Laura Lamm, our guest contributor today, wrote this essay as an example for her ENG 100 students at Methodist University where she teaches English. It is about her 2013 experience participating in our Oaxaca Women’s Creative Writing and Yoga Retreat: Lifting Your Creative Voice. Our 2014 workshop is open for registration.
As I cull through and edit almost 800 photos from the Lunes Cerro extravaganza we call Guelaguetza to share with you, I offer you this extraordinary piece of writing to enjoy for today!
My Failed Free-Write by Laura Lamm
Last spring, on the fourth day of the Oaxaca Women’s Writing Retreat, Robin [Greene], our writing coach, had passed around a bag of peanuts. Her only instructions had been “take one and don’t eat it. Well, at least not right away,” and she had laughed in that funny light-hearted way we had immediately loved hearing from her on our first day. Her lesson of this day was “truth starts small” when writing.
Some members of our group were lucky enough to get a whole nut, but some of us only got a half. Robin told us to examine our peanuts for a few minutes and write about them. Admittedly, while game for the exercise, I had thought how much can be said about half a peanut. I was surprised by the details the other writers in the group gave. Truly inspiring words flowed from their lips as they read aloud: crunchiness, smoothness, grooves, dimples, and salt flakes. Each woman had something astounding to say about the small world of her peanut, but I did not meet the challenge.
In fact, if I had been scored in a classroom on my attempt, I would have failed, totally missing any points given for following directions, falling way below the other women writers on the retreat. I would have been that girl in the back of the proverbial classroom who would make the teacher shake his or her head and later comment to a peer, “Poor child, she just doesn’t get it.”
Peanuts make me think of humid August dog days. The ones so bad that my mother would buy us ice-cold Cokes and bags of Lance salted peanuts, and we’d pour the nuts into the top of the bottle, making the Coke fizz until we covered the top with our hot mouths and drank, catching the peanuts with our tongues, stuffing them in our cheeks like squirrels. Small things, like peanuts, make me remember other things. Peanuts also make me think of elephants.
Robin could not have known about my fondness for Coke and peanuts or of my admiration for elephants when she had made the writing assignment. She could not have imagined that I had watched a television documentary, revolving around a herd of African elephants, the night before my flight to Mexico. The elephant herd, which had been large in number, was steadily decreasing because of a drought. That day in Oaxaca, where life was a string of perfect small truths to be discovered, I couldn’t focus my mind on my peanut half even for a brief time. My mind kept wandering to the ancient cow that had many daughters in her herd but had birthed a male that season.
Instead of the nut in front of me, I kept seeing her walking, searching for any water or food to be found. I sat in the safeness of my writing retreat, thinking about how that mother would have loved to have even this single half of a peanut for her calf. He had died that summer in the documentary. His mother had continued to grieve for his loss until the herd splintered into smaller groups that had gone on their way, because she would not leave him behind even weeks after his death. Her daughters and granddaughters stayed beside her until her death; then the eldest herded all of the surviving cows onto their primordial walking path, following the herd’s other females, for what she instinctively knew would be a better life just as her mother had done before her.
No, I don’t think I would have scored very highly on my free-write if I had been judged by an assignment’s standards, and it was lovely that on this retreat I didn’t have to worry about failure. My destiny was not predetermined by a rubric from a filing cabinet. Instead, I was afforded time to reflect on my truth.
I found that I thought not of peanuts or elephants. I realized that I am always emotionally torn by events that revolve around mothers and daughters. I thought of my mother who has led me until she can no longer do so. I thought of my daughter who I am trying to lead, but, like the granddaughters on the African plain, she is willful and head strong—not seeing the path of least resistance that I have already walked. One day she will make her own path because she finds no solace in mine.
