By Alvin Starkman, M.A., J.D.
When I first learned that the January theme for The Eye is new beginnings and birth I spoke with my wife, both our minds immediately refocused on the theme of death; initially to the four infant deaths which have touched our lives since our regular visits to Oaxaca began over 20 years ago, and then to the seven adult Oaxacans we had counted as friends or acquaintances, who had died of unnatural causes.
The worldview of Oaxacans at all stations of life appears to be somewhat different from that of middle class Americans and Canadians, the only benchmark to which I can lay comparison. While each case of passing of one of the foregoing was marked with shock, horror and sorrow on the part of family and friends, there was a difference, albeit subtle, from the similar experiences, rare as they have been, which have impacted me as an adult living in Canada. Yes of course there was crying, burial and mourning, but here in Oaxaca there seems to be somewhat of a fatalistic subtext to living, at least more so than I’ve perceived in the Western World.
Are the relative excesses in Oaxacan partying and fiestas, and their fourfold frequency as compared to living a comparatively staid Canadian existence, relevant to understanding matters of life, living and death in Oaxaca?
The two of the seven adult deaths resulted from motor vehicle accidents; one from riding a motorcycle, helmetless on the highway, and the other as a consequence of a tractor trailer swerving to the wrong side of the highway and striking a taxi. Highway fatalities are often a consequence of lack of enforcement of laws relating to motorcycle helmets, driving while impaired or physically exhausted, speeding, and vehicle mechanical fitness. Take your pick in these two cases.
It’s perhaps not appropriate to describe the manner of death of each of the other five who had succumbed to violence by his aggressor. However, it is striking that the victims were from very different socio-economic statuses, ranging from the most modest, to the wealthiest with connections in high places, and everything in between. Motivation included anger, passion, and pre-meditation relating to political views.
The infant fatalities were all likely a result of substandard medical diagnosis, care and monitoring, once again relative to my personal Canadian experience. In one case the baby was born with respiratory distress resulting from the umbilical cord having been wrapped around him while in and leaving the womb, just as in the case of our daughter. Our daughter was kept in an infant ICU unit, while this child was left in the mother’s hospital room without continuous attendant care.
In another case the infant was born with a congenital heart defect, and before arrangements had been finalized to send him to a better-equipped hospital in Puebla, he expired, three months after birth. The third and fourth cases relate to one mother. The first child died at 40 days old. It took too long for the staff at the rural health clinic to decide that the infant should be in an urban hospital, and thus by the time he was taken there it was too late. He died of pneumonia. A year later her two-day-old infant died, apparently as a result of some rare chromosomal match between parents.
Instances such as these eleven cases are a constant reminder to Oaxacans that death is close by, perhaps nearer to Oaxacans than to those who live in First World countries. So of course, the worldview of Oaxacans must inevitably be different from that of their northern neighbors, shaped by daily experience. Inadequate medical care is one impacting factor.
Others are laws or their lack of enforcement, and living in a society where certain sectors of the population still believe in the club rather than the carrot as a means of dispute resolution, a Wild West mentality if you will.
In a society where in many instances there is often little to embrace, and for most there are foreboding barriers to success and a better lot in life, each and every rite of passage or excuse to party provides an opportunity to celebrate and rejoice.
Perhaps there is indeed a connection between the new year in Oaxaca, new beginnings and rebirth. After all, gift exchange in Mexico takes place not the morning of December 25th, but rather January 6th, on Epiphany or Day of the Three Kings, a time for families to feast on roscas de reyes, a rich and scrumptious egg bread ring similar to challah; and the first major subsequent fiesta is February 2nd, Candelaria or Candlemas, when images of the baby Jesus are taken to church to be blessed, following which family gatherings ensure.
I must conclude with a further positive note, and provide reassurance to those visiting or contemplating a trip to Oaxaca. While isolated incidents of violence and worse occur in Oaxaca, as well as in London, New York, Chicago, Toronto and Los Angeles, despite the unfortunate incidents which have impacted me and my family over the years, I and those around me nevertheless feel safe, secure and most importunately fortunate to be living in such a culturally rich environment. Statistics suggest that tourists should feel just as or more secure here, as vacationing in any one of the above cities.
Perhaps it’s indeed the quality of life we have living in southern Mexico, which makes us willing to take the adversity we see around us in stride, and be thankful for the privilege of being able to start a new, fruitful year in Oaxaca.
Alvin Starkman operates Casa Machaya Oaxaca Bed & Breakfast with his wife Arlene www.casamachaya.com and Oaxaca Culinary Tours with Chef Pilar Cabrera www.oaxacaculinarytours.com. Alvin takes tourists in Oaxaca to visit the central valley sights. He has a particular interest in mezcal and pulque. Alvin has written over 270 articles about Oaxacan life and cultural traditions.