The Hanging Doll of Sierra Norte – An excerpt from the book ‘Oh Oaxaca’

By Geri Anderson

On the way to lunch prepared by women of the village, I spotted her– a white baby doll with blond hair– hanging from a pole on a rooftop, a noose around her neck. Sequins on her white satin dress sparkled in the midday sun. I asked people at my table if they had noticed the doll swaying in the breeze. No one had–or didn’t want to talk about it.

It was June 2011 and I had caved into my always-lurking voyeurism and joined a tour to spend two days in an ecotourism resort operated by the Zapotec Indians in Llano Grande, a remote pueblo in the Sierra Norte Mountains about two hours from the city.

Years ago I had learned that Zapotecs and various other indigenous groups lived in hundreds of small villages scattered among the arroyos of these wild, rocky and forested mountains. At elevations up to more than 10.000 feet, temperatures could reach freezing during the winter, yet homes had no central heating. Cooking was done over wood fires. Outdoor cold showers were the norm. That’s what I read and what my Mexican friends told me. What must their life be like, I wondered. Some of my American and Canadian friends shrugged with disinterest when I brought up the subject of the remote mountain villages. Others told me in stern teacher-talk that it wasn’t proper to visit these primitive areas like a voyeur. But here I was– a full-fledged voyeur.

Designed for adventuresome travelers, the resort consisted of a dozen log cabins with bunk beds, fireplaces, piles of wool blankets and white-tiled bathrooms with hot water. We were hardly “roughing it.” Our cabins contrasted greatly to the village’s dozen or so crudely-built, wooden houses with tin roofs.

During orientation, an English-speaking Zapotec leader explained the ecotourism project. He told us a consortium of eight pueblos provided guides for hikers, who can walk from one village to the next each day. Fifty dollars a day included meals and lodging. It’s a way, he said, for young men and women to remain in their pueblos, rather than having to work in the city or migrate to El Norte. I could hear the pride in his voice when he explained how they cut only the oldest trees for constructing cabins, making space for young saplings to thrive. The speaker admitted they were surprised at the popularity of the program; surprised that foreigners wanted to visit their villages. A Mexican airline pilot familiar with ecotourism trends had retired to Oaxaca, had given the mountain Zapotecs the idea and had helped in the development of the project.

After his speech, I felt a wave of self-satisfaction. I was helping people, not merely peeking curiously into another way of life. However, when he asked for questions, I felt too shy to ask about the hanging doll.

After lunch, we broke into teams, depending on our endurance level: fast, medium and pokey pokes. I brought up the rear of the pokey pokes. For the most part, these nature resorts attract young backpackers, but our group consisted of folks from thirty-five through eighty-five.

As we started on the trail, I noticed the doll still swinging in the breeze. Our group’s guide, Carlos, showed a zest for nature and remarkable knowledge of every plant growing on the forest floor. Although this was his job, his enthusiasm told me this was where he really wanted to be. This was a life he loved. I knew it would be difficult to convince some of my friends of this, especially those who seem to need all the latest gadgets, convenience and rapid digital connectivity. They would insist that these mountainous folk were trapped in poverty, with no way out; that they needed financial help from outsiders in order to be freed from such primitive circumstances. Maybe they’re right. Probably some do, but it seemed to me that the families I met in Llano Grande were there by choice, working hard to preserve their way of life.

Although he spoke no English, I understood part of what Carlos said, and a few in our group, more fluent in Spanish than I, clarified some of his points. He described trees, plants and roots– large and small. Growing in one area we saw plants to aid lactating mothers whose milk flowed too slowly. In another spot there were plants and flowers for soups, most of which I had never heard of.

When Carlos wasn’t pointing out something, my thoughts returned to the hanging doll. Even without the hangman’s noose on its roof, the large, bright yellow house with geraniums and pink hibiscus circling a front yard wishing well, would have caught my attention. It stood out among the smaller homes. Perhaps an older brother was teasing his sister by putting her doll baby out of reach?

Carlos interrupted my thoughts when he stopped in front of a plot of spindly herbs. He told us that men needing a sexual boost boiled these plants into a tasty tea. In the woods surrounding this remote pueblo grew cures for cancer, coughs, cuts and colic. We were hiking in a virtual pharmacy, one where neither money nor prescriptions were needed. Smells weren’t of disinfectants or medicines but of cinnamon, mint and pine. Our guide warned us about plantas malas, the ones that would make our skin itch and ooze and could even cause death by vomiting. The Zapotecs, I’m certain, learned to identify these at a young age.

We were hiking up to piedra grande, a huge rock outcropping with a 360 degree view of faraway mountains, rocky ledges and misty valleys. Near the top, I lagged behind the others and continued to wonder about the doll. Surely, parents weren’t punishing a child by taking her doll away? Maybe she was part of a Zapotec hide-and-seek game or some native ritual? Not knowing gnawed at me.

The guides planned the hikes on different trails so we would all arrive at the rocky overlook at the same time. The last straight-up stretch yanked at my already strained muscles and ligaments of my knees and legs. Groaning, I longed for a bunch of the plant that Carlos had said, when rubbed on the skin, made aches and pains go away. After many “oohs” and “ahs” and photos of us and the majestic views of still more mist-covered mountains, we headed back.

Stiff and tired, on the way down I limped along slower than ever, still puzzling about the doll. She must have been a gift from some tourist. I didn’t think the Zapotecs in this village would have purchased her in a store. The indigenous people of the high mountains shop mostly in farmers’ markets where they trade chickens, eggs, squash, beans and corn for things such as an umbrella or pair of sandals. Come to think of it, in the farmers’ markets I’ve never seen baby dolls with sequined dresses. They sold fuzzy stuffed animals and cuddly native dolls, but not dolls like this one with a noose around her neck.

The Zapotec leader’s speech, the friendliness of the staff, and the helpfulness of the guides reassured me that the white doll swaying on the rooftop wasn’t an expression of hostility against pale tourists, although at first that possibility had haunted me.

As we waited for the van back to the city, I was standing next to the manager of the resort. In my basic Spanish, I pointed to the princess-like doll on the roof of the big yellow house and asked: “Como es? Por que la muneca?” (Loosely translated: What is that doll all about?)

Speaking slowly, using hand language and some English, he explained that after harvesting corn and beans, the farmers in the village put them into a pan to dry. That house had the largest and sunniest roof, he said, so all the farmers put their pans up there. The doll scares away birds and small animals.

On the way back to the city, I chuckled to myself that I had let my imagination run amok. I remembered the silly scarecrow in my grandfather’s cornfield in Brownsville, Vermont. Ragged coveralls, stuffed with straw and topped with a floppy hat made us grandkids laugh. I wondered if the Zapotec children in Llano Grande also laughed at the golden haired doll with the sequined satin dress.

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