"Oaxaca, Mexico: An

Expatriate Life"

Writing by Stan Gotlieb

Pictures by Diana Ricci

Behold, A flock of Tourists
Wandering the streets of the tourist quarter, itinerant vendors work hard to eke out a living by selling their wares to visitors. Here, in front of the church of Santo Domingo, a hammock seller looks around for a potential customer. Hopefully, a tourist will come by, recognize his or her duty to support the local economy, and do it. [Photo by Diana Ricci]

It has been a quiet summer season, and the Zócalo (town square) population has been mostly limited to local folks and individual tourists (with the exception of the French, who never go anywhere in less-than-busload lots). We few "regulars" tend to forget that the end of October ushers in high season for tourism. As one friend put it, looking out at the influx, "tide's in"

Today is November 1, the second day of a three day festival known as Dias de Muertos (Days of the Dead). Oaxaca is vibrant with festivities, cultural offerings, and traditional celebrations. There are musical and artistic events, craft expositions, and parades, all centering on Muertos. There are special foods. There are hordes and floods and scourges of tourists.

Now don't get me wrong, I love tourists. They are me, a scant three years ago. They are my bread and butter (I teach an orientation class for the newly arrived). They are, some of them, my future neighbors. Those of you who have read other of my Letters may recall that I have exhorted my readers to "c'mon down". I still do. I say it now: c'mon down!

Tourists as individuals are great, but when they get grouped up a qualitative change takes place. They crowd into my favorite sidewalk cafe, pulling five or six tables together and shouting at each other to be heard from one end to another. They all go to the same ruins, the same rug sellers, the same pottery town, the same cemetery, the same...

Their crowded itineraries and their carefully packaged and sanitized amenities conspire to turn them into unimaginative, unadventurous robots; direction followers; compliant money spenders. They become "good little tourists", every tour guide's dream, following their leader like chicks after a mother hen.

Tour guides -- the ones who bring them down from the States, not the local folks -- live in Orange County. They are about 45, female, and have mousy brown hair with a henna rinse. They tend toward gaudy clothes and large ornamental costume jewelry and have loud nasal voices which they use with authority. They are weary, wary, and jaded, like taxi drivers, reporters, and others who deal with the public for their livelihood. They may or may not like the destinations to which they travel, but while they are working they have scant time to spare for adventure. And they work very, very, very hard. And while I may seem unsympathetic to them, I wouldn't trade places with them, especially not for the little bit of money they make.

So what's my point? Why am I grousing? This Letter, like most, is as much about me as about my subject: it reveals me to myself. It would appear that I am becoming proprietary about my adopted home, after almost four years here. For better or worse, I am turning into one of those "old extranjeros (foreigners)" that I wrote about when I first arrived: guarding the gates to "my" Oaxaca. Since this process is probably an inevitable one, I am doing my best to slow it down, by exposing myself to you, and to me.

Oh, one last note: I exaggerated about where tour guides come from. Some tour guides come from Los Angeles county, and a few are bottled blondes.
(November, 1997)


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

[Read a sample "Oaxaca / Mexico Newsletter"]