viernes, 26 de febrero de 2010

Lessons about Rural Communitites in Mexico

By Callan Elswick,
Davidson College

Through the help of Atzin, we traveled to Tlamacazapa and Amatlán last week in order to learn more about globalization’s effect on the environment, medicine, and indigenous cosmovision. Aztin is a non-profit organization that supports holistic community development in Tlamacazapa by providing clean water, investigating public health issues, and empowering women economically, socially, and politically. In addition to speaking with Susan Smith, the co-founder of Atzin, we also met with Agustin Perez Garcia*, a member of the Amatlan Communal Land Council, about community organizing and indigenous rights. Through our visits we experienced, albeit superficially, the poverty and the culture of both Amatlán and Tlamacazapa.

Amatlán is a small village that was founded 4,000 to 7,000 years ago. While it was the home to many illustrious revolutionaries and religious figures, it currently has 1,000 residents including Agustin. When we visited on Tuesday, Agustin spoke to us about pre-Colombian traditions and the indigenous struggle to protect these traditions from the Spanish conquest, economic imperialism, and globalization. He explained the importance of communal land to the indigenous population by recounting Mexican history and described how Emiliano Zapata’s demand for “Tierra y Libertad” under the Plan de Ayala became a reality in Article 27 of the Mexican Constitution of 1917 by making indigenous communal lands inalienable and redistributing land into ejidos for the public. However, in order to appease its NAFTA partners, the Mexican government reformed Article 27 and permitted the privatization of ejido land without consulting the indigenous population or the campesinos.

Today, indigenous groups including the Amatlán Communal Land Council politically oppose and organize against the idea of private property which many feel is “just a tool that governments used to oppress people.”[1] While Amatlán has thwarted the development of many of the government’s megaprojects through community organizing, Agustin emphasizes that the point of this struggle is “to put tools in the hands of our peoples so that they may know their rights in the community” for “our land is also our capital because here lie the bones of our ancestors, here are our traditions.”

Tlamacazapa is another indigenous town, but unlike Amatlán, it has a population of 6,100, 40% of its children are not in school, and 50% of its young women are illiterate. Most of the community members are weavers who trade their art to vendors who, then, make a profit by selling them in places like Cuernavaca or Acapulco. Because villagers only make a few pesos per weaving, many are impoverished and living in shacks with dirt floors, rod walls, and tin roofs. As Susan said, “There’s nothing romantic about being poor.” In order to combat the poverty and health issues of Tlamacazapa, Atzin conducted research and brought the results to the community in order to foster a “culture of inquiry, not just a culture of development.” Susan emphasized, “The people impacted by the problem need to own the solution.” So, when Atzin discovered that Tlamacazapa’s water was contaminated with arsenic and lead, Susan and other volunteers aided the community in forming bridge activities or safe places where people could voice their opinions. They have also trained adolescent “promoters,” to be midwives or teachers in the Atzin-sponsored school. Additionally, they have set up a palm weaving co-op, a quilt-making co-op, and a women-run store. I believe that by placing economic, political, and social power in the hands of the community, Aztin has enacted real change.

After speaking to Agustin and Susan, we traveled to Tlamacazapa and visited community members. We saw wells full of trash and green algae. In addition to carrying water down rocky and slippery slopes, we attempted to make tortillas and weave baskets. Although I cannot even begin to understand the poverty, the malnourishment, and the culture of either Amatlán or Tlamacazapa, I feel informed and empowered to question U.S. and Mexican policy and lobby for change. How can indigenous cosmovision and culture be protected in this era of globalization? How can U.S. citizens be conscientious consumers?

Photo: A Well at Tlamacazapa

[1] Agustin Perez Garcia, personal interview, Amatlán, Mexico, February 16, 2010. *Name has been changed to protect identity.

viernes, 12 de febrero de 2010

Learning About Intercultural Understanding

Today we had the great opportunity to listen to a guest lecture by the Mexican interculturalist author, singer, song-writer Betty Ramos, who did an excellent job of helping us develop new understandings of some of the similarities and differences of the multiple cultures of Mexico and the United States.

