Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Stereotypes (Are Fun)

For those of you who were wondering: Yes, I am finally back in Oaxaca now, and teaching again. My long vacation ended, after all. I am pretty excited about this semester because instead of having mostly Level 1 English classes (and Level 3 classes that seem like Level 1), this term most of my classes are at least Level 2, including one Pre-TOEFL and one TOEFL class, in which most of the students are legitimately advanced! Finally, the chance to talk about real things in English!

One professor suggested I create a "pronunciation course" for his students (once a week over the course of the term), but since I think focusing solely on pronunciation is boring, frustrating for students, and unnecessary, I suggested it be a pronunciation AND American culture course. This week, I found I didn't even have time for the pronunciation exercise I planned (whoops) because I was too busy with my activity about American and Mexican stereotypes. I repeated this lesson with several advanced and intermediate groups during the course of the week.

The first part of the activity was have students brainstorm what they thought were stereotypes Mexicans have of Americans, and stereotypes Americans have of Mexicans. But, just to be prepared, I wrote down some stereotypes of my own before I came to class:

American stereotypes (copied from a sheet taken from Peace Corps training materials):
-Americans are always in a hurry to get things done.
-Americans always have to say what they're thinking.
-Americans always want to change things.
-Americans don't show very much respect for their elders.
-Americans insist on treating everyone the same. (I quickly crossed this one off the list, because a Mexican friend told me that NO ONE in Mexico believes this about Americans. Maybe it is true in cultures where hierarchies are more important--age hierarchies, caste hierarchies, etc.)
-Americans always think things are going to get better. They are so optimistic!
-Americans are impatient.

...and a few more that I came up with:
-Americans are superficial.
-Americans love McDonald's and other fast food.
-Americans don't have time for family.
-Americans are ignorant/racist/don't know anything about other cultures.

Mexican stereotypes (that I came up with):
-Mexicans are lazy.
-Mexicans don't want to learn English.
-Mexicans love to eat tacos, burritos, and nachos.
-Mexicans are always drinking beer and Tequila.
-All Mexicans wear sombreros.
-Mexicans are always late to everything.
-Mexican men are machista.
-Mexican women are submissive.
-Family is more important to Mexicans than anything else.

So, you might think that it would be easy for Mexicans to come up with lots of stereotypes they have about Americans. Actually, this part was much more difficult for them than identifying stereotypes that Americans have of Mexicans. The only two stereotypes anyone thought of that I also had on my list were "superficial" and "racist" (hmm, what does that say about us??). Many of the things they came up with were not really stereotypes, but rather things they had observed about American expats and tourists in Oaxaca.

According to my students, Americans:
-dislike Latin Americans
-get sick from Mexican food
-like Mexican beaches
-can't dance Latin music (hey!)
-like to dance salsa (that's more like it!)
-don't eat tortillas
-don't like spicy food
-don't like to eat "chapulines" (grasshoppers--well, duh)
-like mezcal (yeah!)
-like nutella (hell yeah!)
-always have ice cream at parties.
-always have parties with alcohol at home (young Americans)
-like drugs (young Americans)
-are tall
-wear sunscreen every day
-like to travel
-don't shower every day (??)
-like baseball (men)
-are blond, blue-eyed, and white-skinned
-are spring break-ers (and are out of their minds)
-are precocious
-wear Nike
-love Mickey Mouse

When it came to Mexican stereotypes, the students' lists were almost identical to my list, almost every time (with the exception of "Mexicans don't want to learn English"--which I'm sure they would have thought of if they lived in the United States). Some additional ones they came up with were that we think Mexicans:
-are happy all the time
-are fat
-are short
-have a mustache
-wear cowboy boots
-like sleeping under cacti
-like mariachi
-sing serenades (men)
-are horny (ALSO men)
-like to block streets in protests (well, maybe that's just Oaxacans!)

In the second part of the activity, I gave the students my two cents (and my cultural-anthropological theories) about the American stereotypes. I then asked the students, working in groups, to pick one stereotype of Mexicans, decide if it is true or false, some of the time or all of the time, and try to explain why Americans might have this idea about Mexicans (in other words, did the stereotypes come from movies, recism, direct observation...?). The last part was pretty difficult for some of the groups, but it led to some interesting discussions.

What did I learn from all this? Most notable, that American (exported) media paints a more vivid picture of Mexicans than I had realized before--or, maybe by some other means, Mexicans are extremely aware about what the rest of the rest of the world thinks about them. Perhaps the image they have of gringos from the movies is a bit more nuanced (since the movies are made by gringos), albeit still somewhat false.

And for the record, my two cents about the Mexican stereotypes:

-Mexicans are lazy: Absolutely not. From what I've seen, Mexicans might be among the hardest-working people on earth. The Mexicans I knew in Philadelphia worked long hours, sometimes at two or three jobs, in order to send money home to their families. Likewise, several of the English professors where I work have two or three jobs, and/or are studying at the same time.
-Mexicans don't want to learn English: Also not true--but English not that easy to learn! Why is it that we always criticize Mexicans in the US for not knowing English, but when Americans travel to Latin America they also want everyone THERE to speak English? Besides, if it is so important that Mexicans in the US learn English, why don't we stop calling them illegal and encourage them to pursue a quality education?
-Mexicans love to eat tacos, burritos, and nachos: Tacos, yes. But maybe not what Americans living in the U.S. think tacos are. Burritos, no. This seems to be more of a Mexican-American food than a Mexican food. Nachos, yes; they are commonly served in restaurants the way we would serve bread, as an appetizer with green or red salsa.
-Mexicans are always drinking beer and Tequila: Beer, yes. Although, this is much more true for men than women. Tequila? Maybe. In Oaxaca, we just drink mezcal. ;)
-All Mexicans wear sombreros and cowboy boots/have mustaches/sleep under cacti: Obviously, no.
-Mexicans are always late to everything: Well, yes, and they themselves will admit that. It is a result of a culture that puts less value on rushing around to get things done, and more on enjoying life. That doesn't mean they're lazy; in fact, you can pretty reliably count on things starting 15 minutes to 2 hours late (depending on the type of meeting or event).
-Mexican men are machista: Yes, many are, but this is rapidly changing, especially in the cities (according to my students).
-Mexican women are submissive: To an extent, many women still live in the shadow of "machista" men, but this is also changing and is obviously not true for all women (if they were all submissive, how would Mexican women ever have won themselves any rights in a male-dominated society?). Also, as a couple of my students pointed out, this stereotype tends to be reinforced in the United States because many Mexican women who come to the states work as nannies or maids.
-Family is more important to Mexicans than anything else: Compared to people in the United States, family is much more important to Mexicans. In the U.S., we place more value on individual achievement, are more likely to live far from family, and chosen companions are more valued (friends, spouse).
-Mexicans are short: This is generally true for Oaxacans, comparatively. The Mayans and other related ethnic groups of Southern Mexico are known to be some of the shortest people in the world. That said, I also know some pretty damn tall Mexicans.
-Mexican men like singing serenades: This has never happened to me. :(
-Mexican men are horny: Isn't everybody?

