Tag Archives: alvin starkman

Alcoholism Impacts a Quasi-Developing Nation

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:

  1. 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.
  1. 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.”
  2. 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.
  3. 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).

The Six Most Renowned Unique Foods in Oaxaca

By Alvin Starkman, M.A., J.D.

The state of Oaxaca is acclaimed for its gastronomic greatness, boasting some of the most distinct and delectable cuisine in all Mexico. In addition to the region’s famed moles, food stuffs range from grasshoppers to gusanos, tejate to tlayudas, and Oaxaca’s signature quesillo. While other parts of Mexico are noted for distinguishing dishes, Oaxaca stands apart from the rest for the sheer number of inimitable culinary innovations. The variety of inventive ingredients and their combinations produce unique flavors, and an opportunity to embrace the non-traditional.

Mole Much More than Negro

The phrase “seven moles of Oaxaca” is a misnomer, though the initial suggestion of a fixed number undoubtedly did bring notoriety to the breadth of these thick sauces. Mole negro is the most renowned because of the unique combination of chiles and chocolate, the sheer number of ingredients used to make it (generally between 30 and 35), and the labor intensity of its preparation, taking at least a couple of days if made true to tradition. But there are innumerable other moles, varying in flavor depending on the region (ready availability of ingredients) and family tradition, though they are typically broadly categorized as one of the seven.

A key feature of Oaxacan moles is that in most cases they are made independent of the chicken, turkey, pork, seafood or beef; a contrast with stews. Some moles keep well refrigerated for a few days or even months if frozen (i.e., mole negro), while others are best eaten the day they are prepared so that the flavors of the herbs and spices maintain their individuality on the palate (i.e., mole verde). Still others lose their distinctiveness if prepared without a signature component (chile chilhuacle in the case of mole chichilo).

Oaxacan Chapulines and Gusanos del Maguey

Chapulines, or grasshoppers, are the best known Oaxacan food next to mole. They are sold on the street and in the markets. They are most frequently eaten as a snack food, just like a bag of potato chips. However, they are also served as part of a mixed appetizer plate, in addition to being incorporated into recipes for salsas and dips, adding a unique essence. While chapulines are available year-round, discerning Oaxacans, mainly in the villages and towns, will only eat them when they are fresh, meaning harvested throughout or at the end of the rainy season. Otherwise, most of these high hoppers are imported from outside of Oaxaca’s central valleys, often from the state of Puebla. They’re a uniquely flavored high protein snack worthy of at least sampling.

Gusanos are actually larvae, an infestation of the maguey (agave) plant used to make mezcal. The gusano is best known as “the worm” that is at times encountered at the bottom of a bottle of mezcal, by design of course. However, like chapulines, they constitute an ingredient in some salsas, and are also used in other recipes. One purchases gusanos either dried or as live crawlers. In both cases they are usually crushed before use in recipes. Sal de gusano (worm salt) is used to rim glasses for cocktails, sprinkled on fresh fruit to bring out flavor and sweetness, and served alongside lime or orange wedges to chase shots of mezcal.

Tejate, Tlayudas and Quesillo

While technically a beverage rather than a food, tejate is worthy of comment because it’s virtually always encountered in markets, both indoor markets in the city and nearby towns, and outdoor weekly marketplaces. Women dish out the drink from oversized green glazed clay basins to passersby electing to have it ladled into plastic drinking cups “to go,” or into large half gourds known as jícaras. The drink is usually beige in color with a foamy film, having the appearance of a sink of water with spent shaving cream floating atop. But don’t let the look dissuade. Consider tejate a pre-Hispanic mocha frappe. The high-energy drink is made with corn, cacao, the flower of an aromatic plant, the seed of the tropical fruit mamey, yes, a bit of ash, and sometimes small amounts of a seasonal nut, with sugary water added for the asking. Its arduous preparation yields a truly distinguishing taste.

For Mexicans, tlayudas are synonymous with Oaxaca, and only Oaxaca. They’re prepared and eaten both on street corners (usually at night) and in restaurants. A tlayuda is an oversized semi-crispy corn tortilla, served either open faced or folded over into a half moon. The super-sized tortilla is filled with a thin layer of asiento (rendered pork fat), bean paste, lettuce, tomato, cheese, and either tasajo (thinly sliced beef), cecina (thinly sliced pork with a crushed chile mix dusting) or chorizo (Mexican sausage). The meat is sometimes served alongside the tlayuda rather than inside or on top. A unique feature of the tlayuda is that it’s often grilled directly over hot coals. Snacking on a tlayuda with friends and family late at night is as ritualistic as it gets in Oaxaca. For the asking, eateries will prepare a vegetarian or even a vegan tlayuda.

Queso is Spanish for cheese. But in Oaxaca queso connotes a fresh cheese much like cottage cheese (compacted dry as distinguished from the commercial loose curd product) or feta. But quesillo is totally different. It’s string cheese, eaten most often by the small piece when a component of a mixed appetizer platter, or melted as an ingredient in another dish, after being thinly shredded. Hence it’s the key ingredient in quesadillas and queso fundido (cheese fondue), and usually an integral part of a tlayuda.

Embrace the Opportunity to Sample It All When Visiting, Even If Only for a Day

Spending just 24 hours in the city of Oaxaca provides ample opportunity to pry loose an otherwise uninspired palate. Walk through any marketplace, certainly the famed Benito Juárez downtown market, nibbling on crunchy chapulines, then stop for a refreshing drink of tejate. After strolling, lunch at a local eatery, making sure to order the comida corrida (inexpensive complete meal with a selection of local cuisine from which to choose, served uncharacteristically fast), invariably including the restaurant’s best mole. Consider starting the meal as Oaxacans often do, with a shot of house mezcal served with lime or orange, and yes, sal de gusano. After sightseeing, followed by a well-deserved rest for body, soul and culinary constitution, head out for a late night tlayuda laden with quesillo.

Whether in the city or a coastal town, imagine the breadth of deliciously different gastronomic delights awaiting you with a whole week (or lifetime) to spend indulging in Oaxaca’s exquisite cuisine.

Alvin Starkman operates Mezcal Educational Excursions of Oaxaca (www.mezcaleducationaltours.com).

Huatusco Showcases Bamboo at Its Best

By Alvin Starkman, M.A., J.D.

Standing in the midst of a massive grove of bamboo is a sensuous experience. The beauty and power of the fastest growing plant in the world is breathtaking – literally. The genus Bambusa regulates the balance of oxygen and carbon dioxide, and so one feels a sense of rejuvenation simply being amongst the vast expanses of bamboo. A simple grove of bamboo releases 35% more oxygen than an equivalent stand of trees.

