Tag Archives: oaxaca

Editor’s Letter

By Jane Bauer

“Migration is an expression of the human aspiration for dignity, safety and a better future. It is part of the social fabric, part of our very make-up as a human family.”
Ban Ki-moon

Race, gender, sexual orientation and religion are things we use to identify and separate us. We can now add vaccinated and non-vaccinated into the mix.

I am back in my village and it is a full year since kids here have had in-person classes. As in many places, group gatherings have been suspended until further notice- the future is in limbo. Unlike other places most households have ten or more people living there and there isn’t any internet or cell service so zoom classes aren’t a thing. Nobody wears masks or social distances in my village. When this whole thing first came down the village put up a barrier at the main entrance to restrict entry. However, few outsiders stop here and arguments about whose turn it was to monitor the gate soon caused the villagers to remove the barrier. School is still on hold.

The little boys who live next to me call out while I am making coffee. They can see through the fence separating our houses that I am there. They point to pieces of Mega blocks that have ended up on my side of the fence. I pick them up and pass them through. One of my dogs follows me and when they see him they call out his name with jubilation.

These kids have missed a year of school. As I move through the village and I see kids hanging around the tienda, chasing chickens for sport and sword-fighting with sticks, I feel defeated. While this quaint throwback scene to simpler times is touching, it will leave a mark on them if things do not get back on track. Home schooling via zoom with parents at home is a luxury. Access to getting a vaccine is a sign of privilege. While we lament how our world has changed in past year- the frustrations and restrictions regarding travel and home offices- most of us will bounce back. Much of the world will not.

This issue our writers explore the theme of Migration and Transition. Migration is a part of nature: the monarchs, the geese and now, driven by climate change, animals moving south from the Arctic. We are all trying to survive and for most people migration is about survival.

I heard on the news this morning about how there are many unaccompanied children are arriving at the US border with the idea that a better life awaits them on the other side. Why do we have children walking to find new homes? Why are there 26 million refugees currently living in host communities? Because we allow the things that identify us to also be the things that separate us. We get comfortable on our side of the fence with a feeling of entitlement that in some way we are more deserving to be in these positions. However, isn’t it all random luck or the situation you happened to be born into?

Until next month,

Jane

Contrasting Transitions:Guerrero and Aguilar Among the Maya

By Randy Jackson

The path of human history is a story of successive transitions. Few transitions are peaceful enough to allow the individuals affected to adjust without a personal cost. The greatest historical transitions are the collapse of civilizations. Pre-Conquest, and over the course of 3,000 years, Mexico has had seven major civilizations: The Olmec, the unknown culture or cultures that built Teotihuacán, Zapotec, Mixtec, the Maya, the Toltec, and the Aztec. The last of these civilizations, the Aztec, ended with the Spanish Conquest.

When wandering the ruins of some of these ancient civilizations, I believe one question intrigues us all: What was it like to be a person living in those ancient times? Anthropologists and archaeologists can articulate many aspects of the daily lives of people in these civilizations surprisingly well. These aspects are things people did, how they lived, even what they might have believed. But, except for the leaders of these civilizations, very little is known about any individual, especially individuals who had witnessed the transition of one civilization to another.

Two exceptions to this are Gerónimo de Aguilar and Gonzalo Guerrero. These two Spanish men survived a shipwreck and were washed up on the shores of the Yucatan in 1511, eight years before the arrival of Cortés. There were between twelve and fifteen men in all who washed ashore that day. Some were killed (their leaders likely sacrificed); the remaining men were all enslaved. All but two died or were killed in the following years.

The only two men to survive, Aguilar and Guerrero, escaped their initial enslavement and ended up among a rival Mayan group. Among this second group the Spaniards were treated somewhat better. By working hard, over some years they were able to integrate with the Mayan people and learned to speak their language.

The different ways these two men integrated into the Mayan society seems to have been a function of the type of person each man was. Aguilar was educated in the Catholic Church and was a Franciscan friar. As a man of faith, he kept his Christian faith and persevered in his time among the Maya. He hung onto some hope that he might, one day, return to Spanish society and even Spain. Less is known about Guerero’s upbringing, except that he was likely a fisherman before joining a Spanish crew heading to the new world. Guerrero distinguished himself in battle fighting for his Mayan compatriots. He became a warrior chief, he married a woman named Zazil Ha, the daughter of the cacique (chieftain) and had a family.

When Cortés approached the Mexican coast, he first stopped on the island of Cozumel for some ship repairs. While there, the Spaniards were approached by a canoe of Mayans. To the Spaniards bewilderment and surprise one of the Mayans asked in Spanish, “Gentleman, are you Christians?” This person was Gerónimo de Aguilar, indistinguishable to the Spaniards from his Mayan companions.

Aguilar had adapted and survived his Mayan captivity. With Aguilar’s ability to speak Mayan he was of great service to Cortés and when teamed up with Malinche (an amazing former noblewoman with command of several Mexican languages – see The Eye, March 2021), Aguilar had a front row seat to the Spanish conquest of Mexico. The societal collapse Aguilar watched was from the perspective of a Spaniard and conqueror.

Gonzalo Guerrero’s perspective was fundamentally different. Before leaving for Cozumel to meet up with Spanish, Aguilar went to Guerrero to tell him about the Spanish ship and to see if Guerrero would join him in meeting with the Spanish. Guerrero refused, telling Aguilar he would never be accepted back into Spanish society. He was tattooed and had nose rings and ear plugs in the Mayan style. And besides, Guerrero added, “And look at how handsome these boys of mine are.”

Cortés and his conquistadors passed through the Yucatán and went on to defeat the Aztecs in the Valley of Mexico. The Mayan peoples proved much more difficult for the Spaniards to overcome. It took them decades, and the lives of hundreds of Spanish soldiers, to subdue the Yucatán. The successful Mayan resistance is likely the result of having Gonzalo Guerrero to advise them.

The first Spanish attempt to subdue the Mayan Yucatán was in 1527, six years after the fall of the Aztecs at Tenochtitlán. Francisco de Montejo led a group of Spanish soldiers on this mission; his first effort was to try to get Guerrero on his side. From a ship in the Bahia de Chetumal, Montejo was successful in getting a letter to Guerrero promising to “honor and benefit” him if he became one of Montejo’s “principal men.” Guerrero responded, writing on the back of the letter in charcoal. He once again refused to join his former countrymen.

Montejo’s attempt to conquer the Yucatán was unsuccessful. The Mayans used guerilla tactics, as well as craftily supplying the Spaniards with misinformation. These tactics were considered to have originated with Guerrero. The heat, mosquitos and the Yucatán jungle did the rest. There were further excursions and some battles with the Mayans, but by 1535 the only Spaniard living in the Yucatan was Gonzalo Guerrero. By this time Guerrero had been among the Maya for twenty five years. Earlier, in 1531, Guerrero’s former compatriot, Gerónimo de Aguilar, had died near Mexico City on his encomiendia (an estate allowed to exact tribute from the native population after the Conquest).

Then in 1536, the Spanish attacked and overwhelmed a Mayan cacique named Çiçumba at a fortress in Ticamaya, Honduras. After the battle, among the dead, Spanish soldiers found a bearded man in native dress killed by a shot from an arquebus, an early long gun. The Spanish commander, Alvarado, reported that the man was Gonzalo Guerrero. Stories say he arrived from Chetumal with 50 canoes of warriors to support Çiçumba.

The dictionary definition of “transition” is “the process or a period of changing from one state or condition to another.” It’s hard to imagine a greater transition than a civilization collapsed by conquest. Millions of people living in what is now Mexico at the time suffered unknown hardships and death. So many individual stories that will always remain unknown to us. As for Gerónimo de Aguilar and Gonzalo Guerrero, we know the main structure of their lives, the decisions they made, some of the things they faced in life, even how they died. Their stories are grand and the transitions they faced are recorded for all times.

Changes in Immigration at the Mexico/United States Border

By Marcia Chaiken and Jan Chaiken

Our grand-parents were immigrants who fled violence and oppression from Russia in the early 1900s; refuge was provided for them and their cousins in the U.S., Mexico, and Canada. While a significant number of current residents of North America trace their roots back to indigenous residents or people who were forced onto ships and brought here against their will, many of us are descendants of people who bravely traveled to the New World assured that their lives would be better and that their skills and get-up-and-go would be welcomed. Although immigrants have always faced xenophobia and lack of social acceptance, over a period of time, most immigrants integrate into the work-a-day world and achieve upward mobility.

