Archive for July, 2010

Just Say “Yes”

The friendliest town we have visited so far is Chalcatongo, in a region called the “Mixteca Alta,” where we received greetings and smiles from just about everyone we saw on the street. We had a short visit in the municipal plaza with a taxi driver who had learned English in North Carolina, where he worked in a carpet factory until it closed and moved to China.

oaxaca 2010 07 26 chalco 020 In the other plaza, in front of the church, an elderly man with racks of footwear for sale called out to us as we walked by and asked if we spoke Spanish. “Mas o menos,” or “more or less,” is our usual reply to that question. Sometimes it ends there, but this gentleman was pretty chatty. When we said we liked his peaceful town, he said it was so quiet because everyone was in Yosondúa for the annual festival honoring St. James the Apostle. He had to stay in “Chalca” to mind his wares, but he advised us to go, and told us where to find the “colectivo,” or mini-bus, that travels back and forth between the two villages, 22 kilometers apart. (That’s 14 miles for you readers using the English system.)

All we knew of Yosondúa was that there was supposed to be a beautiful waterfall there which we had been planning to visit the following day. It was already mid-afternoon, but we decided not to wait.http://www.moon.com

Every village seems to have companies that operate colectivos or taxis running between area villages, or running to nearby cities. Everyone knows where the pick-up points are for the different routes, everyone except tourists like us. Still, we had to ask several people to direct us to the right corner where we would find the yellow truck with blue stripes.

The driver was a young man who has a brother in Oregon. He also picked up an elderly woman and two young ones who had been among the people giving us slightly different answers about where to find the colectivo for Yosondúa. The ride wound through a gorgeous, green valley, filled with hectares and hectares (that’s “acres and acres”) of corn.

Our tour book (the Moon Handbook for Oaxaca) had mentioned the waterfall, a oaxaca 2010 07 25 chalco-yosunua 014 church, and a hotel/restaurant, and having given it only a cursory read, I thought the falls were a mere 300 meters (that’s 1000 feet) from the center of town. But when our driver asked if he could take us there, we said “yes,” and that was a good thing.

If I had read the tour guide more carefully, I would have known the falls were more than 4 km from town (1 km = 0.6 mi., you do the math this time) and 300 m down. It would have been a long walk before a further descent to the trail leading to the falls.

A lot of people were already there, waiting to cross a suspension bridge above a deep gorge next to a spectacular waterfall. Although we had to wait for 15 minutes or so, when we saw it swaying back and forth we were glad there were guides limiting the number of people on the bridge at any one time. The structure is perhaps 100 meters across but I can’t say how high it is above the ravine because I didn’t look straight down. In the middle it felt a bit like a small boat oaxaca 2010 07 25 chalco-yosunua 017in rough seas, so I was glad for the fence that made it hard to fall off.

After a scramble down the bank to a viewing platform and a scramble back up, we waited our turns for the return trip across the chasm. The others in line were all  Mexicans, some tourists, some local, of all ages. Judy and I looked at the cable holding the bridge and concluded it must have been designed and tested well enough. We hoped we’d find a taxi waiting for us on the other side to take us back to town.

We did see a few taxis, but they were full or headed in the other direction. A group of friendly Yosundua residents said we could wait with them, though I was not sure what we were waiting for. After 15 or 20 minutes a pickup truck stopped and we all climbed aboard, reaching town just as the rain started. One of the woaxaca 2010 07 25 chalco-yosunua 025omen told us the bridge had only opened 2 days before, which explained why there was no mention of it in our tour book and why so many local folks were there to try it out.

By then the fiesta was well underway, with rides (operated by pre-adolescents) , arcade games, vendors selling French fries and pancakes, and a boys’ basketball game. We left before the serious drinking and dancing started, and found a taxi back to Chalcatongo. Looking for a bite to eat all we could find were a few taco stands around the plaza. We’ve been carefully avoiding street food, but in the spirit of the evening we decided to take a chance. We didn’t regret it.

Read Full Post »

oaxaca 2010 07 22 bloqueos 013

Protests and Revels Share Adjoining Blocks

Walking out the door of the hostel last Thursday to do some errands we found the intersection blocked by a bus. The city had hundreds of blockades and barricades during the 2006 uprising; these days they’re less common.