Lic. Ramos is the author of several books, including Negltiating Cuoltural Barriers and The Geo-Context: A Guide to Intercultural Understanding Between Canada, Mexico, and the United States. Rather than simply giving us a list of "dos" and "don'ts" that would have limited value, Lic. Ramos not only introduced key concepts and theoretical frameworks from the field of intercultural communication but also shared several of her own personal experiences living in Mexico, the United States, and Canada, where she has facilitated countless workshops on intercultural communication.

During our time in Mexico, it will be helpful to remember her stories and suggestions regarding saying THANK YOU as many times as possible in as many different ways as possible and "decorating the truth" by always trying to be as polite and simpático as possible. Thank you, Betty Ramos!

In What Ways Has Free Trade Been Good &/or Bad for Mexico?

This week we have been continuing our study of the high cost of living in Mexico (especially for the poor), and exploring the impacts of economic globalization and free trade on diverse sectors of Mexican society. Two of the books we've been reading are Globalization (Current Controversies), edited by Debra A. Miller (2007) and Illegal People: How Globalization Creates Migration & Criminalizes Immigrants by David Bacon (2008). The first explores opposing viewpoints on various aspects of economic globalization and the second one clearly takes a stance against neoliberal economic policies and makes links between them and migration, including undocumented migration to the United States.

It has been fascinating to read and hear a wide variety of viewpoints from different people, including a guest speaker named Andrés Santos, who talked to our group on Wednesday. What was especially interesting about Lic. Santos' talk is that he is a Mexican businessman who believes in free trade and is very articulate about the ways in which NAFTA benefitted his family business but also the ways in which economic globalization harmed it, as companies took their business to China. Rather than turning economic globalization into a simplistic "black and white" issue, he addressed the complexities of it and his opinion of the pros and cons of different aspects of the economic policies being implemented by the U.S. and Mexican governments, as well as others.

jueves, 4 de febrero de 2010

High Cost of Living in Mexico Makes It Hard to Support a Family

On Tuesday our class engaged in an experiential activity called the Market Basket Survey, which required us to split into small groups and go to the main market in Cuernavaca to purchase items from the basic food basket that most Mexican families need for survival. We were given money to purchase those items, which included beans, milk, tortillas, eggs, and cooking oil, among other things. It was a practical assignment since we later got to eat that food. However, we were also asked to check the prices of person items that we might consider "necessities," such as shampoo, toothpaste, tampons, and diapers (for those with children). It was a fun activity, as we got to walk to the huge main market that covers the span of several streat blocks and see rows and rows of beautifully arranged fruits and vegetables and other items and interact with the merchants in a meaningful way since we were buying their goods.

As we purchased items and checked the prices of others, we jotted down the prices in pesos. Afterwards, when we came back to our campus, we converted the prices to the dollar amounts, dividing the peso price by 13 since the current exchange rate is approximately 13 pesos to the dollar. In addition, we were asked to calculate the TIME COST for Mexican minimum wage earners - that is, the number of hours that a Mexican worker would have to work to purchase each item if s/he were earning minimum wage, which is approximately US $4.20/DAY, or slighlty over 50 cents per hour. Once we did that, we were shocked at the results, as we discovered that "necessity" items like tampons and diapers would take days of labor to purchase, and even the basic food basket exceeds what one earns on minimum wage! So what initially seemed to us like "cheap" prices when we simply converted peso prices to dollars are actually very expensive when we think about them in terms of wages. No wonder so many people feel pressure to go to the United States to find jobs where they can earn a lot more in one hour than they can in one day here!

