Category Archives: Oaxaca Mexico art and culture

Essay: Soothsayer of Next Moves

I’m taking a short hiatus from reporting on the Oaxaca Mask Project to share this essay on being in the time of pandemic and injustice.

Let me just put it out there.

This is not fun.

I scan the horizon for the human figure coming toward me. I watch their feet and bodies.  Body language is crucial now. I must anticipate next moves. Where will they turn next?  Will they continue walking straight toward me or make a side street turn. Is the path straight or deviate?  In this time of Covid-19 most don’t wear masks.

Let me just put it out there.

I’m 74 years old. I’m anxious. I want to walk, smell the freshness of mowed grass, wisteria musk, lemony camellias in bloom in the springtime of the South.  Furthermore, I want to choose my own carrots, lettuce and potatoes at the supermarket. I want cantaloupes just right, ripe, not hard. I want to inhale the aroma of ripe flesh, put my nose to the navel and swoon.  

These days, someone shops for me and I eat what they choose.

I still walk.  Walking is my meditation. On the streets of Durham I can still smell the fresh air, clean and pure. I forget the pain that surrounds me, the stress of an unseen disease, the stress of society filled with racial disparities and social injustices, the stress of leadership that embraces military crackdown and lack of compassion.  Here I am on the sidewalk, walking in circles for sometimes ten thousand steps and more. And, like citizens of many worlds, I must anticipate someone’s next move. 

As I scan, I talk to myself. Will they step off the sidewalk and go around me at the recommended safe distance of six feet?  Will they make a beeline toward me as if there was no care in the world, no danger of a hidden disease that could end my life? I wish I could be like them, not a care in the world, walking where they please with entitlement, purpose, and privilege.

I stop at a quiet spot on a busy street.  Cars zoom by. They are going somewhere. It’s almost business-as-usual.  I sit to rest on the edge of a raised vegetable bed constructed of raw pine planks. It’s a community garden of sorts.  Someone has named it a Victory Garden, a throwback to wartime. I guess we are in a war now, too, both visible and invisible medical and societal.  I sit among ten raised beds of beets, squash, tomatoes, chard, built to feed the immigrants, the sign says. The tomatoes are tied with twine, needing taming, now erect, reaching to a Carolina blue sky.  Yellow flowers give off the promise of future fruit. I wonder who will come pick and eat.

Most of the immigrants here are undocumented and wouldn’t risk showing up. A Black person might be accused of stealing and taken down with a knee. You can smell that tomato-ey plant aroma, pungent, astringent, sour. That smell we all know if we have grown a garden, the aroma that repels predators. Across from where I sit, a dwarf fig in a huge aluminum tub is ready to burst with fruit.  My feet are squarely planted on the finely ground decomposed granite path.  I get my bearings, alone here with the buzz of tires over pavement, a bass beat of repetitive motion.  Where are they going now in the time of Covid-19?  I’m always on the lookout for what’s next.

These are my days of anticipating next moves, the habits of others, their impulses, directions.  I become a soothsayer of next moves.  A block away I see a pair of figures. Man or woman, I do not yet know. Will they meander or stop all of a sudden in my path? Will they continue to walk as they peer down into the face of a mobile device, devoid of cognition for my presence in their path?  I cannot risk not paying attention.  I have to assume they could bump right into me. So, I stop. I step off.  I step aside, off the sidewalk into the bushes, or I take a wide detour onto the street, or I turn my back turn away from them. Wait for a moment or more to see where they will go next.  Sometimes, they stop dead in their tracks as if an apparition called to them to halt for no apparent reason. At that moment they could be too close to me for my comfort and I have to be prepared to move fast.

I always wear a mask.

Out there, I notice the person or couple or family that is twenty or fifty feet away. I must take care. Who else will?

It used to be I’d get angry, confront, call out, “move away, back up, don’t get close to me.” I’d spout, “Why didn’t you stop?” expecting others to be respectful and change their behavior.  I don’t do that now.