Who was responsible was not immediately apparent. Among the groups in the streets last week were street vendors denouncing the use of force and teargas to clear them out of the central plaza earlier in the week, market vendors demanding the city government live up to agreements limiting the number of stalls selling meat, and taxi drivers protesting something about licenses.

That our cab driver found blockades to be a nuisance was no surprise. It’s hard oaxaca 2010 07 22 bloqueos 012 enough to navigate the city streets in the middle of a busy tourist season. He said groups commandeer buses by threatening to vandalize them if the driver doesn’t cooperate. The drivers usually consent.

By the time we returned from our errands buses were blocking more intersections. From the banners we learned the protesters were “Normalistas,” students and graduates of colleges that train teachers. The “Normal Schools” are significant components of Oaxaca’s radical teachers union, Local 22. Their demands included construction of more classrooms, internet service, potable water, and educational materials. Normalistas were also demonstrating in other parts of Oaxaca, including Juchitan, where they are calling for adult-sized furniture to replace the children’s desks they’ve been forced to use. Sounds reasonable to me.

oaxaca 2010 07 22 bloqueos 017

A couple blocks from the hostel, by the Basilica of Nuestra Señora de Soledad, we found another throng of people. These were revelers, not protestersoaxaca 2010 07 22 bloqueos 019, attending the Tejate Festival. Tejate is a traditional beverage made with corn, sugar, and the  flowers of chocolate plants. The festival included folkloric dancers and lots of food. It also featured one of the dancers with a “torito,” a papier mache bull bearing fireworks, something I had heard of but never before seen.

When we arrived in Tlaxiaco on Friday, we found more Normalistas in the plaza. At a rally this morning, they said their school has been in inadequate, borrowed space for more than a deoaxaca 2010 07 24 tlaxiaco 011cade. Their Saturday rally featured revolutionary music, including an ancient recording of The Weavers singing “No Nos Moveran,” the Spanish version of “We Shall Not Be Moved.”

A spokesperson for the education ministry says, “We don’t have all the money in the world.” That part feels familiar for a guy from New Hampshire.

Read Full Post »

Don Gregorio was one of the first people our Witness for Peace group met in San Juan Sosola, a small village in the Mixteca region of Oaxaca. One of the first things he told us was a story about a young woman from the village who had died in Los Angeles without her family being able to contact her.

You don’t even have to scratch the surface in Oaxaca to learn something about Mexico-US migration. Talk to just about anyone and they’ll ask, “where are you from?” Once you say, “the USA,” you’ll hear stories about brothers, sisters, uncles, aunts, and cousins living north of the border. The challenges facing separated families are painful, even without workplace raids, desert border crossings, and deportations.

If you do scratch the surface, you can learn why beautiful, peaceful villages like San oaxaca 2010 07 19 s j sosola 058 Juan Sosola are pretty much empty of young adults, most of whom leave as soon as they are old enough to travel on their own. Some reasons, like soil erosion caused by excessive logging, go back centuries to the time of Spanish colonialism. Others are more recent, like the pressures put on Mexico in the 1980s to reduce price supports for tortillas, and the flood of subsidized corn from the USA which entered Mexican markets after the North American Free Trade Agreement went into effect in 1994.

According to Jesus Leon Santos, of the Center for Integral Doaxaca 2010 07 19 s j sosola 079evelopment of the Mixteca, the region has experienced longer periods of drought and periods of intense rain brought on by global climatic change. Moreover, he says, chemical inputs of the “green revolution” made the land less productive.

Miguel Angel Vásquez, of EDUCA , Services for an Alternative Education, says 60% of the Mexican youth who enter the labor market every year are unable to find work. Oaxaca is Mexico’s second poorest state, and according to some figures, a third of its people are now living in the USA.

And it’s not just Mexico. In a religiously affiliated shelter in the city of Oaxaca we met 3 young men from El Salvador and Guatemala, trying to make their way through Mexico past migration police and criminal gangs. A Salvadoran man says, “If I could stay in my country and make money I’d never leave.” But he’s making his second oaxaca 2010 07 19 s j sosola 044 attempt to reach the USA – the first ended with arrest in northern Mexico – despite his knowledge of the perils of the road. It’s not like he expects money to fall from the sky, he says. He expects to work hard so he can send money home to his mom.