In the end, the peanut did fulfill its purpose just as Robin had said it would. It gave me pause to think, and its small truth brought me full circle to a universal truth. As a daughter and mother, I am faced daily with many types of conflicts that all require resolutions; but no matter the pull of each problem, I put one foot in front of the other, on instinct alone at times. I win. I lose. I make a decision only to make another decision, avert this problem to face another. I stand in the face of many adversities. The greatest one being that no matter what I do, I will send my daughter out into an uncertain future just as my mother sent me.
Oaxaca Women’s Creative Writing and Yoga Retreat 2014
Registration is Now Open
Oaxaca Guelaguetza is Authentic: True or False? and Tickets
The week-long Guelaguetza, the last two Mondays in July folkloric dance event on the Cerro Fortin, is Oaxaca’s biggest tourist event of the year. Tickets for reserved seats are expensive, from 900 to 1,250 pesos, and now also hard to come by. There are two performances left, one at 10 a.m. and one at 5 p.m. on Monday, July 29, 2013.
Where to Get Tickets
At Teatro Macedonio Alcala, no tickets are available and a handwritten sign directs you to go to the Tourist Office on Av. Benito Juarez across from Llano Park. At the Tourist Office, they tell you that tickets are sold out and direct you to a travel agency. Seems like the agencies bought up lots of advance tickets in order to charge a 200+ peso commission on each one. Ticket Master Mexico is also sold-out. Try the travel agency in the Quinta Real hotel on 5 de Mayo. They are very helpful and the commission is less than most.
Guelaguetza: Tourist Attraction or Traditional Custom
The three-hour extravaganza that features the indigenous dress of pueblos throughout Oaxaca state along with their particular dance traditions, draws people here from all over the world.
The spectacle is grand entertainment, though not everyone can afford to see this version of it. True, there is free seating in sections C and D of the Guelaguetza Auditorium, the white-tented amphitheater on the hill, but seats are way up in the peanut gallery far from the stage. People tell me you have to get in line by 5 a.m. for the 10 a.m. performance in get in free. Not for the faint of heart. Chilangos and gringos have far more money, so the economic class system prevails.
Nevertheless, throughout Oaxaca, free performances abound under tents near Santo Domingo Church, on the Zocalo, and in public spaces at San Pablo Academic and Cultural Center on Calle Independencia. Or, anyone could catch a parade of masquers down Macedonia Alcala, the walking street that connects the Zocalo and the plaza in front of Santo Domingo.
This week, Oaxaca is sizzling with excitement — a mezcal fair at Llano Park and a festival of seven moles. It is a great time to be here.
Yet, the controversy and discussion around Guelaguetza continues. Earlier in the week, San Pablo hosted academics from Mexico City and Oaxaca, and indigenous leaders from Oaxaca to talk about the authenticity of what has become this city’s tourism masthead. Public definitions are influenced and changing through the lens of tourism.
In traditional villages throughout the state, Guelaguetza is the form of mutual exchange and support for the community good. It is how indigenous people have survived and continued for thousands of years. I ask you for something that I need now that you have. I ask and you give it to me freely. In years to come, I owe you this same thing back plus a bit more — a cow for a wedding feast, a band for a quinciniera, tamales for a baptism, mezcal for a birthday, etc. We keep a record so the interchange is accurate. It is not considered a debt nor is it a gift. It is giving and giving back. The price one pays to be in community.
What happens when the general public believes that Guelaguetza is a folkloric dance performance that is disconnected from its cultural roots?
We see the baskets on the stage filled with nuts, candies, bread that the dancers throw out to the audience. We see the gourds filled with mezcal that are traditional offerings that predate the Spaniards and Aztecs. Little cups of mezcal are offered to the audience. How are we able to understand the symbolism of these discreet events that become intertwined with a performance.
Yes, tourism is important to Oaxaca. It is vital to Oaxaca’s economy. It is good that there are ways to draw and attract visitors. Yet, somehow it seems, we need to be doing better to make Guelaguetza more accessible, affordable and understandable.
Posted in Cultural Commentary, Travel & Tourism
Tagged culture, guelaguetza, indigenous, Mexico, Oaxaca, traditions