Thorny Robison is gone:

We grieve the loss of Thornton Robison, long-time resident of Oaxaca, good friend who was snatched from us in an auto accident in Toluca in mid-May. Our hearts go out to his wife, Jane, and their children Jean and Chris and Amanda. Their loss, while incomparable, is nonetheless shared by scores of close friends; the staff of Casa Colonial, their bed and breakfast; the dozens of artisans whose works he and Jane promoted; the Oaxaca Lending Library which they strongly supported; the many charitable and cultural organizations in which they have been involved; and the entire expatriate community of his adopted city.

I could take the time (and space) to list his accomplishments, and all the wonderful things he did for so many people, but – while pleased by having done them – it would probably make Thorny uncomfortable. He didn’t do things for plaques or to build the “right” image, but rather because it seemed to him to be the right thing to do. “Do”. That’s the key word. Thorny was (although a scholar) not a talker, but a do-er.

Right now, I can’t recall a single story about Thorny from our decade-plus friendship, but I can tell you how it felt. It felt like being at home. In spite of our occasional (and sometimes heated) political disagreements, we were “good” to each other, and I never heard him utter a pejorative remark about anyone – except maybe George W. Bush – and certain despotic and repressive Mexican government officials.

I know that it is said that people are prone to forget the bad things about those who have died, and idealize their memories. I can only tell you I have done my best not to do that. Still, the overwhelming truth of Thorny Robison is that he was a gentle, generous, caring person, the like of which we see all too rarely. Oaxaca will be poorer for his loss.

According to his wish, Thorny is buried in Oaxaca, at the Panteón Generál, Oaxaca’s large municipal cemetery. Condolences can be sent to

The teachers have been here and gone:

The encampment in the area of the Zócalo, which began on May 18th this year, was disbanded on the 14th of June. It was in many ways like past “plantones”, and in some ways quite different.

The kiosk became, as usual, the centerpiece of the perpetual demonstration: draped with banners and acting as a podium for speakers. The tarps and tents were, as usual, crammed into every available space that wasn’t being utilized by the sidewalk cafés. The graffiti, most of it ugly and some of it quite inspiring, was everywhere in the very center of town. There were occasional marches, some small and some in the thousands. There were vendors galore.

The biggest difference was the form the teachers chose for executing this year’s occupation. For the first three weeks, they rotated “delegations” from Oaxaca’s seven regions every three days. It kept the occupiers fresher, and the plantón took up fewer blocks; and no schools were closed for more than three days while maestr@s demonstrated.

Unfortunately, smaller numbers meant less control over the vendors, who moved in in numbers far larger than merely serving the demonstrators and their adherents would indicate. It was generally accepted that the vast majority of the vendors were from organizations sympathetic to the governor and his cronies, and were there to split up parades coming into the Zócalo, and to anger the established merchants who blamed their presence on the teachers.

[“Solidarity.  Today for the teachers, always for the people”: APPO]

Starting with the original parade, there was a certain lackluster feeling this year. The banners and wall-stencils weren’t as ubiquitous or as good as in years past. The sense of “community” wasn’t as strong.

My guess is that what was missing was “civil society”, that amorphous brew that includes neighborhood organizations, other unions, small political parties, etc. Even though the teachers came out four-square against the neo-globalist “reforms” being pushed by the national government on the public health, petroleum, and electric sectors – along with the plans to “privatize” education – there was little more than token support from the affected unions; and really, the teachers didn’t push those issues very hard either. The APPO, whoever they are at the moment, was not present in any major way.

Everyone “knew” that a secret deal of some sort was being struck between the teachers and the government, and that part of the price for “labor peace” was for the teachers to drop their demand for the resignation of the governor, Ulises Ruíz. It was also clear from the beginning that the president of Mexico, Felipe Calderón, was very anxious that there be no repeat of the police riots of 2006. Therefore it was no surprise that there were no killings and few arrests during this period, and virtually no property damage.

[Calderón, Gordillo, and Ulises, together on the front of the law school.]

What did surprise was the meeting between a teachers’ delegation, Calderón’s hatchet man Interior secretary Mouriño, and old medusa herself, Elba Esther Gordillo, the head of the national teachers’ union, who scant months ago excoriated Oaxaca’s local, Section XXII and declared them to be apostate. Even more surprising, that a deal got struck in which the teachers got almost all that things they demanded – on the economic front – and a stall on freeing the few teachers being held in prison and the canceling of scores of arrest warrants.

