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!

Monday, September 27, 2010

Cayacklii nieae dixzaa

The title of this post means, "I am learning Zapotec". I have to admit I have not learned that much yet; in fact in order to write that title I just asked my Zapotec teacher to tell me how to say that phrase via gmail chat, and I have only a vague idea of how to pronounce it. Good thing my Zapotec teacher has gmail chat. But hopefully soon I will know enough to come up with a phrase like that on my own.

I found my new Zapotec teacher through couchsurfing, as I have found most of the people I know here. He is from a town called Teotitlan del Valle, which is about a 45 minute bus ride from Oaxaca when there are no roadblocks caused by protests (which there all too often are). The first time I visited the town I fell in love; I decided it would be the perfect place to become involved with the school and try and volunteer once a week. Apart from being absolutely gorgeous, it has a strong weaving culture; woven items are the main market commodity, and almost everyone there knows how to weave, men and women alike. Here is my Zapotec teacher and tour guide posing in front of some of he and his mom's weavings: In addition, the town has kept the Zapotec language alive to a larger extent than other towns in the vicinity of Oaxaca. According to the 2000 census, a majority of the people there are bilingual in Spanish and Zapotec (that has probably changed somewhat by now as the weavers become more and more involved with the outside world and Spanish becomes more and more dominant).

So, I went to the town's primary school and talked to the director about the possibility of volunteering there once a week. I haven't gotten an official response yet, but the director seemed to like the idea. Most likely, I will be giving an "English workshop" to a different group of kids every week. I haven't completely formulated yet what I would want to do in these workshops, but I would want them to somehow incorporate the Zapotec language (maybe create some games and activities that involve both English and Zapotec words), try to give the Zapotec-speaking kids a chance to be my "teachers", and in some way or another get the most important message across: "YOUR native language is important too! And there are people who want to learn it!" I told the director I wanted to do "English workshops", but really I think the most important part of my work would be just that, sending the message that ALL languages are important and enriching to learn. In ten years the kids probably will not have retained much English from my one-hour workshop--maybe a couple words--but maybe what will stick with them will be the memory of someone coming to their school from the United States who wanted to learn THEIR language. At least, that's what I'm hoping.

So my lessons in "Zapoteco del Valle" (as opposed to "Zapoteco de la Sierra", the dialect I was learning before) have commenced. It has very little in common with the first dialect of Zapotec I was learning, except it's also really hard. The pronunciations are such that I usually can't even figure out how to write words down phonetically so I'll remember them. The main issue is that Zapotec is a tonal language (Paci, you and Wikipedia were right)--so basically it's about as hard to learn as Chinese, except without the characters. A funny anecdote from today: I was making a list of food vocabulary, and realized that the word for "chicken soup" is "shu-beédxi" and the word for egg is "sut-beédxi". My teacher said that was because "beédxi" is chicken. My first reaction was alarm: "Why in the world is the word 'chicken' in the middle of the word 'egg'?! There is no chicken in eggs!" OK, so in my defense, the word in Spanish for chicken the food is different for the one for chicken the animal, so having my teacher tell me that chicken the food was in eggs might have been what threw me off. Also, I have never seen a language where the word "chicken" is embedded in the word "egg" (though it makes sense, doesn't it?). Speak up if you know of another. Apparently the literal meaning of the word "egg" is "bone of chicken", though in a different Zapotec dialect it means "son of chicken".

Yesterday, I also had a nice long talk with one of the directors of CMPIO, the Oaxacan Coalition of Indigenous Teachers and Promotors, which is right here in the city. The organization is part civic association, part labor union, and partly supported by the SEP (Mexican Department of Education). The main goal of the group is to "recuperate" indigenous languages and cultures (the word "preserve" in this context is becoming politically incorrect, since languages and cultures are by nature not stagnant things) by developing pedagogy for bilingual schools (schools in which students and teachers use both Spanish and a native language). Unfortunately, the SEP currently only has one national curriculum that applies to all schools in Mexico, whether or not they are bilingual-- which makes it difficult for bilingual schools with alternative pedagogies to be recognized and funded as public schools. However, CMPIO has made a few important strides, including what the director considered the two most important projects: "segundarias comunitarias" and "nidos de lengua".

Segundarias comunitarias are high schools that use an alternative bilingual curriculum, in which the learning originates from the town itself, rather than being imposed by the outside world. In other words, students learn through the lens of their own culture and language, rather than being taught assimilation. The first two years incorporate various community projects and interviews with people in the community. The third year includes an investigative project within the community. From what I understand, there is some kind of complex situation in which these community schools are recognized as public by the state of Oaxaca but not the federal government. Unfortunately, the closest "segundaria comunitaria" is about a 3- or 4-hour trip from Oaxaca, the farthest being about 12 hours away. But I do hope to visit one sometime.

