Reflections on our Oaxaca Travel Seminar

            As several BSP participants have expressed before me, it is an impossible task to capture the entire Oaxaca travel seminar into a blog post. Summarizing each speaker, visit, and impression invalidates the complexity of each experience and yet each of these pieces was instrumental in the overall trip. Therefore, while I selfishly feel relieved for an opportunity to start processing the past ten days, I am also blatantly selecting portions to describe and leaving many out.
On our last day in Oaxaca, we were asked to split into pairs and create a representation of what we had been processing over the last few days (in a physical map, song, dance or whatever form we wanted). My partner for the project, Asa, had a brilliant idea that we should just talk to each other at first and see what came out. While I was initially taken aback by the idea (shouldn’t we just dive straight into the project?) I soon appreciated being able to just talk with someone about what I had been feeling for the past ten days. After this conversation, we narrowed down our reflection into major themes. Toward the goal of attempting a comprehensive and thoughtful approach, here are a few of our categories and accompanying stories. Please know that there were countless more challenging and beautiful moments that I wish I had the capacity and time to share.
1. Language
Though the travel seminar officially started with a 5:30am van ride, three different airports, and several Sudoku puzzles, it began for me with Ruth. A former government employee for thirty years, Ruth now hosts students from different programs and regularly has students coming and going from her beautiful home. She was an incredible host—full of tips about how we should take advantage of our time in Oaxaca (going to the square and listening to music), the best kinds of mezcal (crema de mezcal), and where to get the best kind of tlayudas (her home).
One evening at the dinner table, we were all discussing our intended plans for the evening and somehow the conversation turned to our musical talents in the group. Hastily, I mentioned that one of our group members loves to sing—and suddenly we had all planned a concert for the next evening. We immediately began to joke about how we were going to spend the evening demonstrating our vocal talents at the zócolo and what our group names might be. We were sitting around the table laughing and for several seconds we seemed to embody the “laugher is the universal language” cliché that is constantly thrown around. However, when we performed the next evening, our spontaneous line-up looked something like this: the Beatles, Death Cab for Cutie, and Britney Spears. When I looked over at Ruth, she seemed to disappear into the background as this array of unfamiliar songs began and more and more students came to join the singing. When asked at one point what songs she might request, she just shrugged and smiled but said nothing.
What songs could she recommend that we could sing? Some of us had a decent grasp on Spanish but not enough to recognize and sing a Spanish song. This moment of disconnect was starkly different from the laughter last night and represented an ever-present dynamic of our Oaxaca trip. While there were times that we were comfortable and laughing, we were still foreigners come to a new place for ten days and inevitably about to leave again. We had still come because of money and capitalism and were tourists attempting to mitigate our damage by speaking the Spanish that we could and saying “please” and “thank you.” And when Ruth told us how happy she was to have us in our home, all we could do is mutter “muchas gracias,” completely unable to demonstrate our appreciation and therefore just settling on an inadequate phrase to do the job.
2. Resistance
Our host for the trip was Oliver, a self-proclaimed cynic who happens to be German. Oliver is a current Mexican citizen working for an organization called SURCO that arranged our entire trip to Oaxaca. He liked to wear fedoras and was also passionately opposed to formal education, which he felt was being used to churn out obedient citizens that follow the law and listen to authority.
After our arrival in Oaxaca, he gave us an extensive history on the teacher’s union strikes of 2006 including the history of APPO. This history contextualized the current teacher’s union strikes that are happening in Mexico City, which are drawing attention to topics including standardized testing, teacher evaluation standards, and tenure terms. While it is true that testing should be differentiated based on location (and that testing in general should not be created by white men), there are multiple layers of politics muddled into the strike. For example, many parents are frustrated with the teacher’s union and the strike appears to be reaching an end without apparent compromise. While I am still very much learning about the teacher’s strike as a resistance movement, it is inherently confining and complicated that a movement meant to resist corruption is also having adverse effects on some students and families.
