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Questions and answers on life in Oaxaca, Mexico

Stan Gotlieb

Below are some archives of letters to the editor that Stan has chosen to answer with open responses.December 20, 1995
Victor Salas writes that, having been born and raised in Mexico, and having come to the U.S. to work and live... It is interesting to read about my country as seen through the eyes of an american who has actually been there. Many Americans picture Mexico as either the horrifyingly poor country that Ross Perot described during the NAFTA debate, or as the resorts they visitin Cancum or Acapulco...this weekend I was talking with some people and told them I was going home for Christmas. They suggested taking a Christmas tree with me so my family would know what one looks like. My family has had a Christmas tree for I don't know how many parents rent their movies at BLOCKQUOTEBuster Video, buy their pizzas at Pizza Hut and do some of their shopping at Wal-Mart...

Stan Replies:

Yes, our culture -- along with our TV -- is everywhere in Mexico, for better or worse depending on your point of view. Some folks here make regular monthly runs up to the Sam's Club in Puebla, about a four hour drive away. And I agree with you that the "brown peril" demagoguery practiced by Sr. Perot and others does nothing useful when it comes to fostering mutual understanding. Portraying Mexicans as Frito Banditos, and other slurs practiced by my countrymen, merely remind us of our own poverty: a poverty of imagination, compassion, and intelligence. Merry Christmas, and a prosperous New Year.

December 19, 1995
Worth Weller testifies to the efficacy of Pepto Bismol (see Is There A Doctor In The House?):

It works. Was in the back country Nicaragua for three weeks several years ago with a party of 12 other Gringoes. Lived in a thatched hut, ate their food, etc. Eight of those little heart shaped tablets first thing each morning (we 60s era people enjoy the irony of heart shaped pink tablets). Was only person doing this and was only one in party to excape the Revenge. Of course if you drink the water or any iced drinks, or chew your fingernails, nothing works.

December 12, 1995
Stan comments: I received a long and thoughtful letter from Christopher Stewart, outlining some of the political history of Mexico since the late 1800's, and the role of Oaxacans (among others) in that history. I include it in the Letters for those among you who may be intersted in Mexican political history.

They say that up here in the U.S., we have a very young country. No history. And they're right. Yet in spite of this, the political landscape that existed until very recently in the South based itself on happenings of the late 1860s and early 1870s. A mostly conservative electorate continued to rescind the conservative Republican party in favor of a Democratic party which showed itself to be steadily more and more liberal. Memories are long, even when there's not all that much to remember, and ideological leanings seem to take a back seat to older traditions.

It would seem to me that such is also the case, to some extent, in Oaxaca. It should not come as so great a surpirse that the Partido de Accion Nacional won the most recent city president's race. In order to elaborate, I must go back just a bit in the long and celebrated history of Mexico. You will recall that both Benito Juarez and Porfirio Diaz were born to humble, indigenous families in the early part of the nineteenth century. In fact, Juarez could not speak any Spanish until he was twelve years old, and thereafter, it would be he and his general Diaz that would liberate Mexico from the French foreign legion and re-establish the Republic. That at least is the myth which has made its way into the official version, and several unofficial versions, of Mexican history, and I do not intend to imply that as such it is untrue or invalid. Simply that Mexicans, like most peoples, establish much of their national identity based on a generalized collective understanding of past events. The great events of hi story become the myths which shape current happenings and future possibilities. They form the world view for those who subscribe to them.

The myth in Oaxaca is particularly strong, because Juarez was a local boy who made good, a poor Zapotec Indian who rose to the very highest office in the land based on his own merits and courage. Yet in doing so, and even though he represented the new liberal, republican order, Juarez reinforced much of the traditional ideas that were supposedly embodied in the old, strictly Catholic, conservative ideology. Yes, he limited the scope of the clergy's power. Yes, he confiscated Church property and caused the ire of the old institutional power. But much of what he did involved the simple renaming of old ideas. The landowners were largely unaffected economically, and they helped preserve some of the Curch's power until it could re-establish itself later, during the Porfiriato. Juarez's new economic ideas made room for a small expansion of the economic elite, but the older established families also continued to be strong. One might say the the liberal positivistas were searching for their spot in the economi c landscape. With Juarez, they achieved this.

In so doing, Juarez set the stage for the Profiriato. It was he who institutionalized the ideals of strict social order being necessary, not for the maintenace of the status quo, but for the economic progress of the Nation itself. From this idea came the strong porfirian police forces, including the rurales. Moreover, Juarez continued the institution of the caudillo, as old as the conquistadores and perhaps older. Diaz simply believed that when his time came, he was the hombre necesario to continue the progress. One recalls the national festival of Independence in 1910. The statues and monuments that went up were to recognize Mexico's move into the realm of advanced nations. Dignitaries and other Important People came from all over Europe to see the results of Mexico's progressive positivism. All this grandeur could be attributed to the movement forward since the liberals took over power in 1867. And those liberals' caudillos had their origins in Oaxaca.