One part of the deal did cause a good deal of unrest among the teachers. For the last three years, Gordillo has refused to authorize union elections in Oaxaca to choose new leadership. The bone of contention was whether the leadership would be elected by secret ballot, “one person, one vote”, or – as has been the tradition in Oaxaca – through a series of regional “conferences” leading to a state-wide conference; a sort of reflection of indigenous “usos y costumbres” (uses and customs) town meetings with open voting.

Apparently, the negotiators agreed to accept secret ballot. Much of the union membership is calling “foul”, saying that this will introduce exactly the kind of practices that cost Andres Manuel López Obrador the presidency, and Gabino Cue the governorship. This issue is not yet settled. The selection process will take place in September.

On the 14th , for a finale, there was a march variously estimated between 40 and 70 thousand people (this picture is of an earlier, and equally grand march), and a rally. By then, most of the booths, and all of the tents and tarps were gone. At the rally, both Ezequiel Rosales, the secretary of the local, and his counterpart from the APPO, were booed and driven off the kiosk by barrages of empty plastic bottles thrown by men wearing ski masks and claiming to be part of VOCAL, an anarchist formation run by recently-released local hero David Venegas. Nancy Davies and others question this, on the grounds that both mask-wearing and violence are antithetical to VOCAL. Provocateur is a word that is going around. Venegas has not yet spoken out on this.

We were in the Zócalo on the 15th . The graffiti was gone, the debris was removed, a band was giving the usual Sunday concert. It was just as if nothing had ever happened.

Interjet to fly to Huatulco from Toluca:

Toluca, a half-hour drive from the Federal District (there is bus service from the MX airport to Toluca), has become the “second airport” for flights into and around Mexico. Just about all the new “no frills” carriers that have started up in the last couple of years use Toluca. Some of the “big brand” airlines, such as Continental, now have reduced-fare flights to Toluca alongside their regular offerings to Mexico City.

Interjet, a subsidiary of RyanAir, will add a daily flight from Toluca to Huatulco and back starting on the 28 th of this month.

Next time you are looking for a bargain flight in or out of Mexico, type “Toluca” into the “origen” or “destination” slot, and see what you get.

[Inside the new Textile Museum, a colonial style building restored by the Harp Foundation, containing room after room of textiles from all over the world.]

Mexico adopts “Euro-style” tax refund:

The following was gleaned from a blog site by ZihuaRob from Ixtapa-Zihuatenejo:

“[B]eginning in June of this year Mexico’s Servicio de Administración Tributaria (SAT) will install booths in Mexico’s international airports where foreigners who during their stay in Mexico have made purchases in Mexico with credit or debit cards for amounts from MX$1,200 to MX$10,000 per purchase (for one or multiple articles) will receive refunds of up to 50% of the Impuesto al Valor Agregado (IVA) for those purchases. Currently the IVA, or sales tax, is 15%.

The initial phase beginning in June will see booths or desks set up in the airports at Mexico City, Cancún, Guadalajara, Los Cabos and Puerto Vallarta. The second phase, which should last no more than 6 months, will be for the airports in Monterrey, Cozumel, El Bajío, Mazatlán, and Morelia. The final phase should include Zihuatanejo’s airport along with the rest of the country’s international airports and cruise ship ports.

In order to receive the refunds foreign tourists will need the bank voucher for the purchase, their passport, and the factura for the purchase. (A factura is the receipt every establishment should give the customer for taxable purchases of over MX$100, if I recall the minimum amount correctly.)”

One caveat: many vendors do not charge, or pay, the IVA, unless you ask them for a factura; and may then ADD 15% to your charge. In that case, you will have paid an extra 15% to get back 7.5%. Although, large ticket sales such as ZihuaRob talks about, usually do include IVA, and a factura shouldn’t be a problem.  Just remember that not paying the IVA is cheaper than paying and getting a refund…

[Members of the Oaxaca symphony orchestra, playing outside the Merced market.  Part of the program of “bringing music to the people”.  We were going to buy some vegetables when we stumbled across this quintet.]