The United States, in particular, has always been considered to be a “melting pot” – a place where diversity was prized and a welcome message was literally inscribed on the Statue of Liberty in New York harbor. The annual number of migrants admitted to the U.S. adjusted up or down periodically. During boom times, immigrants supply much needed labor as the country’s economy grows. During economic downturns, immigrants have been both formally and informally excluded. During the Great Depression, President Hoover specifically restricted immigration from Mexico, and the city of Los Angeles tried to repatriate immigrants who had already settled there from Mexico in order to avoid providing services they needed. Mass deportations of Mexicans were instituted, and the contemptuous term “wetback” became part of the lexicon of the U.S. Government. Willingly or unwillingly, there were more immigrants leaving the U.S. during the Depression than were arriving, counting both legal and undocumented immigrants.

We were fortunate enough to have grown up in the U.S. during the boom times that followed the end of World War II. At that time, the U.S. was flooded with refugees from all over the world. New York City streets rang with a polyglot of languages, as did areas of other large cities. The voracious need for labor at steel mills in South Chicago attracted so many Mexican immigrants that some neighborhoods in the area became like small islands of Mexico surrounded by other ethnic and racial groups. In the following decades, Mexico became the number one source of immigrants to the U.S. For ourselves, as newly-weds in 1963, on a tight graduate student budget, we favored Mexican restaurants for a luxury dinner out.

While raising our children in Los Angeles in the 1970s and early 1980s, our lives were enriched by the local Mexican-American culture. Some families of our kids’ friends were upper-middle class Chicanos whose forebears had lived in the area when it was still Mexico, long before the United States grabbed it. The cafeterias at the local schools served burritos, enchiladas, beans, and rice. Our children spoke Spanglish, and our son, when he worked for the summer on a construction team, brought home choice Spanish words that even now we rarely hear in Mexico. Downtown Los Angeles featured Sundays when girls in their quinceañera gowns were being photographed in Father Serra Park. During school vacations we frequently headed south for carnivals in Tijuana, for whale watching off the Baja Coast, or just to wander around the beautiful Sonoran desert. The border between the U.S. and Mexico was easily navigated in both directions. While camping near California’s Salton Sea, we could decide to drive over the border to Mexicali for dinner and be back in time to bed down in our tents.

Driving through the vast agricultural areas in California, whether at sunrise, during the hot afternoons or toward sunset, we usually sighted Mexican immigrants doing stoop labor in the fields. California was not the only state relying on Mexican immigrants for back-breaking agricultural labor. Name any state producing fruits, vegetables or grains for American consumption or for export, and you will find that the backbone of the industry was primarily provided by Spanish-speaking families from south of the border. The Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 – the last major U.S. immigration legislation – in part recognized the contribution made by undocumented immigrants from Mexico by granting the right to apply for legal status to immigrants who had arrived before May 1982 and remained in the U.S. after working in agriculture for 90 days. However, the Act also fined employers who were found to hire undocumented field workers after May 1982.

Even with generally tighter restrictions on hiring undocumented workers, the booming U.S. economy attracted greater numbers of immigrants from Mexico. Between 1990 and 2000, the number grew from over 4 million to over 9 million. This trend ended when the U.S. economy collapsed during the financial recession in 2007. Between 2007 and 2017 the number of undocumented Mexicans living in the U.S. decreased by 2 million people.

The Mexicans who provided Americans with labor that no U.S. citizen would willingly undertake were hardly living the American dream, but their lives were arguably better than they would have been in rural villages or urban ghettos in Mexico. And for the most part, the attitude of Americans in the 20th century was “live and let live.” That is not to say there was no xenophobia; periods of intense xenophobia, overt stereotyping and violence directed against specific ethnic groups of immigrants have occurred regularly. Irish immigrants fleeing the potato famine in the late 19th century were held in contempt and Prohibition was passed in large part as a symbolic means of rejecting their culture. During World War II, Japanese and German descendants of immigrants were vilified, and Japanese families were confined to concentration camps. Even though by 2010 the number of Mexican immigrants had started to decrease, the past decade has seen a period of intensifying xenophobia against them and other immigrant groups.

Two major developments may in part have been responsible for this rise of nationalism and rejection of new immigrants. In Mexico and Central America, drug cartels became increasingly dominant and violent; hundreds and then thousands of people from Mexico and Central America began fleeing for safety to the U.S., flooding the border.

At the same time, the economy in the U.S. dramatically shifted away from manual labor to technology-driven employment. Coal mines closed, ranching and farming became large-scale corporate enterprises, and factories replaced human employees with robots. Large numbers of blue-collar laborers lost their traditional jobs; while many shifted over to the service industry their compensation barely met subsistence requirements. Their American dream had failed and they were angry. Along came Donald Trump who provided them with a scapegoat for their anger.

On the day he announced his run to be President, Trump vilified Mexican immigrants, labelling them criminals and rapists. Candidate Donald Trump proclaimed that, if elected as US President, to keep Mexicans out he would build a big, “beautiful” wall, akin to the Great Wall of China, along the length of the border, and that Mexico would pay for the construction. Leaders in Mexico retorted at times in very colorful language that there was no way Mexico was going to pay for the wall. But blue-collar workers rallied around Trump to the cry, “Build the wall.”

After Trump was elected, he used executive order after executive order in an attempt to put an end to Mexican immigration. The U.S. Congress essentially refused to fund the wall, so Trump ordered the diversion of funds from the Department of Defense, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), and other sources to start construction. The wall project continued through his administration, but fell far short of his grandiose plan, mostly replacing sections of the preexisting border wall that had deteriorated in the harsh desert weather.

Trump also ordered the end of the practice of allowing undocumented immigrants who had been arrested by the Border Patrol to remain in the U.S. with relatives or other sponsors until their request for asylum could be adjudicated. Calling this practice by the derogatory term, “catch and release,” the Trump administration ordered that undocumented refugees found on the U.S. side of the border be warehoused in jails and then bussed under guard back to Mexico, where they were unceremoniously dumped in the streets of border cities.

Trump also reduced the annual numbers of people allowed to legally immigrate to the US, reduced the numbers of federal employees processing people applying for visas from Mexico and Central America, and reduced the number of judges to whom refugees could appeal for sanctuary. The whole process that allowed people fleeing from drug wars to legally enter the U.S. was essentially gutted, and those who simply tried to enter the U.S. legally were jailed at the border. When photos of children jailed in cages went viral, Trump had his administration carry out an even more horrendous policy: children were separated from their parents, babies literally ripped from the arms of their mothers, and were taken to remote buildings – essentially warehouses with virtually no one trained in childcare to look after them. The children were later taken to other places in the U.S., and the parents were deported. No system was in place to track the placement of the children, and thousands of them were lost to their families until there was a national outcry. Nonprofit organizations tried to substitute for the government and reunite the children with their parents – but in some cases this was an impossible task.

When COVID became a pandemic, although Trump refused to address COVID as a problem and insisted that the virus would just disappear, he disingenuously used the disease as an excuse to stop virtually any refugee from entering the U.S. while they formally requested visas. Trump struck a bargain with Mexico President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) to cooperate in turning back people seeking legal entry into the U.S. and allowing them to stay in Mexico in border cities until the U.S. was ready to process them. Mexican border towns were turned into tent cities – refugee concentration camps – with few if any services. Among those living on the street were thousands of unaccompanied children who had traveled by themselves or small groups together, with telephone numbers or other contact information for relatives or family friends in the U.S.

The only people to benefit from this policy were, first of all, high-level cartel members who were arrested in the U.S. and, instead of standing trial, were returned to Mexico without fear of punishment and, second, “coyotes” – those who for an exorbitant charge guide refugees across the border through tunnels under border walls or by creating breaks in border fences. The horrors experienced by those crossing the border have inspired best-selling novels such as American Dirt, and critically-lauded plays such as Mojada, a Medea in Los Angeles. But real people are still suffering on a daily basis. On Tuesday, March 2, a Ford Explorer with the seats removed carried 25 people through a breach in the border wall in the southeast corner of California. The Explorer headed west and pulled onto CA Route 115 in front of a semi hauling two empty trailers. The crash killed 13 people in the Explorer; one woman, knocked unconscious, woke up to find her dead daughter stretched across her lap.

Trump also reduced the annual numbers of people allowed to legally immigrate to the US, reduced the numbers of federal employees processing people applying for visas from Mexico and Central America, and reduced the number of judges to whom refugees could appeal for sanctuary. The whole process that allowed people fleeing from drug wars to legally enter the U.S. was essentially gutted, and those who simply tried to enter the U.S. legally were jailed at the border. When photos of children jailed in cages went viral, Trump had his administration carry out an even more horrendous policy: children were separated from their parents, babies literally ripped from the arms of their mothers, and were taken to remote buildings – essentially warehouses with virtually no one trained in childcare to look after them. The children were later taken to other places in the U.S., and the parents were deported. No system was in place to track the placement of the children, and thousands of them were lost to their families until there was a national outcry. Nonprofit organizations tried to substitute for the government and reunite the children with their parents – but in some cases this was an impossible task.

