The Oaxaca Newsletter volume 5, No. 14: August 15, 2000
SAN MIGUEL DE OAXACA?
Five years ago, the Cuota (toll road) from Mexico City to Oaxaca was opened. In effect, the Cuota cut the distance between Mexico and Oaxaca in half. Trips that used to take ten hours on the hazardous, twisting, and often potholed road through Huajuapan de Leon, now can be completed in five on a relatively straight, level, smooth roadway. The result was inevitable, although most of us down here in our sleepy little village failed to understand the forces at work until they became manifest in the last couple of years.
There are over 20 million people living in the metroplex generally known as Mexico, and another 2 million in Puebla. Only 400 thousand live in metropolitan Oaxaca just now.
Mexico and Puebla are big, frenetic, bustling centers of industry and commerce. In Mexico, the infrastructure has been disintegrating for some time. Property values have gone through the ceiling. Rents are phenomenal. Air quality is terrible. Noise levels are crazy-making. Security, even when purchased at great expense, is dicey.
Aside from the 15 or so billionaires that live in Mexico, there are several tens of thousands of millionaires and even more almost-millionaires living there. Spending a couple of hundred thousand bucks for a fancy spread in the Oaxaca area probably seems like peanuts to them.
Oaxaca, on the other hand, is by Mexico and Puebla standards dirt cheap. The air, except for the end of the dry season from March until May, is relatively clean. While water is not plentiful, it has not fallen behind demand, so far. Kidnappings, armed robberies and crimes against strangers occur, but are rare. For an increasing number of upper class Mexicans (the Poblanos tend to be vacationers, not settlers), the Oaxaca area is a very inviting place to build a "retreat" from life in the big city.
As well as being cheaper (a sort of negative advantage), Oaxaca contains much that appeals to the romantic Mexican soul. Unlike other weekend destinations like Cuernavaca, Tepoztlan, Querretaro and Jalapa, Oaxaca has so far retained a great deal of its' native Indian traditions, traje (costume), language, arts and artesania (hand crafts), music and dance. This has a tremendous appeal to that part of the Mexican psyche that is nourished by the notion of being more than just a "modern", alienated worker on the treadmill. Indigenousness - as long as it doesn't interfere with productivity - is hip, and Oaxaca is a sort of Disneyland without a dress code.
So, come they have, and build they are doing, at a dizzying pace. A drive out to San Augustine Etla, about 30 minutes east of the city, provides one with a stark example of what the boom is doing to "our" sleepy little town. Where once there were farmers' fields, now there are mansion-like villas, surrounded by high fences. Roads that used to be traversed by pickups and VW bugs are now also being used by Mercedes Benzes, BMWs, Ford Explorers and Chevy Suburbans, most with DF (Federal District) plates.
One friend who has lived in San Augustine Etla for many years told me that her neighbors no longer say hello to her on the street. "A real sense of 'us' (all foreigners, and nobody is more foreign to the local campesinos than folks from Mexico) and 'them' has developed. They resent us, and dislike us for taking their land, but at the same time they are falling all over themselves to sell, the money is so good. It's a very alienating situation."
In Huayapan, about 20 minutes out the other side of Oaxaca, lots that went for $5,000 u.s. five years ago, are selling for $60,000 today. Old colonial buildings in Oaxaca itself are commanding so much money that only millionaire artists like Francisco Toledo and Rodolfo Morales can afford to buy and restore them.
Rents have increased dramatically. A small house in a residential neighborhood that rented unfurnished for $NP 1,500/mo. two years ago, is now going for double that price - and is considered a bargain. Many landlords are refusing to rent to Mexicans, particularly to Oaxacans, preferring to have foreigners as tenants. That is the case in our little complex, and I know of many similar situations: foreigners will pay more, and are less trouble to evict.
Prices have risen precipitously in the hotels, restaurants and tourist shops as well. We are now paying 28 pesos for a torta that cost 16 pesos two years ago - and getting smaller, less flavorful tortas for our money. In spite of the fact that the peso has remained steady against the dollar, prices at the Bar Jardin on the Zocalo have been jacked up four times in the last year.