The second project, "nidos de lengua", means "language nests". This was a phenomenon that began in Australian aborigine communities, in which the elders realized that their language was disappearing because children were no longer being taught to speak it. It is a strategy that is ideally for kids between the ages of 1 and 6 years old, in which "nests" of 10 or 20 kids are formed in which they are spoken to all day in the native language by language "guides", who can be community elders or younger community members trained in bilingual pedagogy. It is essentially a total immersion experience designed to make the children bilingual and in this way retain more of their community's culture and history. In order to make the "nido" effective, the parents of the children are also encouraged to speak to their children in the native language at home, although this is very difficult because many of the parents only speak Spanish. CMPIO is holding a two-day workshop on "nidos de lengua" in October, which I am thinking of observing.

Although I find the idea of "nidos de lengua" interesting, I can't help but wonder how well it works for the kids in them, and how well it will work in the long run. In Oaxaca, kids as old as 10 are sometimes thrown into the nidos. That makes it more of a second language-learning program than a preschool immersion experience. I'm all for recuperating native cultures, but I have to wonder if an indigenous 10-year-old, on the cusp of his or her teenage years and experiencing a ton of pressure from the increasingly ubiquitous Spanish media to conform to mestizo social norms, would be all that thrilled about being made to learn an indigenous language that is only spoken by elders. Unfortunately, in Mexico there is a lot of prejudice against indigenous people and people who speak indigenous languages, which accounts for most of the reason the languages are dying out. Some people would argue that it is good that indigenous people are learning Spanish and participating more in mestizo society. After all, it gives them much more power in the society as a whole. I partly agree with that argument, but I also think it's not necessary for the native languages to be lost. Consider the example of the Catalán language in Barcelona. Just about everyone in Barcelona speaks Spanish, but signs are still written in Catalán, not because the Catalán language is necessary for any official business, but because of the cultural pride of the Catalán people. Languages only die out when people stop valuing them. And to me, every language is valuable because embedded in the language are certain cultural beliefs and perspectives that might not exist anywhere else. In order for indigenous languages to survive in Mexico, it is not only necessary for the government to start supporting bilingual programs, but for both mestizos and indigenous people to be re-educated and learn to value of native cultures. It will require a lot of work, but I don't think it's impossible.

As for my "real" work --what Fulbright is actually paying me for-- I finally started assistant teaching classes at the Tec a few days ago, usually for 3 or 4 hours a day. It is a lot of fun, and I am realizing that I actually enjoy working with college students a lot more than I liked working with first graders, for the most part (dammit, that might complicate my career path). Most of the students only have a very basic knowledge of English even if they are technically in level 2 or 3 (the fact that they are allowed to take a year off in between level 1 and level 2 probably partly accounts for this). So far in the classes, I have mostly been introducing myself in English, then having the students try to ask me simple questions about myself and asking them questions about themselves. They tend to be shy, but fun. The top questions so far:
"Are you married?"
"Haha, no."
"Do you have a boyfriend?"
"I don't feel like answering that. Ask me later." (collective laugh)
"Do you drink?"
"No, never!!" (collective laugh) "Well, OK, sometimes."
"Do you like mezcal?"
"Do you like chapulines (crickets)?"
"No! They are the only Oaxacan food I don't like."

In future classes I hope to collaborate a little more with the professors and have some of my own activities and/or a presentation planned, but for now, I am having fun getting to know the students.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Fiestas patrias

September 15th, 2010 was a big day for Mexico: the bicentennial anniversary of Mexican independence, the centennial of the Mexican Revolution. Every year on the night of September 15th, Mexican government functionaries all over the country re-enact "El Grito" (the scream) of Miguel Hidalgo, the pastor/revolutionary who was declaring the country's independence from Spain. (Actually, "El Grito" took place on September 16th, 1810, but the celebration has taken place the night of the 15th ever since the dictator Porfirio Díaz decided to move it a day earlier in honor of his birthday. More on Porfirio later.)

Oaxaca did not host the biggest party in Mexico, but I decided to stay put to avoid the ginormous crowds that would without a doubt be present in the capital and the region north of there, where the war for independence was fomented. In the days leading up to the bicentennial, the zócalo in Oaxaca was decorated with hanging lights, a couple extra bandstands, dozens of vendors selling giant hot-dog shaped balloons decorated with the message "Viva Mexico!", and a giant display featuring pictures of Hidalgo and the other main players in the independence movement, with the Mexican anthem written in a different indigenous language on the back of each photo.

