Monthly Archives: February 2009

Oaxaca, Mexico–Safety 2009

The news is alarming and the media is giving hyper-attention to the drug cartel killings and kidnappings happening in the states that border Mexico and the U.S.  The media talks as if this was a universal problem across Mexico — and this makes me angry.  Yesterday, I listened to the Diane Rehm show on NPR while driving my car on the interstate.  Guests and callers talked about Mexico in sweeping terms and the more they talked the more  frustrated I became.  Parents called in asking if it was safe to send their college children to Mexico to study language.  I wanted to call or email the show (difficult to do when driving) to protest the perception promulgated that Mexico is not safe.   The situations hyped by the media are localized and most often between warring drug factions.  The very, very wealthy in Mexico City are concerned because they have always been at risk for economic kidnapping for ransom, and now with the increased drug violence, they are more at risk.  This does not trickle down to affect the average traveler like me or you.

The Wall Street Journal recently ran an article (a random WordPress link is below) by Jack Kurtzman saying that Mexico is on the brink of collapse and attributes this to failed state control of internal corruption and lack of economic well-being for its citizens.  In my view, his assessment is over-reactive and full of half-truths.  Mexico’s economy is closely tied to that of the U.S. and was healthy and on the upswing until our banking collapse.  NAFTA, too, has done muc to erode the Mexican economy and the well-being of its citizenry, making it more vulnerable to the drug masters on both sides of the border. The U.S. has as much responsibility if not more for the current state of border affairs.  The market drives demand in a capitalist economy and there is much demand for drugs in the U.S.

I’m not saying there isn’t a problem or that we shouldn’t be concerned.  I am saying that Mexico deserves our support and attention, and the worst thing we can do is over-react.  I also pose this for consideration:  For those of you who have not been to Mexico, ask yourself if you are influenced in your perceptions by popular stereotypes that portray Mexicans and Mexico with negativity, especially since undocumented immigration has been a hot political potato in recent years.

I live in Oaxaca in a Zapotec village part of the year, and travel back and forth from North Carolina several times a year, often by myself.  It is perfectly safe.  I travel by bus all over southern Mexico, from Puebla south, and it is perfectly safe.  Often, I will hail and take a taxi on my own, travel via local bus from Oaxaca to Teotitlan, and go to villages independently.  My Spanish is not perfect and I am definitely a middle age gringa.  I am not any more afraid than if I were to travel to Chicago, Los Angeles or South Bend, Indiana.   I am aware of my surroundings where ever I go, and take precautions by keeping my money and credit cards close to my person in a small bag that hangs across my shoulders.  I don’t wear expensive jewelry.  I don’t keep large amounts of cash on me and withdraw what I need frequently from ATM machines.

If you have travel plans to Mexico, please don’t change them.  It is a wonderful place with a rich culture, warm and generous people, and lively traditions.  Enjoy yourself.  I think the fear of the current economic crisis is instilling a fear in many of us that is permeating into other parts of our life … and this might be one of them.  Mexicans, and the Oaxaquenos who I know, welcome us and want us to have a great experience in their country.  Go… and have a good time.

