A Trip to Benito Juarez:

Many people confuse the town of Benito Juarez with Guelatao, the town where Benito Juarez was born. While they are not all that far from each other as the buzzard flies, they are on totally different routes.

This is the community owned store in Benito Juarez.

There are two ways to get to BJ. One is the scenic route, which, while slow and narrow and unpaved for 20 kilometers, takes about an hour once you get to Teotitlan del Valle. Just continue on the main road through town, past the presa (reservoir). The vistas are truly impressive and worth the effort. The bromeliads and other orchid types are growing everywhere on the upper end of the road.

Coming back, there is a much shorter (4 km) dirt road that goes to the highway which runs from Tlacalula to Cajonos. That highway was practically new when I took it a year ago to buy painted wooden animals from the famous Blas family of Cajonos. This year, it’s a mess. To say that it was poorly constructed may be the understatement of the decade. Potholes abound, and edges have washed away. Another example of someone putting a lot of money into their cousin the contractor’s pocket. Still, it cuts the time about in half, and it’s not without scenic charm.

Benito Juarez is one of many “mancomunidades” in the Sierra Juarez mountains north of Oaxaca city. These villages have “opted out” of the system of Party contention that rules most of Oaxaca and the country. There are no “elections” in BJ; no Parties; no paid positions. Everything is done for, by, and within the community. All the males are expected to spend one year in service to the community every third year; the women once every five years. The jobs range from street sweeping to community president; from running the community tienda (store) to working in the tourist yu’u (guest house). Since most of the residents are farmers, this means that when duties interfere with planting, harvest, etc., others from the village must pitch in to help the person’s family.

Land is distributed by the town council (which also changes every year). Providing a person is in good standing (up to date for their “tequio” (public service) and of good repute with their neighbors, the land remains in the family of the tiller. Citizens of the village are allowed to own private businesses: for example, there are a couple of tiendas (small stores) that compete freely with the village-owned store; and of course all agricultural production is private.

While we were there, we sampled the local (farmed) trout, at a restaurant that serves only trout. It came stuffed with Oaxacan white cheese, onions and epazote, steamed in tinfoil. At 80 pesos, it’s not cheap, but it was very tasty. Because it was farmed, it didn’t have the “gamy” taste of brook trout, so it’s definitely not a substitute for the “real thing”, but nonetheless worth trying.

There is a nice looking tourist yu’u, some natural attractions, and in general the town seems much better organized to handle tourist traffic than was Apoala, which we reported on a couple of issues back. While we would have been happy to go there for the trip alone, a friend who was with us happened to know someone there, so we went for a visit.

Eliz is a U.S. citizen of Puerto Rican extraction, who spent a lot of her adult life in Alaska . She is now married to Jorge, a worker in fired clay like her, and they have an infant boy, and a share in a gallery,. “Tierra Quemada”, located in the building that also houses Posada Margarita, an infamous old hippy hangout, across the street from Labastida Park . The shop will be featured in the next newsletter, and maybe some reminiscences of my 30-years-ago adventures in the Posada, if I can get them cleaned up enough for family consumption.

Jorge’s family all live in Oaxaca city, where he grew up. He and Eliz decided to escape the smog and traffic of the metroplex, and settled into Benito Juarez, where they had to prove themselves before being granted citizenship – and the right to own land. That happy day occurred less than a month ago, and when they are not making and firing low-fired pottery on their home-made kiln, they are planning their new house and studio. Their present quarters are very cramped. Although Jorge is currently serving his tequio, he manages to juggle his schedule so that he can spend at least a couple of days a week in the shop.

A picture of the tourist yu’u (hostel) taken from the trout kitchen.

Benito Juarez, if you have a car, is an easy “day trip” from Oaxaca . We left about 10:00, and were back before 6 p.m.

Tearing up the Zócalo:

There’s a lot of urban renewal going on these days. Actually, there has been, ever since we got here (and in all modesty, probably before we arrived). In the last eleven years, I have been privileged to witness the renovation of the Santo Domingo church and convent (which, if you include the ethno-botanical garden, is still being worked on); the tearing up and repaving of Macedonio Alcalá (a two-year project); the change of downtown electric an telephone cables from above- to under-ground; the renovation of the exterior of the Cathedral and the Basilica of Soledád, and the repainting of the downtown using city-provided paint.

Starting last week, the city began tearing up the streets around the Zócalo. Giant cranes with jack hammers began to break up the roadway. The noise and the dust are chasing trade away from the portales (sidewalk cafés under the porticos) around the park – including us. Considering the unseasonably high temperatures, it’s a good time to be getting away from town – which we are going to do.


One of the interesting things about this project, is the way it has exposed the original design of the “quaint, cobblestone” streets. Turns out the builders first laid down a concrete roadway, and then pasted less-than-inch-thick “cobbles” – sort of like tiles – on top. At least that’s the way it looks when you examine the debris. Stage set streets. In some science-fiction novels, they call the process of turning an otherwise inhospitable planet into a habitable facsimile of Earth “terraforming”. Is this an example of “touristforming”?

The sidewalk cafés are behind the tin barrier. One of the restaurants, in a fit of irony, has draped the “inside” of the ugly fence with a panoramic picture of the Zócalo.

Rumors about what the end result will look like abound. We’ll let you know when we get back – complete with pictures, natch.

