A New Year:

This is the first issue of our tenth year of publishing the Oaxaca / Mexico Newsletter. Hard to believe. Couldn’t have done it without your contributions. Thanks.

Since Diana and I started living together, we have moved twice; bought two vehicles (and sold one); made and lost a lot of friends, some because of “political differences”, some who passed on, many of whom moved on for one reason or another; taken many trips, throughout Mexico, to Guatemala (a few times) Belize and Honduras, and twice to Europe.

We have gone from faxing, to sending emails over a friend’s phone line through a Compu-Serv connection in Mexico City (at $1 per minute long distance charge plus monthly service fee), to a series of startup Internet Service Providers, none of whom quite got the job done, to our present DSL connection: we have in a large sense, seen Mexico into the computer age.

[The picture in the masthead is of an “Aztec” dancer, performing for donations on the Andador (walking street; Macedonio Alcalá). This photo was taken further up the street, in one of Oaxaca’s vest-pocket parks. The figures are papier maché. The artist, Boris Spider, lives nearby. Over the years, we have enjoyed his productions in all sorts of public spaces, as well as major constructs during special holidays like Muertos.]

When we first arrived, there were two vegetarian restaurants, one far from the center, both spin-offs from Seventh Day Adventist beliefs; two Chinese restaurants; one Italian in the center and another in Reforma. Now, there are a multitude of ethnic eateries, with more on the way (I recently got word of one fellow’s intention to open an Indian / Thai restaurant in the next year). Many have opened their doors and later faded away, most notably a couple of Lebanese and one Cuban. Nouvelle Oaxaca is making a show against more standard fare. There are so many coffee bars, internet cafés and combinations thereof, that they are beginning to rival tchatchke shops for storefronts per block in the historic center.

All the first-run movie houses downtown are closed (one reopened as a xxx), and there are now two cineplexes “out at the malls” just past the main university campus on the way to the airport. Also available are KFC, McDonald’s (two), Burger King, Office Depot, Radio Shack and Sam’s Club, among others.

Since we arrived, Oaxaca has had four mayors, three governors, and three presidents of Mexico . The Zapatistas, who were splashed across the front pages and television screens of the world, have largely dropped from sight. The PRI party was mauled in 2000 but came back some in 2004. One of the enduring political questions, to be answered yet again in 2006, is will Mexico vote for the chaos of a democracy split between two or more parties, or will it elect to return to the efficient “one-party democracy” of the past?

[A photo taken in the new State Museum of Oaxacan Art, located in the old tourist office building on the corner of Independencia and Garcia Vigíl, right across from the post office. The works are well displayed in rooms that are nicely restored. Well worth the 35 peso entry charge.]

When we got here, there wasn’t a single cell phone in Oaxaca . Now, everyone has one (except us, and we probably should have one). We have a couple of computers, a VCR, a DVD player, two refrigerators (long story), a Nissan sedan, and a washing machine. Whatever happened to the simple life in rustic Oaxaca?

The toll road from Mexico City was completed a few years ago, cutting the driving time to Oaxaca nearly in half. Continental Airlines now provides non-stop service to their hub in Houston , and there are rumors that they will begin flying here non-stop from Los Angeles sometime in the next year or two. The train I used to take has fallen by the wayside, just as it has in the U.S. , and for the same reasons (having mostly to do with the automobile industry and the gasoline company). I well recall the first time I came here, in 1973. An overnight compartment cost $16 dollars (eight if you went coach), and the trip took 14 hours. There were porters in every car: luxury, if a bit tawdry and rather worn. A quintessentially Mexican experience, gone.

Life is, they say, change. Certainly, it is in Oaxaca ; and I suspect it is wherever you are, too…

Oaxaca Elects New Mayor:

After 9 years out of power, the PRI is back in City Hall, having lost 3 3-year terms, two to the PAN and one to Convergencia. Jesús Angel Díaz Ortega, in his first appearance before the City Council after being installed last week, named Celestino Alonso Alvarez as Treasurer, setting off a furor among opposition council members, who are in the minority.

