Lila Downs brings it all back home:

Oaxaca’s own Lila Downs brought down the house last weekend with a brilliant concert that brought years of experimentation and synthesis to a new level. Performing on stage at the Alvaro Carillo Theater (recently re-converted from its temporary existence as the hall of the State Senate) for the benefit of the scholarship fund of the Casa Mujer, Lila sang, danced, and pranced around the stage in a sort of “Operatic Folk Singer Meets MTV” fusion that would have been impossible for someone with a lesser gift.

[We’ve just been celebrating Days of the Dead, and the state government has been spending a lot of money “proving” that everything is normal, by providing a lot of entertainments. The entire area around the Zócalo was turned into a grand exposition space. Here we see a “tapete” (carpet; in this case sand painting) being constructed. The next photo shows the finished product.]

We’ve been watching Lila perform for a lot of years. We’ve watched the evolution from jazz and blues singer, to diva of traditional Mexican music, to “world beat” performer, to the present incarnation, with an expanded band at every stage. We sometimes longed for the “old Lila”, a more “modest” performer, in the old venues: night clubs or the smaller more intimate Macedonio Alcalá opera house. After Sunday’s performance, I realize that I, for one, didn’t have a clue.

Sunday night was an electrifying (not to mention electronic) experience for me. From the minute she ran out onto the stage until the final (third) encore, the pace never slackened. The band was excellent (Celso Duarte the harpist was as usual brilliant), the light show – with a few exceptions – was better than I remember seeing it before (as was the screen show at the back of the stage), the sound loud but not too loud (I had to stuff cotton in my ears to listen to opener Ana Diaz), and the dancing vastly improved (through yoga practice). I could have done without the clouds of copal smoke (I noticed a few people fanning their programs in front of their faces, and although I didn’t see anyone do so, it wouldn’t surprise me if some folks were reaching for their nebulizers).

Ultimately, though, Lila’s work is about her voice, and I have never heard it shown off to better advantage than at this concert. The range has, if anything, expanded. The tone and strength has improved. Her reach, driven by her great daring, did not exceed her grasp. A great performance.

[In the interest of fair and impartial journalism, I must reveal that Lila and her husband Paul Cohen are friends, and subscribers; and her mother Anita has us over every year to celebrate Day of the Dead with a fine comida featuring home-made tamales and “mole Mixteco”.]


*George and Elly McGrath have passed on, George first and Elly soon after. They both had been suffering from medical problems for years, and went back to the States a few years ago.

When I got to Oaxaca in 1994, George was President of the Library board, and Elly was the treasurer. They had a house in San Pablo Etla, where they hosted occasional potluck dinners.At the time, it was one of the last houses on the barely graded dirt road, and getting there was always a challenge for my citified Barracuda.

George was the inspiration for the “old white man” in one of my first “Letters from Mexico”: “Do You Live Here?”

[Frida Kahlo, about 20 feet square, on the floor of the old governor’s palace]

*AeroMexico, the second largest airline in the country, has just been sold to a consortium of bankers headed by Banamex, which is a subsidiary of City Bank. The deal was apparently done using funds provided by the Banking Recovery agency of the federal government: money from Mexican taxpayers under a bailout scheme similar to the savings and loan scam in the U.S. The insult that was added to the injury was that the airline – the property of the Mexican government in the first place – was handed over to the new owners for a small percentage of its estimated value. The slickest three-card Monte operators on the streets of New York are pikers compared to these guys: talk about the hand being quicker than the eye…

*Another new coffee shop / restaurant has opened, this one called “Don Caffé Lounge”, at Quintana Roo #209, just north of the Santo Domingo complex. I happened in there during an Orientation walkabout, and sat in the front garden. The (owner?) manager is a very pleasant guy and the coffee and tea very reasonably priced at 10 pesos for a large cup, served in a half-coconut-shell with a few cookies thrown in: a bargain in today’s Oaxaca.

They also have ten different kinds of baguettes priced at 30 or 35 pesos, and intend to add sandwiches, crepes, salads and other goodies as time goes on. I’m told they have a roof garden, tho I haven’t been there yet. We will probably try that when I return with Diana for a snack.

* Rumor has it that the Pochote Organic Market may be facing a major rift, as proposed new certification requirements drive up the cost of doing business there. We will advise you when – and if – things heat up.

* A correction: we inaccurately reported that the recent statewide elections for city presidents had a very low turnout. In fact, while the turnout was low, the Electoral Commission has since released a statement that it was also the highest turnout in history. Municipal elections have never, apparently, been very well attended.

[These “calaveras” (Day of the Dead skeleton figures) were honeymooning at “Azucenas”, Jacobo and Maria Angeles’ excellent restaurant and gallery across the highway from the entrance to San Martín Tilcajete.]

Those pesky outside agitators:

The government entity responsible for overseeing mining operations, SAGARPA by it’s Spanish acronym, recently sent a team of inspectors to the eastern Mixteca Alta – the mountains that separate the Oaxaca valley from the Isthmus of Tehuantepec – in response to demands made by the citizens of a village adjacent to a silver mine. Many doubt they would have responded at all if the citizens hadn’t backed up their demands with road blockages and the forcible ejection of mine personnel.

After interviewing several folks, SAGARPA issued its report: a plea to “outside interests” to stop stirring up trouble among the happy indigenous. Apparently, the little brown people are unable to connect poisoning of their wells with the increased rates of cancer and birth defects, without the help of strangers with undisclosed agendas. Where have we heard this before?