Bambuver

A visit to the nonprofit (or A.C., Asociación Civile) Plantación Bambuver in the tropical town of Huatusco, Veracruz (only 4 ½ hours from the city of Oaxaca), teaches about not only the environmental importance of the 1,200 or so species of bamboo (the most common being Bambusa vulgaris), but also the multiplicity of diverse uses and applications: from commercial/industrial to artistic/aesthetic, from domestic/home to, of course, horticultural. Within the context of a three-hour tour of its installations, one cannot help but be impressed, through learning of the plant’s remarkable versatility and its environmental and ecological value as a sustainable industry.

Bambuver works in collaboration with the state of Veracruz, the national forestry commission, the national science and technology advisory board, and other national as well as state and local government branches. Its mission centers on the ongoing development and promotion of an integrated bamboo industry.

The Bambuver facilities are spread over three main locations in and around Huatusco, all easily visited in an afternoon.

  1. The green area consists of expansive forests comprising several species of bamboo, and includes a science and research center in addition to greenhouses for propagation. There is also a sales component so visitors can purchase small plants in plastic sleeves, and three-meter lengths of mature bamboo also suitable for growing back home. One can also buy large sacks of compost, with or without lombrices (earthworms). Lombrices create the compost from feeding off the exterior casings of coffee beans. Nearby coffee plantations (which can also be visited) provide Bambuver with the outer bean casings, otherwise waste, to use as feed for the lombrices. You’ll learn of the symbiotic relationship between the bamboo industry in Huatusco and the current as well as historical presence of the region’s coffee plantations; each and every bamboo forest at Bambuver has been nurtured with the aid of this natural fertilizer. You can even buy a bag of lombrices enabling you to kick-start or enrich a compost bin!
  2. A showroom in downtown Huatusco displaying examples of the plethora of uses for bamboo for domestic/home applications.
  1. A processing factory where the bamboo is treated and then fabricated for home and commercial/industrial use. The natural/renewable resource can be substituted for other building materials, to the extent that entire homes are now being built using bamboo rather than reinforced steel and other manmade construction products.

In the course of a tour of Bambuver, one inevitably begins to appreciate and consider the use of bamboo in construction, given that it is available in a variety of thicknesses, strengths, textures and colors (natural and dyed). It is used for building frames and beams, roofs, flooring, walls, windows, decorative interior panels, home bars, furniture, craft products, and much more.

Interesting Stops En Route to Huatusco
Starting from Oaxaca (or perhaps the Puebla-Cordóba-Acayucan route to Huatulco), consider a 2 – 3 day driving trip. The route north and east on the toll road from Oaxaca passes through several appealing towns and regions, some steeped in history (Córdoba), others producing crafts using materials native to the particular area (San Antonio Texcala for onyx and marble), still others showcasing environmental attractions (the water museum near Tehuacán, the biosphere near Cuicatlán, and the thoroughly impressive snow-capped Pico de Orizaba). And for the home garden aficionado, you’ll be passing through Fortín de las Flores, noted for cacti, succulents and anthuriums, to name just a few.

The Drive
Take the toll road north from Oaxaca until reaching the junction of 135D and 150D. Exit to the right, towards Orizaba / Córdoba, and continue along 150D. Leave the toll road when you see the Fortín / Huatusco sign. After paying a toll, keep right, and then left at the Huatusco sign, then left again at the next Huatusco sign. This takes you to Mexico 125, on which there will be clearly marked signage to downtown Huatusco.

Lodging and Bambuver Contact Info
Hotel Huatusco has underground parking, a restaurant, and even a conference center. It’s clean, with reasonably priced rooms (including a floor fan for the asking): Av. 1 Ote 399, Centro Huatusco 94108 (tel: 273 734 3852).

Bambuver A.C. is located a few blocks from the hotel: Av. 4 Ote 336 (tel: 273 734 0680 – both their website page list other numbers); you can learn more at http://www.bambuver.com.

Tours are available for 6 – 20 people, but smaller group / private tours can be arranged with sufficient notice, in either case at a nominal charge.

The one three-meter length of mature bamboo Alvin Starkman purchased at Bambuver several years ago is now a small forest. Alvin operates Mezcal Educational Excursions of Oaxaca (www.mezcaleducationaltours.com).

Tejate Today: Oaxaca’s Pre-Hispanic Drink Was Reserved for Royalty

By Alvin Starkman M.A., J.D.

Gloria Cruz Sánchez holds a jícara (half gourd), high above her head while in a ritualized fashion she pours water down into a large green glazed ceramic bowl containing a beige doughy mush, creating foam. She’s in the Oaxaca Sunday market town of Tlacolula de Matamoros, completing the last phase in making tejate, just like her forebears thousands of years earlier. If you’ve been to a Oaxacan market you’ve likely seen it being served to locals, and may have been afraid to imbibe; it looks like spent shaving cream that surely would make you ill. But nothing could be further from the truth.

Tejate is a nutritious pre-Hispanic drink which was reserved for Aztec high priests, and Zapotec rulers before them. It’s still consumed today by Oaxacans of every station in life. Tejate is made exclusively by women, using virtually the same ingredients and methods employed over millennia. It dates to more than 3,000 years ago.

Tejate’s components are corn, cacao (sometimes substituted with coconut), purified or mountain spring water, seeds of the mamey fruit, dried aromatic “funeral tree flowers” (from the Quararibea funebris bush), lime mineral, sometimes a seasonal nut, and ash from burnt wood. As distinct from many other traditional Oaxacan delicacies (i.e. mole negro), all of tejate’s ingredients are native to Mexico; and all but cacao are endemic to the state of Oaxaca. There is, however, one exception: for the asking the tejatera will add sugary water as a sweetener, whereas in pre-Hispanic times she would have used bee honey or baked caramelized agave.

Preparing tejate is an extremely laborious task. In fact in order to have it ready to serve in markets by about 9:30 am, women must begin the process at roughly 4:00 am. And so Gloria awakens at her home in the village of San Marcos Tlapazola while it’s still dark, long before roosters have begun to crow, so as to have her tejate ready for market sales. She toasts the flowers, mamey seeds and cacao on an earthen comal using dried pencas (agave leaves) as firewood. She does the same with peanuts. She keeps the mixtures segregated from one another.

She then washes the corn in a clay colander, gingerly removing any small stones. Thereafter she boils spring water in a terracotta cauldron on a stone base, again fueled with leaves of the succulent. She adds powdered lime, strained ash, and the corn. The mixture simmers for about 40 minutes. The flames die down. The corn is strained once more to cool and to remove excess ash.

