Happy Januka…

Diana and I are lapsed Jews.  When we were in Florence, Italy, twelve years ago, we attended a Yom Kippur (day of atonement) service out of curiosity.  We were respectful but not moved, and have not been in a synagogue since – up until last week when curiosity motivated us once again.
For most of the last twenty years, when asked by practicing co-religionists about the availability of places of worship in Oaxaca, we answered quite confidently that there was no organized Jewish community here, let alone a synagogue.  Imagine then our great surprise when word reached us that there was in fact a synagogue nearby, with a congregation of 60; and that it had been functioning for fifteen years.

[Most of the photos in this issue were taken in the synagogue on the first night of the eight-day celebration of Chanukah. In the masthead, a boy spins a top-like Dreidel: a toy and a gambling tool.]

Briefly, the story is that a family of German Jews settled in the coastal area of Huatulco about five generations ago; that they – like many others under the protection of the Catholic church / state of Mexico – kept their beliefs to themselves, stopped observing the rituals of their religion, and over the generations lost most of their knowledge of Judaism, while passing down the secret of their relationship to their God from generation to generation.

In the middle of the twentieth century, one of their young men decided that he wanted to know more about this Judaism business, and went to México, where a large Jewish community flourishes, subsequently enrolling in the Yeshiva (Jewish academy) there, and becoming an ordained rabbi.  Eventually, he settled in the small colonia of Presidente de Repulica, in nearby Viguera.  A wood worker by trade, he prospered, raised three sons, and founded a synagogue.  Aside from his immediate family, all the congregants are “conversos”, who for whatever personal reason adopted the teachings as their own.

[The rabbi and his wife oversee the reception in the community room of the synagogue. The tamales were to die for, and the twice-baked potatoes only from heaven.]

An expat of the Jewish persuasion here in town discovered their existence, made contact, and organized a trip to the synagogue for the first evening of Chanukah.  As we get to know more, we will report our discoveries to you.  Meanwhile, most of the pictures in this edition are from that trip.  Note that Kh (or Ch) in English transliterates to J in Spanish.

When will the water come in?

If there is one glaring flaw in Paradise, aside from the air pollution, it would be the water.  The shortage of water provokes occasional violence as poor and generally underserved colonias on the fringe of the city – areas which receive no piped-in water — struggle with this most basic and necessary element for survival.  Even in the city, where there are pipes, delivery is sporadic, seemingly capricious, and inadequate for the needs of most people.  The river Atoyác, where local residents of our age used to go swimming, is dry for all but a few weeks when the summer storms wash down the hills.  The rest of the time, the water that would be flowing there is instead running through the pipes that serve Oaxaca’s half-million-plus population; and even the water that does end up in the river does so because the system of catchments and reservoirs are inadequate to redirect it for household use.

[These women brought the tamales from Tlacalula, where they live. The drive takes over an hour.]

Recently, Noticias published some statistics that quantify a problem that up until now one has known by instinct and personal experience to exist.  Oaxaca, it is estimated by ADOSAPACO, the local water authority, that Oaxaca city requires a minimum throughput of 1,500 liters per second to satisfy the needs of its citizens.  Currently, the average daily output from the purifying plants amounts to about 400 liters, of which 20% is lost through leakage in the old pipes through which it flows.  This brings the grand total of water that flows into and out of our faucets and toilets to 320 liters, a shortage of almost 1,200 liters.  In other words, we get less than 20% of our collective need.

ADOSAPACO estimates that the cost of delivering a cubic liter of water is about 1.9 pesos per cubic meter, while the price charged by the privately owned water trucks (known as “pipas”) runs around 80 pesos per.  This discrepancy – 40 times the price – is not really gouging.  It’s expensive to run a big, old V8 truck hauling 10,000 liters, weighing upwards of 20,000 pounds; and often the only available water source is as much as 20 miles up a steep mountainside.  The need to improve and expand the current public catchment and delivery systems is clear, and governor Cué has promised to do just that.  He has asked the federal government to give Oaxaca 2 billion pesos to build the reservoirs, purification plants, and delivery system to meet current demand.  Even assuming that he gets all he has asked for, and it all gets applied to the problem at hand, by the time the project is done it will be insufficient to meet future demand, but one cannot complain about an eight-fold increase in water delivery.