When COVID became a pandemic, although Trump refused to address COVID as a problem and insisted that the virus would just disappear, he disingenuously used the disease as an excuse to stop virtually any refugee from entering the U.S. while they formally requested visas. Trump struck a bargain with Mexico President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) to cooperate in turning back people seeking legal entry into the U.S. and allowing them to stay in Mexico in border cities until the U.S. was ready to process them. Mexican border towns were turned into tent cities – refugee concentration camps – with few if any services. Among those living on the street were thousands of unaccompanied children who had traveled by themselves or small groups together, with telephone numbers or other contact information for relatives or family friends in the U.S.

The only people to benefit from this policy were, first of all, high-level cartel members who were arrested in the U.S. and, instead of standing trial, were returned to Mexico without fear of punishment and, second, “coyotes” – those who for an exorbitant charge guide refugees across the border through tunnels under border walls or by creating breaks in border fences. The horrors experienced by those crossing the border have inspired best-selling novels such as American Dirt, and critically-lauded plays such as Mojada, a Medea in Los Angeles. But real people are still suffering on a daily basis. On Tuesday, March 2, a Ford Explorer with the seats removed carried 25 people through a breach in the border wall in the southeast corner of California. The Explorer headed west and pulled onto CA Route 115 in front of a semi hauling two empty trailers. The crash killed 13 people in the Explorer; one woman, knocked unconscious, woke up to find her dead daughter stretched across her lap.

Trump also reduced the annual numbers of people allowed to legally immigrate to the US, reduced the numbers of federal employees processing people applying for visas from Mexico and Central America, and reduced the number of judges to whom refugees could appeal for sanctuary. The whole process that allowed people fleeing from drug wars to legally enter the U.S. was essentially gutted, and those who simply tried to enter the U.S. legally were jailed at the border. When photos of children jailed in cages went viral, Trump had his administration carry out an even more horrendous policy: children were separated from their parents, babies literally ripped from the arms of their mothers, and were taken to remote buildings – essentially warehouses with virtually no one trained in childcare to look after them. The children were later taken to other places in the U.S., and the parents were deported. No system was in place to track the placement of the children, and thousands of them were lost to their families until there was a national outcry. Nonprofit organizations tried to substitute for the government and reunite the children with their parents – but in some cases this was an impossible task.

When COVID became a pandemic, although Trump refused to address COVID as a problem and insisted that the virus would just disappear, he disingenuously used the disease as an excuse to stop virtually any refugee from entering the U.S. while they formally requested visas. Trump struck a bargain with Mexico President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) to cooperate in turning back people seeking legal entry into the U.S. and allowing them to stay in Mexico in border cities until the U.S. was ready to process them. Mexican border towns were turned into tent cities – refugee concentration camps – with few if any services. Among those living on the street were thousands of unaccompanied children who had traveled by themselves or small groups together, with telephone numbers or other contact information for relatives or family friends in the U.S.

The only people to benefit from this policy were, first of all, high-level cartel members who were arrested in the U.S. and, instead of standing trial, were returned to Mexico without fear of punishment and, second, “coyotes” – those who for an exorbitant charge guide refugees across the border through tunnels under border walls or by creating breaks in border fences. The horrors experienced by those crossing the border have inspired best-selling novels such as American Dirt, and critically-lauded plays such as Mojada, a Medea in Los Angeles. But real people are still suffering on a daily basis. On Tuesday, March 2, a Ford Explorer with the seats removed carried 25 people through a breach in the border wall in the southeast corner of California. The Explorer headed west and pulled onto CA Route 115 in front of a semi hauling two empty trailers. The crash killed 13 people in the Explorer; one woman, knocked unconscious, woke up to find her dead daughter stretched across her lap.

Trump also reduced the annual numbers of people allowed to legally immigrate to the US, reduced the numbers of federal employees processing people applying for visas from Mexico and Central America, and reduced the number of judges to whom refugees could appeal for sanctuary. The whole process that allowed people fleeing from drug wars to legally enter the U.S. was essentially gutted, and those who simply tried to enter the U.S. legally were jailed at the border. When photos of children jailed in cages went viral, Trump had his administration carry out an even more horrendous policy: children were separated from their parents, babies literally ripped from the arms of their mothers, and were taken to remote buildings – essentially warehouses with virtually no one trained in childcare to look after them. The children were later taken to other places in the U.S., and the parents were deported. No system was in place to track the placement of the children, and thousands of them were lost to their families until there was a national outcry. Nonprofit organizations tried to substitute for the government and reunite the children with their parents – but in some cases this was an impossible task.

When COVID became a pandemic, although Trump refused to address COVID as a problem and insisted that the virus would just disappear, he disingenuously used the disease as an excuse to stop virtually any refugee from entering the U.S. while they formally requested visas. Trump struck a bargain with Mexico President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) to cooperate in turning back people seeking legal entry into the U.S. and allowing them to stay in Mexico in border cities until the U.S. was ready to process them. Mexican border towns were turned into tent cities – refugee concentration camps – with few if any services. Among those living on the street were thousands of unaccompanied children who had traveled by themselves or small groups together, with telephone numbers or other contact information for relatives or family friends in the U.S.

The only people to benefit from this policy were, first of all, high-level cartel members who were arrested in the U.S. and, instead of standing trial, were returned to Mexico without fear of punishment and, second, “coyotes” – those who for an exorbitant charge guide refugees across the border through tunnels under border walls or by creating breaks in border fences. The horrors experienced by those crossing the border have inspired best-selling novels such as American Dirt, and critically-lauded plays such as Mojada, a Medea in Los Angeles. But real people are still suffering on a daily basis. On Tuesday, March 2, a Ford Explorer with the seats removed carried 25 people through a breach in the border wall in the southeast corner of California. The Explorer headed west and pulled onto CA Route 115 in front of a semi hauling two empty trailers. The crash killed 13 people in the Explorer; one woman, knocked unconscious, woke up to find her dead daughter stretched across her lap.

Trump also reduced the annual numbers of people allowed to legally immigrate to the US, reduced the numbers of federal employees processing people applying for visas from Mexico and Central America, and reduced the number of judges to whom refugees could appeal for sanctuary. The whole process that allowed people fleeing from drug wars to legally enter the U.S. was essentially gutted, and those who simply tried to enter the U.S. legally were jailed at the border. When photos of children jailed in cages went viral, Trump had his administration carry out an even more horrendous policy: children were separated from their parents, babies literally ripped from the arms of their mothers, and were taken to remote buildings – essentially warehouses with virtually no one trained in childcare to look after them. The children were later taken to other places in the U.S., and the parents were deported. No system was in place to track the placement of the children, and thousands of them were lost to their families until there was a national outcry. Nonprofit organizations tried to substitute for the government and reunite the children with their parents – but in some cases this was an impossible task.

When COVID became a pandemic, although Trump refused to address COVID as a problem and insisted that the virus would just disappear, he disingenuously used the disease as an excuse to stop virtually any refugee from entering the U.S. while they formally requested visas. Trump struck a bargain with Mexico President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) to cooperate in turning back people seeking legal entry into the U.S. and allowing them to stay in Mexico in border cities until the U.S. was ready to process them. Mexican border towns were turned into tent cities – refugee concentration camps – with few if any services. Among those living on the street were thousands of unaccompanied children who had traveled by themselves or small groups together, with telephone numbers or other contact information for relatives or family friends in the U.S.

The only people to benefit from this policy were, first of all, high-level cartel members who were arrested in the U.S. and, instead of standing trial, were returned to Mexico without fear of punishment and, second, “coyotes” – those who for an exorbitant charge guide refugees across the border through tunnels under border walls or by creating breaks in border fences. The horrors experienced by those crossing the border have inspired best-selling novels such as American Dirt, and critically-lauded plays such as Mojada, a Medea in Los Angeles. But real people are still suffering on a daily basis. On Tuesday, March 2, a Ford Explorer with the seats removed carried 25 people through a breach in the border wall in the southeast corner of California. The Explorer headed west and pulled onto CA Route 115 in front of a semi hauling two empty trailers. The crash killed 13 people in the Explorer; one woman, knocked unconscious, woke up to find her dead daughter stretched across her lap.

