Looking back on 10 years of the Oaxaca / Mexico Newsletter

The technology:

Let’s hear it for the Internet! Rah, rah, rah!!! In many ways, the development – nay, the very existence – of this Newsletter directly reflects the development of the World Wide Web, and the technology – hardware and software – that has been spawned in its wake.

When I first started writing – and publishing – my “Letters From Mexico”, twelve years ago, there was no Internet service available in Mexico. My “Letters” were, literally, letters: “Snail mail”, in a time before the term was in common usage. During my first year here, Compuserve opened a node in Mexico City, enabling me to take my laptop down to a friendly “Larga Distancia” (long distance) service, unplug the telephone wire from the wall phone and plug it into my computer, have the clerk dial the Compuserve number in Mexico City, and log on for a quick “send and receive”. At one dollar per minute, I got very efficient at getting on and off the phone.

[This photo was taken at the doorway to one of our fine cultural resources. The gentleman doing the greeting is made mostly of cane and appeared this year – appropriately – just before Muertos. The banana tree in the masthead resides in the garden of one of San Martín Tilcajete’s fine carvers.]

The first service to come to Oaxaca, Antequera Red (red is Spanish for network; Antequera is the old name for Oaxaca), never did get itself sufficiently de-bugged to be reliable. I was the first customer, and not the first to bail out after it became apparent that it wasn’t going to work. Eventually, another local entrepreneur decided to try his hand, and that service, CompuSer, was a distinct improvement, although the rates they charged were much higher and kept going up while the client base kept expanding.

Next to weigh in was a local computer store with lots of cash and lots of technical expertise, SpersaOaxaca. Overseen by a savvy and self-driven young guy named Carlos, Spersa offered service at a much-lower price, with the added advantage that Carlos was very available whenever a problem came up – as they seemed to, with all too frequent regularity. Their problems stemmed from the unwillingness of TelMex, the national phone monopoly, who by then were providing their own Internet service (Prodigy Mexico), to provide Spersa with the phone lines they needed to meet the needs of their expanding customer base.

Eventually, many of us, tired of fighting the good – and losing – fight against the evil monopoly, decided to throw in the towel and switch to Prodigy, which a couple of years ago finally began offering DSL broadband service, “Infinitum”, to which I immediately subscribed. Since then, the local cable company has come out its their own service, but my tech assures me that it does not perform to U.S. standards, and is in fact slower than my current connection. However, for those who want to access the Internet without having to have a telephone, it’s not a bad choice.

Software developments were a big factor as well. The availability of free user-friendly web page editors enabled me to take control over page design and change text and photos without waiting for friendly – but overloaded – webmasters to do it for me, and were to a large extent responsible for my decision to stop being a “provider” on a larger site (such as Mexico Connect) and to establish my own website, Realoaxaca. Bill Gates, too, contributed by producing ever more sophisticated and integrated versions of Windows, enabling me to do more things quicker.

Most important of all was the serendipitous friendship I’ve formed with my current service provider, advisor, technician, and all-round good guy, Jesús “Chucho” Gutierrez. He may not always be on time, being young, easily distracted, and over-extended, but his expertise and good will have been my salvation on numerous occasions.

[Last week, Mexico celebrated the 100th anniversary of the first large (1000) migration of Koreans to the port of Salina Cruz, on Oaxaca’s south coast. These Korean folk dancers performed at the Macedonio Alcalá theater. Lots of fine drumming.]

Ten Years of Partnership:

When I started writing the Letters, I was living alone. After Antequera Red opened, I was using other people’s telephones to dial in for internet access. The early Letters were e-mails with no photos in them. This went on for a couple of years. Then I met Diana, my compañera. I could go on for thousands of words describing all the ways my life is better for her presence, but this is about the Newsletter, so…

Our life together started when she agreed to buy a telephone line and have it installed in her apartment. I agreed to pay the monthly charges in exchange for being able to bring my laptop over and plug it in. Eventually, I moved in. Soon, she was providing photos for the Letters, and later for the Newsletter, as well as badly needed editorial services. I’m firmly convinced that without Diana’s contributions, there would be no Newsletter today. Certainly, if the feedback I get from subscribers is any indication, there would be a lot fewer readers.

[This, and the rest of the photos in this issue, come from Diana’s trip to Sicily. Her slow but sure recovery from shingles has progressed sufficiently for her to name and edit them. She thanks you for your kind wishes… Here is a part of the waterfront in Cefalu, with the main harbor off to the right.]