Then came the big night of "El Grito". I headed to the zócalo with some friends at around 8 PM and enjoyed a musical performance by a band that played everything from cumbia to such classics as the "YMCA" (I was the only one in the crowd doing the motions--I'm sorry, it was instinctual!). The night was filled with the classic foam spray fights and in an interesting twist, egg shells filled with confetti. The crowd in the zócalo grew larger as the night went on. At around 11 there was a very unimpressive "parade" consisting of a bunch of policemen and some random people following them. The parade was followed by El Grito, which goes something like this:
Governor: "Viva Hidalgo!"
Crowd: "Viva!"
Governor: "Viva la Revolución!"
Crowd: "Viva!"
Governor: "Viva Mexico!"
Crowd: "Viiiiiivvvaaaaaa!"
There were several other "viva"s in there, but I can't remember all of them. You get the gist. After the parade was the most exciting part of the night: fireworks! By this time the zócalo was jam-packed, and after the fireworks suddenly everyone started panicking and pushing their way out of the zócalo. Somehow I managed to stick with the group of people I was with-- but not without a fight.

I could go on about the rest of the night, but instead of talking about mezcal, dancing and general raucousness I've decided to launch into a discussion of Mexican (and particularly Oaxacan) history, mostly based on what I have gleaned from a very condensed but entertaining book I just finished reading on the subject. Here goes:

So what is Oaxaca celebrating, and what is Mexico celebrating?

Interestingly enough, perhaps the two most influential presidents in all of Mexican history both hailed from Oaxaca: Benito Juarez and Porfirio Díaz. Benito Juarez was a poor Zapotec Indian who was orphaned at the age of three. He amazingly went to school, learned Spanish, studied law, and became a major force in the country toward the end of the independence movement. He served as president for several years, and is remembered for drafting the modern Mexican constitution, enacting reforms that undermined the power of the Catholic church and broke up haciendas, and overthrowing the short-lived French occupation of Mexico. And all this with a towering adult height of 4'7". I kid you not. (Also worth noting: if you ever wondered who the Italian Benito Mussolini was named after, here you have it. Mussolini's parents were involved in a fight to overthrow Austrian invaders in northern Italy, and admired Juarez for overthrewing the Austrian emperor Maximilian, who was sent by the Napoleon III to rule Mexico.)

Porfirio Díaz was also from a poor Oaxacan family, but comparisons between he and Juarez pretty much end there. A more conservative, military force, he attempted to overthrow Juarez's government several times, and finally came to power when Juarez died. He served as president (dictator) of Mexico from 1876-1910, and is remembered mostly for his violent repression and for sending political dissidents and indigenous people to work camps in the Valley of Oaxaca to die. However, he also built the first Mexican railroads and successfully "modernized" the country (by allowing foreigners to take control of most of Mexico's resources and industries). Strangely, he was supported (among others) by none other than Karl Marx, who saw his industrialization of Mexico as a necessary step toward communist revolution (although I'm quite sure that Mexican Marxists saw it differently).

So it was Juarez who set the stage ideologically for the Mexican Revolution in 1910, and Porfirio Díaz's opressive rule that precipitated it. Though Juarez and Díaz are seemingly opposing figures, generally Oaxacans are proud that their state is the birthplace of both. Granted, while Juarez is literally worshipped and has the city of Oaxaca de Juarez named after him, Porfirio Díaz does not have the same godly stature but is also acknowledged as someone who had an equally important role in shaping modern Mexico. A mural in Oaxaca's Palacio del Gobierno, now a museum, portrays the colossal heads of both, though Juarez and his wife take center stage.

To jump back temporarily to the present, I was shocked to hear yesterday that Gabino, the new governor of Oaxaca who was supposedly the opposition candidate to the PRI, was actually a member of the PRI himself. To put an incredibly complicated political mess simply, it seems he decided to run for governor as something other than PRI (he didn't even really have a party) in order to be the opposition candidate to the PRI. So basically, the PRI found a sneaky way to stay in power. Voters in the election got to choose between the repressive PRI and a PRI member posing as not PRI.

The PRI is a somewhat baffling entity to begin with. The acronym stands for the "Institutional Revolutionary Party", which sounds like a complete contradiction in terms, but was formed after the Mexican Revolution supposedly as a mechanism to institutionalize the populist, leftist values of the revolution. But it is hard to tell what the PRI's politics actually are, since it was the only political party in Mexico after the revolution and its main priority has always been to stay in power-- upholding the values of the revolution being only of secondary concern. For this reason the PRI has historically been more than a little schizophrenic in its policies. Somehow Mexico managed to maintain good relations with both the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Mexico was a haven to political exiles such as Trotsky (and many others), while simultaneously copying the U.S. in hunting down and persecuting "commies". Lázaro Cárdenas, a self-proclaimed Marxist who nationalized Mexican industries and gave traditional communal land back to peasants, was a member of the PRI. But so was the neo-liberal Carlos Salinas, who 50 years or so later re-privatized those industries and broke up the communal lands. So I don't think I'm the only one wondering what the PRI actually stands for.