Now, I have my eyes opened, attuned to the moves of others, anticipating.  For now, I’m grateful to be alive, outdoors, breathing the air of springtime. Free.

Oaxaca Face Masks for the Good

In the despair that has gripped the United States of America in the last week that peels away once more deep-seated and unresolved racial disparities and undue police force that plague us, I have found succor in focusing on The Oaxaca Mask Project. These times demand us to be proactive to make change for the good however we can, wherever we are living now and where we come from.

I am deeply grateful to all who have contributed and those who still plan to. We continue to welcome your support.

The Oaxaca Mask Project Phase II started May 23, 2020. Since then, we have raised $8,830 USD from 134 donors. Eight seamstresses are employed and have made 1,410 masks to date.

To contribute, click here:

By the end of this week, we will have given over 500 masks to the Teotitlan del Valle public health clinic operated by the village and underwritten their purchase of gallons of isopropyl alcohol, hand sanitizer and pulse oximeters (used in the detection of Covid 19). Thanks to Cristy Molina Martinez and Samuel Bautista Lazo for their help to get masks into the hands of village leaders and to connect me to Armando Gutierrez Martinez, a health committee member.

The village tells me they need a portable Welch-Allyn vital signs monitor to buy used/refurbished in the USA and ship to them. I’m seeking a $700 donor to help us buy this medical equipment to ship to Teotitlan del Valle. Contact me: norma.schafer@icloud.com

IMSS doctors and nurses with our masks

I’m also happy to report that Alvin Starkman from Oaxaca Mezcal Tours got 100 masks into the hands of doctors and nurses at the Oaxaca public hospital IMSS. They did not have sufficient PPE and they were required to purchase same at their own expense. These masks were made by Rocio Bastida Cruz in San Felipe del Agua.

Karen Nein, from Eldorado, NM, sent high quality 100% cotton fabric to Kalisa Wells in the Centro Historico who got this to Beatriz at Telarcito Lindo in El Tule, where she and her staff are sewing 200 masks to be at the ready for those who ask us.

In San Jeronimo Tlacochahuaya, Moises Garcia Guzman de Contreras, a Zapotec linguistic activist and head of the cultural center, gave 100 masks to their village health officials to distribute to market vendors and shoppers. They have asked for 150 more for taxi and bus drivers, and others.

Teotitlan del Valle president receives over 400 masks for villagers

Patrice Wynne, owner of Abrazos San Miguel, contributed enough cotton fabric of their design for us to sew 400 masks. The box will arrive in Teotitlan del Valle via DHL this week. We are grateful.

I’m talking with Bordados Xime, a family operated apron-making embroidery workshop in San Miguel del Valle, just outside of Tlacolula, to sew masks for their village. I am guiding them on design and we will compensate them for what they make, of course!

Armando Sosa, a doll maker in San Pablo Villa de Mitla, continues to make masks for us, too. This gives him and his sister much needed income during this time of economic stress.

Kari Klippen-Sierra is getting masks to community service organizations through the Episcopal Church, and has given masks to Alan Goodin to distribute in Santiago Ixtaltepec, where he lives. Alan is helping a family who lost everything in the Abastos Market fire, too. We are planning to designate the next 100 being made by Alfredo Hernandez Orozco in El Tule to Alan.

Beatriz at Telarcito Lindo marks mask pattern on Karen’s fabric

We will continue to work with Rachael Mamane, Food for All, and her connections with puente.org, an organization of organic farmers in the Oaxaca valley and Mixtec region.

It’s hard for me right now to think about when our textile tours will start up again. I hope, as our travels are curtailed, that you keep Oaxaca and Mexico travel with me in your dreams!

Stay healthy! Stay safe! Saludos, Norma and The Oaxaca Mask Project

Generosity Knows No Boundaries: Oaxaca Mask Project II

We put out the call on Monday, May 25, that we were starting Phase II of the Oaxaca Mask Project. On Tuesday, May 26, an article in Mexico News Daily featuring the project appeared, written by journalist Janet Blaser. Oaxaca blogger Shannon Pixley Sheppard, View From Casita Colibri, reposted our Monday cry for help.