A year later, in 1911, the country would explode in Revolution against these values, and the revolutionaries would repudiate the old values. They were quite correct in equating the Porfiriato and its ideology with the old regime, not just the liberal positivista order, but the old order that came into existence with the Conquest and the establishment of the Spanish Colonia. Zapata led his army against that order in the hope of returning to a still older, ideal time, before the indigenous peoples were conquered. Tierra y Libertad was their cry, for liberty could mean nothing, had meant nothing, without land. We must take the time to note that Zapata's sphere of influence centered around Morelos state and extended into the nearby areas of Guerrero, Mexico state and Milpa Alta in the southern part of the Distrito Federal. It was not Oaxacan. In fact, Felix Diaz led his counter-Revolutionary army from the state of Oaxaca, and for a time, he was the hope of the porfiristas.

Meanwhile, Villa and Orosco fought the huge landowning class in the state of Chihuahua, eventually capturing the capital city and defeating its porfirista governor. Still, Villa and his armies would find themselves turned into renegades once Carranza and Obregon took control of Mexico City. And these two entered the capital not to destroy the old order, but to take its place.

In this, we do have a new society. The old porfiristas were broken. The mansions of San Cosme were sacked and pillaged; the new rulers made their way over to Chapultepec Heights to build their society. Many of the old order left the country, making their way to Europe or north to the United States. Many headed for San Antonio, Texas, the very place from which Madero launched his Plan de Agua Prieta. Yet the profiristas were not yet defeated entirely; in fact, they and their tradition continued. The official PNR, and later PRM, could not encompass the entire society. The Cristero wars of the late 1920s assure us of this. We must recall that in the Cristero wars, the clergy led armies of peasants against the victorious, unGodly Revolution. They sought to undo the policies which had taken power away from the Church, justifying themselves among the peasants in the righteousness of their holy battle. These peasants were simple folk, very religious, and either afraid of the consequences of disobeying the cl rgy, or upright in their faith in what they were fighting for. In any event they were not the victories Revolutionaries, nor did they come from those whom the revolutionary government claimed to represent. And even though the Cristeros were ultimately defeated militarily, their ideology continued. The old traditionalists would rally around a new caudillo in 1939, but this caudillo led a political battle rather than a military one. His name was Manuel Gomez Morin, and his political party was Accion Nacional.

Gomez Morin had sought his own reflections on the devastating events of the Mexican Revolution. Carlos Monsivais writes of Gomez Morin's Generacion del 15. Gomez Morin himself:

declara a la del 15 una generacion-eje, la unidad totemica a traves de la cual se observa el sentido (organizativo) de la raza y a la que mueve una 'exigencia interior de hacer algo y el impulso irreprimible a cumplir una mision que a menudo se desconoce'. Esa mision se traduce en una meta abstracta y especifica a la vez: construir el pais. Otra contradiccion declarada: han aceptado misioneramente comprender y fundamentar a la Revolucion y, pese a ello, creen renunciar a su mensaje teorico para utilizar a la tecnica como metodo de servicio. De modo paulatino, el ritmo de las tareas administrativas o academicas va diluyendo y transformando en la practica el significado 'espiritual' que le querran atribuir a su vision del pais.

("Historia General de Mexico: Tomo 2", El Colegio de Mexico, Mexico, D.F.: 1988, pg. 1414).

Theirs has been a fight for their ideals, and yet it has found open ears in those whose ideals are markedly different. In the northern states, where Villa once reigned and continues to be adored, the PAN finds its stronghold, perhaps because it fights against the institutional order which destroyed the villistas. And in the south, at its origins, in Oaxaca, it is only now coming into its own. Again, history makes an about face, and tradition overpowers ideology.

December 11, 1995
Fred Turner writes about my...negative commentary on the Mexican financial establishment. I must admit that I am biased, working for Confia, a bank headquartered in Monterrey (which, by the way, has not been targetted at all by the Barzonistas). Still, I think it's important to point out why I believe that the Barzonista movement is wrong: * In no country, Mexico or otherwise, would anyone find cause to support an organization that espouses not paying the debt which its members have taken on. We are talking about people who have _elected_ to use their credit cards and other forms of loans far beyond their capacity to pay, but who are not willing to accept the cost of the bankruptcy that they are taking on. They espouse credit irresponsibility for the Mexican population, which, if there were an organized credit rating system in the country, would ensure that none would be eligible for credit again. They give little thought that the end result of their protests, if successful, would be the collapse of M exico's financial system, and all that goes with it.

