Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Learning to Walk in Oaxaca

Isaias begins walking as we’re helping our friends Herminio and Berta with an activity I’ve never had occasion to learn the word for in English: desgranando maiz, stripping the hard kernels of dried corn off the cobs. 

Read the rest at The Traveler's Notebook

Monday, October 4, 2010

Anonymous, noticed, known.

As of today, I love my uniform.

I didn’t bother to change before Ibis dropped me off downtown, so I’ve been rushing around Oaxaca in my white polo shirt, bright yellow sweater vest, gray skirt, white tights, black shoes. It's ugly, but it’s the same uniform the kids I teach wear, similar to the uniforms anyone who attends school, public or private, anywhere in Mexico wears.

And it’s amazing: wearing the uniform, I fit in. I walked up and down the Zocalo twice and not one of the restaurant hawkers offered me a menu. Nobody tried to sell me ANYTHING. I walked into the fabric store and no one gave me the who-do-you-think-you-are once-over. In my uniform, I’m as anonymous here in Oaxaca as I am in California, and I’ve missed my anonymity at times.

I don’t REALLY think I look 16 anymore, but that’s the magic of the uniform: no one is looking that closely. I’m just another uniformed schoolgirl, or some sort of official person, and my coloring must be just a genetic accident, because clearly I belong and am not worth thinking about. It’s delightful.

Of course that doesn’t work in our little town, but I realized the other day that, while I’m not anonymous there—I still get plenty of funny looks—I’m becoming a regular part of the place. I’m becoming known, rather than merely noticed.

I walk into the market and I greet the vendors by name, and joke with them, and we ask about each other’s families. I walk by the hardware store and often Herminio is there, swinging in or out of the delivery truck, and shouts me a greeting, or Don Sergio waves and smiles from the shadows just inside.

And people I don’t even recognize greet Isaias when he’s riding on my back, or ask where he is if he’s not.

We just celebrated his first birthday. He was born at home, at 2:30 a.m. on the Festival of San Jeronimo, the patron saint of our town. When the first fireworks went off that morning, we were so dazed and sleepy and thrilled that we thought they were for him.

Whether he decides it means anything to him or not, he’s one person who will always know where he’s from.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The Cousins

Isaias is crawling around the yard like a lizard—grass, gravel, concrete, hot coals: it’s all the same to him, as long as he’s moving.

His cousin Matias, three months older, has never sat in the grass before; his mother would gladly enclose him in a sterile plastic bubble until puberty, were it socially acceptable. He stays where I put him down, plucking one blade at a time, examining each one carefully before handing it to me and then plucking another.

When I see, out of the corner of my eye, that my sister-in-law has come out of the house, I brace myself for a comment about all the hidden dangers in the grass: bitey ants, venomous spiders, angry scorpions, lurking allergens, all manner of germy unidentifiable stuff that could possibly, maybe, find its way into her child’s mouth.

Instead, I hear her tell someone this: “It’s fine for Isaias to crawl around in the burning sun; he could use some color. But mine is just going to get even darker than he already is.”

The late afternoon light is slanty, sweet, and warm. Maty and Isai are both beautiful babies, with their abuelita’s stick-out ears to mark them as cousins.

I stroke Maty’s silky-straight black hair. He hands me another blade of grass, his eyes wide with wonder.


The other day I was evesdropping on some of my fellow expats in the library.

One of them was talking about how she lived in Mexico City for nine months (she kept repeating that she had lived there for NINE MONTHS as though that particular period of time had some wonderful significance in this context) and what a revelation it was to look around a metro car and realize that she was the only white person in sight.

“It’s such an important experience for us to have,” she said, “being a minority, and we can’t have that experience in the U.S.”

The others all nodded seriously and agreed and began swapping how-living-in-Mexico-helped-me-understand-discrimination stories.

I rolled my eyes into my magazine and left before she could say something like, “Nine months! Isn’t that funny? And it’s like, at the end of that time, I had GIVEN BIRTH to my TRUE SELF!” and make me puke all over the periodicals.

Someone is not paying attention, not during NINE MONTHS in Mexico, not the U.S. Being white in Mexico is not the same as being black, or Mexican, in the United States.  Not at all.

Yes, there are people in Mexico who hate white people on sight. But make no mistake, rich and powerful people in Mexico are, by and large, white. Or beige, at their most colorful. Not brown. Most famously attractive celebrities in Mexico are white. Try to find a brown person on Mexican TV who is not playing the role of the maid, or being interviewed as a victim of some tragedy…go ahead and try.

Being hated because you are assumed to be rich and powerful and attractive—or being fawned over for the same reason—is a very different experience from that of minorities in the U.S.

Ibis and I worry about Isaias and Matias for that reason. They are cousins. They are family. But how can we keep the color of their skin from coming between them, in this place, in this time? Can it be done?


Walking downtown last week with Isaias on my back, I spotted an American tourist sneaking a photo of an indigenous woman’s pudgy cheeked baby.

What would happen, I wondered, if I told her: hey, my baby’s authentically Mexican, too. Half Zapotec. Born right here in Oaxaca. Want to see his birth certificate? Why don’t you take a picture of him?

She wouldn’t have wanted to. A blue-eyed, curly-haired, white baby is…well, a little person. Nobody wants a picture of some person they don’t even know. A black-haired, black-eyed, brown baby wrapped in a woven shawl is anonymous. Scenery.

Isaias and Matias. I would give anything to know for certain that they’ll both be okay.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Living in the Gaps

Since we’ve lived here in our little town, people have occasionally mistaken me—as an obvious forgeiner—for a volunteer at nearby permaculture farm. Once I’ve cleared that up, I’m usually treated to a comment of some degree of snarkiness about the project. The most recent one: “I hear they’re charging in euros, now. [Disgusted snort.]”

