Leaving Oaxaca

This is my last day in Oaxaca. I wanted to return to my impressions and update them a bit because they have changed. Last time I talked about Oaxaca – on Facebook, I think – I said I would never want to live here. The people are poor, the lifestyle is not particularly healthy, and there is no new money pumping into the economy except from tourists and from people who have left and now send money home. There are very few jobs, and many get by on what they can sell in the streets: tamales, elotes, tortas, tlayudas, huipiles and so on.

The average Oaxacan earns about 75 pesos a day: $6 US. Yes, many make much more, but you basically have two classes here: those who, in one way or another, work for the Government (the ‘haves’) and those who don’t (the ‘have-nots’). One of my teachers graduated from college a couple of years ago with a class of 200. Ten have real jobs today. There is no real industry and no opportunity.

But that’s an American perspective (mine). It hadn’t occurred to me that people might actually WANT it this way . . . but I think many, probably most, do.

Oaxaquenos are extremely proud of their culture(s), heritage(s), their homeland, their language(s) and their way of life. They see the Mexico of DF (Mexico City) as a foreign country, not the Mexico where they live. Most have no use for anything north of the State border and if given the choice, I think there might be a good chance this State (as well as Chiapas) would secede from the Mexican Union and become it’s own nation (just my opinion).

They don’t want to become Puerta Vallarta. They see the massive influx of white people from the North and the construction of endless condos there as a kind of invasion and occupation – which it is. They don’t even want to become Queretaro, an Atlanta-like donut with the historic Centro as the hole and the glut of industry, jobs and people living one on top of the other in a circle around. One of the first things I saw when I arrived in Queretaro last November was a group of kids sniffing glue in a bag.

Oaxaquenos don’t want that. They like things here pretty much just the way they are. Yes, there are protests almost daily, but the marches and rallies are usually against some attempt to change the way things are.

Years ago, MacDonalds was going to open in one of the prime spaces on the side of the Zocalo (the main square). The people, led by local artist, Francisco Toledo, raised such a stink, were so loud and persistent, that MacDonalds changed it’s mind. There is no Macdonalds in the historic Centro. Unfortunately, there is a Burger King. It’s a very small place a block off the Zocalo on the main walking street. The only reason it is there is that the deal was made and the restaurant equipped in secret. The first the locals knew about it was the day it opened. They were not happy, but it was too late.

I’ve made much of the idea that Oaxaca had a shot at a real economy a dozen years ago, when Volkswagen wanted to build their Mexico plant here and make Oaxaca the birthplace of the modern Beetle. The Government said no, and the plant is now in Puebla, which has the benefit of all those jobs and all of that money flowing into the economy. What I didn’t know is that the Government was acting on behalf of the people: most didn’t want the plant. They saw it as a threat to their way of life, a way that we judge as somehow ‘less than’ with our American eyes.

Yes, I have had a bit of a turnaround in my thinking over the past 8 weeks. And the key to my shifting point-of-view has been the children of Oaxaca.

It took awhile to realize it, but the kids here are remarkably happy. I don’t see a lot of drugged out angry street kids. I really don’t. It’s subtly jarring to see 16 year olds smiling and going around town arm in arm with their parents. The family is The Most Important Thing, and parents are actually revered by their children. I know: I’m speaking in some pretty broad generalizations, but after all, this is a blog – my blog – and if anything, it’s my opinion.

This week in my little Barrio of Jalatlaco, we’ve been celebrating a Week of Culture. Every evening there have been wonderful performances of music, dance and even drama in the large churchyard next door. It’s all been free. Many of the acts, particularly the dancing acts, have been local teenagers: 15 – 17 year old kids. They have blown my mind. Not only has the dancing been electrifying, the attitudes I have seen have been stunning. Here are these kids, wearing the traditional clothing their grandparents wore, doing traditional dances their great grandparents did . . . and loving every minute. The smiles and laughter have been genuine and the fun real. Their parents are in the audience and when the dance is done there is usually a gathering around of the families in loving celebration.

Try doing that in America. Or in DF. Our kids are emulating Britny Spears (who has taken to referring to herself as ‘Britny-Bitch’, how charming), and whichever Rap performer is most angry this week. To many of them The Most Important Thing is the television or the video game: both means of escape.

The kids I’ve seen in Oaxaca aren’t interested in escaping anything. Instead, they are embracing their families, their culture, their lifestyles and their land.

Another one of my teachers is from DF. We had a number of long talks about Oaxaca, the economy, the protests, the poverty. Over time I came to understand that she chose to move here to raise her family precisely because she thought she’d have a better chance of raising happy kids. She has been successful. Yesterday, during our last class, she gave me a Oaxacan expression in Spanish:

Si el dinero entra por la puerta, el amor sale por la ventana

Roughly: when money comes in the door, love goes out the window. I think, while everyone would like life to be a little easier here, the idea that progress may disrupt the beautiful peace they have achieved in their families and their lives is the overriding principal.

I completely understand and respect this. In fact, I am in awe of it. Would I want to live here? As a working American? Probably not. But would I want to retire here? With no driving goals to get more, do more be more? In a second.