Unfortunately, the Barzonista movement is tainted with leftist political leanings, specifically resulting from the PRD's advice and influence. This is a movement founded by the PRD to further get in the hair of both the PRI and the PAN, now that its political underpinnings have been exposed as shallow and limited to its two figureheads' egos and ambitions. This has been reflected in the PRD's general loss of power even in states where they traditionally had a strong power base, such as Michoacan.

And as to your comment about government and banks being practically one and the same, I think you need to understand that there is a vast difference between Banamex and Bancomer (and, to some extent, Serfin), and the rest of the banking industry. Banamex and Bancomer have been attempting to sway the country's financial crisis as much as possible to their advantage, with the government's help, to try to eliminate a number of the smaller banks in the country. A concrete example of this was the ADE program, which was constructed in such a fashion that the subsidized interest rates to be paid on loans came in sufficiently above their funding costs (which are lower because of their size and deposit base, as well as because of strong government deposits) to allow them to register a positive interest margin, but below what they estimated the other banks' funding costs to be, resulting in losses for the second and third quarters for most of the banking system. (We had the last laugh, though; the subsequent rise in interest rates hit them much harder than us because of these same fixed rate ADE loans, of which they had much more in their portfolios.)

And finally, what the Barzonistas need to understand is that the banks in general are posting losses. They are being charged "usurious" interest rates because the government has caused interest rates to rise to control inflation. We cannot charge less than what we pay on deposits, and this is dictated by the government's interest rate. So if they are going to get naked anywhere, let it be in front of Hacienda or Los Pinos, where it belongs. Sorry this dragged on so much. What is said here are my own personal views, not those of my employer.

Stan replies:

Thanks for the thoughtful and informative note. Chairman Mao once said that material circumstances dictate consciousness, and so it is not surprising to find a banker opposed to debt relief for consumers. I think there are a few points we need to clear up here.

The Barzonistas are not simply in favor of ignoring debt. They are in favor of refusal to pay usurious loans which if paid would put the debtors in the poor house. The debtors, for the most part, are neither irresponsible nor antisocial. They were making their payments when interest rates were down around 30%; now that they are asked to pay over 100% in some cases, they find themselves unable to do it. Unlike the U.S., the interest rate on all debt, including consumer credit, is allowed to "float" with the commercial rate.

In a system of predators, it is not surprising that the smaller sharks such as Confia are afraid of the bigger sharks: free market capitalism can sometimes be hard on some capitalists.

While it is true that the PRD has contributed some leadership to the Barzonistas, so have the other parties. I see little point in "red baiting" except to draw attention away from the real issues. Hardly anyone considers the PRD to be very "left" anymore, and even if they are, why is it "wrong" to be a constitutional socialist? The very fact that you attack the Barzonistas based on their association with PRD shows that you too recognize that different movements represent different interests, and that "left" and "banker" are in contradiction to each other.

You say the government and the banks are not tied, but I have to believe that what you mean is that they are not formaly tied. Why should the interbreeding of bankers and government functionaries be any different in Mexico than in the U.S.?

In U.S. courts, gambling, an illegal activity, cannot be a legitimate source of debt. This stems from a belief that it is inherently unfair for the house, which has stacked the odds, to then entice the sucker with promises of vast wealth. Mexicans were enticed to take on vast sums of debt in an atmosphere that promised continued prosperity, and steady interest rates due to increased international trade and investment following NAFTA. And they didn't just buy washing machines. They bought capital goods to equip machine shops, and trucks to initiate delivery services, and houses. Large purchases that required all the other "ifs" the bankers and the investment advisors and the commerce chambers and the government development wallahs promised. Now, as usual, the little guys are being asked to pay the price to protect the big guys from getting hurt. I for one don't blame them for standing up and crying "shame".

December 7, 1995
Mark Weatherly writes, in part:

Today while reading two of your letters, one on the freedom of the press and the other on the elections, I recalled my reaction to these topics. This summer I had the opportunity to spend about 18 days in Oaxaca and Chiapas. Upon my return to the U.S. I realized that the two countries have much more in common than most Norte Americanos would acknowledge. There is little doubt that in both countries there is a ruling elite. This means that there are a large number of people that feel both politically and economically disenfranchised. Perhaps there are more Mexicans that feel this way, but there are a growing number of Norte Americanos who are feeling that they have no political or economic power. In both countries ther is a great deal of propaganda from the government about the "freedom and democracy" enjoyed by the masses. Most Norte Americanos believe that there are no political prisoners and that there is freedom of the press in the United States. In both countries the people in power (political an d economic) are male and are either members of or have close relations with the economic power structure. There is book called "Distant Neighbors" which expresses the fact that very few Norte Americanos know anything about Mexico. I think there is little doubt that this is true. On the other hand, stereotypes about Mexico and Mexicans tell us much about about the perceptions/beliefs Norte Americanos have about themselves. Perhaps this is as sad as their misconceptions of Mexico.

