Travel Now to Oaxaca Poses Big Risk to First Peoples

I’m writing this because a recent WhatsApp conversation among friends focused on how to respond to people who plan to go to Oaxaca this winter. I’m writing to ask you to think about your own travel plans there and urge you to reconsider.

The map of Covid-19 cases has exploded across the USA in the past two weeks. Numbers have increased 77%. Only the east and west coasts are maintaining orange and we don’t know how long that will last! The vast interior of the country is RED. The increases are alarming. We need to be alarmed! And, if we are tired of Covid-19, I get it. I am, too. If we live where it gets cold and snowy, I get that, too. Even in North Carolina, we have bitter winter. We want to go where it is warm and comforting.

We have covid fatigue. We want life to be normal. But, it isn’t!

But, here are some things to consider — and reconsider — if you have plans to be in Oaxaca this winter:

  • At least 25% of Covid cases are asymptomatic. Are you willing to get tested before you go to know for sure that you are not a disease carrier?
  • Most Covid-19 tests are not 100% accurate.
  • What will you do to protect yourself when you get to Oaxaca? Can you forgo traveling to indigenous craft villages to meet local artisans? Can you stay away from special events (if there are any)? How will you choose to eat and sleep and travel locally with safety?
  • While the NY Times reports that air travel can be safer than going to the supermarket, that’s only while you are on the plane exercising all necessary precautions. Getting to airports, layovers, and traveling to your destination poses huge risks.

Native People are at higher risk!

We need to be socially responsible. Going to Oaxaca is NOT like going to Florida, but there are similarities as both are Snowbird Destinations. The alarm bells are ringing. I am ringing them because I care about and have concern for the indigenous people of Oaxaca. The state has one of the highest indigenous populations in Mexico. Health disparities are extreme. Indigenous people have huge chronic health issues: diabetes, high blood pressure, obesity, and respiratory illness. Covid infection presents an extraordinary life and death risk to them.

What is our own responsibility in disease prevention and control here?

It’s likely that most U.S. travelers to Oaxaca will go from high-count virus states. While I’m here on lockdown in Taos, New Mexico, and just read that the Navajo Nation has a raging Covid-19 outbreak, I extrapolate the similarities. All New Mexico pueblos have been closed to the public since March 2020. It’s off again, on again in Oaxaca.

We have a cultural and social responsibility to indigenous people to help protect them by NOT GOING. First Nation peoples are particularly vulnerable because of the underlying conditions I outline above. Moreover, their access to adequate healthcare is limited. Their suspicions of government provided healthcare programs is well-documented. If we are thinking about going, what are the consequences to native people?

Are we taking on the posture of Colonialism, thinking only of our own desires, wishes, wants, values? Are we thinking about the impact we may have on others?

Think about the conquistadores who brought Euro-diseases of smallpox, measles, influenza to the New World and decimated native populations. Is it any different now? What entitlements do we have in this moment where the disease is rampant in the USA and so few people are adhering to the basics of protection for self and others?

If you do go, are you willing to stay put, to not explore, discover and meet people? What will the quality of your travel experience be during this time? Remember, hospitals are not prepared to treat you should you get sick in Oaxaca.

Are you willing to forgo your own comforts and stay home for a few months or more until a vaccine is within reach for most of us?

Do you agree or disagree? Why?

Vaccine Hopes for 2021 Oaxaca Return

I’m sitting in a room on the precipice of the Rio Grande River Gorge in Taos, NM. Today begins a two-week statewide lockdown ordered by Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham. I am in the vacation home of lifelong friends who have been in my protective bubble for months in North Carolina. We will shelter in place together for the next two weeks before I return east.

Rio Grande River Gorge, Taos, NM

The scene in front of me is an expanse of southwest desert landscape dotted with scrub oak and tumbleweed. The gorge cuts through this landscape like a knife, making a deep incision where the river runs deep before it spills out into the flatter plain further south between Santa Fe and Albuquerque. In this distance, I see snow-capped mountains rising from the 7,000 foot plateau.

Ever hopeful, this morning, I wrote to my friend Carol with a proposal to meet in Oaxaca. When? Quien sabe?

