Tag Archives: Oaxaca

Francis, Mexican bishops, & the New World

Pope Francis had something wonderful to say to the bishops of Mexico yesterday.

“Be vigilant so that your vision will not be darkened by the gloomy mist of worldliness; do not allow yourselves to be corrupted by trivial materialism or by the seductive illusion of underhanded agreements; do not place
your faith in the ‘chariots and horses’ of today’s pharaohs. …”

and

“Do not lose time or energy in secondary things, in gossip or intrigue, in conceited schemes of careerism, in empty plans for superiority, in unproductive groups that seek benefits or common interests. … Do not allow yourselves to be dragged into gossip and slander. … If you want to fight, do it, but as men do. Say it to each other’s faces and after that, like men of God, pray together. If you went too far, ask for forgiveness.”

IMG_9512If there are clerics in this world due for a spiritual tongue-lashing, it’s Mexican bishops.

When I lived there, I was struck by how uninterested most bishops (and there were notable exceptions) seemed in the country’s poor. Many seemed either absorbed with ritual, or with political intrigue and playing golf with the powerful – either oblivious to, or studiously ignoring, the country’s towering wave of poverty, throttled opportunity and energy, and of course, today, violence.

In the most deeply Catholic parts of the country – Oaxaca and Chiapas – it was as if the church hadn’t changed much since the Spaniards brought it over. The priest was viewed as a quasi-deity in many Oaxacan villages. People were not allowed to look at him when he walked their streets – this as recently as the 1970s, from people I’ve spoken to. The religious traditions of those villages – the fiestas that poor peasant farmers had to pay for, miring them in debt for years; the incessant use of alcohol – have served to keep generations of people poor.

Thus so many Mexicans, especially so many Mexican Indians from isolated villages in states like Chiapas and Oaxaca, convert to Protestant denominations when they leave their home towns.

Look at Pico-Union and South Central Los Angeles, or the agricultural Valley of San Quintin in Baja California. You will see hundreds of new churches – Pentecostal, Baptist, Jehovah’s Witness and more – many of which were formed by Zapotecas, Mixtecs, and Mayans who were once thought to be the bedrock of Mexican Catholicism.

They were easy to control when they hadn’t seen anything of the New World, and were cloistered in the Old.

Away from the limitations, prohibitions, and ecclesiastical arrogance they grew up with, many seem to feel that spiritual reinvention ought to be as much a part of their new lives as the socio-economic conversion they are going through.

Just as global economic competition has entered Mexico in the last few decades, so too is the country facing religious competition. Too often, the church still seemed to behave as if it had a monopoly on souls.

I thought I saw similarities between the church and how Mexican immigrants turned away from  Gigante, the Mexican grocery-store chain that tried to enter the Southern California market a few years back, thinking it could treat these immigrants the same disparaging way the chain had back home.

Mexican bishops and the Pope ought to visit one of my favorite places in Los Angeles: St. Cecilia Catholic Church, at 42nd and Normandie, a vibrant (and full) church, with congregations, and saints, from Oaxaca, Guatemala, El Salvador and Nigeria.

They’d see how Catholicism wins when it opens itself to its parishioners, allows them to own the church and take an active role in it. They’d see how crucial that is to energizing a congregation now working in the New World and used to, but unhappy with, the ways of the Old.

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True Tales From Another Mexico – at 15

Fifteen years ago this week, my first book, True Tales from Another Mexico, was released, just as George Bush was about to make his first trip abroad – to Mexico, governed by its new, duly elected president, Vicente Fox.
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I remember not really being able to absorb the idea that I’d actually written a book. Over the years, it sold only well enough to be known as a “cult classic” – a description I like.
I think it remains relevant, largely because of the stories in it: A colony of drag queens, a lynching, Oaxacan indian basketball players, the section of the Mexican Congress then known as “The Bronx,” pistoleros, telenovela queens, the Paleteria La Michoacana popsicle makers, the slum boss known as La Loba and her Chippendale dancers, and Chalino Sanchez, the late, great narcocorrido singer.
 