Gloria now reaps the benefits of the modern age; she walks to a mill to have the cacao mixture and then the corn, separately ground. She used to do all the grinding on a metate (primitive grinding stone), but when the mill opened in her village she decided to take advantage of it. She then ambles back to her homestead. While the mixtures are again cooling, breakfast preparations ensue. It’s about 6:00 am, and time for a small drink of mezcal.

Gloria spends the next two hours grinding the roasted peanuts on a metate followed by painstakingly combining that puree with the corn and cacao mixtures. It all gets blended together in an orderly, almost ceremonial manner. This most delicate step must be done by hand.

After breakfast, in the back of a covered pickup along with others from the village, Gloria travels to Tlacolula, where she erects her stall. She begins the pièce de résistance, holding the jícara high above her head with one hand, the other mixing the almost buttery thick concoction with the water from on high. She repeats the process until all in the ceramic bowl has been transformed into tejate, the cacao-nutty-maple frothy drink of the gods.

Gloria has her regular customers, those who attend the market on a weekly basis; but many are infrequent visitors, including both foreign and domestic tourists. Some drink Gloria’s tejate alongside her stall, in a painted jícara she supplies. Others buy it in a plastic cup “to go.” Usually by mid-afternoon, typically no later than 4 pm, she’s completely sold out. Gloria will then shop for more ingredients in the market, readying for the next Sunday’s preparations before returning to her village in the back of that same covered pick-up. It’s been a hard yet rewarding, long day’s work.

Alvin Starkman operates Mezcal Educational Excursions of Oaxaca (www.mezcaleducationaltours.com). For the past three decades he’s been a regular imbiber of tejate; and he’s still standing.

Brideprice in a Zapotec Village: Evolving Economic Theory?

By Alvin Starkman, M.A., J.D.

Twenty-six turkeys on the ground, their feet tied. Cases of beer and soda stacked behind along with the rest of the brideprice for Paola and Javier’s wedding. Everything is arranged in an orderly fashion, easy to count, then loaded onto a pick-up at the modest homestead of Javier’s family, just hours after the wedding ceremony. It’s all waiting to be driven to Paola’s parents’ expansive home located on a hill overlooking a cluster of residences, a church, and municipal offices in San Bartolomé Quialana, an ethnically Zapotec village of roughly 2,500 inhabitants, under an hour from the city of Oaxaca.

While the tradition of paying brideprice is waning in parts of Mexico, it continues in Quialana. Brideprice is the transfer of currency or non-monetary equivalent from the groom or his family to the bride’s family. However, the circumstances of the courtship and marriage of Paola and Javier challenge traditional theory concerning the relationship of brideprice to the bride’s service to the groom’s family, to reproduction, and to the economic marketplace – unless one considers that the bride is an American citizen, and a minor.

Virtually all family members in the agricultural community of Quialana are involved to some extent in growing crops. Animal husbandry consists of raising mainly poultry for personal consumption, as well as turkeys, goats, and sheep for a small local commercial market. Underpinning the foregoing are well-entrenched traditions of making terra cotta pottery, the pre-Hispanic drink tejate, and hand-made tortillas, all sold in nearby Tlacolula de Matamoros, noted for its vibrant Sunday market.

Quialana is a matrifocal village, with a conspicuous absence of males except for youth and the elderly. Because of an essentially subsistence economy, and the allure of the United States, emigration is common, especially for males in their teens and twenties.

Mainly men tend the goats and sheep, as well as do most heavy agricultural work such as plowing. But women keep the economy alive: planting, weeding, and harvesting; making tortillas and tejate; producing pottery including excavating the hard clay from the base of nearby foothills; and selling in marketplaces.

Women cook, clean, and wash. At a very young age they are taught to become efficient at household chores, being groomed for marriage in their teens. A young woman who has been taught well by her mother is highly marketable. Arranged marriages are still commonplace.

Marriage is extremely important. At a minimum, state sanctioned nuptials legitimize what would otherwise simply be child-bearing out of wedlock, accepted but not rejoiced. At times, a couple will marry with a small civic ceremony, deferring the Catholic mass followed by multi-day festivities until their families can afford the latter. If under 18 years old, the couple must submit parental consent to marry.

Monogamy is valued and practiced. While extra-marital liaisons are much more commonplace throughout Mexico than in the United States and Canada, and in fact wives often accept a husband’s infidelity, it is likely that in Quialana men remain more or less faithful. Separation and divorce are uncommon.
Paola is 17, born and raised in Texas. Her parents are from Quialana, although they moved to the United States 28 years ago, shortly after marrying. They have four children; married sons aged 29 and 23, and daughters 21 and 17.

Both parents completed public school in their village, with no further education. After leaving school they became campesinos (agricultural workers) until moving to the US, although the mother became a housewife prior to giving birth to her first child. They own both their Texas and their village homes.
The father is a construction worker in the United States, while the mother has been a homemaker throughout virtually all of the marriage. Depending on the length of the family’s visits to Oaxaca, the father may work in the fields.

Roughly every two years Paola had been traveling to Quialana with her parents to visit family. By the time she moved to Oaxaca she was close to completing grade 12, with teaching her career goal.

Javier is 20. Quialana is his life. He only infrequently travels to Oaxaca, and has never left the state. He dropped out of high school. He’s a campesino. He lives with his sister, who is 16 and in high school, and his mother and aunt who both work in the fields and make pottery and tejate which they sell in Tlacolula.

When Paola’s oldest brother married, her parents paid a brideprice. When her second brother married, they did not, because it was only a civil ceremony. Her brothers and sister live in Texas.

Paola and Javier became acquainted via the internet, then met face-to-face when she turned 15 and was visiting Quialana. They began dating. When she was visiting over Christmas, 2014, just after she had turned 17, they decided to marry the following autumn.

The courtship and marriage was not arranged. In fact, Paola’s parents were upset with the couple’s decision to marry because of Paola’s age. Initially they did not want to consent. Although the intricacies of how the ultimate brideprice was determined is uncertain because of different perceptions and versions of the two sides, the threat of withholding consent and returning Paola to Texas played a role – as did Paola’s status as an American citizen.

Paola initially objected to her parents receiving brideprice, and felt she was being purchased like chattel. She eventually realized that it’s tradition. She now understands that if the groom’s family does not pay a mutually agreed amount, Javier would not be perceived as a quality husband. Both families earn the respect of other villagers if an accord is reached.

According to Paola, Javier’s mother initially offered 15 turkeys. It is customary to also pay an equal number of cases of beer, plus corn and sometimes other foodstuffs of lesser value. Elder church members became involved in the negotiations, one representing each family. Paola believes that her parents initially rejected accepting anything, because of her wishes. Javier’s mother claims that the number of turkeys grew to 26, and that the number of cases of beer reduced to 10, plus 10 cases of soda. If the number of turkeys is too large, then the quantity of beer should be reduced. The final brideprice was 26 turkeys, 10 cases of beer, 10 cases of soda, a fixed number of sacks of corn kernels, and perishables including aromatic herbs.