This is Naomi Harper, stereotype expert, signing off.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Fiesta hopping: Chiapa de Corzo, Chamula, San Pablo La Laguna

My month of travel through Chiapas and Guatemala began January 14th, when I got on a bus headed to Tuxtla Gutierrez, Chiapas. Unwittingly, I have been just in time for a series of fiestas patronales in all the places I have stumbled across. And by stumbled across, I mean almost literally: in particular I would never have ended up in San Pablo La Laguna, Guatemala, if I hadn´t made a new friend on a crowded bus on the way there. This is what I love about low-budget traveling.

In Chiapa de Corzo, a town in between Tuxtla Gutierrez and San Cristobal de las Casas, the big "Fiesta de Enero" is celebrated, as you might have guessed, almost the entire month of January, culminating in the 21st and 22nd. This festival features lots of dancers dressed up as "Parachicos" in traditional indigenous costume, white masks, and strange round white fuzzy hats. The legend goes that years ago, a Spanish woman was looking for someone to cure her sick son. No one could seem to help him, until she found a local curandero that treated his illness by dressing up as a white woman and doing a little dance for the kid (hence the name "para-chico"). Apparently this miracle warranted a giant party for three weeks in January in which the men sometimes dress up as women. In addition, on the night of the 21st there was a reenactment of a naval battle that took place at some point between the Spaniards and indigenous people. My friends Kevin and Eduardo and I sat and watched the reenacted naval battle from the shore of the river--an impressive hour-long display of fireworks, fake gunfire, and boats floating around. To top it all off, there was a fair including a ride simulating riding a bull. I held tight on the back of the bull for several minutes and thus discovered a new talent of mine.

Meanwhile, on February 20th in many towns was Dia de San Sebastian. I don't really know anything particular about this fiesta, but I was lucky enough to pass through San Juan Chamula, a small town outside of San Cristobal de las Casas, on the day it was happening. The fiesta, as most here do, involved loud music, dancing, and firecrackers. There was a band playing on the bandstand in the town center, and around it danced costume people, some wearing masks of the faces of former presidents. But the real attraction of Chamula is the church, unlike any other I have ever seen or heard of. The attraction of this church isn´t the stunning architecture or decor, but rather the lack thereof. There are no seats inside the church, only leaves and pine needles scattered all over the floor, with tall wax candles sticking up out of it. Immediately when you enter the church, you were struck with the overwhelming smell of burning incense and the sound of music: harp and accordion. On this particular day, perhaps because of the festival, the church was packed with local people in their traditional wooly black skirts and tunics. Many people sat on the floor in front of shrines burning their incense, lighting their candles, chanting and singing. The sides of the church were decorated with saints in indigenous attire. Giant bouquets of colorful flowers hung fron the ceiling. Obviously, there is no traditional mass in this church: instead people kind of hold their own individual worship sessions and sometimes perform healing and purifying ceremonies that involved being wacked by herbs and/or having an egg rubbed over you.

After pushing our way through the crowd, my friend Eduardo and I peeked into a side room with some more lit candles and decided to go in out of curiosity. No sooner were we about to return to the main room when we were scolded by a local, who demanded to know who had given us permission to enter that room, saying that "foreigners" were not allowed there (to him, my friend from Mexico City was evidently no less of a foreigner than myself). He made us leave the church immediately and we had to re-enter through the main door. So I discovered that Chamulas do not like foreigners--but really, can you blame them?

The most adventurous of my adventures so far was getting from the ruins near Comitan, Mexico, to the tiny village of San Pablo La Laguna, Guatemala, in the course of one long day. A couple days before, I met up with Kevin, another Fulbrighter, who joined me briefly on my journey. We stopped to rest for a night in Comitan, a city between San Cristobal and the Guatemalan border, and decided to make an early morning visit some nearby ruins before heading to Guatemala. By the time we crossed the border, it was 2 PM and we discovered that we had missed the one daily direct bus to Lago Atitlan, our preferred destination. After asking several people including an immigration official, it became clear that there was no one best way to get there and that it was not certain we would even get there that same day at all. Befuddled, we hopped on a bus that we told was going to a place called Xela, but actually just overcharged us and dropped us off before that in a place called Huehue (both of the full names of these towns end in "tenango"--about fifty percent of Guatemalan towns seem to have long names that end in "tenango", meaning "place of", which doesn't make things easy for foreigners to begin with). From there, we got on another bus that was actually going to Xela, with the intention of getting off at a place called "Cuatro Caminos" and then taking one or two more buses to Panajachel, if the buses were even still running at that time of the evening. We were half expecting to end up spending the night in Cuatro Caminos--kind of a middle-of-nowhere crossroad town. The buses were both school bus style and packed with people--three to a seat and sometimes people sitting in the isle with their butt partly on one seat, partly on another and partly in mid-air. I was nervous about getting to some random sketchy place after dark, and started sipping a water bottle containing mezcal to give me strength.