It’s still for sale, and is now on Kindle. … Hope you like it…. 🙂

 

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Faustino Diaz: Trombone master from Oaxaca in L.A.

Faustino Diaz, the Oaxacan trombone master, returns to Los Angeles this weekend for a concert at the Ukrainian Hall, 4315 Melrose Ave., this Sunday at 2 p.m.

Diaz thrilled Mexico last year when he won the International Trombone Competition in South Korea.1511733_908562385837387_4934257276349175473_n

A few days later he visited the Pico-Union District and the music school run by director Estanislao Maqueos, who has used his school to organize Oaxacan youth orchestras.

There, I had the chance to sit down and talk with him about his life, and having to venture out into the world to find his music like a migrant finds a future.

The interview is above and in Spanish.

Check out the concert. Should be good.

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Hundreds Crowd to Watch Barefoot Triquis in Pico-Union

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The by-now world famous barefoot Triqui Indian basketball players from Oaxaca played their first games to huge crowds at a children’s tournament at Toberman Park in Pico-Union today.

The Triquis, ages 10 and 11, use an impressive warm-up routine, smothering full-court defense and able ball handling to suffocate opponents. They’re hampered only by the fact that their thin arms and small bodies can sometimes barely hoist the ball above the rim.

Still, one local team didn’t score and lost to what I took to be the Triqui’s second string, 10-0. Another team lost to the Triqui first string, 47-4.

As I wrote in a blogpost below, the team from Rio Venado, Oaxaca — some of whose players went barefoot today — comes from a school formed to instill discipline and conserve the group’s languages and traditions. Along the way, it has become a public-relations strategy to call attention to Mexican Indian poverty, and in particular that of the Triquis, who are Mexico’s most impoverished ethnic group.

Basketball being a huge community sport in Oaxacan L.A., the crowds were large and discerning and lined the court. Vendors also lined up to take advantage, selling bacon-wrapped hot dogs and ice cream.

As is often true about basketball in L.A.’s Oaxacan community, the event and the Triqui team became about something transcending sport, to include immigration, assimilation, poverty, and more.

“The reason these kids are better than ours is that we want to give our kids everything we never had when we were growing up poor, so we give them everything they ask for” and spoil them, said Enrique Perez, who sells cemetery plots in Inglewood, lives in West LA, and came from Oaxaca 20 years ago. “These Triqui kids have to earn it.”

Also, Perez went on, “here when you tell a kid to do something, he won’t. He calls the police. The kids in Mexico obey. So they’re more disciplined than ours.”

The team still had three games to play when I left and will finish the tournament next Saturday.

Don’t miss it.

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Barefoot Triqui Indian BB players in town

 

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The barefoot Triqui Indian basketball team, from the mountains of Oaxaca, is in Los Angeles for a couple weeks.

The team of 10 and 11-year-olds from the village of Rio Venado, Oaxaca was welcomed with a brass band and a press conference at Casa Oaxaca in Mid-City.

A full schedule awaits. A tournament next two Saturdays. Visits to UCLA, USC, Disneyland, and the Lakers. As well as meals at several of the many Oaxacan restaurants that have proliferated in Pico-Union and West LA in the last 10 years.

The team formed out of an academy set up three years ago in Rio Venado, with a focus on bringing education to the isolated Triquis in the mountains of Oaxaca.

Since then, the boys, playing barefoot, have become something of international stars. They won a tournament in Argentina. They’ve toured Orlando and played the San Antonio Spurs barefoot in Mexico City, winning 10-4.

IMG_5957The Triquis (Tree-Kees) are considered among the poorest indigenous ethnic groups in Mexico. (Los Angeles has few Triquis, but they form a large part of the Central Valley agricultural labor force.) For years, the Triqui region has seemed stuck “in the 18th Century,” said Sergio Zuniga, the coach. “Their dream before was to finish elementary school and go the U.S.”

The academy formed to change that, with Triqui teachers. It adopted the attitude of making do with what it had available, which in Rio Venado doesn’t include tennis shoes. One thing that was available was basketball, which is a huge sport across the mountains of Oaxaca.