If Paola’s parents were initially predisposed to not accept anything, how did matters progress to the point wherein they demanded at least 26 turkeys and the rest? According to Paola that was what her parents needed to fulfill their gifting obligations to members of their extended families. On the other hand, Paola states that it was her parents who gave the couple large appliances, a wardrobe and other valuable gifts, whereas friends and family gave only relatively inexpensive household items such as pots, pans, dishes and blenders.

Brideprice-paying societies have been associated with a strong female role in agriculture. Because at marriage a bride generally moves into the household of her groom, brideprice is typically considered the payment a husband (and his family) owes to a bride’s parents for the right to her labor and reproductive capabilities. Brideprice has usually been a rather uniform amount throughout a society, linked directly to the number of rights which are transferred and not to the wealth level of families. It has also tended to correlate with polygyny and with the possibility of divorce. However, Paola and Javier’s situation poses a problem within the context of this explanation.

Javier had many prospective brides from whom to choose, given a plethora of young women in Quialana and nearby villages who had been readied for marriage by their mothers, and the effective absence of competition for him given the paucity of eligible males. “Marriage squeeze” refers to an imbalance between the numbers of marriageable men and women. With such a pool of young women, why in this case do we not see no marriage payment at all, or the beginning of a change from brideprice to dowry?

Where there is greater competition by men for wives, a “marriage matching framework” may explain a transition from brideprice to dowry as societies grow more complex. The frequency and magnitude of brideprice should be greater when wives’ input into production (like agriculture) is high and in societies with a significant incidence of polygyny. On its face, the case of Paola, Javier and their families does not accord with this approach.

Quialana is monogamous, and even within the context of widespread adultery in Mexico, this village does not appear to fit the mold. Furthermore, Paola had not been groomed for the rural Oaxaca marriage marketplace. It was only after wedding and moving into Javier’s family’s home that she truly began to learn household chores, from Javier’s mother and aunt. Months after the move she had still not gone into the fields to assist in farming. Her value as a housewife and agricultural worker had been unknown and untested prior to marriage, as compared with other village teens. Townspeople talk, and they know. Paola’s value cannot be understood as commensurate with the household labor she would contribute to Javier’s household. And while a bride’s value is often tied to her capacity to bear children, in this case there had been no prior suggestion that the couple would try to start a family immediately after the wedding, nor any discussion in regard to the couple’s ultimate family size. On the contrary, Paola’s childhood in the United States suggests, despite class considerations, the likelihood of a small family.

The most dramatic changes to marriage payments within societies are the times when payments have increased substantially, particularly in the value of a dowry. As compared to dowry transfers, little evidence exists of brideprice escalation in historical or contemporary societies. If we accept academic conjecture that modernization plays a role in decline and disappearance of marriage payments, then what specifically about modernization does this?

In this case the relatively exorbitant brideprice ultimately received provides a glimpse into the importance of age and citizenship as determinants of quantum of marriage payments. Furthermore, if this theory is correct, one might witness dramatic cultural change in which these two factors, US citizenship in particular, have the potential to govern payments – not only the amount, but also to and from which family the funds flow. In Quialana, the possibility thus exists for the tables to turn, with young, rural Zapotec men who are American citizens returning home and their families demanding dowry payments from the bride’s family.

Within this context, the amount of brideprice is consistent with at least some aspects of contemporary economic theory. While dowries seem to comprise a substantially larger portion of household income than brideprice, the latter are nevertheless significant. They can represent a large financial burden for poorer households, having implications for the distribution of wealth across families and generations.
There appears to be a correlation between marriage payments and the ability of prospective immigrants to move legally to the United States. Assuming that inter-country migration is one concomitant of modernization, we may find that modern arrangements actually see an increase in marriage payments as opposed to their disappearance.

Paola and Javier’s case may also provide an answer to whether brideprice influences the welfare of women. Both sexually and in terms of labor, brideprice has long been linked to domestic violence, owing to women’s fear of returning to their natal home without being able to repay the brideprice. If Javier uses his marriage to Paola to migrate legally to the United States, and thereafter embarks upon a “path to citizenship,” Paola retains the upper hand, insofar as Javier would, pending citizenship, have to be on his best behavior for fear of being deported in the face of any alleged domestic abuse.

Quialana is monogamous, and even within the context of widespread adultery in Mexico, this village does not appear to fit the mold. Furthermore, Paola had not been groomed for the rural Oaxaca marriage marketplace. It was only after wedding and moving into Javier’s family’s home that she truly began to learn household chores, from Javier’s mother and aunt. Months after the move she had still not gone into the fields to assist in farming. Her value as a housewife and agricultural worker had been unknown and untested prior to marriage, as compared with other village teens. Townspeople talk, and they know. Paola’s value cannot be understood as commensurate with the household labor she would contribute to Javier’s household. And while a bride’s value is often tied to her capacity to bear children, in this case there had been no prior suggestion that the couple would try to start a family immediately after the wedding, nor any discussion in regard to the couple’s ultimate family size. On the contrary, Paola’s childhood in the United States suggests, despite class considerations, the likelihood of a small family.

The most dramatic changes to marriage payments within societies are the times when payments have increased substantially, particularly in the value of a dowry. As compared to dowry transfers, little evidence exists of brideprice escalation in historical or contemporary societies. If we accept academic conjecture that modernization plays a role in decline and disappearance of marriage payments, then what specifically about modernization does this?

In this case the relatively exorbitant brideprice ultimately received provides a glimpse into the importance of age and citizenship as determinants of quantum of marriage payments. Furthermore, if this theory is correct, one might witness dramatic cultural change in which these two factors, US citizenship in particular, have the potential to govern payments – not only the amount, but also to and from which family the funds flow. In Quialana, the possibility thus exists for the tables to turn, with young, rural Zapotec men who are American citizens returning home and their families demanding dowry payments from the bride’s family.

Within this context, the amount of brideprice is consistent with at least some aspects of contemporary economic theory. While dowries seem to comprise a substantially larger portion of household income than brideprice, the latter are nevertheless significant. They can represent a large financial burden for poorer households, having implications for the distribution of wealth across families and generations.
There appears to be a correlation between marriage payments and the ability of prospective immigrants to move legally to the United States. Assuming that inter-country migration is one concomitant of modernization, we may find that modern arrangements actually see an increase in marriage payments as opposed to their disappearance.