The only people to benefit from this policy were, first of all, high-level cartel members who were arrested in the U.S. and, instead of standing trial, were returned to Mexico without fear of punishment and, second, “coyotes” – those who for an exorbitant charge guide refugees across the border through tunnels under border walls or by creating breaks in border fences. The horrors experienced by those crossing the border have inspired best-selling novels such as American Dirt, and critically-lauded plays such as Mojada, a Medea in Los Angeles. But real people are still suffering on a daily basis. On Tuesday, March 2, a Ford Explorer with the seats removed carried 25 people through a breach in the border wall in the southeast corner of California. The Explorer headed west and pulled onto CA Route 115 in front of a semi hauling two empty trailers. The crash killed 13 people in the Explorer; one woman, knocked unconscious, woke up to find her dead daughter stretched across her lap.

The only people to benefit from this policy were, first of all, high-level cartel members who were arrested in the U.S. and, instead of standing trial, were returned to Mexico without fear of punishment and, second, “coyotes” – those who for an exorbitant charge guide refugees across the border through tunnels under border walls or by creating breaks in border fences. The horrors experienced by those crossing the border have inspired best-selling novels such as American Dirt, and critically-lauded plays such as Mojada, a Medea in Los Angeles. But real people are still suffering on a daily basis. On Tuesday, March 2, a Ford Explorer with the seats removed carried 25 people through a breach in the border wall in the southeast corner of California. The Explorer headed west and pulled onto CA Route 115 in front of a semi hauling two empty trailers. The crash killed 13 people in the Explorer; one woman, knocked unconscious, woke up to find her dead daughter stretched across her lap.

The only people to benefit from this policy were, first of all, high-level cartel members who were arrested in the U.S. and, instead of standing trial, were returned to Mexico without fear of punishment and, second, “coyotes” – those who for an exorbitant charge guide refugees across the border through tunnels under border walls or by creating breaks in border fences. The horrors experienced by those crossing the border have inspired best-selling novels such as American Dirt, and critically-lauded plays such as Mojada, a Medea in Los Angeles. But real people are still suffering on a daily basis. On Tuesday, March 2, a Ford Explorer with the seats removed carried 25 people through a breach in the border wall in the southeast corner of California. The Explorer headed west and pulled onto CA Route 115 in front of a semi hauling two empty trailers. The crash killed 13 people in the Explorer; one woman, knocked unconscious, woke up to find her dead daughter stretched across her lap.

The only people to benefit from this policy were, first of all, high-level cartel members who were arrested in the U.S. and, instead of standing trial, were returned to Mexico without fear of punishment and, second, “coyotes” – those who for an exorbitant charge guide refugees across the border through tunnels under border walls or by creating breaks in border fences. The horrors experienced by those crossing the border have inspired best-selling novels such as American Dirt, and critically-lauded plays such as Mojada, a Medea in Los Angeles. But real people are still suffering on a daily basis. On Tuesday, March 2, a Ford Explorer with the seats removed carried 25 people through a breach in the border wall in the southeast corner of California. The Explorer headed west and pulled onto CA Route 115 in front of a semi hauling two empty trailers. The crash killed 13 people in the Explorer; one woman, knocked unconscious, woke up to find her dead daughter stretched across her lap.

One of the primary issues raised during the 2020 U.S. Presidential elections concerned the conditions and policies in place at the Mexican-U.S. border. While Trump supporters were still chanting “Build the Wall,” Biden supporters were crying, “No more children in cages.” As a candidate, Biden promised to overturn the executive orders Trump had signed that created egregious conditions at the border and to submit a comprehensive immigration bill for legislation – the first in thirty-five years. That promise was fulfilled on Inauguration Day, as President Biden began signing the promised executive orders returning the U.S. border to a place where refugees can be treated with dignity and just practices. One order specifically stated:

The long tradition of the United States as a leader in refugee resettlement provides a beacon of hope for persecuted people around the world. … Through the United States Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP), the Federal Government, cooperating with private partners and American citizens in communities across the country, demonstrates the generosity and core values of our Nation, while benefitting from the many contributions that refugees make to our country. Accordingly, it shall be the policy of my Administration that … USRAP should be rebuilt and expanded, commensurate with global need. … Delays in administering USRAP and other humanitarian programs are counter to our national interests, can raise grave humanitarian concerns, and should be minimized.

On his first day in office President Biden also submitted The U.S. Citizenship Act of 2021, which “establishes a new system to responsibly manage and secure our border, keep our families and communities safe, and better manage migration across the Hemisphere.” Specific measures delineate staff and resources to ameliorate the humanitarian crisis on the U.S.-Mexican Border, and procedures for encouraging refugees to apply for and receive visas to the enter the U.S. long before they reach the border.

But the job is daunting. Thousands of unaccompanied children are arriving on the border every day. Given that Trump eviscerated the entire system for humanely and rapidly processing people seeking sanctuary on the border, the whole process needs to be built back. While the new administration is working as rapidly as government agencies can, many agencies are heavily involved in addressing the immediate needs of asylum seekers, in particular children living in federal facilities or on the streets in border towns. One measure in place is a promise to the children’s contacts in the U.S. that their own documentation status will not lead to negative consequences if they come to claim the children and care for them. Another telling example of the difference that is currently taking place at the border is the role of FEMA; rather than expropriating FEMA funds for building a largely ineffectual wall, FEMA staff, trained to provide humanitarian aid after natural catastrophes, are now using their resources and skills to alleviate the humanitarian crises caused by human forces on both sides of the border.

One of the primary issues raised during the 2020 U.S. Presidential elections concerned the conditions and policies in place at the Mexican-U.S. border. While Trump supporters were still chanting “Build the Wall,” Biden supporters were crying, “No more children in cages.” As a candidate, Biden promised to overturn the executive orders Trump had signed that created egregious conditions at the border and to submit a comprehensive immigration bill for legislation – the first in thirty-five years. That promise was fulfilled on Inauguration Day, as President Biden began signing the promised executive orders returning the U.S. border to a place where refugees can be treated with dignity and just practices. One order specifically stated:

The long tradition of the United States as a leader in refugee resettlement provides a beacon of hope for persecuted people around the world. … Through the United States Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP), the Federal Government, cooperating with private partners and American citizens in communities across the country, demonstrates the generosity and core values of our Nation, while benefitting from the many contributions that refugees make to our country. Accordingly, it shall be the policy of my Administration that … USRAP should be rebuilt and expanded, commensurate with global need. … Delays in administering USRAP and other humanitarian programs are counter to our national interests, can raise grave humanitarian concerns, and should be minimized.

On his first day in office President Biden also submitted The U.S. Citizenship Act of 2021, which “establishes a new system to responsibly manage and secure our border, keep our families and communities safe, and better manage migration across the Hemisphere.” Specific measures delineate staff and resources to ameliorate the humanitarian crisis on the U.S.-Mexican Border, and procedures for encouraging refugees to apply for and receive visas to the enter the U.S. long before they reach the border.

But the job is daunting. Thousands of unaccompanied children are arriving on the border every day. Given that Trump eviscerated the entire system for humanely and rapidly processing people seeking sanctuary on the border, the whole process needs to be built back. While the new administration is working as rapidly as government agencies can, many agencies are heavily involved in addressing the immediate needs of asylum seekers, in particular children living in federal facilities or on the streets in border towns. One measure in place is a promise to the children’s contacts in the U.S. that their own documentation status will not lead to negative consequences if they come to claim the children and care for them. Another telling example of the difference that is currently taking place at the border is the role of FEMA; rather than expropriating FEMA funds for building a largely ineffectual wall, FEMA staff, trained to provide humanitarian aid after natural catastrophes, are now using their resources and skills to alleviate the humanitarian crises caused by human forces on both sides of the border.

One of the primary issues raised during the 2020 U.S. Presidential elections concerned the conditions and policies in place at the Mexican-U.S. border. While Trump supporters were still chanting “Build the Wall,” Biden supporters were crying, “No more children in cages.” As a candidate, Biden promised to overturn the executive orders Trump had signed that created egregious conditions at the border and to submit a comprehensive immigration bill for legislation – the first in thirty-five years. That promise was fulfilled on Inauguration Day, as President Biden began signing the promised executive orders returning the U.S. border to a place where refugees can be treated with dignity and just practices. One order specifically stated:

The long tradition of the United States as a leader in refugee resettlement provides a beacon of hope for persecuted people around the world. … Through the United States Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP), the Federal Government, cooperating with private partners and American citizens in communities across the country, demonstrates the generosity and core values of our Nation, while benefitting from the many contributions that refugees make to our country. Accordingly, it shall be the policy of my Administration that … USRAP should be rebuilt and expanded, commensurate with global need. … Delays in administering USRAP and other humanitarian programs are counter to our national interests, can raise grave humanitarian concerns, and should be minimized.

On his first day in office President Biden also submitted The U.S. Citizenship Act of 2021, which “establishes a new system to responsibly manage and secure our border, keep our families and communities safe, and better manage migration across the Hemisphere.” Specific measures delineate staff and resources to ameliorate the humanitarian crisis on the U.S.-Mexican Border, and procedures for encouraging refugees to apply for and receive visas to the enter the U.S. long before they reach the border.