In class we talked about the fact that in the cities most people earn more than minimum wage, whereas they often earn less than that in field labor in the countryside. Moreover, lots of people don't earn regular wages because, like taxi drivers and street vendors, they are self-employed and don't receive a paycheck, so earnings can vary from day to day. Obviously, the cost of living is a complex issue. Nonetheless, this exercise was extremely helpful to us in starting to get a sense of costs for the majority of the population here.
One simple example to illustrate the point of the high cost of living is the cost of a movie ticket - currnetly $46 pesos, which is only US $3.50. Seems cheap by U.S. standards, right? Well, if you earn Mexican minimum wage, you'd have to work for 6.7 hours in order to buy that movie ticket, and if you had 2 children to take to the movies, you'd have to work for 20.1 hours (nearly 3 days) just to buy the tickets, without including your bus fare to get to the movie theatre and back, much less popcorn or soda. So taking your kids to the movies is a luxury that Mexicans living on minimum wage could simply never afford. That really helped put things into perspective for me.

Do people who are strongly opposed to undocumented Mexicans working in the United States understand the economic challenges that they face here in Mexico? Also, what about minimum wages in different states of the U.S.A.? Can people really live on minimum wage in the U.S.? How much do you need to earn in the U.S. support yourself and/or a family with two children? I'd love to hear what you think! Please respond!

miércoles, 3 de febrero de 2010

Spring 2010 Semester Off to a Great Start!

“Migration & Globalization: Engaging Our Communities” is back, as this semester-long program occurs every spring in Cuernavaca, Mexico through the Center for Global Education at Augsburg College. We just began last week and are happy to report a fabulous new group of students from colleges as diverse as Augsburg, Bowdoin, Emory, Davidson, and Drake University. For the first half of the semester, we are also being accompanied by a recent graduate of Carleton College who is participating in many aspects of our program.

During the first week we spent a lot of time getting to know Cuernavaca and each other. We took Spanish pre-tests at the Universal Universal Center for Language and Social Communication, which is a highly respected Spanish school, where you can choose two of 17 different Spanish courses ranging from basic grammar and conversation courses to Contemporary Mexican Literature, Spanish for Heritage Speakers, and Mexican Art.

We also visited the ancient pyramids at Xochicalco in the southern part of the state of Morelos and learned about the cosmovision (worldview) of pre-Columbian peoples, whose spirituality emphasized unity, bipolar duality (as opposed to Western oppositional binary dualism), fluidity, interconnectedness, balance, and reciprocity.

At Xochicalco we saw the remains of magnificent temples built by the Nahua-speaking population that existed long before the Spanish conquest, as the construction there began approximately 200 years BCE, and the civilization flourished between 600 and 900 of this era. It is believed that the Toltec emperor Quetzalcoatl (known often as the “Mesoamerican Christ-figure”) studied astronomy in Xochicalco, whose principle temple is dedicated to the feathered-serpent God Quetzalcaotl. (Quetzal = the bird, & coatl = serpent in the Nahuatl language). As you can see in the picture of the pyramids both above and below, the carvings represent this great feathered serpent god who united the heavens and the earth. (In the picture below, his feathered heaad is in the upper far left corner and his serpent-like body winds around to the right.)

After visiting Xochicalco, we visited a nearby former sugarcane plantation called the Ex-Hacienda Santa Cruz. We learned about the history of the plantations that were established during the colonial period and the exploitation of both indigenous and African slaves who were forced to work on them.
We spent the night there and then spent the next day getting further acquainted with each other and talking about our roles as foreigners in Mexico. Our discussions included articles such as Ivan Illich’s “To Hell with Good Intentions” and several articles on power, privilege, and positionality. This is especially important because many of us will be conducting internships in Mexican organizations, as well as living with Mexican host families, and we want to be as sensitive as possible to this cultural context.

Have you ever been to Mexico? If so, did you visit ancient sacred sites such as Xochicalco? What have you learned about Mexican pre-Columbian civilizations and contemporary indigenous peopes? What are your thoughts about your/our responsibility as foreigners here? We’d love to hear your thoughts!