Zócalo nearly complete:

The masthead picture, taken through the portales in front of the Tierra Nova restaurant, pretty much says it all. Except for some cement work around some of the plantings, the Zócalo project is complete – and the cement work is continuing, so it should all be in place soon.

In spite of being a waste of money better spent on water, sewage, roadways, and myriad other projects which the average Oaxaqueño needs desperately, one is forced to admit that the new Zócalo looks pretty good. The change from a park surrounded by roadway to an expanded plaza with smooth walkways and an enhanced feeling of spaciousness, makes the square more accessible conceptually as well as physically.

Other grandiose and perhaps unnecessary projects are now moving ahead: the renovation of Parque Paseo Juarez, better known as El Llano; and putting a roof
over the Guelaguetza amphitheater. Neither is necessary. Both are going to be very costly. The common wisdom appears to be that the current mayor likes big construction projects because it is so easy to siphon money off (either directly or through kickbacks) and contribute it to the presidential campaign of PRIcandidate Roberto Madrazo.

City officials claim that only 20 of the 400-plus trees in El Llano will be removed, because of their advanced state of decay, and that those will be replaced with smaller trees of the same species.

[We delivered some photos to the workers here, just before we brought other photos to the fortune tellers in the Abastos (see story below).]

On January 12 , it was announced that the city council had passed a resolution allowing a couple of streets (and their adjacent properties) to be seized to make way for an expansion of the ADO first-class bus terminal, which is situated on the main east-west route through the city, the Pan American Highway, at the edge of the Jalatlaco neighborhood, the city’s oldest. Most environmentalists, and the vast majority of the citizens in the neighborhood, are demanding – so far to no avail – that Oaxaca do as most large cities in Mexico do, and build a new first-class facility on the edge of town, thus removing the congestion, noise, and noxious fumes that are plaguing the present location.

All these mega-projects, announced seemingly without notice or input from the citizens (or in spite of same), are contributing to a feeling that this administration is a sort of anachronism, returning to the bad old days of PRI top-down rule, while much of the rest of the nation continues along a path of increased participation.

Fortune telling is for the birds:

As a kid, I thought that all fortune tellers were Gypsies in tents with crystal balls. Certainly that’s the way Disney was portraying them. Later, I found out that not everyone used a crystal ball. There were palm readers, tarot card readers, and a host of other folks, in the business. In the 60s, along with a lot of others of my generation, I was introduced to the I Ching, a sort of do-it-yourself method for prediction and therapy.

[Piñatas drying in the sun, hanging from a neighbor’s wall.]

In the 80s, there were computer programs like Eliza, a “clinical psychologist” simulator. But not until I came to Oaxaca did I ever contemplate having my fortune told by a bird.

Spotted around the Abastos market are tv-tray sized folding tables that hold a cage with from one to three birds inside. The men – I have not seen any women plying this trade, although I’ve heard there is one in Zaachila – who manage the birds do not look particularly like gypsies (I asked Hilario, the gent in the photos, and he said he was just a normal mestizo). They dress quite ordinarily. They can generally be found at main intersections of market flow. Hilario likes the corner by the large discount drug store.

Hilario opens a door in the cage, and the bird comes out on to the table. Hilario places a small statue of Jesus and a sombrero on the table and, after several tries, the bird places the hat on Jesus’ head. Then Hilario offers the box to the bird. Arranged around the sides of the box are small folded fortunes, each side of the box representing a different aspect for the future. There is love, health, money and one other (I forget what). He offers the box to the bird, one side at a time. The bird picks out a piece of paper from each, and that is the future for whomever is paying.

What fascinated me was how, when the birds were caged, nobody seemed to notice Hilario, but as soon as the bird came out a crowd began to gather. It reflects other times when I have observed that the Mexicans’ sense for “something is happening” seems stronger than it is in folks from north of the Rio Bravo.

