- Oaxaca City
As soon as I land I can feel it. That special aliveness, the electricity, that comes from cities of true cultural diversity. Where different peoples rub up against each other like sticks making fire. All those static edges exploding potential creativity into true vibrancy. Teachers and students, artists and internationals, people from all over Mexico and all over the world have come together in Oaxaca. There are indigenous women crouching in the streets, decked out in festive dress. Planted like brightly colored flowers selling their wares. Young metaleros, and punks picking over CDs in the marketplace. Each house a different sunbaked color, lined up like children’s blocks, tattooed with spray-painted political stencils and gorgeous murals. A Mexican intelligentsia teaching the theories of Ivan Ilyich at free community schools and indigenous organizers politicizing themselves.
We are traveling in the state of Oaxaca for two weeks, me and six other students, all-female, chaperoned by one young and eccentric male professor in Elton John sunglasses and tight, white shorts. His favorite activity is giggling over all the gossip of our love lives and taking photos of us in our different outfits against the bright colors of the painted houses. Oaxaca’s next top model. Each one of us had been awarded an independent research grant to investigate a different aspect of how migration is transforming the way of life and culture in the region. My focus is indigenous women’s movements.
We journey through the cities and pueblos of the Mixtec mountains of Southern Mexico, meeting with organizations and individuals. Oaxaca has become one of the primary locations for scouts from the United States to come looking for ready labor. What were once robust areas bustling with village life are now ghost towns. Pueblos populated by only women or, sometimes, no one at all. Their husbands and sons have all gone to seek their fortune in El Norte, leaving them the children and elders to care for. In the vacuum created by the men’s absence, the women have begun organizing. Creating collective childcare, meeting in groups to share and educate themselves, building alliances across indigenous tribal lines. It is a slow revolution, but fierce and resolved. These women are determined to change themselves, their societies and the entire geo-political map.
- The Weavers
We go to a family known in a Zapotec village for weaving. They are in their courtyard, surrounded by chickens and firewood. A woman, 50 years old and already a great-grandmother, dyes wool in steaming pots of purple flowers while her three daughters craft traditional patterns on rustic, wooden looms. I find myself overcome by the desire to sit at the feet of these indigenous women. I want to stroke their thick salt and pepper braids. To build a house of their humble, soft-spoken wisdom. To be the tortillas they flatten to perfect circles in the worn, fleshy palms of their hands.
One woman explains to me in broken Spanish how the traditional framework of weaving only allows small opportunities for individual creativity and innovation. Sometimes she can add a small alteration into the design. A sheep or a box shape. With every piece, she pushes herself to think of some way she can make it different, make it special.
I watch her hands while she says this to me, never ceasing their rhythm, passing and catching the shuttle through the maze of strings and rickety wood.
“Look,” she says, pointing to a pyramid embellished with curlicues, “that’s me.”
“The pyramid?’ I ask and gesture.
“No,” she winks and smiles, pointing again to the curlicue. “There I am.”
Her strength and perseverance shine out from her. Her patience, her ability to slowly, subtly, create new creatures in the textures that have been woven for generations. All the women I meet astound me. Together they are weaving a sustainable revolution. Increasing the curlicues in the pyramids until one day it will all come tumbling open, and reveal itself as something new.
On the trip there is a woman named Emily. Heavyset and down-to-earth. I love her. Her big feelings, her realness, her passion for becoming a teacher. One time Caitlyn asked Emily to carry her water bottle in her pack as we hiked along a river on the outskirts of San Juan.
“I’d rather not,” Emily said plainly. I’d never heard a woman do that before. She broke the rules. She made me laugh.
Emily practices something called Reiki, a gentle form of energy work based on the laying on of hands. Something that both intrigues me and makes me roll my eyes. I have always been closed to spirituality. Growing up in a home where religion was blamed for the horrors of colonialism, war, women’s oppression, homophobia, etc. Where my parents had fiercely rejected the vengeful and patriarchal God of their Old Testament Hebrew school upbringing. The most positive mention of religion came in wistful statements such as ‘I wish I did believe in God, then all the suffering of the world would make sense.’ Or resentful incrimination, ‘If there was a God, why would they allow such suffering to exist in the world?’ I have skirted the issue, approached it intellectually. All my journeys through metaphysics, poetry, and psychedelics, I’ve been able to chalk up to the potential of the mind. The wide, expansive, mysterious capabilities of consciousness. My ontological categories have keep spirituality separate from me even when the person next me was having a full-on experience of the divine.
