By: Santiago Carrasco García
Santiago Carrasco García, originally from Spain, is an MA student in Latin American Studies at the Latin American & Iberian Institute at the University of New Mexico. He focuses on Communication and Journalism as well as Geography and Environmental Studies. His interest in Mexican foodstuffs and indigenous peoples led him to participate in a university field trip to southern Mexico, Oaxaca, in order to delve into the region’s uniqueness.
Some might say that Mexico is a country bordering the US, where there is a visible societal cheerfulness and amazingly light blue beaches. Others may focus on violence, political corruption and migration to the north. I would argue all of them are right and yet do not come even close to what Mexico really entails. My name is Santi Carrasco García. Originally from Spain, I am in the second year of my MA program in Latin Studies at the University of New Mexico. This past May I had the chance to travel to Mexico through a study program abroad connected to Exploring Oaxaca through Food & Craft, a course offered through the UNM Department of Geography and Environmental Studies at the University of New Mexico and organized by Dr. Ronda Brulotte.
Never had I imagined that my bond to this ancient, diverse country would strengthen so noticeably. Mexico has a very special place in my mind and heart. In 2017, after having been accepted to study at UNM, I took some time to explore Mexico, including visiting Sayulita (Nayarit), Puerto Vallarta (Jalisco), Ciudad de México (Distrito Federal), San Miguel de Allende (Guanajuato), Puebla de Zaragoza (Puebla) and Tulum (Quintana Roo). Now, I have had this experience getting to know Oaxaca de Juárez (Oaxaca) in 2018. Few words can express the amalgamation of sensations I have had the privilege to carry with me given the warming welcome I have always received. Foremost among impressions that come to mind are gratitude and a persistent curiosity to keep exploring this country that has so much to offer. Sayulita and its eternal, completely unspoiled Pacific beaches was my entrance. There I got to know the real meaning of pristine nature and Mexican hospitality. Oaxaca has meant another qualitative leap, for I had the chance to enjoy it both from a personal and academic standpoint. The uniqueness permeating its indigenous peoples, its glorious cuisine, and varied landscapes—including sierras with light green agave plants, turquoise beaches in Puerto Escondido, or Oaxaca city, so vibrant, colorful, noisy—account for an unforgettable experience. I adapted quickly to our academic routine with peer students, getting round and about the city and surroundings areas, including the ruins at Monte Albán, the Tlacolula Mercado, or San Antonio Arrazola.
The program brought about many opportunities. Thanks to a local, internationally acclaimed chef, I savored delicacies such as cacao, hand-made mole, and flores de calabaza con queso fresco; explored a nightlife marked by electro music fusing with traditional, local rhythms and an international crowd drawn from around the world; wandered lost in the ancient ruins of Monte Albán; and had the privilege of hearing first-hand from a maestro in the art of alebrijes, a cooperative organized by women dedicated to textiles, and entire families working hard to spread their millennia-long sapience on mezcal. Experiencing Oaxacan uniqueness has been an eye-opening trip from the position of a humble observant. I do not take this experience as a benign action from the Global North to the developing South, but rather as a full immersion in the rich and intricate reality of Latin America.
By Alexandra Villegas
Alexandra Villegas is currently in her second year as a MALAS/MPH dual degree student. Her concentrations are in Southwest Studies and Geography. Her research areas include migration, traditional Mexican foodways, US-Mexico border health policies, and cultural retention.
This summer, I had the opportunity to live and study in Oaxaca de Juárez, Oaxaca, from May through July. In the beginning, I participated as a student in the Oaxaca Field Study course led by Dr. Ronda Brulotte and PhD student Javier Astorga. After traveling outside of Oaxaca to visit family and other parts of the country, I returned to Oaxaca to participate in a Foreign Language and Area Studies (FLAS) Mixteco language course held June 16-29th. My goal in participating in this course was to learn more about the Mixteco culture as well as the language. Recognizing that there is a large Mixtec population in my home state of California, and as something with an interest in migration and health, I hope to apply the experiences I gained from learning about the Mixtec culture to approach future career opportunities working with migrant communities in public health with humility and respect.
