Living  |  See all articles tagged indigenous-groups perspectives social-issues or in region Oaxaca, Oaxaca

After the storm: Summer in Oaxaca

Stan Gotlieb

This photo was taken in one of the few buildings left standing at Piña Palmera, on Zipolite beach. By now, the foot or so of mud on the floor has been mucked out. By now, also, relief should be reaching all the people in the area. Stories, like this one, are frozen in time; life, on the other hand, keeps on keepin' on. Photographer unknown

Sitting here, high and dry in Oaxaca, it is easy to pat myself on the back for special efforts made on behalf of the "damnificados" (dispossessed) on the other side of the Sierra del Sur -- the mountains that separate me from the nightmare aftermath of Hurricane Pauline. After all, I dropped "everything" and made myself and my email available to a worthy organization wiped out by the storm. I spent three intense days, writing everybody I know to either give money or contact friends who could. I shared whatever organizational expertise I may have to help local folks use local resources efficiently. I agonized over the fate of people I had never met and some I barely knew, as well as "buen conocidos" (good acquaintances). I helped.

Does this make me a good guy? Maybe. Am I on an ego trip about it? I don't think so: after all, I did do it. Was it "enough"? I don't know, how much is enough? It was what i did.

It's not about me, in any case. It's about them. It's about people in bamboo huts with clay floors and thatch roofs being hit with 120 mile per hour winds and 30 foot waves on the beach. It's about rainstorms so severe and so prolonged that roads, bridges, whole communities were washed down the mountain by flash floods and walls of sliding mud. It's about starvation, dehydration, cholera, dengue, boils and tuberculosis. It's about crops necessary to sustain a family until the next harvest, disappearing down the nearest arroyo. It's about having to make do with water from polluted wells, and creeks poisoned by rotting animal and human corpses somewhere upriver. It's about all your utensils, all your tools, all your clothes, gone. It's about great acts of humanitarian assistance and gross acts of greed and barbarism. It's about life on the edge in the third world, and it ain't over yet.

While the press, who don't like to get their feet wet or forsake their perfectly shaken martini, make a (deserving) case for Acapulco, where the Holiday Inn still functions, thousands of villages throughout Oaxaca and southern Guerrero states receive almost no media attention. In these communities, cut off from the outside world and starving, there are reported to be 300,000 victims, nearly everyone.

The villagers of the high mountains, isolated by geography and custom, are used to being marginalized; being denied their fair share of schools, roads, electricity, telephones and medical care by successive government administrations, since before anyone can remember. But this time it's bad, even by their standards. This time, the rescue efforts of the Mexican airforce helicopters are being hampered by fog, rain, and winds. This time, they have nothing left: no food, no water, nothing. Unless the weather lifts, it is likely that they will not survive.

Their brethren on the coastal plains are faring better. Supplies and reconstruction machinery are reaching them. Still, the danger of disease and malnourishment are very real, and being made more poignant by the interfaction fighting, mostly between party loyalists of the PRI and PRD. There have been reports that they have been hijacking each other's trucks and commandeering nonpartisan Red Cross aid in order to be seen as better providers one from another. Inevitably, humans being what they are, there is profiteering.

The army appears to be attempting to prevent and punish such behavior, but their successes appear to be mostly limited to preventing armed robbery of relief goods once they reach the distribution points. Many hijackings appear to be the work of normally honest peasants who are at their wits end, as an alternative to starvation. Others have been attributed to gangs wearing police clothing. Still others to relief workers. Thankfully, all are agreed that as disgusting as such crimes are, the vast majority of aid is getting through to the people for whom it was intended.

In the end, this story will be one of great success and great failure. The death toll will mount, the infrastructure will be slowly rebuilt, the epidemics will be cured, the tourists will return. More campesinos will be forced to enter the urban work force, having lost their arable land. The people will distrust their government a little more, believing rightly or wrongly (the government denies this) that storm warnings were deliberately toned down so as not to alarm the tourists.

President Zedillo has spoken out against the abuses, and called attention to the fate of the mountain campesinos. The governors of Oaxaca and Guerrero have promised unremitting attention to the needs of the damnifacados. Ojala (o-ha-LA): it should only come to pass...

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

Published or Updated on: November 1, 1997 by Stan Gotlieb © 1997
Contact Stan Gotlieb
All Tags