First, a bouquet of flowers for all the dads out there — past, present and future!
The Oaxaca Mask Project is percolating along. We have made and distributed 3,110 masks so far throughout Oaxaca, and continue to do so.
This week Kari Klippen-Sierra will take 150 masks to two IMSS hospitals (public health) in Oaxaca for doctors, nurses and staff. She also gave masks to her village veterinarian who rides around town on a scooter, and to the Juves family. She sends thanks to Dave and Rocio for meeting her for mask transfer.
Alan Goodin continues to distribute masks to Santiago Ixtaltepec where he lives. We have provided almost 100 masks there.
Yesterday, I talked with Jacki Cooper Gordon using Facebook video messenger. She tells me that Envia director Viviana asked us to provide funds to seamstresses in the villages Envia works with sew more masks to distribute. They may need 200 or more.
The Teotitlan del Valle public health clinic received the vital signs monitor on Friday, June 19, that we shipped 10 days ago. They have promised to send photos with the doctors using the equipment.
I have just sent more money to Eric Ramirez in Tlacolula to make and distribute more masks, since the need is still acute.
If some of our distribution channels sound repetitive, well, they are! We continue to give masks to the people who continue to tell us they need more! And, we are happy to do this as long as funds are in the bank! We are getting low, so if you are so inclined, please help.
To contribute to The Oaxaca Mask Project, click here:
This latest Paul Theroux book, On The Plain of Snakes: A Mexican Journey, is not an easy read. Mostly because it is not a travelog like most readers expect. It is not a fun romp through the beach towns, famed archeological sites, Colonial cobbled streets that are hallmarks of travel writing. It doesn’t recommend best hotels, restaurants or things to do. It touches on those, sure, but it goes much deeper. And, it’s uncomfortable.
The first half is an accounting of the border conflicts and gang violence. Topics most of us don’t want to read about. A good part of the book deals with immigration and the difficulties of life in Mexico for indigenous people. It gets more interesting and less brutal once Theroux gets to Oaxaca!
Theroux writes a personal journal, and social and political commentary about his road trip. He starts off along the US/Mexico border, zig-zagging back and forth across the frontier from Mexican to US border towns, checkpoints, the miles of the futile fence, and talking to boundary jumpers and border patrollers. Cartels and crossings take up the first half of the book. It’s heavy. The reader has to be willing to take the detours with him. Most of us may not be that dedicated.
Years ago, I read Riding the Iron Rooster (1988) about his experience traveling by train across China. I was particularly taken with his descriptions about Ulaan Baatar, Mongolia, a place I always wanted to visit (I never did) because of him. I loved that book.
On The Plain of Snakes is different. Perhaps his age is requiring of him to be more direct. Or we forgive him his ramblings because of it. He tells us about his age and vulnerabilities as he describes the travel writers who go to Oaxaca for four or five days and then report as if they know the place — deeply. I’ve read what they have written, too, and because I live there, I know they gloss over a lot of real life in the interest of tourism promotion. What they offer is a shiny, polished, superficial look at Mexico.
This book is dirtier, gutsier, grittier, and at moments, downright difficult to digest. We know the backroads are unpaved, bumpy, potholed and perilous! I think this is a metaphor for the poverty and lack of institutional supports for most people. It is about resourcefulness, but mostly about the underbelly, survival and self-preservation.
So, for anyone looking for a book about what to see and do in Mexico, this one will surely disappoint. I think it is more real than most people want to get into. That’s what makes it a challenging and unpleasant read — though for those of us interested in immigration, cross-border migration, cultural understanding, it is an overall fair account. You have to be willing to take the ride down the bumpy road with Theroux.
I especially loved the later chapter about the descriptions of Oaxaca village life intermingled with his take on the various literary figures of Mexico. Theroux focuses his discussion on magical realism played out in Day of the Dead observances. This celebration is not a party! He summarizes the feelings of so many indigenous people who, born into a life of hardship and struggle that is difficult to escape from, embrace death as a form of liberation.
This part helps me understand the melancholy fatalism (so called by my friend Kalisa) assumed by so many Mexicans. It also explains why, during the Covid-19 pandemic, not enough take the precautions necessary — perhaps dancing with death.
Does he do Oaxaca justice? Not really. But Theroux touches on her essences: mezcal, textiles, fields of native corn, hard-at-work campesinos and cooks, adobe builders and palm weavers, burros and dogs, tlayudas and goat stew, the steamy Isthmus of Tehuantepec and muxes. We get a sense of place. It’s a taste.
