Oaxaca, Mexico–It is a distortion of politics that establishes separate categories for domestic and international affairs. In fact, the categories repeatedly merge. A good example is the current economic plight of Mexico and, concurrently, the legislation before Congress to restrict illegal and legal immigration. The interaction is profound.
Mexico, like the United States and Canada (and several other countries, for that matter), has a government that overspent for years, and now the people are paying for it. But whereas you might say that the United States has a fiscal cold and Canada the flu, Mexico is suffering from pneumonia. Despite a more than 50 percent devaluation of the peso in the last year and a $51 billion bailout program financed by the U.S., Mexicans continue to endure a recession that in our terms would be a depression. If you think the modest belt-tightening that the U.S. Congress has in mind for our government is hard to bear–with a mainly theatrical government shutdown–imagine the cutbacks taking place in Mexico. That economy is not just sluggish; the GDP actually plunged 7 percent this past year. And there is no safety net.
In this beautiful state 350 miles south of Mexico City, the graceful and clean colonial city of Oaxaca (pronounced Wa-ha-ca), founded by the Spanish almost five centuries ago, is rich in archeology, architecture, music, cooking, handicrafts and a delectable climate (at 5,000 feet in a tropical zone, neither air conditioning nor central heat is needed). It has counted Mexico’s greatest president, Benito Jaurez, and its longest serving dictator, Porfirio Diaz, among its citizens.
Scattered around the center city of some 350,000 are villages of “idigenas,” descendants of Zapotec and Mixtec peoples who raised a high civilization in the broad, rolling valley of Oaxaca a couple of thousand years before the Aztecs, and then the Spaniards, conquered them.
A 16th century Spanish monk with a genius for economic development later organized each village around a different craft. In one village it was pottery, in another carpets, in another textiles, and so on. To this day villages pursue these same crafts, about as pure an assemblage of cottage industries as one could find.
But some of the very charms that make the Oaxaca valley so appealing–the lack of fast food restaurants, for instance–also reflect the lack of modern marketing and technology that could help lift the curse of poverty hereabouts. It takes two days a week for women of the village of Teotitlan to fetch the pure water they need for the all-natural dye process used in making carpets–a tremendous waste of human capital. A closer source would help.
Again, many of the fabrics and leather work produced in other villages are lovely, but not much suited to export. As happened successfully a generation ago in Thailand, a bit of design assistance would help turn these fine crafts into greater commercial successes.
Absent such advances, some of the already-poor people of the valley inevitably turn their eyes north, especially during hard times. Nobody in Oaxaca knows how many compatriots wind up in California or Texas, but the numbers are large.
If you said that much of the problem in Oaxaca and similar towns is lack of far-sighted political leadership, you’d be right. The temptation for authorities is to turn economic development over to their political cronies. It’s no wonder that the long-dominant political party (Partido Revolucionario Institucional, or “PRI”) has been dislodged in recent Oaxaca municipal elections and is growing wobbly at higher levels. Nationally, the PRI, founded as the party of “reform,” now is the party in most need of reform.
Meanwhile, however, there is much that Americans can do to help Mexico–and ourselves. First, the immigration bill before Congress will not stop the kind of push felt from places like Oaxaca, and needs to be revised. The U.S. surely has every right and good cause to control its borders and to search out cases of immigration fraud. But to curtail legal immigration sharply will not have any effect on the border. Instead it will damage the ability of high tech companies like Microsoft to hire graduates from overseas and US hospitals like the Fred Hutchinson Center to recruit specialized doctors.
What will work is more tourism in places like Oaxaca. That may sound naive, but, in fact, tourism is by far the largest industry in Mexico. Norteamericanos are welcome, the sights and experiences are inexpensive for us, and our travel dollar puts tortillas on the table of even the poorest Mexicans. Rampant tourism can trample culture, but Oaxaca shows it also can save culture by giving it a stronger economic base.
More importantly, when Americans visit a place like Oaxaca, many of them fall in love–with the country. A retired American architect, for example, divides his time between Connecticut and his new house in Oaxaca where he has “adopted” a local blind man and his family of six. Two quiet Seattle philanthropists, Bud and Judi Greer, along with other Puget Sounders, have helped develop several orphanages elsewhere in Mexico and nearby countries (with a Northwest Friends of the Orphans office in Bellevue) and have rescued thousands of children. They also recently began a simple banking program that assists villagers in starting small (we would say “tiny”) businesses.
Americans have such a tortured history with Mexico that we sometimes don’t want to give ourselves fair credit. There are a lot of well-meaning–and adroit–Gringos working to prevent illegal immigration in the way that best succeeds. They do so by helping their neighbors to achieve for themselves what all of us want: dignity today and the promise of a better future.