On weekends, floods of middle-class Mexicans descend on Oaxaca and occupy the city center. Coming as they do from the big city, they are often rude, brash and disagreeable by Oaxaca standards. They have brought with them some of their not-so-desirable neighbors: pickpockets, street hustlers and dope pushers. In the last year, two small hotels charging more than $200 u.s. per night have opened, and they are almost totally patronized by Chilangos (residents of Mexico City).
To cater to this influx, hotels, b&b's, restaurants and artesania shops are springing up like mushrooms. More tour agencies are operating, and the established places have added more stretch vans to their fleet.
We returned from a trip to "el otro lado" (the other side of the border) to find that two San-Francisco Cable-Car-like buses now ply the city, offering the visitor a pre-recorded narration of the sites and antiquities (the driver points at the appropriate moment). The trip takes an hour, covers 25 "points of interest", and costs 30 pesos.
To its credit, the Oaxaca city administration appears to be working hard to keep the city a safe, pleasant place to be. A more or less permanent tourist tent has opened up next to Santo Domingo church, and on special fiesta days another booth is set up at the entrance to the Alameda in front of the Cathedral. Vast numbers of tourist-friendly police patrol the center of the city, and somehow seem to be able to keep the spoilers from being too obvious. Drunks and the more obnoxious beggars are quietly whisked away by phalanxes of unarmed patrol-persons.
Even in the local gringo community, an influx of new residents (many from San Miguel, Ajijic and Cuernavaca) with more money, has fueled inflated house and rental prices in San Felipe and Reforma, and changed the community dynamic to a less co-operative, more money- and status-centered culture, as witness the Oaxaca Lending Library, which is changing from a subsistence service dependent on the general membership for support, to an expanded view of itself as an institutional "presence" for the gringos, with "special projects" funded in large part by individual donors.
Is it still possible to find an affordable place to live? Of course it is - it's just harder than it used to be. Is Oaxaca still a fun place to be, with lots of interesting and rewarding things to do? You bet, although there is a little more glitz to wade through. Am I really saying that the good new Japanese restaurant is unwelcome? Not me, nossiree. Nor do I expect the new conveniences that expanded tourism brings with it to come for free; I know that things change, and generally prices go up. Would I consider moving? I would. Have I found anywhere I like better? Not yet. I just have this nagging feeling that something I treasure is slipping away.
ADOPTED by subscribers Carolyn Harney and Jim Charlton, a five-month boy named Enrique. Baby and parents all appear to be doing well, and are expected to leave "their" apartment (the same one they always get at the Parador) for their home in Chicago sometime early in September, when the paper work has all been completed. Diana has taken to the role of Grandmother with total elan...
PASSED ON, Victor Velasco, manager of Casa Colonial. Cause of death is not certain. He was hospitalized not feeling well, and died within 24 hours of admission. Victor took over the position many years ago, when his father, Inocencio, opened his own b&b, "Posada Chencho". Jane and Thorny Robison have established a fund in Victor's name, for the acquisition of books in Spanish at the Library. Those interested in contributing should e-mail them at Casa Colonial
COMING UP: THE CHIAPAS ELECTION:
In what is, in my mind, an even more important event than the July 2 national election, the voters of Chiapas go to the polls in less than a week to elect a governor. The surprising news is that it could be another upset (the opposition candidate has a 20 point lead as of today), something that as little as six months ago was thought to be absolutely impossible: the PRI appears to be losing its grip on power in the state long considered to be one of the most loyal in the nation.
At stake is the future of the Zapatista uprising, the preservation of the Lacandon rain forest, and the resolution of the protestant / catholic religious warfare that has plagued this, the poorest state in Mexico, for decades.
