John Ross, presente!

Word reached us this week that one of my personal heroes has passed on.  John Ross fought liver cancer for a couple of years before it got the best of him.  During almost all of that time, in between the chemo treatments, he finished his magnum opus, “El Monstruo”, a hosanna to his beloved Mexico City; undertook a months-long book tour; pumped out several editions of his blog, “Mexico Barbaro”; and spent almost no time bemoaning his fate.

[Lots of clocks, randomly telling the time, on Avenida Independencia next to the Cathedral]

A “red diaper baby” from New York City, John Ross was a life-long crusader for a better world.  He picked olives with the Palestinians on the West Bank (and was beaten by Israeli settlers), organized human shield brigades in Iraq (and was thrown out by Saddam for being too troublesome), and promoted the social revolutionaries of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (of whom he was the first to report).  He wrote history, polemic, and poetry.  His personal library of notes and clippings (now archived in Cuernavaca) just about filled the large hotel room that he occupied from 1985 until just days before his death.

I first met John Ross – years after I began reading his prose – when he came to Oaxaca to visit then-resident John Barbato, himself a well-known slam poet and pal of another of my heroes, Bruce (U. Utah) Phillips, anarchist folk-singer, entertainer, recruiter for the Wobblies, who once said in my presence that he figured his job in this world was to learn from his elders and teach it to his youngers.

[Currently on display in the Textile museum, part of an exhibit called “Pinthila” (a contraction of the words “pintar”(to paint) and “hilar” (to spin)), embroidery paintings by Natividad Amador. Hard to see here, but the detail is really amazing.]

The occasion of our first meeting was a “writers reading” session put together by Jim Phelps, a regular snow bird who had founded the Oklahoma chapter of the ACLU, hardly a popular move in his home town at the time.  Jim May, a well-respected person on the story-telling circuit was there too, along with a few folks who, while not as well known, had some powerful stuff to say.  Ross, mostly toothless and going blind in his one good eye –the other had been taken out by a billy club wielded by a San Francisco policeman during a city-hall demonstration – was, in my mind, the most charismatic person in the room, and while I’m not inclined to fawn over celebrities, I count that meeting as among the higher lights of my most recent couple of decades.

John Ross and I were never pals.  Although we were born in the same year, I considered him one of my elders.  We did not always agree, but he took with him, for whatever it might be worth, my profound respect and gratitude.

[Selling wooden bookmarks, olive forks and combs is a two-handed occupation. This young fella gets to ride.]

Viva Vivaaerobus!

Finally, a low-cost no-frills airline has come to Oaxaca, even if it only flies to and from Mexico City once a day.  If ordered far enough in advance, fares can be less than 50 dollars, which is about as cheap as the bus (if you don’t have a half-price senior discount card (INSEN)).

Vivaaerobus flies to many of Mexico’s major destinations from MexCity, and there is a flight between Monterrey and Oaxaca.

The OAX/MEX flight is at 8:15 a.m.; and the MEX/OAX flight leaves at 9:50 a.m.  There are – as with lots of “cheap” airlines – a lot of hidden costs which drive up the price unless you specifically opt out – flight insurance, for example – and it will cost you extra to go to the counter to check in a bag.

We flew Vivaaerobus from MexCity to Cancun recently.  The total cost per person per leg was around 115 dollars, including a fee for our carry on bag.  To get this price we had to print out our boarding passes at least four and at most 72 hours before boarding: getting our passes at the counter would have been another 25 bucks per person; and by printing our own passes we were able to avoid the counter completely, going directly to the gate.  One nice thing about this is that you don’t have to show up more than an hour in advance; whereas few clerks, arguments about unexpected charges, and long lines make going to the counter not only more expensive but tedious.

Vivaaerobus does not assign seats (unless you want to pay extra for the privilege, which includes “pre-boarding”), but it does divide passengers into groups “a” and “b”, so the earlier you book the earlier you board.  The plane was clean and the seating was not as cramped as we had feared.  All in all, worth the trouble.


Every December 23, carvers of giant specially-grown radishes, and assemblers of figures made of cornhusks and of dried flowers, take over the Zócalo to compete for hefty prizes.  This extravaganza is second only to the altars and sand paintings of the Days of the Dead.

The dried flowers are my favorites. The artisans are still working on this one. We’ve been attending the “Night of the Radishes” for almost two decades, and we were both impressed with the qualitative leap in quality and complexity we observed this year.  I believe the improvement has to do with the new generation of artisans that are taking up the tradition, and striving for more innovative works.

In previous years, the raised walkway around the exhibits didn’t open until late afternoon, but this year – and about time in my opinion – people were walking through starting in the early afternoon, cutting the waiting time for after-dark arrivals by at least an hour.

Our winter vacation:

We spent two weeks, starting on Christmas day, on Isla Mujeres.  We lucked out on the weather (this time of year it can be cold and blustery), rented a well-furnished apartment for a reasonable price, ate well, visited with family, and took a lot of photos, some of which are posted here.

[The “fast” ferry, a catamaran, takes about 15 minutes to go from Cancun to Isla Mujeres. That’s about half the time of the car ferry.]

