Close to 90% of the terrain in Oaxaca state is mountainous and rugged. Three larger mountain ranges converge in the state, forming a complicated system of smaller peaks, valleys and ravines. Driving even short distances can take time, due to roads that hug the contours of these gentle green outcroppings. It’s this complicated terrain that accounts for the indigenous diversity here, with languages and customs changing from one valley to the next. From a distance it’s impossible to notice, and hard to understand, the unseen world that exists within these mountains.
To get to the village of San Pedro Leapi is simple enough. Head southeast from Oaxaca on Highway 190 for about 2 hours, until you reach the town of El Camaron Yautepec. Turn off here and follow the road towards the mountains, through ever smaller villages and shrines to Catholic saints, until it turns to dirt. From here you’ll either need a donkey or a sturdy 4 wheel drive vehicle. In my case, we had a late model Chevrolet pickup with a burnt out headlight, half the recommended level of motor oil, and an engine that sounded like it was running on a few less cylinders than usual. Perfect then, for driving the remaining 3-4 hours deep into the Sierra Madre del Sur.
I traveled to the mountains with workers from the department of Eufrosina Cruz Mendoza, a bit of a local celebrity due to her fight for women’s and indigenous rights. Hailing from a rural village not far from Leapi, she successfully led a 2008 campaign to change the State constitution, giving women the same political and voting rights as men. She became Chair of the Congress of Oaxaca (the first indigenous woman to hold the position) and is currently Federal Deputy for the National Action Party (PAN). Her office is one of many working to support undeveloped communities, through government funded projects meant to stimulate productivity and self sufficiency.
The state of Oaxaca is one of Mexico’s most diverse in terms of climate, geography and culture (there are 16 officially recognized indigenous groups in the state). It is also one of it’s poorest. Roughly 61% of the population lives below the poverty line, with 23% living in extreme poverty. In a 2005 report the United Nations compared conditions in some of Oaxaca’s pueblos to rural African villages. With almost half the population living in highly mountainous rural communities, providing health and education services is often difficult. Weaknesses in infrastructure, planning, development and implementation of services all contribute to the problem. Further, with 418 of Oaxaca’s 570 municipalities running on an autonomous system of “customs and traditions” (where selection of local officials, customs, and communal work obligations are dictated by ancient tradition), organization of a cohesive budget for services and infrastructure gets complicated very quickly.
Most tourists who visit will only ever see the city of Oaxaca or beach resorts like Puerto Escondido, where the economy thrives on their business. Life for people who live in the pueblos is different. Most struggle to find enough work to make ends meet and provide a decent life for their families. Many have left their hometowns to search for work in the capital or other states within Mexico. For most, the possibility of their situation changing or assistance from the government is slim.
Fundación En Vía is a non-profit founded in 2010 with the goal of supporting the development of income generating small businesses, within pueblos around Oaxaca. With interest rates for micro loans in Mexico being anywhere from 75-150%, they are completely out of reach for most people in these communities. En Vía offers a solution as simple as it is well thought out. They provide 100% interest free micro loans to support the growth of businesses; with the loans being fully funded by proceeds from tours to the very communities they help. In addition, they offer free English courses to anyone interested, taught completely by volunteers.
The smell of marigolds and candle wax was heavy, as I carefully tiptoed between graves in the town of Atzompa, early in the morning hours of November 1st. This was the third cemetery I had visited that night, and the atmosphere was something far removed from the first two. San Miguel cemetery, in central Oaxaca, and the Panteon Nuevo in Xoxocotlan had seemed almost like county fairs. Children screamed on carnival rides of varying quality. Venders sold tortas and tamales to drunk tourists who fell over each other, attempting to navigate the maze of families and dimly lit graves. There was too much noise, there were too many people. In Atzompa, there was relative calm. There were no tourists, no carnival rides, no rock bands. Families were diligently decorating the graves of loved ones, or huddled close together talking and sharing stories.
I reached a point where I could no longer move forward without lighting myself on fire from a bevy of candles, or stepping onto someone’s final resting place. In America, doing the latter would be a sign of utmost disrespect. As I contemplated this moral conundrum, a group of young locals came running up behind me, looked at me as if I were a huge imposition on their fun, and then ran passed me trampling over the grave. Death is a little different here.
After several months hiatus in the States, taking a few classes and doing some work, I’m back out into the world. I’ve come to the state of Oaxaca in Mexico, where I’m studying Spanish as well as covering the Dia de los Muertos festivities and trying to put together a reportage about poverty in the surrounding pueblos. I’ve been interested in coming to Mexico for some time, simply because I only ever hear negative things about it in the States. I don’t know much about Mexico, I’ve only ever been to tourist areas in Baja as a child, but I’ve gotten the impression it’s a very misunderstood and misrepresented place. That being said, the danger talked about back home does seem to be real, if not as widespread as people imagine. Police presence is huge, there is talk of murder and “disappearances” all over the news and in the streets. People have been more than candid in telling me these events are carried out by those in the government, as well as the drug cartels. I’ve been here in Oaxaca for about a week and there has been at least one major disruption, march or protest every day for a variety of issues. The tension in these dark issues seems to be balanced by the beauty of cultural and religious rituals. For every story of death I’ve seen on the news, I’ve seen something equally beautiful. For every look of fear I’ve witnessed, I’ve been greeted with a smile. Turn a corner after a police truck goes flying by to some distance crime scene, and there’s a massive, colorful parade for a saint. Mexico seems to be a place of intense forces of opposition with the general population straddling the line between light and dark, just trying to get by, pray, and celebrate in the midst of corruption, a fading drug war, and massive poverty. Just the kind of place I love to work in.