Postscript:  this with sent to me and I thought it is worthwhile to share with you — more perspective on the Mexican safety issue…
BLOG: The Real Travel Story for Mexico by Tim Leffel
Here’s the fundamental problem when it comes to talking about safety, travel, and Mexico: most people are terrible at understanding statistics. This seems to go double for TV newscasters, who will take a sensational soundbite over a reasoned bit of logic any day. Once I dug around in the actual data, most of Mexico is far safer than my own home town–and my own home town is right in the middle of the U.S. pack in terms of crime.
You often hear something like “200 Americans were killed in Mexico in the past four years.” But if you really look into those numbers, as the Houston Chronicle did, you find that all but 70 of those victims were either criminals or were part of a drug buy gone bad. So around 70 completely innocent tourists died—out of 58 million visitors over that time period.
That equates to 1 in 842,857, or 0.0000012 percent. To put that in perspective, those odds lie somewhere between your chance of dying in an airplane crash (1 in 659,779) and being killed by flesh-eating bacteria (1 in 1,252,488).
But it gets even better. Most of the slain Americans were killed in just three cities: the border towns Tijuana, Ciudad Juarez and Nuevo Laredo. Things there are truly out of control and it’s a war zone. But if you avoid these border areas where heavily armed drug cartels are at war, your chance of being a victim of violent crime decreases to a statistical point near zero, down there with dying from a deadly rattlesnake bite or from the Bubonic Plague.
Exactly one American on the State Department’s list of deaths was killed in Mexico City over a four-year period. ONE! As best I could tell, everyone who died in the popular resort areas either drowned, wrecked a vehicle, or committed suicide, and again that’s out of millions upon millions of visitors.
So next time Aunt Millie tells you it’s unsafe to spend Spring Break in Mexico because she saw it on Fox News, tell her to go watch her own local news tonight instead and report back on how much bleeding is going on just on the other side of town. The truth is, you’re more likely to get caught in the crossfire of a local robbery at a convenience store than you are to suffer harm in Mexico—unless you walk around wasted in Tijuana and try to score some coke…
NPR News Report, March 18, 2009:  Phoenix, Arizona, has almost as many kidnappings and murders as Mexico City.

Dance of the Feather in Santa Ana, California

Yesterday I had the good fortune to meet Claudio Gutierrez, a 21 year old from Tustin, California, which is between Santa Ana and Laguna Beach.  I met Claudio on YouTube yesterday when he commented on the documentary film we made about the Dance of the Feather Claudio, whose nickname is Kalo, was born in Teotitlan del Valle and moved to the USA with his family when he was 11 years old.  He’s in college studying design engineering.

Kalo loves everything about his culture and maintains a YouTube page that posts Teotitlan-related videos, especially those about the Dance of the Feather.  He says he never felt so strongly about his town and his culture before until about a year and a half ago when he made a commitment and promise to become a Danzante.   I watched Kalo’s video with awe and saw children and young adults perform the exact same Dance of the Feather in Santa Ana as is performed in Teotitlan del Valle.  His video opens up with a photo of the village church, scenes of Picacho and community life.  Dancers are recognized with their double Spanish names and the names of their padres (parents), honoring the family relationships that keep people connected for generations.  Now, I see, the strong bonds link Mexican families who live in the United States through this cultural dance tradition.  Food, celebration, dance all bring meaning to cultural identity.  One does not need to live in the Oaxaca valley to be Zapotec.

Kalo says, “I feel a very strong connection to my town.  Many times I start reminiscing about the good times that I had in my childhood.  I started to do more research and I feel so proud to be from Teotitlan, especially when I see other people from different backgrounds who are interested in learning about our culture and traditions.

MySpace, says Kalo, is a popular place for young people to communicate.  This is where he has made a page about Teotitlan. “I am just trying to tell our younger generation to be thankful for what we have and be proud of our roots and not forget about it.  There are many young people here who do care about Teotitlan, too.”

Here is Kalo’s link — and YouTube page

I know that Kalo would love to hear from you and get your feedback.  Please contact him directly.

Remigio Mestas Describes a Handwoven Textile: Video

I’m experimenting with iMovie and made the subtitles tonight.  Here is a discussion I had with Remigio Mestas when I was in Oaxaca in December 2008.

See complete explanation of Remigio’s work on this blog post:

With me was Martha Sorensen from Santa Fe, NM, a good friend of Remigio, and Eric Chavez Santiago, the director of education at the Museo Textile de Oaxaca.  Remigio works with over 200 weavers, spinners and dyers throughout the State of Oaxaca to create the finest quality textiles that many consider to be museum quality.  Many are located in the remote mountain villages of the Sierra Madre del Sur.  Remigio helps many who need health care, education for their children, and specialized medical treatment.