The PRI is still the most powerful political "party" in Mexico, although they have not held the presidency since 2000. But the PAN, the new ruling party, may not be a much better alternative. The PAN was formed in 1940 as the first PRI opposition party, in reaction to Lázaro Cárdenas' radical socialist reforms. The PAN was originally made up of wealthy businessmen, supporters of the old Catholic church, and supporters of Spanish fascism. The party is still pro-Catholic, elitist, neo-liberal, and pro-United States (no comment). There is also an opposing leftist party, the PRD, but unfortunately the PRD currently has too many warring factions in its ranks to be able to get its shit together. In 2006 the PRD candidate, López Obrador, lost the national election by a very narrow margin. But then he lost all credibility in the eyes of most Mexicans by proclaiming himself the "legitimate" leader of Mexico, insisting that the elections were fraudulent (it's possible, but not proveable), and refusing to get over it and move on with his career.

All in all, if you like revolutionaries and social reforms, Mexico is not in a particularly good place right now, at least in terms of its central leadership. Will the political left get its act together? Is another revolution in the books?

Oh! What a cliff-hanger.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010


I have a new home in Oaxaca: I am renting a room in an apartment about two blocks from the zócalo, or main square. I have a nice big room with a sliding glass door/window looking out on the street. There is a big market a few blocks down my street, so it is a bustling place. At least 12 hours a day, I can hear loud merengue music coming from a store across from my apartment that sells washing machines and other household items. I presume it makes the washing machines seem a lot more exciting. In my apartment complex, there is also a rooftop patio from which you have this view:
The apartment is shared with two middle-aged women, one of whom is the owner of a dance studio down the street. We have already made a deal in which I am giving her free English classes in exchange for dance lessons. The other day I learned some basic cumbia moves, which seem to be essential in these parts. Take the poll on the side of this page to put in your two cents on what dance I should learn next.

The last couple weeks have been filled with all kind of discovery, hence the title of this blog. Highlights include:

1) Taking a walk with Jesse to an "orquidearia" (orchid garden) in San Andrés Huayapan, near where my former host parents lived. We had to ask directions about ten times, and ended up passing by the place the first time and having to turn back because there was only a sign for it coming from the other direction. (There was, however, a sign for "gotcha", evidently the Mexican version of paintball.) The garden was pretty impressive-- it is kept up by one guy who explained to us that there are 1,300 species of orchids in Mexico, and at the orchid garden 1,200 of those are represented. The orchids all bloom at different times of year, so there is always something new to see. Anyone want to go back with me?

2) Visiting the largest tree in the world, judging by trunk width: "El arból del Tule", 14.5 meters in diameter. There are different estimates for the age of the tree, but Zapotec legend has it that El Tule was planted about 1,400 years ago by Pechocha, the Aztec wind god. El Tule also has a "son", who lives nearby but is not quite as big as his dad.

3) Taking a bus to Tlacolula for the Sunday market. The market was absolutely HUGE, taking up what seemed like the majority of the town and including everything from food to crafts to music to household items like pasta strainers (which I, thinking practically, bought). There was an eerie silence as soon as you left the market area, which led me to believe that the entire population of the town was in some way involved with the market. Tlacolula is known for its production of mezcal (a liquor similar to tequila), which I sampled. I also had the opportunity to try pulque (yet another, even more traditional drink made from the same plant--agave--that is used to make tequila, but this time fermented), and techate(sp?), similar to pulque but with fermented pineapple juice added-- a Zapotec beverage, I was told. The last yummy thing I will mention are these amazing little avocados that have smooth, thin skins you can eat. The skin has a kind of licorice-y flavor, and they sometimes use it to flavor beans here. The ones I bought in Tlacolula were particularly small, about the size of golf balls. I eat them like candy.

Another discovery I have made is that my "side project" of learning a bit of Zapotec and volunteering in a bilingual school might be a bit harder to arrange than I had thought. There seems to be no language school in the city in which Zapotec is taught, other than the Universidad Benito Juarez, but when I inquired there about classes I was told that Zapotec is not being offered at the moment--maybe in the spring. That means that I'm going to need a private tutor if I want to learn the language.