So I was curious about just what was going on at this experiment in sustainable living that has generated such—maybe not antipathy, but certainly annoyance—in its immediate neighbors. Last week I busted out my somewhat half-assed journalistic credentials and scheduled an interview. A malodorous but very polite Spanish volunteer showed me around.

I have two degrees in environmental studies; in theory I agreed with everything Spanish dude had to say, and there’s no denying that this farm is a beautiful place. But, yes, I found myself getting more and more annoyed with my host as the morning progressed.

For one: he danced around all the hard questions—like, how sustainable can this place be if it has no ties to the surrounding community? Like, how do you justify traveling halfway across the world in order to be ecological? Like, if you’re telling me that money is evil and we should do away with it, why are you selling organic veggies to fancy Oaxaca City restaurants…for money?

I know they’re hard questions, and he could easily have thrown some of them back at me, and I wouldn’t have had answers for him. But he didn’t even seem to consider them hard questions; he was treading around in the Land of The Best You Can Do with his eyes on Mount Ideal, refusing to recognize that he is nowhere near the summit.

So that was part of it: the smugness, the I-don’t-debase-my-body-with-chemical-deodorants, I-don’t-touch-money-on-a-daily-basis, I-work-the-LAND attitude, when, hello, you FLEW here on a PLANE with a ticket that you purchased with money, and someone at some point had some money on them when they purchased this huge piece of land and build all these gorgeous ecological houses and meeting halls.

As for my neighbors, I think the money question is part of their beef with these guys: when you’re struggling to make ends meet, there’s nothing more annoying than people who have more money than you ever will going around talking about how money is evil.

And lots of elements of the project looked familiar to me—because I’ve seen them in my neighbors’ yards. They just don’t call it permaculture—it’s just common sense to reuse bald tires if you have some lying around and you need to make a retaining wall or an outdoor staircase, to use cracked water bottles as planters, to have a composting toilet when there’s no sewer system to connect to, to raise a few laying hens on your kitchen scraps, to collect rainwater.

So that’s sort of annoying too: to have someone come in from outside, start doing the things you’ve always been doing, but turn it into a tourist attraction and profitable business (but money is evil) while you get by as best as you can, and at the same time tell you that you’re farming WRONG, on the plot of land your family has been farming for generations.

So I keep thinking about the gaps: the gap between the Ideal and The Best You Can Do; the gap between the permaculturists and the neighbors. It seems like that’s where we’re living right now, in the gaps. The other day I was driving around Oaxaca after working my day job (more about THAT later), looking for a parking space so I could return my library books before picking Ibis up from HIS day job, and wishing I were in my garden…and thinking about just how far we are from the ideal, but also how necessary what we’re doing right now is—namely, earning some of that evil stuff so we can exchange it for necessary goods and services.

And thinking about our ideal, which falls somewhere in the gap between the neighbors (who for all their recycled tires, have disturbingly few qualms about dumping poisons on bugs and rodents of all kinds), and the permaculturists (who for all their beautiful eco-design, are kind of elitist and insufferable).

When I told Ibis all this, about gaps, something metaphorical got lost in the translation to Spanish, so I put it to him like this: we’re down here in the valley, and the ideal is up there (here I pointed out the window to the mountains). And to get to the mountain maybe we have to cross a river. And maybe we’re not really all that interested in boating, in and of itself, but we have to concentrate on what we’re doing, where we really are, or we could capsize. When we get to the other side, the mountain will still be there.

He said: you better go write that down.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

In which I begin "blogging"

Why cafe con leche?  What does coffee with milk have to do with anything?

It's the oldest joke of our relationship:

Cafe (aka Ibis Gilberto):

Leche (aka Teresa or Tere):

Cafe + Leche = Cafe con leche, also known as Isaias, Chai, Birdy, Isaiah, and Zay:

We moved last year into a little house on the boundary line between two small towns outside of Oaxaca City, just in time for Isaias to be born at home.  Our immediate neighbors are a cornfield, an empty lot, another empty lot, and a lonely older man who trades plants with me through the fence when he's sober, and mumbles apologies and hides from me when he's drunk. 

Last winter, Luis, who's twelve and stays next door with his uncle during the school year, saw the devil in the road outside their house.  They knelt down in the yard and prayed until morning, when they matter of factly informed us that the devil had come around.

I'm alone a lot with Baby Isaias, while Ibis works, and so far the devil has left us alone.  Our only visitations have been from birds: a huge white owl landing silently on a fence post late at night.  A hummingbird perched on a branch of the lime tree, its tiny toes no thicker than lines drawn with a pen.  Little red birds with black masks and capes, like avian superheroes, chasing down bugs on the wing.

We're officially off the grid, both by choice and necessity, as there's no grid just here to connect to.  It's a lot of work, and less a state of permanent eco-revolutionary awesomeness than the long slow piling up of days, buckets of water hauled and enough, or not enough, sunshine to reun the computer or the blender. 

We're not purists by any means; Ibis, for the time being, has to work in Oaxaca City, driving back and forth regularly.  For my part, I had a happy dream the other night about a place that was combination daycare-laundromat-coffee-shop-with-wireless, which about sums it up.  And that's not even taking into account the huge carbon footprint our super-long-distance international courtship racked up. 

Still, our hope is that all three of us, but especially Isaias, will find something--Something--different and worthwhile, living in a place where people who speak fluent Zapotec outnumber people with master's degrees about 50 to 1, where the knowledge of when to plant the corn takes precedence over the knowledge of how to connect to the Internet.  Where twitter is a thing the birds do in the lime tree, in the carrizo, in the jacarandas. 

So begins our story: it's about building a family with two languages, two cultures, two colors, about trying and failing and trying again to live sustainably, about growing into home.  Here we go...