Then, almost immediately, Scott’s Cheap Flights sends me a promising message: We can be optimistic about 2021 travel plans based on successful preliminary results reported by the New York Times. Pfizer-BioNTech has entered Phase 3 vaccine trial. Moderna is also reporting promising early results. Inovio moved from Phase 1 to Phase 2 clinical trials, and a vaccine from OncoSec Immunotherapies has been approved for Phase 1. There is hope for 90-94% effectiveness!

Here, out in the northern New Mexico wilderness, my activities will be limited to daily hikes and the day-to-day world of living indoors, cooking, eating, drinking, sleeping, staying healthy.

Governor’s Palace, Santa Fe Plaza

This news gives me pause to think about how and when we will return to Oaxaca in 2021. I’ve recently written that soon I will begin planning for our 2021 Day of the Dead Folk Art Study Tour. It’s important to focus on the future. I’ll announce this program in early December after I return to NC. We will still need to be cautious, wear masks, use sanitizer and wash hands liberally. But this news give us a sense of renewal that life will resume to some degree of normalcy in late spring or early summer 2021.

Ojala. God willing!

Borat Says: Go to Oaxaca! NOT. Covid Rages.

Sasha Baron Cohen’s film, The Borat Subsequent Moviefilm: Delivery of Prodigious Bribe to American Regime for Make Benefit Once Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan parodies, in part, the lack of leadership that was required to prevent the spread of Covid-19. I found it telling, hilarious, offensive and an indictment of the USA. If you’ve seen it, you know what I mean.

Sasha Baron Cohen makes good use of the NOT Joke. Example: Time to Go to Oaxaca. NOT.

On board Southwest flight to ABQ

Mexico is NOT faring much better than the USA. And, Oaxaca is on the cusp of turning RED again on the traffic signal scale of measurement. Cases are rising exponentially there, too.

I was thinking about returning to Oaxaca in January. However, my Zapotec family in Teotitlan del Valle recommends I do NOT come back just yet.

Masked up with my sister Barbara in Santa Fe, NM

Here is the question I asked: IF I were to return and IF I contracted Covid-19 while there, where is the best place to get treatment. I was told the best treatment in Oaxaca is at the Hospital San Lucas, though it is the most expensive private hospital. All costs are out-of-pocket.

Me and my sister, almost twins. NOT.

The public health office announced on November 4 that in two weeks Oaxaca will be pretty close to having all hospital beds occupied in both public and private hospitals due to the celebrations and thousands of tourists who came for Day of the Dead.

The only other option to Hospital San Lucas, I’m told, is to go to the IMSS public hospital. They keep reporting lack of beds, lack of equipment for intense therapy, and lack of pain medication. It is not looking good. And, last week, Teotitlan del Valle appeared on the official list of contagion again.

I was hopeful before I received this news, but not now. If anyone is planning to return to Oaxaca, please think again. Go to Oaxaca? NOT.

My Oaxaca family is sequestered, staying home, staying safe. This is the same for most of my USA and Canada friends who live there permanently.

Santa Fe, NM train station

Now, why did I even entertain this thought of return? Because I just completed plane travel from Durham, NC to Santa Fe to have a reunion with my sister. Now, I’m in Albuquerque to see my son Jacob who drove here with his partner Shelley from Los Angeles. Then, I’ll be in Taos staying with friends through Thanksgiving. This is as close as I’m going to get to Mexico for a while, I fear.

On the plane, I wore an N95 mask, a face shield, gloves. I was armed with Clorox wipes, alcohol spray and hand-sanitizer. I took a window seat (I read somewhere this was the safest). No one sat in the middle seat. I ate and drank nothing in-flight. All passengers were REQUIRED to mask-up. Flight attendants were diligent about that. I thought that if I could do this safely (and it appears that I have), I could safely attempt plane travel to Oaxaca. YES, likely. But once I get there, then what?

My sister wearing her safety gear for departure

It seems that Day of the Dead was a super-spreader event for Oaxaca. If you are a vacationer, we recommend that you stay home. The health care system in Oaxaca, should you need it, is not equipped to treat you.