But the job is daunting. Thousands of unaccompanied children are arriving on the border every day. Given that Trump eviscerated the entire system for humanely and rapidly processing people seeking sanctuary on the border, the whole process needs to be built back. While the new administration is working as rapidly as government agencies can, many agencies are heavily involved in addressing the immediate needs of asylum seekers, in particular children living in federal facilities or on the streets in border towns. One measure in place is a promise to the children’s contacts in the U.S. that their own documentation status will not lead to negative consequences if they come to claim the children and care for them. Another telling example of the difference that is currently taking place at the border is the role of FEMA; rather than expropriating FEMA funds for building a largely ineffectual wall, FEMA staff, trained to provide humanitarian aid after natural catastrophes, are now using their resources and skills to alleviate the humanitarian crises caused by human forces on both sides of the border.

One of the primary issues raised during the 2020 U.S. Presidential elections concerned the conditions and policies in place at the Mexican-U.S. border. While Trump supporters were still chanting “Build the Wall,” Biden supporters were crying, “No more children in cages.” As a candidate, Biden promised to overturn the executive orders Trump had signed that created egregious conditions at the border and to submit a comprehensive immigration bill for legislation – the first in thirty-five years. That promise was fulfilled on Inauguration Day, as President Biden began signing the promised executive orders returning the U.S. border to a place where refugees can be treated with dignity and just practices. One order specifically stated:

The long tradition of the United States as a leader in refugee resettlement provides a beacon of hope for persecuted people around the world. … Through the United States Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP), the Federal Government, cooperating with private partners and American citizens in communities across the country, demonstrates the generosity and core values of our Nation, while benefitting from the many contributions that refugees make to our country. Accordingly, it shall be the policy of my Administration that … USRAP should be rebuilt and expanded, commensurate with global need. … Delays in administering USRAP and other humanitarian programs are counter to our national interests, can raise grave humanitarian concerns, and should be minimized.

On his first day in office President Biden also submitted The U.S. Citizenship Act of 2021, which “establishes a new system to responsibly manage and secure our border, keep our families and communities safe, and better manage migration across the Hemisphere.” Specific measures delineate staff and resources to ameliorate the humanitarian crisis on the U.S.-Mexican Border, and procedures for encouraging refugees to apply for and receive visas to the enter the U.S. long before they reach the border.

But the job is daunting. Thousands of unaccompanied children are arriving on the border every day. Given that Trump eviscerated the entire system for humanely and rapidly processing people seeking sanctuary on the border, the whole process needs to be built back. While the new administration is working as rapidly as government agencies can, many agencies are heavily involved in addressing the immediate needs of asylum seekers, in particular children living in federal facilities or on the streets in border towns. One measure in place is a promise to the children’s contacts in the U.S. that their own documentation status will not lead to negative consequences if they come to claim the children and care for them. Another telling example of the difference that is currently taking place at the border is the role of FEMA; rather than expropriating FEMA funds for building a largely ineffectual wall, FEMA staff, trained to provide humanitarian aid after natural catastrophes, are now using their resources and skills to alleviate the humanitarian crises caused by human forces on both sides of the border.

But the job is daunting. Thousands of unaccompanied children are arriving on the border every day. Given that Trump eviscerated the entire system for humanely and rapidly processing people seeking sanctuary on the border, the whole process needs to be built back. While the new administration is working as rapidly as government agencies can, many agencies are heavily involved in addressing the immediate needs of asylum seekers, in particular children living in federal facilities or on the streets in border towns. One measure in place is a promise to the children’s contacts in the U.S. that their own documentation status will not lead to negative consequences if they come to claim the children and care for them. Another telling example of the difference that is currently taking place at the border is the role of FEMA; rather than expropriating FEMA funds for building a largely ineffectual wall, FEMA staff, trained to provide humanitarian aid after natural catastrophes, are now using their resources and skills to alleviate the humanitarian crises caused by human forces on both sides of the border.

But the job is daunting. Thousands of unaccompanied children are arriving on the border every day. Given that Trump eviscerated the entire system for humanely and rapidly processing people seeking sanctuary on the border, the whole process needs to be built back. While the new administration is working as rapidly as government agencies can, many agencies are heavily involved in addressing the immediate needs of asylum seekers, in particular children living in federal facilities or on the streets in border towns. One measure in place is a promise to the children’s contacts in the U.S. that their own documentation status will not lead to negative consequences if they come to claim the children and care for them. Another telling example of the difference that is currently taking place at the border is the role of FEMA; rather than expropriating FEMA funds for building a largely ineffectual wall, FEMA staff, trained to provide humanitarian aid after natural catastrophes, are now using their resources and skills to alleviate the humanitarian crises caused by human forces on both sides of the border.

But the job is daunting. Thousands of unaccompanied children are arriving on the border every day. Given that Trump eviscerated the entire system for humanely and rapidly processing people seeking sanctuary on the border, the whole process needs to be built back. While the new administration is working as rapidly as government agencies can, many agencies are heavily involved in addressing the immediate needs of asylum seekers, in particular children living in federal facilities or on the streets in border towns. One measure in place is a promise to the children’s contacts in the U.S. that their own documentation status will not lead to negative consequences if they come to claim the children and care for them. Another telling example of the difference that is currently taking place at the border is the role of FEMA; rather than expropriating FEMA funds for building a largely ineffectual wall, FEMA staff, trained to provide humanitarian aid after natural catastrophes, are now using their resources and skills to alleviate the humanitarian crises caused by human forces on both sides of the border.

Personal Stories of Migration and the Transition Experience

By Carole Reedy

Home is where you are …
David Byrne

By definition, migration is moving from one place to another, while transition is the process of changing or developing once you arrive. The books listed here tell the stories of both, spanning the globe from Mexico and India to Russia. Accounts of this type have been written since humans put pen to paper. These, I feel, are particularly significant for readers of The Eye.

Homeland Elegies: A Novel, by Ayad Akhtar (2020)

Although pegged as a novel, the immigration story that weaves through these pages is based on the author’s own experiences and family. Akhtar is an American, and he is also a Muslim. In a very personal manner he tells the story of his family in the US, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India: the journeys back and forth and the reactions, attitudes, and beliefs of his family, especially his father.

This modern story of Muslims here and abroad contains a most up-to-date analysis of the US in relation to the rest of the world. Most important to me was the flowing narrative, which appears effortless and addresses a variety of emotions, attitudes, and doubts about modern American society, what it was, and what it has become.

Salman Rushdie calls it “passionate, disturbing, and unputdownable.” It is.

On Mexican Time: A New Life in San Miguel, by Tony Cohan (2001)

Of the many novels written about the US transition to life in Mexico, Cohan’s description of building a home in San Miguel de Allende (SMA) resonates perhaps most clearly to those interested in modern migration and transition.

As background: Two of the original pioneers from north of the border wandered to San Miguel over 80 years ago from Chicago. Stirling Dickinson and Heath Bowman together wrote books about their Mexican and South American travel experiences. Eventually they built a house in San Miguel. Bowman left, but Dickinson stayed in SMA until his death in 1988 at age 89. He contributed to the art and culture of the area, living a simple life from his arrival until his death

Tony Cohan and his wife, after visiting central Mexico in 1985, returned home to Los Angeles, sold their home, and journeyed to SMA, where they bought and refurbished at 250-year-old property. On Mexican Time is the story of the joy, tribulations, adjustment, and drama of their migration and transition to life in Mexico relating specifically to the construction experience.

Cohan’s writing is poignant, fluid, and funny. Most important, though, he finds the perfect phrasing and words to gift readers with a description of the qualities needed to integrate into a culture not their own. On Mexican Time has become a travel classic.

After the success of his first book about Mexico, Cohan went on to expand his writing geography to other parts of this diverse country. Mexican Days: Journeys into the Heart of Mexico (2007) explores the old and new Mexico of coastal and mountainous Veracruz, the sights and smells of Oaxaca, the modern and ancient culture of sprawling Mexico City, the Mayan ruins of the Yucatán, and the indigenous culture of Chiapas.

Burnt Shadows: A Novel, by Kamila Shamsie (2009)

The complete and compelling history of this novel’s families spans countries from Japan in 1945 to Delhi and then to the newly created Pakistan and Afghanistan. It is a time of major world-changing and life-changing events, from the bomb in Nagasaki to the partition of India, the creation of Pakistan, and the jihadist movement in Afghanistan.

An ambitious project, to say the least, but Shamsie creates a cast of believable, sympathetic characters whose lives are shaped by tragic world events. Kirkus Reviews praises Shamsie for her “rare combination of skill and sensitively.”

