A New Museum Opens in San Bartolo:

A few years ago, an earthquake did serious damage to the municipal museum located across the street from the Zócalo in San Bartolo Coyotepec. San Bartolo is famous for its’ black pottery, but the museum -then and now – has never been exclusively a display case for the “barro negro” (black clay) produced in the town. Rather, it has been – and is – a showcase for the best talents in the region, including pieces woven on the backstrap loom, ceramics from Atzompa, ceramics by the Aguilar family of Ocotlan and the Valencia clan from San Antonino, and wood carvings from both San Martín Tilcajete and Arrazola, among others.

Since the earthquake, there has been a small amount of artisania on display in the wing of a nearby school building, but this year the museum reopened, on the old site, in a brand new 13 million dollar building financed by the State of Oaxaca.

We visited earlier this week. Almost all the photos in this issue were taken there. Space, lighting, arrangement: all the elements of a first-class museum are there, and the pieces range in quality from the merely remarkable to the simply divine.

A Visit to La Clinica del Pueblo:

When we first met Araceli García, she was working in the offices of EDUCA, a non-profit community organizing entity focused on an area of Oaxaca’s Sierra del Sur (southern mountains). A friend had suggested that Diana and I might be interested in helping to support their work, which at that moment was soliciting, warehousing, and distributing food and other needed supplies to their client communities, which had been devastated by a hurricane, torrential rains, and massive mud slides. At that time, the lead organizers were a couple, Maryknoll lay workers named Joe Reggoti and Jean Walsh. We attended the ceremony / work session in a large warehouse near Oaxaca where representatives of all the affected communities met to decide on which unit was to get how much of what, and then haul it away to their respective constituencies. It was a moving experience for us: it moved us to write checks to help pay for the work, which we then delivered to Araceli.

The next time Araceli and I met (Diana couldn’t make it), she was the director of “Clinica del Pueblo”, a neighborhood medical facility in one of the poorer colonias (neighborhoods) in Oaxaca, an area few tourists ever really notice as they pass through, going from “downtown”, cross the river, and continue on their way to Monte Alban.

Founded with funds made available through Joe and Jeanie, and the determined efforts of a charismatic Capuchin-Franciscan priest named Scott Seethaler, the clinic has its own piece of land. The main building contains consultorios (consultation rooms), offices, a small operating theater with recovery room, and classrooms.

There is a new building due for completion in July, which will house a complete analytical laboratory complete with x-ray department; and a pharmacy which will sell low-cost medications to the general public, whether their prescription comes from the Clinic or not.

There is also a building containing dormitories for visiting family and longer-term patients; a cooking / dining facility; and, nearly completed, a “natural childbirth” center, something very much needed in the area, since – according to figures compiled by Oaxaca state agencies and confirmed by the Casa de Mujer (women’s house) and others, somewhere between 50 and 80 percent of childbirths are currently effected by caesarian section. Furthermore, the very population most served by the Clinic – the poor – is the one most subjected to this procedure. One health care professional I know pointed out that almost all the births in the Hospital Civíl, the no-cost city facility, are done this way, and that the reason is efficiency: scheduling an operation an hour lets you get more done with less staff; there are few unexpected clots of delivering mothers; doctors do not have to get up in the middle of the night to deliver; costs are easily determined.

The recent addition of a Mexico-and-U.S. trained family practitioner to run the medical wings and the volunteer medical staff has done much to smooth still-rocky relations between the private-doctor-driven state medical inspectors and the Clinic, although there remains much to be done in this area: recently, the state Board of Health served the Clinic with notice that they are out of conformance in several areas. The Clinic is protesting, claiming that the new equipment demanded by the Board are more appropriate to full fledged hospitals, and in any case are not being demanded of clinics run by private physicians.

“We need about five thousand dollars to complete our natural childbirth center, but I don’t think that is the biggest problem” said Araceli. “The biggest problem for us is the negative attitude of the medical establishment toward our work”.

The Clinic’s “work” includes teams of community members who reach out to other barrios with education about sex, chronic preventative diseases such as obesity, hypertension, and heart disease; and a team of volunteer doctors who perform cataract surgery.

Unfortunately, my camera chose the morning I was there to crap out on me, so I wasn’t able to get any photos; but Diana and I will return in July for the grand opening of the laboratory / pharmacy building, and we’ll have an update as well as some photos.