I visited Oaxaca for the first time in January 2014 for a brief visit of just a few short days with my mom. Reflecting on my experience then and comparing it to the immersive experience I had this summer, I have a deeper appreciation for this state of Mexico and the rich diversity of traditions, foods, craft, languages, and people that make Oaxaca the special place that it is.
Our Oaxaca Field Study course was very engaging and each day was filled with hands-on experiential learning opportunities. In our first day, we visited the pueblo known as Arrazola, which is one of two towns widely known for their craftwork of alebrijes. For anyone who has ever traveled and shopped for artisan goods in Mexico, there is a good chance you have come across alebrijes before. These crafts are carvings of animals and mythical creatures made from copal wood painted with bright vibrant colors in a pointillism style. Two artisans, Cato and Lety, opened their home to us, sharing their family history and their approach to producing alebrijes in their workshop. Cato shared that he decides what animal he carves based on the shape of a given piece of copal wood. It was impressive to see him begin carving a piece and then, in just over the span of one hour, have it begin to take the shape of a jaguar. We had the opportunity to try preparing a section of copal wood on our own, and it was very humbling to realize the skill it takes to handle the wood with a machete so artfully.
Other activities in our trip included a walking tour of chocolate makers in the city, a visit to the Manuel Álvarez Bravo Photography Museum, exploring the ruins of Monte Alban, a culinary class in mole negro in Teotitlán del Valle, and a hands-on workshop on natural wool dyes and tapestries, also in Teotitlán. In our last days of the course, we ventured out into the rural countryside outside of Oaxaca City to visit numerous palenques, tucked into rolling hillsides of magueys. Palenques are the sites of production for mezcal, usually situated on the property of the family who produces mezcal. Mezcal is a distillate made from the maguey, a plant within the agave species family. Our conversations with multiple producers highlighted the challenges that many families face in receiving the certification to be able to competitively promote their mezcal in the growing market of producers and buyers. The irony with mezcal is that, not long ago, it was held in low regard as a spirit only consumed by rural campesinos. In a little under a decade, the spirit has quickly gained popularity across North America and other parts of the world. This spike in demand is influencing more producers to enter the market of cultivation, production, and distribution. Since the maturation of the maguey plant requires at least 8 years before harvest is possible, time will tell how the expansion of production will benefit or impact the many producers involved in the creation of mezcal.
Later in the summer during my return visit to Oaxaca, I had the opportunity to learn about the culture and language of the people from the Mixteca region of the state. Mexico is home to 68 different indigenous cultures, each with their own language. Out of all states in Mexico, Oaxaca has the second highest population of indigenous people, with 16 different, registered, indigenous communities. La Mixteca is divided into three different regions: Mixteca Alta, Mixteca Baja, and Mixteca Costa. Ñuu Savi, the Nahuatl term for Mixteco, describes the language as “People of the rain,” which is descriptive of the geographic region where the majority of Mixteco speakers live. My time spent in Oaxaca was concentrated on learning about la Mixteca Alta.
In my first weekend of my program, my classmate, professor, and I traveled to San Juan Mixtepec, which was an 8-hour drive outside of Oaxaca City. At the time, it was celebrating one of its biggest festivals of the year, Las Fiestas de San Juan Bautista. San Juan Mixtepec, an indigenous community, is one that has been impacted by a lot of out-migration. Walking around the town center, I heard youth speaking in English, adults speaking Spanish with each other, and elderly people speaking Mixteco. I observed more license plates from the United States on automobiles parked around town, than Mexican license plates. Additionally, I had anticipated seeing more traditional foods prepared and served at the fiesta, but was surprised to find that most food vendors were serving American-inspired foods: burritos, pizza, BBQ wings, and cheeseburgers. The traditions of this weekend fiesta involved celebrating the selection of the new Mayordomo, the local political leader for San Juan Mixtepec, through a dance performed in masks to honor the saints of the pueblo, and the beheading of chickens in sacrifice to the pueblo’s namesake. It was fascinating to visit this community during such a significant weekend, because many families that migrate to the United States return to San Juan Mixtepec every year for the celebration.