Paola and Javier’s case may also provide an answer to whether brideprice influences the welfare of women. Both sexually and in terms of labor, brideprice has long been linked to domestic violence, owing to women’s fear of returning to their natal home without being able to repay the brideprice. If Javier uses his marriage to Paola to migrate legally to the United States, and thereafter embarks upon a “path to citizenship,” Paola retains the upper hand, insofar as Javier would, pending citizenship, have to be on his best behavior for fear of being deported in the face of any alleged domestic abuse.

If we consider that legal residency in the United States would provide Javier with an enhanced opportunity to repay the brideprice to his family in Quialana, we can work towards determining the value the brideprice has represented. Otherwise, there is an extremely tenuous connection between the cost of the brideprice and the ability of Paola’s services to provide a net gain to Javier’s family over the ensuing years. However, one must also recognize that one theory links marriage payments to the rights of inheritance held by women, and to this extent the payment by Javier’s family might make economic sense, arguably at a more indirect level.

The suggestion that marriage payments are correlated to the number of rights, should perhaps be adjusted to the value of one or more rights. On the other hand, this case does support the contention that the wealth of families involved has little to do with the amount of the payment. Take the example of Mexicans intent upon migrating to the United States without papers. A coyote (human trafficker of sorts) charges his clients based on the value he attributes to that service. Charging brideprice, or dowry for that matter, in certain contexts is valued in a similar fashion. That is, these individuals charge a fixed fee to assist Mexicans to illegally cross the border without regard to their financial circumstances, just as parents of brides may attribute a value to the permission to marry their daughters without regard to the ability of the groom or his family to pay.

Most economic explanations for brideprice are based on notions of supply and demand in the marriage market. But many such elucidations are weakly convincing, and puzzles remain. Indian research has focused mainly on dowry and brideprice separately, ignoring the possibility of a “joint determination.” However one academic study analyzed dowry and brideprice as “interdependent institutions,” taking into consideration factors such as education, age, and distance of marriage migration.

The case of Paola and Javier illustrates the potential for developing a broader model for determining and evaluating similar factors at play regarding marriage payments in contemporary society where migration exists. This is not to totally discount Paola’s explanation that the lofty payment her parents received indicates that they respect and value Javier as a son-in-law.

The general application may be limited to contexts of high emigration, especially involving countries where citizens are able to sponsor a spouse for legal immigration. Age and other factors must also be considered. This approach leads us away from the static traditional notion of there being either brideprice or dowry. Driven by more modern considerations, payments might increase, decrease, or dissipate completely. In any event, thinking about Paola and Javier expands our understanding of the legal issue of “quantum meruit,” or the determination of how much something is worth.

This article has been adapted from an earlier academic paper by the author. Alvin Starkman operates Mezcal Educational Excursions of Oaxaca (www.mezcaleducationaltours.com).

Women in Rural Oaxaca Wield the Power

By Alvin Starkman, M.A., J.D.

When we think of Mexico we often think of machismo. But in many rural parts of the southern state of Oaxaca, it is the women who rule the roost. In fact, there are many tasks that are solely within the purview of the female of the species. And if not 100% women’s work, they stand beside and not behind the men. Women’s equality and, in many instances, dominance is evident in the fields, kitchens, marketplaces, craft workshops, and even in production of Mexico’s iconic spirit, mezcal. Pregnancy, childbirth, weaning the flock, and physical strength, are only minimal barriers and in many cases not at all.

The corn-based food staples of tortillas, tamales and the highly nutritional drink tejate are all made exclusively by women. I’m not referring to machine-made tortillas or commercially produced tamales, but rather what one finds in the villages and urban markets. When have you ever seen a man pressing masa and then gingerly placing it on a wood-fueled clay comal to make a tortilla? Or gone into a villager’s home and witnessed tamal preparation involving men? Or in that same village seen males grinding corn, cacao and the rest on a metate for making tejate? And it is the women in tejate production who are kneading the dough mixture into water and serving it to market passersby. Furthermore, they take the finished foamy mixture into the fields to feed to their male workers (underlings) to keep them going since it’s loaded with carbs and vitamins, as well as protein and fat.

While men typically kill, skin and quarter sheep and goat for making barbacoa, it’s exclusively women who serve it, and in fact most other comidas in the markets. True enough men who have toiled in restaurants in the US then returned home are now receiving some attention based on their American-learned kitchen prowess; being at the helm of meal preparation is becoming more acceptable for them, but it’s certainly not the tradition, and change is slow in coming.

When it comes to turning pottery, while men do participate in the trade, somewhat, look at the predominant names in the Oaxacan ceramics industry – Doña Rosa of the famed black pottery in San Bartolo Coyotepec, and Angélica Vásquez, the late Dolores Porras and a few others from Santa María Atzompa. Visit the weekly markets in the central valleys of Oaxaca such as Ocotlán, Zaachila and Tlacolula, and you’ll see exclusively women sitting on the ground selling yet a different product; that is, their terra cotta pottery. For hundreds of years (in fact, longer based on recent archaeological evidence), women – to the complete exclusion of men – have been the ones excavating the hard clay from the mountainside, working it into buttery consistency at home with the addition of water, and then forming and firing pots, plates, comals and more recently decorative figures for sale.

Visit the cotton textile village of Santo Tomás Jalieza and you’ll see only women weaving table runners, placemats, purses and more on the pre-Hispanic backstrap loom, as tradition has dictated over a multitude of generations. It was only with the arrival of the Spanish that the modern pine loom arrived on the scene, and indigenous men began working them because of physical strength limitations of some women. In the rug village of Teotitlán del Valle, one sees mainly men working the larger looms (but still women and even children on the smaller ones), but in Santo Tomás Jalieza it’s still exclusively women who do the weaving.

The one craft item for which Oaxaca is almost universally famous and which brings significant revenue into the state, is the brilliantly painted hand-whittled wooden figure known as the alebrije. While alebrijes are normally carved by men, it is mainly the women (and again children) who are entrusted with the extremely detailed painting.

And even in production of the agave-based distillate, mezcal, women are equal to their male counterparts, and in some cases once again, the queens. Some women even defy apparent limitations of strength by harvesting the succulent out in the fields. And once back at the distillery they take no back seat to their husbands, brothers, fathers or grandfathers. They empty the oven of rocks, then load it with firewood, the rocks once again, the agave hearts and the rest; then after about five days empty everything from the in-ground depression. They work the horse crushing, pitch the mashed sweet baked bagazo into, and then out of vats once fermented, then fill the copper alembics. In at least one part of Oaxaca where crushed tree bark is added to the fermentation vats, it is exclusively the women who do the mashing with heavy wooden mallets.

In contemporary Oaxacan towns, villages, and even some suburbs of Oaxaca City, tequio, or the work of community service, is mandated. Each household is required to participate in administrative and cleaning tasks at churches, keep streets clear of encroaching grasses, mix cement for building community halls, and the list goes on. If a woman is head of a household during such a project, she attends to drop off sandwiches and/or soda, maintain a record of who is participating, etc.