Alvarez’ running of the city Treasury was one of the key issues in PANista Pablo Arnaud’s victory in 1995, and his installation as Treasurer is seen by many as a clear message that the PRI in Oaxaca is still in the hands of the “old guard”.

Meanwhile, outgoing mayor Gabino Cue has been served with an order of detention by a PRI judge, based on a request by the State Judicial Police, who are under the control of the (ex-governor) Murát machine. The usual potpourri of charges have been leveled, from misappropriation of funds to conflict of interest, and Gabino’s lawyers are expected to be granted an “amparo” (injunction) which will keep him out of jail until the case is heard – if it is ever heard.

The vast majority of citizens here believe that the whole issue is bogus, and that it amounts to nothing more than revenge by Murát; harassment of an old political enemy. It is doubtful that Gabino will ever see a day in jail, although with Murat’s folks in charge of the files at City Hall, you never know what documentary “proof” might surface.

[Susana Trilling just turned fifty, and we celebrated with her and about a hundred friends and neighbors. There were two bands (a mariachi band to accompany the outdoor comida, and a dance band later in the evening in the cooking school. This picture is of Susana dancing with one of the village elders.]

Another crank writes a “letter to the editor”:

[This is an “open letter” I wrote to the Oaxaca Times, a local monthly commercial “newspaper” that I have found at times to be somewhat informative and mildly entertaining. I’d like to share my thoughts with you.]

To the editor:

This is in response to two articles that appeared in the January 2005 edition of the Oaxaca Times, “ Oaxaca Then and Now” by Sam Lowry, and “The Cost of Beauty” by Rafael Bucio.

I have been coming to Oaxaca since 1973, and have lived here for the last 11 years. During that time, I have seen many changes, some of which I have liked and some of which I wished had not happened. I have seen the death of the passenger train (with a few exceptions like the Cañada milk run), the opening of the current toll road to and from Mexico City, the blooming and the fading of the English Language Lending Library as an expatriate institution, the slow and steady transformation of the foreign community from a small group of adventurous souls sharing their knowledge and travails, to a larger, less adventurous, less co-operative, and by-and-large more financially comfortable bunch. I have seen the Oaxaca Times evolve from a purely informational publication, to include some attempts (some of which have been successful) at literature, while a long line of contributors and editors came and went. All in all, a lot of changes, most of them gradual, and some abrupt.

Shortly after I arrived in 1994, I met one of the great doyennes of the Oaxaca foreign community, the late Marie Vegte, who had been living here for well over 30 years at the time. She introduced me to many of her friends, and I was instantly “home”. One thing stands out in my memory of those times: many of the “old hands” told me they wished I hadn’t come, not because they didn’t like me, but because they were so afraid that I might be the harbinger of a new wave of arrivals, whose very presence would somehow spoil the scene for them: by increasing the rents and the cost of servants, by gringo-fying the food, by creating hostility towards the gringos by stumbling around and insulting (however inadvertently) local mores. I took this as a not-unusual desire on their part to prevent “change”, and as a kind of proprietary “this is MINE, don’t you dare use it without my permission” sort of selfishness, which, while all too human was nonetheless annoying and pointless, since I was already here through no effort of theirs.

[Michele Gibbs, reading from her latest book, “Line of Sight”, at Corazon del Pueblo shop on the second floor above Amate Books on the Andador. For those of you that are not on the “From the Field” mailing list, a new (winter 2004) edition featuring Micheles poetry and art, and George Colman’s prose, is now available on theirwebsite ]

Of course other people did come soon after I did – I wasn’t the only one who could “smell” something special about Oaxaca – and I in turn became somewhat of a gatekeeper, just like those who had arrived before me. Since then, newer-comers, in their turn, became the jealous guardians of “the real Oaxaca ”. Of course, their Oaxaca was different than mine, as mine had been from those who came before me. The venerable Chairman Mao (it’s always easier to venerate dead people) said that material circumstances dictate consciousness, and so it seems to me.