Outside of studying Mixteco, I also had the opportunity to learn about chocolate production in my spare time. I learned that cacao beans were once used as a form of currency in precolonial times and, today, chocolate is most widely consumed in Oaxaca as a frothy warm beverage. Most chocolate produced in Oaxaca is created with a texture that is coarser than what is typically consumed in the United States. I learned various ways to produce chocolate from bean to bar through the traditional method of roasting the beans on a comal and grinding them on the metate, to innovative practices of using a bike-powered mill to process the toasted cacao beans. Visiting Chocolateria La Auténtica/Cooperativa Autónoma de Convivencia y Aprendizaje de Oaxaca was one highlight of my chocolate explorations. This chocolate cooperative was founded by a young woman who studied nutrition and decided to highlight the chocolate being produced in her community. She now runs the cooperative with her husband and brother-in-law, and in their newly opened brick-and-mortar they offer educational workshops to teach people how to make chocolate and explore questions related to food sovereignty. I enjoyed my experience to the cooperative because not only did I learn about the steps it takes to make a bar of chocolate, but I also learned about different models to bring about nutrition education through chocolate. Mexico is impacted by much of the same chronic diseases as the United States — diabetes, heart disease, and obesity — many of which are influenced by dietary choices and consumption of sweetened beverages. Chocolate, a drink that dates back to Mesoamerican times, is a nutritious alternative to artificially sweetened beverages, and Chocolateria La Auténtica is working to share that knowledge.
These experiences are just a few of many that I had during my cultural immersion and language course in Oaxaca this past summer. I cannot speak more highly of the warmth and generosity of the people, the arts, traditions, food, and vibrancy of this region in Mexico. While I am aware that socioeconomic inequality and violence is a reality for many people in the country and that I visited the country with the privileges of American citizenship and economic privilege, my hopes in sharing my experiences during my time in Oaxaca are to highlight the rich history and beauty of this place in Mexico, and the strength of the Mexican people to celebrate life and culture amidst it all.
A couple weeks ago during UNM’s fall break I traveled with three other graduate students, Alin, Sabrina, and Jackie, to Standing Rock, North Dakota to show solidarity with the water protectors, the native men, women and two-spirit people, and activists from all over the world who have gathered at the site to protect and prevent the ongoing construction of the North Dakota access pipeline. The trajectory of the pipeline runs right through sacred land that is protected by Native American treaty agreements. Aside from the cultural, spiritual and patrimonial stakes at risk with the execution of this project, the proposed pipeline which will carry crude oil from North Dakota down to Indiana, risks contaminating the Missouri river. The Missouri River provides drinking water to the Sioux tribe at Standing Rock, as well as many other native tribes, farmers and ranchers around the area.
What began as a concentrated opposition to the Dakota access pipeline has bourgeoned into a global social movement, calling for greater awareness and respect for Native American treaty law and indigenous human rights, as well as an intensified consciousness of water rights, environmental dangers and climate change. The movement has gained widespread attention and support through social media channels and recently millions of people registered their Facebook location statuses to Standing Rock, North Dakota to show solidarity with the activists, who’ve endured quickly intensifying threats in recent weeks. Additionally, this was a tactic to confuse local police, who’ve been using Facebook location statuses to identify people traveling to the area, and target them for arrest.
We left on Wednesday evening, October 12th, after our last classes for the long weekend. We packed up the car with tents, pillows, blankets, sleeping bags, and boxes full of children’s books and other miscellaneous materials that had been donated to the Standing Rock camp by The Raza Graduate Student Association- a student run organization that seeks to provide a community and network for Chicano/a and graduate students at the University of New Mexico. We hopped in the car, turned on some music, and set off for our long, sixteen hour drive north, calmly anticipating the cold to set in as we departed sunny Albuquerque.