Enough said.

Autumn colors at Abiquiu, NM — glorious cottonwoods

As for 2021, I will begin planning for our Day of the Dead Folk Art Study Tour in October and announce it in January. In early 2022, we will return to the Oaxaca Coast and Chiapas for textile study tours. We are keeping fingers crossed that most of us will be vaccinated for disease prevention and life will go on. Yet, we aren’t sick of this, are we? NOT.

Chili peppers. Essential Southwest + Mexican ingredient

Day of the Dead 2020: A Celebration of Memory

As most of you know, Oaxaca is shut-down for Day of the Dead because of Covid-19 infection warnings. Visitors have been encouraged to NOT come, since no events will take place, public activities are canceled, and attractions that usually welcome visitors are closed. These are unsettling times. The national election in the USA is in two-days. The difuntos are stirring in their graves, readying themselves to visit today and tomorrow, November 1 and November 2. This year, it will be without the usual fanfare.

I’m taking pause to recall Days of the Dead past in Oaxaca and here in North Carolina. My altar is modest this year. There is no party and related conversation among intimates friends who I have invited into my home to eat tamales, drink Corona beer, and talk about the meaning of life, death, loss and remembrance.

2018 Day of the Dead, Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca, Norma Schafer

The altar is a pre-Hispanic offering related to ancestor worship. It takes us deep into the spiritual world of memory, guided by the pungent aromas of copal incense, wild marigolds, fresh cooked tortillas hot off the comal, mole amarillo or mole negro, pan de muertos, a cup of mezcal.

Day of the Dead is like a meditation. It gives us pause to wonder about the meaning of life and if there is an afterlife, what we can do here on earth during the time given to us to create a more meaningful and better world. It prepares us for the abyss to come. It gives us a connection to the people in our lives who we have loved and lost — to old age, disease, heartbreak, distance. It is a celebration for continuity, not only for individuals and family, but for community and the expansive world that is inclusive and forgiving.

2020 Day of the Dead Altar, Norma Schafer

My altar this year is modest. My parents, Ben and Dorothy Beerstein, are with me now. Not just now, but always. Too, today is a formalized opportunity to remember and appreciate them, for who they were able to become, for their limitations and accomplishments, and for giving me life. In my own religious tradition, we do this by lighting a 24-hour candle on the day of death. In Zapotec tradition, this is a community celebration of an annual Day of Remembrance.

This is also an opportunity to look at cross-cultural similarities — the universal themes among us.

Here are some links to the history of Day of the Dead, and my photographs and writings over past years. How do you celebrate this passage of return? How will this year be different than years past?

Sitting With the Ancestors: Day of the Dead, Teotitlan del Valle Cemetery

Finding Meaning: Day of the Dead Inspiration for Women’s Writing Workshop

Dia de los Muertos, Day of the Dead: Talking With the Ancestors

Explaining Day of the Dead to Friends

Is Mexico’s Day of the Dead Like Halloween? Muertos Photos in Black and White.

Preparing for Day of the Dead, Dia de los Muertos

Another Year in Santa Cruz Xoxocotlan, Oaxaca, Day of the Dead

Oaxaca children’s procession, by Barbara Szombatfalvy
San Martin Tilcajete cemetery, by Karen Nein

Celebrating Zapotec Activism: Oaxaca’s Living Language

Last night I participated in a Zoom conference organized by Dr. Brook Danielle Lillehaugen, The Center for Peace and Global Citizenship, and the Ticha Project at Haverford College, Pennsylvania. The discussion, mostly for indigenous language linguists, educators and students, focused on what it means to be a Zapotec Activist.

The Victoriano Rug — Janet’s great-grandfather’s design

The definition is simple: To recognize that Zapotec is a living, modern language of the present as well as that of the past, to preserve the language and support native speakers, to inculcate the language among young people and pass it on, to make it visible and disseminate it to the global community, to apply social media technology to keep the language vibrant, to acknowledge the diverse group of speakers throughout Oaxaca and the diaspora, and to respect the people and culture that have kept this a living language for millenia. There is pride in being a Zapotec speaker.