AMLO’s Woes:

Last week, in what almost every pundit, professor, reporter, and most of the population of the country think was a stupid, self-punishing move, the House of Deputies voted to strip Mexico City mayor Andres Manuel López Obrador of his immunity from prosecution. At this point, Attorney General de la Concha is expected to submit a bill of particulars to the federal courts, asking that AMLO be indicted for the dubious petty crime of dragging his feet when a court order was issued ordering the city to close down an access road to a hospital complex. Assuming – as everyone does – that the court (no doubt hand-picked by AMLOs opponents) will issue an indictment, he will be forced to step down from office, and will be barred from running for President unless the charge is cleared up by January 15, the last filing date for that office. Note that unlike in most countries, the mere filing of an indictment requires relinquishing public office. It’s part of the Napoleonic Code: guilty until you prove your innocence.

Most people believe – I think rightly – that this move has nothing whatsoever to do with the Law, let alone Justice, and everything to do with keeping the front-running AMLO from running for president. Most people also believe that the mastermind behind this assault on democracy is none other than that old devil of a political manipulator, ex-president Carlos Salinas de Gortari, whom president Fox allowed to return from exile for just such a purpose. The whole thing is regarded as a “pre-emptive coup”, cheered (if not organized) by the U.S.A.

Another of Darío Castellejos’ fine “El Imparciál” cartoons. The character is president Fox. The title is “the Peje effect”. “Peje” is a nickname for AMLO

History makes no secret of the U.S. government’s love of dictators and other rascals in Latin America . Up to and including Vicente Fox, the more corrupted (or corruptible) the authorities are, the easier it has been to deal with them: I am reminded of a scene in “Prizzi’s Honor” where the protagonists father comes out of a meeting with the Don and says “don’t worry, it’s only business”, meaning just give him a little more money and the problem will go away.

When Fox was elected president in 2000, his victory was hailed as the beginning of true democracy in a country that had been dominated for over 70 years by one party, the PRI. It is now clear to everyone in Mexico that little has changed. When democratic elections stand in the way of political graft and privilege, then democracy must go, just as it always has.

Before the Deputies voted last week, López spoke in the central square of Mexico City , to crowds estimated at between 200,000 and 400,000 people, who demanded justice, not chicanery. López, in a surprise move, asked his supporters not to disrupt the life of the city; not to block intersections, or sit in at government offices. I think it was a mistake on his part, and here’s why:

Unless “business as usual” is seriously disrupted, why will anyone care to change? The argument (and it is a strong one) is that López doesn’t want to look like the teachers, and other special interest groups who often tie up the traffic in and out of the center of the city for hours at a time, angering the citizenry and creating enemies for their cause. I agree: López’ supporters, should they choose to disrupt, will create anger – not anger directed at López, but rather at the political establishment that caused the problem.

[Another possibility is that disruptions, particularly by the students, who tend to favor confrontations, will occur despite his statement, in which case he has “plausible deniability”: the best of both worlds.]

López says he is taking his case to the Human Rights Commission of the Organization of American States (OAS), and other judicial and supra-political bodies, but I believe that the issue will be decided in the streets, in the courts, and especially in the voting booths, where citizens will, if López is successfully barred from running, take it out on the candidates of the PRI and PAN.

Meanwhile, nothing decisive has occurred, so stay tuned…

This tree grows in the plaza between Carmen Alta church and the Graphic Arts Library. Planted at the orders of Francisco Toledo, enfant terible of the local art scene, it is “muy Oaxaqueño”, a symbol of what we will miss until our return.

Bacocho Alert:

This Monday’s issue of “Noticias” has a picture of the beach at Bacocho, a suburb to the west of Puerto Escondido, and home to some of the swankier subdivisions in which many houses are owned by foreign residents. Long considered one of the “nicer” beaches in the area, it would appear that its’ increased popularity is the primary culprit in what could become a major eco-disaster.

The problem seems to be “aguas negras” (black waters; untreated waste water) emanating from the sewage treatment plant, which apparently has too much to handle. This is not a new problem. It has been leaking, little by little, for years, but what with increased leakage and increased input, it has finally reached the point where a smelly localized problem is about to affect the beach itself.

Still unwilling (or perhaps unable) to pay the costs of expanding the treatment facility and tightening up the piping system, the authorities are appealing to the federal government for help – not the first time they have (unsuccessfully) done so. Anyway, for now, and especially when the rainy season hits, Carazalillo or one of the other beaches may be a better bet for disease-free snorkeling…

This, on the other hand, we will not miss: piles of rubble from the torn-up Zócalo. In the background is the very upscale indoor / outdoor restaurant of the Marques del Valle hotel.

Here We go Again:

Tomorrow, bright and early, we board the 51-passenger Continental Express jet to Houston , there to transfer to a considerably larger plane which will, by 2:00 p.m., put us on the ground in Los Angeles. This is the first time I will have taken the $$$high$$$ road to the other side: I have, in the past, opted for trips that involved more stops, or a major bus ride (cheaper). I guess we’re succumbing to the idea that we ain’t as young as we used to be, and swapping dollars for comfort. Less adventure, but less stress…

We’ll be gone eight weeks, during which time we will see the grand-kids (and the great grandson); cool off (it’s much milder up there this time of the year, and much greener, too); go see some friends in the Bay area; and tend to our annual medical needs. Meanwhile, we will do our best to keep up with what’s happening back home (here), and, information and interest allowing, put together a newsletter or two.