I ask myself this question every day as the level of risk reported by the Oaxaca government moves fluidly back and forth from orange to red and back again. Confusing? Yes. And, in the informal economy small shop owners and street vendors are determined to do business, regardless of the risk. Restaurants have opened. Who can blame them? Not me. There is no safety net in Mexico for the impoverished. And, it is disappearing here in El Norte, too, as the U.S. Senate stonewalls on a new aid package.
The virus continues to rage. Mexico has the third highest outbreak in the world. We all want life the way it was. It’s not going to happen any time soon. So, we may as well settle into this as the way it’s going to be for a while.
There are slivers of good news out there.
From San Pedro Ixtlahuaca, Puente director Isahrai tells our Food for All partner Rachael Mamane that 50 of our masks were delivered to the Red de Amaranto Mixteca council for distribution to farmer families in the Mixteca communities. Isahrai participated in a meeting of the group where mask wearing do’s and don’ts as well as advice on care and washing were shared.
Alvin and Arlene Starkman’s goddaughter Lucy just finished her medical school education and has been assigned to do her public service in the village of San Jose del Chilar IMSS health clinic. This is the public health service. Lucy will distribute our masks to the 700 (+) (-) people in the village, which is in Oaxaca’s Cañada district. The closest town is San Juan Bautista Cuicatlan.
And, also thanks to Alvin, my son Jacob is the proud wearer of a Mezcal Educational Tours cap and face shield. Please note that we all know for maximum safety, one must wear a cloth mask under the shield. This photo is merely for demo purposes. Jacob is now officially part of the Mezcal Educational Tours Covid19 Fighting Brigade! P.S. That’s an agave plant on the cap, not another botanical.
As long as there is a need, we will continue to sew and distribute masks and ask for donations. Let me know if you need masks in Oaxaca and if you want to donate.
If you are inspired to give to The Oaxaca Mask Project, click here:
This just came to my inbox. I can alway rely on Winn to report about what it’s like on the ground in Oaxaca. These are extenuating circumstances! I told her, “This is so beautiful. So stunningly clear. So eloquently expressed. I am in awe of your ability to write from your heart to say what you will. A reflection that expresses the feelings of many of us.” And, I asked her permission to post it here. She agreed.
24 July 2020
And life goes on … in the time of cholera, no, Coronavirus. We will all remember this time, and mark our milestones as “just before lockdown,” or “during our time at home,” or “once we could finally travel again,” certainly.
My time continues in Oaxaca. Been here since the first week of February. My phone app tells me I’m still booked to fly back to NM [New Mexico] on August 19, the first day that international flights are promised in and out of Oaxaca. But now, when I check for updates, it is with a shrug of the shoulders and a “we shall see what we shall see” attitude.
In my Jalatlaco house, I have my “entertainment stations.” There’s the comfy red chair with its lamp and a spot for the cup of coffee, for reading. (My pile of books-in-process right now includes Ta-Nehisi Coates’s The Water Dancer, Paul Theroux’s On the Plain of Snakes, and Jane Smiley’s Moo.) There’s the splayed-out cardboard duct-taped together to make a smooth flat surface and laid atop the twin bed in the downstairs bedroom, for puzzle-making. There’s the lawn chair in the driveway-garden area with a turned-over wooden box for the bottle of water, for playing solitaire or listening to podcasts or checking news, email, or WhatsApp messages on my phone. There’s the table for breakfast or playing Cribbage with Phyllis or more reading. There’s the other comfy red chair with remote controls and laptop close at hand for the hours of binge-watching (love those Korean series!) and dining alone in front of the TV. There’s the outdoor garden where I water and trim plants that are bursting forth in this lovely weather. And I just move among those stations throughout the day, after my morning walks out into Centro for necessities (mostly comestibles and cash). Upstairs, my stations are for daily-elementals tasks—toothbrushing, showering, laundry, and of course, sleeping.