When the farm economy is failing, rural people migrate. That’s the story of US history in the 19th century, of modern China, of modern Mexico and Central America. But unlike the “mill girls” who left my state’s small towns in the 1830s and 1840s for the bustling new cities of New England, and unlike the workers in Chinese sweatshops now, Mexicans and Central Americans have to cross a highly militarized border and face a climate of racism and persecution if they reach the other side.

Our ten days with Witness for Peace deepen my understanding that “immigration reform” requires addressing the reasons why so many people are forced to migrate in the first place. My passport will enable me to return across the border to my own community with new insights, and with my heart enriched by the people I’ve met.

Read Full Post »

Four years ago the farmers of San Antonino, a village in the Oaxaca Valley, didn’t have enough water to irrigate their crops. The wells weren’t dry, but after pumping for 15 minutes or so they’d have to stop and wait for the well to recharge. As rich in communal spirit as they are lacking in cash, the farmers came up with a plan: a series of new wells to capture rainwater and runoff from their fields to recharge the aquifer. They built 60 of them, and once they proved successful, the municipal government built 60 more. The wells, 25 or 30 meters deep, are lined with concrete and also filled with rocks and sand to filter the water. Now, they have sufficient, clean San Antonino 2010 07 14 san antonino 005water year-round to irrigate their radishes, flowers, squash, lettuce, beets, and herbs. They also have a model that attracts farmers from nearby towns and grad students from Mexico City.

That doesn’t entirely solve their water problems, explained leaders of the Committee for the Defense of Water. The federal water agency, CONAGUA, is trying to impose a permitting system that would force farmers to register their wells and pay the government to use their own water. Their village still lacks a reliable water supply for their homes. Deforestation and climate change have produced serious droughts. And a Canadian company has been given permission to mine near  by mountains for gold and silver, a process which is sure to use up copious amounts of water and leach toxic chemicals back into the environment.

The Committee in San Antonino isn’t all by itself; they have aid from the Flor y Canto (Flower and Song) Center for Human Rights in Xoxocotlán, 20 km away. Flor y San Antonino 2010 07 14 san antonino 003Canto’s mission is defense of indigenous rights, and in recent years that has meant a focus on water. With a staff of 5 women, all volunteers, Flor y Canto works in 12 communities in the municipalities of Ocotlán and Zimatlán providing technical and legal assistance.

Nationally, 90% of Mexicans are said to have access to water services, but those figures can be deceiving. In the house where we stayed for a few weeks, water service had sporadic interruptions. In some neighborhoods, the pipes may be empty for weeks on end. When that happens, families have to buy water from trucks that cruise their neighborhoods selling water for ten times the rate of public water supplies.

The rate of access to water and sewage services drop off in rural areas and drop off further for indigenous communities like San Antonino. According to a report from the Coalition of Mexican Organizations for the Right to Water, 42% of indigenous people lack water service, and 70% lack sanitation.

Giant dam projects are still being proposed, often over the objections of local communities, to address water scarcity. Better approaches include reoaxaca 2010 07 10-ocotlan pipapair of leaky pipes, micro-dams, and reforestation projects.

Claudio Ortíz, a member of the Committee for the Defense of Water in, said San Antonino doesn’t have water service, but he has a truck that he fills from his own well. Instead of charging an arm and a leg, he said he just charges what it costs to run the truck.

Speaking of the community well project, Delfino Hernandez Sanchez, president of the Committee, said, “We started doing this because we had a need.”

I was fortunate to meet Delfino and his neighbors on a study tour sponsored by Witness for Peace, in which we are looking into the relationship between social conditions and migration from rural Oaxaca.

“What our parents left us is this land,” he said, and he’s proud he will be able to pass it on. “It’s not just for my children; it’s for all the children in the community.”

Read Full Post »

“Knowledge emerges only through invention and reinvention, through the restless, impatient, continuing, hopeful inquiry human beings pursue in the world, and with each other.”

– Paolo Freire

This morning after breakfast, 14 people sat on the rooftop patio of a Oaxaca hostel to begin our exploration of economic and social realities facing this southern Mexican state, one third of whose residents are now living in the United States.  We are a delegation organized by Witness for Peace, a US-based group whose roots are in nonviolent resistance to US aggression in Nicaragua in the 1980s.  Now, WFP organizes study tours in Mexico, Colombia, Venezuela, and Cuba, and conducts advocacy programs aimed at changing US policy in Latin America.