But alas, our good luck began when Kevin misplaced a flip flop somewhere on the floor of the bus, and turned around to ask the guy behind him to look around for it. The guy quickly found it, and Kevin thanked him, starting up a conversation about how we were trying to get to Panajachel by the end of the day. Just as the generous fellow was calling up some friends in Cuatro Caminos to see if buses were still running from there to Panajachel, another guy on the bus overheard us and chimed in that he was from a small town on Lago Atitlan called San Pablo La Laguna, which just coincidentally was having its yearly Fiesta Patronal at that moment, and if we wanted to go there we could come with him. We accepted, obviously, and got off the bus with our new friend, Juan, in Cuatro Caminos. Two hitch-hiked rides from dark street corners later, we were in the back of a truck bed with a bunch of rowdy, indigenous language-speaking friends of Juan, heading down the last stretch of road leading to San Pablo La Laguna. We entered the town via a winding road through the mountains, and as we got closer could actually see fireworks going off in the town from above. It was a totally surreal, spectacular sight.

When we arrived in the town my jaw must have been hanging open and adrenaline rushing through my body from all the color, movement, sounds and smells surrounding us. Fireworks and fire crackers were still going off everywhere, loud music was playing, the market was bustling. One of the first things we saw was an entire recently slaughtered cow. Juan took us to his house, where he lives with his parents, his wife, and seemingly about five or six more adults, in addition to a bunch of adopted orphan children. His father leads a small project to raise money for school materials for children in the town of San Pablo. The house was a pretty bare-bones, dirt floor hut, but the centerpiece of what I guess you could call the livingroom was a pretty nice TV that Juan said a Canadian friend had donated for the kids. I never saw the TV turned off at any point when I entered the house during the three days I staid in San Pablo. A few feet away from the kids sitting in a hammock and watching TV were some women making tortillas on a comal. When I tried to make a couple, I was evidently doing it all wrong and they laughed at me.

Virtually no tourists go to San Pablo--most stick to the more developed hang-out spots around the lake--and therefore there are no official hotels. But Juan took us to the home of a friend of his who has kind of an unofficial hotel. Cramped rooms, no extra keys to the building (you have to ring the bell to get in), a very small and unpleasant shared bathroom, no hot water, not very much running water at all in fact--but beggars can't be choosers. After Kevin and I had installed ourselves in our "hotel" room, Juan took us to a local corner store to get a couple beers and chat with his buddies. We then watched part of a beauty pageant that was going on apparently to pick this year's town beauty queen. We missed most of the beginning, but were in time to see a long speech by last year's queen, accompanied by music and many creative hand motions, spoken first in the indigenous Mayan language of the town and then in Spanish.

I decided to stay a couple more days in San Pablo until Tuesday, January 25th, which was the main day of the festival. All day, there were traditional dances taking place in several different parts of the town at once, involving people dressed up in elaborate costumes with masks and dancing mainly to marimba music. There was also a small fair, including a rickety ferris wheel which I decided to try my luck on. It wasn´t that big but was actually pretty scary due to its speed and questionable supports. On the ferris wheel I was sitting next to a 13-year-old girl named Anna, who was very friendly. We got into a bit of a girl talk in which she told me that she didn´t have a boyfriend, but her father's best friend was always bothering her and wanting to be her novio. But, she said she wanted to wait to get married and I said that sounded like a good idea. We rode around the ferris wheel twice and then walked around the town for a bit with her little brother, Pablo Fermin (maybe the best name ever for an 8'year'old), watching the different traditional dances.

A little later, I met up again with Juan in his house and we went to get some drinks before going to watch the much-anticipated marimba band from Colombia along with Juan´s wife and brother-in-law. There was much dancing (although I discovered that Guatemalans just dance a slow version of merengue instead of bothering with cumbia), and as you might imagine, many drunken males. Actually, there were more drunken males stumbling around and wrestling with each other than there were dancing couples. But what can you do? At around 1 am Juan and his wife walked me back to my "hotel," but there were some big speakers playing cumbia music full blast right across the street, and we rang the doorbell at least 500 times but there was no answer. Juan offered me a spot to sleep in a hammock in his house, but finally I got into my room by climbing up onto the roof of an old lady´s house (we got her permission first) and from there onto the balcony attached to my room. I then discovered that there were a bunch of Guatemalan tourists in sleeping bags covering the floor of the hallway, and I had to step over them to get to the bathroom. I then attempted to sleep with the music still going full blast right below my window, only to be rudely awoken at 6:30 AM by the "hotel" owner unlocking the door to my room, poking his head in and saying, if I heard him correctly: "Are you done sleeping yet?" Seeing that I was still in bed, I suppose he considered his question answered. He grunted and closed the door again.

My eventful stay in San Pablo culminated with a morning walk with Juan up to a mountain peak called "La Nariz del Maya", so called because seen along with the surrounding mountains, it really does look like the nose on the profile of a person. The hike included some gorgeous views of Lago Atitlan, and was a great way to say goodbye to my newfound friend and to Lago Atitlan. More adventures soon to come...

Monday, December 27, 2010

Birthing a Lamb

While my mom and Joe were here, we spent a day horseback riding in the beautiful Sierra Norte community of Benito Juarez. On the way back, we decided to give our taxi driver some extra cash and have him stop for a half hour in Teotitlán del Valle, so we could pay a brief visit to my surrogate family there and buy a weaving or two from Leonor.

It just so happened that Joe had to go to the bathroom, and the bathroom in Leonor's house is right next to the sheep pen. While pausing to look at the sheep, my mom noticed that one of them was lying on the ground in labor.
I ran to tell Leonor. "Otra vez?!" she said, and ran over to see for herself. "Sí, va a tener un bebé!" She ran into a shed and came out with a hypodermic needle and solution in hand, and we watched as this tiny 4-foot woman jumped the fence into the sheep pen with the agility of a 15-year-old, and began chasing after the mother sheep, who had now gotten up and run away in fear.

After recovering from my initial state of awe, I asked if she needed any help. She said yes, she would need someone to help catch the mother sheep and hold her down while she injected her with the solution that would relax her and help her to give birth to the lamb. So Joe and I both jumped the fence and began pursuing the sheep. After a minute or two we cornered her and held her still while Leonor gave her the injection. My mom became the photographer.
After receiving the injection, the mother sheep became a bit more sedate and Leonor began pulling out the lamb with her bare hands. I was holding the mother near her head and could actually hear her sighing in pain and relief like a human being.
When the lamb was born it was still covered in the placenta, and Leonor told us to get her some toilet paper so she could clean it off. It was a huge, healthy baby lamb, about the same size as another lamb that had been born a full week before! It was a boy, and within a few minutes he was already wobbling on his legs and trying to walk! It was lucky we spotted the mother when she had just started going into labor, because it was her first time giving birth and the lamb probably would not have survived without human assistance. The only mishap was that Leonor burned the peanuts she had been cooking. I had the honor of naming the newborn: "Guerito" after his accidental guero saviors, and his white color.

