Monday, May 19, 2014

A World of Difference

Marcelo & Concepción: los panaderos de Tanivet
I am back in Corvallis again, after a near six month stay in magical Oaxaca. It was time well spent. But, Corvallis is such an easy place to return to, especially in the spring when days are longer and sunshine more prevalent. I rediscover all the things I like about living here: good friends, beautiful surroundings, the peace and quiet of a small town, and all the cozy comforts of living "al otro lado".

Mexico is by no means a third world country. Oaxaca especially has a cosmopolitan flavor with tapa bars, organic markets, elegant rooftop bars, and fine jazz clubs. But Oaxaca, like most of Mexico, is a place of striking contrasts: modern vs ancient, rich vs poor, order vs chaos. There is an ever-present intermingling of cultures: indigenous, mestizo, and American that defines Mexico. I was fortunate to have been involved in a photography project in Tanivet, a small pueblo a half an hour outside of Oaxaca. Approximately three hundred people live in the pueblo, with another three hundred family members living in  L.A. It has a ghost town-ish feel to it: a new penitentiary with no one in it, a zoo with exotic animals that hardly anyone visits, schoolyards where children are seldom seen. Fellini would have a field day here! There are i pads and computers where there is no internet connection, large screen television monitors and fancy refrigerators in homes where no one lives, and an allegiance to the LA Lakers that would rival any home in California.

Marcelo with green card
The most memorable part of my work in this project was getting to know Marcelo and Concepcíon, the pueblo bakers. I formed an especially close relationship with Marcelo, who is the same age as I am. He was one of the first men from Tanivet to "cruzar la linea" to work in LA in the early 1970's. He still has his green card from that visit, which he believes would still get him into the States if he wanted to return. But he does not want to return, he is content baking bread to sell in Tanivet and the surrounding pueblos. He lives with the
Making conchas
memories of his youth, when it cost nothing to cross over, no coyotes, no hi-tech border surveillance equipment to intercept your passage. There is a world of difference between then and now, between Marcelo's reality and mine.

Our birthdays are only a few months apart. We passed the same number of years on this planet, but in such different ways. My life reflects the "luck of the draw", a comfortable middle class American life full of opportunities. Marcelo's life was rewarding in a different way, but definitely without the same opportunities or middle class existence that I had. One road is not better than the other, but one is much smoother with far fewer "topes" to obstruct the journey.

 From day one, Marcelo and Concepción invited me into their home and their lives without hesitation. Although they were among the poorest families in the pueblo, their generosity had no limits, what they had, they were more than willing to share. Each visit either started or ended with "taquitos a la Concepción" flavored with mesquite, their sole source of cooking fuel. It was also what fired the brick oven that is in their livingroom.

Mesquite gathered for oven
 The firewood is free, so to speak. It comes from a piece of land a kilometer or so from Marcelo's house. Thanks to money sent from the US, Marcelo has a Ford tractor and a small trailer to haul the wood. To gather the wood, it is necessary to sign a contract with the municipality of Mitla which states that in return for gathering the wood free of charge, they must cut back all the mesquite bushes to the ground and burn what remains. It is an incredible amount of work, and the mesquite is vicious! I had huge thorns go through the soles of my shoes three times in one day. As I whined about how sharp they were, they worked without gloves and smiled. Así somos los gringos!
Field burning a la Mexicana

Remembering LA
 Despite the differences in our lives, Marcelo and I became friends. We spent many hours talking as I photographed. He loved to reminisce about the time he spent "al otro lado", both the good moments and the not so pleasant ones. He has a son there now whom he has not seen for many years. He has married, has children, and has his life in LA. The separation is painful, but is accepted as "the way it has to be". It is much easier to earn a living there than it is in Tanivet. Almost every family has a loved one living and working "al otro lado", and many of the men have been there themselves. They understand the attraction, and can only hope that their children return home someday to live in the empty house that is waiting for them. But that is not a given; it is not easy to leave once you are settled and have established your life in the US. You must accept what you cannot change.

Although the project in Tanivet is finished, I have reasons to return. First, there are Marcelo and Concepción, who, despite the world of difference in our lives, are now my friends.
There is also the unique beauty that the Oaxaca countryside offers.Tanivet is in stark contrast to the colonial beauty of the city of Oaxaca. Even though it often seems desolate and abandoned, it has its own charm, so peaceful and pastoral.
The main street of Tanivet
And there are still many more hours of stories to be listened to and taquitos to share with friends (not to mention freshly baked conchas straight from the oven!)
My visits to Tanivet remind me that there is indeed a world of difference in our lives, but there are far more similarities that brings us together. There is a universal interconnectedness that crosses borders, merges cultures, and allows friendships to blossom in the most unexpected of places. 
Un abrazo de amistad, Marcelo y Concepción. Gracias por todo.
Photo by Mari Seder

I was very fortunate to have had two excellent photographers photographing Marcelo and Concepción along with me. They also have become good friends and have taught me a lot. Gracias Mari y Raquel.

Mari Seder in action

Raquel Rocha, building "confianza"