Sunday, 31 August 2014

Oaxaca - In Other Words

One of the books I read as background research for this blog was Sliced Iguana: Travels in Mexico (2001) by the English travel journalist, Isabella Tree.  Isabella travelled to Oaxaca, as well as Chiapas, Patzcuaro and the Sierra Madre, where she went beyond the usual tourist/traveller experiences, in an attempt to understand the complex and, apparently, contradictory nature of Mexican culture.  I found her book very informative and entertaining and I would definitely recommend it.

I've come across quite a few new words/phrases, both in Tree's book and elsewhere, as I've been researching about Oaxaca and Mexico.  I've chosen some of these, by coincidence all beginning with the letter 'M', which touch on important areas of Oaxacan and Mexican culture.

México profundo

Benito Juarez, 26th President of Mexico
In many ways, Oaxaca is the very definition of México profundo or 'Deep Mexico'. Something I've learned about Mexico is that, rather than thinking of it as a single, united country, it's more useful to think of Mexico as a patchwork of cultures and experiences, many of which wouldn't conform to outsiders' stereotypes of what Mexico is or should be.

Even the capital, Mexico City, isn't exactly typical of Mexico and, by all accounts, if you want to see the real Mexico, a country of charros (Mexican cowboys), tequila and mariachi music, it's better to go to Mexico's second-biggest city, Guadalajara, the capital of Jalisco state.

Oaxaca is the other side of Mexico - a state where 58% of the population is indigenous and where some of the Zapotec, Mixtec, Mixe, Zoque, Mazateco, Chinanteco, Popaloco etc. people don't speak Spanish. An estimated 15% of Mexico's population is indigenous and almost half of Mexico's indigenous people live in Oaxaca.

It's hardly surprising then that Mexico's first indigenous President, Benito Juárez (President from 1858 to 1864) was from Oaxaca.  He famously proclaimed that:

No hay indios en México, somos todos Mexicanos
There are no Indians in Mexico, we are all Mexicans

Whilst it's noble political statement, I can't help thinking he was brushing indigenous culture under the carpet.

Mezcal

Mezcal bottles with worms
Oaxaca is the biggest producer of Mezcal, a distilled alcoholic drink made from Maguey, a kind of agave plant which is native to Mexico and the southern United States.  Mezcal was mostly used in religious ceremonies, before it became another commodity, for sale in duty-free shops all over the world.  The most famous form of Mezcal is tequila, which is made from the 'blue agave' and produced in Jalisco, as mentioned above.

During her travels to Mexico, Isabella Tree spent some time with the Huichol people of the Sierra Madre in Zacatecas state.  Another M word I can share is Mara'akame, a Huichol word meaning 'elder', often interpreted as 'shaman' and Huichol religious beliefs, more than those of any other indigenous group in Mexico, have attracted the attention of people outside Mexico, because of their use of peyote, a cactus that contains mescaline and induces hallucinations and psychedelic 'trips'.

Tree herself consumed peyote as part of a religious ceremony overseen by a Mara'akame and many other Westerners, writers and poets like Ken Kesey, Allen Ginsberg and Carlos Castaneda, have travelled to Mexico seeking enlightenment and inspiration from this magical plant.

Despite the name, Mezcal doesn't contain mescaline, as peyote does, although people believe that eating the worm at the bottom of the Mezcal bottle will induce an hallucinogenic trip!

For many years, after the 1910 revolution and the introduction of a new constitution in 1917, religion was officially off the agenda for the newly-secular Mexico.  Shortly after his trip to Liberia in the 1930's (see my blog post about this) Graham Greene was sponsored by the Catholic Church to visit Mexico and report back on the Mexican government's secularisation campaign and suspected rights abuses against practising Catholics.  His book, The Lawless Roads, records his experience in Mexico and he was also inspired to write a novel, The Power and the Glory which featured an alcoholic priest.  Not surprisingly, this didn't go down so well with his sponsors in the Vatican!
Interior of church in Oaxaca, by einalem

Despite the lack of official support, religious practice seems to have survived in Mexico and Catholicism has remained in a strong position, where Protestantism has made more inroads in other, traditionally-Catholic countries, like Brazil.  Nevertheless, Mexico's Protestant population has also increased in recent years, especially in far-flung corners of the country, like Quintana Roo and Chiapas.  Mexico's 'other Christian' population currently stands at about 10% (compared to around 40% in Brazil).

It took a while for Christianity to catch on in Oaxaca and these days there are slightly fewer Catholics and slightly more Protestants in Oaxaca than the national averages.  I didn't come across a lot of information about indigenous religious practises in Oaxaca, although I'm sure indigenous religious beliefs still permeate Oaxacan life - my impression was more of a general ambivalence to religion in the state, which perhaps reflects a wider national trend where church attendance is pretty low, even if people are nominally Christian.

Muxe


LGBT pride in Mexico City by Carlos Mejía Greene
I came across this Zapotec word when I was reading about Isabella Tree's experiences partying with the transsexual community in Oaxaca.  The word muxe (pronounced moo-shey) is believed to have derived from the Spanish word mujer meaning 'woman' and is the word used to describe Oaxaca's 'third sex', i.e. women who were born male.

Another important M word that's relevant is machismo and Mexican men are famous for their macho image, just as Mexican women are supposed to be beautiful, passive and all-suffering.  Oaxaca seems to buck the trend and, in an interesting narrative about her time there, Tree explains how it's the women who are in the driving seat in Oaxaca, not the men.

As well as having a refreshingly open attitude towards gender roles, indigenous cultures in Mexico also seem to take a much more relaxed view of sexuality and are, generally speaking, more tolerant of same-sex couples.  The situation for LGBT people in Mexico is improving all the time, but there is still a long way to go for same-sex couples to be given the same rights as male-female partners and incidents of violence against LGBT people remains pretty high.

Coahuila on the border with the USA was the first Mexican state to legalise same-sex partnerships and Oaxaca saw its first same-sex marriage in 2013. To date, only the government of Mexico City provides any legal framework for a change of gender identity, although states like Oaxaca, with large indigenous populations have tolerated the existence of muxe for many years.

Image credits:

The image of Benito Juarez is from Wikipedia and is in the public domain.

The image of the Mezcal bottles is from the Finnish version of Wikipedia and was shared using the Creative Commons license by Suvi Korhonen (user: Suviko) - you can see more information about the image on its Wikicommons page.  

The interior of the church in Oaxaca was taken by my fellow countrywoman and Flickr member, einalem - you can see more of her Oaxaca photos on her photo stream.

The photo from LGBT pride in Mexico City was taken by Carlos Mejía Greene, a native of the city who now lives in Canada.  You can see more of Carlos' photos on his Flickr account.

Thanks to Suvi, Einalem and Carlos for sharing these images with us using the Creative Commons license.  
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