The mountains of eastern Oaxaca are rapidly becoming the private property of mostly Canadian transnationals bent on open pit mining and smelting of gold and silver, with few if any real environmental controls (there are laws, but they are only as good as their enforcement, which is non-existent); and the “outside agitator” ploy is meant to keep away anyone who might want to advocate for, or witness the destruction of, the impoverished and politically marginalized victims of the plunderers.

[Frida at home. Part of a Frida-themed exposition of sand paintings and altars in the old governor’s palace. The governor moved out years ago. His offices are now in a suburb, next to a police barracks, to discourage protesters.]

Why we are here:

In the day-to-day process of living In Oaxaca, it is easy to get distracted by the logistics of existence. I know I’ve said this before, but just when it seems we have forgotten the magic of this place, something happens to grab our attention. In this context, I am passing on parts of two emails that our pal Max sent us. Max has been here almost two years. Here’s what he has to say:

It’s easy to focus down here, to forget the reality.  One can just find a little niche and revel in the special intricacies of it.  I could take up pottery or collect rugs, I suppose.  I collected Persian carpets in Minneapolis, after all.

But then, I would have to forget the indigenous lady who spent her last month on the corner at the end of my block. She was sick, I could see that, and she would sleep on the granite doorstep of an abandoned building on the corner.  I tried to give her a dollar or so a day, a ten peso coin and some change, so she could get a good breakfast across the street at Juan’s comedor.

Often, when I saw her, she was reading the bible in Spanish,  sitting on the granite doorstep.  I don’t think she spoke a whole lot of Spanish herself,  Zapotec or Mixtec I guess.  But she had adopted this as her sacred text.

A woman of great beauty.  It’s hard for me to tell the ages of Mexicans.  She could have been thirty-five, she might have been sixty-five.  But she was beautiful.  And kind.

After a while, she refused to take any money from me.  She would hand it back and insist I sit with her and eat.  Some kind comida place here gave her a bag of rice, flavored with the famous Oaxaca salvia, a little bit of chicken and some beans every day.  We would eat with our fingers, from plastic bags.  Good meals, sitting with this beautiful, kind and honest woman, on a sunny corner in southern Mexico.

One day, as I got to the corner, I saw a little shrine strapped to the lamppost.  Our lady of Solitude, the Patrona of the region, at the bottom of the corner lamppost.  There was a water glass full of flowers.  I knew she was dead.  There was a dignity to her life that we can scarcely imagine.

And this:

Just back from a walk around the neighborhood.  I had a good meal across the street from the church of Nuestra Señora de Merced.  Our Lady of Mercy.   Our Lady is one of the most beautiful sacred places in Oaxaca.

After lunch I went to sit in the plaza in front of the church, beneath the hundred foot pines and across from the fountain.  I watched the little kids  chasing the palomas [doves; pigeons] and young lovers spooning on the wrought iron benches. I fell gently asleep in the warm Mexican winter sun.  I awoke with a cat in my lap.  The evening sun streaming down through the pines. I don’t suppose it gets much better than this.

PRD split gets acrimonious:

A few days ago, the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) held a national convention. It could well be the last time the badly fractured party meets as a significant political force in this badly fractured nation’s electoral politics.

[A Zapatisit Mary holding her martyred son, on the wall of the Cathedral: “justice for our dead”]

Founded by three-time presidential hopeful Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas and his partner and arch-rival for leadership Porfirio Muñoz Ledo in 1989, the PRD has always suffered from bitter infighting between “tendencies”, some of which were political in nature (both Communists and Centerists have found a home there) and some of which were manifestations of raw greed. Muñoz left the Party to work for the election of Vicente Fox in 2000. Cárdenas refused to participate in the effort to elect Party candidate Andres Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) in 2006.

This year, Ruth Zavaleta, head of the PRD bench in the Senate, had her character assassinated by the head of a rival tendency; and retaliated by warning him from the speaker’s platform that she would hold him personally responsible if anything happened to either her or her family. The occasion for this acrimony was Zavaleta’s appearance at a public function, sitting next to the wife of current (and many say fraudulently elected) president Felipe Calderón, smiling and chatting.

The Party president tried to smooth the whole business over, but it looks to me like the rift will grow, and that the end result will be – as predicted here earlier this year – the formation of a new party by AMLO and his followers (including, presumably, Zavaleta), backed mostly by the tendency to which she belongs, “New Left”. What is confusing about this is that while AMLO still insists that he, not Felipe, is the true president, and declares the current government to be illegitimate, Zavaleta and others in the New Left argue for de facto recognition of the Calderón government in order to “get on with” the business of politics.

Here in Oaxaca, New Left is a creature of Flavio Sosa, the currently imprisoned APPO “spokesman” who, before finding populist religion, worked for Fox’s election, and is generally regarded as a political opportunist of the first order. Sosa and AMLO: strange bedfellows on the face of it. Has AMLO become so hungry for the Presidency that he will make any alliance to get another shot? We’ll keep following this story.

New web links:

*The Oaxacan community in Los Angeles has its own web site, featuring news from both sides of the border, in both Spanish and English.

*A few days ago, we met with photographer Nicholas Beatty, who has a fine website dedicated to the Days of the Dead. He was in town to shoot some Muertos photos, which he will add to his collection from celebrations held all over Mexico.

A new deal:

Starting with the first Newsletter of 2008 (our thirteenth year of production), we will be putting out 12 editions a year (one a month) in the present form; and others in various forms including email for significant breaking stories and photo essays by Diana as the spirit moves her. Some of you have been with us since we started, when we were doing 20 editions a year. We’ve tried to use our increased time between editions to make the Newsletter tighter and more relevant. We assume you have approved because you’re still subscribing. To all of you, however long you have been subscribing, we extend our great appreciation for your support.