“In Mexico, we don’t teach the culture of competitiveness,” Zuniga said. “What we’re doing with these kids is teaching them competitiveness — that they learn to win and lose.”

Since then, the image of shoeless four-foot Indian basketball players has captured the imagination and sympathy of people across the continent.

The team amounts to a public-relations strategy to call attention to the long-forgotten Triqui region, where average education is four years. The Indian-taught academy spent its first 18 months without any help at all. But as the team garnered attention in the Washington Post and CNN, the Mexican government has supported it, promised to build houses for the players’ parents and pay for the kids’ education, including college.

“The idea for the school wasn’t to place blame [for the Triqui situation], but simply to act,” Zuniga said. “With Indians, we’re forming winners. This has astonished people [across the Americas] — how Indians are changing their history.”

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The World’s Best Trombonist … from Oaxaca to Pico-Union

Faustino Diaz

The world’s greatest trombonist appeared in a small music studio in the Pico-Union district of Los Angeles this week.

Faustino Diaz, from Oaxaca, won the prestigious Jeju international trombone competition in Korea earlier this month.

Three days later he was back in his village of San Lorenzo Cacaotepec (pop. 7300), playing danzones with the village band he grew up in, directed by his father.

Diaz has a beautiful story, which reminded me of so many Oaxacan immigrants in LA.

In his village, music possibilities were limited. So he left for Mexico City. There he improved, but as time passed he found he was still not the musician he thought he could be, even as he played in the philharmonic of the National Autonomous University (UNAM).

So a few years ago, he left the plum job with the UNAM philharmonic, gambled everything and moved to Rotterdam, Holland to study with Jorgen van Rijen, who remade his sound, tenderized his musical sensibilities that had been stunted by limited exposure to the world’s music and best musicians off in Mexico.IMG_1771

Showing the kind of gumption that has characterized so many immigrants, including his Oaxacan paisanos here in LA, he became a world-class musician himself.

He came in second in the trombone competition a year ago in Italy. But this year, seasoned and ready for his moment, Diaz beat a French and a Japanese competitor, and 46 others.

With hallucinogenic jet lag, he returned to a hero’s welcome back in Oaxaca, with a parade through his village, hordes of journalists to ask him how he did it, and the banda in which he first learned to play — trumpet initially, then trombone — ready to receive him.

Famed Oaxacan painter Francisco Toledo came to town to congratulate him.

Next day, he flew to Mexico City and was mobbed in a press conference there as well.IMG_1773

This week, he’s in the music studios of Estanislao Maqueos , the premier Oaxacan band instructor in Los Angeles. (2142 W. Washington Blvd., just east of Western Avenue)

Diaz plays with an orchestra of children born to Oaxacan parents, and trained by Maqueos, tonight (Thursday) at the Mexican Consulate on 6th Street near MacArthur Park. 7 p.m.

Meanwhile, a few previous posts from True Tales: A Reporters’ Blog:

Narco-mennonites arrested again

A legend of the raspado

Curandero Carlos, Guatemalan Witch Doctor

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PHOTOGRAPHY: Boy running, Oaxaca, Mexico

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I’m trying to be a better street photographer these days, and the results are only occasionally satisfying.

But I liked this shot last year in Santa Ana del Valle, Oaxaca.

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LOS ANGELES: How Hamburger Hamlet created a Oaxacan kitchen dynasty

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My story is today’s paper is about how the Hamburger Hamlet restaurant chain helped create a Oaxacan kitchen workforce that is now essential to upscale dining in Los Angeles.

I found this out as I began interviewing Zapotec Indians from Oaxaca, Mexico about why there were so many of them in the kitchens of Los Angeles’ best restaurants. I ran into many who told me they started at El Hamlet.

One thing led to another and I discovered that one guy, Asael Gonzalez (pictured above with his wife, Emma, who also worked at El Hamlet), was responsible for grabbing a beachhead there in 1968 and over the next 30 years hiring hundreds upon hundreds of men from Oaxaca’s Sierra Juarez mountains who got their first jobs washing dishes or busing tables at Hamburger Hamlet.