The New Global Love Affair with a Mexican Spirit

By Alvin Starkman, M.A., J.D.

Not since the advent of the Margarita in the mid-20th century, has the world been taken by storm by a Mexican alcoholic beverage – but here we are, in the age of mezcal. Of course, we still have tequila, and there are now other spirits being exported from Mexico, including rum and whisky. But it’s mezcal, tequila’s older sister and also an agave distillate, that is receiving global attention. But why, aside from the internet, which reshapes our universe second by second?

Here are a few thoughts.

  1. It all began around 1995, with the arrival of two brands, Del Maguey and Scorpion. The former aimed at attracting a select imbibing audience, that is, spirits aficionados, while the latter sought to pique the interest of mainstream America. Over the past quarter century each has spawned a plethora of other mezcal brands.
  2. It’s been in large part due to the portrayed romanticism of every step of the process: indigenous Mexicans harvesting agave hearts (piñas) from the field by hand and transporting them to their family distilleries on the sides of mules; converting carbohydrates to sugars through baking the agave in a rudimentary pit over firewood and rocks; crushing by hand using a mallet or employing a beast of burden to drag a limestone wheel over the caramelized piñas; standing over wooden vats while the environmental yeasts work to ferment; then finally the smoke billowing into the sky from the wood fueling clay or copper stills. Over those 25 years, and in many instances, industrialization has crept into the process. Some of those big commercial brand owners in fact mislead by representing their methods as those of an era long past. The consuming public eats – or rather, drinks – it up.
  3. The last decade has witnessed a cocktail trade explosion, with mezcal brand owners seeking to capitalize on it by introducing lower-priced agave distillates that restaurant and bar owners can afford to use. We still have those Margaritas, Negronis and the rest, but mezcal is now being introduced as the spirit of choice in their making. Brands, distributors and bartenders work feverishly to develop and promote new cocktails using mezcal as the liquor of choice.
  4. A surfeit of entrepreneurs recognizes the popularity of mezcal, and seeks to capitalize on faddism: alcohol distributors are anxious to represent a brand; restaurateurs are opening mezcalerías; well-known figures in the entertainment industry who want even more recognition are interested in having their names associated with their own or others’ brands; and residents of countries south and north of Mexico, and on the other side of both the Atlantic and the Pacific, are hiring marketing consultants to assist in new brand development.
  1. Over the past several years, multinational corporations – each with an already well-established global reach – have been buying up popular brands of mezcal that continue to be made using traditional means of production. Mezcaleros who have elected to sell their brands did not have the resources to enable them to reach many countries. Not only is mezcal now arriving in far-off lands such as China, New Zealand, Argentina and the Yukon, but the big guns have the financial ability to promote the spirit.
  2. There’s an abundance of money in the pockets of consumers. Despite COVID-19, today a growing middle and upper class has more disposable income than ever before. Both dotcom youths and the older hippie generation now retiring, with their debts paid off and their flock flown the nest, are flush. The former no doubt want to enjoy their wealth, the latter grew up with The Beatles, Iron Butterfly and Jethro Tull, worshipping organic production, Birkenstocks, The Whole Earth Catalog and everything else representing “back to the earth.” Both have the capacity and in many cases the desire to spend $350 US for a bottle of mezcal de pechuga distilled in clay.

There are of course other reasons for the meteoric rise in popularity of mezcal, and some might disagree with this enumeration, but the one point that garners universal consensus is the increasing popularity of the Mexican agave distillate, with a strong likelihood that our love affair with mezcal will continue for decades to come.

Alvin Starkman operates Mezcal Educational Excursions of Oaxaca (www.mezcaleducationaltours.com), and has been playing his part in advancing mezcal’s global popularity.

Resourcefulness and Ingenuity in Clay Pot Mezcal Distillation

By Alvin Starkman, M.A., J.D.

When I read about the Year of the Ox, it reminded me of the resourcefulness and ingenuity of the hardworking Oaxacans who make mezcal. Why? Because not only is a team of oxen used to plow the earth, but the team is sometimes employed to transport agave hearts (piñas) from field to traditional family-operated distillery (palenque), or to crush them after baking. There’s no need to buy a horse or mule when you already have animals capable of doing multiple tasks. And their waste makes excellent fertilizer.

The start-up costs of building a clay pot (olla de barro) palenque in Oaxaca involve relatively little monetary outlay. However, the ongoing upkeep expenses have the potential to be out of reach for many distillers (palenqueros) of modest means … but for their ingenuity, resourcefulness, and sustainable practices.

Most clay pots used in Oaxacan mezcal production are produced in the town of Santa María Atzompa. They are made with locally sourced clay, water, and fire, and thus their cost is relatively modest, perhaps 800 pesos for the two receptacles required to make one still.

The housing that encases the bottom clay pot is made from clay and/or adobe bricks and mud, and nothing more. The adobe is made by mixing sand, mud, bovine and/or equine manure, and waste agave fiber (bagazo) discarded after distillation. Bagazo is often also used as compost or mulch, and when dampened, is typically employed in the baking process to insulate the piñas from the hot rocks.

Firewood goes at the bottom of the baking pit. Not straight logs the lumberjack sells at a premium to lumber yards, but rather seconds that the distillery is happy to acquire at a discount. Once the bake has been completed, where there once was firewood there is now charcoal. It is used a fertilizer to grow more agave (or other crops), or by the family for cooking and for sale.

Even the discarded agave leaves (pencas), once dried, have an important use as fuel. Entire Oaxacan communities live off them to cook tortillas, grill meats, make hot chocolate, and more.

Clay distillation pots last from roughly a couple of weeks to a year and a half, after which time they must be replaced. The bottom pot, as opposed to the upper clay cylinder, presents the more significant problem.

Once it cracks, the housing must be disassembled, the pot removed, a new one inserted, and the encasement re-built. The life of that bottom olla is extended by using a wooden tree branch shaped like a fork, its prongs joined with rope or wire, and not a metal pitch fork, to remove the bagazo.

Still, through cracking, clay pots are inevitably rendered unusable for their primary purpose. When that happens the fermented liquid or the subsequent single distillate can seep out and be lost. The damaged and discarded pots are frequently used as planters, but that bottom pot can still be used in the fermentation process. Most baked crushed agave is fermented in wood slat vats, but some palenqueros ferment in clay pots partially embedded in the ground. After a damaged pot has been removed from the still, it can be repaired with cement and used for fermenting; a broken olla de barro gets new life.