Lo and behold, I found one! A girl from couchsurfing that I have become friends with told me that her dad speaks Zapotec, and can teach me! For a couple days I thought my problem had been solved. But there is another complication: I have since learned that there are about 40 different dialects of Zapotec, so that in many cases even people from neighboring towns are unable to communicate with each other. (Also, for the record, there are 60 dialects of Mixtec-- and those are just two of the 16 indigenous languages spoken in the state of Oaxaca.) Fortunately, I've been told that there are only 3 or 4 MAIN dialects of Zapotec according to the different regions in which it is spoken, suggesting that many of the dialects are probably similar. However, my friend's dad is from a town about 4 hours outside of Oaxaca City, which would not be convenient if I wanted to have an ongoing relationship with the community.

And yet another issue: as might be expected, in communities closer to Oaxaca City, local dialects are being spoken less and less and are becoming mixed with Spanish. This also means that there may not be any truly bilingual schools in the immediate vicinity of Oaxaca. I am now thinking that if I cannot find a bilingual school in a neighboring community, perhaps I could try to do a kind of language exchange with some school, in which I came once a week to teach the kids a bit of English, and in exchange they could teach me some Zapotec. However, this would require that the kids in the school actually spoke Zapotec, which could also be hard to find. More investigation is required.

In the meantime though, I have decided to be tutored once a week by my friend's dad. My first lesson was yesterday, and I can already see that this language is not going to be easy. Since it is an oral language, there is no official way of writing it. It includes some unusual guttural sounds as well as many words that have a sound pronounced like the French "J", as in "Jaques". And there are certain things that seemed designed to confuse me: for instance, the number three is pronounced "sho-nay", and the number eight is "shO-nay". The only difference is that the "O" sound in the number eight is slightly more drawn out. Also, "cho-pay" is the number two, but "shin-cho-pay" is seventeen. Ack! Study time.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

The Essence of Oaxaca, and Blue Essence

For the last couple days I have been wandering around the central part of my new home for the next year: the city of Oaxaca de Juarez. I am living temporarily in the home of a very nice middle-aged couple, Mario and Eva, a mathematics professor and administrative assistant who both work at the Universidad Tecnológico, where I will soon be assistant teaching English. Classes at the university were delayed for a week for whatever reason, so they don’t start until this Monday, and English classes start even later, on September 20th. So I have some time to get to know the city, find a permanent living space, make some friends, travel a bit, whatever. It is a very strange feeling to be in a new place, know no one, not know your way around, and have no time constraints. I keep thinking: “What the hell am I doing here?” But I think the strangeness will wear off pretty quickly. I’m starting to warm up to this place; after two days it’s already starting to feel a little more like a place I could call home.

It is rainy season now, so the city has been pretty gray, but when the sun comes out it is gorgeous. The city center is filled with sand-colored cobblestone streets, colonial churches and cathedrals, and homes and businesses painted bright colors. It’s an interesting mix of local indigenous culture and cafés and bars that are obviously catered to tourists as well as the city’s many ex-pats. The whole city is surrounded by green and sandy-colored mountains, making for a beautiful backdrop. And as soon as you leave the city center, things start to become rural. Mario and Eva live a mere 20 minutes by bus outside of the center, but the area feels much more like the campo than an urban area, with nothing but little general stores and not an internet cafe in sight, to my chargine. Back in the center, the zócalo, or main square, is always bustling with vendors; indigenous people from surrounding pueblos selling their crafts, itinerant artisans like the many I ran into in South America, and food vendors as well, selling tamales, chorros, elote (corn). Like the rest of the country, Oaxaca has also been preparing for big celebrations on the bicentennial of Mexican independence, which is coming up on September 15th. Right next to the big cathedral in the zócalo, there is a big glowing digital countdown clock, counting down the days and hours until the colossal national party will begin.

Thankfully, Oaxaca is still showing healthy signs of dissent: elections were just held in July, which finally ousted the repressive governor, Ulisses Ruiz, who came to power in 2006 and is famous for provoking the massive teacher’s strike that year, which lasted for months and turned violent, putting a temporary stop to all tourism in the city. What began as a customary annual teacher’s strike turned into a much larger and more broad-based movement when the governor, rather than negotiating with the teachers, responded with violence. At that point, many other sectors began sympathizing with the teachers, and APPO (Popular Assembly of the Peoples of Oaxaca) was formed, a coalition with the main goal of ousting Ulisses Ruiz and promoting democracy. For months, APPO pretty much controlled the city, and had even taken over (peacefully) several television and radio stations. But unfortunately, due to some under-the-table negotiations between the governor and the federal government, the strike ended and Ulisses Ruiz staid in power until this year. Now, a candidate has been elected who my “host dad”, Mario, says is backed by a coalition of political parties rather than any one party. I asked if it was a leftist coalition, but he said no, it was just a broad-based coalition. I guess you do what you’ve gotta do to get the bad guys out; hopefully this “Gabino” character will be an improvement over Ulisses Ruiz and his political party, the PRI (the single party that controlled Mexico and held fraudulent elections from 1910 to 2000). In the zócolo, there are still cloth banners hung promoting the APPO and denouncing Ulisses Ruiz. And on the radio I keep hearing an announcement for some kind of “democratic convention” that will be taking place this Saturday morning (apparently referring to the democratic political ideal rather than the party, since Mexico does not have a “Democratic” party). I have also been told several times that the Oaxacan street sweepers are on strike, which is why the streets are so dirty (they still don’t seem that dirty to me, but good for the street sweepers).

