Editor’s note: This blog is the sixth part of a series, “Migration, Trade and Brutality: A Journey through Mexico and Central America”, written by David Schmidt regarding his travels in the summer of 2012. The goal of this series is to educate and inform readers about the reasons why immigrants come to our country so that we can better understand and relate to them. Read his previous entries here.
I glance behind me, peering through the rain-spattered window of the minivan, as we pull out of Huautla de Jiménez. I look upwards, towards the sacred mountain that towers above the city.
The mountain—covered in lush forests, towering above Huautla—is named “Niindo Tokósho” in the Mazatec language. In Spanish, the locals call it “El Cerro de la Adoración”—the Mount of Adoration.
It’s been a sacred spot in the Mazatec cosmology for centuries, since long before the Spaniards ever came to this land. To this day, hundreds of people in Huautla make the hike up to the top of the mountain, hoping for an encounter with a legendary figure known as “Chikonindó”—the Lord of the Mountain.
“They say that mountain is where Chikonindó lives,” a shopkeeper told me before I left Huautla. “In our old legends, the Lord of the Mountain was said to be the guardian of nature—of the forests, rivers, streams, and animals. For centuries, people have gone up there to pray to God, to light candles and leave crosses and ask God for wisdom. These used to all be things that people respected. But now, our young people, they migrate to the city and come back with new ideas. It’s all about money for them, now. All about getting ahead in life. The trees and rivers are just another thing to be exploited. And fewer and fewer people go up the mountain.”
As I stare out the back window of the minivan and the sacred mountain shrinks in the distance, the Mazatec woman’s words echo in my ears. “If you ask me, the Lord of the Mountain isn’t even a legend anymore for a lot of our young people. He’s just a ghost, a shade. All the ideas of respecting nature, of going to a sacred place to pray to God and meditate—it’s all disappearing. As time passes, the meaning of the Niindo Tokósho mountain is fading into darkness.”
* * * *
The minivan is taking me from the highland town of Huautla de Jiménez to Oaxaca City, the state capital of Oaxaca, Mexico. It’s a six or seven hour trip. On our way out of Huautla, after the sacred mountain of Niindo Tokósho has faded from view, we pass by a small family restaurant on our left. The owners have decorated it with a painting of the United States flag and a slogan written in English at the bottom of the storefront: “Food as in house!”
I’m struck by the name of the restaurant: “Comedor Primer Mundo”. It means, literally, “First World Restaurant.”
The minivan I’m riding in, run by a commercial transportation company, is filled to capacity. I’m the only outsider on board—as far as I can tell, everyone on here is from the mountains of the Cañada region, home to Huautla, San Juan Coatzóspam, and hundreds of other towns and villages. I’m sandwiched between two women holding stacks of burlap bags which they will likely fill with merchandise in the city, consumer goods they will bring back to the mountains to sell.
As we head downhill on the narrow two-lane highway, I watch as the breathtaking scenery—waterfalls, wild ferns, ancient trees hung with Spanish moss—passes by my window. I think of the hundreds of young people who have made this journey on their way to Oaxaca City or Mexico City, looking for work. How many others headed north, to the tomato fields of Sinaloa, Sonora and Baja California. Or to the United States.
And I think of how many never made it back.
* * * *
After a couple hours on the road, I notice that the deciduous forests have begun to thin out, giving way to coniferous trees. I stare absentmindedly out the window, pondering the changing landscape for a while, before I realize that I actually have no idea what “deciduous” or “coniferous” means, and I’m just trying to sound smart in my own internal monologue.
Whatever the name for it is, the look of the wilderness definitely changes as we descend into the central valleys of the State of Oaxaca. After four more hours on the road, the landscape becomes arid and the skies become a clear blue. The dry, semi-desert wilderness reminds me more of my native California, and I feel a twinge of homesickness. For a split second, I think I catch a glimpse of a barn I’ve seen in San Diego County—then I realize it’s just a mirage, a ghost.
The driver of the minivan is playing an album by Guatemalan singer-songwriter Ricardo Arjona. I’m reminded of a phrase from Arjona’s song “Mojado”, which is an homage to migrants:=
“…de ver un freeway y soñar con la vereda que conduce hasta tu casa…”
The song tells of the melancholy pain a migrant feels, when he sees a freeway in the U.S. and thinks of the road that leads to his house back in his hometown. Again, I think of the young people who leave Oaxaca to work up north. I wonder how often they’re reminded of their home state, and how many times they wish they could go back.
I lean back in the seat of the minivan and pull my cap down over my eyes to take a nap. As I drift off to sleep, I think of home—of the places I grew up, my friends, my family—and I remember that I have the luxury of going back home whenever I want. For the millions who make the migrant’s trek northward, things are not so easy.
* * * *
Several hours later, I’m sitting in the Zócalo, the central plaza in the middle of Oaxaca City, in the evening. I’m on one of the wrought iron benches on the elevated gazebo in the middle of the plaza. The ancient colonial buildings that frame the Zócalo are now filled with a variety of restaurants and cafés that cater to the tourist crowd. Germans, North Americans, French, Japanese, and Chinese sit on all sides, sipping overpriced lattes and Coronas. All around the Zócalo, local merchants and vendors are approaching the tourists, offering trinkets, flowers, bracelets, artisanal blouses, and gum to them.
Behind me, I can hear a group of musicians playing the marimba (traditional xylophone) near one of the restaurants. They’re playing the folk tune “La Llorona”. The song is inspired by an ancient Mexican legend—that of the eponymous “Weeping Woman”.
They say that “La Llorona” is a ghost who wanders up and down the banks of rivers across Mexico, crying for her dead children. People in small towns like San Juan Coatzóspam swear they have seen her. Urban academics describe her as an “archetype”, a symbolic representation of the Conquest, when Mexico’s native sons and daughters fell at the sword of the Spanish invaders.
The musicians begin to sing the lyrics of the folksong:
“Ay, de mí, Llorona,
Llorona, llévame al río
Tápame con tu rebozo, Llorona
Porque me muero de frío”
[“Woe is me, Llorona. Llorona, take me down to the river. Cover me with your shawl, Llorona; I am freezing to death.”]
I notice a bit of graffiti scrawled on a building at one edge of the Zócalo. Only one word—“APPO”—and a red star spraypainted on the wall. I smile, and think back to the summer of 2006.
I remember when I slept here six years ago, on the cement surface of this very gazebo. In the midst of the APPO encampment, surrounded by protesters and signs and chants and music. In my mind, I can still hear the faint sound of campesino protest music, of songs that sang “El pueblo unido jamás será vencido” (the people united will never be defeated). The far-off sound of voices around me, the musical tones of conversations in a dozen different native languages. Teachers, mothers, fathers, organizers, farmers, talking of hope, hope for the rural poor of Oaxaca.
This gazebo, this central plaza in Oaxaca City, is full of ghosts.
[More on the APPO and the “ghosts of Oaxaca” to come, in the next blog installment of “Migration, Trade and Brutality”…]
This article is part of a series, “Migration, Trade and Brutality: A Journey through Mexico and Central America”, written by David Schmidt regarding his travels in Summer 2012.
David Schmidt is a freelance writer and multi-lingual translator in San Diego, CA. He is a proponent of immigrants’ rights and fair trade, and works with worker-owned coops in Mexico to help them develop alternative, fair sources of income. He can be contacted at [email protected] .
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