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Plenty too much everything

Stan Gotlieb

Figures made from cornhusks on display at Radish Festival, held on December 24 in the zocalo, Oaxaca. Photography by Diana Ricci

In Oaxaca, having "bastante" (too much) is not considered seemly. Better to have "suficiente" (enough). It explains why many well-to-do Oaxaqueños drive Nissan Tsuru sedans when they could afford to own a Chevy Suburban, and live behind plain walls just like their neighbor's even though their house is much more sumptuous.

Not that Oaxaca is without its nouveau riche; only that conspicuous displays of wealth stand out more there than in the US. In three years in Oaxaca, I saw only six new BMW's and maybe five Mercedes Benzes. In my first hour back in the USA, I lost count.

The overwhelming impression for me, returning to the USA after a year, was how much of everything there is here. How many different kinds of fast food restaurants, discount electronics stores, building supply stores and supermarkets; movie theatres, video rental stores and computer software outlets. And more than that, how much there is to choose from in each.

I was in a supermarket. It is larger than the largest Gigante superstore in Oaxaca, and sells only groceries! There are, by actual count, thirty-two different kinds of sparkling water available, and almost as many choices of margarine and butter. It has aisle after aisle of frozen food, and endless varieties and flavors of potato chips. It appears that each and every item is available in endless supply; that the store never runs out of anything.

Diana's mom's house is situated in a small town, one of dozens of bedroom communities spreading endlessly one after another northward from the center of Willmington, Delaware, to meet their counterparts marching southward from Philadelphia. It is hard to believe, when you are in the "northeast corridor" that runs from Boston to Washington DC, that this country is only two and a half times as populous as Mexico. For whom, I keep asking myself, are these things built? How can so few people need so many of everything?

Visiting at the center of the Empire, one cannot help but be impressed - one might easily say overwhelmed - by the overabundance. The endless rows of department stores and specialty shops, stocked with row upon row of brightly packaged boxes, and racks of apparel, almost all made in Taiwan, Korea, India, Bangladesh, Mexico, El Salvador: the list is long. It is here, in the commercial centers, where the true might of the U.S.A. is on display.

The price we paid to get here has not been trivial. First, we have destroyed the "mom and pop" culture of small service-conscious corner stores, that provided a commercial anchor for neighborhoods. Second, we have become compliant accessories in the decimation of many third world countries for our own profit and convenience.

The tomatoes we buy, at $1.99 a pound, could well have been picked in Mexico by workers who are paid $8.00 for a twelve hour day of backbreaking labor in fields laced with DDT and other dangerous chemicals that our petrochemical corporations dump on their country. The telephones, tv's, and other electronic appliances, are assembled in maquiladora plants along the border, in towns whose industrial pollution is producing abnormally high rates of cancer and birth defects, at the cost of jobs for US workers. It is impossible to buy the things you need without violating the boundaries of ethical - or political - correctness.

Let me make this clear: I do not believe that my paisanos are evil, or that they consciously choose to exploit others for their own gain. It's a lot more subtle than that, in this age of international corporatism. Furthermore, I am not unaware that it is Mexicans who are shooting their union organizers, not Uncle Sam -- however culpable he may be in the runup to the ambush. I know that the tomato that I buy in Oaxaca is no less the product of exploitation, for being domestically grown. The difference for me is in the transaction.

You can't shop for dinner at home without wearing out some shoe leather, exchanging pleasantries with the shopkeepers, and haggling a little. The scale of life seems a little more human, a little less machine oriented. Sure, I take advantage of the bargains I run across in the US megastores. But somehow, the experience just isn't very satisfying.

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