So anyway, what have I done in Oaxaca? Let’s see... the first day I went with Jesse, a British girl who will also be assistant teaching English at the Tec, to see the university for the first time. The campus is pretty small and has a nice, humble and friendly feel to it. There we met some of the professors, got some coffee and a bite to eat in the cafeteria, and made our first Oaxacan “friend”: predictably, a 19-year-old male who approached us, wondering who the “gueras” were, and invited us to come to a bar with him and his friends on Friday. Whether we will actually go is questionable, but hey, I guess one friend is better than none.

Since our visit to the university, Jesse and I have mostly been wandering around the center of town. Highlights include: eating the best “mole negro” I have ever had, snacking on “chapulines”, or toasted crickets seasoned with lime and salt (not sure yet if I’m a fan), eating Oaxacan chocolate (amazing!), and having a sample taste of mezcal, a liquor made from the agave plant, like tequila. So yes, all those highlights have to do with food, predictably. All except for a little adventure I had yesterday.

Jesse and I had split up for a couple hours in order to get a feel for the city on our own. I was wandering about in a little plaza when I ran into a group of high school students who stopped me to ask if I would help them with a commercial they were making for one of their classes. They wanted to film me holding a bottle of perfume and saying, “Buy this new perfume, Blue Essence. It’s the secret to seduction for all women, and if you buy it, you’ll get this free bracelet.” At first they told me to say it in Spanish, but then changed their minds and thought it would be cool if I said it all in English so they could add subtitles. I was to say those lines, and then spray a bit of perfume on myself. Then, a really punked out kid (I’m not sure if he was also a student or just someone else they’d gotten to help them) was to walk by me, sniff the perfume, and appear enamored. This being my first commercial appearance and one of my only experiences with perfume, it took me a couple takes to get it exactly right. The first time, in trying to spray the perfume around my neck, I accidentally sprayed it on the side of my face and had to wipe it off, provoking uproarious laughter from everyone including myself. It was good fun for everyone. So now, I am a model for this (probably fictitious) “Blue Essence” perfume. Who knows what else might await me in Oaxaca?

Monday, August 30, 2010

Plaza Garibaldi

Until I arrived in Mexico City, I knew Plaza Garibaldi only as my favorite Mexican restaurant in Puebladelphia. Evidently, it is also a real plaza just north of Mexico City's historic center, famous for it's unique night life. Bands of mariachis roam the plaza, offering tourists a chance to hear their favorite mariachi song up close and personal, for a few dozen pesos. On Sunday, I was joined by a motley crew of new friends for dinner and some drinks there. And ended up being treated to a cheese-less quesadilla, a couple tequilas, and even a pencil portrait of myself by a friendly group of "rancheros" at the next table.

But let me backtrack a little and explain how I got here. I arrived in Mexico City last Tuesday, and spent the first few days not seeing much of it outside of my swanky hotel. Instead, the first few days were a whirlwind of Fulbright-arranged "getting to know you" receptions, lectures, and a couple short trips in which we were bussed to historic sights. I met dozens of other Fulbrighters, exchanged stories and ideas, and enjoyed nightly open bar receptions, including one in the home of the U.S. ambassador to Mexico. Then, on Friday, I went straight from the hotel to the home of my new friend Mariana, my generous host whom I met through Needless to say, the week has been action-packed, tiring, and more than a little disconcerting. But I am glad to be here and amazed at the endless things this enormous city has to offer.

No travel adventure can be complete without one strange coincidence, and this whirlwind of a week was no exception. It just so happens that Mariana's best friend is an American expat who lived in Philadelphia before coming here. Not only did we both work for the Census at different times, we also both worked as Migrant Outreach workers at the same health center in South Jersey. What better place to finally cross paths than Mexico City? After exchanging drama stories from our former workplaces, we set out for Plaza Garibaldi, along with Mariana and two other Fulbrighters I had met in orientation.

