Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Oaxaca Wednesday: Envisioning a Better Future

by Aly Lewis

Makeshift houses carved into steep banks, corn tortillas sizzling on the grill, Mixteco faces staring back at me. If I didn’t know any better I would have thought I was back in Oaxaca. But I wasn’t. I was at photo exhibit at the Institute of the Americas at UCSD. The exhibit by David Bacon was meant to highlight Indigenous Mexican Farmworkers in California and I expected to see a few familiar Mixteco faces, but I was surprised to see that almost all of the migrant workers in the vibrant photo exhibit were Mixtecos from the highlands of Oaxaca. I often write that Oaxaca has the highest emigration rate of any Mexican state, but it hasn’t really meant anything to me personally until now.

Just over a week ago I sat in a half-finished concrete brick building in the community of Loma Chimedia. Our motley crew of Plant With Purpose USA staff, Oaxacan staff, and various Plant With Purpose supporters who joined us on the vision trip sat in awe and rapture (and slight nausea as a few of us had gotten sick) while a Mixteco man talked about his cultural heritage. A member of the Loma Chimedia community group (Xe’e Xiki in Mixteco), Don Alier, shared with us about his community’s values and vision for the future.

The group originally formed over 20 years ago, Don Alier explained, but things really began to change when they first teamed up with Plant With Purpose to establish a tomato greenhouse and participate in reforestation projects in 2001. These initial projects sparked the beginning of a fruitful collaboration with Plant With Purpose that has literally transformed the very fiber of the community. Taped to the brick wall of the new community center’s conference room, was a timeline highlighting the group’s key milestones since 1989. Another sheet of paper reflected on their history and greatest accomplishments, which included closer access to water, learning ways to improve family health, nutrition, and income, improving community relationships (especially among women), learning to construct cisterns, ecological latrines, wells, wood saving stoves, and drip irrigation systems, producing tomatoes in greenhouses, and gaining capacity that they didn’t have before.

But that’s not all. In addition to reflecting on how far they’ve come, the group has big dreams for the future. The entire community—men, women, and children—came together to create a vision statement. Their vision is to be a transformed, organized, self-managed group working to improve their quality of life in social, spiritual, and economic aspects, instilling values in their children and the young people of the community so they don’t emigrate. Wow.

I was blown away by their clarity of vision. I was blown away by their confidence in themselves and their abilities. I was blown away by the pride they take in their culture and in their accomplishments. And the best part is, they’re really making it happen. They have been successful in implementing community projects that have restored relationships, improved quality of life, and increased their self-sufficiency—so they aren't forced to leave their village looking for hope and opportunity elsewhere.

And if the posters and presentation weren’t enough to make me green with envy for their community spirit and pride, they began to tell us about the ways they’re preserving, protecting, and enriching their culture. How they’re translating stories and prayers and even the New Testament into their Mixteco language. How Don Alier was the voice of John the Baptist in the Mixteco dubbed “Jesus Film.” How they’re teaching their children Mixteco and carrying on their oral traditions and folklore. And then—by far one of the highlights of the trip and possibly one of the highlights of all of my travel experiences—Don Alier sang us the Mixteco national anthem in his native language. His rich voice resounded throughout the room and I even forgot that I had been feeling sick as he proudly sang. He told us it was a song of homesickness and longing for their native land. It was beautiful. When he finished singing the song in Mixteco, the entire room joined in for the Spanish version—a musical testimony of their dedication and commitment to their culture, their people, and their land.

So when I saw familiar Mixteco faces peering back at me at the UCSD farmworker photo exhibit last week, I was struck by their misplacement and displacement. It’s tough to fathom how difficult and hopeless life must be for Mixtecos to leave their homes and families in search of a better life in Northern Mexico, the United States, or right up the road from us in Del Mar, California. But I’m encouraged by the hope and courage of the people of Loma Chimedia and how they’re joining together to make their community a place where young people want to stay, and, more importantly, a place where young people can stay and survive and even flourish.

I’m proud to be a part of an organization that is coming alongside communities like Loma Chimedia to preserve their culture, enrich their communities, and build a better future for their children.

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