All this happened in about 15 minutes, and miraculously we still had time to look at weavings afterwards! Also, Joe made a new friend of his own.
Sheep are cherished by this family because they are an important part of their livelihood. The sheep are sheered, the wool is carded, spun and dyed with natural dyes, and the yarn is woven on a loom into beautiful rugs and other items, which are then sold to tourists. It all starts here.

If you are interested in buying a woven rug from Leonor, contact me and I will get you in touch, she can package and ship things to the states!

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Wrapping It Up with some Cultural Exchange

Things got a bit more interesting towards the end of the term both at my "real job" at the Instituto Tecnológico and at my volunteer job in the Teotitlán primary school. With the University kids, I decided I was just plain tired of giving simple level one lessons, and wanted to do some cultural activities, even though the students' low level of English made it necessary for me to use more Spanish in these classes than usual.

During the week of Thanksgiving, I gave the students a short paragraph to read about Thanksgiving, then a series of past tense statements telling the story of the first Thanksgiving. They had a list of questions and had to match each question with the correct statement. But since I can't stand the sickeningly sweet and therefore dubious nature of the Thanksgiving story, I then felt the need to explain in Spanish some info I found on the internet, about the "Second Thanksgiving" that took place 15 years after the first: this time, the "savages" weren't invited because the settlers were celebrating having "conquered" them. Most of my students got an ironic laugh out of this story. Some didn't laugh, and it was kind of awkward. Granted, I think as US citizens we deserve at the very least to have a little of an awkward feeling about our history.

On the other hand, I found that giving my disclaimer to the more innocent, mostly indigenous 6th graders of Teotitlán was a bit more difficult. How do you tell them the sweet Thanksgiving story and then explain that actually, in the United States, we generally treated the Indians even WORSE than they were treated in Mexico? "After the first Thanksgiving, there were a few misunderstandings..." I found myself saying idiotically. I now have a newfound understanding of the challenges facing elementary school teachers, who feel obligated to teach something meaningful about Thanksgiving when the season comes, but must have a hard time thinking up a youth-friendly way to tell the whole truth. Is it OK to teach kids (or students with limited English) the nice parts of history and leave out the gory details? How do you teach kids history anyway if it's mostly made up of gory details that would probably give them nightmares? I've been thinking about this a lot since reading Howard Zinn's "A People's History" over the summer. I'd be interested to hear other people's opinions.

For my last lesson at the Tec I prepared an activity surrounding Adam Sandler's humorous "Chanukah Song." I wanted to teach the students a little about Chanukah since my family is Jewish and there are very few Jews in Mexico, but I also wanted to end off the term with a little comedy. After giving the students a brief background about Chanukah, I played the song and spent the rest of the time explaining Sandler's jokes and who the stars are that he mentions. For the record I think "The Chanukah Song" is a bad way to teach people about Judaism but a really good way to teach about Jewish American pop culture icons from the 80's and 90's, which I guess is somewhat appropriate for an ESL class. It also felt good to at least make the students aware of what Chanukah and Judaism are, since most of them had no idea. Maybe now they will be inspired to look it up on Wikipedia. I hardly even think of myself as a Jew, but funny how you always seem to end up defending your cultural heritage when you are the minority or when it is under attack. The same with being American. I'm not particularly proud of it, but every once in a while being in a foreign country brings out a patriotic feeling I didn't even know I had in me.

My dad, Lee Harper, came for a visit to Oaxaca during what was to be my second to last week volunteer teaching the 6th graders in the Teotitlán primary school. Since he is a children's book illustrator, I thought that would be a good opportunity to have him read a couple of his picture books in English to the kids. The visit was a great success; the kids loved the pictures and seemed to be able to get the gist of the stories even though they still hardly understand any English. I tried to do minimal translating while my dad read; the idea was total English immersion. The first one he read, called "Turkey Trouble," is a Thanksgiving story about a turkey who dresses up as other farm animals to avoid being eaten (which provided me the opportunity to tell the kids a little about Thankgiving). The second one, called "Snow! Snow! Snow!" was interesting for them because most have never actually seen snow. And the third book, "Woolbur", about a sheep who doesn't follow the flock, was appropriate for the kids in Teotitlán considering that it mentions a lot of the steps involved in spinning/dying yarn and weaving, a subject that they are very familiar with. After my dad read his books, he did a little character-drawing demonstration on the whiteboard, which the kids loved, and the students had the opportunity to ask him questions.

My dad's visit also came at a very opportune time because my students' in Teotitlán had been working on their "final project" (really, just as much my project as theirs): to create an illustrated book of stories and legends of Teotitlán, told in Spanish, English, and Zapotec. I had the idea to do this quite a while ago, but it took some thought to figure out how I was actually going to accomplish it while making the students feel as involved in the book's creation as possible. First, I gave the students in all three 6th grade classes a homework assignment: to ask an older person in the community to tell them a story, history, myth or legend from Teotitlán, and to write it down in Spanish. I collected the students' legends, read them over and chose a few of the ones I liked the most, often legends that had been written about by more than one student. I typed up the legends, editing them lightly as I went along, and assigned each class two or three of them to illustrate and translate to Zapotec. I assigned each student a scene from the story to illustrate and a brief excerpt (generally one or two sentences) of the Spanish text to translate to Zapotec (I told them that if they themselves didn't speak Zapotec, they could ask someone else in the community to help them). Then, I translated all the text into English, and my friend Celestino, who is conveniently pretty fluent in all three languages under discussion, looked over the kids' Zapotec translations, edited them and typed them up. All in all, it was probably actually more work for Celes and me than for the 6th graders, but I definitely learned a lot in the process and the final product came out beautifully. You can read the legends and see some of the drawings here.

