"Oaxaca, Mexico: An

Expatriate Life"

Writing by Stan Gotlieb

Pictures by Diana Ricci

Let's keep it to Ourselves
This young man has been dancing the Danza de las Plumas (Feather dance) since the age of seven. Now he is the lead dancer in this troupe. That head-dress is very heavy. The feather dance is one of the oldest known Zapotec dances, and very much a product of Oaxaca. After seeing such grace and beauty, it is impossible to keep it a secret from others, as some would have me do. [Photo by Diana Ricci]

Now that I'm one of "us" (old extranjero) instead of one of "them" (new-comer), I get a lot of heat from my compadres about how my articles attract too much tourism. I am too much of a "booster", I am told; too quick to tout the wonders of my adopted city. Sometimes it seems as if I am personally to blame every time someone's favorite table is occupied by "them".

If this were so, then I could claim to be famous, or at least read widely. Who knows, I might even be making a living at my writing. Unfortunately, even in my wildest most manic megalomaniacal fugues, I have to admit that my small but loyal readership could not be held responsible for as much as one full table of gawkers.

Nonetheless, being a responsible sort of citizen, I consider it my obligation to discern whether what I write might, assuming I ever became widely read, contribute to the tranquility, or to the cacaphony, of this place. Yesterday, accordingly, I sallied forth to test the waters.

First stop, the Lending Library, where I encountered a party of three fresh faced, radiant, wide eyed newcomers perusing the used paperback rack.

"Excuse me", I asked. "I am taking a survey. Have you ever read 'Letters From Mexico'?"

They had never heard of it. They found the Library through Larry and Lynn Foster's excellent Fielding's Guide To Mexico. None for, three against.

It being an "orientation day", I made my way through the usual crowd of browsers and borrowers, to the "classroom", a tiny cubicle in the back where, for my sins (and a few extra pesos), I try to impart what little I have learned to newcomers who, knowing even less than I, mostly think I am worth their time and money. There are four waiting as I enter. I introduce myself, ask their names (I won't remember a one; I have never been any good at names; and no, I don't want to learn any memorization schemes, thanks anyway), and follow through with "how did you find out about this class?". Two read my advertisement in the Oaxaca Times, one saw the notice on the Library door yesterday, and the fourth found me through my ad on @migo. None for, seven against.

After class, as I walk down the Andador Turistico, I am stopped by a couple I do not recognize. "Aren't you Stan Gotlieb, the author?". That's me, I say, the warmth of being so addressed diffusing itself through my corpus. "We read a couple of your articles on the Internet," she says, "and we just don't understand why you are so negative". Huh? "Well", he chimes in, "everyone knows that wars and stuff go on, and that people have problems, but why do you have to be so discouraging? They need our money here, don't they?" Do you have time to share your views with some friends of mine? "Sorry, we're on our way to San Miguel de Allende, where people have a more positive friendly attitude". None for, nine against.

Further down the street, a family of four whom I helped to find housing, smile and exchange greetings as we pass on the street. They were going to stay for a couple of months, but it's been five since they got here. I guess I have to take some responsibility for that. Four to nine.

I run into Diana at the post office. She has gone there to send a package to a grandniece in the States, and I to check the post box for mail. There are two checks waiting from new Oaxaca / Mexico Newsletter subscribers. We walk together down past the tables in the sidewalk cafes by the Zócalo, waving and nodding at friends and acquaintances, and stop to visit with another couple who have been coming down for three winters now, and who were in fact attracted to this place because they read my articles on the Web. Six to nine.

Diana goes on to the newsstand to pick up the News and the Jornada and I order us a couple of cappuccinos. When she returns, I decide to ask them what they think of all this "pied piper" business. They think it's pretty silly. "Are you supposed to be more powerful than thousands of Ministry of Tourism workers, tens of thousands of travel agents, and the lure of mezcál and piña colladas?" she asks, and he says "and if you are, then how come you ain't rich?", a question which I ask myself every time the Internet bill comes due.

"Abandon this foolishness", Diana says. "This survey is meaningless, unscientific and pointless anyway. Even if the figures point to you as the person responsible for the increase in tourism and relocations, will you stop doing what you do?". I have to admit I won't: I enjoy my life as I have invented it.

On our way home, some other Zócalo lizard calls at me from a bench: "Hey, Mister Oaxaca!" We stop a moment to chat. "Look at how crowded it is at the sidewalk cafés", she says. "Not a seat to be had." Lots of seats, I respond. Just no tables. All you have to do to get a seat is ask to share a table with one of "them". That's what I do.
(February, 1998)

 

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

[Read a sample "Oaxaca / Mexico Newsletter"]