Monthly Archives: June 2008

Not All Definitions Are the Same

Leilani has been living in Teotitlan del Valle with the Chavez family and volunteering at the public health clinic. She has two weeks remaining of a four-week summer externship program that is part of the UNC Chapel Hill School of Nursing global health education curriculum. Because I work at the university, I was able to help arrange this learning experience for her and what she is learning is hands-on, on-the-ground public health nursing. The take away message: not all definitions are the same when interpreted from different cultural perspectives.

Leilani is experiencing public health intervention and education.  She happens to be there during one of the three times during the year — February, May, September — that vaccination campaigns are underway.  With her co-workers, clinic doctors and nurses, this week Leilani spent three days walking the hillside village of 7,000 people to administer vaccines.  On another day, they drove to the highlands to remote mountain villages to see people. “We are working on keeping everyone vaccinated,” she reports.  So many who need vaccines are children.  Leilani noticed that people are not always eager to be vaccinated and she surmises that they don’t totally understand the benefits. Even with local health care providers doing the explaining, there is a lot of resistance, according to Leilani, who wonders how much people still rely on folk traditions to drive their decisions.  In a relatively prosperous village like Teotitlan which has one of the highest standards of living in Oaxaca because of their national rug-weaving reputation , this is not really surprising. There are other barriers to accepting health care technologies — many of the older, traditional people still only speak Zapotec as their sole language.

In the last week, Leilani helped around the clinic, worked with patients who needed their vital signs, height and weight measured before seeing the health professional for a consultation. She changed out the sheets and medical instruments in the consultation rooms.  Leilani reported that she cleaned the instruments using a mix of bleach and detergent, then wrapped the instruments in paper as instructed. Her supervisor explained that this was to keep them “sterile.”  This was not the definition of “sterile” that she was used to working in the U.S. health care system.  She wondered how the word “sterile” translates differently from one culture to another?

Her co-workers are friendly, warm and gracious. They tease her about her curly, thick hair and plaster it down with cream to make it more “work appropriate.” They laugh and sit around the kitchen table sharing stories about life in Mexico and the U.S. “I really like going to the village market,” said Leilani. “We usually make a stop there when we’re walking around the village to give vaccinations. I love the dulces, and I want to try some chapulines!”

Oaxaca dulces (sweets) are delicious, and chapulines (spicy, fried and ground grasshoppers) are a taste treat condiment that tops tacos, enchiladas and soups.

Zapotecs: The First Scribes

I am reading “Guns, Germs and Steel: A short history about everyone for the last 13,000 years” by Jared Diamond, which won the 1998 Pulitzer Prize. For anyone interested in the cultural, social and political history about human beings, this is THE book to read. Diamond asks the basic question, why were some societies able to develop the technology and wherewithal to conquer, lead, and dominate? Why did some remain hunter gatherers and others become farmers? Does it have to do with intelligence or something else? Diamond says it is the “something else.” It had to do with, he concludes, the identification of edible wild grains that could be cultivated and grown to sustain large populations. (Large populations being the key to technological prowess because they are able to grow enough food to feed specialists: warriors, ruling class, potters, scribes.) Most of these grains were native to Eurasia (the Fertile Crescent area). Another factor was the breeding of herding animals that could become sources for food and labor. The ancestors of goats, sheep, pigs, horses, and cows came from Eurasia. There were no animals on the North American continent that could be domesticated. The llama/alpaca from the Andes never made it north because of the geographic barriers. It was much easier for food and animals to cross the Eurasia continent on the same east-west axis latitude, than it was for animals and food to take hold on a north-south longitude (Africa and the Americas) where the climate differences can be extreme, limiting where seeds can be sown.  An alpaca would not do well crossing the Sonoran desert!

Diamond talks about whether food cultivation and sedentary farming, language and writing, technology development (stone to metal tools), developed independently in different parts of the world, or were developed in one part and transmitted to others.   The Sumerians of Mesopotamia developed writing in 3,000 B.C.   The other certain instance of independent writing origins in our human history, he says, comes from the Zapotecs in southern Mexico in around 600 B.C. where the earliest preserved script is partially deciphered.  There are about a dozen Mesoamerican scripts that are related to each other and the one that is best understood to date is from the Lowland Maya region.  The Zapotec language today is only an oral language and when it is written, for example, on the tri-lingual (Spanish, Zapotec, English) translations of the history keys at the Mitla, Dainzu and Yagul archeological sites, the Zapotec language is represented as a transliteration of the spoken words.  The Maya and Sumerian writing were organized on similar basic principles using both logograms and phonetic signs.  One might assume that the Zapotec language may have been similar, but it is not yet known.

I write this because it is one more discovery about the Oaxaca region that I find fascinating in the continuing commentary about culture, society, and life.  For a general review of the book, click here.,_Germs,_and_Steel

Weaving With Feathers!

I can’t wait to get back to Oaxaca!  Just a few more weeks until we arrive on June 25.  I want to see our casita construction progress AND I want to see the new textile museum.  Eric reports that this Saturday there will be a “by invitation only” workshop about weaving fibers with feathers for weavers and artists at the museum.  It will be taught by a textile restorer from Mexico City and Veracruz.  Eric was able to get invitations for four artist-weavers from Teotitlan to attend:  Federico Chavez Sosa, Mariano Sosa, Fausto Contreras and Panteleone Ruiz Martinez.  The energy and excitement generated around this new museum is fantastic.  There are student volunteers from the U.S. who are helping Eric construct 200 cardboard looms to use in his introduction to weaving program for Oaxaca school children.  Posters about the museum exhibitions are going up around the city and in Teotitlan to encourage general attendance, and weavers to explore innovative approaches and to use traditional natural dye stuffs. I can only imagine that there will be a surge, momentum and exponential creativity that will come from the Museo Textil that will be momentous for weaving and textile development and preservation in Oaxaca.  One thing is for certain, that everyone who attends the Oaxaca Weaving Workshop:  Dancing on the Loom, will get a special visit to the textile museum, too!