You can visit Remigio’s shop on Macedonio Alcala in the central historic district of Oaxaca in the patio next to Las Danzantes restaurant.  There you will find extraordinary handwoven and naturally dyed textiles using exquisite traditional patterns and designs that are kept alive by Remigo Mestas.

Learning Documentary Filmmaking in Oaxaca & Bringing It Home

During the week we learned how to make documentary films based in the village of Teotitlan del Valle, our instructors Erica Rothman and Mikel Barton kept reminding us that the experience was more about the learning process than in making a polished finished product.  We reminded ourselves of that over and over (our instructors did, too) as we were challenged by what came our way.  I learned how important it was to shift, flex, adapt, and stay focused.  Others who attended would have their own experiences.

What story would I tell?  Would it be specific enough?  How quickly could I learn, let alone master, the editing software?  Would my Spanish be sufficient to enable me to ask impromptu follow-up questions of the person I was interviewing?  Would I be able to go deep enough to tell a compelling story with the help of a translator?  Can I operate this hand-held video camera without it shaking?  Am I going to get the right b-roll?  Will this story be interesting enough?  Is there enough action?  How do I make subtitles?

The film we made will not win us an Academy Award.  But, that was not the point!  The point was to learn enough to come home and know how to create a documentary film in my own community.

Today, I met with directors of the UNC Chapel Hill School of Nursing Biobehavioral Observation & Nutritional Evaluation Laboratory to tour the facility and discuss donor naming opportunities.  What they do is fascinating.  In a home simulated environment, nurse researchers study the interaction between infants and mothers to determine how early cues influence feeding and early onset of obesity.  Other researchers look at the interaction between depressed mothers and children and how psychiatric mental health treatment can bring about behavioral change in the quality of those interactions.  Other faculty are studying the feeding behaviors of frail and/or demented elders.  Nutritional deprivation in hospitals and nursing homes is significant because of the time it takes for elders to eat.  Another nurse researcher is looking at obesity in children, especially Latino children, and is using the laboratory to capture and assess findings.

What is learned in all the studies will be used to train parents, patients, family caregivers, home health and long-term care workers, aids and medical professionals.  Faculty and graduate students can also be trained.

This is an exploding area in health care education.

Behavior is videotaped in the Observation & Nutritional Evaluation Laboratory, then scored according to a recognition system to validate what behavioral characteristics promote or detract from good health.  Researchers modify packaged systems for specific health behaviors. Video is really important, one director says.  It is minimally invasive and helps to see and examine behavior and environmental interaction.  They also know that there are behavioral and biological interactions.  Body chemistry changes depending upon the environment. They have learned through these studies that both behavior and biology can change.

My wheels are clicking!  They have videotaped footage (b-roll).  They have a professional videocamera and film editing software.  They have people power who know how to do this!  We need to conduct interviews with faculty and subjects, and voila, we’ll have a documentary!  I propose this to them and they’re excited.  This is what it means for me to bring it home!

Dance of the Feather–A Promise & Commitment: Documentary Film

Dance of the Feather: A Promise & Commitment is a short film written, filmed and directed by Betty Hutchins and Scott Switzer during the Oaxaca Documentary Filmmaking Workshop: Visual Storytelling, held in Teotitlan del Valle from January 31 to February 6, 2009.  The film makers explore the meaning of the dance with Uriel Santiago, who expresses what it means to him to be part of this ancient Zapotec and Spanish tradition.  It is ripe with tradition, religious ritual and meaning.  Uriel emphasizes that this is not a folkloric dance but a commitment to God.

Instructors were Erica Rothman, Nighlight Productions, Chapel Hill, NC, and Mikel Barton, Durham, NC.  The workshop was produced by Oaxaca Cultural Navigator LLC.  We plan to offer a 2010 film making workshop in Oaxaca.  Let us know if you want to join the wait list.