For our project, Asa and I drew a brown power fist and a Zapatista snail to symbolize resistance. I also wanted to recognize the work of midwives, advocates, teachers, and several others that we met that are doing day-to-day resistance work. How do we fit them into our conversations around working in and out of the system? How do we acknowledge and praise these forms of resistance as well?
3. Land and Money Exploitation
“Let me tell you about the words that I don’t like.” This was Simon Sedillo, a journalist who is currently working on a book called Weapons, Drugs and Slavery: Crime and Corruption in the US Political Economy. During this portion of the talk, he broke down words like “sustainability” and “anti-oppression” for our group. In the process, he also introduced me to one of my new favorite phrases: anglo manarchism (essentially, be skeptical of the way that white men are co-opting anarchism in the US). One of the reasons why I felt so inspired by Simon was his ability to just be honest with those of us who identified as US citizens about the privileges of that position. As a South Asian woman, who is also a US citizen, I was reminded again of how to think about how these various parts of my identity influence the work that I choose to do in the future. He challenged us, “don’t make documentaries. Help other people make documentaries” and reminded us that “there should always be young women of color at the table [of non-profit organizations] who are making decisions.”
Simon also devoted the majority of his speech to the devastating and violent ways that US systems of exploitation harm Mexico, specifically through dominating the weapons trade, funding and supporting violent dictators, and developing a network of private prisons that exist as a system of modern slavery. This conversation directly connected to the idea of land exploitation and the way that we continually perceive the land to be our property, both so we feel ownership over the land and also so we feel the right to claim the land as part of our own history. If we can claim it as ours, then we can tell stories about it, make decisions over its use, watch it fulfill our purpose and feel relief that the ramifications of these actions are pushed elsewhere, somewhere we can’t see, somewhere with brown bodies so the US doesn’t question.
4. Gender
“Indigenous women carry culture and therefore carry resistance” – Simon Sedillo
It is daunting to discuss Teotitlán del Valle but I want to mention it because it felt in many ways like the core of the trip. There we visited with members of Vida Nueva, the weaving cooperative, who were primarily all women of different ages. The two women that I stayed with, Doña Isabel and Doña Reina, showed us their land, their market, their temazcal, and their weavings. We responded with questions in Spanish, wide smiles and murmurs of gratitude. I am so appreciative of that trip and also extremely aware that we were able to have that experience because of numerous factors, including money.
I aim to continue reflecting on this interplay of culture, resistance, and gender to eliminate pre-conceived notions of what “resistance” looks like and also to consider a question that Simon raised: the representation of indigenous women in media. I also want to say that throughout the travel seminar, I was initially delighted by the consistent mention of indigenous women with the people that we interacted with, and then later also concerned and upset about who the term “women” encompasses and excludes.
5. Our ideal community
Over the summer, I was asked to draw or write about my ideal community and I found that I was struggling. It seemed strange to me that I would have trouble with an assignment that I initially thought would be comfortable. The same question was brought up our last day in Oaxaca and I found it just as confusing. The theoretical words that I wanted to say such as “dismantling systems of power and oppression of course” and “community accountability and justice” seemed hollow and meaningless. However, on our first day in Oaxaca we learned about the cargo system, a physical implementation of the community accountability framework that I had read about. The cargo system was a person acting as a police officer in their community for two years and then switching out. This system was an alterative form of justice, for example, a man who was caught beating his wife was given a consequence based on the wishes of his wife and enacted by his neighbors. Though complicated, this system was a process that rejected the idea that putting people behind bars is a solution.
//Where do we go from here?
 It is impossible to form genuine connection and reciprocity within a 10-day period, but we still went and were present for 10 days. When I found myself completely at a loss for how to behave, I remembered that hiding is unproductive as well. I am looking forward to continued reflection and critique on what it means to travel and return home, what to carry away, how to describe without romanticizing, how to tell stories.
– Uma Venkatraman


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