Last Newsletter, I talked about the nuts and bolts of our daily life (“la vida cuotidiana”); but clearly life is more than the sum of one’s shopping list; and an examination of our social life is in order. Before I begin, I want it clearly understood that this is MY reality, and that while she probably agrees with most of what I have to say, Diana’s reality is her own.
I didn’t know Diana – or anyone else in Oaxaca for that matter – when I arrived in January of 1994, looking for a language school and a place to stay.
I spent my first night in the Hotel Francia, a cheap but noisy place near the Juarez market. Staying there for a night was great motivation for seeking other accommodations. I started my search by going to the office of the U.S. special consul for suggestions. While the b&b he recommended was way beyond my budget, the manager there directed me to a place half the price, and from there I prospected for a more permanent (and cheaper) place to live, ending up after about six weeks in a four-plex apartment in a complex of bungalows and apartments known as “Rancho San Felipe”.
El Rancho, as we called it, was a mix of Mexicans and gringos. The undisputed eminence gris was a woman in her ‘80s named Marie Vegte. Much to my regret, I do not have a picture of Marie to share.
[This is our traveling buddy Dan, with the latest incarnation of his “camper”. We met him after he began sending us chapters of his own travel experiences, which I found so interesting I published them in the early years of the Newsletter. Shortly after we first met, at the Primavera, we began exploring Mexico and Guatemala together. Ours is a lifelong bond.]
Marie was a character out of aVictorian travelogue: a single woman, who had worked for Standard Oil in various locations in the world, and retired to Oaxaca from their Mexico City office. For thirty years, right up until the time she died, she refused to get a long-term visa, preferring to leave the country every six months, to re-enter on a Tourism visa. Every year, she would go to Guatemala, and buy textiles; six months later, she would go to the U.S. and sell the textiles. Like most of her crowd –comfortably fixed, older, single women who spoke good Spanish, and preferred the company of other expats to that of their neighbors – she was not easy to get to know, until she discovered that I liked to play cards. After a few afternoons of kartschpieling, she took me under her wing, and began to introduce me around.
Marie’s public approval put me on the fast track to meeting other established expats, particularly at the English language lending library, which was at that time the center for the expat community. Most importantly, she connected me to Ruth Gonzalez, the Librarian, who promoted me among the others after I had spent some time doing volunteer stints shelving and culling books: there was a never-ending pile of boxes containing donations behind her desk. Do You Live Here?, one of the first stories I wrote, talks about the “elders” among the expat community.
[That’s Ruth, in the masthead photo. Unfortunately, she’s wheelchair bound now, and doesn’t get out much.]
Ruth had come down for a vacation in the early ‘50s, from Chicago. She was engaged to a fellow up there. During an obligatory visit to the great ruins at Monte Alban, she fell in love with her guide, and with the exception of a visit to Lake Tahoe a few years ago, she never left. She had three children, the eldest of whom is himself a licensed guide.
[This is Lila’s mom, Anita Downs. She’s a Mixtec from the Tlaxiaco area. This photo was taken at an exhibition of works by several women, in front of a few papel amate drawings by Michele Gibbs, of whom more in a future Newsletter. Most years, we go to Anita’s house for a traditional Day of the Dead meal, and she joins us for dinner on Thanksgiving, an obscure holiday not celebrated by Mexicans — nor by us, except as an excuse for a feast].
Through the school I attended, the Centro de Idomas (language center) of the state University, I discovered Chips, a coffee-house cum icecream parlor where some of the younger and more disreputable folks hung out in the early afternoon. I first met Lila Downs and Paul Cohen there (young, but not disreputable, unless you count with their being musicians); and a completely disreputable gringo who called himself Esteban, and always had a little something to smoke if one was so inclined (as I was).
Esteban, a stoner and a new-ager, was around 60. He’d built, and later sold, a very successful business, for a nice pile of dollars. Being a very energetic (not to say manic) kind of guy, he tried his hand at various entrepreneurial kinds of activities, starting and then losing interest (and money) in breeding dogs, making jewelry, and founding Oaxaca’s first FAX collective. Parenthetically, Diana was the person who bought the machine in the U.S. and smuggled it through customs, way before she started hanging out with me…
Esteban had hired a Mixtec woman from a nearby village, who had married a gringo, and spent some time living in New Mexico, to work the FAX and hang out in the office when he was gone. Yolanda became an informal translator and general problem solver for many linguistically challenged gringos, and when time permitted she would teach some of us a little Spanish. It was at a Day of the Dead party at her house in 1994, that Diana and I first got acquainted. A month later we were sleeping together, and six months later I moved from the Rancho to her apartment on Juarez street, in a hundred-year-old building known as “Los Ladrillos” because of its 2-story brick front.
[This is Yolanda, at home. She lives on a plot of land outside the village of San Lorenzo where she grew up. I think this may have been taken at the very party where Diana and I began to get acquainted.]
Back then, in the last five years of the old century, Ladrillos, along with the Rancho and Roberta French’s bohemian spread on Crespo avenue, had at one time or another been home to many of the Oaxacan expats. The Rancho is gone now, but the other two live on.
Through Diana, I met many of the “progressive” intellectuals and artists in the expat community, and made some life-long friends. Some were year-round residents, and many were “snow-birds” who returned every winter. Most of the snow-birds were older than me, and as the years went on (sixteen of them now) health problems kept shrinking the number of attendees at the monthly Wednesday discussion group, a pretty interesting bunch that included a couple who in the ‘50s were run out of their Chicago neighborhood for inviting a black couple into their home; Carl Bernstein’s parents (he – an influential Washington D.C. unionist – had been called before the McCarthy hearings); a couple from Baltimore (he had been imprisoned in Panama for his organizing efforts); a couple from New York City who owned a store that sold craft works – their home in upstate New York was filled with museum quality pieces when we visited in the late 1990s – and whose daughter became the curator of the Rockefeller collection of Mexican arts and crafts; and others whose progressive credentials were beyond questioning. For a political junkie like me, a chance to learn from these nimble and solidly anchored elders was beyond anything I had expected to find in Oaxaca. Most of them stayed at the Parador Santo Domingo, an apartment hotel where year after year they returned to the same apartments for two, three, or four months at a time.
As you can see, the ex-pat / snow-bird community, though smaller back then, offered quite a variety of groups to which to belong. I ended up in a few, but the major ones were the Library, the political studyers, and the wild bunch. Not to say they didn’t overlap, but mostly they didn’t, except for using the Library.
[Susana Trilling, in her first cooking-school kitchen. I first met her when she was hosting a dinner a month, mostly for well-to-do Mexican women, in Oaxaca, at the apartment of artist Umberto Bautista. The school was just a glimmer back then. It’s been great fun to watch her growth and development over the years – and to get an occasional nibble of her cooking.]
With time, there was a fair amount of attrition in all cliques, as people died, went “back”, or got tired of each other. We don’t socialize as much as we used to: age and fussiness, I guess.
Most of our friends these days come from what is left of those early connections, with a few more recent arrivals thrown in. We have changed, as has Oaxaca. More about this another time…
We are taking a vacation, especially from the computer. We’ll be in very irregular contact with the Internet, so we may be a little slow getting back to you for the next couple of weeks…