Price, of course, is an enormous factor for those poor areas where the water truck comes once a week and fills up however-many fifty gallon drums, often purchased uncleaned from the factories and foundries that used their poisonous contents, sitting outside the house.  Less so for us and the neighbors with whom we share our cistern, which we have emptied of sediment and wiped down with Clorox a couple of times a year.

[These folk dancers were the evening’s entertainment. The woman on the right brought the twice-baked potatoes. I have the recipe. Look out…]

Water, like everything else in Mexico, seems to be inextricably tied to the fortunes of the political system.  When we lived in our last abode in Xochimilco, one of our neighbors was a big-shot in the then-ruling PRI.  When Gabino and his coalition defeated the PRI governor in 2010, the water coming in from the street stopped coming in every day, and sometimes didn’t come in for several days.  The folks who are living there now tell us that they sometimes go without city water a week or more, and for the first time in memory they had to buy a pipa.  Some friends see no water from the city for as much as a month at a time.

Diana and I practice strict water conservation methods.  When we take a shower, we put two buckets at our feet to catch as much of the “grey water” as we can.  We use it to flush the toilet.  When those buckets are emptied, we refill them from a 30-gallon plastic garbage can which we keep next to the washing machine. We fill that with rinse water.

Our garden is mostly succulents, which we water  minimally, and at long intervals.  When we do get a pipa, there is often water left over after filling the cistern, and when this happens we turn the delivery truck’s hose on our large raised-bed growing areas; and fill up a 30-gallon plastic garbage can that we keep in front of the house.

[This is the sanctuary. All the wood work was done by or supervised by the rabbi’s family.]

Our neighbors Conchita and Jaime order the pipa, and we all split the bill.  We try to arrange for delivery at night or on weekends, when our busy street quiets down.  The truck can pump out it’s load in just a few minutes, but the driver needs time to connect the many standard lengths of hose necessary to reach our cistern, and then to disconnect them and repack them for travel.
Before we allow the driver to start pumping we make sure the water isn’t full of sediment or algae.  We have him pour some into a small bucket, and if it is reasonably clear, we give the go-ahead.  Even so, we do not drink it, and while others do, we do not brush our teeth with it either.  For that, we have “agua de garafón”.

Much like what has occurred in the U.S., some bottling companies take their “purified” water right out of the tap.  Others, while treating it to remove “animales”, do not remove enough of the minerals, thus staining the container, usually a plastic bottle of about 5 gallons capacity.  We get ours from H20 (pronounced atche dos cerro), where it is produced from city water using reverse osmosis for filtration.  H2O is the most expensive water by a few pesos — 20 pesos for a garafón (including a one-peso tip). A bottle lasts us about 4 days.  Our luck with quick delivery has varied greatly during the past, but our current driver is prompt, usually arriving within an hour.

[The rabbi and one of his sons lead the congregation during the Januka service. Notice the transliteration of some ubiquitously used prayers into Spanish.]

Better late than never:

Last week, we bought and played Lila Downs’ latest DVD, recorded live in Paris over a year ago.  As I said in my review, published in Amazon and reproduced below, it blew me away.   You too can own a copy, and if you order from Amazon through our Books and CDs page, it won’t cost you any more than ordering directly, and we get a small cut…

Review of Lila Downs Y La Misteriosa En Paris Live A Fip CD+DVD (Audio CD):

I met Lila Downs, and future husband Paul Cohen, shortly after I settled in Oaxaca almost two decades ago. I’ve attended her concerts in Oaxaca, Tijuana, and Fresno California; I’ve watched her perform in intimate clubs, outdoor gardens, theaters, auditoriums and amphitheaters; appearing solo, with a trio, with the Oaxaca State concert band. I can’t remember when I was as thrilled watching her perform as I was, watching this live performance, recorded and filmed before a live audience in an auditorium / studio of Radio France.

I’m a fan, and a friend. Ni modo (no matter). I’ve had a few critical moments over the years. Like you, I have my likes and dislikes, and I am not without my own thoughts. Not every album has enthralled me (and I have them all); not every performance brought me to my feet. Over the years, I’ve grown a bit jaded, I suppose, and I slipped this dvd into the player without expectations one way or another; a sort of “vamos a ver” (let’s go and see) kind of attitude. So, imagine my delight: this performance – this moment – left me cheering at my TV.