Lost Children Archive: A Novel (2019) and Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions (2017), by Valeria Luiselli

Valeria Luiselli is one of the most visible, influential, and credible writers about migration and transition to grace bookstores in the past few years. She has personally lived the migratory life and experienced its many transitions. She was born in Mexico City, but just two years later Luiselli’s family moved to Madison, Wisconsin. From there her father’s work took them to Costa Rica, South Korea, and South Africa. At age 16 she moved back to Mexico City. She has also lived in Spain and France.

Currently, Luiselli lives in the Bronx. Her work as an intern at the United Nations, interviewing and interpreting for Central American child migrants, led to the two books mentioned here.

Tell Me How it Ends is a simple book that relates her day-to-day work as an interpreter for the children from Central America (not Mexico) who have crossed the US border and have been separated from relatives or have crossed unaccompanied. The title comes from questions her own children asked as she related her daily work to them each evening–they wanted to know “how it ends” for the children. This is a stark rendering of the state of US immigration policy, a short and mostly sad story.

Lost Children’s Archive, Luiselli’s fifth novel, is the story of a family on a road trip from New York to Arizona in which the children learn about their father’s obsession with Geronimo and at the same time are exposed to the grim realities of children crossing the border.

Luiselli is an intelligent and creative woman who writes in a variety of styles. One of her most interesting works is the short book The Story of My Teeth (2015). I won’t say more. Try it. I think you will find it quite amusing … and more.

The Devil’s Highway: A True Story, by Luis Alberto Urrea (2004)

Readers are in love with Luis Alberto Urrea, who is probably the most popular and important of Mexican-American writers, acknowledged on both sides of the border as one of the most accurate descriptors of the border-crossing experience. Many of his books revolve around the economic struggle of Mexicans and their desire to cross over to the life of riches they perceive will be available to them in the US.

Urrea’s most famous book and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, The Devil’s Highway is the true story of 26 Mexican men who, in May of 2001, crossed the Mexico-US border into the most dangerous of deserts, the 130-mile dirt road in the Sonoran desert called The Devil’s Highway. Published in 2004, the subject remains as fresh in our hearts and minds as it did then.

Urrea investigates and shares the motivations of the various people involved, from the men who attempted the crossing, despite warnings of danger, to the border agents in the US and the coyotes who are paid to be “in the know” about all aspects of the crossing and to lead the men across the deadly terrain.

The Devil’s Highway has been called a must-read in age of migration from south to north, but his novels also give us insight into the Mexican way of life via brilliantly depicted characters and situations, some based on his own family. Urrea has also earned well-deserved kudos for The House of Broken Angels (2018), Queen of America: A Novel (2011), Into the Beautiful North: A Novel (2009), and The Hummingbird’s Daughter: A Novel (2005).

A Backpack, A Bear and Eight Crates of Vodka: A Memoir, by Lev Golinkin (2014)
In 1989, the family of the young narrator of this story, which stretches over continents and years, leaves the Soviet Union with three unusual items and little else in tow: a bear, a backpack, and eight crates of vodka.

Told through the eyes of the young son, this memoir begins in Ukraine and ends in the US, with stops in Europe as the family makes its way from repression to freedom. Lev leads a life of confusion, not only about where they’re heading, but of his own identity as a Jew.

The tone at the beginning of this book is amusing and entertaining, but as Lev ages he finds that he needs to address his identity and the people in the past who helped him. His formative years were spent moving and settling, in doubt and even fear. The light touch at the start of the tale becomes heavier as we watch Lev develop into a man.

There are many tales of desperate groups of people seeking refuge and freedom, but Lev’s feelings and his adaptation to a wide variety of circumstances present different challenges. The constellation of emotions evoked in this memoir make it one that will stay with you – it’s also an ideal book for discussion.

The subject of migration and transition has always been with us and will remain a dominant issue for novelists and writers of memoirs for years to come. And, of course, they will provide seductive material for this column.

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).

To Hibernate, or To Migrate?Bats in Mexico

By Julie Etra

Mexico is well-known for hosting migrating birds and butterflies on their seasonal journeys north and south. Bats? Maybe not so much, but it’s hard to tell. In cooler climates, the majority of bats just hibernate for the winter. It’s apparently very difficult to track bat migratory patterns, so there’s only one bat that’s well known for migrating south to winter in Mexico.

Bats have been getting a lot of bad press these days, given that they were the most likely source of the spillover, the technical term for pathogens jumping from animals to humans, of the COVID-19 outbreak that started near Wuhan, China last year. Bats were also responsible for the SARS virus outbreak in 2002 and are notorious vectors of rabies. Bats carry a huge assortment of viruses to which they are not susceptible. Spillovers generally occur when we humans encroach on a wild animal’s habitat. It can happen in reverse as well, as COVID-19 is known to have recently passed from humans to the mountain gorillas of the equatorial African rainforest in Uganda, Rwanda, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Humans have passed a nasty fungus to bats, called the white nose syndrome, most likely from Europe, that has led to huge die offs of this essential mammal, particularly when they are hibernating and vulnerable. This is unfortunate, because bats are extremely important in many ecosystems. They consume insects that would otherwise damage crops, and pollinate numerous species of plants, including agave, or maguey, as it is called here in Mexico. Besides insects, nectar, pollen, and fruit, some species also eat vertebrates. According to science writer David Quammen, “A single colony of big brown bats in the American Midwest, by consuming 600,000 cucumber beetles in a year, prevents 33 million cucumber beetle larvae from feeding on the next year’s crop. Mexican free-tailed bats eat cotton bollworm moths in Texas. By one estimate, from 2011, bat predation on insects was saving $23 billion annually for agriculture in the United States.”

Bats are a hugely diverse group of mammals, varying in habitat, behavior, diet, morphology, longevity, you name it. They are the second most diverse group of mammals following rodents (mice, rats, rabbits, and other chewing animals). There are over 1,400 species of bats – among them is the much maligned but well named common vampire bat, Desmodus rotundus, which occurs from Uruguay to Mexico, including our lovely Parque Nacional de Huatulco. The rotundus part of the name, which means “portly,” comes from the fact that they get so fat after drinking blood they can’t fly again until they pee away a substantial amount of urine.

The two traits in combination that uniquely characterize bats are that they have “colonized” the air and they are nocturnal; they fly and feed at night. Bat species that eat insects have an extraordinary capability – they hunt by “echolocation,” that is, they emit high frequency sounds that bounce off their prey (e.g., swarms of mosquitoes) and bounce back to the bats’ highly sensitive ears.

Bats in Huatulco

The National Commission on the Protection of National Areas finds that here on the Oaxacan coast, and more specifically in the Parque Nacional de Huatulco, have six species of bats in the park.

Great fruit-eating bat (Artibeus lituratus). Obviously, this bat eats fruit, and occurs from Mexico through southern Brazil, and on some islands in the Caribbean. They are polygamous with groups called harems, one male and two to five females. They change their feeding behavior with the position of the moon, decreasing feeding time when it is full, most likely to avoid predators that hunt by moonlight, like owls.

Jamaican, common, or Mexican fruit bat (Artibeus jamaicensis). This is a large, stout bat that roosts in caves, hollow trunks, and under palm leaves. Its range is Mexico to northwestern South America. It loves figs, which don’t grow in the Parque Nacional in Huatulco, but does eat other fruit and vegetation. Because it carries its food all the way back to its roost, it is an important seed disperser. The Mexican fruit bat also has harems, and can live as long as nine years.

Little yellow-shouldered bat (Sturnira lilium) is another frugivore, critical for seed dispersal. It is opportunistic in its eating habits, feeding on whatever is available.
Palla’s long-tongued bat (Glossophaga soricina). This nectar-feeding bat is super interesting. It has the fastest metabolism ever recorded in a mammal, similar to that of a hummingbird. Although it uses 50% of its stored fat over a day, over 80% of its energy comes directly from simple nectar sugars as soon as the bat consumes them. Its tongue is are powered by bloodflow and the tip can increase by over 50% in length.

Vampire bat (Desmodus rotundus), described above.

The fishing or greater bulldog bat (Noctilio leporinus) occurs from Mexico to northern Argentina and on most Caribbean islands. It uses echolocation to detect waves made by fish, its prey.

As for the bat that migrates, it’s the Mexican (or Brazilian) free-tailed bat, which likes to live in caves, although it will make do with a bridge underpass if it has to. In the summer, it lives – and breeds – in the Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico; in the winter, it moves to southern Mexico and Central America. The Mexican free-tailed bat makes a formidable migrator: if they get a tail wind, they can cruise along at 60 miles an hour, and they’ve been tracked at an altitude of 10,000 feet.