Not long after I got here, I wrote an article titled “Three Blind Mice”. The following is an excerpt from that article:

“Every day, hundreds of Mexicans risk their lives, their health, and their savings, in the attempt to cross the border into the U.S.A. They are lured by the higher wages and generally better working conditions in El Norte.

“Every day, hundreds of U.S. citizens risk Montezuma’s Revenge and their Christmas Club money by crossing the border into Mexico . They are lured by the lower costs and generally more exotic living conditions in the Tropics.

“Thus is the pattern of cross-migration established: they come to work, and we come to spend. Of course there are exceptions, but it’s a pretty safe bet that the Gringo you see walking down the street in Oaxaca didn’t come here to work 9-to-5, and that the Oaxacan who owns the little kiosk where you buy your newspaper has been working 60 hours per week, 52 weeks per year, for 40 years — if he’s been lucky enough to have steady employment.

“The vast majority of Norteños who come here are on vacation, and have a return plane ticket. The next largest group are retired, and have a pension or other independent means. The few remaining are either scamming, or desperately trying to figure out a good scam. All are united by the Five Iron Rules of Expatriate Economics:

“Rule 1 is a sort of Heisenberg Principle of price escalation: just by being there, you jack up the cost. It doesn’t matter where you go, when you get there your exotic presence becomes a beacon for every entrepreneur in the neighborhood.

“Rule 2 is that rule 1 is just, fair, and good. There is nothing more pathetic that a Gringo trying to explain to a Mexican that, despite appearances, he is not really rich. Puh – leez ! The concept of having to conserve your money, so you can last a year instead of “only” three months, just doesn’t signify to someone who feels lucky to be able to take his family to the beach – or the mountains – once a year, for a week (let alone feed, clothe, and school them) . And taking time off from work to “find yourself” is about is as comprehensible as sprouting wings and flying.

“Rule 3 is a corollary of Rule 1: third-world locales remain cheap to live in only so long as no-one wants to live there. Also known as the law of supply and demand, it as true for natives as it is for foreigners. As Mexico City becomes less habitable, many Chilangos (citizens of the capitol) are moving to Oaxaca , driving up the price of land — and rentals.

[Diana’s latest purchase. The artisan, Martín Melchor of San Martín Tilcajete, has long been one of our favorites. This was the first pedicab with giraffes that we had seen, although we have since discovered that the same design (including the hole cut for the long neck) had been produced in the past. So much of our life here is a matter of coincidence: being in the right place at the right time … or not.]

“Rule 4 is: wages never do manage to catch up with prices. This appears to be a truly Universal law, every bit as good on Mars as it is in Puerto Escondido or Podunk.

“Rule 5 is: if you want to live like you do in the U.S., expect it to cost about as much as living in the U.S.”

Some years ago, residents of many “third world” countries were polled with the following question: do they want refrigerators, even though the manufacturing and use of refrigerators contributes to the pollution of the air and the general deterioration of the ecology. The overwhelming majority said “yes”.

Stopping the proliferation of low-cost (and most often low quality) fast food, discount clothing, multinational hotels, restaurants and stores is a hopeless dream, as long as the corporate commercial media, and corrupt regimes looking for a new buck, exist. Stopping a McDonald’s from having a presence in the Zócalo probably amounts to opening a Burger King there a few years from now. “Progress”, as the uninformed destruction of the physical and philosophical balance calls itself, is the order of the day. Nattering about it is a waste of time.

Escapees (like me) who choose to run from their homeland to some more idyllic place, rather than to stay and fight against the tide, have no right to complain when the very things they object to (having been allowed to become firmly established “at home”) follow them into Paradise.