We had come to the market to deliver some pictures of the fortune tellers that had been taken by Mary Ann Hanson, who used them as a basis for illustrations she did for a children’s book, titled “Miguel and Angelito at the Market/Miguel y Angelito en el Mercado”. When it comes out, we will review it here.

[The ladies of the factory, admiring each others’ images]

Marcos comes out of the jungle and hits the road:

As promised, and on schedule, Subcomandante Marcos and a large delegation of Zapatistas left their “independent” area and headed for San Cristobal, on a six-month journey to visit every state in the Union before the July elections. Riding a motorcycle painted with Zapatista insignia and text and flying a Mexican flag from a short stick mounted over the back wheel, Delegado Zero, as he now wishes to be known, bore an eerie resemblance to the hero of “Born On the Fourth of July” – allowing, of course, for his ski mask.

Unarmed and anonymous, the Zapatistas have embarked on a “listening tour” known as the “Other Campaign”, whose goal seems to be the revival of an earlier attempt to meld the disparate and often territorial groups that make up the “progressive” or “left” in Mexican politics. Marcos switched to a closed sedan after the first day.

The beginning of the tour was marred by the death of Comandanta Ramona, who had suffered from kidney cancer for ten years. After a few days on the road, the Other Campaign returned alone to their headquarters to mourn her and bury her. After a quick reshuffling of their itinerary, they are back on the road again, headed for Quintana Roo and the Yucatán.

[“Really? For me?” His bird never told him I was coming… ]

Most of the mainstream writers are dealing with this whole trip as if it is the personal brainchild of Delegado Zero.Stuck in the false frame of personality cult – in the same way they are in the U.S. – they are talking about whether Marcos still “has it”; whether he can increase his influence or whether he is past his prime. No way is this about Marcos, who, ever since the initial uprising in 1994 has been, and remains, a creature of the Zapatista central committee. Nor is it about whether “Zapatismo” will survive in the mountains of Chiapas: a whole generation of 1994 pre-teens are now moving into positions of responsibility in the movement as young adults.

Beneath the “boom” in Mexico, the broad base of the population is hurting. The “Other Campaign” is about exposing this condition, and soliciting those folks both for information and proposed solutions – and also to spread the word that until they stop relying on the government to give them what they deserve (see the NarcoNews interviews in the Yucatán), and start building their own infrastructures and institutions, things are not likely to get much better.

Full coverage of the campaign, as well as in-depth coverage of the problems and personalities of the folks among whom they will visit, can be accessed – among other places – on Narco News, where the reporting is by a group of “authentic journalists” named after late Chiapas crusading newspaperman
Amado Avendaño. While you’re there, visit the articles by investigative journalist Bill Conroy, who is reporting on corruption and criminality in the Customs, Homeland Security, and DEA agencies vis-à-vis the so-called “war on drugs”.

[Tauro does the hat trick. It took him several tries – the hat is heavy and awkward to handle – but he finally got it on Jesus’ head]

Watch out for parking meters (Dylan said that):

The latest boondoggle to come out of the mayor’s office is a no-bid contract to install parking meters throughout the centro. Scheduled to begin “within the year”, the first installation will take place on the block bounded by Garcia Vigil, Porfirio Diaz, Carranza and Quetzalcoatl, near Carmen Alta church.

The “high tech” meters (whatever that means) will cost 7 pesos per hour. This is cheaper than the parking lots, which typically charge between 10 and 12 pesos, but nonetheless a burden for many poor folks. It will be interesting to see, in a town where virtually every merchant asks for exact change (not having any to make change with), where motorists will get the change with which to feed the hungry meters – and whether or not they will be able to pay for more than one hour at a time.

[Tauro deciding what the future will bring. How does he read and remember all those fortunes, to know which one to pick?]


From The Field:

The latest issue of George Colman and Michele Gibbs’ quarterly collection of poetry, prose and images is now on line at their web site. George writes about development struggles in the Sierra Juarez; Michele reviews “The Quotable Rebel”, in which she is one of those quoted; and there are some graphics taken from the book in the “Gallery” section.