Oaxaca makes the big time:

You can now buy, sell, date, and otherwise do all of life’s business in Oaxaca, on Craig’s List! That’s right, folks, if you’re a family seeking a rental, a person seeking another person, a seller looking for a buyer, and your area of choice is Oaxaca, just go to . Unfortunately, the pickings are slim as of yet, but wait until the word gets around…

Two book reviews:

THE WORLD OF MEXICAN MIGRANTS-The Rock and the Hard Place By Judith Adler Hellman (The New Press, 2008) reviewed by Diana Ricci

(P.162) “….We do work harder than anyone else. But it’s not like we’re all the same among ourselves either. Among Mexicans, when there’s a job that’s so tough or so badly paid that we think is not really worth taking, we always say, “ I’m not going to work for crap wages. Let them find a ‘Oaxaqueño’ to do the job.”

That was a quote from an undocumented Mexican living in New York who spoke to the writer about his work experience and the attitudes of the bosses he works for. His story is just one of many real-life examples of migrants and their experiences in the Untied States as well as in their home pueblos in a few villages in Mexico .

Through their lives, economic, social, political and cultural conditions leading to migration to the U.S. are revealed to the reader, especially in the past 15 years.

Hellman doesn’t preach but she doesn’t hesitate to articulate her assumptions about the political causes in both Mexico and the United States that have forced a culture of migration. She also expresses doubts about the future development of an immigration policy, because of polarization peoples perceptions. That is, if you are a grower you want a guest worker program; but if you are only fed scary propaganda, you want the laws to criminalize the immigrants, and border fences, not caring about the increasing number of deaths as workers push ahead to “el otro lado. “ And if you are an immigrant, with a job, you fear ‘la migra’ and the possible separation, if you are caught in a raid, from your children born in the U.S.

As both women and men relate their experiences as migrants and of their many travails encountered, there are also those who have adapted and became citizens. The interviews also reveal cultural accounts back home, both the good and the bad like the new wife living with her abusive mother-in-law while the new husband has migrated to find work and to send money home.

I recommend this book to those interested in the many aspects of the immigration issue. It is not a novel, but reads like one as people open up and talk about their lives and the larger political problems in both countries. It is an informative read, one that reveals all aspects of a situation that all non-migrants and/or politicians should be aware of before they make decisions about this vast economic and cultural problem that is in the forefront of the news.

“The Other Game: Lessons from How Life is Played in Mexican Villages” by Phil Dahl-Bredeen and Stephen Hicken, Orbis Books (2008).

The authors are Maryknoll lay workers, part of the group that I began to introduce in the last Newsletter. Phil and his wife have been working with Mixtec farmers in the area north of Tlaxiaco, two of whom were recently awarded – on behalf of their organization, known by the Spanish initials CEDECAM – the prestigious Goldman Prize, for having planted over a million trees, thus reclaiming an area that previously was among the most eroded wastelands in Mexico.

The book is really two books, intertwined with each other (as so much is). The first is a clear and incisive account of how and why our species has been, and continues to be, destroying our planet and each other. The second is an examination of what lessons we might learn from the Mixtec traditions and world view, and how adopting those lessons might help to turn things around for the rest of us, saving the planet and ourselves in the process.


**Pochote organic market continues to shrink as internal disputes lead to defections. Last week, the folks who were selling mole left because they could not “certify” every one of the dozens of ingredients in their product as “organic”. This is spite of the fact that the largest and most prestigious of the U.S. based certification services discontinued their Mexican branch, making it nearly impossible to get certification even if it didn’t cost an arm and a leg and involve reams of paperwork.

**Ex- special consul and 40-year resident of Oaxaca Roberta French passed away last month. She was in her 80s. Like “Los Ladrillos”, the brick apartment building on Avenida Juarez, and the now-defunct Rancho San Felipe, her apartment complex on Crespo street was one of those places that was, at one time or another, home to slews of expats.

**The much photographed “blue house” on the corner of Matamoros and Tinoco y Palacios has metamorphosed into a small but luxurious –both in contents and in construction – museum of jewelry and textiles. It houses the personal collection of Mixtec (born in Juquila) jewelry maker Federico Jimenez and his wife Ellen Belber. The jewelry, especially, is impressive; as are the daunting prices in the gift shop.

[This from Noticias.  “Before, there was the APPO, but now Oaxaca is beautiful and tranquil”]