I appreciated Theroux’s honesty about age. I think he said he was age 76 when he took this road trip. In my opinion, this gives him license to say whatever he wants! He’s earned it. He also talks about how age is revered and respected in Mexico, while not so much in the USA. I felt he embarked on an incredible act of courage to take this journey alone, in a car, often venturing into areas of isolation and potential danger. That was heartening — or foolish! For most of us who live in Oaxaca, we submit to the adventure.
Theroux’s premise is that to know Mexico one must know her people, her pueblos, get beyond cities and into villages where the heart and soul of the country lives. To know Mexico is to understand and appreciate the lives and motivations of her workers and farmers, their opportunities and limitations, dreams and disappointments, the draw of family and connectedness, why they immigrate and why many return. This is the insightfulness of On the Plain of Snakes and why it’s worth reading, despite the book being at times sluggish, pedantic, and self-absorbed.
At the end of the book, Theroux states, “Mexico is rich in many tourist-friendly respects — the traditional hospitality, the varieties of food, the elaborate fiestas, the gusto of the language, the consolations of family and faith. These attractive attributes are well known to the vacationer, and are the pride and boast of the Mexican. But there is more, and some of it is not pretty, and all of it is complicated.”
That about sums it up for me.
If you have read On The Plain of Snakes, A Mexican Journey, what is your take on it? Did you enjoy it or not, and for what reasons?
First, the letter I sent to our most recent donors yesterday — people who made gifts over the last two weeks. Read on for a story from Kalisa Wells about giving out our masks on the streets of Oaxaca.
Your gifts over the last two weeks topped us off at receiving over $10,000 USD since Phase II of The Oaxaca Mask Project started on May 23, 2020 from 162 donors. We have made and distributed 2,710 face masks and more are in the making. Oaxaca is at the height of the Covid-19 outbreak. Sadly, very sadly, we have seen Oaxaca mortalities rise and our artisan villages are also very vulnerable.
So, the masks have helped immensely as we give them to people who are going to funerals and to public health clinics and markets, and just going about their every day lives. Staying at home, sequestered in houses, is difficult for the most disciplined of us to do! Yet, we know survival is dependent on it along with constant public education. We are working on that through the public health clinics in Teotitlan del Valle, Tlacolula de Matamoros, Santiago Ixtaltepec, and San Jeronimo Tlacochuhuaya. We have friends on the ground in each village who are helping us with mask distribution and education!
In addition, this total amount raised includes a gift to Teotitlan del Valle of hand sanitizer, alcohol, small portable pulse oximeters, plus a used Welch-Allyn vital signs monitor that clinic doctors requested. They have an urgent need to accurately test blood oxygen levels, temperature and blood pressure there. Four donors made this possible: Kate Rayner, Claudia Michel, Dr. Deborah Morris, and Boojie Cowell.
To contribute to The Oaxaca Mask Project, click here:
What else can I tell you? We have masks going to vulnerable at risk people who live near the Zaachila dump and orphan children via the Oaxaca Episcopal Church, thanks to Kari Klippen-Sierra. Moises Garcia Guzman de Contreras is translating health messages and making videos in Zapotec for Tlacochahuaya. Cristy Molina Martinez continues to do the same in Teotitlan. Alan Goodin has taken up the cause for Santiguito, where he lives. We provide important income to seamstresses in El Tule, Oaxaca, Teotitlan, Tlacolula, Mitla and San Miguel del Valle. Jacki Cooper Gordon gave 100 masks to EnVia foundation who distributed them to women they support in Tlapazola, San Sebastian Abasolo, Santa Maria Guelace, and San Miguel. We sent extra fabric, too, so one of their seamstresses with use it for masks. Another 100 masks made by Rocio Bastida will go to Rachael Mamane, FoodforAll.mx, today, who will get them to taxi drivers and farmers who are part of Puente.org
I don’t know when I will return to my beloved Oaxaca. All my friends there tell me the cases are rising and the health care system is overloaded. I’m hoping for November this year, but I have no plans yet. When will Oaxaca Cultural Navigator resume our textile tours and programs? Quien sabe? I don’t know.
Meanwhile, I must do what I can to stay healthy in this time of covid-19. I must do what I can to elect a responsive government, and support justice for Black America. I will continue to focus on doing the right thing.
Thank you for joining me. Thank you for caring for Oaxaca. Say safe and healthy.
“I love these walks, giving out the surprise mask for the very deserving people out there working for a few pesos on a Sunday. I put one of the last two masks I have in a plastic bag as we set out. We were way beyond Xochimilco (north of Niño Heroes de Chapultepec). We passed a señora making tortillas on a comal. She was in a dark entry way to her home, a step down from the sidewalk. She was older and was wearing a paper mask.