Isla has definitely gone “up-scale”, but not disgustingly so.  The bulk of the tourists come over from Cancun for the day, go to the usual identified tourist destinations, and leave before dark, hardly ruffling the surface of Isla’s tranquility. It is still possible to find uncrowded bits of the North beach, where the water is crystalline and shallow, and the sand is fine and white.  Prices have gone up a little, but not like at many other Caribbean destinations.  You can still find excellent little restaurants and rooms at reasonable cost; and the fisherman co-ops still deal fresh fish and seafood at affordable rates.

How’s Gabino doin’?

Probably about as well as can be expected, six weeks into his six-year term.

He got left with a mess, and deprived of the wherewithal to clean it up:  Ulises took the money and ran.  He also took the computers, the records, the cars, and anything else that wasn’t nailed down – and some that was.   While this situation is not so unusual in cases where the new head of government is of a different party – even in the U.S: does anyone else remember the Clinton transition team asking where the computers went – it is nonetheless vexing.  Things are not as bad for Gabino as they might have been, however.  The national administration, being run by the PAN party, which formed part of Gabino’s Oaxaca coalition, is inclined to move rapidly to make up for the short-falls.

Gabino’s appointments to cabinet level posts have upset just about everyone.  The teachers are feeling betrayed by his choice of Education minister; some in the “human rights” and “indigenous rights” communities condemn some of his choices in those arenas.  Some of his choices turned out to be “unqualified” because they don’t have the credentials that are required by laws that he himself promulgated to promote “professionalism” in the ranks (most of these are working against a 90-day deadline to get their papers in order: cronyism is not the order of the day).  Many of the critics – but by no means all – appear to be chewing on sour grapes.

[Here we see the author in his favorite position…]

Good friends who attended one of Gabino’s “meet the government” sessions stood in line outside the government palace in Oaxaca for as much as three hours (we were out of town).  They were impressed not only with the respectful way petitioners were treated – lots of aides asking for input and responding to it with referrals to appropriate officials – but also with the entire atmosphere of openness and celebration.

The challenges are of course enormous.  There is the “security” issue, with three mayors being murdered in the last week alone, and the increased incidence of gang activity against Central American migrants on their way to the northern border, and the resulting negative effect it all has on tourism, Oaxaca’s number one source of legal income.  There is the seemingly irresolvable problem of illegal vendors – also organized in gangs – that are taking over more and more public spaces.  There is the appalling dysfunction in the state university (complicated by the university’s autonomous designation, which prevents the state government from exercising direct control).  There are the contradictions inherent in Gabino’s pledges to both give people more say in what happens in their communities and at the same time foster big developments such as wind farms and mineral resource extraction.

So far, in spite of the increased police presence around the Zócalo, the Cue regime appears to be gentler and kinder than the one that preceded it.  While I’m still pretty skeptical (I think I’m hard-wired for it), I find myself a little more willing to give Gabino some slack.  Interesting times…

[Langustino (lobster family) fresh from the fishing co-op, about to get shelled, chopped up into large pieces, and served up sauteed in a garlic butter sauce.]

The weavers of Miramar:

In 1979 and 1980, I set aside my other work to join a group whose job was to raise money in support of a major grass-roots organizing effort.  Plans had been announced to turn western South Dakota, and particularly the Black Hills, into a “nuclear energy park”.  Uranium was to be open-pit mined, smelted, refined, and burned as fuel in a scheme that would produce large quantities of electricity, which would then be pumped into the national grid in Omaha using high-density direct transmission.

The international corporations that would profit from this effort had no concern for the health, welfare, or quality of life of the people of the area, most of whom were Oglala Souix.  The resistance to this project was led by some of the more famous members of the Wounded Knee occupation, operating from Souix Falls as the Black Hills Alliance.  Effectively, we were under the leadership of the Dakota chapter of the American Indian Movement, and they were not always kind, or clear as to what they wanted from us.

An arduous and often tumultuous 18 months of effort ensued, ending in a huge encampment near Ellsworth air force base, followed by the passage of a voter initiative forbidding any kind or phase of nuclear development in South Dakota without approval of a statewide ballot referendum.

Along the way, we learned many important lessons, perhaps the most valuable of which was that nobody appreciates help that they have not asked for.  It’s a lesson which many in the “non governmental organization” business have yet to learn, and when not learned results in wasted money, time, and effort.  It is a principle that is solidly incorporated into the structure and staff of the Circle of Women.

Based in Boston and Oaxaca, the Circle started out as a funder – through micro-loans – of a small group of weavers in Guadalupe Miramar, a community perched on a mountainside above the clouds in the Mixteca Alta, a couple of hours from Tlaxiaco.  Through the years, carefully practicing “leading by listening and obeying”, the project has expanded into a marketing organization serving the women weavers of Miramar, a literacy project which among other things has enabled the weavers to become their own administrators, and a health initiative bringing much needed knowledge and improved practices to the community.

“Weaving Yarn, Weaving Cultures, Weaving Lives: A Circle of Women in Miramar, Oaxaca, Mexico”, with text by Judith Lockhart-Radtke and photos by Tom Feher, tells the story through the words of those involved. There is warmth in this tale, and profound respect for the women whose lives are chronicled here.  There will be two presentations coming up: at the home of Judith and Warren Radtke, Jose Vasconcelos 104 (near the Sanchez Pasqua market) from 5 to 7 p.m. on the 23d of January; and at 6:00  on the 4th of February at the Textile Museum.  Weavings will be on display and for sale on both occasions, along with signed copies of the book.