I first met Tom (not his name) shortly after I arrived in 1994. He was young, cagey, suspicious and in violation of the law: selling his Guatemalan style pants off the pile on his shoulder without a license. At the time, I knew nothing of the system within which he, and his fellow “ambulantes” (people who keep moving) made their meager living.
Over the years, I have kept my eyes and ears open, asking the occasional question of those I have encountered often enough so that they don’t become alarmed, because – whether we see it or not – they live in fear of the people who control their livelihood, and in extreme cases, their life.
Unable to reliably fill in the blanks, I hesitated to say much about it, until recently, when Tom, who now owns a stall in one of the many markets that sell artesania (hand-crafted goods), opened up to me about his personal experiences and current circumstances. I pass this on to you, with the usual caveat: people don’t always tell you the truth. Sometimes they have their own agenda, sometimes they tell you what they think you want to hear, sometimes they make it up, and sometimes they don’t know the answer but are embarrassed to admit it. The voice you will hear is Tom’s. His story has the ring of truth.
This tangelo tree grows in the patio of the Casa Murguia restaurant…..
“I grew up in a small town near Oaxaca. Our family was very poor, but – thank God – we had enough for a good diet, and only one of my mother’s seven children died early. After I graduated from elementary school, I had to work, but there was very little work in our village, and since my older brother was already an ambulante in Oaxaca, an hour’s bus ride away, I joined him. We mostly worked in the Zócalo area, targeting the tables around the square and along the streets. We were the oldest in our family, and, since my father was killed in a bar fight around that time, we were the main source of household income.”
We bought our goods from a cacique (boss). He supplied all the ambulantes with Guatemalan clothing. He operated under the protection of a man who “represented” all the sellers of “indigenous” clothing in the city; a man who was never elected by anyone. This man inherited his job from his father, and will pass it down to his son.”
[Editor’s note: some of the goods being sold all over Mexico as “home-made” come from factories in Mexico City, or China. It is probable that this is less true in places like Oaxaca where there are concentrations of artisans.]
We took our product out of the warehouse. An accountant wrote down how many of each style we took, and how much each cost. At the end of the day, we brought the product back, and had to pay for each missing piece. There was no excuse. The warehouse charged us more because we “borrowed” the goods. Those who had been in the business long enough to accumulate a little capital got a better price if they bought the goods outright.”
When I started out, there were only so many people who were allowed to work with each product, and there were no openings in our product. My brother would give me some of his pants and I would work near him, in case the inspector stopped me and demanded to see my license. My brother would tell him I am merely carrying his excess product for him, not selling. Perhaps I would then pay him a small bribe.”
Eventually, someone who was licensed and did not have a family member to give it to, dropped out, and his license passed to me. I became a vendor in my own right, and no longer had to bribe the inspector. I was lucky, because some ambulantes, without a license or any protection, had their entire stock confiscated. One fellow I knew had to pay back the fee his cacique paid to have the stuff returned, and he ended up leaving his family to emigrate to the U.S. One young woman I know was obliged to give sexual favors to the inspector after being caught without a license, and then to other inspectors, and ended up as a prostitute.”
[Ourside the Jalatlaco church, kitty-corner from Xiguela natural food store]
The “plaza” (place of business) in Oaxaca is divided up by what kind of product is being sold. Most people think that each Mercado (market place) has its own set of caciques, but this is not true. A cacique will control a certain set of products and the sellers of those products can be found on the street and in the markets. The market buildings are owned by the city, and the “representative” of each product will negotiate the pay-offs to the civil servants who control each of the several markets”.
There are other types of markets. For example, there are producer co-ops in the city, formed by artisans from the craft towns. They don’t become part of the system because they don’t need to buy from the caciques. Of course they still have to pay, to the representatives of hacienda (the tax people) and other officials, or there may be problems obtaining this or that permit.”
After years of working on my feet, I moved up to a stall on the street outside one of the markets. They are illegal, but payments are made and they are allowed to stay, even though the merchants whose stores they block complain mightily to the municipal authorities. I was also able to handle a variety of Guatemalan clothing; not just pants”.
Finally, last year, with the help of friends and family, I was able to buy a stall in one of the permanent “mercaditos”. No rain, no authorities looking for a handout. Business is pretty good, and the cacique that controls the products I sell takes care of paying off the bureaucrats. My rental for the space includes all the bribes.”
[We do most of our shopping at the Merced Market (mercadito “Independencia”). Every Sunday, the market doubles in size as a traveling circus of vendors display their goods on the outside. These plants are just right for planting in an urban garden.]..