“I asked her for 10 pesos worth of tortillas. She had been making and putting them in a basket under a cloth, but for my 10 (that’s one peso each), she insisted on making them fresh, right then and there.
“I carry a clean tea towel in my bag, perfect for piping hot tortillas! I gave her the 10 pesos and your mask. She hesitated, not really understanding. I said it was a gift. You would have thought I gave her a diamond. She examined it, the workmanship and a nod of appreciation and thanks. It made my day!
We know it takes a village to make a difference. And Oaxaqueños and gueros know how to do this. Last month I asked Jacki Cooper Gordon, who volunteers with EnVia Foundation (and is also president of The Oaxaca Lending Library), if she would receive a box of 100 face masks to distribute to them. Of course, she said. EnVia agreed to distribute them to the women they work with in villages throughout the Valles Centrales de Oaxaca.
These 100% cotton masks were sewn by Sam Robbins in Columbus, Ohio, and shipped to Oaxaca by my son Jacob Singleton who received them in Huntington Beach, California. Sam is a quilter and had a stash of fabric. It was only natural that she coverted the cloth to masks, responding to our call, and sent along extra cloth.
Jacki received them at her apartment in El Centro and transferred them over to Viviana Ruiz, the EnVia managing director, for distribution to the pueblos.
Many of you know EnVia. They offer micro-financing to three-woman teams who want to start or grow a small business. After proving their success and ability to repay the first round of financing, they can become part of a cultural tour. That’s how EnVia provides funding for its loans — there is a cost to attend the tour and the funds raised are used to provide the loans. It’s a win-win because there is Zero Percent Interest on the loan. This is unusual in a climate where big box Mexican stores can charge over 80% interest to borrow to buy a stove or refrigerator, for example. Using this system, people can never get out of debt and there is no federal regulation on interest rates.
Jacki is a cultural guide. If you have gone on her tours, like I have, you know what an excellent resource EnVia is to many families in many small pueblos along Federal Highway 190. In the photo above, in the background, is EnVia van driver Norman, who helps with so much more.
To contribute to The Oaxaca Mask Project, click here:
Cristy Molina Martinez is my eyes, ears, hands and feet on the ground in Oaxaca. She is a teacher who lives in Teotitlan del Valle. She has been working to make and distribute masks throughout the Tlacolula Valley for the past two months. She writes me almost daily with updates.
We are making and distributing more and more masks as the virus spreads and is likely infecting many people, though there are no tests to prove it, unless, says Moises Garcia Guzman de Contreras in San Jeronimo Tlacochuhuaya:
People are only tested if they are exhibiting strong symptoms. By then, it will have already infected friends and family members, too.
Last night I got this message of thanks from Cristy, who is paraphrasing a Teotitlan del Valle woman who came to her house in search of masks:
“People are still coming to my house asking for masks. A woman came and told me, really please, let the people who are making this possible, say thank you, you are so kind and helpful for this problem. We need more people like you. She was really really grateful for the masks. ‘We are so grateful,’ she said.
“She took 12 masks and she was so happy. I know she will use them. Because she told me that two older people came to her house to ask where the masks were being given out. She was really thankful. I didn’t ask her name.”
“I am still working on getting masks made and distributed. Two people died last night. We have had eight losses. We don’t know the reason. Yesterday morning the president told the village that the market will close for a few days. We will just have market on Wednesday, Friday and Saturday now. We will see how this works.
“Yesterday, we gave the village president a document telling him we are helping with the cause. We continue to produce information materials and videos about prevention and how to use the masks.
“I took 120 masks and gave them to the president so he knows the project and if he needs more, he can come to my house and ask for more. We told him that the paper masks are only good for one use and are making garbage. He was really happy with this donation.
“On Sunday, I gave 30 masks to Alan Goodin for Santiguito. Rosario just finished making 200 masks and Matea will complete another 100 masks today. My friend in Macuilxochitl is handing out masks and the next 100 will go there!”
We could not do this project without Cristy. We could no do this project without YOU. We could not do this project without the mask makers and friends in Oaxaca who are helping to distribute. Thank you!
Epidemiologists say that we must be wearing masks for at least 3-12 more months. I don’t know how long we can keep this project going — as long as we have support from people like you and as long as there is a need!
Why We Left, Expat Anthology: Norma’s Personal Essay
Norma contributes personal essay, How Oaxaca Became Home
Norma Contributes Two Chapters!
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Norma Schafer and Oaxaca Cultural Navigator LLC has offered programs in Mexico since 2006. We have over 30 years of university program development experience. See my resume.
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