"Oaxaca, Mexico: An

Expatriate Life"

Writing by Stan Gotlieb

Pictures by Diana Ricci

The Rites of Spring
Like the snowbirds of Oaxaca, these Monarch butterflies are rare birds of passage, migrating with the seasons. This picture was taken in January, up in the mountains of Michoacan where they winter. Unfortunately, there are fewer of them now, due in large part to the genetic manipulation of the corn on which they depend for food during their long journey south. [Photo by Diana Ricci]

[This is a love song and a lament. Ojalá (o-ha-LA: it should only be), I'll sing it every spring for many years to come.]

Springtime has come to Oaxaca. The jacaranda trees are in full bloom. Huge tall trees, with heir blue-purple flowers thrust to the sky, they form the canopy for the profuse reds, oranges, blues and whites of the burgeoning bougainvillea. It is a clashing palette of inharmonious wonder.

The orange crop is at its peak, yielding pure liquid gold when juiced: sweet, thick sunshine in a glass. Melons are just about gone, and bananas, while still plentiful, have doubled in price due to the poor yields of a cold, wet winter. The larger winter avocados are gone, and the equally tasty but smaller spring avocados have taken their place. At the Friday market where we do most of our weekly shopping, there is no lack of beautiful, tasty produce. Shopping to the season is easy here, where there is abundance at all times of the year.

We go about our routine of shopping, cooking, eating, reading, writing and sleeping, and except for the details of the shopping list, the days blend together in a comforting and distracting sameness. Cushioned by our U.S. dollar accounts, and our fixed (in Diana's case) and sporadic (in mine) incomes, we exist in a cocoon of privilege and security. And, more and more as the days slide by into the rainy season, we bid "hasta luego" to our part-time resident friends.

The rites of spring, among the snowbirds: farewell dinners and goodbye parties; exchanges of address and return of loaned radios, frying pans, and Oaxaca road maps. Folks are packing up, locking up, and going up, to their other life in New York, Colorado, New Hampshire, Illinois, California and Minnesota. It's a life we haven't shared with them: mysterious, disconnected, "other".

For the next six or more months, we and our pals will have little to say to each other. We will be here, and they will be "there". There will be an occasional e-mail asking for help with this, or information about that, going back and forth between us, but we won't be sitting together over cappuccino in the sidewalk cafes, or meeting to hear our favorite jazz singer in the music club down the street.

It's kind of sad, you know? Oh, not horribly depressing or anything like that; just a little mournful. And after a little while, we too will pack our suitcases and vacate the premises for a month or two. We tell ourselves that we are different, because we leave later and come back sooner. I wonder if our more permanent friends understand the distinction.

I hardly know anyone who came here from the U.S. who stays year 'round. Virtually everyone has family, financial interests, or seasonal homes elsewhere. It is part of what binds us together, this tether to the "old country" and its' grandchildren, accountants, banks, and annual events not to be missed. Just as it sets us apart from the Mexicans among whom we live, it forges links between the rest of us.

We are the gringo community in Oaxaca, and our roots, personal and cultural, are foreign. We bring our music down with us, on tape and cd. We bring our favorite unavailable-in-Mexico foods (Diana and I can't live without balsamic vinegar and horseradish), replacements for our worn out blue jeans (and argyle socks for me), and a laptop, of course. We spend time and effort to preserve and improve our English language lending library (as the French do their Alliance Francaise).

Diana and I have made some friends among the Mexican people, and those friendships are important to us. We have great respect for the culture, we struggle with the language, and we value the open, generous welcome we have received here. Nonetheless, it is true that most of our social contacts are gringos, of similar education and background, similar tastes in literature and listening, and similar political viewpoints.

In this behavior, we are not much different than most people: those closest to our hearts are the ones who are most like ourselves. And even though we know they will return in the Fall, we hate to see them go.
(April, 1997)

 

[Read a selection of "Letters From Oaxaca, Mexico"]

[Read a sample "Oaxaca / Mexico Newsletter"]