"Oaxaca, Mexico: An

Expatriate Life"

Writing by Stan Gotlieb

Pictures by Diana Ricci

Three Guadalupes
These children are resting in the garden outside the church. They have been blessed by the priest, and are waiting to line up with a few dozen other kids for a march to the Zócalo. [Photo by Diana Ricci]

[This is a tale of one festival, two celebrations, and three women.]

In mid-December, Mexicans celebrate the "day" of their national patron saint: the Virgin of Guadalupe. In Oaxaca, along with the festival of La Soledad, the patron saint of Oaxaca, it is one of the most important days of the year.

Legend has it that Guadalupe appeared to an indigenous laborer named Juan Diego, in the 16th century, telling him to inform the people that she was henceforth the protector of Mexico; and that only after she performed a miracle was she accepted by the skeptical Curia. While her specific date is December 12, Guadalupe's festivities begin days beforehand.

In Oaxaca, Guadalupe's church is located at one end of Parque El Llano (the flat park), one of the city's major open spaces. Over two blocks long and a block wide, El Llano contains two big fountains, scores of benches, and some green spaces. During the rest of the year, the sidewalks ringing El Llano are shared by joggers and roller skaters by day, and strolling lovers by night. On weekends, there are occasional activities featuring youth athletics, book fairs, community information booths: a variety of goings on of interest to a cross-section of Oaxacans. There are no "don't walk on the grass" signs.

By the 11th, the park is filled with al the usual traveling circus that goes with every festival: booths selling food, arts and crafts, clothing, religious articles, cheap gewgaws, and health education. You can buy tacos, corn (on the cob or off), ice cream, atole (a drink made from corn mush), beer and soft drinks; indulge your sweet tooth with numerous confections; add some crockery to your kitchen supply; purchase a "milagro" (miracle; a tiny replica of an arm or eye or animal, which can then be taken to the church and left with a donation, in hopes that the Virgin of Guadalupe will intercede to affect a cure). There is a booth dispensing information about AIDS, and many stands hawking audio cassettes of dubious origin.

Into this melee (the street, perhaps the major north-south artery in central Oaxaca, has been closed to traffic), starting early in the morning, come thousands of children. Accompanied by their mothers, aunts or grandmothers (and, occasionally, their fathers), and carrying poinsettias (the seasonal flower), they line up and file through Guadalupe's church to receive the blessing of the priests who serve her. Many are so young they have to be carried.

After receiving the blessing, the children are herded together in groups of twenty or thirty, and paraded to the Zócalo (town square), amidst popping flashbulbs and brass band music. To commemorate Juan Diego, all the boys are dressed as peasants, in simple white cotton trousers and blouses, with straw sombreros, huaraches and neckerchiefs. They have thin black mustaches painted on their upper lips and sideburns drawn on their smooth cheeks. The girls wear embroidered dresses, with rouge spots on their cheeks and lipstick; earrings dangle from their tiny pierced earlobes.

In Mexico, one's saint's day is far more important than one's birthday (if you are Catholic, which the vast majority of Mexicans are). If you are named Guadalupe, December 12 is your day of recognition. Being identified with Guadalupe means that throughout your life you get an annual reminder of the value of defending the Patria (the life and fortunes of the nation). This story is about three Guadalupes: the one who was canonized, a reformer that died, and a revolutionary who is temporarily gone to El Norte: each in her own way a protectress of the Patria.

Women in Mexico are, like their sisters to the North, victims of a system that promotes their brothers' interests at the expense of their own. Already suffering the limitations imposed by male fears of competition in the workplace, women in Mexico have the added burden of Machismo: a system of values that pigeonholes women as either virginal mothers (an interesting contradiction in terms) or whores. Among the practical results of this mind set are that rape is almost impossible to prove (what were you doing out alone, anyway?), and battery is generally viewed as a husband's right. In the workplace, men are the boss, with rare exception, and part of the rationale for this is that women need protection. My favorite example of this is the unit of black-uniformed State Judicial Police that walk through the Zócalo every day: seven tough, no-nonsense, gun- totin' women -- supervised (chaperoned?) by a male officer.

Dealing with this structural brick wall every day, the women who collectively administer the Casa de la Mujer (The Woman's House) in Oaxaca are expert finessers . The Casa exists both because and in spite of the status quo. Guadalupe the reformer was one of the founders, and one of two coordinators who oversee the day-to-day operations and the myriad activities of the Casa, from information on sexuality to psychiatric, legal and medical counseling, to classes on constructing low cost and labor saving solar ovens. A "Tehuana" (a woman from the Isthmus of Tehuantepéc, the place in the south of Mexico where the country is the narrowest), Lupe was raised in a society where property is passed from mother to daughter -- an anomaly in patriarchal Mexico. Imbued with the dignity and position that the Tehuana takes as her birthright, Lupe came here to the capitol city, and met and married (and, subsequently, divorced) an expatriate Gringo. Because she spoke excellent English, she became the Casa's liaison with the Gringo community. Because of her natural dignity, her warm heart and her straightforward manner, she enchanted us. Because of her energy and ability to hold on to the Casa's vision, she supervised a group of us in organizing a fundraising event to benefit the Casa. Because of her dedication she ignored the growing discomfort in her belly.

When the event had been successfully concluded, and the pains had grown to be excruciating, she sought medical care. She was told that she had an ovarian cyst, and a series of treatments was begun. Time went on, the treatments did not seem to be working, and she went to a Woman's specialist in Mexico City. She had cancer, and it had spread. None of the subsequent treatments worked, and she died.

Last weekend, during the season of her saint, Lupe was remembered by her collective, her family, and scores of her friends. A plaque was affixed to the wall of the Casa, dedicating the research and lending library they maintain for the women of Oaxaca, to her memory. Typical of the women of her class (middle), age (middle) and education (advanced), who work to reform the system, Lupe was dedicated, patient, and tenacious.

Guadalupe the revolutionary is quite another kettle of fish. Sharing the goals of women's equality, and intensely nationalistic, she represents a "third way" for her sisters. Lupita grew up in Oaxaca, the child of entrepreneur parents, and was radicalized while a student at the state university. She is an organizer for peasant causes, and a fund raiser for anti-government organizations. When there is a referendum run by the Civic Alliance, or some other non-governmental organization that sponsors public debate on important issues, Lupita is supervising one of the information tables, or passing out ballots at a voting booth.

Perhaps the most daring thing she does is to live alone: scandalous behavior for a young woman who has never married. Let me give you an example of what I mean. A woman I know teaches Spanish in one of the local schools. She is married to a Gringo. They live in a house in a middle-class residential area. I had borrowed some materials from her, and as I was going to be in the neighborhood on other business, I called to volunteer to drop them off at her house. Oh no, she said, she couldn't allow that. The neighbors would be scandalized that she would open her door to a man when her husband was not at home. Her reputation would suffer.

Lupita not only lives alone, she entertains men in her apartment. Her defiance of convention is complete, natural, unselfconscious and very much up in the face of the system. She is typical of the most radicalized of the younger generation of Mexican women, including comandantes of the EZLN (Zapatista Army of National Liberation), and artists and craftswomen whose work both shocks and challenges the male elite. Her lifestyle is part of her political statement. Currently she is elsewhere, networking and absorbing the methods used by others in the struggle to promote social change. When she returns she will bring her love for and dedication to her homeland back with her.

In Mexico, just like where you live, the struggle continues, and the women lead the way.
(December, 1996)

 

[Read a selection of "Letters From Oaxaca, Mexico"]

[Read a sample "Oaxaca / Mexico Newsletter"]