The other day, my neighbor Judi drove me to Home Depot to get a new pump for the garrafon (the 5-gallon water bottles that everyone uses for drinking-cooking water). It was my first time in a car since Judi and I went grocery-shopping in early June, and only the third or fourth outing since mid-March. Never again will I take for granted the luxury of being able to drive wherever I want to go, and the feeling that everything I want or need is within reach because I can simply get behind the wheel and go get it or see it or visit it. Yes, of course, I could get a taxi, but they are high-risk ventures these days, possibly loaded with contagion, so I walk … and walk … or just stay home, where I have control and feel safe.
The other day, as I walked across Llano Park toward the neighborhood grocery store, I saw a lone man doing tai chi. An old man, moving with some stiffness but with beauty and tranquility. I slowed my pace, and then as we made eye contact, I Namaste-ed him and he back to me. The group of women with whom I’ve been doing tai chi in that park for some years now has not met since mid-March, and still cannot do so. Oaxaca is in code-red again, according to Mexico’s red-light/orange-light/green-light classification of Covid danger zones, so the yellow tape has gone up again around all the parks and plazas and no groups can gather in any public places. But a lone tai chi practitioner, or a walker, can duck under the yellow tape and proceed without hassle from the ubiquitous police, who are mostly a benign presence here. Even the lone runner I see often, who runs around that same park with seven or eight dogs—of all sizes and shapes—can get his exercise and make a little money keeping those dogs entertained and healthy, without hassle.
But oh, how I miss my tai chi ladies, mis Reinas de Tai Chi and our regular sessions, which give a sweet structure to my schedule. I miss seeing the families who come to the parks together. I miss the bounty and energy of the open-air markets. I miss the long, chatty coffee-dates with friends. And outings to nearby villages on market day or for a museum show or a festival. July is typically a riotous month in Oaxaca; it’s the month of Guelaguetza, with vendors and dancers and parades and fireworks all over town. But it’s been quiet this month, eerily quiet. The church in Jalatlaco, a block from my house, has been broadcasting music on Sunday mornings and then a loudspeaker mass, for the neighbors who are afraid to come to the church for services, but then the churchyard, typically a place for gatherings and food vendors and weddings or quinceanera celebrations, goes quiet again for the week. Only the morning bell of the garbage truck, the distinctive cries or sounds of the street vendors who pass by, the jingle of the gas truck, the barking of a neighborhood dog, or the occasional late-night bass-playing from a nearby house break the prevailing quiet.
I love it here, still, even in this long time of sequestration. I can stay safe here and feel strangely content. I send vicarious support to the Wall of Moms in Portland and other brave folks like them, to folks in the States enduring the shameless failures of the Orange one and his administration, to those out of a job or worrying about finances or the survival of their business, to my neighbors and friends in Taos and elsewhere. But here, in this time of solitude and introspection, and in the long run, I know that, if I (and we all) survive it, there will be value in what we are learning now.
North Carolina rates of infection are on the rise. We are in the Bruised Red, Uncontrolled Category. This is alarming. We may not be in the Top 5 outbreaks in the Southern States, but we are inching there. Wherever we are, whomever we are, we are at risk. And, in the face of what we perceive as danger, our normal response — according to the mental health experts — is to either run away or fight.
These days, many of us are also in hiding. I should be in hiding because I’m a fighter with a loud voice. No amount of precautions help me. No mask wearing. No frequent washing and using hand sanitizer. No six-feet of social distancing. Mostly because others don’t adhere to the guidelines.
NC Governor Roy Cooper extended Stay at Home Orders on July 16 to August 7, 2020. This includes:
WHEREAS, in Executive Order No. 141, issued on May 20, 2020, the undersigned urged that all people in North Carolina follow social distancing recommendations, including that everyone wear a cloth face covering, wait six (6) feet apart and avoid close contact, and wash hands often or use hand sanitizer; to reduce COVID-19 spread.
I made a mistake today. I went food shopping mid-Sunday morning to the Harris-Teeter supermarket in my Durham neighborhood. Why? I promised to help a friend.
Most were behaving pretty well. Everyone was masked. I stopped to allow people to pass me and made a wide swing around others when there was space. There were definitely more people in the store than at 8 a.m. on Mondays and Thursday, The Senior Hour.
In Produce, I hovered around the potatoes, onions and squash eyeing the best before touching. Okay. I’m not Speedy Gonzalez. A late 20’s-something (hard to tell with the mask on) swooped in three inches from me to pick an onion.