Twelve years of changes:

Recently, I led a discussion at Amigos del Sol language school. It was part of an excellent series of workshops, lectures and discussions put on by Amigos’ director, Rogelio Ballesteros, and web guru Ron Mader, publisher of Planeta.com . Aside from answering a lot of questions from attendees about the development and likely future changes of the Newsletter, the topic of most interest is best summed up in the question: “If, twelve years ago, Oaxaca had been just like it is now, would you have stayed?”

The answer – vintage me – was “it depends”. Muy Oaxaqueño, no? I wasn’t being intentionally evasive; it’s just that there is no one and easy answer to anything, but especially not to being here.

Life, as someone must have said, is a tradeoff. When we first arrived, Oaxaca was not an easy place to get to. Buses from MexCity took upwards of 9 hours. The train was pretty much a thing of the past. Airplanes were expensive. Now, the toll road connects the two cities with six-hour bus service (less than 5 in a fast car). The train has disappeared and the railway station has been converted into a museum. And the airplane service is insanely overpriced.

With the toll road (and the decentralization of the Federal District after the 1985 earthquake), thousands of Chilangos (MexCity dwellers) are flooding into Oaxaca, for “cheap” (compared to the cost in MexCity) housing, cheaper office rentals, and cheap weekend getaways. The result – the loss of housing stock in the inner city to hotels, restaurants, government offices and new boutiques – has blasted the price of housing in the Centro Historico right through the roof. The advent of direct-from-Houston flights has encouraged many folks tired of the over-gringo-ization in San Miguel de Allende, Ajijic, and other north Mexico refuges to relocate here, and has made it a more desirable tourist destination. [Just announced: Mexico and the U.S. have signed a pact that allows for three U.S. airlines to fly to Oaxaca from U.S. destinations.. Previously, only two were permitted, but only Continental chose to pick up the option. However, Continental’s wild success with filling their 52 seat plane may encourage someone else to enter the market.] The resultant tussle among too many visitors for the same accommodations has also turned the price of lodging in San Felipe and Reforma and Xochimilco neighborhoods into little gold mines for their owners.

Still, there are bargains to be found if you look long and hard enough (or have, as many do, beginner’s luck); and for those willing to walk a little further or ride the bus to more-outlying areas where there are fewer pale faces to be seen, reasonable housing is still achievable.

The tourist restaurants along the Zócalo have raised their prices to U.S. levels in many cases, and it is not unusual for a meal at one of Oaxaca’s “new” restaurants to run to 200 pesos per person (plus wine and tips). On the other hand, perfectly good comidas corrida (fixed price, few-choices complete meals) can be had at or below 50 pesos.

The tourist-forming (like terraforming, the process of turning an unusable planet in another galaxy into a place habitable by humans from Earth) action has produced lots of cybercafés, stores that sell foods that didn’t used to be available here, a more focused system of communicating events of interest (not completely there yet, but better), and other newly-available amenities.

Would I have stayed? Maybe not, but I wasn’t faced with the whole enchilada upon arrival. This was a gradual transformation. Do I mind the “intrusion” of wealthier, more pampered, less co-operative newcomers? I suppose I do, at least a little. Am I about to leave any time soon? I doubt it: I’m pretty inertial, and anyway who am I, in my “maturity”, to eschew a little more comfort?

[This Greek temple is in the town of Segesta. Note the local flora: very much like you might find here in Oaxaca. The Greeks built temples everywhere in the Mediterranian basin.]

Kansas City to be new entry point for Mexico:

Plans have been finalized for a Mexican customs station to be built in the Kansas City area. The target date for beginning operations is March of 2006, but that may be a little optimistic; however, it does appear that it will happen sometime in 2006.

This should bring in a new era of ease and security for those of us who are planning to ship our households south upon relocating. The idea is that after clearing customs in KC, the goods, in sealed containers, with electronic seals being read by satellite to insure they have not been opened en route, would cross the Mexican frontier and the 29-kilometer check without interference, and would not be subject to inspection at road blocks along the way.

The savings in time, bribes, etc. should be considerable. The price of shipping will probably increase slightly (as what does not?), but providing the gouge isn’t too deep, should be well worth it.


Absentee ballot program looks like a miserable failure:

This year for the first time, Mexicans working abroad will be allowed to vote in the presidential election. Fewer than one percent have signed up to do so, in spite of an expensive campaign by the national election commission (IFE) to inform them of their rights.

So far, of 4.2 million potential voters living out of the country, only 3,690 “solicitudes” (papers asking the IFE to register them) have been received. That, at a cost of 1.6 billion pesos, is 87,804 pesos per registered voter.