You responded.

We send you our sincerest, most grateful thanks. Special thanks to Janet and Shannon!

Your generosity gives us the wherewithal to go into mask-making overdrive. Even more important now that the virus is spreading to the villages and more cases are identified.

100 masks went to Macuilxochitl, adjacent to Teotitlan de Valle

Donate TodayPlease Share

We have cried this week. There were seven (7) funerals in Teotitlan del Valle, two on one day. There are cases diagnosed in neighboring villages and towns. For every published case diagnosed, the multiplier is eight (8) for the underrepresented numbers. If five (5) cases are known, the likely total is 40. The curve is no where in sight.

Mexico’s health care system is in disarray. Upon taking office, President AMLO (Lopez-Obrador) started dismantling the system to reorganize. There is little PPE and health care workers are taxed. The New York Times reports today that 25% of Mexico’s coronavirus cases are health care workers.

In all this, we are hopeful that the masks we offer FREE to people will mitigate the spread of disease in the Oaxaca valleys. Thank you for your generosity, your big heart and your gifts.

It takes a village to protect a village. You and I do this because we have a connection to people and place. We do this because we respect the creativity and hard work of Oaxaqueños. We understand. Thank you, again!

Since Monday, May 25, 2020:

  • 108 donors made gifts
  • $6,746 USD received
  • 1100 masks ordered
  • 4 distribution partnerships formed
  • 8 mask-makers employed
  • Expanded mask-making and distribution to San Miguel del Valle apron-making village
  • More to do!
Rocio Arecely Garcia Lopez, left, San Miguel del Valle, will sew masks for us

Phase II, Oaxaca Mask Project, Starts Today

COVID-19 cases are rising in Oaxaca and the villages. This week’s news reports closures at Abastos Market (Central de Abastos), the huge central food distribution center in Oaxaca city due to high rates of disease. People are testing positive in villages in the Tlacolula Valley. Concern is rising. Demand for face masks is stronger. We must continue to respond. Thousands are at risk. No time to sit back and take a break!

Donate Today: Please Share

If you gave earlier, please consider making another gift. If you haven’t yet given, now is the time. The need is still with us.

New Oaxaca Partnerships

We have formed distribution partnerships with:

  • Food for All A Oaxaca-based collective of farmers, chefs, drivers and citizens in Oaxaca, Mexico, providing market boxes from farm to table, founded by Rachael Mamane, James Beard-nominated chef.
  • Puente Works with food producers and micro-enterprises in vulnerable Oaxaca communities to maintain production and economic solidarity
  • Cafebre A Oaxaca city coffee bar that roasts and distributes artisanal beans from independent growers in the highlands
  • Mama Pacha Chocolate A small Oaxaca workshop that makes rich and nutritious chocolate without agrochemicals, promoting a fair economy for cacao bean growers

Each of these organizations will take our masks and distribute them to those in need. The partnership allows us to go deeper and wider with more urgency!

Urgency: We are out of masks in Teotitlan del Valle. People are coming to Cristy’s house to ask for masks. Please help!

Use a face mask in all public places

With help from Food for All‘s Rachael Mamane, our point person, we will be able to get more masks quickly into the hands of farmers, consumers, fruit and vegetable vendors, taxi fleets, and others.

You are key to this project’s continuing success. Right now, we have commitments to make 300 more masks this week and need to pay for them! We want to provide a steady source of face coverings for the near future.

Few have an income source in Oaxaca now and people cannot afford to buy masks. They can barely afford to buy food!

We also continue to work with Cristy Molina in Teotitlan del Valle, where she organizes seamstresses to make masks for us. These are the masks that we will give to Rachael for distribution. Cristy my essential partner who volunteers to protect her village and her neighbors.