Waging a dirty war of terror and death squads against all agrarian reform, the PRI has kept a strong control by a combination of vote buying and intimidation. The PRI candidate is a handpicked successor to the present governor, Albores, himself the fourth or fifth governor to serve in Chiapas since the last election. The others were rotated out of office when they condoned particularly egregious massacres and dislocations by their paramilitary lackeys.
The opposing candidate is backed by a coalition of virtually every other party in the state, from the PAN to the PRD and in between, and has had no official party ties since he resigned from the PRI last year over Albores' (and Zedillo's) failure to negotiate in good faith with the Zapatistas.
Should he win, he has promised to bring peace to Chiapas. President elect Fox has signaled his willingness to sign off on any reasonable agreement. It is doubtful that Chiapas could become a heavenly kingdom overnight, but certainly attempts will be made by the opposition, should they win, to restore some semblance of law and order. There are currently 40,000 troops billeted in Chiapas. Just about everyone wants them to go somewhere else.
Much of the destruction of the rain forest is at the hands of out-of-work and dislocated campesinos trying to feed their families. While the multinationals directly contribute to the problem by clear-cutting, and "harvesting" natural materials containing known palliatives, the most significant changes are occurring as desperate farmers slash and burn in order to plant crops and graze cattle. Many of these folks are refugees who have fled persecution for sympathizing with the Zapatistas. A PRI win can be expected to increase the level of dislocation, while an opposition win would likely be taken as encouragement to return home, moves that could mean the forest gets a well deserved breather.
Salazar, the opposition candidate is a protestant; David, the PRIista is catholic. That Salazar is leading by around 15 percentage points in the polls is a measure of how most of the catholic citizens of Chiapas (they are still in the vast majority) feel about the armed religious wars that have destroyed many Chiapan villages: they want it to end, and they don't trust the PRI to do the job.
The diocese of Chiapas is in a classic bind: on the one hand, the base of the Church is among the masses of poor Catholics in the countryside, where evangelical Protestants are making headway; on the other hand, much of the Zapatista structure is Protestant, either in fact or in rhetoric: anti-alcohol, pro-abortion (limited), populist, demanding freedom for poor people to organize. The Archbishop appears to believe that the Zapatistas demands for land and liberty should be met.
Unlike the national election, you do not have two front runners who essentially stand for the same globalist agenda, but rather two decidedly antagonistic campaigners promising radically different visions for the future.
Remember too that most of the voters are in the cities of Tuxtla Gutierrez, San Cristobal, and Tapachula, areas where business is done. Business folks tend to want things to mellow out so they can get on with the business of making money.
ERNESTO ZEDILLO, PEOPLE'S HERO. IS THIS IRONY OR WHAT?
Six years ago, when Zedillo came to power after the assassination of Colosio, I summarized part of a conversation I had had with Charles Krause, then chief war correspondent for PBS. He was taking a break from duties in MexCity, and we met on the plane to Oaxaca.
At that time, he characterized Zedillo to me as a man who hated politics, and hated politicians even more; a super-nerd kind of guy that in normal life would run around with a raft of pens inside a plastic shield in his shirt pocket, and had no understanding of, or resonance with, wheeler dealers and bureaucratic big-shots. In many ways, Krause's analysis has been borne out by subsequent events. Certainly, much of the power structure of his party believes that he more than demonstrated his dislike of politics by deliberately destroying the party structure of punishment and reward with which the PRI has ruled Mexico for 71 years. There is now a concerted effort on the part of Roberto Medrazo, Manuel Bartlett, Carlos Hank and other so-called Dinosaurs, to get Zedillo drummed out of the PRI as the person directly responsible for their electoral losses in July - losses which these gents attribute to Zedillo's unwillingness to condone stuffed ballot boxes and grand-scale vote buying (otherwise known as PRI business as usual). Zedillo's early declaration of Fox's victory, correctly interpreted by the Dinosaurs as a move to keep them from fiddling with the vote count, was for them the last straw.
Ironically, this movement within his party may contribute to a gross revision of Zedillo's historical role, from elitist with a "let them eat cake" disregard for the poor, who traded civil rights to the Army in exchange for "stability", to a sort of Jeffersonian champion of fairness and idealism.