After each taking turns driving a four hour shift, some of us dozing, some of us chatting, some of us struggling to do work, we finally stopped for lunch in a small town in South Dakota, just an hour or so away from our final destination. We pulled into the empty parking lot of one of the only restaurants in town and noticed a sign in the window, “Closed. No Water.” We figured there must have been a problem with the restaurant’s pipes and we got back in the car to go to the nearby gas station to at least use the bathroom and get some snacks. As we made our way to the restrooms the clerk behind the cash register told us that the bathrooms were out of service, the water had been cut off for the entire town. It was almost too perfectly foreboding. In that moment we were able to sense how much of a little town’s operation relies on water. Without water we had no food, no bathrooms. Life stops without water.
When we finally arrived at the camp, exhausted and excited, we parked the car on the grass, set up our four-person camping tent, and dropped off our donations at the donation tent. Then we made our way to the kitchen, a large tent with burners, refrigerators and sinks, and offered to help with dinner. Some of us were sent to the tent next door which had stacks upon stacks of canned goods to fetch tomato paste and green beans, while others chopped garlic and kneaded dough for fry bread. As we were working, a small squabble broke out. One of the volunteers had been preparing hot sauce to cook and preserve for the winter, when the head cook told him that he was over-stepping his boundaries, taking up too many burners, and that the priority at the moment was getting dinner ready for the hundreds of hungry water protectors. Although this could have been seen as a small miscommunication, the implications seemed to run deeper. In the midst of the confrontation, a large, sturdy man came in from outside and also scolded the volunteer, reaffirming the authority of the head cook. The man had been sitting outside the door keeping watch. I realized that he was a security guard. This makes sense given that there are a lot of potentially dangerous items in the kitchen, but it also made me realize that, symbolically and practically, the kitchen is a source of power, the epicenter of the camp that keeps it running, fueling the people and the movement. No wonder the kitchen was also a source of minor power struggles and disputes. After working for a couple hours we left and made our way back to the tent. We ran into a woman outside who was looking for the kitchen and when we told her that we had just spent some time volunteering she said, “You know, the kitchen is the most important part of this camp. Without the kitchen, this camp wouldn’t exist.” And, again, we thought, “Without water, the kitchen wouldn’t exist.”
In the evening, after finally eating dinner (which was delicious, by the way), we walked around the camp looking at the various poses of people making fires, sipping tea, playing music, and watching their dogs run freely about. We stopped at a large tent that was right next to ours where a school bus full of people (yes, a literal school bus) from New Orleans had set up camp. Inside they were playing folk music, dancing and relaxing. One woman stirred a large pot of herbal cough syrup that she handed out to anyone in need in little glass mason jars. She was originally from an indigenous tribe in South Dakota, but currently lived in New Orleans, and had traveled up with her two young children to show her support. She said that the cough syrup was her contribution to the camp. Everyone there had a different way of contributing, whether it was handing out much-needed cough syrup, preparing food, protecting and risking arrest, lifting morale through song and dance, or simply being there, present and in solidarity.
The following day we spent the morning doing work in the casino (because, after all, we are still graduate students), and on our way back to camp we were stopped at the entrance and told that everyone had left for an action. We quickly turned the car around, picked up an extra straggler, and drove off, following the car in front of us, with no idea where we were headed. We followed a speeding caravan of cars through the rural, dirt roads of North Dakota, speeding to one location, turning around, and heading to another. The police had blocked off all of the sites that we were trying to access. After several hours of driving on a wild goose chase, we headed back to the camp, exhilarated but disappointed. Our eyes had been opened to the reality of activism—sometimes just getting to the site of protest is in itself an impossible hurdle.
In the evening we again spent time walking around the camp, listening to prayer circles, soaking in the scent of incense and fire smoke, and making conversation with other activists and volunteers. When we first set off on our trip, most of us thought, “I can’t believe we’re driving over sixteen hours to North Dakota for fall break.” But almost everyone we spoke to at the camp had traveled even greater distances, from North Carolina, New Orleans, Maine, and Hawaii, to name a few.
