By Alvin Starkman, M.A., J.D.
While by some standards, Mexico is considered a developing nation, sometimes I think of Oaxaca as third world, although those of you who vacation on the coast, especially Huatulco, might think of the entire country as first world, with all the local modern accoutrements, installations, goods and services, and more. It’s often suggested that in order to raise itself to first-world status, a developing nation must have a social order characterized by (1) the rule of law, which is (2) enforced honestly and fairly across the board, (3) with respect to property rights, for both organizations and the individual. While Mexico has a rule of law for property rights, and “justice for all” is clearly lacking. But even if the final prerequisite arrives, a case can be made that as a consequence of alcoholism the state of Oaxaca will languish behind others.
So why did I suggest Oaxaca might be considered third world? Firstly, the state is typically ranked as either the poorest or second poorest state in the republic depending on the year and the factors used in making that determination. Secondly, the level of corruption is remarkable. Thirdly, the state remains geographically isolated despite toll roads and air travel (and previously rail), with only tourism and agriculture bringing in the dollars. There is virtually no industry as a consequence of being farther away from the US border compared to the states from Puebla northward. Oaxaca’s large percentage of indigenous residents and the relatively poor quality of public education are also factors that cannot be ignored.
Alcohol in the state of Oaxaca is cheap and strong. The state represents over 80% of the nation’s mezcal production. While beer is typically imbibed at social gatherings, and it’s inexpensive at as low as 9 pesos ($0.45 USD) for 355 ml at about 4.5% alcohol by volume (ABV), mezcal is virtually always consumed at fiestas and can still be purchased at 150 pesos ($7.50 USD) per full liter, at 45% ABV and stronger.
But it’s not simply the typical rite of passage celebrations that contribute to the state’s severe problem with alcoholism, but rather the excessive drinking by many both urban and rural residents on a daily basis. So how does this hold back the state of Oaxaca from advancing, leaving aside the fact that the rule of law respecting property is not evenly enforced?
The problem of alcoholism adversely impacts the economic fortunes of people and families in most classes, as a consequence of impeding the inability of many to perform job functions. Let’s examine four cases of which I am personally aware, names having been changed:
- Juan is a producer of high end pottery in the town of Santa María Atzompa, less than a half hour’s drive from Oaxaca. A customer ordered 55 pieces. Juan promised the order would be ready in two weeks, and he would call. He didn’t call the purchaser. She attended at the workshop two months later. Some of the ceramics had been completed, others partially, and yet others had not been started. Juan had been on a bender.
- José is a master bricklayer. On Saturday he committed to completing a job for one of his regular homeowner customers on Monday or Tuesday. He didn’t attend so the homeowner called and José’s wife said that there was a party on the Sunday and her husband “slept in.”
- Alfredo had a well-paying job at a downtown Oaxaca boutique bed & breakfast. He went drinking on his lunch hour, and upon his return was loud and belligerent towards the establishment’s patrons. Alfredo’s family had previously pleaded with management to give him another chance. Alfredo was fired because of the adverse impact his conduct had been having on business.
- Fernando hails from San Martín Tilcajete. He is a skilled carver of brilliantly painted wooden figures known as alebrijes. Since about the 1980s they have represented a popular purchase item for visitors to Oaxaca. With tourism down, Fernando returned to his earlier skills as a carpenter and painter. An American acquaintance of Fernando was lamenting to him about not being able to find a talented handyman to do some sanding and painting. Fernando failed to attend as arranged at the American’s home. Fernando had fallen off the wagon.
These stories represent how alcoholism in Oaxaca contributes to the inability of members of otherwise hardworking families to raise their economic lot. Every resident born and raised in the city can recount such stories, indeed relating to one or more of their accountants, architects, doctors or attorneys. And not just one or two examples! Alcoholism cross-cuts socio-economic classes.
Furthermore, one cannot discount the adverse impact of excessive alcohol consumption on health (e.g., the liver), particularly relevant in families wherein the major wage earner becomes afflicted.
However, reducing alcoholism in Oaxaca is unlikely to have a significant impact in ameliorating the state’s development status. It’s the third component – lack of equal property rights – that creates the major impediment, which leads to the issue of education, better reserved for another article. Nevertheless, we cannot discount alcohol, mezcal in particular, if not for holding back the upward economic mobility of many, then certainly for the destruction of family harmony in Oaxaca.
Alvin Starkman operates Mezcal Educational Excursions of Oaxaca (www.mezcaleducationaltours.com).