I worked very hard to achieve my goals, but I have also been very lucky. Everyone has to work hard. Everyone on the street wants to someday own a stall in the market. Many were unable to save because a family member needed money for an operation, or because they themselves had been seriously ill. Others have been robbed, kidnapped, or thrown in prison for their political beliefs. A woman I know who sells table cloths has been an ambulante for 40 years. Her daughter, also an ambulante, hopes to do better”.
So far, the feared Zetas who have taken control of the Abastos market have not shown any interest in the particular mercadito where I have my stand. Friends in the Abastos report that business is down there since the Zetas – a notoriously violent and daring bunch of ex-paramilitary types who operated originally as enforcers for the Gulf drug cartel before going off on their own – showed up. Reports of a sharp increase in crimes against shoppers, such as kidnapping and pick-pocketing, from which the Zetas are said to get a share, are scaring people away”.
So, right now I have arrived in the middle class. I own my own store, and at night I just roll the door down and go home. I don’t have to tear down, or even cover my display. I can buy my goods for cash at the best price, and I sell huipiles, pants, guayaberas, sport shirts and shawls.”
My children are learning the business, and when they are old enough they will no doubt go to the university and become professionals. If, as many who have earned their degree have discovered, there are no jobs to be had, they can always fall back on the business”.
[Between the Cathedral and the curb along Independencia street, several planters are in place holding trees of varying age and size.]
Stan: A spate of new puestos (small stalls) on the streets has been much in the news lately. Some say that the squatters belong to the APPO, a defunct organization that was active in the uprising of 2006. Others say that they are part of the PRI political apparatus, and that their presence is a nose-thumb aimed at the governor, and the mayor of Oaxaca, both of them of other political persuasions. Only one thing can be certain, according to Tom: no matter who is in power, the system will continue to control the lives and aspirations of many.
Potlucks and benefits:
Here’s a broad, sweeping generalization for your consideration: organizations that are out to build community have potlucks; organizations interested in building institutions have benefit dinners. Of course most organizations have both, as they should. The question is which one happens most often – if ever . When folks complain to me about feeling alienated from the Library – some do, some don’t – I ask them when was the last time they attended a Library function built around a pot-luck. If they have been around for less than five years, they are unable to recall a single instance. I’ve been around forever, and I can’t remember one in the last ten years – although that may say more about my memory than it does about history, so let’s have a contest: if you can remember a pot-luckat the Library or as part of an annual general meeting, or even a committee meeting, tell me when, and the person who comes up with the most recent one will be mentioned in the next Newsletter.
I would maintain that the increasingly more affluent membership has brought with it from San Miguel, Ajijic, and the U.S., the politics of “free enterprise”, rather than “mutual aid”; that when “participating” means “consuming” rather than “creating”, an institution, not a community, is the outcome. Not that there is anything wrong about institution building per se. It’s just that there seems to be a cognitive dissonance here: just this month, there was a statement in one of the many e-mails I receive from the Library to the effect that community building was the current priority, while on the same page the big event of the month was a “benefit” trip to a trout farm to have lunch.
Full disclosure: we have tickets, at what we consider a not-unreasonable cost since it includes free transport to the mountainside restaurant where we are to be fed.
[Colonia Reforma jacaranda in full bloom.]
While nominally a volunteer run business, there has always been a paid Librarian, and that has probably saved the Library over the years as cliques formed and broke up, and successive waves of newcomers with “new” ideas for “improving the Library”, anxious to see them implemented (and, who can say, establish their own importance?) asserted themselves.
Sometimes this has worked enormously well, and sometimes not so much, but the Library has generally been improving visually (new floor, new paint, new shelves, new arrangements).
What hasn’t been going so well is the development of solidarity between the membership at large – as well as many of the volunteers – and the Board. Nobody’s perfect, and folks with the best of intentions sometimes do harmful things one-to-another. That’s why institutions need charters, bylaws, etc. So that the people who are “running” things – if they follow the bylaws strictly – are less likely to abuse their power, either through accident or purpose. A recent incident where Board members, acting as a rump committee, went around the nominating procedures, is a case in point.
For the vast majority of us, it’s a tempest in a very small teapot. The Library keeps its hours, provides a well-documented inventory of more than 20 thousand books, in well-arranged (and often improving) sections, and has a formidable and rapidly growing catalogue of DVDs and shelves of used books for sale cheap. We are “life members”. Have been for more than 15 years. I play bridge there once a week, and once a week I hold an Orientation session for newcomers and residents, in exchange for promoting this Newsletter, and my new edition of “Letters From Mexico”(coming soon). When I run out of books to read from among those that are passed around in “our circle”, I fill in with Library books. It seems to happen less often these days.
Neither Diana nor I have no desire whatsoever to get involved in “Library politics”, having been burned once already, some ten years ago. However, if you happen to be here for a time, and want a sure way to meet more gringos, you could do worse than to volunteer. Just be aware that one corollary of “everywhere you go, there you are” is “gringos living in Paradise are likely to act the same as they did in Podunk”.