Thinking twice about flying through Toluca:

As we reported here earlier, the breakup and sale of Mexicana and Aero-Mexico airlines has resulted in a new spate of no-frills airlines moving into the Mexican market. One theme which seems common to most (many are proposed, few have yet gotten operating permits) is using “satellite” airports, where landing fees and congestion are lighter, thus helping to keep down ticket prices. The most often mentioned airport for Mexico City is Toluca.

After spending some time on the Web checking things out, here is what I have discovered:

There are buses going to and from the Toluca airport and the center of the city, connecting to both the MexCity airport and various areas of the metro area. However, as of now, there is no way to get directly from the Toluca airport to the main Oaxaca bound bus depot, TAPO. To do that, you have to take at least two buses or a bus and a taxi. By the time you’re done the savings may not be so significant, given the present configuration. Another consideration is occasional fog or snow in Toluca, which might result in some delays and cancellations.

Of course, as the domestic wing of the new low-budget airlines picks up, there may be cheaper flights from Toluca to Oaxaca; and it is possible that the mere fact of cheaper alternative flights from Toluca will lower fares from MexCity to Oaxaca. Remains to be seen. We’ll stay tuned.

Wormless Mezcal?

Oaxaca makes the vast majority of mezcal produced in this country. For years, Oaxaca’s farmers have been selling their blue agave hearts to tequila manufacturers in Jalisco because sales of mezcal have not grown to match the supply of agave. This worked out until recently, when the Jalisco farmers finally caught up with the demand (unexpected when it began to skyrocket a few years ago).

For years, Oaxaca’s mezcal producers have been begging the Mexican government to certify – and regulate – the contents of Oaxacan mezcal, which has always been purer than tequila (51% agave in tequila, 80% minimum in mezcal) – except, of course, for some crooks who sell more adulterated product, particularly to mezcal bars in the poorest neighborhoods. The government has shown little interest in doing so until recently. One manufacturer I talked to said that he believes this is because the government – through a program in force over 30 years ago – holds 50% of the patent rights on the name Tequila, and therefore did not welcome the intrusion of mezcal into the market.

[This is one of the illustrations in Mary Ann Hanson’s upcoming book. She says it is not yet complete but it looks great to me.]

Last year, the government announced that it would agree to certify mezcal, and in December, the proposed certification standards came out. They are to go into effect next month. Included is a rule that the worm – long the prime identifier of the smoky distillation – must go. The worm, the government scientists say, gives off fat, and therefore adulterates the product.

Baloney, say the manufacturers. The worms are pickled before they are inserted, and anyway why is the Mexican government imposing a stricter standard for purity than the U.S. FDA? This is, of course, the heart of the matter for the growers and manufacturers: sales in the U.S. and other countries is what they look forward to, to drive the expansion; and the worm is at the heart of all the advertising, a ready-made visual hook, appealing to the “macho” American psyche.

Some suspect the government is doing this in order to weaken any competitive advantage Mezcal may have against Tequila. Some more traditional producers complain that this rule has been influenced by local “boutique” exporters, who do not include the worm in their products, some of which sell for over 200 dollars a bottle in the U.S.

There is lots of agitation among the manufacturers to get the “no worm” rule changed. It remains to be seen…

Too many things to do, too many people to see:

As the snowbird season goes into full swing, orientation sessions pick up, and our writers’ group begins its seasonal existence, I seem to be unable to keep all the balls in the air that I used to. For those of you who were expecting a report on rents, that is my excuse. Hopefully, I will be able to finish my research in time for a report either in the next newsletter, or as a “special” before that. Thanks for your patience.

Meanwhile, the stories we are working on for the next issue include a photo essay on the “progress” in El Llano, a visit to the new “specialties hospital” in San Bartolo, which president Fox opened this week,Lila Downs’ concert in the Guelaguetza auditorium, a review of “The Life and Times of Mexico”, and a report on efforts to start a new magazine in Oaxaca, as well as our usual mix of brief political reports.