Cristy gave our last 100 masks to Macuilxochitl villagers, where cases just diagnosed

Sewing Masks Provides Income

Our strategy has changed. We now want to focus on sending funds to Oaxaca seamstresses for mask-making. This provides an important source of income when all other work has evaporated. We are grateful for all the masks made by friends in the USA up to now. We found that the cost to ship to Oaxaca is better spent providing income to seamstresses there.

Sections of Central de Abastos Market closed for the next two weeks

To keep up-to-date with Oaxaca Covid-19 statistics, please use the Municipio de Oaxaca Facebook page. I am told, however, that actual data is lagging and cases may be as much as 20% higher than what is reported. Hospital beds are filled to capacity. This is what it takes to get people’s attention, unfortunately.

Cristy Molina designs public health messages to create awareness

Another key person whose help we value is Alvin Starkman, Mezcal Educational Tours, who says that masks are direly needed at Abastos — and he feels safe with his N95 and protective shield going there to distribute face coverings!

Alvin Starkman with N95 mask, protective shield and 6 ft. pole

Oaxaca Cultural Navigator: What will the future hold?

This is a big question as we try to live in the present and get through each day. One reason I turned my focus to creating The Oaxaca Mask Project, I have come to realize, is that it is a perfect distraction to keep me busy and helpful. I can think about NOW, not what will be.

Note: We will likely start the project up again in the next few weeks. Janet Blaser, a journalist who lives in Mazatlan, interviewed me yesterday for Mexico News Daily. The mask project story will likely appear in the next 10 days. We will begin accepting donations again then, ordering masks to be made, and giving them to people in need.

I started the project soon after I arrived in Huntington Beach, California, for what was to be a one-week visit with my son on my way to Durham, North Carolina. I was there for two months. Now, I’m in NC, just out of quarantine. My plan was to be here until the end of May and then return to Oaxaca for the summer. Now, who makes plans?

Meanwhile, the news came yesterday that Traditions Mexico is closing after 20+ years of operation. They set the bar for many of us who lead cultural journeys and tours in Oaxaca and Mexico. I want to acknowledge Eric Mindling’s passion, heart and generosity for opening doors to indigenous artists and communities over the years and send well wishes to all who have been part of his adventure.

Yes, COVID19 will take its toll in many ways.

On the Southern California coast, April 2020

What we have come to rely on will be no more. The familiar and the dependable will be no more. Life has changed and will continue to do so. We grieve the losses and must take comfort in making positive next steps.

We want to do more than survive! We want to thrive. We want to be with family and friends. We want to explore. For most of us, this is impossible now. I suspect that this will be the case over the next two years.

This got me to thinking about our own Oaxaca Cultural Navigator situation amid this virus and attendant path of destruction. We are a small operation. Tiny, actually. It’s mostly just me. I dream up the programs, organize them, contact the artisans I know and love, handle the bookkeeping, and make arrangements to ensure quality. Now, there is nothing to do but wait.

This is also about others. It impacts the artisans I work with in the villages. It impacts the local experts who provide the cultural guidance I rely on at the Oaxaca coast, in Chiapas and Michoacan, and yes, in Kyoto and Tokyo, to create a rich experience for our travelers. What will it be like for them who depend on people like us to appreciate their work and support them?

We have canceled the Japan textile study tour. We have canceled the Oaxaca Day of the Dead study tour. We are waiting to see about the December writing workshop and the programs set for early 2021. We read that there will probably be a surge in virus infections this fall.

When will we be be able to resume?

If you don’t travel for a year or two or even more, what will that mean for you? How will you make your future travel choices? Where will you go first and next? Will Oaxaca Cultural Navigator be starting over then? What will our collective future hold? Will we ever regain the confidence to travel on a plane or in a van with ten strangers?

Friends here and there are asking me: When will you return to Oaxaca? How long will you be in North Carolina? When will we see you next? My best answer is: I don’t know. Maybe September. Maybe October. Vamos a ver.

Right now, we must be focused on staying healthy and safe. It is difficult to know what the future will bring. Let’s take a deep breath and carry on.