The artists and artisans of Oaxaca depend upon tourism for their livelihood. Now, almost two years after the APPO “troubles” tourists are beginning to come back to Oaxaca and that is very good. But there are still too few tourists and the economy is hard hit. The troubles hit the villages hard even though they were beyond the reach of political confrontation. Many artisans have gone back to working the fields or have gone to other Mexican cities and El Norte to find work. I know families who have moved away, left their homes empty, in search of work. As they put their artistic talents aside, the message sent to the children is that this livelihood may not be sustainable. Children may begin to plan their own futures based upon these observations along with absorbing television and film messages of a better life somewhere else. In the book, “The Unbroken Thread,” the authors talk about villages that are no longer weaving because the elderly craftspeople have died and with them, their extraordinarily beautiful work. Do we have a responsibility to preserve this cultural heritage? It is difficult in rural Mexico for most. Talented workers earn about $15 USD per day. Tourism will determine whether the artistic endeavors of individuals and villages survive, I believe. And yet, we know that the impact of tourism can be devastating … creating a Disney-esque destination that loses its authenticity. Indigenous people become actors on the stage of travel entertainment. I raise this because each of us has a responsibility as we travel to Oaxaca or other destinations of treading lightly and leaving a small footprint. I see tour buses full of elder hostel travelers, educated, with money to spend, interested in learning, and I know that they would be unlikely travelers without this accommodation. They benefit the local economies significantly. Tour buses have influenced the construction of big houses on the highways where it is easier to pull in and unload a big group, bypassing other equally worthy weavers who live further down the road in the village, funneling the economic opportunities to those who can afford to build the big houses on the main road. This phenomenon has happened in Teotitlan and it is now happening at in San Martin Tilcajete, where Jacobo Angeles has built a beautiful gallery on the road to Ocotlan that also represents work by talented colleagues from his village, too. What is the more authentic experience? What is most valuable to the people of a village and the sustainability of their culture?Not everyone has the ability or desire to travel independently and explore the back alleys of a foreign village where they don’t speak the language. I don’t have answers. I am only raising these questions for consideration.I want to say it again. I want to shout it. Traveling to Oaxaca is completely SAFE. It is a wonderful international heritage city, a colonial gem. It is at the crossroads of Mesoamerican history and culture. It is the region where corn was first cultivated thousands of years ago — a gift to the world. It is mountains, beach, desert and tropics. I don’t want Oaxaca to become Cancun or Huatulco, but I do want tourists to go there because I want it to thrive.
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- Norma Schafer and Oaxaca Cultural Navigator LLC has offered programs in Mexico since 2006. We have over 30 years of experience developing and delivering award-winning programs for Indiana University, University of Virginia, George Washington University and University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
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