March 1 – 7: Oaxaca – Fellow Tourists and Revolutionaries in the Land of Mezcal

Running into neighbours

Oaxaca is definitely a draw for Canadians, especially during one of the coldest months in decades. In the first two days, we literally bumped into two of our neighbours. The first day we were recognized in the central square by Marion, a Cabbagetown neighbour of John’s and former student (OISE in the 80s) of Deborah’s. The next day, while having a coffee on a balcony café, we spotted Jenny Callahan on the street below; she lives right behind Deborah in Parkdale and comes regularly to Oaxaca.

Aside from these chance encounters, we planned our visit to coincide with friends Barb Thomas and D’Arcy Martin, at the tail end of their two-month stay in Oaxaca. So we enjoyed Sunday snacks and a swim in their B&B pool, then met them again Monday evening for a special dinner with Gustavo Esteva, renowned author, radical educator and public intellectual. He provided historical context for current struggles of Indigenous peoples (Oaxaca has a majority Indigenous population), striking teachers, and a unique consultative process with over 400 municipalities to determine their own issues and direction (the municipalities have warned the government that they intend to implement their plans for autonomy unilaterally if the government doesn’t approve them by April 15).

cena with Gustavo (1 of 1)

Fellow collaborators on food sovereignty

In 2009, Deborah along with Lauren Baker (who did her PhD on corn/maize in Oaxaca) and Michael Sacco (who founded ChocoSol based on relationships with Oaxacan cacao coops) invited Gustavo to York for a two-week intensive summer course on “Food Sovereignty, Indigenous Knowledges, and Autonomous Movements.” As the organizer of a national campaign, “Sin Maíz, No Hay País,” Esteva is the perfect advisor for a potential film on food sovereignty that features Mexican Indigenous women. He invited us to participate in seminars of UniTierra (University of the Land), which engages Indigenous Oaxacans in “communities of learning” to counter schooling which has denied their history, culture, languages and ways of knowing. One seminar was a critique of (western) education; another was on identity and cultural regeneration. A third was part of a series on “autonomy” which began with a communiqué from the leadership of the closely related Zapatista movement

Unitierra seminar (1 of 1)  Mujer y maiz at UniTierra (1 of 1)John, Gustavo and rootop garden (1 of 1)

On a tour of UniTierra, Gustavo and John were able to compare UniTierra’s year-round rooftop garden with the short growing season on Toronto rooftops.

We met a Mayan couple from the Yucatán who are spending some months in Oaxaca as they prepare to start their own UniTierra in their coastal state. They invited us to their temporary home in the village of the San Augustín Etla, where we visited the well-known (though somewhat elitist) Centre for the Arts (established by artist Francisco Toledo), enjoyed a fish meal, learned about their traditional agricultural practices, and loaded up on fresh fruit from their backyard trees.

Angel and Valiana (1 of 1)  SAE visit 2 (1 of 1)

SAE visit 5 (1 of 1)  SAE visit 7 (1 of 1)

Deborah also reconnected with Amado Ramírez Leyva, an agronomist who left university teaching 13 years ago to start Itanoni, a tortillería, restaurant and cultural centre dedicated to the defense of biodiversity and cultural diversity. Over two comal-cooked tortilla meals, we had intense conversations with him about the potential film, the deeper messages of the interrelations of plants and humans, and the narrative approaches that might draw a North American public into that understanding (including a suggestion that Deborah not limit the story to women).

John at Itanoni (1 of 1)  Itanoni 3 (1 of 1)

All of the conversations Deborah was able to have with people deeply engaged in food sovereignty movements have stimulated her thinking, challenging once again many of her assumptions, and suggesting new directions for research and artistic production.

Archeology and history

The Oaxaca region has a deep and rich history of diverse Indigenous civilizations. A powerful introduction to the Olmec, Zapotec, and Mixtec cultures was offered at the Casa de las Culturas inside the Dominican convent of Santo Domingo (which at various points had been occupied and ransacked by soldiers and more recently was slated for a major five-star tourist hotel)

Sto. domingo (1 of 1)  Dominicans at Sto. Domingo (1 of 1)

An intervention by renown activist artist Francisco Toledo saved the convent as a major museum and designed the adjacent former army camp as a botanical garden more defined by aesthetic criteria than either agroecology or scientific identification.

John took morning bike rides 350 metres up to the Monte Alban ruins twice before we visited them together.

John biking to Moute Alban

Another day we visited the amazing ruins of Mitla (see slide show below). This was Deborah’s first visit to these two sites, which John and Elizabeth had visited in 1974.

Archeology and history

On the way to Mitla, we also paid homage to a 2,000 year-old tree, El Tule (click link below for video) vimeo:

Artisanal practices

Oaxaca markets are ablaze with colour and endless creativity, in both handicrafts as well as culinary delicacies (there are countless cooking classes for tourists!).

John and hats  craft banner

Deb with  market chickens  Corner taco stand (1 of 1)

A day excursion to Teotílan, with family weaving businesses all along the highway into town, offered us a unique introduction to the preparation of the materials and the weaving of exquisite wool rugs. Graciela, the wife of master weaver Isaac Vasquez led us through the process, inviting us to try our hand at carding and spinning; we were especially taken by the magic of extracting the red dye from the cochineal insect, which is nurtured on cactus plants, dried, crushed, and mixed with lime and salt to create the brilliant red that was a major export to Europe for the robes of royalty and clerics in the colonial period. We were delighted to learn, after John made a major purchase of a rug, that it was in fact woven by Graciela, our guide..!

Weaving coop in Teotítlan

Oaxaca is the home of moles (chocolate chile sauce) and many other delicacies such as chapulines (grasshoppers) which we tested as the stuffing for chiles rellenos. Besides trying a couple of fine Oaxacan restaurants, we were able to try our own hand at cooking in a little apartment we rented for the week, called Casa de los Abuelos (House of the Grandparents). In fact, John, was able to connect with his granddaughter, Katherine, in the Gaspe, by Skype…!

John biking out of Casa de los Abuelos (1 of 1)  Our Oaxacan house (1 of 1)

Skyping with Anna (1 of 1)

Highway highlights and lowlights

 Soon after we left Oaxaca heading for Chiapas, we passed the 10,000 KM of our four-month journey..! We continued to have amazing highway vistas, grateful we were driving and not flying over the landscape; at one point, as our van was rocked by dangerously strong winds in an area called La Ventosa (Windy), we were astounded by the site of a veritable city of windmills (financed and constructed, in part, by Wallmart, to supply their superstores in Mexico!).

Windmills 1 (1 of 1)  Windmills2 (1 of 1)

Windmills 5 (1 of 1)

On the other hand, we also found ourselves on dirt roads that were called “highways” or winding our way up and down steep mountainsides, passing trucks on narrow twisty roads overlooking sharp precipices (dotted with shrines commemorating those who died on the treacherous roadways). On the way to Chiapas, after a particularly scary mountainside ride, we descended 400 metres to the flat land of Tehuantepec, where a statue of La Tehuana greeted us at the entrance. There, ironically while going 10 K an hour over a small bridge, entranced by the view of the beautiful river, John failed to notice that the car in front of us had stopped. He hit the bumper of a taxi in front, and thus precipitated a two-hour experience with a series of taxi owners and drivers, several traffic police, and two insurance agents. Luckily there was only a small dent in the taxi bumper and none whatsoever to our van, our Mexican insurance covered everything, and in the process we made friends with the protagonists…!

accident 2 (1 of 1)   accident 1 (1 of 1)

accident 3 (1 of 1)



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