Going home again:

A couple of weeks ago, we attended a “gala” at the Museo Rufino Tamayo, part of the first annual International Festival of Independent Film and Video.  The Tamayo is a beautiful setting, with a lush garden and displays of pre-Columbian art on the walls of the front courtyard where the event took place.

The occasion was the presentation of an award to the winner of a writing competition in English, Charles Whipple, who lives in Japan and wrote “A Matter of Tea”, a short story about a Japanese ceramicist and his creation of an ultimate tea bowl; and the showing of the movie “Twenty Five Hundred and One”, directed by Patricia van Ryker, who was present along with the subject, artist Alejandro Santiago.

Santiago, after a long absence, returns to his native village to discover it is emptied out of working age men and women, who have migrated elsewhere (mostly to the U.S.) in search of work after the local economy had been destroyed by NAFTA-sanctioned imports of subsidized corn and beans from Cargill and other U.S. agribusiness giants; and adulteration of local crops after supposedly illegal importation of genetically modified corn from Monsanto.

Appalled by their absence, Alejandro begins to repopulate the village with 2,501 ceramic people, a project that takes several years, employs up to a dozen local youth, and costs close to a million dollars. The above photo was taken early on in the work, outside the rural studio where they were made. The mast-head photo was taken at the contemporary art museum (MACO) during a show that helped raise some of the money.

The making of the movie took more than four years. The sensitivity – and sensibility – of the production shows not only in the way that the narrative frames the subject but also in the high-quality production values.  “Twenty Five Hundred and One” can be purchased online.  It’s brilliant.

[A new mono graces the street outside the Artesan’s Co-op on the first day of Muertos, October 31]

Gobble, gobble.

On Monday, we went shopping at the Merced market.  “Celebran Dia Gracia?” (Do you celebrate Thanksgiving) asked Miguel, who works at our favorite vegetable stand.

“It’s not a religious holiday” we responded.  “It’s just an excuse to have a party and eat too much food.  As a matter of fact, we are going to have about ten people to comida on our patio.”

We’ve been the venue for a more-or-less traditional pot-luck in all but a few of the years that we’ve been here, and pretty much the same ten or twelve folks return perennially with their usual dishes.  It used to be larger, but a combination of attrition in our ranks and our own flagging energies have combined to keep us from seeking “new blood”.

This year, as in years past, the turkey (about 6 kilos) was delivered on Thursday, stuffed with a meat dressing, piping hot from the smoker, ready to carve, with a liter of gravy on the side.  Simon and Gudrun, the German couple that make smoked foods, take orders from the gringos each Thanksgiving and Christmas, a service that, while expensive (the price of turkeys has about doubled over the years), is priceless.  We made a 3-liter bottle of sangria, sweet potatoes, and a Waldorf salad, and others brought cooked vegetables, corn bread, vegetarian dressing, bread, dessert, wine and beer, and the essential ingredient: cranberry sauce.

[One of dozens of giant papier mache skulls decorated by local artists and placed along the Andador (walking street) during Muertos.]

Mostly, we celebrated our being here: alive, reasonably healthy, and in Oaxaca.  Some of us are citizens, some long-term residents, and others seasonal visitors; but almost all of us think of Oaxaca as “home”, and ourselves as “expatriates”.  Some folks might think of us as a little smug, but we do, after all, live in Paradise, so maybe we’re entitled.

Come to think about it, maybe we do celebrate Thanksgiving much as the pilgrims did: as thankful survivors established in a new country with the help and sufferance of those who were here when we came.  Except we don’t go around killing our hosts…

Not the only show in town:

It should be noted that while we were enjoying our annual feast, tens of thousands of Oaxacans, led by the teachers’ union, ex-prisoners of conscience, and surviving family members of fallen martyrs of the rebellion of 2006, were marching in commemoration of the fourth anniversary of the federal police crackdown that ended the occupation of the center of Oaxaca by civilians in favor of a military encampment.

Mexico in chaos:

Imagine landing at LAX, picking up your car in the long term parking lot, and driving to Santa Barbara through a corridor in which there is no civil law enforcement, where bandits and killers patrol the road looking for victims, and the odds of being one of those victims are at least as high as driving through any inner city slum you can name; where the only safety comes from forming convoys, with army patrols acting as convoy security.  That’s what it’s like for Mexicans working (legally) in the U.S. who are returning to their home villages in Mexico this holiday season.

Things have gotten so bad that there is a federal government agency whose sole duty is to assist re-entering migrants in getting home safely, whether traveling by road or by air: extortion of returnees by customs personnel, bus station workers, or their associates, is commonplace.

[One of several packing-crate sculptures lining the sidewalk across the street from the Migration office on Independencia. In the background, a line of folks waiting to pay an entry fee for school, or maybe cashing in their bonus voucher, at a designated bank on a designated day. Either they do not have checking accounts, or the institution they are dealing with does not accept checks. These tedious lines are the result.]

