing from the campaign, which reflects party colors and/or the politician’s name. 

If their politician wins, there can be even greater benefits.  They may receive electricity, water, or titles to their land.  Our guide gave us an example of one specific squatter settlements that we passed, in which they supported the PRI in the last election.  Their politician won political office in the local government, and almost immediately after the election, all of the residents of the shantytown received motorcycle taxis.  In other words, they were given a way to make a living.

To me, this was absolutely fascinating.  First, I had no idea that these squatter settlements were so organized, and had so much political agency.  Further, it is fascinating to see just how important their vote is, as they receive direct support from their political candidate.  Of course, it’s a very sketchy area of political corruption, as this would be considered completely unethical in the States.  While all of these political activities are off the record, it appears to be common knowledge that they occur, and since it’s for a good cause, no one seems to fight it.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Beautiful Sound

One of the very first things that I figured out the first night in my homestay is just how lively the sounds are here in Oaxaca.  There are birds chirping, cars are passing with super-loud engines, and the echoes of my host family’s voices are so loud that you feel as though they are standing right next to you (even if they are 3 floors away).

All of the buildings are made of stucco, with few rugs or tapestries to block the noise, so everything echoes.  Further, the layout of the buildings is extremely open.  While you may walk through a door to a home that may seem enclosed, don’t let it fool you.  As you begin to walk through the house (or school or hotel), you will find that there are winding staircases that weave between the indoors and outdoors.  Further, there are several open spaces in the home, in which you can see straight through to the sky.  It’s quite beautiful, and allows for ample natural light.  However, it does very little to keep out the sound.

My room, for example, is on the third floor of our home.  It’s practically sticking out of the roof.  In some ways, it feels more like a motel than a bedroom, because I access it from outside.  Once I enter, the room feels more private, as if it is completely separated from the house.

…except that there is no way to escape the noise.  I can hear absolutely everything, and I’m quite certain everyone can also hear me.

Another interesting aspect of the Oaxacan culture is how dependent they are on sounds for communication.  In the States, we tend to be more visual with respect to how we attain our goods and services.  Here in Oaxaca, many of the services are communicated through sound.  Think of the ice cream truck that passed through your neighborhood as a child, with that obnoxious song playing over and over.  They have that here, but they also have unique noises for every other passing truck.  There is a unique song for the gasoline truck, another for water, and sharp, high-pitched whistling of the men who sharpen your knives.  It’s so much different than what we’re accustomed to in the States, and it has been a bit of a transition for me (and many other gringos).

At night, there aren’t nearly as many truck noises as there are birds and family members.  In the morning, however, while I sit in class with my peers, we are constantly overwhelmed with noise.  Many times, it is impossible to understand the instructor because a political campaigns add has just passed by, screaming messages over a loudspeaker.  Our poor professor repeats himself again and again, until we finally find a quiet moment in which we understand.

Although this can appear to be annoying, I find it to be a really unique cultural aspect.  Fortunately for me, I grew up in a very loud home, so I pride myself on being able to sleep through (almost) anything.  As long as I’m well rested, I can survive the day.  Who knows? In the near future, I might find myself as accustomed to the loud clatter as the Oaxacan natives do.  For now, I’m trying to take everything in, particularly these unique sounds.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

More Views of Oaxaca

Templo de Santo Domingo. The city of Oaxaca has lots of colonial arctitecture and many old convents and monastaries. 

                                             Inside the ex convento Santo Domingo.

A street view from the city center.
Soy los libros que he leído - I am the books I have read

Tlayudas are a typical dish of Oaxaca.

Oaxaca is also famous for its hot chocolate served with pan de yema.

View from the  ruins at Monte Albán, believed to be the Zapotec capital from around 500 BC to 700 AD.

Friday, June 15, 2012

First Day in Oaxaca:

I arrived in Oaxaca this afternoon and spent the rest of the day walking around town by the hotel.  There is a lovely park in the city nearby that is bustling with activity.  There is a large stage with musicians setting up for a performance.  A dance exercise class (zumba) with about thirty or forty women dancing away.  A man with microphone and PA is passionately delivering a speech or pep talk, and it seems to be political.  A little girl in an immaculate white dress is with her family and they seem to be preparing for some sort of celebration, maybe a first communion?

What strikes me most is how happy everyone seems to be and how much affection seems to move between people.  

Day Three:

Orientation today followed by meeting our home stays.  The class material seems like it will be very interesting and I have a much clearer picture of what we will be looking at.  I found a book in the library called "Civil Society: The History of an Idea".  I just began paging through it and I think I have a sense of what I want to center my research around.

The homestay is very nice and the house mother is a very sweet woman.  I can't help but remind myself that this woman with her nice house is part of a small minority of people in Oaxaca that aren't living a very hard life of poverty.  I am very grateful for her hospitality.

I went into town today and took some pictures of wall mural art.  Same pretty dark imagery.
- Michael

Monday, May 7, 2012

Nifty follow up to our discussion of Corn last week

Hi all,
Lydia just sent me this link to an interesting article about corn production in Mexico!  Enjoy!

Monday, April 30, 2012

We're having our first academic session tomorrow!  Looking forward to seeing everyone and getting Oaxaca 2012 up and running!