The band – La Misteriosa – is terrific, full of interesting sounds and surprises; and they appear to be having a real fun time, playing off and into each other in a good groove. The material is a nice combination of new songs, and old songs with both new and old arrangements; old and new voicing. The filming, while it gets in the way very briefly in one or two places, keeps the interest focused. Mostly, though, it’s Lila. Her treatments. Her voice. Her mastery. Her voice. Her honesty. Her voice. Her all-out commitment to do her very best. Her voice, always and all ways, her voice.

If you like Lila, you will almost certainly love this performance. It’s vintage, it’s today, it blew me away — and, as I believe, that isn’t easy to do…

To order the two-disc CD / DVD album, just click HERE.

AMLO names his cabinet:

In a move that some see as a publicity stunt and others see as typical of Andres Manuel López Obrador’s open way of doing business, AMLO recently announced who will fill three of the top positions in his cabinet if he succeeds in his campaign to win the presidency of the Republic in 2012.

Not surprisingly, his protégé and rival for the Left’s nomination, Marcello Ebrard, has been picked for the second most powerful position in the country, minister of Government (Gobernación), which includes oversight of all internal security.  Ebrard, you may recall, was AMLO’s choice for the equivalent position during his reign as mayor / governor of the Federal District.  When, in 2006, AMLO gave up the office in his failed bid to beat our current “dear Leader”, Felipe Calderón, Ebrard ran for it, easily winning, largely thanks to the organization built by AMLO’s predecessor and PRD gray eminence, Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas, and AMLO.

  Recently, Ebrard ran against AMLO for the endorsement of the PRD, with the understanding that should voter preference become clear, the “loser” would quit the race.  Although they deny it, I think it likely that Ebrard agreed with the understanding that if he lost, AMLO would award him the consolation prize of Government minister.

[The 2,501 migrantes by Alejandro Santiago have come home from Monterrey. They have congregated on Macedonio Alcala, where the strollers can walk among them.]

For minister of Treasury (Hacienda), AMLO tapped a highly respected and heretofore low-key professor of economics, Rogelio Ramirez de la O (in Mexico, men and unmarried women have two last names, the first that of their father, the second that of their mother, sometimes shortened to an initial.  Women who are unmarried likewise, until they are married, when their mother’s name is dropped in favor of their husband’s…).  Frankly, I don’t know much about Ramirez, but I suppose that he is essentially supportive of AMLO’s program of austerity for those who govern and support for those who struggle.

Juan Ramón de la Fuente has been tapped to be secretary of Education.  He was rector of the national university in Mexico City (Universitario Nacionál Autónimo de México; UNAM), and is an implacable enemy of the privatization  of education that, under the administrations of Calderón and his PAN predecessor Vicente Fox, has resulted in the dismantling of much of Mexico’s free and independent education infrastructure.  This was emphasized by the presence at the news conference of Héctor Vasconcelos, son of the revered José Vasconcelos, who is credited with the construction of said system.  The Vasconcelos name is iconic in Mexico.

While the right wing PAN is still struggling internally to choose a candidate for the July elections, both the PRI (Peña Nieto) and AMLO’s  alliance known as Progressive Movement (Movimiento Progresista; MP) have named their candidates.  This is not surprising, because the PAN is in total disarray, having self-destructed behind Calderón’s disastrous “war on organized crime”, which currently has killed more than 50,000 citizens.  PAN is likely to come in a distant third.

Current wisdom is that the PRI is a shoo-in to win in July, but it doesn’t look that way to me.  AMLO’s constant tour of the small towns of the country and his clever construction of a coalition of the Left – Workers’ Party (PT), Citizen’s Party (PC, formerly known as Convergencia), and his own MORENA party – may well tip the balance when the voters go to the polls in July…


**For the first time in my memory, the supreme court of Oaxaca state has issued a count of how many judges have been reprimanded, how many suspended, and how many removed. While they are not named – a normal policy of the Court in such matters – the publication of the list is just one more indication of how committed to reform our governor may be: the “new broom” sweeping along…

**A thoughtful article appeared recently on Newsweek dealing with the subject of “fair trade” coffee. It appears that there is a split between the “corporate” wing and the “orthodox” wing (my words) of the movement, and the reasons as enumerated in the article are revealing. Allowing for Bloomberg’s editorial board, it is still worth a quick read…