For clay-pot distillation to work, a continuous flow of cold water is required. It often arrives along a makeshift wooden trough, falling into the small conical condenser through a length of giant river reed (carrizo). Carrizo is an invasive wild plant, but it has multiple uses, including in the olla de barro distillation process. Carrizo is also sometimes employed to guide the water out of the condenser, and the distillate out of the still into a holding receptacle. Yet another use for the reed is as a bellows to stoke the flame under the clay pot during distillation. Some palenqueros purchase waste from a lumberyard de-barking process as fuel for their stills. The bark always includes some attached wood.

Long ago palenqeros used clay condensers in the distillation process. When metal became available, they switched. Originally, they used simple laminated metal, and some still do, although more recently stainless steel or copper have appeared. Some palenqueros have even adapted old aluminum construction worker hardhats. The shape is about the same, and with a little work they are almost as efficient as the others. When I visited a distillery in the town of Sola de Vega in 2012, the palenquero was still using hard hats as condensers!

Steam rises, hits the condenser, then the drops of liquid must fall onto something which then guides the liquid to the exterior of the cylinder, through the carrizo, down into the container. That something is typically a hand-hewn wooden spoon, or a small length of penca. The condenser is sealed to the upper cylinder, which is sealed in turn to the lower olla de barro, not with glue, but rather a paste that forms naturally on top of the fermentation vessel.

When the still is not in use, many palenqueros prefer keeping the opening underneath, into which firewood is placed to produce flame, closed off. Some state they don’t want young children playing hide-and-seek in the sooty and sometimes still hot orifice. Others don’t want their chickens laying eggs inside. A palenquero friend in Santa Catarina Minas keeps the opening closed using old metal discs from a plow.

I noted earlier the modest start-up costs for establishing a palenque for olla de barro distillation, and touched on the cost of the clay pots. The additional installations in clay (as well as copper) operations are almost free of out-of-pocket costs aside from labor: the baking pit in the ground, the ability to crush by hand using a wooden mallet and nothing more, and fermenting in an animal hide, a wood-lined hole in the ground or directly in a bedrock cavity.

The innate creativity of the palenquero distilling in clay is remarkable. And while we must admire his resourcefulness, it’s crucial that we not begrudge him for making technological advancements with a view to making life just a little easier, as his economic lot in life improves. Should not the romanticism we seek in rural Oaxaca sometimes take a back seat? The palenquero will retain most of his sustainable practices and continue to be resourceful, but surely deserves a break.

Alvin Starkman operates Mezcal Educational Excursions of Oaxaca (www.mezcaleducationaltours.com).

Oaxaca and Air Quality: Protocols, Accords and Agreements

By Alvin Starkman, M.A., J.D.

The state of Oaxaca has traditionally been one of Mexico’s top ranked in terms of air quality. That’s because we have virtually no industry except for tourism and agriculture. However, that’s no excuse for our government’s doing relatively little to combat climate change. This is particularly problematic given that, first, the country as a whole has been priding itself on its efforts since 2005, if not earlier, to combat climate change, and second, Oaxaca is being increasingly subjected to the negative impact of environmental change every year.

In early 2005, the Latin American & Iberian Institute at the University of New Mexico published an article entitled “Mexico Strongly Endorses Kyoto Environmental Accord.” Vicente Fox, president at the time, was quoted as saying that Mexico was among the early signatories of the 1997 Kyoto Protocol on climate change, contrasting his country with the US, which did not endorse the accord.

Jump to the 2015 Paris Agreement on Climate Change Mitigation, supported by upwards of 200 countries, including (at the time) the US. Mexico was one of the first nations to ratify the agreement. Despite the US having begun formal withdrawal proceedings late last year, Mexico has remained steadfast. In fact, shortly after the US announced its intention to leave, Mexico issued a press release on June 1, 2017, reaffirming its support for and commitment to the agreement. Mexico had been one of the main leaders in the negotiation process, which had taken five years to conclude.

Mexico then went even further. In April 2018, the senate approved harmonizing the agreement’s global goals with the country’s own national legal framework (General Law on Climate Change); 84 votes in favor, 0 against, with one abstention.

That was at the federal level. Turning to Oaxaca, the state is one of the most vulnerable in all of Mexico due to its complex orography, or mountainous topography, having the greatest diversity of climatic zones in the country. Perhaps most importantly, its geographical location is in the narrowest part of the nation; it’s heavily influenced by both the Pacific ocean and the Gulf of Mexico as well as two cyclone forming areas, the Gulf of Tehuantepec and the Caribbean Sea.

Residents of Oaxaca have been experiencing the effects of climate change continuously over the past three decades, at a minimum. Some of the impacts I have been witnessing include:

· Our hot season begins earlier than traditionally has been the case.
· Our rainy season is much less predictable than before, with farmers never knowing when to plant and if their crops will grow to their potential, the result being lost revenue. When the rains do arrive, they can be monsoon-like, destroying those very crops, and wreaking havoc in the state capital. Our antiquated drainage system was not built to withstand the new flow pattern.
· Our municipal water delivery system is much less predictable than before, residents never knowing when the water will arrive and to what level their home and business cisterns will be filled. Much more often than even a decade ago, we see water trucks wending the streets delivering up to 20,000 liters at a time to hotels, restaurants, other retainers, and homes.
· Wells run dry, necessitating excavating deeper or people scrambling to find alternative sources of water.

Academia has recognized the gravity of the situation. The state funded university, Universidad Autónoma Benito Juárez de Oaxaca (UABJO), has instituted a Master’s program in climate change. In 2017, Environmental Science: An Indian Journal, published an article on using Oaxaca’s State Program for Climate Change (Programa Estatal de Cambio Climática) as a planning tool, defining policies to mitigate emissions of greenhouse gases and suggesting adaptations for those in high risk areas.

But throwing pesos at the problem and instituting policies at the federal level, self-lauding all the while, means nothing without enforcement at the local level. True enough, some Oaxacan city residents actively participate in recycling programs, most no longer burn their garbage, and there are nearby villages in which green trash bins are strategically placed no more than 20 yards apart. However, all the protocols, accords and agreements do little without enforcement, except perhaps enabling the government to boast about being a world leader in the fight.

Here in Oaxaca, our verificación program dictates that one must have vehicle emissions tested twice yearly. In some first world jurisdictions, you cannot renew your license plate without proof that your car has passed. In these countries, without a new plate or renewal sticker, the police pull you over. In Oaxaca, on the other hand, you renew your plate (if so inclined), and part of the fee covers the emissions test. Once your car passes, you get a sticker. But only late-model vehicles seem to appear at the testing facilities, given that owners of older cars know they won’t pas, and that state enforcement is effectively non-existent.