Meanwhile, if you want to know more about the Clinica del Pueblo, press here

Marcos opposes “desafuero”, but does not endorse López Obrador:

As readers of the last few Newsletters know, there is an ongoing battle between the governor of the Federal District (mayor of Mexico City) Andres Manuel López Obrador and Vicente Fox Quesada the president of the republic; that it involves whether or not López will be allowed to run for president in 2006; that the groundswell of public opinion forced PAN and PRI deputies to “postpone” voting on the question of whether or not to proceed with the “desafuero” which would strip him of his immunity, charge him with an at-best obscure and perhaps not even illegal “crime”, and thus prevent him for running.

This obra (work) is by Carlomagno, a famous sculptor from the nearby town of Santa Maria. You can see the impressive size by measuring it against the electric plug at the bottom of the wall.

Over the last few years, little has been heard from the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN). They (and their spokesperson “Subcomandante Marcos”) have nearly disappeared from the national scene, choosing instead to spend their energies consolidating their gains in Chiapas and restructuring the internal governance of the areas under their influence. What little has been heard aside from condemnations of the U.S. war against Iraq has been their refusal to get involved in Party politics, specifically PRD electoral efforts, because of their vast disappointment in the direction, decisions, and internal structure of the Party.

Thus it came somewhat as a surprise to many that, on March 2d, in a letter published by “La Jornada”, Marcos weighed in to the battle, calling the “desafuero” attempt a “preventative coup” that would seriously set back recent strides toward more democracy in Mexico. It should not have been a surprise.

Marcos called the PRD a “left-of-right” (not left of center, as the press most often refers to it) Party, and specifically refused to endorse the López candidacy. By calling on his sympathizers to support the “no to the desafuero” campaign, while continuing to remain critical of the PRD – the third largest Party in Mexico, and the most “left” – Marcos (and therefore the Central Committee of the EZLN for which he works) is keeping his (their) options open.

Melodrama and Alienation at the Library:

On Saturday, March 5, the Oaxaca Lending Library held its annual general membership meeting. To say it was lively would be an understatement. Amid cursing, shouts to “sit down and shut up”, and general verbal mayhem, a mostly-new slate of officers and directors was chosen. There were no fisticuffs, and only a few tears.

Since the election of 1997, when a “regime change” (of which, to our regret, we were a part) swept some long-serving officers out, the Library has been a contentious and fragmented institution, seeming – to me – to deteriorate more with each successive administration. As dues went up (doubled, and then raised another 50 %) and membership dwindled (down 2/3), the Library appeared to become more and more the creature of a few deep pockets, many of them newcomers with little understanding of the previous 35 years of its existence.

Over the course of the last year, the continued fragmentation among the “endowers” caused non-membership income to nearly dry up, and as a result, the Board was forced to dip into the capital fund to pay operating expenses. On two instances, in the spring and the fall of 2005, a total of 4,500 dollars was withdrawn, leaving over 21,000 dollars in the fund.

In a Carl Rove-like propaganda war, elements among the membership whose main gripe (in my opinion) seemed to be that the Librarian didn’t show them proper deference, used this situation to frighten people who did not understand what was happening, urging them to come out and vote for “regime change”, warning that the financial situation was “dire”, and that the Library would have to soon close its doors unless a new Board was elected. These predictions did not take into account the possibility of a campaign to increase the membership, raising any money through solicitations, book sales, grants, etc.; nor did they deal with the possibility of reducing expenses by reducing hours, tightening up the collection so as to reduce the amount of space needed – and by extension the rents – in half, or any of the myriad possibilities for deficit reduction. As my daddy used to say, figures don’t lie, but liars figure.

Once again, given the chance to seek – and follow – the advice of the membership; to ask for their help; to increase membership with campaigns to woo old members who stopped coming around because they were so disgusted by the personality clashes and cliques; the “new regime” chose instead a combination of scare tactics and blackmail (if you don’t elect us, we won’t do all the wonderful things we could do if only we had the power to get rid of [fill in the blank]). On the other side, an opponent of regime change actually came into the Library and removed “his” modem and surge suppressor from the Library’s computer, after losing the vote.

Shortly after the meeting, the Librarian, unwilling to undergo what was sure to be a painful and humiliating experience with a new Board determined to see her gone, chose to resign. It is rumored that she will be replaced with a “volunteer co-ordinator” although no Board meeting has been called to debate the matter. Currently, a real live professional librarian (retired) is doing her best to whip the joint into shape. She’s a solid worker with a lot of savvy. Whether she succeeds may well depend on how much interference she has to suffer from her Board.