Most but not all roads are safe for gringos. Violent (as in shooting) pull-overs are occurring more frequently, and the U.S. State Department has issued no-drive warnings for the roads from the Texas border to Monterrey. Judging from what I read, the roads south from Brownsville and El Paso will probably be next on the list.

Once out of Tamaulipas, and most of the other “northern tier” states, things appear to be fairly safe, except maybe in the state of Sinaloa.  Night-time travel is of course verboten everywhere.

In fairness, this is not a new phenomenon.  Highway 15 down from Texas has had a bad reputation since way before I came down in 1994.  Still, the frequency and violence of the robberies has increased dramatically since president Calderon declared the ill-fated “war on the cartels” in 2006.

[Made of reeds, this lion graces the front courtyard at the gallery Arte de Oaxaca. Note that some of the giant skulls have also come to rest here.]

Oaxaca, in spite of a few killings in recent weeks, one multiple shooting on the steps in front of Santo Domingo church in broad daylight, still appears to be relatively safe; and with the change in government coming up next week, there is reason to hope that the most egregious violence – almost always involving corrupt police and rogue ex-police – will diminish.


Here’s an interesting factoid:  the killing at Santo Domingo involved five people, a shooter, the driver of his getaway motorcycle, and three victims, really bad guys who worked for other bad people in the state government (according to many commentators) beating, killing and terrorizing “enemies of the State” and preying on students at the state university (UABJO).  It happened in the middle of a tourist area, at 1:30 in the afternoon.

Three folks known to me have told me that they were close enough to hear the shots.  One was in a shop just across the street.  Another was at the tourist kiosk less than fifty feet away (he hit the pavement, knowing the sound of an automatic weapon when he heard it).  Still another was two blocks away, heard the shots, and headed for the scene. All three have told me that two of the three victimes were dead, while a third person who was shot but still alive was hustled into an ambulance and driven off – and never heard from again.

The factoid that fascinates me is that I have never, in nearly seventeen years of residence, known an ambulance to be stationed in that area, barring a special event of some sort – yet, miracle of miracles, there was one so conveniently nearby that it got there, loaded the wounded guy inside, and was pulling away, in the time it took for someone to walk two blocks after hearing the shots.

[Casa de Don Beto, our favorite fruit juice stand, in the Merced market. Lined up are orange, papaya, tangerine and watermelon juices to die for.]


**Upside Down World (New Zealand) is a good place for coverage of Mexico.  Since the rift at Narco News, it has benefited from the contributions of Nancy Davies, among others, including long-time reporter Julie Pullman.  For a sample article, click here.

**Volaris has announced plans to begin daily flights between Mexico City and Puerto Escondido sometime around December 1.  They are also beginning non-stop service to a few U.S. cities.

Mexicana, now in the final stages of reorganizing itself under new ownership, will not resume its PE flights, preferring – in the words of its management – to concentrate on larger markets.  Mexicana and the unions representing its employees appear to have settled on rehiring about a third of former staff, at reduced salaries.  According to Mexicana, it will offer 7 flights to U.S. cities, and 5 domestic destinations.  More information at www.mexicana.com

** Ex-governor Jose Murat is being kicked out of the PRI because he backed Gabino in the last election. He and Ulises have been bitter enemies ever since Ulises challenged – and defeated his pick to be the next governor, back in 2000.

[A couple of issues back, I mentioned Marie Vegte, an old-time expat who was one of my first “rabbis” and was enormously helpful in my swift integration into the gringo community in Oaxaca. Subsequently, I received this photo from a friend of a subscriber who knew her well. Here is Marie, in her 80s, in Oaxaca.]

**For those in the Boston area, the Circle of Women from the Mixteca mountains of Oaxaca, invites you to an event celebrating the publication of a new book, “Weaving Yarn, Weaving Cultures, Weaving Lives”, at Trinity Church in Copley Square on December 11 from 3-5 p.m.  Good food, drink, jazz, and news of the projects that the Circle is working on.  For more information, email portalewska@hotmail.com

** Passages:  Dolores Porras passed away this month.  Best known for her ceramic dishes with breasts, she was the doyenne of Atzompa.  I still have pieces I bought from her back in 1992.  Diana’s are even older.  I remember her as a rather reserved, dark brown, wrinkled elder, with chickens running around in her yard while her kiln – a hole in the ground – burbled and smoked.  Ceramics were stacked everywhere, and canastas (hard woven reed baskets) stood nearby waiting to be shipped when the orders got filled.  She seemed tireless.  Like Dona Rosa in the black pottery town of San Bartolo, she came to be an archetype; the symbol for her fellow ceramicists and her town.