Rent a car. Tell the rental agent you will be driving out of Oaxaca state. Then, and only then, will you get a vehicle that has been tested and has the sticker. While other states do enforce, everyone knows that Oaxaca does not, though there is a law on the books. With my own car I have been stopped outside of Oaxaca when I have not had the sticker, but never in my home state.

Just look at the black smoke spewing out of some city of Oaxaca transit buses. Does government really care, or does it all simply enable Oaxaca to appear in the federal government’s good books?

There are issues with emissions control programs. They have been scrapped in some first world jurisdictions due to equity concerns, test accuracy and their questionable impact on air quality. Regardless, the point is that without enforcement, rules and regulations mean nothing, and are just window dressing.

Let’s assume there was enforcement. Yes, it would be unfair to car owners of modest means to be compelled to pay the same amount as the wealthy for emissions testing. However, banning their clunkers from the road would likely result in greater use of public transit, meaning bus companies would have more revenue to upgrade vehicles and it would be easier for government to enforce laws against public transit culprits. Commuter parking lots and mass transit are still rare in Oaxaca, though dedicated bus lanes have arrived. With a bit of enforcement, the city would be a better place in which to live, and to visit.

Alvin Starkman operates Mezcal Educational Excursions of Oaxaca (www.mezcaleducationaltours.com).

¡HEY COMPADRE!

By Alvin Starkman M.A., J.D.

It doesn’t matter whether you live in Oaxaca or vacation here on a regular basis. Whether it’s Puerto Escondido, Huatulco, the state capital or elsewhere, if you’ve at all begun to integrate into the local community, eventually you’ll be asked to be a padrino or madrina (godparent) to an ahijado or ahijada (godchild). So you’d better familiarize yourself with compadrazgo, or co-godparenthood. Even if you’ve never been asked, it’s important to learn about compadres, the cornerstone of compadrazgo. You’ll hear the word spoken frequently. Compadres are different from friends, by a long stretch.

Compadrazgo is a web of mutual rights and obligations of monumental importance throughout Mexico (and elsewhere), both in urban centers and rural communities. It permeates virtually all socio-economic strata. It’s more important in Oaxaca than in many other states, in part because of both economics and the strength of interpersonal relationships. One chooses who will be his or her lifetime compadres.

If someone is asked to be a padrino of a child upon baptism, it creates a new bond between two families, solidified by the creation of compadres. The parents and grandparents of the child become compadres to the padrinos. While family members are frequently asked to be padrinos, often friends, neighbors and business acquaintances are selected, as a means of strengthening existing ties. Academic writings, confirmed in my personal experiences here in Oaxaca over the past quarter century, suggest that while as a godparent you have lifelong obligations to your godchild, which may never be called upon, it’s the ties between compadres that can come into play on a regular basis.

Let’s examine occasions aside from baptism when you might find yourself asked to be a godparent, obligations which may fall upon you, and finally how your new status as a compadre manifests itself and keeps on ticking. Why you and not someone else? To understand we must look at the pool of prospective choices from which you may be selected. My perspective may appear cynical, but, using a functionalism model, is fact based and proven.

Godparents are selected for both religious and secular rites of passage, for godchildren ranging from infant to adult. In Oaxaca the most common events where custom dictates godparents be chosen are marriages, school graduations, a girl’s 15th-birthday celebrations (fiesta de quince años), confirmations, first communions and baptisms. Sometimes but not always, there may be a financial commitment involved, where for example as padrinos of a wedding or quiñce anos, a couple may be asked or simply volunteer to contribute to the cost of the affair. But don’t worry, financial obligations may be shared amongst several godparents.

A case in point involved my wife and me. When asked to be godparents at the wedding of the son of then mere acquaintances, our mouths dropped, whereupon after a pregnant pause the request was concluded with “of the rings.” This meant that we were responsible for buying the wedding bands, whereas another couple was being honored with being the primary padrinos of the newlyweds. In fact you can be asked to be godparents of (for purchasing) the cake, liquor, flowers, party favors, and the list goes on, often depending upon the financial ability of the people throwing the function. In the case of individuals with resources, they typically simply want to bestow a special honor to an existing relationship.

You may be asked to make a speech, give a blessing, dance with the bride/groom or quinceañera, almost always being an active participant depending on circumstances. If you’re not Catholic and don’t take communion or kneel, let your soon-to-be compadres know, even if it appears there won’t be a religious component to the proceedings. There will likely be a priest involved. For example, on occasion one finds padrinos chosen within the context of the opening of a new business. As part of the ribbon-cutting ceremony, the man-of-the-cloth may be in attendance to give and direct blessings. Personally, as a Jew, I don’t object to having a little holy water splashed on me by the padre…as long as it’s as a result of inadvertence.

Padrinos are almost always selected from people of the same or a higher socio-economic class. For example, a factory worker may select the supervisor of her department to be her daughter’s padrino at a baptism, but the supervisor would rarely select a worker. A maker of handicrafts in a small Oaxacan village may ask a wealthy patron or shop-owner from Mexico City to be godmother to her daughter and future son-in-law at their wedding, but the opposite would likely be out of the question. And you may be similarly asked, by a Mexican friend/neighbor, a perhaps perceived equal, but for different reasons. Functions regarding the foregoing three examples? Bonds of friendship are acknowledged and strengthened for future utility; a patron-customer relationship is affirmed with comfort in now knowing that it will continue ad infinitum; and there will be the perception that a boss won’t fire a compadre.

Your status as a compadre begins immediately, and you may never again be referred to by your name, but rather compadre. You’ll experience the metamorphosis of your status, and will be treated differently. Otherwise an extranjero, or foreigner, you may feel as though you’ve come of age in your new hometown. Compadres give and receive more invitations to events. Favors may be asked of you more readily, and of a different type. There’s an expectation of compliance, if not the most careful consideration: borrowing your truck, lending money, housing a relative temporarily, providing counsel in trying times. By the end of our first year of permanent residency in Oaxaca, all the foregoing requests had been made of us. But remember, requests for assistance can go the other way as well, so keep that in mind.

In Western society the number of kinship ties you have is relatively finite, and usually beyond your control. In contrast, with compadrazgo, for as many life stages and changes as may arise, one’s immediate family has the opportunity to extend non-relative or “fictive” kinship ties through deliberate selection. One is able to build and nurture through mutual requests and compliance innumerable economic and social alliances.

Here in Mexico no one ever utters the adage “You can pick your friends but not your family.” The strategies and decision-making processes involved in determining who would make appropriate compadres for a family, and why, are absolutely fascinating. I’ve touched upon only some of the dynamics. The internet and traditional anthropological literature are exhaustive, and should be consulted by those interested in or thrust into the system.

A permanent resident of Oaxaca, Alvin Starkman operates Mezcal Educational Excursions of Oaxaca (www.mezcaleducationaltours.com).