A 2013 study in Ecosphere, the journal of the Ecological Society of America, located winter cave roosts for the Mexican free-tailed bat in Hidalgo, Michoacán, Jalisco, Querétaro, and Chiapas, but who knows? In Huatulco, a popular cocktail-hour pastime in Santa Cruz is to take your margarita and beach chair to sit on the greenspaces atop the Sector E canals. Bats about the size and color of the Mexican free-tailed bat emerge in droves at sunset.

Women and Water

By Brooke Gazer

From the comfort of Huatulco’s first-world development, it is hard to imagine that there are places in the state without access to water. But this is not an uncommon problem – over a third of Mexican households lack potable water, 2 million households have no water at all, and over 10 million receive water only every few days. Often the lack of water has “deep roots,” going back to land disputes that can go back to Spanish rule. For many communities throughout the Oaxacan Sierra, water is an all-consuming daily concern.

One of these communities is San Pedro y San Pablo Ayutla Mixe, a town located about 123 kilometers (75 miles) east of Oaxaca City, with over five thousand residents (2010 census); about 87% of the residents live in poverty.

You might wonder why a town would develop without a viable score of water? The answer is that it did not. Originally the residents drew water from pipes connected to a natural spring, but rural Oaxaca is rife with complicated land and water disputes. The one between Ayutla and Tamazulapám del Espíritu Santo is only one of three hundred in the state. When this dispute reached a violent climax in 2017, Ayutla lost access to the spring they relied on. Hauling water is currently the only alternative the residents have to survive.

For families in the Sierra, roles are clearly defined. Men labor in their fields, or travel away from home to take jobs on construction sites. Providing water for the family is women’s work. To meet the minimum needs of her family, each woman hauls an average of ten buckets per day. Ten buckets. If the bucket held eight liters (a little more than two gallons) it would weigh over 17 pounds. This would mean five grueling trips, carrying two buckets weighing roughly 35 pounds per trip.

The well is located 40 minutes into the forest, but the difficulty is not just the distance. It is downhill to the well. On their return, these women must carry their burden uphill, possibly on their shoulder or with a rope around their forehead. It is likely some can only carry one, which might mean ten trips, or smaller buckets. Half of a women’s day may be consumed just hauling water.

Ten buckets of eight liters would provide her family with 80 liters per day, less if the buckets are smaller. With care, she could boil black beans, prepare dough for corn tortillas, wash dishes and clothing and reuse wash water for bathing. To put this into perspective, in Mexico City, the average daily water consumption per person is 150 liters.

Life has always been hard for rural women in the selva (forest). This backbreaking chore is over and above her normal household duties, which are all performed without electricity or any modern conveniences. But for the past year, the coronavirus pandemic has placed an added burden to her nearly impossible routine. Extra water is required as everyone must wash their hands more frequently and to wipe and disinfect high-touched surfaces. This requires additional arduous trips to the well each day.

It has been over four years since this community was denied access to the spring that brought water into the town. Even understanding that this is a poor community with limited resources, one might still ask – was there no way to install a pump and a pipe from the current water supply? There may be two possible answers to this question. One might revolve around precarious land and water claims, preventing the town from installing any infrastructure surrounding the water source. The other could be that in these communities, men make the decisions regarding how resources are used … and it is women who haul the water.

Brooke Gazer operates Agua Azul la Villa, an oceanview B&B in Huatulco (www.bbaguaazul.com).

Malinche and the Spanish Conquest of Mexico

By Randy Jackson

Up until 500 years ago, the civilizations of Mesoamerica and Europe had been unknown to each other, completely unconnected since the beginnings of human history. But on November 8, 1519, representatives of these two vastly different civilizations met face to face for the first time. They met on a causeway of the splendorous city of Tenochtitlán (now Mexico City).

There now exist many imagined illustrations of this historical event. Any such illustration is without merit unless it shows one of the most important people at that moment. The one person who could enable the representatives of these two civilizations to communicate. That person was a woman known as Malinche. She was the one person on earth who could speak both the language of the Aztec emperor Moctezuma, and the European language of the upstart conqueror Cortés.

Moctezuma and members of his court would have referred to this woman as Malintzin, as ‘tzin’ in Nahuatl denotes honour to the person. Malintzin / Malinche (Doña María to the Spanish) was more than a mere translator. She was from a family of high social standing. She was educated, she was trained in negotiation, and she had a tremendous ability to speak and learn new languages. And in a stroke of bizarre good luck for the Conquistadors, Malinche was a slave to the Mayan peoples when Cortés landed in what is now Mexico.

As Cortés approached the Caribbean coast of Mexico, he presumed he was arriving at a large island like Cuba. He was expecting the peoples of this land to be similar to those of Cuba and Dominica. He could not have imagined a land with a flourishing civilization, with roads and cities, with markets and armies, with engineers and tax collectors. Cortés, without any information about this society and its structures, might not have succeeded in his base desires for gold, conquest, and adventure. Cortés did not know it upon arrival, but he needed someone versed in the workings of this civilization, someone who understood the different peoples, languages, and societal structures, someone who could negotiate with the different peoples of this land. Malinche was uniquely qualified for this.

Upon their arrival in the Yucatan in 1519, after some initial skirmishes with the Mayans, the Spanish were given twenty women slaves to appease them and to secure an alliance. Among the women slaves, they immediately recognized that Malinche was special. Cortés was told of Malinche’s royal heritage. Bernal Díaz, a conquistador with Cortés, noted in his book The True History of the Conquest of New Spain, that Malinche’s noble heritage was very evident in her appearance and demeanor.

When Cortés arrived in the Yucatán, there were two Spaniards who survived a 1511 shipwreck, one was Gerónimo de Aguilar. He was presented to Cortés by the Mayans. By this time Aguilar had learned to speak the Mayan language. Cortés quickly realized that with Aguilar speaking Mayan, and Malinche’s ability to speak Mayan and other Mexican languages, he could communicate with, and learn about, the different peoples of Mexico, and use that knowledge to his advantage.

Besides Díaz’s book, there are few historical documents that provide the scant history of the person we know as Malinche. She was likely born in the year 1500. Evidence of Malinche’s privileged class rests in part with her ability to speak the royal court language of Tecpillatolli (“lordly speech”) which is significantly different from the common tongue. It was the language spoken by Moctezuma. Before the Spanish conquest, children of elite families of Mexico were educated starting at the age of seven. Girls and boys were taught Tecpillatolli, along with such subjects as geometry and religion. They were also taught negotiation and public speaking, as these skills were central to the functioning of their society. Malinche’s negotiations for Cortés have often been cited as significant in helping him obtain allies to oppose the Aztecs.

Around the age of twelve, Malinche’s father died and her mother remarried. Bernal Díaz wrote that Malinche was sold into slavery to favor the male child of her mother’s new marriage. Díaz reports that Malinche was taken away at night to avoid social censure of her parents. For seven years, until the time of Cortés’s arrival, Malinche was traded or exchanged as a slave. Women were often given as gifts or traded to secure alliances between groups, and Malinche would have been seen as a prize gift. She was 19 years old when she was given to Cortés. By the time Cortés met Moctezuma, 10 months later, Malinche could speak Spanish.

The significance of Malinche’s role in the conquest of Mexico seems indisputable. Various codices (contemporary illustrated manuscripts) depict Malinche being as significant a figure as either Cortés or Moctezuma. In fact, Moctezuma referred to Cortés as Malintzin. The life-story, talents, and courage of this intriguing woman suggests a person with real strength of character. All of Malinche’s strengths worked to Cortés’s advantage. The military advantages of Spanish guns, steel and horses would not have been sufficient to defeat the Aztecs without the help of tens of thousands of warriors from alliances – alliances negotiated by Malinche.

After the conquest and after having a son by Malinche, Cortés “gave” her to one of his officers: Juan de Jaramillo. Jaramillo married Malinche and together they had a daughter. Then in 1528 at the age of 28, Malanche died of a European disease along with tens of millions of her countrymen. There are no records of the words of Malinche, only a few second-hand accounts of her role in the Spanish Conquest.

Through the succeeding centuries the mythic Malinche has been interpreted in various ways. To the Spanish she was portrayed as the Mother of New Spain. To Mexicans, starting around the time of the struggle for independence from Spain, Malinche was seen as a traitor. In fact, the word malinchista, still used today, is an insult, meaning a traitor and a fornicator with foreigners.

Before the Spanish Conquest, the peoples of Mesoamerica did not see themselves as one people commonly opposed to this new European group. They were Tlaxcalans, or Aztecs or Mayans, or one of many very different groups that had distinctly different languages and were often in conflict with each other. In this context how should Malinche be remembered? As a traitor – to whom? She was a woman who was traded (no doubt raped and abused) by different groups until February 1519, when one of these groups gave Malinche to this new group – the Spaniards.