Our delegation is diverse in age, but with a common interest in enriching our activism with a deeper understanding of Mexico.  Today the WFP Mexico staff, Nikki and Betty, gave excellent presentations on Mexican history, and on how the debt crisis of the 1980s drove Mexico into the clutches of neo-liberal economics.  As they explained, neo-liboaxaca 2010 06 27 ixtlan 099eralism refers to a school of thought that favors unrestricted trade, privatized public services, weak protections for labor, low levels of social spending, and favorable climates for private investment, especially by large corporations that can operate across national borders (in other words the ideology that provokes the global economic crisis in we are still immersed).  But as capital, goods, and services flow more freely across borders, walls and laws increasingly block the movement of people, who must migrate to find work.

The next week will be full of meetings with Mexican organizations working on issues such as migration, sustainable agriculture, water, and human rights.  We’re going to learn a lot.

Read Full Post »


Federal Judge Rules for Gay Marriage!



Read Full Post »

I wrote the first version of this in Spanish as a homework assignment.  This is a translation, with a few extra details and minor changes.  You can read the Spanish version below.  Many thanks to Lety, my Spanish teacher, for help with grammar.

– Arnie

oaxaca 2010 07 05 zocalo turistas

Tranquility Comes to the Zócalo, but what is Coming to Oaxaca?

It’s the day after the election in Oaxaca and the Zócalo, the picturesque park at the city’s center, seems normal. Tourists and Oaxacans enjoy the newly planted flowers. Elderly couples dance to a marimba band. The waiters are busy. Tables in the sidewalk cafes are full.

Three days ago, the Zócalo was occupied by thousands of teachers, and was full of tarps, ropes, and street vendors. What a difference!

It’s the day after the election, and the relief is palpable. The voters have thrownoaxaca 2010 07 05 zocalo bailantes out the Institutional Revolutionary Party (the PRI) after 80 years in power, the most recent of which were marked by repression. Oaxaca will have a new governor, Gabino Cue. He campaigned on a platform of “peace and progress,” and in his first speech after the election, he said, “We know that after the election it is a time for reconciliation.”

Leaders of the parties which make up the coalition he led are in agreement. “We are clear that the people’s will reflected at the ballot box was not only to search for a new road to change for the state, but also, fundamentally, for reconciliation,” said the president of the state council of the Convergence Party at a press conference the day after the election.

But in the Zócalo, the tranquility is interrupted by a march of about a hundred people, carrying a banner demanding justice for San Juan Copala, an indigenous village that has been besieged by paramilitary groups for months. They are chanting, “An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.”[i] They don’t want reconciliation, at least not with Ulisses Ruiz Ortiz, who is still Governor, and who is widely thought to be responsible for multiple assassinations, kidnappings, oaxaca 2010 07 05 zocalo marcha acts of torture, and other human rights violations, including the siege of San Juan Copala.

So far, Gabino is speaking in principles, not details. He speaks of “results,” “a modern government,” “transparency,” and “participation.” He plans to visit each of Oaxaca’s 570 towns at least twice, and also to hold public meetings on the first Wednesday of every month.

With respect to the crimes of the past, he promises to choose a new Attorney General “who will be in the service of the people, not the government.”

“Neither a witch-hunt nor impunity,” says Gabino Cue. If there are accusations of abuse, “The officials will make an investigation and they will give us the results.”

The work of the new governor will be a balancing act. On one side will be the activists from groups of indigenous people, farmers, and teachers. They will want justice, and change. On the other side will be the dinosaurs of the old PRI establishment, and they will be able to interrupt “peace and progress” if they want to.

And underneath all that are problems more fundamental than those of political parties, elections, and occupations. These are poverty, unemployment, the scarcity of water in many communities, the threats to agriculture from climate change and free trade, and conflicts over land and natural resources. According to Abraham Cruz García, writing in Noticias on July 6, “As it has been in the days of Independence and Revolution, foreign companies, like devious birds of prey, favored by the state and federal governments, have appropriated thousands of hectares that small farmers need to raise grains and basic necessities.”oaxaca 2010 07 04 election day 010

Cruz García also writes about a new book by Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, who still insists the last presidential election was stolen from him, and who writes about the 30 people who control the Mexican economy, news media, and federal government. They are singing, “We Shall Not be Moved.”