Excuse me, he said, as he reached in front of me, body leaning in my direction.
I said, incredulously, What are you doing? You are supposed to stay six feet away!
I said Excuse Me, he said, and turned his back on me, setting off.
Excuse me doesn’t cut it, I screamed through my mask. Do you think he heard me. I kept shouting, You are supposed to stay six feet away.
He went to another aisle, stone faced. I noticed he had a very short cropped haircut, shaved close to the neck. I wondered if that meant anything.
How dare you? I continued across the expanse of strawberries, peaches and blueberries, as if that would help lower my anxiety. Everyone else stayed far away.
Now, I’m smarter than this. I should know better than to go out food shopping on Sunday, when Duke students are starting to return, when the weekend habit of procuring vittles is ingrained in many.
There would have been any number of online choices: Instacart has been a delivery mainstay with choices such as Sprouts,Fresh Market and Durham Food Co-op. I have also shopped for pick-up at Harris-Teeter and at Whole Foods. I reconciled my decision based on some specialty needs for my friend.
Meanwhile, I must forgive myself, do better to calculate risk and remember to #stayinhiding and #staysafe and depend more on available services. I must stay conscious.
We continue to make and distribute masks, although at a less frenzied pace! This week, Alvin Starkman from Oaxaca Mezcal Educational Tours picked up 60 masks from Kalisa Wells in El Centro. He gave 20 to folks he knows in San Dionisio Ocotepec. Villagers in San Pablo Guila asked Alvin if he could get them more masks, so he brought 20 there, too. Twenty more will go toa small village TBD where Alvin’s goddaughter, La Doctora Lucina, will do her servicio social.
We had funded the making of 100 more masks in Tlacolula de Matamoros under the supervision of Eric Ramirez, the English-speaking owner of Zapotrek. Eric is a knowledgeable adventure guide who has a superb knowledge of history and archeology, among other things. Early in The Project, he asked how he could help. He identified a seamstress who needed support. We sent money via Western Union.
We make masks, pay the sewists, and give the masks to those in need for FREE. The project is funded by donations.
This week, Eric gave more masks to vendors and customers in the Tlacolula Market.
Now, Oaxaca has gone from Code Red to Code Orange, using the traffic-light (semiforo) system of identifying the severity of C-19 spread. Many of us think this is done for the reason of boosting the economy, not because the disease risk has diminished.
Kalisa reports that on her masked forages to the Benito Juarez market, most are now wearing masks inside.
But, we can see in Tlacolula that the story is different. There are still maskless vendors and shoppers. It’s no different there than it is in the USA. Some people want to protect themselves and others. Many are “non-believers” as if mask-wearing was one form of religion.
Still accepting gifts. To contribute to The Oaxaca Mask Project, click here:
Here, in my own Durham, NC, apartment condo building, where there are 90 units in a historic downtown repurposed tobacco warehouse, despite the signs, many are not wearing masks in public spaces. It is so frustrating and I find myself getting angry at the mask-less who ignore the printed and email messages that masks are required in the public spaces.
What are their excuses when I ask, Where’s your mask?
Oh, I left it in my car. I forgot. It’s in my apartment. I just went out for a quick errand. Oh, it’s in my pocket. I was just out for a bike ride. Or, it’s dangling around their neck. What to do? Steer clear. Make a wide arc around them. Take a deep breath.
Meanwhile, all over the world, rates of infection are increasing, deaths are on the rise, and I’m still scared and being super cautious.
And, I’ve been worried about my dogs. But, they are well-fed and cared for by my host family in Teotitlan del Valle. Mostly, I guess, I’m missing them — our daily walks in the campo with the vast landscape of mesquite and cactus, purple mountains casting shadows on the valley, the green of summer rains. You know that smell of rain when everything is fresh.
When will I be able to return? A gnawing question that has no answer.
Please tell everyone you meet to wear a mask! Stay safe. We are in this for the long-haul.
I left Oaxaca on March 12, 2020, for what was to be a two-month return to the USA, first to visit family in California for a week, and then to check on my North Carolina apartment. I landed in Los Angeles to see my son and brother, with a plan to visit my sister in San Francisco next.