While the definition is simple, implementation has challenges, but this Project is undertaking a sea-change in how native language is spoken, written, researched and disseminated.

Janet Chavez Santiago at Galeria Fe y Lola Rugs

I participated in the conference as an observer, and mostly to show support to the Zapotec activists I know in Oaxaca: my goddaughter Janet Chavez Santiago from Teotitlan del Valle, and Fellow for Community Based Learning at Haverford College, with friend Moises Garcia Guzman de Contareras from San Jeronimo Tlacochuhuaya. Both Janet and Moises host faculty and students from the USA in Oaxaca, and travel to Pennsylvania to teach. They are linguist educators.

Zapotec archeological site, Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca

Moises greeted us via video in the courtyard of the Tlacochuhuaya church. He then took us to his family’s milpa where he recalled that the 1695 last will and testament of Sebastiana de Mendoza, translated from the Zapotec, proved that land could be inherited by women to fight male exclusiveness. His mother owns this land and it will be inherited by Moises’ daughter. The document certifies this.

There is a substantial Zapotec speaking population in California who are from Oaxaca. Many have been there for generations. Xochitl Flores-Marcial, PhD, teaches history, language and culture at California State University at Northridge. She earned her doctorate at UCLA, renown for linguistics studies.

Xochitl, a presenter last night, studied and wrote about the ancient guelaguetza system (not a folkloric dance) of mutual support to keep Oaxaca communities strong, independent and interconnected. She emphasized that over 2,500 years ago, Zapotecs carved their ideas and beliefs on stone monuments, pottery and deer hides. They produced texts in their own voices citing intellectual achievements.

Carvings on the outside of the Mitla temple

Poet-scholar Felipe H. Lopez, PhD, emphasized that modern social media is being used to harness 16th Century manuscripts and texts documented by Spanish Dominican friar Juan de Cordova. de Cordova translated a codified logographic and pictographic writing system into Spanish and these documents survive. This pre-alphabet writing of symbols (that correspond to words) and drawings were meant to travel across language varieties.

Here are seven poems in Zapotec by Felipe Lopez.

Zapotec Activist Janet Chavez Santiago, who was instrumental in creating the Teotitlan del Valle Zapotec talking dictionary, discussed what it means to be a Zapotec from this famous rug weaving village. Her family operates Galeria Fe y Lola Rugs.

Handwoven indigo rug with greca design

Some years ago, Dr. Lillehaugen, faculty associates and students created the Zapotec talking dictionary to provide a teaching tool and learning foundation. What they have created are various dictionaries that represent the variety of tobal variations spoken in different parts of Oaxaca. Many of us who follow Zapotec language and culture known that villages in the Tlacolula Valley, for example, do not understand each other because of language variation.

Zapotec Activist Janet Chavez Santiago, who was instrumental in creating the Teotitlan del Valle Zapotec talking dictionary and has presented at international linguistics conferences, discussed what it means to be a Zapotec from this famous rug weaving village. She linked together how language, culture and weaving supports continuity.

She explains that weaving derives from ancestral knowledge. Creativity is express by incorporating the influences of the present. Yarn, she says, is a connection with the past. As she demonstrates the technique of pedal loom weaving on a video we watch, Janet says that her hands express Zapotec traditions and culture. The warp and weft weave a story of the ancients and bring them into our contemporary world. Symbols incorporated in the tapestries translate culture to others.

“We are a living culture, existing in the present and rooted in the past, a community supported by past and present. We do not speak of Zapotec people and language in the past tense,” she says.

Indigenous language is at risk. The Ticha Project is designed to protect, preserve and promote Zapotec. Many Oaxaca children do not learn Zapotec unless there is a village operated pre-school (like there is in Teotitlan del Valle). This is a language of the grandmothers. The project aims to give accessibility to native speakers, to expand access to those who want to learn, to instill cultural awareness and pride, and to use the Internet to connect Zapotec speakers in the Diaspora.

As I watched my friends and saw video of the land where I live, I was reminded about how much I miss being in Oaxaca and having this deep connection to people and place.

Plowing the milpas to plant corn, squash, beans