In fact, Zedillo's slavish obeisance to the NAFTA treaty and the neoliberal global economy has increased the number of Mexicans who live below the poverty line, some say by as much as 40%; dislocated millions of peasants and forced them into the edges of the cities to live in subhuman conditions while seeking work; made the Army a power in the civilian government roughly equal to where it stood in 1968 when the UNAM massacre took place; choked off needed funding for the systems of free education and health care; increased dramatically the percentage of Mexicans who are illiterate, addicted, and committing crimes; and produced more billionaires than have France, Great Britain, and Spain combined.
Usually, ex-presidents of the Republic just fade away, into fancy diplomatic posts or genteel obscurity. Zedillo is a young man. He will be aiming his sights at international economics positions. No-one would appreciate the irony more than him, if the post that Salinas sacked his country to obtain - such as head of the World Bank - went to the man that prevented his predecessor's ascendancy by - rightly - blaming his country's 1995 fiscal crisis on him.
ZIHUATENEJO STILL A GOOD BEACH DESTINATION:
Diana used to live in Zihua, before she moved to Oaxaca, and I have visited a few times, so it was with much interest and some misgivings that we put it on our list of must-sees on the trip down: could it possibly have survived the intervening years intact?
The answer to the question, as you no doubt guessed, is both yes and no. Certainly, Zihua has changed - but is still recognizable, and the reasons for going there still prevail.
Zihua is more than a beach town. In fact, there is very little beach there, most of the swimming being done around the east side of the bay on playas La Ropa and Las Gatos. La Ropa is accessible by foot or by wheel, and Las Gatos by lancha (canopied collectivo) from the main dock (thirty pesos round trip). The dock itself is more frenetic than ever, probably a reflection of the increase in tourism.
Los Gatos is still clean, with minimal but pleasant snorkeling, and the restaurants which ring the beach have become more "permanent", with more concrete, more tables, more restaurant-like kitchens and fuller menus. We had a ceviche that rivaled any we have ever eaten, at a reasonable price. The atmosphere is still laid back, no pressure to buy anything after the first cerveza.
Our hotel, the Aurora, at 100 pesos per person, was plain but clean, and very secure. It is right downtown, and parking is on the street, but we were able to park right in front of the hotel, and the night security guard kept his eye on it. It is possible to drop a thousand pesos for a room at the plush Hotel Zihuatenejo down the street.
Esmeralda still has her book store, to which she has added a couple of tables and a coffee bar, but Olga's restaurant is gone. However, the very large and very clean restaurant next door to Esmeralda's provided a great breakfast, with good service and very reasonable prices.
Prices and quality on the andador (walking street) along the waterfront, however, have definitely deteriorated. At least, the two places we tried were disappointing. A fish dinner (fillet of local white fish: huachinango (red snapper) was out of season) ran anywhere from 60 to 100 pesos; the service was poor; the fish did not taste very fresh. Next time, we will go into the town for dinner, and save the andador for snacks and cervezas.
Inevitably, the question arises: Puerto Escondido / Puerto Angel / Huatulco, or Zihuatenejo / Ixtapa? We think Puerto if what you are after is a week at the beach, but if you want to spend a month or two, Zihua seems the better choice, based on the larger size of the town (they have a regular movie theater), with more and cheaper long-term housing available. These choices are of course very subjective. If Robinson Crusoe is your idea of heaven, then by all means stay away from Zihua - even though the island there the movie was filmed is Isla Ixtapa, a short boat ride away.
THIS EDITION'S PICTURE is of the sky outside Orizaba, one of the larger cities on the way from Oaxaca to Veracruz via Cordoba. Well up into the central mountains, Orizaba is very industrial. Recently, some very fine musicians from Orizaba came to Oaxaca to play in the Zocalo and solicit business. Diana took this picture with her 35mm camera. I sconned it in using EazyPhoto and edited it in Irfanview. To view it, click HERE