On March 15, the California stay-at-home order started. I was with my son for two months in a one-BR apartment. In the beginning, I ordered face masks for us as we walked in the wildlife preserve wetlands along the Pacific Ocean in Huntington Beach. Then, I turned my attention to Oaxaca.
What could I do to be useful to help the place I call home for most of the year? That’s when I decided to start The Oaxaca Mask Project to offer face coverings FREE for anyone in need. This was accomplished with help from many Oaxaqueños and gueros who live in and remain in Oaxaca. From April 14 to today (July 3, 2020), I have raised a bit over $20,000 USD through 283 individual gifts. We made and distributed 3,223 face masks throughout the city and villages.
At the request of the Teotitlan del Valle Community President and the Public Health Committee, we purchased and mailed a high-quality vital signs monitor, and donated funds to purchase pulse oximeters, gallons of alcohol and hand-sanitizer. The vital signs monitor helps assess blood oxygen levels as a way to detect covid-19. I asked for designated donations for the very costly monitor and received gifts from Kate Rayner, Claudia Michel, Dr. Deborah Morris, and Boojie Colwell.
My thoughts are always with Oaxaca regardless of where I am physically located. I continually plug into the public health information to know how our people are doing, and to also help me determine when I will return. I should have been back by now. My plan was to be in my Teotitlan del Valle casita by the first of July. Now, there is no certainty about much and my first concern is to stay safe and have access to excellent medical care, should I need it: Ojala!
I’d like to tell you a little more about the project.
We employed mask sewists in Oaxaca City, Santa Maria El Tule, Tlacolula de Matamoros, San Pablo Villa de Mitla, San Miguel del Valle and Teotitlan del Valle, providing a needed income, in some cases sending 100% cotton fabric when none was to be procured. We sent mask-making instructions and a pattern in Spanish. We crafted the language for hand-tags to be attached to the masks to instruct wearers on use and care. We depended on amazing volunteers on the ground to help with distribution: Kalisa Wells, Alvin Starkman, Cristy Molina Martinez, Kari Klippen-Sierra, Moises Garcia Guzman de Contreras, Gail Pellett, Malena Jimenez, Rachael Mamane, Alan Goodin, Eric Ramirez Ramos, Luvia Lazo, Jacki Cooper Gordon and Samuel Bautista Lazo.
We also relied on help from friends in the USA, Canada and Mexico who made masks and sent fabric in late March and early April to jump-start the project. Janet Blaser wrote about the project in Mexico News Daily, too. That helped spread the word and raise more needed funds.
These folks put masks (often repeatedly) in the hands of market vendors, shoppers and villagers in the city and far-flung villages. We covered faces in San Marcos Tlapazola, Santiago Matatlan, San Dionisio, San Jeronimo Tlacochahuaya, San Andres Huayapam. San Agustin Etla, San Martin Tilcajete, Santiago Ixtaltepec and more. With help from the Episcopal Church, we covered faces of people who glean from the Zaachila dump. We covered faces of women entrepreneurs who work with EnVia and taxi drivers and farmers who work with Puente and the healthy food-sourcing project Food-for-All. We got masks into the hands of at risk-youth from Casa de Kids, and IMSS doctors and nurses in two Oaxaca hospitals.
This project has preoccupied me for the last months. I am waiting now for Oaxaca to move from Code Red to Code Green (semiforo system of measurement), as are all of us. We want to return, to live, to visit, to support artisans, and to freely enjoy all that beautiful Oaxaca has to offer. Oaxaca is not ready for us yet. We will go when it opens up. Most importantly, we wish for the health and safety of all our friends.
When will I begin to offer textile tours and workshops? My best answer is, I don’t know. Life now is an improvisation and we are all getting used to it.
*Note: The Oaxaca Lending Library is collecting accounts from members and friends about how we are dealing with Covid-19. This essay was my contribution.
To see more photos, search Oaxaca Mask Project on the site for prior posts.
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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Dye Master Dolores Santiago Arrellanas with son Omar Chavez Santiago, weaver and dyer, Fey y Lola Rugs, Teotitlan del Valle