I put all the drawings and text from the three classes together in a three-ring binder and read the entire thing to each class on my last day there. The kids seem to really enjoy it. They commented on truth or falsity of the legends and were always very curious to know which of their classmates had done each illustration. I ended off the class by showing the students a picture of the "Jersey Devil", some good old New Jersey folklore, just to complete the cultural exchange and show them that legends are not unique to Teototlán or to Mexico. I think I will eventually leave their book of legends with the school or maybe even the town museum, and am going to look into getting funding so I can make a color copy of the whole book to give to each student.

Since the primary school is divided into two groups, a morning group and afternoon group, and since next semester I will be working mornings in the Instituto Tecnológico instead of afternoons, I unfortunately will not be able to continue working with the same students. I considered working with the afternoon group at the primary school next semester, but for my own benefit I'd rather not have to repeat the same exact classes that I did with this group. I am thinking about talking to the director of the high school in Teotitlán to see if I could do some volunteer English classes starting in March, just for a different experience and a new age group I have no experience working with. But I'd have to see how that kind of volunteer position would work out.

Well, now I am on vacation from my "job" for a ridiculously long time and have some exciting things lined up, including more visits from family and friends, a camping trip/pilgrimage to a town called "Juquila" with some Oaxacan friends right after Christmas, a trip to the Oaxacan Pacific coast, and then a month-long adventure traveling in Chiapas and Guatemala (from mid-January to mid-February). I have no complaints about my life right now.

A couple ambitions for next semester (starting in late February), apart from possibly volunteering in the high school in Teotitlán: first, I would like to try to play intramural soccer with a girls' team at the Tec. This semester it was difficult to do that because of my afternoon work schedule. Secondly, I would like to audit a French class at the UABJO (Universidad Autónoma Benito Juarez de Oaxaca). Up until now I have been learning French from a multi-lingual Oaxacan friend in exchange for English classes. But unfortunately he will be leaving soon for Europe to start his PhD in February. A LOT of expats as well as tourists in Oaxaca speak French--who knew I'd have more need for that language here than anywhere else I have ever been in my life? I guess it's not as cool as learning Zapotec, but it's looking a bit more realistic.

Much more to come, thanks to everyone who reads this and please leave comments! I'd love to know how you are doing and hear your reactions to this stuff.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Vela de las Auténticas, Intrépidas Buscadoras de Peligro

Meet the Authentic, Intrepid Danger-Seekers of Juchitán, Oaxaca. Another name for them is "muxes" (moo-shays), a positive way of referring to gay men in the Istmo region of Oaxaca. The Zapotecs of the Isthmus maintain a society that many have called "matriarchal", full of strong, powerful women who serve as heads of household in both the economic (commercial) and domestic spheres (men play larger roles in the spheres of production, politics and culture). Because the culture values women so highly, it is usually not seen as a bad thing for some boys to display certain womanly characteristics. In fact, the culture has created a space for gay men as kind of a "third sex".

Traditionally in this region, if a boy shows signs of being a "muxe", his mother will not admonish him, but rather encourage the behavior, even going so far as to cross-dress the boy and raise him as female. Although attitudes are rapidly changing due to the strong machismo present in the rest of Mexico, Zapotec mothers in the Istmo tend to consider a muxe "the best kind of son", because he is less likely to marry and more likely to stay at home for most of his life, caring for his mother. What more could a mother want? Although I have so far been unable to confirm this with any source I have found in my cursory internet research, I have also been told that if an Istmo mom has no daughters, she might raise her youngest son as a muxe, cross-dressing him and preventing him from marrying, the goal being to ensure that there will be someone around to care for her in old age.

The sources I have read on the topic seem to agree that in modern times, it is less likely for a boy to be raised a muxe by his mother and more likely for gay men to face scorn and abuse from their fathers, and prejudice both from the community and the larger society. Yet, the Intrépidas dare to be openly gay, often transvestites in the middle of machista Mexico. Intrepid danger-seekers indeed.

Infiltrating machismo aside, it is evident that a semi-comfortable space exists for gay men to inhabit in Juchitán (not so much gay women, unfortunately): something that cannot be said for Oaxaca City or anywhere else in Mexico I have heard of. In Oaxaca, I have yet to meet anyone openly gay (except for maybe my zumba teacher, who I'm not even sure was openly gay). Most Oaxacans will not self-define as gay-haters, but the majority are culturally Catholic and clearly homophobic. Gay bars exist, but straight people tend to keep their distance. Not so in Juchitán, from what I observed during the two days I spent there. For starters, the community welcomes this annual gay celebration and transvestite beauty contest, the "Vela de las Auténticas, Intrépidas Buscadoras de Peligro".

"Velas" are traditional community celebrations in the Isthmo, often in honor of a saint. They usually take the form of a block party in which people dress up in traditional costume, drink lots of beer and dance all night. Most velas are not gay velas, but the Intrépidas organize their own velas several times a year. This particular vela, held every year at the end of November, is the biggest and most extravagant of them. It begins with a week of cultural events such as movie screenings and artistic exhibits, then culminates with a beauty contest to which muxes both from home and abroad are invited, and dancing all night for three nights straight. In the past it has been held in a dance hall. This year it was held in a large outdoor tent, but was no less of a party. And the best part: everyone is invited.

The thing that most impressed me was the community's general acceptance and even embracing of the event. My friend Sarah and I had the opportunity to chat with various people we met over the course of the weekend: a family of flower vendors, the caretakers of our hostel, a couple girls from couchsurfing, a gay man visiting from Oaxaca to attend the vela, and the woman who sold us the iguana soup we had for breakfast (yes, that's right, iguana soup!). All of whom encouraged us to go to the vela, and most of whom were thinking about going themselves. The entire weekend I had my ears open for homophobic comments (such as, "why do you want to go to THAT event?" or "That is THEIR celebration, not ours"), but heard no such things. Those comments only existed in my imagination. Straight and gay couples, trannies and even lesbians all attended the vela, and all had a good time.