Stan replies:

Thanks, Mark, for sharing your insights. They are right on.

December 6, 1995

Editor's note: Along with hard times come hard solutions. Here are two letters to share. The first reflects a stepup in the mordida ("little bite": payoff) racket; the second reveals the continuing popular resistance in Guerreero. Both reflect the growing tension in Mexico as the peso continues to fall and the central government's grip continues to weaken in the provinces.

Jennifer Rose writes from Morelia:

Word of warning: crossed the border at Colombia-Solidarity (isolated spot near Laredo) on 11-20 w/ an old 386 [computer] in tow & got the living hell from the aduana...first they wanted to tax the computer, then at the 26 km. they claimed "new law- importation of computers is illegal, unimpressed by my claims of being a writer, showing them my magazine, telling them I had an FM-3, etc. Finally, told them I didn't have time to bother w/ it & drove on. Absolutely everyone was getting taxed...even a couple of college kids bringing in rec equip clearly for their own use for a long weekend. Never had a problem or question bringing in laptops, by plane or car. Nor any problem hauling big printers, etc. by car. Usually my FM-3 impresses them more than the tourist card.

[NOTE: importation of computers, or one of any personal property item, is certainly not illegal - or legally taxable - in Mexico. Neither is it legal to restrict your visa to less than 180 days, if you have not been in Mexico in the last six months before entering: Stan]

Dan McWethy writes from Puerto Escondido, that not only is the road full of potholes, but:

In the 258 miles from Acapulco there were 6 army roadBLOCKQUOTEs. The first four were to stop, look at my papers, or not, and to ask, [where you going]?", to which I replied the next big town. Then [where from]? to which I replied the town I had left that morning. Sometimes [they] ask what your business is, to which a "de vacaciones!" gets a grin. Also showed them a foto of Deb, explaining she works at a private school in NH, (A trescientos [300] kilometros al norte de NuevaYork) Kee-lom-ee-tros is fun to say. They send me along my way.

The fifth they would only allow one vehicle at a time to pass the checkpoints. The first MILITAR you see is beside the road with a red flag to slow you down. Then you pull off the road onto the dust, and a soldier comes to the window. This was a serious roadBLOCKQUOTE-no one had their machine guns over their shoulders, they made everyone get off the vehicles, looked through the luggage (not usually going through stuff). The soldiers didn't stand in a line of fire with each other and they definately kept the barrels pointed away from themselves. The truck driver ahead of me was asked to raise his shirt and turn, so they could see around his belt.

I was asked to get out, with an apology, and they looked in the middle & back of the truck while I told what I am doing here. They didn't ask to see in any containers. The soldier apologized again twice, and I was on my way.

The final one was back to a more laid back attitude. Some of the questioners might speak some, but in only one case did I use an english word and feel I was understood.

December 4, 1995

  1. What do teenagers find popular in Mexico?
  2. What's life like there for them

Alicia Bento

Stan replies:

Thanks for the letter. Not being a teen myself, I guess I'll have to rely on second hand observation.

Like in the States, teenagers here come in lots of different types, depending on their economic class, size, skin color and intelligence. Look at your own classmates and you could be looking at Mexican kids. They all like "toys", from ghetto blasters to automobiles; they all like to dress up in whatever the current fad is for their group, from air Jordans to big-leg pants; they are trying to figure out how to relate to their emerging sexuality and their raging hormones; they all are struggling with the need to think about "the future": career, school, etc. In general, due to the TV and movies, they imitate our kids where they can afford to, and their parents are constantly spending more on their kids than on themselves.

The differences between our teeners and theirs have more to do with culture. Mexican kids are more respectful of adults than ours are, and they are more a part of their own family. Until not too long ago, it was customary, even in large cities, for a house to contain three or four generations of a family. Even if both parents worked, there was always a grandmother or a maiden aunt around to watch after (and watch) the kids. I get the sense that this is less true now, although it is still common.

Through what amounts to our junior high or middle school, they generally attend schools where they are required to wear a uniform.

The reason that is given for this is that uniforms prevent kids from taking their identity from their clothes, and "level the playing field" between rich and poor. That way, it is said, kids can only distinguish themselves by being better at things, instead of merely having better things; they can compete through classwork and athletics, and as socially graceful people, when they all wear the same feathers.

There are a great many street kids in Mexico, starting at preschool age. They have no family and often they have to steal or beg to eat, and by the time they are teenagers they are mostly lowpaid laborers, clever hustlers, or hardened criminals.

So, as you can see, I don't have any simple answer for you questions, but I hope this was useful for you. Good luck with your project.

Below are the archives of letters written to the editor that Stan has chosen to answer with open responses.

If you have comments or suggestions for Stan, you can contact him at:

Published or Updated on: September 1, 2000 by Stan Gotlieb © 2008
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