After walking around the camp for a while, we ended up back at the big tent of people from New Orleans. Again, they were singing, playing music and handing out food. A circle had formed around the musicians and in the crowd we met two men who had been commissioned by Sundance Film Festival to film a documentary about the Standing Rock movement. “Look,” said one of the men, “all the musicians have little microphones attached to their collars.” Indeed, amidst the rustic look of everyone in the tent, the makeshift living room and diverse, folky ambiance, the beautiful song was being recorded. Just as we had noticed the importance of the kitchen the day before, this time we were struck by the life blood of music that ran through the camp.
The next day we were awaken by a man on the loud speaker calling for everyone to wake up and head to the south camp for prayer. We were all exhausted and decided to try our best to sleep through his loud, echoing voice. “You didn’t come all the way here to sleep in,” he said. It was true. We hadn’t. We got up with everyone else and drove over to south camp while it was still dark. Everyone from all of the different camps had congregated and the elders were leading everyone in prayer. The prayer quickly transitioned into a pep-talk for the day’s action, reinforcing the axiom of peaceful protest—“we pray for our brothers and sisters, but also for the people whom we are fighting.” After the prayer we all hopped in our cars, loaded up on gas, coffee and snacks, and followed the massive caravan of cars to the site of protest. This time, everyone was steady, determined, and highly organized.
The caravan extended for miles and we drove for about an hour, one after the other, to the site. A few miles away from the site, the police had blocked the road, so we all parked our cars and got ready to march, instead. The protector leaders stood in front and gave us directions. Beside them were the warriors, or protectors who were willing to risk arrest. The warriors and leaders marched first, spoke to the police officers, and then motioned for the rest of us to move forward. We marched for roughly three miles in, watching as the cop cars in front slowly regressed, bit by bit. Every few miles, the leaders stopped and asked us, “We have two more miles to go. Do we continue, or do we go back?” Everyone shouted in unison, “We continue!” Special attention was paid to the elders in the group, to make sure that there was adequate rest time and that we walked at a reasonable pace. Staying together was an utmost priority of the leaders. Many people held signs reading “Mni Wiconi”, Lakota for “Water is Life”.
Once we reached the site, there was a line of about 40 heavily armed police officers with military tanks. The leaders, along with an environmental lawyer who worked as a liaison between the protectors and the police, approached the officers and asked them if we could stay to pray on the land. They agreed. And there in front of a line of armed police officers we held a peaceful demonstration with people praying, singing, chanting, shouting, or simply standing silently in solidarity. The vision was impressive to say the least. Once we had completed the demonstration we all walked back to our cars. Some went back to collect cars to begin caravanning people back to where we had parked, and also to bring snacks to the group of hungry marchers. Luckily, not one person was arrested that day. In hindsight, that seems kind of amazing considering how many water protectors have been arrested since then. As the leaders reiterated more than once, “We come together and we leave together.”
Since our trip, there have been many more arrests and threats against the water protectors. However, their brave work has also continued to gain more and more attention. According to a new York Times Piece from November 2, Obama Says Alternate Routes Are Being Reviewed for Dakota Pipeline, "President Obama, in his first remarks on the violent standoff over an oil pipeline near the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in North Dakota, cancelled on both sides to show restraint and revealed that the Army Corps of Engineers was considering an alternative route for the project." However, the water protectors are still calling for the project to be halted altogether.
Also, since our return, we have made some efforts to continue our activism from afar, hoping to spread awareness about the issue through various university channels, as well as personal communities and networks. The more people talk about this issue the more impact the water protectors' activism will have.
Beds are hot; I understand why no one uses them here – hammocks allow the wind to find you, and for the sweat to dry as quick and gentle as it rises through the skin. They sell hammocks of all sorts and sizes: for two, for one, for infants, for the elderly, indoor, outdoor, for travel, for home. For now, until I find an apartment, I’ll have to make do with this hotel room. I could hardly sleep. The muggy heat leaked through cracks in the broken air conditioner, mounted high on the wall with loose screws, rattling as the condenser bucked and whistled with the first of the waking grackles.