I imagine most people who read that first paragraph have been on the edge of their seats wondering about this absurd occurrence of the cheese-less quesadilla. Alas, my friends, I have been disillusioned, for though I had always assumed the word "queso" (cheese) to be an etymological root of "quesadilla", I was mistaken. When I innocently ordered a mushroom quesadilla at the "Taquería la Simpatía" ("Sympathy Taquería"), I imagined a corn tortilla filled with BOTH melted cheese and mushrooms. Instead, the friendly waiter presented me with a purely mushroom-filled tortilla. Evidently, in order to have cheese in my quesadilla I needed to order a "quesadilla de queso". To my relief, I have been reassured that in Oaxaca, not only the quesadillas but also the streets are paved with cheese.

But all was not lost. I have to admit that the mushrooms in my cheese-less quesadilla were pretty darn good, and so was the "Indio" brand beer my friends and I ordered. Not only that, but a group of cheerful folks at the table next to us requested at least a dozen mariachi songs, so we were serenaded by the band without having to pay a cent. I got up to take pictures, provoking our neighbors to invite us over to their table. Hesitantly, we accepted their offer-- I think the fact that there was one woman at their table seemed to make it less sketchy. Next thing you know, we were chatting and drinking "palomas" (a yummy mixed drink of tequila and "Squirt" grapefruit soda) with a youngish couple and two older guys wearing sombreros (those two pairs had also apparently just met each other that night). Mariana later referred to the sombrero-wearing guys as "rancheros", so maybe that's what you call someone who's wearing a sombrero and drinking tequila.

I was in the midst of conversation with the young couple when the chavo (young guy) waved over another guy carrying a wooden box, with two wires hanging out of it with handles on the end. I watched in bemusement and then horror as my new friend handed over a few pesos to the guy with the box, grabbed a handle in each fist, and signaled that he was ready to receive his electric shock. The, er, electric shock vendor (what else could I call him??) turned a knob, gradually amping up the voltage as requested by his customer, who eventually started howling a little bit in some sort of masochistic pleasure. His girlfriend (or wife) encouraged me and my friends to do it too, saying it's fun and "it's good for your heart". I don't know, I personally kind of like my heartbeat how it is. I politely declined.

Now a little sketched out now by the young couple and the electric shock machine (apparently these shocks are called "toques"), I eventually moved to the other end of the table to sit with my Philly friend and the two "rancheros". Becoming progressively more intoxicated, one of the rancheros decided that I had pretty eyes, so he called over one of those street artists who does pencil sketches and had him sketch me as I sat listening to mariachis and drinking tequila. Long story short, my Philly friend and I ended up dancing merengue-style with the rancheros, they insisted on paying for all of our food, and I even got a free portrait out of it, albeit one that looked nothing like me. That's a pretty good night in my book.

As if Plaza Garibaldi weren't enough of an attraction, Mexico City is also the site of the former home of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera (now an amazing, touching and haunting museum called the Casa Azul), a fantastically ginormous Anthropology Museum (I spent 3 hours there and only saw a third of the museum, and was too busy marvelling at how many giant carved stones there were and repeating "incredible!" to myself over and over again to actually learn anything), the ruins of Teotihuacán (OK, so they're a little outside the city), and numerous murals by Diego Rivera and other Mexican greats. I would have to spend an entire year in this city just to properly experience the content of all the museums and cultural sites, even if I set out to do that and nothing else. Plus, Mexico City is home to some awesome "chilangos" (people from the capital). But an equally, perhaps even more awesome destination, awaits me tomorrow:


Monday, July 12, 2010


Here is a list of the Top Ten things I have learned about Mexican culture and everyday life from living in "Puebladelphia", as Philadelphia is called by its Mexican population (which originates almost exclusively from the state of Puebla). DISCLAIMER: This list is by no means intended to be some kind of guide to Mexican culture. If I wanted to write one of those, I would at least have the decency to go to Mexico first. The list is based solely upon my impressions from having befriended Mexicans in Philadelphia. It is intended half for comedic and reflective value, half for the fun of looking back at it after my year in Mexico just to see how accurate or ignorant it is. So without further ado:

1. Mexicans speak with a much different rhythm than Dominicans, more of a repetetive up-and down sing-songy tone, while Dominican questions steadily build to a crescendo before crashing downward. Imagine a heart monitor vs. a roller coaster.

2. Mexicans are constantly saying "qué onda" ("what's up?"), "no manches, guey" (literal translation: "don't stain, dude"), "pinche cabrón" ("damn bastard"), "ándale" and "órale" (which have pretty much no meaning other than affirmation), and playfully call each other "frijól" ("you bean!!"). They unfortunately don't know what "tigueraje" is, and they don't exclaim "coño!" all the time as I am still in the habit of doing.