Here's how it works: there is no real dress code for the night, but we were told to either wear a traditional costume if we had one, or just wear anything we wanted. Many people were dressed up, though. When you enter the event grounds, you choose one of the Intrépidas to be your host, and go greet her and offer a "limosna"-- in this case a donation of 50 pesos (about $4). In exchange you get to sit in your host's seating area, you are given a plate of food, and can drink as much beer as you want for the remainder of the night. The night consisted of several bands playing cumbia, salsa, and merengue (one band even came from the Dominican Republic, which made me super nostalgic!) followed by a procession of all the Intrépidas down the "runway", all gradually lining up on a stage in the front. This year's Reina (queen), Amarantha, was the MC (see the above photo, right)-- not only intrepid because she's a tranny, but also because she has only one arm. Once all the Intrépidas were up on stage, next year's Reina was announced and crowned. It seems that being named the Queen is not only an honor but a responsibility: she will also be the "mayordomo", or organizer of next year's vela.

Sarah and I left at 1:30 (unforgiveably early for a Mexican party, but we were sick and tired), but the dancing and merriment went on until the wee hours of the morning. After a delicious breakfast the next day of warm, spicy iguana soup (a specialty in Juchitán), at 3:00 we headed over to the "lavada de las ollas" ("the washing of the pots"), apparently a euphemism for continuing the party the next day. (We saw a lot of people dancing, much like the night before, but not one person washing a pot the whole time.) I only staid at the party for a few hours, but was there long enough to see next year's Reina, Mística, dancing a marinera. This party also went all night, without a doubt.

Overall, the Vela reinforced my already strong suspicion that Mexicans know how to party a lot harder than I do. And, it gave me a warm, fuzzy feeling inside about humanity. Granted my impression was somewhat superficial, but I'm not sure if I've ever been in a more gay-friendly place in my life than Juchitán, Mexico. And who woulda thought?

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Día de los Muertos

The very title of this post is a misnomer. In Oaxaca there is not so much a "Day of the Dead" as a "Week of the Dead". The main celebration began on October 31st and lasted until November 2nd, but starting a week earlier you begin to see decorations, "pan de muerto", and candy skulls all around the city, and there are separate days devoted to welcome home different categories of dead-- October 28th: those who died in accidents and violent deaths, October 29th: the unbaptized, October 30th: the "lonely soul", October 31st: baptized children, and finally, at 3:00 PM on November 1st, the children go back to the spirit world to allow the adults to come for a visit. Traditionally, families build altars in their houses to lure the dead back to their homes. The altars include flowers, candles, and pictures of saints as well as offerings of food and drink that the dead person enjoyed in life. Altars for children also include toys and anything else the child enjoyed. Altars are also made on top of tombstones, and some families will spend the entire day and night sitting in the cemetery to be with their deceased--not just sitting solemnly, but often talking amongst themselves, reminiscing about the person, eating and drinking mezcal, or even playing music.

To quickly recap what most people have probably learned in elementary school or Spanish class: Day of the Dead is the most classic example of "synchrotism", the love child of the Catholic All Saints Day and the "cult of the dead" that pervaded pre-hispanic spiritual beliefs in Mexico. In the pre-hispanic belief, death is just a continuation of life, and spirits of the dead are ever-present in life. It just so happened that indigenous harvest celebrations in which people made food offerings to their dead almost perfectly coincided with All Saints Day at the end of October, the colonists decided to take advantage, and so Day of the Dead was born.

Now that I've made the introduction, I want to steer away from this blog sounding like a quaint description of a foreign tradition, and really try to get across what the experience was like. Because, as cliché as it sounds, there is a big difference between learning about Day of the Dead in school and actually experiencing it. Being the secular humanist that I am, it is rare for me to feel connected with any sort of spiritual holiday, but with this one, I really felt like I "got it". During Day of the Dead, death is not just solemly observed, but celebrated as being part of life. The dead are not just mourned, but invited home to party. And satiric epitaphs are written for the living, in the form of "calavera" poems (following this link you can read the calaveras I wrote for my friends). In short, the holiday is both serious and solemn (because what could be more serious than life and death?) and a time to celebrate (because, well, if we can't laugh about life and death what can we laugh about?).

I am reminded of a short story by Jorge Luis Borges called "The Immortals". In it, a man stumbles upon the "City of the Immortals", only to find that it is inhabited by a race of "troglodytes" who have built a completely chaotic city full of dead ends and nonsensical architecture, and sit around most of the time doing nothing with no intention of achieving anything. It turns out that these creatures, knowing they are immortal, have no motivation to do anything because there is no time limit to their existence. The point is that the fact of death gives more immediacy to life; our existence would be meaningless and boring without death. Thus, death is an essential part of life. Maybe I'm way off, but for me, that is what Day of the Dead is about.

Now for a breakdown of what I did and saw during the main days of the celebration. On Friday, I took a stroll through the zócalo and observed the construction of six or eight huge sand sculptures depicting skulls and skeletons. The people constructing these sculptures used shovels as well as cardboard molds that created the shape of a skull, for example, the same way you would make a sand castle on the beach using a bucket. When I came back the next day to see them completed, the sculptures had been spray-painted with color, creating several gigantic, colorful 3-D scenes on the floor of the zócalo.

For several days, the zócolo was also strewn with MULT flags. MULT (Movimiento Unificación y Lucha Triqui) is an indigenous autonomy movement representing Triqui people who want complete autonomy of their people from the Mexican government. One of the leaders of the movement was recently assassinated, and aside from the fact that many holiday celebrations here usually seem to become venues for protest, Day of the Dead was an appropriate occasion to remember Timoteo Alejandro Ramírez and other casualties of military violence against indigenous people and activists. In addition to MULT, APPO also had a presence in the zócalo, displaying an altar to the victims of the teachers' strike that turned violent in 2006. The altar included skulls made of sand with toothpicks stuck into them bearing the names of the victims, along with photos of gory scenes from 2006. That altar really struck a cord for me and gave me a bit of a lump in my throat. It's all good to joke about death, to party and drink mezcal for days on end, but when the moment comes to be serious, you get serious.

Friday night I celebrated Halloween in a (slightly) more American way: first, I attended an event at the Cineclub Pochote entitled: "OUIJA: Session for the Resurrection of Edgar Allen Poe. Spiritual session for wizards, witches, charlatans and detractors." (When I saw that advertised, I obviously had no choice but to go.) Unfortunately, there were some technical problems with the projector that prevented Edgar Allen Poe from being properly resurrected; apparently these days we rely on computers even to bring dead people back to life. But, as a group we did manage to have an MS-DOS style chat with the damned spirit of Poe. Following that, I went with a couple friends to a Halloween party at Txalaparta, a popular bar here. In Mexico Halloween is kind of celebrated simultaneously with Día de los Muertos, but in Oaxaca at least, the emphasis is more on the latter. And the costumes tend to me more scary; you won't see anyone dress up as Shakira or a flight attendant, unless they're dead Shakira or a dead flight attendant.