The streets of the Cheguigu neighborhood are weightless at this hour. A blue-grey as deep as the ocean and as silent as a blade of grass washes over everything. Not until noon will they begin baking off their dust. For now, last night’s discarded mango peels are moist and unwrinkled in the gutters. Crows stand still behind a veil of dew in the Cacalosúchil trees. The tire-flattened lizards, and their last efforts to blend in with the grey pavement, are barely visible among the loose gravel and debris until you step on them. At this hour, the middles of the roads are for walking. At the cross streets in the flattening distance, the meandering shadows of street dogs hunch towards the marketplace, punctuated only by a drunk staggering, or the faint squeal of rusted pushcart spokes.
cow barn we students grinned at the opportunity to finally utilize animal vocabulary. I pointed and yelled “waakax” (which means cow) excitedly. When I looked back for adulation, our Nahualeño teachers were instead looking at the “ja’” (river), which was full of “kiik” (blood) from slaughtering the cows.
Bottled water has been a staple.
Following the “ronojel q’iij” (every day) thirst of water, I get my washcloth and walk downstairs into the courtyard. In the courtyard there are two washing stations with spouts – one for food and dishes, one for bathing and laundry. There is a maid at each one every morning when I wake up, no matter how early. Leaning against the bathing sink is Dorka, washing the family’s clothes. Her real name is Dora, but Naan Talin (Mother Talin) can’t pronounce a Spanish “r,” which sounds more like a “sh” in K’ichee’, so she sticks a “k” in to make it easier.
Dorka is a small girl between 8-12 years old. Some days she seems much older, like when she’s doing her chores. But some days she looks at the other kids playing and she can’t be a day older than 7. She never tells me her real age, and isn’t afraid to speak her mind to me when nobody is watching. I wet my washcloth and rub it over my face. “La utz awach?” (How are you?). She stares at me. She knows I know she won’t respond. She won’t respond because she thinks it’s a stupid question. She won’t respond because I’ve already been around two weeks. I shouldn’t be asking such simple questions anymore. She won’t respond because to her, it’s obvious. Of course she’s not “utz” (good). She’s washing people’s underwear.
“Xinkoosik,” says Dorka. I scrunch my face, close my eyes, and put my left hand on my forehead. I don’t know what she’s saying. “Na weta’m taj” (I don’t know), I say. She draws her soapy hands out of the water and looks at me angrily. “Chaakuyuu numaak” (Pardon me/sorry), I say. She waves her hands in the air “Xinkoosik!” I squint my eyes and stare at her deeply and mumble “Xinkoosik…Xin-koos-ik. Ahhhh! La xatkoosik?” (Are you tired?). She looks, smiles quickly, and picks up the knob of soap again, “Jee, Xinkoosik”.
I smile and give her a thumbs up. It’s not until I get back to my room that I realize that I gave her a thumbs up to her telling me she’s tired. I wonder if 'thumbs up' is a thing here. Nonverbal communication is a HUGE deal in Nahualá. In any conversation it’s normal to point using your lower lip when referring to objects in the room. When speaking about trees, it is custom to lift one’s palm, flattened to the sky. When talking about a dog, or other animals, it’s customary to point to the animal with all five fingers in a flattened, spread fan manner. Then, there are all the derogatory hand signs that are made.
Due to my proclivity for that which is interestingly crude, it has taken a mere week to learn most of the vulgar words and hand signs in K’ichee’. Of course these are rarely used, and only ever among close friends. The Nahualeño teachers help me out with that. Later that day at school during our 15-minute-long break that frequently runs to 30 due to impromptu soccer games, I huddle in a corner with aXuan and aTe’k, and ask them about vulgarities as we sip coffee and eat fresh sweet bread. I convince them it’s because I want to more fully understand K’ichee’ and its intricacies. It works. aTe’k shoots me the five fingers in a flattened, spread fan hand sign. I think about it for a second. aXuan whispers “tz’i’” (dog). Oh.
He’s calling me a female dog.
Most of what is to be learned about cuss-words in K’ichee’ is similar to that in English and can be easily guessed.
Tz’ikin (n) bird
Pruta (n) banana
B’aaq (adj) thin; (n) bone, needle
All these mean essentially the same thing. But the most interesting are the ones that aren’t so obvious.
T’oot’ (n) snail, vagina