"Oaxaca, Mexico: An

Expatriate Life"

Writing by Stan Gotlieb

Pictures by Diana Ricci

A Tale of Two Students
A maestro (teacher, journeyman) and his apprentice, working in a small factory outside Oaxaca city where fine papers are made. For those who are unable to attend a University or a Technio (technical school), apprenticeship is the next best thing. [Photo by Diana Ricci]

Pablo was the first in his family to move from their mountain village to Oaxaca, the state capital. He came for the education. He will remain for the job. In two more years, Pablo, now 18, will be a Licensed Computer Scientist.

In Mexico, if you are poor, you can earn your higher education. A year as a teaching assistant is the price. The government provided room, board and a pitifully small stipend, and Pablo worked ten hours a day, six days a week teaching school in a town about four hours from his home. Now, he is collecting his reward. His tuition is absorbed by the government, but he must furnish his own books, some of which are quite expensive. He must also pay for his own rent, food, clothing and transportation. Therefore, he must work.

Pablo works as a cook and gardener for a retired Dutchman, in exchange for room, board and a small salary. Fortunately for him, this particular guy values - and understands the value of - higher education. Pablo gets access to his boss's personal computer for his school work, thus avoiding the overcrowded school computer room where some have to wait their turn until the wee hours of the morning. When Pablo needs to take time off from household chores because of a special project, his employer is understanding. When Pablo needs to buy an especially expensive book, he can borrow against future wages.

He goes to school in the morning, and comes home to prepare the afternoon meal. After he has cleaned up the kitchen, he leaves again to do research projects, participate in extracurricular activities such as marching band and church choir, and pursue his latest girlfriend. He returns around 9 p.m. to prepare for his next day's classes. Some nights he gets no sleep; others less than he needs. Saturdays are spent in his patron's garden. He gets up every day at 5 a.m. to sweep the sidewalk and the street outside the door. Every once in a while, he "crashes" for most of a day, trying to make up for the lost sleep. He misses his family, and they him, but it can't be helped. They have work where they are, and he came with their blessings to better his lot in life. "Well, I am alone", he says, "but that is the price I must pay to achieve my goal".

Pablo has a friend named Arturo. Arturo is a student of Agricultural Sciences at another technical school. Arturo, who did not participate in the teaching exchange, must pay all his tuition, but receives a discount based on his grades. Since he maintains an average of 85%, he only has to pay half of his tuition (about 180 pesos -- $55 at the time -- per semester). If he could break 90%, schooling would be free. When he first came to Oaxaca, Pablo worked for a cousin who has a stall in the market. He earned the standard laborer's wage of ten pesos per day (8 a.m. to 6 p.m.), but could not attend the technical school because of the conflict with his work schedule.

"Family" is the strongest of the ties that bind Arturo, followed by "God" and "Country". When Arturo first came to the city, it was another cousin who arranged for living quarters for him. Shortly after his arrival, his father (Roberto) moved to town with Arturo's younger brother, Jorge (about 11 years old). Arturo's mother died of an infection, after giving birth to Jorge.

They came to be with Arturo. Roberto understood that being so far from his family would be a very sorrowful experience for Arturo. It never occurred to Roberto that he needed to keep an eye on Arturo lest he fall into evil ways in the big city; nor was it necessary. He came because Jorge was grieving for Arturo, and because he believes that Arturo also needs Jorge: to play with, advise, and love. He came because he believes that families are supposed to stay together.

Roberto and Jorge moved in with Arturo when they arrived. Their home is a one-room concrete-floored tin-roofed shack, with a front porch. There is one bed. There are no cooking facilities, so meals are mostly eaten in the market, where food stalls sell cheap simple food. Arturo used to sleep in a lean-to attached to their present quarters, but a hail storm destroyed it.

Roberto has taken over part of Arturo's job in the market. When Arturo gets out of school at 1:30, he goes to the market and takes over from Roberto, who goes off to get some rest before reporting to his other job as a night guard at a jewelry store. Jorge goes to school in the morning, and stops in the market for a meal on the way to join Arturo at work. I asked Roberto how he was adjusting to all the changes. He told me that he preferred to live in the country, but that where one lives is a minor consideration compared to how one lives. "We are together, and we watch out for one another. That's what counts".
(May, 1994)

 

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

[Read a sample "Oaxaca / Mexico Newsletter"]