Monthly Archives: December 2009

Me and Susana Harp on the Zocalo

There she was, on the stage facing the zocalo, doing sound check with her orchestra at 5:45 p.m.  The “real” concert wasn’t set to start until 8 p.m.  We meandered over to the corner sidewalk cafe La Primavera to enjoy the music and a refreshment.  Luckily for us, a table opened up immediately  on the curb that we grabbed before anyone else could get there.  This became our front row seat for the next four hours! as we paced our food and drink.  Street life became our intermediate entertainment until the concert began.

A steady stream of textile vendors, small children selling candies and gum, a Cuban guitar player-singer belting out Chan Chan, an elegant woman poised with a basket balanced on her heads filled with bouquets of roses and gardenias, macho teen boys selling mini-wood motorcycles we conjecture are imported from China, a dazzling girl-woman who wraps a string of beads around my neck and smiles asking for 10 pesos.  Who can resist?

After finishing two delicious Margaritas (me) and Negro Modelos (Stephen) and a bowl of spicy roasted peanuts, we decided to order appetizers and shared a plate of quesadillas stuffed with Oaxaca cheese, flor de calabasas, and sauteed mushrooms.  The food at La Primavera is good and reasonably priced and they are very generous about not turning the tables quickly.  Ha, after nearly five hours esconced there, we had spent about $26USD and had a great time.

Of course, what couldn’t be great with my favorite chanteuse Susana Harp right there in front on me on the stage in her native Oaxaca giving a free concert to thousands with an orchestra that is extraordinary.  I got her latest album, which I’m listening to now as I write this, and stood in line (short by the time we said goodbye to all our new friends at surrounding tables) for her to sign.    The album, with the Orquesta Sinfonica Del Instituto Politecnico Nacional, is called De Jolgorios Y Velorios.  Magnifico!

The Last Dance of the Feather

The Dance of the Feathers, or Las Danzantes de la Pluma, is a three year commitment.  The group that just finished its commitment self-assembled and went to the Teotitlan del Valle Committee (the leaders of the communitarian cummunity) and asked to be named to represent the village, making the promise to god and community that they would honor all the traditions of the village.  Six of the nine members of the last group were cousins, all part of the Santiago Arrellanas family, with whom we are connected through Federico’s wife Dolores.

Last night was special.  Although the group had formally ended its three years of dancing together in July with a huge fiesta, after they returned from dancing at the Santa Fe International Folk Art Festival, they were invited by the Oaxaca tourism bureau to dance in the zocalo last night accompanied by the village band.  I think this was a very emotional moment for them because they had not expected to dance together again.  Three days ago they received a call with an invitation to perform, which is an incredible honor for the village and the current Committee.  This year, Federico has been elected to the Committee for the first time, so it was a very special honor to be there (along with most of the village!) to watch and participate.

Honor is a huge part of Zapotec life and whatever I can do to understand and support the interweaving of family relationships and village life is important and valuable as I make plans to live side-by-side in this community.  It was a honor for me to be there and stand beside the family and acknowledge their accomplishments, and I honored them with my presence.

In addition to the Dance of the Feathers, a group of women and men performed a traditional wedding fiesta dance in indigenous dress, and at the end handed out sugar spun flowers and shots of mezcal to the crowd.  I have to estimate that there were two thousand people in the zocalo to watch and applause as the masters of ceremony told the story of the Dance of the Feather and the history of the village of Teotitlan del Valle in Spanish.  A new group of eighteen dancers has started its three-year commitment.  The youngest is age fifteen and the oldest is age thirty.

The crowd was slow to dissipate, and everyone took turns getting their photos taken with the dancers and the dancers were generous with their time and smiles, their gift back to the audience–a guelaguetza of sorts.  After lots of family congratulations, hugs and back pats, we went over to TerraNova cafe on the zocalo for soup, totopos and guacamole, and then headed back to the village.  My head did not get to the pillow until after 1 a.m.

All this week, during the Christmas vacation, the zocalo has been packed.  Musicians, singers and dancers have performed every evening.  Tonight, Wednesday, December 30, 2009, Susanna Harp performs.  I expect it will be every bit as crowded since she has a voice from heaven.

The Dilemma of Cultural Interpretation

Yesterday, I sat on the Zocalo with Lauren who is a child advocate professional on sabbatical with her husband and three children.  They have been living in Oaxaca for five months and have seven more months here before they return to Atlanta.  Lauren says time is slipping by like sand through her fingertips.  She wants to give her children, all under age 12, a multicultural experience and become bilingual.

We were approached by a seven year old child selling chiclets and candy, raised as a street vendor, making the rounds between the Zocalo and some of the fancier restaurants that welcome the young solicitors as being a cute diversion for their customers who wait for their meals.  Lauren recognizes this child and notices that she is not her usual energetic self, and we wonder if this time the girl has been given a drug to make her more compliant to go out once again into the streets to help the family make a living.  Ten pesos for a pack of gum.  How far will that go and what will happen if the child comes home without making her quota?  We talk about local projects, some directed by estadounidenses (people from the U.S.A.) social advocates who come to Oaxaca wanting to change or “improve” the way life happens here.