She says she wants to share it with us. That reiki changed her life and she wants us to have the option to experience it if we wanted to. As the trip goes on she gives treatments to each one of us. I hear the rumors trickle through the group. Caitlyn had immediately flushed with red visuals behind closed eyes. Afterwards, Emily had told her she’d seen red waves moving through her body. Celine had felt the hands of her dead grandmother stroking her hair like a healing balm. These are women just like me and they had felt something mysterious and wonderful. I am the last one to go.
- Yoel’s Place
We pull into the town of Santa Cruz at the invite of our host Yoel. Standard Oaxacan fare. Dirt roads, big church, stray dogs, fluorescent lights. A few TVs blaring the same soap opera from different directions. Boys hanging out in the central plaza, admiring a man’s new truck.
“Bought with migration dollars,” Yoel sucks his teeth disgustedly. “They don’t need recruiters anymore, the people do it for them.”
Yoel’s house is different. He is an artist, an activist, a shaman. A priest in his village practicing his own form of syncretism. The dark wooden rooms of his home are a labyrinth of indigenous carvings, political flyers and many, many paintings of a very, very brown Jesus. He tells us he makes medicinal liquors. Bottles of hooch fermented with wild fruits buried under three feet of dirt in his backyard under the darkness of the new moon. He digs one up special just for us.
‘Toma,’ he says with a wily grin, drink. ‘Es organico.’
A big shipping company is planning on building a cement road through Joel’s beloved village, barreling through an heirloom cornfield on the west side of their most sacred mountain. A gas station is scheduled to come in next and with it: cookies, tampons, soda, the insured destruction of their entire way of life. The village is battling it tooth and nail, Yoel at the helm. They have erected crosses on the proposed site of the construction, held vigil, sacrificed chickens under the full moon and sprayed their blood on the corn.
That night we have a charla, a community talk, about cultural preservation, about self-determination. About allowing the people of the village to make their own choices and about how to support them.
“Progress cannot be stopped, but it can be shaped. Within the circumstances at hand there’s still room to choose how we would like to move forward into the future.” Yoel is on fire tonight. Afterwards, people drift to smaller circles of fellowship and other topics. The teacups are being collected. Yoel is slyly pulling out his hooch.
“It’s your turn,” Emily says. “Come with me.”
She leads me up the stairs to the attic, Yoel’s art studio, and turns on the lamp. A single soft bulb illuminating paintings of indigenous Jesus everywhere.
She tells me to lie down on the cornhusk bed and covers me with a quilted blanket. She places her hands, one on the top of my head and one at the place where my rib cage begins to unzip. My mind is still buzzing from the conversation. Spinning the unknown future of this village and the limits of self-determination in the context of global capitalism around and around. Her hands begin to heat up the chatter. The imagery accelerates, the thoughts race. And then: it breaks through.
Through the webbing of my own thoughts and sensations, a presence enters me that is distinctly not myself. Something comes to me. Something arrives in my body after a long journey through the cosmos. It delivers itself through the gentle willingness of this being, this Emily, who is making herself available to it through the grace of her hands upon me. Warm golden honey pours into me, wraps itself around me. Glowing butter melts me into brown sugar, embracing every organ and tired bone. The light caresses me. Sweeps and drains the tension from my whole being. I exhale for the first time since Jerusalem.
Something is doing this. Something is moving through me. It is a feeling, but, more strangely, it is a something. Something that does not emerge spontaneously from the creative capacity of my consciousness. Something that is not originating from the imaginary potential of my mind. Something very ancient. Something that is not me at all. And this is the most distinctive feature about it.
It is here in Yoel’s attic, surrounded by his paintings, the women’s laughter whisping up from downstairs. It is here, in the valley village of a Southern Mexican mountain range, that for the first time in my life, I feel something that I can’t call anything other than the touch of spirit.It chinks my jaded intellectual armor. It pings open my third eye. It is a moment, a seed of an entirely different path. Something I never intended. Never planned. Never would have wanted for myself. I know that I am changed. I know that I am found. I know, more than ever, that I am lost.
“What do I do with myself?” I cry into the warmth of this light.
“Who am I and what do I do with myself now?”
And I feel the something answer. “Do not worry. You have time. You have time. You have so much time.”