All interpretations of Malinche seem self-serving. To those who sought independence from Spain she represented a traitor. To the Catholic Church, Malinche was a temptress like Eve in the Garden of Eden – Diego Rivera portrayed her in an Aztec market, crowned with callas (an erotic symbol) and lifting her skirts, in one of the murals in the National Palace in Mexico City. To the Spanish Malinche represented the romantic notion that she was the mother of New Spain, or romantic partner of Cortés. In fact, Cortés had 4 children (that we know of) with different women of Mexico – two of which were with Moctozuma’s daughters.

None of these interpretations seem to hold any respect for this central person in such a fascinating chapter in the course of human history. Malinche was a woman of her times. Someone who used her unique talents, education and experience. She overcame unimaginable obstacles when discarded by her noble family and traded as a slave. She acted with agency in creating her own mark on the history of the world. Now, 500 years later, the life and experiences of this remarkable woman stands as one of the most enthralling characters in the Spanish Conquest of Mexico.

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.

Microenterprise in Mexico: Building Women’s Businesses

By Deborah Van Hoewyk

In 1976, amidst crushing poverty on the other side of the world, an idea popped up. Muhammad Yunus, born into the British Raj in 1940 in what is now Bangladesh, was an economist with a crazy-quilt professional background. An academic, a social activist, a banker, and more, Yunus went out one day to visit the poorest households in rural Bangladesh. He found women making bamboo furniture; to buy the bamboo, they took out money-lender loans, but the interest rates were so high, the women earned practically nothing, despite all their work.

Lending to the “Unbanked” – and to Women

As a banker, Yunus knew that conventional banks would not make tiny loans at reasonable interest rates to the bamboo workers – the banks did not believe these people capable of paying back a loan.

Enter the idea, and what an idea it was! Microcredit – tiny loans for tiny businesses started by people so poor they’d never even been inside a bank. Yunus adapted the idea of lending circles – groups of women were issued the loan, picked the recipient out of the group, and members supported her in making sure her business did well enough to pay it back. Then it was someone else’s turn.

Over the next six years, Yunus would reach 28,000 microenterprise borrowers; the program became the Grameen Bank (“village bank”). Together, Yunus and the Grameen Bank were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2006. The idea swept the social and academic world of poverty alleviation – microenterprise development was an innovative, sustainable path out of poverty. Today, 97% of Grameen borrowers are women; the repayment rate is 99.6%.

Why women? To Yunus, it was obvious that poverty inflicts greater stress on women, and when women make money they spend it first on their business, then on their families, and finally on their future. Pro Mujer is a U.S.-based women’s development organization that works throughout Latin America; in Mexico, it operates from Mexico City east to the state of Veracruz. Their research shows that Mexican women reinvest 90% of their income in their families and communities. Men? A measly 40%.

Born in the U.S.A., Bred in Latin America

Back on this side of the world, an organization called ACCIÓN International took shape fifteen years before Yunus came upon the bamboo furniture makers of Bangladesh. In the late 1950s, jumping the gun a bit on President Kennedy’s Peace Corps, a Berkeley law student named Joseph Blatchford undertook a thirty-stop goodwill tour involving tennis (he was an ace) and jazz, meeting with youth across South America in an effort to create cross-cultural understanding. He set up a volunteer “Youth Force” dedicated to international service in 1961, establishing ACCIÓN International in 22 barrios across Venezuela.

With the philosophy of listening to what local communities wanted to do, Acción volunteers helped build schools and water systems and health centers, giving people the tools they needed to help themselves. The United States Peace Corps started doing the same thing by the end of 1961; after eight years of expanding ACCIÓN International beyond Venezuela to Peru and Brazil, Blatchford went home and became Director of the Peace Corps. ACCIÓN International became just Accion and started focusing on microlending. In less than five years, Accion’s program in Recife, Brazil, made 885 small loans; those businesses employed 1,386 people.

Based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Accion began to build a network of financial institutions willing to lend to the poor. The great majority of microlending is conducted through the lending-circle model (now also called a “communal bank”). The networking strategy allowed Accion to expand its microfinance programs to 14 Latin American countries – Mexico among them.

In Mexico, Banco Compartamos (the “We Share” bank) opened its doors in 1990, and Accion invested. Accion also partners with CrediConfia in east central Mexico (Mexico City and the states of Mexico, Hidalgo, Puebla, and Michoacán), as well as the online microfinance platform Konfio, which started up in 2016. There are branches of Banco Compartamos in the Huatulco area in Chahue, Santa María, and Pochutla. Moreover, Oaxaca is almost unique among Mexican states in having a growing universe of credit unions (casas de ahorro, caja popular), often located in remote locations and quite willing to set up lending-circle-type financing. The biggest credit union, Caja Popular Mexicana, has branches in La Crucecita and Santa María.

The Microfinance – Microenterprise Development Connection

Mexican statistics indicate that very large businesses (over 250 employees) make up less than 1% of all Mexican businesses. The remaining 99% comprises medium (51-250 employees), small (11-50), and micro (1-10) businesses. The microenterprises are about 94% of all businesses and provide half of all the jobs in Mexico.

What does it take for a woman to get started on her own business? Here we should note that microfinance and microenterprise development are not the same. Microfinance provides a key tool for business expansion – without money, even if a business owner only needs enough money to stock 20 more scarves in her shop, there is no growth. Starting up a microenterprise is something else entirely. Like poor women everywhere, Mexican women face institutional barriers to getting financing, and the pathways to education and training are often blocked. But they also face cultural barriers.

Gender discrimination in Mexico is far more explicit (and can be extreme, see the article “Hits, Blows and Coffins,” on page 18 in this issue) than in other countries. Sociologist Gina Zabludovsky Kuper, from the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), researches gender and power, and has written extensively about women as entrepreneurs and executives. In terms of microbusinesses, Zabludovsky Kuper points out that there’s a cultural perception about “women who start microbusiness in order to contribute to the family economy or get out of poverty” – they have to stay at the micro level because “their work is only viewed as auxiliary”; the women themselves often buy into the notion that just being a sideline business “is what is reasonable for them.”

Microenterprise – Making It Work

Nonetheless, in some places in Mexico, the programs to train and encourage women do come together with microfinance institutions, and women-owned microenterprises do start up and succeed.
The Mexico City nonprofit Crea Communidades de Emprendadores Sociales is typical of a microenterprise development organization. It offers programs to empower women entrepreneurs with training in business skills, technical assistance, and business support; it also brings participants into a support network for each other. It serves central Mexico (CDMX, and the states of Mexico, Aquascalientes, Guanajuato, and Querétaro), offering online services across the country as well.

From 2002 to 2006, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation in Michigan funded a program in Oaxaca called Yo Quiero, Yo Puedo … Empezar Mi Propio Negocio (I Want to, I Can … Start My Own Business). Yo Quiero arose out of a women’s health initiative founded in 1985, added life-skills training in 1990, and started Yo Quiero, Yo Puedo as a school-based self-efficacy intervention in 1996. With Kellogg Funding, the microenterprise program served 600 rural women, started 17 bancos communal and 300 women-owned businesses, and had a 100% loan repayment rate. It included training 25 “social promoters,” who continue to run the program in Oaxaca, and have added a youth microentprise program that serves Oaxaca, Puebla, and Michoacán.

South of Oaxaca City, Villa de Zaachila is the site of the largest landfill in the state. A project named Mujeres A.V.E. supports solidarity networks for women to help them start and grow microenterprises that support their families and contribute to the community. Organized by the SiKanda Foundation (Oaxaca) and supported by the British Cherie Blair Foundation for Women, among others, Mujeres A.V.E. helped 45 women build the skills to strengthen their businesses and access new markets in its first year of operation (2018).

See for Yourself in Oaxaca!

There’s a new way to learn about Mexican microenterprise – visit one. Independent women micro-entrepreneurs, along with long-standing family businesses, abound in the craft towns around the state capital, Oaxaca de Juárez, and at least a couple of travel companies will arrange a tour for you.

The online Spanish travel company Authenticities (www.authenticitys.com) has a tour specifically focused on the entrepreurial women artisans – weavers, chicken-raisers, flower-growers, tamale-makers, potters – who participate in a micro-finance program to which Authenticities contributes.

Fundación en Via, which itself runs microfinance and microenterprise developments programs (https://www.envia.org/microfinance-tours), takes you to visit microenterprises where the owner is ready for her next En Via loan. The tour takes nearly all day, visits two communities, and gives the owners the chance to show you what they do and explain how previous and upcoming loans have helped build their businesses.