Family, Culture, Community and Covid in Mexico and New Mexico: Thoughts

Preface: It’s Labor Day. We depend on labor wherever we live to work the fields, harvest food, wash dishes or cook in restaurants, sew clothes, tend our nursery-school age children and grandchildren, build, repair or clean our homes. Before I learned the word, Huelga from Cesar Chavez when I participated in the California Farm Workers Union demonstrations, I knew from my teacher-father the value and importance of taking a stand to protect basic human rights — a fair wage, health care, education. He was part of the California Federation of Teachers Local #1021 that went out on strike in 1969. He was proud of that. Our mom was scared. There was no income for months.

Now that I’m in New Mexico, I am constantly reviewing the similarities and differences between living here and in Oaxaca. The similarities are startling, especially as it relates to our indigenous First Peoples. This week, The Washington Post published an opinion piece about how the Navajo Nation has suffered during the covid pandemic: Navajo Culture is in Danger. I encourage you to read this. It offers insights into a way of life that is essential to cultural survival.

Here and in rural Oaxaca villages, Native American families live together in multi-generational households, often encompassing four or five generations. They care for each other in close-knit communities where language, values and culture are shared and transmitted. This is an important way cultural survival mechanism.

Living in close community poses huge risks to the vulnerable, especially the aged. We know from history that disease ravaged indigenous peoples with the European conquests, decimating huge swaths of the population. The covid pandemic reiterates how a rapidly spreading airborne disease can bring sickness and death to rural communities. Most hold the attitude that they want little to do with government intervention because of historical mistrust, abuse and discrimination. Lack of access to clean water, health services, education, and economic opportunity shape these attitudes. Poverty and isolation are huge factors.

The Washington Post article addresses how the Navajo Nation, hard-hit by covid early in its cycle, is weathering the disease. Small houses are built adjacent to family dwellings to house grandparents to make sure they stay safe, separated from family but not too far away! The tribe has a successful vaccination campaign and a high percentage of their people are vaccinated now.

What I loved about this article was the effort to keep loved ones safe in auxiliary dwellings, and still keep them close to the family and community. I’m not certain that this is a practice in Oaxaca, where family celebrations and observances are a priority and people gather in large groups despite the on-going threat of the pandemic. Most often, it is the octogenarians who are the keepers of culture.

For those of us traveling soon to Oaxaca, we will need to stay vigilant to maintain safe distance and wear face masks during Day of the Dead celebrations at the end of October. It is very likely that celebrations will not be curtailed much at the cemeteries or in the streets. Traditions are powerful. It is also doubtful that elders will be housed in adjacent small homes for protection there like the Navajo are here.

Footnote: Today begins the 10 days of the Jewish New Year. This is a time to reflect on our place in the world, what we can do to actively “repair the world,” our relationship within it and with others. On Rosh Hashanah (today), the Book of Life is opened and for the next days, we review behavior, intentions, deeds and misdeeds. We use this time in self-reflection to set things right with ourselves and others. On Yom Kippur, the Book of Life is closed and the promises for change we make is “sealed.” This open book period gives us a chance to start fresh and steer a new course. We reconnect with family and friends, renew spirit by being in nature, take action to make change where it is needed.

I have been in New Mexico for almost four months. New beginnings are intentional, spark creativity, and create opportunity. At this moment, I’m grateful to again ask the questions: Who am I? Who do I want to be?

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