On Sunday the Day of the Dead celebrations in Oaxaca officially began: outside of the Panteón General (main cemetery) there was an all-out fair that lasted for days, I mean with junk food, games, toys, a carousel and a mini ferris wheel. And lots and lots of gringos. Inside the Panteón the tombs had been decorated with flowers, sand murals, and altars, and some families sat on the tombs of their loved ones chatting, eating, playing music. There was an exposition of Oaxacan weavings in the Panteón, and an exposition of giant paper maché skulls on the "andador turístico", the main touristic road. All day (and continuing for several days) throughout the city you could see and hear "comparsas", or parades headed by a brass band and followed by people dressed up in their scary costumes, from time to time stopping to dance with passers-by as they marched down the street. In the Plaza de la Danza, there was a huge altar displayed along with thousands of candles lined up on the stairs. In the evening in the same place, there was a performance of traditional dances from around Mexico.

After enjoying that performance for a bit, I went to Xoxocotlán, a town about 15 minutes outside of Oaxaca City that is known for having a very traditional celebration of Día de los Muertos. There are two cemeteries there: one older and smaller, one new and larger, with bigger tombs. Seeing the cemeteries at night was a whole different experience than during the day: the altars lit by candles, people dressed in all white, with white veils, spending the night with their dead, visitors in costume stepping over the tombs, and mariachi bands playing. The atmosphere was spiritual, solemn and festive all at once, and somehow those things went hand in hand. I could be mistaken, but it seemed to me that the local families weren't bothered by the costumed visitors raucously celebrating and drinking mezcal all around them. Each party had respect for the other. It was all part of the spirit of the occasion.

On Monday night, I went all out, painted my face to look like a skeleton, and went with some friends to San Agustín Etla, another small town outside of Oaxaca, but a bit farther removed: we had to make a bunch of turns and drive down a few dirt roads to get there. But the journey was well worth it. We spent all night dancing around with several comparsas, which we followed from house to house in the town. The starting point for all the comparsas was the church in the main square, where we roamed around for awhile dancing and being merry and seeing all the different costumes. Not everyone was dressed up, but those who were went all out. The best was definitely a dude who was dressed up as that evil octopus guy from Pirates of the Caribbean, his costume featuring REAL OCTOPUS TENTACLES hanging from his head. (I know they were real because they felt and smelled like a real octopus.) If we had arrived in San Agustín by 9 PM, or stayed until 7 AM, we would have been welcomed with free tamales de mole and mezcal. Latecomers that we were, we had to settle for drinking our own mezcal and buying our own tlayudas. Sometime well into the night we followed the comparsa down a steep hill and across a field to one home where the residents were giving out free "consomé", a hot spicy soup. By that time it was just what we needed to give us that extra kick. Thanks to that and the awesome power of mezcal, I managed to stay awake and energized all night until we finally decided to head home at 5 am, and all crashed on the floor of my friend's house.

The next day, November 2nd, the party was still going. Conveniently, the friend whose house we stayed at lives right next to another cemetery somewhere near the Instituto Tecnológico (where I work), so starting early in the morning you could hear firecrackers and explosives being set off. It had been a long night, so we ambled out of bed around 10 am and sat down at a food stand, in my case to eat pozole (a delicious soup with lots of stuff in it) and drink juice, and in the case of some Mexican guys in our group, to drink more beer to cure their hangover. We just sat there talking for hours on end, Mexican "sobremesa" style; by the time I actually got back to my apartment it was 4 PM. After 3 days of non-stop celebrating day and night, the only thing left to do was collapse in my bed.

So, I don't have anything against candy apples and snickers bars, or even teenage girls dressed up as prostitutes knocking on my door on the chilly night of October 31st and demanding a trick or a treat... but dudes, Day of the Dead is waaaayyyy better than Halloween. Can we please consider taking some tips from our southern neighbors? Just this once.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

The Beatles Arrive in Teotitlan

Today was my first day doing my English/Zapotec exchange at the primary school in Teotitlan del Valle. Organizing this venture was, predictably, a project in and of itself, so the fact that it is actually happening now is exciting enough. I first talked with the director of the school about my idea for the project several weeks ago, but due to the school being closed for unknown reasons, heavy rain that caused a bridge to break between Oaxaca and Teotitlan, protests that blocked the road and prevented me from getting there, and the director not showing up to school on the day he told me to meet with him, I didn't actually speak face to face with him again until yesterday. When I did, I was pleasantly surprised to find that he had changed his mind about the necessity of me working with all 14 groups of students in the school, and had decided that I should work only with 3 groups of 6th graders. Each of the groups has about 15 students, a very reasonable-sized class. This will allow me to actually get to know the kids and be able to come up with some sort of continuous curriculum rather than giving a series of useless one-day English "workshops".

There were a series of other pleasant surprises besides that. I met the three 6th grade teachers, surprisingly all men, and they were very receptive to my idea of doing an "exchange" in which I would teach the students English but also incorporate the Zapotec language into my lessons, and ask the students to contribute their knowledge. I am now hoping to do a final project in which each class creates a storybook (ideally, a legend told by elders in the town, or maybe an invented fable, I haven't decided which) that is translated into the three languages--Spanish, English, and Zapotec--and illustrated by the students. Thankfully, the teachers did not give me incredulous stares when I told them I wanted to learn Zapotec. Another surprise was the classrooms: I was not expecting a school in a rural mountain town in Oaxaca to have two whiteboards, a modern PC with internet, and a projector in every classroom. This compared to the Instituto Tecnológico (the university where I teach), where a lot of the classrooms smell like the bathroom and my only resources are a white board and a portable CD player (and believe me, I am overjoyed to have the CD player). I'm guessing the school in Teotitlan has attracted some donors, because even though the town is an up-and-coming tourist attraction due to its weaving economy, people there are definitely not wealthy.