One thing that didn’t make it into the story is that Gonzalez converted to evangelical Christianity in the mid-1970s. When he did this, he changed the religious life of many Zapotecs in L.A. Many converted as well. In the 1970s and 1980s, at least a dozen churches were formed, in Pico-Union and Mid-City, with congregations of Zapotecs who worked at Hamburger Hamlet.

These churches acted as reception centers for arriving immigrants for Oaxaca, where they knew they could find kind words, help finding work, maybe some food and coffee and possible lodging.Emma and Asael Gonzalez

All of which makes Gonzalez an enormously influential figure in LA during this time for the way he transformed his own community and parts of the city. I interviewed him and his wife, but family illness kept me from pursuing his story with sufficient depth.

So the story focuses on Marcelino Martinez, who was hired by Gonzalez in 1970 and later became supervisor of kitchens as the chain expanded, training in the kitchens the hundreds of men Gonzalez hired.

When they were amnestied in 1986, they left the Hamlet and spread out to other restaurants, some leaving food preparation entirely.

As the story says, Martinez is still at it, 43 years later. Amazing….

Today, in LA, there are so many Oaxacans with so much skill and experience that they keep restaurant costs low by allowing owners to dig into the vast Zapotec labor pool to quickly replace workers who are leaving, and with almost no training costs.

Zapotec Indians, from a peasant culture where only women prepared food, now make up some of the best chefs and kitchen workers in Los Angeles.

It’s all in the panorama of today’s L.A.

Photos: Emma and Asael Gonzalez

 

 

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MEXICO: Oaxacan Hoops and the photographer Jorge Santiago

Tlahuitotepec's first female mayor, Sofia Robles, takes the opening shot at the basketball tournament.

Tlahuitotepec’s first female mayor, Sofia Robles, takes the opening shot at the basketball tournament.

Pittsburgh-based photographer Jorge Santiago has put up stunning images of Oaxacan village basketball tournaments at his website.

Santiago it appears spent much of 2012 wandering in the Sierra Juarez mountains from tournament to tournament and has grasped the essence of the basketball world up there — that basketball, the most urban hip-hop 21st Century sport, has become an integral part of Oaxacan Indian culture and tradition.

Check them out. They’re great!

My admiration for the photos, of course, is only enhanced by the fact that Santiago partly drew his inspiration for the project from the story on Oaxacan basketball in my first book (True Tales from Another Mexico: The Lynch Mob, the Popsicle Kings, Chalino and the Bronx).

But the images do make me envious. He’s traveled far into this culture and tradition and captured some beautiful shots. I’m looking forward to see what he can do with the Oaxacan basketball world here in Los Angeles, which is deep.

One thing I always found interesting about this topic: Though Oaxacan Indians are some of the most anthropologically studied of any group in Mexico, I could find no academic researcher who had even a superficial knowledge of basketball and its importance in the cultural, social, and traditional life of Oaxacan villages — or for that matter the enormous importance it plays in the lives of Oaxacan immigrants in Los Angeles, where my story (Zeus and the Oaxaca Hoops) took place.

How many dissertations have been written on pelota Mixteca — an almost extinct sport played 500 years ago? And nothing on basketball, a sport that tens of thousands of Oaxacan young men and women play with a passion bordering on obsession. I find that remarkable. Any thoughts as to why that would be? Please chime in…..

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MEXICO: More Oaxaca photos

Oaxaca is such a colorful place. I’m getting very absorbed in photography lately.

Hope you like these.

Meanwhile, you can see more of my photos up at Kaldi’s — a South Pasadena cafe. I’ve mounted shots from Los Angeles, Colombia and Mexico.

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MEXICO: Our Lady of the Miscelanea

Santa Ana del Valle, Oaxaca

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GLOBAL ECONOMY: Guatemalan mayor declares Internet access a human right

It was only a matter of time. The mayor of an Indian town in Guatemala has declared Internet access to be a human right.

Many Indian communities suffer because they are so isolated from the world.