One can find hope in the rhetoric of Gabino Cue, and in the citizen movement that elected him. Hope and rhetoric are pretty good places to start, but much more will be needed to achieve peace, progress, justice, and reconciliation.

6 July 2010

[i] This is the beginning of a popular street chant calling for Ulisses Ruiz Ortiz to be held accountable for his crimes.


Reconciliación, paz, progreso, y justicia

La tranquilidad viene al zócalo, pero que viene a Oaxaca?

Es un día después de la elección, y el zócalo parece normal. Turistas y Oaxaqueños se pasean, disfrutando las flores nuevas. Parejas mayores bailan al lado de una marimba. Los meseros están ocupados. Las mesas en los cafés están llenos.

Hace tres días, el zócalo estaba lleno de lonas, cuerdas, y tianguis. ¡Que diferencia!

Es un día después de la elección, y el alivio está palpable. Las ciudadanos han echado al PRI después de 80 años. Oaxaca tendrá un gobernador nuevo, Gabino Cue. Tiene promesas de “paz y progreso,” y en su primer discurso después de la elección, dijo, “Sabemos que pasada la elección es el tiempo de la reconciliación.”

Los líderes del PAN, el PRD, el PT, y la Convergencia están de acuerdos. “Tenemos claro que la voluntad ciudadana no solamente se reflejó en las urnas para buscar una nueva ruta de cambio para el estado, sino para que fundamentalmente la misma nos lleve a la reconciliación.,” dijo el presidente del consejo estatal de Partido Convergencia en conferencia de prensa el día siguiente de la elección.

oaxaca 2010 06 19 caldernon URO carcel Pero en el zócalo, la tranquilidad está interrumpida por una marcha de cien personas llevando una bandera pidiendo justicia para San Juan Copala. Están coreando, “Ojo por ojo, diente por diente.” No quieren reconciliación, al menos no con Ulisses Ruiz Ortiz, quien todavía está en el Palacio de Gobierno.

El sindicato de maestros, que se fue del zócalo solo 2 días antes de la elección, también está hablando de justicia, no de reconciliación. Todavía el sindicato, el grupo el mas fuerte de los movimientos sociales en Oaxaca, está exigiendo castigo de los crímenes de Ulisses Ruiz Ortiz.

Hasta ahora, Gabino está hablando en principios, no detalles. Habla de “resultados,” “un gobierno moderno,” “transparencia,” y “participación.” Hace planes para visitar “en cuando menos dos ocasiones los 570 municipios de Oaxaca,” y también, tener asambleas publicas cada mes, el primer miércoles. Con respecto a los crímenes de pasado, promesa del procurador “que este al servicio de la gente y no del gobierno.”

“Ni cacería de brujas pero tampoco impunidad,” dice Gabino Cue. “Los ministeriales van a estar para investigar y van a tener que dar resultados.”

El trabajo del nuevo gobernador será un malabarismo. Por un lado, habrá militantes de grupos de indígenas, de campesinos, de maestros. Querrán justicia, y también cambio. Y por el otro, habrá los dinosaurios, que podrán interrumpir la “paz y el progreso” si quieren.

Y debajo de todos estás problemas más fundamentales que los partidos, las oaxaca 2010 06 19 025 elecciones, y los plantones. Esas son la pobreza, el desempleo, el escasez de agua en muchas comunidades, las amenazas a la agricultura por los cambios de clima y libre comercio, y los conflictos sobre la tierra y los recursos. Según Abraham Cruz García, escribiendo en Las Noticias (6 Julio de 2010), “Como sucedió en las épocas de Independencia y Revolución, compañías extranjeras, cuales aves de rapiña, protegidas y solapadas por los gobiernos federal y estatal, se han apoderado de miles de hectáreas que campesinos destinan a cultivos de granos de primera necesidad.”

Cruz García también escribe sobre un libro nuevo por Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, sobre las 30 personas que controlan la economía, los medios de comunicación, y el gobierno federal. Cantan ellos, “no nos moverán.”

Se puede encontrar esperanza en la retórica de Gabino Cue, y en el movimiento ciudadano que lo elegía. Esperanza y retórica son bastante buenas, pero hay mucho más para ganar la paz, el progreso, la justicia, y la reconciliación.

6 Julio de 2010

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »