Archive | August, 2010

Language School Supports Indigenous Communities in Oaxaca

9 Aug

clip_image002July 3, 2010 – We have just arrived at a cabin on a steep hillside above the mountain village of Cuajimoloyas in the state of Oaxaca, Mexico. Wood smoke is rising from kitchens in the village, and we can hear music from radios and bleating of sheep below the cabin. Although the sun is setting, a rooster crows. There is a cool breeze. To reach Cuajimoloyas this morning in our friend Omar’s VW bug, we had to follow a twisting road up to five thousand feet above the city of Oaxaca, for a total of almost 10,000 feet above sea level. Above us rise majestic Ocote pines over pastures covered with bright wild flowers. I can’t remember ever seeing a more beautiful landscape.

Omar has started an educational project in Cuajimoloyas’ primary school. He has brought us here to see that even a small village high in the mountains of Oaxaca has close links with the United States and its labor markets.

When we arrived at the school, the students were practicing for their graduation ceremony, which would take place the following week. It was an important step for the sixth graders, who would move on to middle school in the fall.

clip_image004But when they saw Omar, their great friend, the children surrounded him with shouts of delight. Omar let them look through the lens of his video camera, which was a big hit . Omar himself looked totally happy to be with the children he’d been working with this past year. He uses much of the income from his language school in Oaxaca in order to fund his work in Cuajimoloyas and other Oaxacan villages.

There were two students, Jorge and Eric, ages 11 and 9, to whom Omar paid special attention. They were brothers, both slightly built and a little shy. Although they live now with their parents in Cuajimoloyas, both were born in Los Angeles. Last year, their parents had brought them back to this mountain village.

Omar had told us earlier that. like the boys’ parents, many Oaxacans had returned from the U.S. West Coast due to the lack of employment and of accessible medical care. In addition, Oaxacan parents were returning to Mexico for fear that otherwise they might be picked up by immigration authorities and torn from their children. For Jorge and Eric, it had been difficult to adjust to life in Cuajimoloyas. During the past year, Omar, who is completely bilingual, had been their friend, working to help them understand what had happened and how to get used to life in Cuajimoloyas. Now the boys were more at ease, although they were still getting used to the chilly mountain air and longed for their school friends and their cousins, aunts, and uncles who remained in Los Angeles.

The children eventually went back to practicing for their graduation ceremony, doing a traditional dance to music from a CD player. They were skilled and graceful. A teacher explained that dance plays a vital role in arts education at this school. Since our arrival in Oaxaca, the importance of the arts, modern and traditional, has been evident everywhere.

After the rehearsal, we went with Omar to the sixth grade classroom. He sat with the children in a big circle on the floor and began a gentle but animated discussion.

After a few minutes, the conversation took an unexpected turn.  Omar asked, “How many of you have family members in the United States?” Of the nineteen students, all but one raised their hands.

clip_image006Omar explained later that in this little village, like countless villages in Mexico, many parents, children, brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, cousins are missing. They have risked their lives to cross the border in search of work.

And this immense absence is a major element in the life Cuajimoloyas and all of Oaxaca. The village is working hard to create new economic projects. Cuajimoloyas, to encourage ecotourism, offers guided hikes across stunning mountain landscapes.  The village has an ecotourism office and rents comfortable cabins to visitors.  All this creates jobs. But it is not enough. The money that the emigrants send back to the village is still necessary for the survival of families here.

In the classroom, Omar asked the children about their relatives in the United States. “Where do they live?” “Los Angeles” … “Los Angeles” … “San Diego” … “Los Angeles” … “New York” … “Los Angeles” … “New York” … “Los Angeles” … “Los Angeles” … “Denver” … “New Mexico” … “Los Angeles” … “Los Angeles” … “Toronto” … “Chicago” … “Los Angeles” … “Los Angeles” … “Los Angeles.”

“And why did they go?”

“To work to earn money.”

“And why don’t they return?”

“Because they don’t have papers.”

A little clarification is needed here.  Relatives in the United States could, of course, return to their home village.  But having returned, the only way to go back to their jobs and lives in the United States would be to attempt the dangerous trip across the border one more time.  For most, this means several days walking, without sufficient water, through the southern Arizona desert.  About 500 Mexicans die in the desert every year attempting the journey. So U.S. immigration policy deeply damages Mexican families.  And family is extremely important in this culture.

This is the tragedy. That having crossed the border, the parents, brothers, sisters, cousins, aunts, and uncles cannot return to be with their families in Cuajimoloyas. Here, as in other Oaxacan communities, we have met families longing to see their loved ones.

Softly, Omar asked “Have you heard that the world is very small?” The children tried to guess what this meant. Omar guided them. “Have any of you been to Tlacolula [a market town at the foot of the mountain] and seen someone from Cuajimoloyas?” “Yes.” “So this is why we say the world is very small.”

Omar asked the children to write letters or draw pictures that he could take to Oaxacan families in the United States. Then he would bring replies back to Cuajimoloyas.

clip_image008At first, the children sat silently, just writing a few words. But slowly, with Omar’s encouragement, they began in earnest and after an hour, they had produced a collection of wonderful pictures and letters which they showed to Omar with pride.

Except for one child. His name was Jonathan, or Juanito. He appeared to be nine or ten years old. It had only been seven days since he had returned to Cuajimoloyas with this father, who had been born in Cuajimoloyas . But Jonathan was born in the United States and he had never been in Mexico before.  He sat motionless in a chair and appeared to be in another world. He didn’t speak or participate. Finally he did write a letter which he showed to Omar. The letter said that he thought his mother no longer loved him. She had stayed behind in the United States.

Later, outside the classroom, Omar put his hand affectionately on Jonathan’s shoulder. The boy wept softly. He appeared confused and devastated. Omar offered to be his friend. They talked a while longer. Finally, Omar asked Jorge, who was chatting with other classmates, to come close. Omar introduced the boys and told Jorge that he, too, should become Jonathan’s friend. Perhaps these new friendships would help him take a step towards his binational future.

We left Cuajimoloyas with memories of new friends and mountain paths through flowery meadows and tall forests.

Final noteclip_image010Omar Nuñez  Méndez, a native of Oaxaca who completed his graduate studies at the University of Illinois Champagne-Urbana, is founder/director of Ollin Tlahtoalli, a small, friendly language school in the city of Oaxaca. The school’s income is used to support Omar’s educational work with school children, many of whom have family on both sides of the US/Mexico border. The project focuses on strengthening the children’s self-esteem and sense of identity as indigenous Oaxacans and participants in a complex, binational socio-economic system. For visitors seeking Spanish-language instruction focused on the culture and realities of Oaxaca today, as well as an opportunity to volunteer with the children, Ollin Tlahtoalli is an excellent place to study. Omar and Ollin Tlahtoalli can be contacted at,, or 951.51.455.62.


Cactus in Oaxaca – More from the Ethnobotanical Garden

3 Aug


Peresquia lichindiflora

Arbol de Matrimonia

A thrill to see first hand, this tree is the ancestor of cactus. It still retains its leaves, in addition to the thorns characteristic of cactus. Its common Mexican name, marriage tree, refers to its spines. The cactus later evolved into a leafless plant, in order to conserve water in the desert.


Biznaga Cactus


This biznaga cactus is 9 or 10 feet tall. The plant is endemic to Mexico, meaning it grows only here. This particular plant is estimated to be about 1,000 years old, and was rescued from the route of the Oaxaca-Mexico highway. Each spine had to be individually cushioned with newspaper so that the workers wouldn’t be injured when transplanting the biznaga.. Biznagas are eaten by humans and other animals. The species is in danger of extinction.


Organ Cactus


Organ cactus is used as a living fence between houses in Mexican villages. It has spines when it’s little, but loses them later. The largest cactuses in this picture are around 15’ tall. Diego Rivera had organ cactus at his home in Mexico City.




Another beautiful cactus from the Ethnobotanical Garden. I didn’t get the name of this variety.


Elephant Foot

Pato de Elefante

I don’t have any info about this plant.  I think maybe it’s a cactus.  Anyway I love it.


3 Aug


The candelilla is a euphorbia of Oaxaca.  Like the poinsettia and the rubber tree. And like other euphorias, is has a toxic sap. But when the sap is dried, it makes a wax that is completely safe to use as candle was.   It is  also an ingredient of chewing gum, lipstick. It is also used as a coating for the produce sold in grocery stores.