Anthropologists and tourists often like their Indians very traditional. But tradition has had a way of impoverishing Indian communities.

I’ve been to Indian towns where most people don’t know how to type, use a fax, or drive. Those are formulas for poverty in the global economy. I once met a guy who was learning to type who said he was the first in his village to learn that skill.

To breaking from those impoverishing traditions is one reason why so many Indians are converting to Protestantism in Latin America.

It’s an ironic thing, but the only way to maintain a strong Indian culture is not to embrace isolation, but, as this mayor has, embrace the world. That way a village can develop economically so that its people don’t have to migrate defenseless into a world where education is the currency of value.

There was a time in the 1990s when it was fashionable on the left in Latin America to talk about the pernicious effect of globalization on the poor. But really what Indian communities need above all is more globalization, which is to say, more connectivity — that is, more roads, more Internet connections, more people who know how to type, more people who speak Spanish or English, etc.

One village in Chiapas I went to (pictured here) was part of a coffee cooperative. The only thing they wanted, coop members told me, was a connection to the Internet, which would connect them, in turn, with coffee buyers in Mexico City, or Seattle, and they wouldn’t have sell their beans to the local intermediaries who gave them rock-bottom prices.

 

 

 

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LOS ANGELES: Oaxacan marching band

I attended the inauguration of the L.A. office of FIOB — Frente Indigena de Organizaciones Binacionales (Indigenous Front of Bi-national Organizations), which works to help Indians, mostly from Oaxaca, here in the U.S. and back home.

Before the inauguration, a brass band set off marching playing around the block. Very cool.

Click above for a video of a little of that, then let me know what you think.

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PODCAST: Juan Gutierrez, Oaxacan baker in Santa Monica

Juan Gutierrez, Oaxacan baker in Santa Monica

Welcome to a new feature of my blog — podcast interviews — which I hope to do more of.

The first one is a conversation with Juan Gutierrez, a Zapotec Indian from Oaxaca. His Panaderia Antequera in Santa Monica is believed to be the first Oaxacan-owned business in the L.A. area, opening in the late 1980s.

The conversation is about his arrival here, working at Shakey’s, and opening his bakery — a piece of oral history of a people’s move north.

These last few years a mini-boom in Oaxacan owned businesses has been underway in L.A., spurred by several factors: the idea many have now that they’re not going to be returning home; the size of the Oaxacan immigrant consumer market in L.A.; and a general dispelling of the fear and intimidation with which many Oaxacans, formerly campesinos, viewed business.

The interview is in Spanish and runs about 24 minutes.

I’m hoping to talk to more folks like Mr. Gutierrez, pioneers, people with interesting stories — as well as authors of books that are relevant to the themes of this blog.

Feel free to suggest some.

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LOS ANGELES: A legend of the raspado

I spent some time yesterday with a legendary street vendor.

Ramiro — don’t know his last name — spent 15 years as a street vendor before moving to an established shop a month ago. He’s from San Andres Yaa in the Sierra Juarez in Oaxaca.

In the neighborhood west of MacArthur Park, he was famous for his raspados — shaved ice, snow cones essentially, though with amazing flavors added, such as mango, coconut, cucumber, various chile powders. (During colder weather, he sold steamed corn. Made it all in his house.)

People would form lines for his raspados and some got his cellphone number so they could find him each day.  But the police have been tougher on street vendors lately, so he rented a shop and is easy to find, in his business at James Woods Boulevard and Westmoreland Avenue.

However, he shows signs of not really having left the street behind. When I visited, he did almost everything — just as I imagine he did on the street — while his wife and two employees stood around and watched the maestro at work.

The world of street vendors in LA is now deep and rich — with must be thousands of people making their living this way: selling sodas, fruit, corn, Popsicles, hot dogs, candy, and more. A robust informal economic ecosystem with direct roots in Mexico and Central America.

Quite controversial, too, as tax-paying, rent-paying merchants see no reason why they should have to compete with others who don’t. The health department, too, has issues with the way a lot of the food is prepared and stored.

 

 

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