In the city, you only eat if you have money

by Arnie Alpert

From February 25 to March 4 I was in Oaxaca, Mexico as coordinator of a Witness for Peace delegation exploring links between migration and economic conditions, and also looking at steps Oaxacans are taking to make it possible for them to stay at home.  The fifteen delegates also included Martha Yager, AFSC Coordinator for South East New England, and Maggie Fogarty, the AFSC's New Hampshire Economic Justice Coordinator.  Others included AFSC friends and volunteers.

It was market day in the village of San Miguel Huautla, where Doña Anastasia Velasco Lopez greeted us when we got off the bus.  She handed us bags of bananas and mangos to carry back to her house a few hundred yards away.  Her friend, Doña Maria Lopez Espinosa, with three colorful sombreros stacked on her head, joined us for the walk.

Our 15-member delegation, accompanied by two members of the Witness for Peace Mexico staff, was glad to off the bus and out in the fresh air.  San Miguel Huautla is a two-hour ride on bumpy dirt roads from Noxchixtlan, a small city on the southern side of the highland region of Oaxaca known as the Mixteca.  

Oaxaca is Mexico’s second southernmost state, second most indigenous, and second poorest.  According to the state government, a third of Oaxacans are now living in the United States.  Many more have left for northern Mexico. 

The Mixteca occupies much of the Oaxaca’s center.  It is known for the deforested, eroded hillsides which have made farming a challenge for generations.  Of the state’s eight regions, the Mixteca is the one which has sent the most émigrés out of Oaxaca. 

Doña Anastasia and Doña Maria aren’t going anywhere.  The two women are “promotoras,” grassroots educators, with CEDICAM, the Center for Integral Development of Campesinos of the Mixteca, an organization dedicated to restoration of food sovereignty for the region.  Through a grassroots process that encourages reforestation, water conservation, and organic farming based on ancient indigenous practices, CEDICAM is helping communities produce food and livelihood for themselves.  Phil Dahl-Bredine, a former Maryknoll Missioner who now lives in a small Mixtec village and volunteers with CEDICAM, says the methods practiced by indigenous Oaxacans represent a “foundation for an agriculture of the future.”

Speaking of resource depletion associated with the over-consuming North, Phil said we need “a whole change of mindset” based on indigenous knowledge.  “We can’t feed the world with industrial agriculture,” he told our group at the organization’s headquarters on the outskirts of Nochixtlan.

Doña Anastasia and Doña Maria aren’t feeding the world, either, but they are immensely proud of the vegetables and livestock they grow to feed themselves and members of their community.  Doña Anastasia showed us her new cistern, which will collect water during the rainy season and enable her to irrigate during the dry months.  She showed us the peach trees she had planted, her worm farm, and the beds where she plants radishes, tomatoes, “everything.” 

Like other CEDICAM members, Doña Anastasia is devoted to organic methods.  “If I buy cilantro in the market, I don’t know how it was grown,” she said. 

Doña Maria returned, by then wearing only one sombrero. Reminding me of anyone showing off her garden in New Hampshire, she showed us around the plots of land where she raises radishes, greens, amaranth, cilantro, squash, green beans, peas, garbanzos, fava beans, mint, chamomile, barley, wheat, and cajete, an ancient variety of corn well suited to dry climates.  She also raises sheep, but said sometimes the price of wool drops as low as one peso (less than eight cents) a kilogram and it’s not worth the trouble.  “The way of life here is very difficult,” she told us.

So that her kids could go to school, she washed clothes and left home to work in Nochixtlan.  Later she was able to buy livestock, and started selling tomatoes and candies.  But hard as it is, she told us “I always say you can make a life here.” 

Doña Maria’s idea of “a life,” though, might not be enough to keep the kids at home.  Sometimes she sells food to construction workers, like the men who rebuilt a bridge near her fields.  She also weaves hats in her home and sells them in the market.  Doña Anastasia explained that while they can grow enough to feed themselves, young people leave because they want more:  clothes, shoes, school supplies, and cash to help their families.

The village has only a few phones and there’s no regular TV reception, but some homes do have satellite dishes.  (Doña Anastasia says she only watches DVDs.)  The outside world may be a couple hours or more away by bus, but its shoes, clothes, and other attractions can lure the youth away. 

Tomasa Velasco Sanchez lives up the slope from Doña Anastasia.  Her mama, Florencia Sanchez, said they only plant a little because they have so little water.  But Tomasa told  us they plan to plant beans, corn, and wheat.  The CEDICAM promotoras invited them to join a study group and attend workshops.  That’s when they started working their fields and raising their own food.  They have to haul water from a ditch, and in the hot season the ditch is empty. 

Tomasa tells us that if she ever has kids, she wants to raise them in San Miguel Huautla.  “In the city, you only eat if you have money,” she explained. 

Arnie Alpert is the AFSC's New Hampshire Program Coordinator. 

For more about Oaxaca, visit Martha Yager's blog.