Later, as I take photos of local children on Macedonio Alcala, I am stopped by a young Mexican man who tells me that I should give the boys money for taking their photos, that they are hungry and need to eat.  So, I ask him, does that promote begging, and he replies, it doesn’t matter, because they are hungry and someone needs to feed them.   I dig in my bag for some pesos acknowledging my own confusion.  Am I insensitive and manipulating or am I being manipulated.  What is the truth and whose opinion matters most here? I have traveled the world and have learned not to respond to begging.  The last thing I want to do is promote it.  But, in a country of extreme poverty and gaps between the haves and have nots, where unemployment is rampant, who holds the truth?

In a conversation earlier in the day with a friend, we talk about a group of women from the USA who come to Oaxaca to restore indigenous weaving in the Mixteca region of Oaxaca.  They are directing the project, asking the local women to weave certain patterns using a specific weaving style.  Do these influences change the nature of the work from indigenous to create a more commercially viable product?  Why are foreigners and foreign values influencing traditional indigenous practices?  Is this volunteer work opportunistic or altruistic?  Why are these projects not created and led by Mexicans who are committed to sustainable development for their own communities?  Where is the boundary between capacity building and then moving out to give people a chance to create their own destiny or continuing to control a project from the outside as colonizers have done for millenium?

Later, we are eating dinner in Casa Oaxaca and a child approaches us selling gum.  Stephen buys a pack for ten pesos.  That’s about seventy cents.  The waiter confirms that many child vendors are medicated so that they do as their parents require.  We leave the pack of gum on the table as we leave.  I remind myself that it is important not to judge how others must live their lives to survive.  It is not for me to impose my cultural values on others, only to understand why.

The Next Day in Paradise

Our paradise is not a sandy beach on a far distant ocean.  It is Teotitlan del Valle, a small Zapotec village about 15 miles outside the city of Oaxaca.  Today was like most days that we spend here that are unplanned with nothing special to do.  The repeat visits each year means that we don’t need to pack eight days of tourist sightseeing into four days of being here.  It also means that because this is our repeat destination, we can “go deep” and experience life as it unfolds before us, focusing on the relationships rather on the “to do” list.

At 8:30 a.m., when Fede and Lola went to the daily market to buy breakfast ingredients, Stephen and I took a hike into the campo (countryside).  After chicken, black beans, steamed choyote squash, fresh deep yellow tortillas, salsa, Oaxacan hot chocolate mixed with coffee (we call it choco-cafe), and fresh papaya, Fede went to an 11 a.m. meeting, I did the dishes,  Stephen and Eric took a walk, and Lola went to her loom.

We spent the afternoon on the rooftop overlooking the valley, gazing at Picacho, the warm sun on our backs, breathing deep, talking together about our dreams and wishes,  our hopes for the coming new year.

After comida, our bigger afternoon meal, we hopped in the car and went down the road ten minutes to catch the tailwind of the Tlacolula Sunday market.  As vendors were packing up, I got to the hammock maker in time, and then picked up some tangerines, avocados, fresh roasted peanuts, and limes for the house.  While I waited for Stephen in the church plaza, families gathered on the garden walls, a convenient meeting point.  Brightly dressed women in indigenous clothing from the mountain villages, head scarves printed in bright red, blouses over-stitched in lace trim, crossed the square with baskets balanced on their heads. It was a great day of doing not much of anything, just watching the world go by.

The Routine of Multiple Yearly Visits

There is a satisfying routine to returning to the city we know and love.  I retrace familiar steps around the Zocalo, Cinco de Mayo, Reforma, Macedonio Alcala, meeting Stephen a comida of enchiladas coloradito at the favorite sidewalk cafe, taking in the street life full of visitors from around the world with surround sound of English, Dutch, German, French, Japanese and Spanish.  On the main tourist avenues are families of vendors who make their living selling candy, woven baskets, embroidered blouses, woven cotton scarves, strings of colored beans to tourists who don’t need another thing but can’t say no to a cute and persistent kid or a nursing mother.

Finally, there is a vibrancy to the city, four years after the troubles.   The troubles are still here, don’t forget, but they are now the back story to the need for economic recovery.  And, that means tourism.  A new shopping arcade opened on Macedonia Alcala, a totally contemporary redesign of a 16th century palace, encased in glass and stone and sleek black leather furniture, a Cinnabons just about ready to open.  Oh, Oaxaca, you are a mix of indigenous and big money, an inverted pyramid with wealth at the smallest point at the top.

It is a glorious day, mid-80’s, balmy, dry, a slight breeze.  The tourists sip iced coffee, carry shopping bags, stroll arm in arm with loved ones, wear newly acquired hand-woven huipils and silver jewelry procured from one of many upscale shops or weathered street vendors from the villages.  Children run in circles playing tag.  A couple emerges from the Santo Domingo Church, just married, white Jaguar parked out front with hood adorned in a huge bouquet of white roses.  She is radiant in white.  The bridesmaids shimmer in copper-colored organza in the afternoon sun.  The backdrop is agave cactus and ancient quarried stone and strolling tourists and the Italian Coffee Company and bamboo flute-playing man who takes a break to ask for a handout.

The mountains surround us.  The scale is walkable, clean, vibrant, ancient, dazzling.  It feels as if everything is sparkling under this incredible sun.