We have entered the final stage of our program here in Mexico: The Independent Study Project, or the ISP. Each of us on the program has chosen a subject of interest, identified a research question we wish to answer, identified an grass-roots NGO that works on our topic, identified a person who works within our field of interest to be our Project Advisor (usually, but not always, from the NGO), and begun conducting a field-based research project to answer our question. Most of us opted to stay here in Oaxaca City, but three left for San Cristóbal de las Casas and one returned to Mexico City. Topics include micro-finance, community radio, migration, alternative and environmental education models, midwifery, the APPO movement from 2006, and transportation worker unions. For the most part, the projects are based largely on interviews we conduct in the field.
My topic has gone through many phases. As I have stated before, I was at first really excited to research the legacy of the student movement in Mexico City, but decided not to return to Mexico City. Once I had ruled out my first idea, I returned to a general subject that I have always found interesting: the agrarian question in Mexico, specifically looking at the changing role of the ejido in Mexico. When our group visited the Isthmus of Tehuantepéc we visited several groups working to preserve their ejidos in the face of privatization efforts by the government that I became very interested in working with (the community group in La Venta and UCIZONI). My academic director decided that working in La Venta was too dangerous as police forces maintain a large and often violent presence in the area..
How could I work from Oaxaca City on a topic that is largely related to the rural sector? I remembered that during our “Alternative Tour” with Oliver Froehling he had mentioned that ejido communities on the urban fringe have been encountering major problems and pressures in light of the city’s rapid urban expansion. Oliver Froehling became my advisor and, after a few conversations, I decided to focus my project on a case study of a community called Reyes Mantecón.
On Friday afternoon we departed Oaxaca by bus for the northwest region of the state, known as La Mixteca. We were headed for the municipal capitol of Noxchitlán and once we arrived, we were greeted by Jesús León and Eleazar García and their pickup trucks, which carried us the rest of the way. Twenty minutes later, unloaded on the outskirts of Noxchitlán and shuffled into a small room furnished with only a bookshelf, a table, a circle of chairs and a poster which read “Yes, there are alternatives in the campo. The milpas criollas against globaization.” We had arrived at the offices of the Center for Integral Small Farmer Development in the Mixteca (CEDICAM).
To better understand the message behind this poster, let us first clarify some of the words. First, the term campo is not an entirely foreign concept in the United States, but still seems to defy satisfactory translation. The campo is more than just the “countryside” because it carries a much deeper and much more historical significance in that it is closely tied with the idea of Mexico’s ancient and early history, with agriculture, and with maize. The word campesino, a person who is from and works in the campo, is most commonly translated as “small farmer” or “peasant,” but these translations also lack the important social, historical, and economic context of the word. The term milpa refers to a traditional process of planting that mixes different varieties of corn, beans, squash, and often marigolds on the same plot of land (as opposed to mono-cropping) that has ancient roots in the pre-hispanic culture. The milpa process is one that allows for increased soil fertility (each plant using and depositing different nutrients), increased security (if unforeseen conditions cause one crop to be less successful, other crops with still prosper), and even pest control (marigolds are a natural insect repellent). Lastly, the term criolla indicates a native crop. Maíz criollo, thus, refers to native Mexican (or Oaxacan) corn varieties as opposed to imported U.S. seeds or genetically modified varieties.
I spent my first days in Oaxaca orientating myself to this new city. Luckily, I had the guidance of several experts on local history and culture. Foremost among them was Oliver Froehling, a resident of Oaxaca originally from Germany, who took our student group on a tour of the city. We wound ourselves through the outlying areas of the city, passing through well-to-do suburbs, working class neighborhoods, government- and union-built housing communities, commercial zones peppered with WalMarts and Home Depots, and squatter villages.
Water scarcity and land distribution have been the most visible and critical problems we've seen during our time here. During the tour, we stopped several times to talk about these two issues. We still have a lot more to learn about both, but I’ll share with you what we have learned so far.
Sarah Farr is PhD student in Sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
The views expressed in this blog and on this website are my own.