After meeting the teachers, I got a chance to say a few words to the students in each class. I told them that I would be coming in to teach them English for one hour every Thursday, that we were going to have fun, listen to music, and play games, and that I would be expecting them to be my teachers as well. When I said, "I know some of you probably speak Zapotec", some students even RAISED THEIR HANDS. I was pretty shocked and very happy about that, because most people had told me that there are not many kids in Teotitlan who speak Zapotec anymore, and that the kids who do speak it would probably be embarassed to admit it because of social stigma. One man in Teotitlan even had a statistic: "Only 3% of kids in the school speak Zapotec," he claimed. (I've got one too: Over 97.5% of statistics are made up on the spot.) I'm glad I didn't listen to him or anybody else, even though they all meant well. Part of what makes Teotitlan so interesting for me is that while the commercial success of textile weaving and the onslaught of tourism makes English and Spanish more valuable to people on the one hand, on the other hand it also creates more pride surrounding the use of the Zapotec language, which is associated with the "tradition" that is symbolically epitomized in textile weaving. In other words, I think there is less social stigma surrounding the Zapotec language in Teotitlan than in other places in Oaxaca, precisely because of its weaving economy.

Also, a Mexican friend of mine who speaks Zapoteco del Istmo pointed out that Zapotec is the most "noble" of the Oaxacan indigenous languages-- and by that he meant that the Zapotec language has survived in part because it has historically had money and status behind it. That's not to say that Zapotecs are rich, but they have always been the nobility among indigenous groups in Oaxaca; kind of like the Aztecs in central Mexico, the Mayas in the Yucatan, the Incas in Peru. A cynical viewpoint, but undeniably true: it is hard to maintain cultural pride in a virtually unknown indigenous language when the only people who speak it are dirt poor. Some cash flow helps.

So back to my project... today I left my home in Oaxaca bright and early and arrived in Teotitlan at 8:00 AM ready to give my first class. But when I got to the school, it was locked and there was no one in sight. About ten minutes later the assistant director arrived and let me into the office. It took me about ten more minutes, all the while thinking, "OK, so I know it's Latino time, but this is ridiculous", before I realized that it was still only about 7:15 in Teotitlan. The director and the teachers had neglected to tell me that Teotitlan doesn't have daylight savings time while Oaxaca City does, so they are currently an hour behind. In retrospect, the director might have mentioned something about the school having a "different schedule", but I didn't know what he was talking about. People in Teotitlan (perhaps somewhat ironically) call their time "Tiempo de Dios", or "God's time", since they don't change it for daylight savings.

Of all the things that could have gone wrong though, that was just a minor little entertaining mistake. The classes went pretty darn well: I started by teaching the kids some basic greetings, "What's your name?" and "Where are you from?", followed by a hot potato game in which the person that ended up with the "hot potato" had to ask the two students next to them one of those two questions, first in English and then in Zapotec. About 1/2 to 2/3 of the students seemed able (and willing) to contribute when I asked how to say things in Zapotec, although it's unclear how many of them are actually fluent in the language. A few of the students (some of whom aren't originally from Teotitlan) speak no Zapotec at all, so they're learning the language along with me. To end off the class, I played the Beatles song "Hello Goodbye" and helped the kids translate the very simple lyrics. My favorite student by far was a kid named "Cesar", who not only had some English under his belt and knew who the Beatles were (from his older brother, he said), but also shared a song in Zapoteco. It is sung to the tune of "Frere Jaques" and goes like this: "Saq shtil, saq shtil. Shayuu, shayuu. Wanka wanka wanka, wanka wanka wanka. Azá, azá." (Translation: "Good morning, good morning. How are you? How are you? Fine fine fine. Fine fine fine. Goodbye, goodbye.") The kids started cracking up when I mispronounced the middle part of the song as "Waka waka waka", which prompted them to start singing the World Cup 2010 theme song.

To top off a great morning, I also had an hour of free time in between two of my classes, in which I walked over to my friend Celestino's house and not for the first time, enjoyed his mother's sunny personality and superb cooking. (Note: I thought before that I did not like the Oaxacan snack of "chapulines", or fried grasshoppers with lime and salt. But, I have since discovered that Celestino's mom's hand-caught, home-made grasshoppers are just DELICIOUS. No more of those day-old market grasshoppers for me!)

English classes at the Instituto Tecnológico have also been going well. (I've noticed that my actual "job" keeps becoming a footnote in this blog after I describe my personal projects. Oh well.) There, I am working with five different professors and only see each class once every week or two weeks, so the logistics of lesson planning and of being an "assistant" are a little complicated. I usually try to figure out what the students in each class have been learning and then come up with an activity of my own to bring to class. With some classes I pretty much just teach the entire thing, while other professors prefer to stick more to their own plan, so I maybe do a short activity and play more of an "assistant" role. In both cases, I think it's been working out fairly well. Also, when I discovered that there were some CD players locked away in a closet that I am allowed to use, my entire teaching life was forever changed.

Some recent highlights:
1) Teaching John Lennon's "Imagine" to a level 3 group. After helping the students to translate the lyrics and making a list of things that "there are" and "there are not" In Lennon's perfect world, I divided the students up into groups and had them describe what their "perfect world" would look like.
2) Also with a couple level 3 classes, I brought in the handy dandy glossy photos depicting different aspects of American culture that Fulbright gave us, and had students work in groups to describe what was going on in the pictures. Then I got to use the photos to tell them a little about my motherland, including explaining a Native American powwow, the New Orleans jazz tradition, and the AIDS Memorial Quilt in DC. (I'm sick of hearing people here say that the United States doesn't have any "culture" or "traditions"!)
3) With some beginner classes, I have been playing "jazz chants", or conversations put to a beat in order to emphasize the rhythm of the language and help students practice oral skills. This particular jazz chant was about routines and was called "I get up at 7:30". One fiesty male student was getting particularly dramatic while reading the lyrics in class, so I asked him if he wanted to practice at home and do a dramatic interpretation of it in front of the class the following week. He agreed. He didn't practice, but he did the performance anyway. At least the other students and I got a good laugh.

I will leave you all with a view of Teotitlan from above,

taken from a mountain peak where it is said that the gods descended from:

It's been a good few weeks, and I'm sure I'll have much more to add later. For now, azá!! Goodbye!