3. In Mexico, as in most of Latin America, "ahorita" means "right now", which in Latino time means sometime within the next half hour or so. In Dominican, "ahora" means in the next half hour or so, while "ahorita" could mean anything from an hour from now to three hours from now to never in this lifetime.

4. Mexican food is really effing good. In Mexico (or at least southern Mexico), quesadillas are made not with cheddar but with a type of white cheese called Oaxaca cheese (which comes from you know where!). They also eat something called "hongos de maíz" (corn fungus), which is exactly what it sounds like, a fungus that grows on corn. Don't dis it til you've tried it! They of course make tequila, and other alcoholic beverages originating from the agave plant. They also make a delicious drink of rice water and cinnamon called "horchata". Also, "tacos" are not just spiced meat wrapped in a corn tortilla, but also the type of footwear you use to play soccer.

5. Mexicans living in Philadelphia tend to work in restaurants or construction and frequently make more money than I do (that's not saying much, I guess). But they also work their asses off and send most of the money back to their families in Mexico. Not to get too deep into immigration politics, but if one of them did steal your job, people, it's probably because they do it better than you would.

6. Mexicans in Philly who drive tend to have their cars confiscated once every few weeks. Here's how it works: A cop stops one of them and finds that they are driving unlicensed (unlike in Arizona, they don't have to show any immigration paperwork, but they do have to have that pesky license). Almost no Mexican has a license because almost no Mexican has papers. So, the police confiscate the car and put it in a lot until the offender pays a hefty ticket of a couple hundred bucks or so. Once they pay up, they are allowed to go back to driving unlicensed, until the next time they get stopped. (Is it just me, or does that sound an awful lot like institutionalized bribery? In the United States? Can't be!)

7. Contrary to popular belief, a Mexican who marries an American doesn't automatically get a green card in the mail. Instead, an undocumented person who married a U.S. citizen in the U.S. has two options: 1) Go back to Mexico, apply for a visa from there, and wait an indefinite amount of time, maybe years, for the visa to be approved, while the significant other is just waiting around in the United States with the kids. 2) Turn him/herself in as undocumented, and go on trial in hopes of convincing the jury that he/she should be granted a green card because the family is dependent on his/her income or child care. If the judge is in a good mood, they'll grant the undocumented person a visa; if not, the person will be deported and banned from coming back.

8. Sundays in Mexican culture are a rest day, a family day. Many Mexicans in Philadelphia work six days a week, but almost all have off on Sunday. For those that left family behind in Mexico, it is call-your-family day, for the lonely, drink-lots-of-beer day, and for many, soccer day! You'd think that my low-skilled women's team in the Latino league wouldn't have a huge amount of fans, but believe me, we do! That includes husbands, boyfriends, and loads of kids that are allowed to run around virtually unsupervised.

9. Sunday is also party day, and when you are on a Mexican team, you get invited to a Mexican birthday party, baby shower or baby birthday party about every other week. You go to the party even if you were invited by a friend of a friend of the person being celebrated and don't actually know the person. You go because you know there will be delicious, probably home-made food, music, and drinking and dancing later on, no matter who or what the party is celebrating, and no one will ever question your right to be there. At birthday parties, you wait until at least 9 or 10 PM to break out the cake, at which point, everyone sings the Mexican birthday song, Las Mañanitas, before the birthday girl or boy blows out the candles. Once the candles are out, the birthday girl or boy is encouraged to take a big bite out of the cake. Reluctantly they do, knowing full well that as soon as they get close enough their entire face will be pushed into the cake by the person standing behind them, rendering about half of the big, beautiful cake inedible, and the face covered in icing and cake matter. Thus begins a battle involving thrusting globs of icing into other people's faces. Like many battles, men are on one team and women on the other. Once that dies down, people start cutting off slices of the still-intact part of the cake, which turns out to be delicious.

10. If you have Mexican friends in Philly, keep them. Unlike your other friends, all it takes is your showing them some basic kindness and you become part of the gang. It's like an instant family. They will be there for you, never saying they are just too busy to hang out or help you out with something, never making you feel guilty about bothering them too much. They will invite you to all their parties, never worrying about whether or not you have the same music tastes or the correct political views. Mexicans were my first friends in this city, and it was a couple Mexican friends who helped me move twice, both times within a day's or couple hours' notice. It is a type of friendship relatively lacking in the personal judgment and grudginess (allow me to invent that word) that we Americans are used to. I guess there is something to be said for the American (or should I say American middle class) friendship model, in which it takes a lot to develop a close friendship, but once you do, you know that the person likes you for a specific reason. But there is also something to be said for being friendly and generous with someone just because they are human and so are you, for trusting someone until your trust is broken rather than that "guilty until proven innocent", "what's in it for me?" state of mind. It's a different way to think about reciprocity, and I kind of like it.