Several things have converged to keep the turnout low, including the scattered nature of the voting population, and the fear of letting anyone – even their own consulate – know where they are, lest the Migra (immigration police) find them and deport them. The largest factor, however, is built into the system: in order to vote, a Mexican must have a voter registration card from their home district.

In order to get a card, the voter must have all the current papers necessary, some of which cannot be gotten from afar, and many of which require payment of monies which they may not have; and even if all the steps have been stepped, voters from the “wrong” party may find that their cards are “lost in transit”.

Add to this the fact that the IFE has determined that electioneering in the diaspora is illegal and may be cause for a candidate or a party to be removed from the ballot at home, thus reducing the interest among the electorate that might be motivated by seeing the candidates up close and personal, and the lack of participation becomes a lot more understandable.

[The town of Selinunte, like much of the island, produces a wide variety of ceramics. This store was a tchatchke-hound’s dream. I liked the mobile art: I traveled Greece, Yugoslavia, and Bulgaria in a plain-wrapper version of the same model, back in the late ’60s.]


Woodsman, woodsman, spare that tree:

Once again, the famous laurels of Oaxaca are the subject of fierce fighting between the government and some of the environmentalists. This time the focus is on Parque Paseo Juarez, known to most of us as “El Lllano”, where city officials have declared 15 of the majestic old trees to be diseased beyond the hope of rescue.

Opponents of the plan to do the cutting have declared that it’s all a plot; that the engineering report cited by the city has not been produced; that the city has refused to name the engineer upon whose opinion the actions are based. Shades of the Zócalo.

I don’t know what the “truth” of all this is, nor do I care much, quite frankly. The Oaxacans appear to be able to handle their own aesthetics just fine. Except for the notable absence of an anchor tree on the southeast corner of the Zócalo, I, and almost everyone else – gringo and local – that I have talked to, agrees that the (almost completely) finished central square has turned out to be a fine renovation. More open, much easier to circumnavigate (the paths are wider, and the cobblestones over which so many elderly have tripped are gone), and easier to clean. (In the process, few trees were lost: a tribute to the ability of the local citizenry to exert their own will in the matter. I’ve no doubt the same will happen at El Llano.

Whether the money spent on the Zócalo renovation can be justified when so much of the infrastructure of the city is in need of attention, is quite another story. I’ve not made any secret about which side of that issue I claim for my own: it was the worst kind of pork-barrel boondoggle. But purely from an esthetic standpoint, I’ve no complaints worth mentioning, and neither do almost everyone I know.

Elba Esther drops the other shoe:

What Newsletter would be complete without at least a mention of the ongoing saga of Mexico’s most infamous and most devious cacique?

The long awaited announcement finally arrived: The New Alliance Party (Nueva Allianca, or NA), founded at the urging of Elba Esther Gordillo, estranged ex-executive of the PRI and head of the national teachers’ union, has announced that she will be named their presidential candidate at a convention to be held in early January. At the same time, 21 national assembly deputies, all of whom belong to her union, resigned their PRI membership in favor of NA. Their legislative leader, who hails from Nayarit state, enunciated the official union line: that Gordillo, who is about to be stripped of her PRI membership, is the victim of a cabal between PRI presidential candidate Roberto Madrazo, and his long-time mentor, the much-reviled Carlos Salinas Gortari; and that a Madrazo presidency would be a Salinas presidency.

Elba doesn’t stand a chance of winning, given her own history of corruption, dictatorial stewardship of the union, and the small size of her party; but she can – and will do her best to – severely damage Madrazo’s effort. Roberto is caught between the rock of Salinas and the hard place of Gordillo, who, however much we might scorn her, happens to be absolutely right about the Salinas-Madrazo connection.

[This street in Selinunte reminds me of others I have encountered in the Greek city of Ioannina and in Chetumal, Mexico, among other places. The beach is in the distance.]


A new year coming up:

Edition eleven will start coming your way in mid – January, the first of 15 new issues. With the 2006 elections in June, the political scene should be fascinating. We will, however, hold down the politics to less than 50% in most issues, giving space to travel, book reviews, gossip and culture: the usual mix. In the first issue, we will be covering the national campaign of the “new” Zapatistas to transform the political system; investigating the real cost of housing in Oaxaca: is it really as expensive as some folks think it is; and visiting some fortune tellers in the Abastos market, who use BIRDS as their mediums, among other bits of news. So, stay tuned. And have a happy holiday season.