This ceramic cross is the work of Jorge Valencia, oldest of the sons of internationally known ceramicist, oil painter, paper maché constructor and all-round good artist Luis Valencia. We have one of Jorge’s more ribald works on the wall next to the entrance to our house.

If you believe as I do that nobody does anything for nothing (that is, that people don’t take on difficult and frustrating jobs without some reward, even if it is just the satisfaction of “doing good”), and if you have noted, as I have over the years, a series of people (not the present substitute Librarian, who has more sense) with “big ideas” who have appointed themselves as some sort of savior and then quit because they have not been shown the proper appreciation for their sacrifice, then there is plenty of cause for concern about the Library’s future.

This year’s general membership meeting – perhaps the most well-attended ever – did little to reconcile factional differences within the Library’s community, and even the winning (unopposed) nominee for Treasurer, a new member, wondered in her “who I am” speech, why she was taking on the job considering that judging from what she’d seen so far in this assembly, the Library membership is hopelessly and bitterly fragmented, and the Library therefore likely doomed.

Since the lowering of the dues in 2004, membership has increased, to perhaps ½ of what it was before the mis-manager Boards began the current slump by spending too much, and listening to the community too little. There are vague plans to apply for grants, and pledges by new Board members of new infusions of money from personal donations by friends. There is now a 501c3 tax-deductible foundation established in the U.S. While this is probably superfluous (NAFTA rules, according to Bill Wolfe of the Frente Común, allow for deduction from one’s taxes for donations made directly to educational institutions abroad; a simple receipt will do), it may serve to satisfy otherwise nervous potential donors.

Will the Library survive? Probably. Will it be of service to the community? More or less. Will the disaffected members return to the fold? Probably not. Until the Library stops being a political football for one (in some cases well-meaning) clique or another, history is bound to repeat itself endlessly.

[editor’s note: I am not a combatant. I attended the meeting, but did not vote. I wish the Library well: I am a life member and borrow books frequently. Not that I don’t have my private likes and dislikes, or that I feel neutral to many of the individuals involved; but I have always tried to be as objective as I can be when telling you about it.

The best judge of correct prediction is History. I’ve been wrong about many things over the last ten years – for instance, I recently gave up on predicting a twelve-peso Dollar after several years – and I may be wrong about this. As time goes on, I’ll let you know…]

This magnificnt piece of the tin-smith’s art came from the village of Xoxocatlan. The picture does not do justice to the fine detail work in this 4-foot-wide piece.

Speaking of Books:

I have three more to recommend. None are new, but all are of interest for one reason or another. I apologize for not discovering them sooner. All can be ordered from Amazon through our book page, without extra charge to you. Just click here.

“Enchiladas, Rice and Beans” is a book by a gringo who lives on a rancho outside Tecate, a border town in Baja California, and works in the film industry in Hollywood. Written over ten years ago, the stories it tells could still be true today. Part folktale, part storytelling, and part homage to Mexico, this book contains characters that any Mex-o-phile will easily recognize, each treated with sympathy and some with reverence.

With all the negative stuff one reads about the border area, it’s good to be reminded that, taken as it is, our frontier has much to offer those who are suited to it. This is a “light” read; just the kind of thing you might like for your bedside table.

“Swift as Desire” was written by the author of “Like Water for Chocolate”, and in the tradition of that book is an intimate and compelling story of the inter-relations of one family living in Mexico. Mostly a love story, “Desire” is beautifully written. The characters are believable and sympathetic (except for the evil boss, don’t you know). Spanning three generations, it gives a brief glimpse into the Mexico of the 20th century, from the Porfiriata (the reign of Porfirio Diaz) to the recent past.

A compromise between the foot powered pedi-cabs and the full-sized taxis. The driver told me it was made in China. It runs to and from the small towns around Ocotlan.

“Mexican Lives” is not light reading, but its’ characters, too, are compelling. More so because they are real people. Written by a professor of social and political thought at York University in Canada, “Mexican Lives” is a mixture of 20th century Mexican history, particularly economic history, and how that history affects the lives of 15 individuals living in Mexico in the early ‘90s, as told in their own words.

While there are copious footnotes and an extensive bibliography, this is not a dry academic tome. The language is compassable, and the history well interspersed with the narratives. I’m in the middle of reading it as I write this, and I am enjoying it immensely. I can’t wait for the sequel.