The teachers have gone away:
As of today’s writing (June 7), Oaxaca is no longer under siege. For 16 days, the teachers of Section XXII were occupying the Zócalo and the area around it for several blocks in what looked to these jaded old eyes to be the largest sit-down ever (including 2006). Traffic was almost-hopelessly snarled, the big box stores were blockaded, the airport suffered closings, and there is no-one that knows when it will end.
[A small part of the giant cypress tree in Santa Maria del Tule.]
The following article was written when the occupation was still in place:
Most of the squatters don’t like it any better than do most of the working stiffs in Oaxaca. Most of them would rather be home, or in class, but they can’t. They are assigned a place, and there is a “leader” there who checks off their name when they arrive. Officially, the individual teachers do not have to show, but if they don’t, then… well…
All matters involving the rank and file are said to have been successfully negotiated. The financials, I am told, are agreed upon. What’s left is what goes on at the top: arrests of known thugs who committed crimes against the militants in 2006, the ousting of some cabinet ministers that have supported the privatization of the public schools, and a state ban on pursuing the new “education initiative” that provides the framework for busting the union.
I had been predicting that Gabino would never let the union dictate who he can have in his cabinet. I was wrong. Today, it was announced that the education minister and two of his sub-ministers have resigned. It’s a direct result of the strong-arm tactics of the teachers: as things in the center of town get more ugly, the pressure on Gabino from those merchants affected gets stronger. A few days ago, Gabino blinked again.
[This by master carver Martin Melchor.]
Last week, his public prosecutor (another who the teachers demand leave his office) arrested a man said to be an ex-employee of the ministry of Education, not shown on the video tape that Brad Will recorded as he was being shot. The arrest appeared to be hasty, and the evidence unclear. There has never been any serious attempt to find the “intellectual author” of the massacre, in which three others – all members of the late APPO organization – also lost their lives. It looks like a set-up to satisfy the demands of Section XXII for a blood sacrifice.
So, with all the concessions that Gabino is making – some of them bound to weaken his ability to govern – why are they still on the streets? Good question. I don’t have the vaguest idea, except that it probably has to do with money and maybe impunity…
***The National Immigration ministry (INM in its Spanish acronym) is implementing a new scheme for classifying non-Mexicans, complete with new cards. So far, few of the changes have gone on line yet, nor are they likely to before the next Season. One major change is likely to prove annoying: one may not enter on a Tourist visa, as in the past, and then apply for residency while still in Mexico. Now, nobody can do that, instead having to leave the country and apply from outside.
I reccommend an article from the excellent site “Surviving Yucatan” . Steven M. Fry, the author, explains both what the changes are supposed to be, and when they are likely to occur. General advice is that it’ll be a while, so don’t get anxious. I agree. Still, as if and when they are put into action, the results in the short run could be confusing, so remember the most important personal traits to exercise: patience (always, patience) and an inability to take “no” for an answer…
*** The View From Casita Colibri is a thoughtful and entertaining blog by Shannon Sheppard. Recently featured an excellent article on the teachers’ strike, by Nancy Davies. Lots of nice photos. I highly reccommend it.
[This isn’t actually a round corner. The camera did it. (photo by Dan McWethy).]
*** Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (AMLO), who won the last presidential contest in 2006, only to have the victory stolen from him by evil computer machinations, is running the last furlong in the Mexican presidential horse race at top speed, and has drawn way past Josefina Vasquez Mota (PAN) and is catching up with Enrique Pena Nieto (PRI). He’s still a long-shot with about four weeks to go, but stuff does happen…
*** The peso is slipping against the dollar. At its highest, it was around 15 for a brief time in 1995, slowly worked its way back down to ten, where it stabilized for some time, and has now topped 14 with no end in sight. The most common explanation for this is that the European crisis is driving speculators backto the dollar; that the Euro challenge is over and the dollar is once more the absolute top exchange currency. I don’t know if that is true or not, but the market devaluation of the peso is beginning to fan the flames of inflation…
*** Did I mention that Gabino is a globalist neo-liberal? The latest example is his attempt to criminalize the use of midwives at birthing. Oaxaca, one of the three poorest states in Mexico, has been a good place for midwives to practice their trade, as medical professionals tend to cost a lot more, and caessarian births have increased dramatically – some say, so that doctors can avoid the inconvenience of having to come in and tend to off-schedule births.
Currently, there are about two births at the hands of “medical professionals” for every “natural” childbirth. Compare this to the two extremes: three of every four new Chiapans are born with midwives in attendance, and 87% are attended by “medical specialists” in the U.S.