I’ve always had a great fondness for islands. Islands have natural boundaries. They’re defined by the water that surrounds them. You always know where you stand with an island—you’re either on it or off of it—there’s no half way, no ambiguity, no gray area. When you live on an island and say, “I am an islander,” it is like you are among the elite, the elect, the few who are apart from the horde of mainlanders.
Islands are defined more by what they aren’t than by what they are. They aren’t just any place. The surrounding water creates limits, and the pressure of limits allows people to live in a defined way in a defined space. Curiously, these limits aren’t limiting, they’re liberating.
The Mexican State of Oaxaca is an island, although it doesn’t look like one and no geographer would define it as such. Mountain ranges—oh so many mountains—and the Pacific Ocean fence it off, define it; mountains are everywhere, and three major valleys penetrate them. These valleys, Los Valles Centrales, meet at the capital city, also called Oaxaca, and it is along the channels of these valleys that what may be the oldest intact indigenous civilization in the world, the Zapotec, has prospered for 2,500 years. Today it continues to produce high-quality coffee, hundreds of varieties of mescal, some of the world’s most beautiful handcrafted textiles and delicate painted wooden statues of comical animals.
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My wife and I had visited Oaxaca briefly in 1990 on our way back from an overland jaunt from southern Chile to New Mexico, and ever since then I’d wanted to return. One thing after another delayed us, including Mexico’s recent reputation for violence. What finally got us there was Texas.
What happened was my wife and I were itching to get away for a few days of relaxation in a warmer place. I told my wife I was making a plan for us to camp in Big Bend National Park, in Texas.
“Oh, no,” she said. “Last time we camped in Texas they wanted to throw us in jail for drinking a glass of wine with our picnic lunch.” She added with emphasis, “Any place but Texas.”
So our recent trip to Oaxaca was born. It turned out to be not only our favorite destination in Mexico but one of all-time favorites anywhere in the world.
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There are many aspects of Oaxaca that are unique and wonderful, but they are all attributable to one underlying factor: indigenous culture. More so than anywhere else in the multicultural hodgepodge of Mexico, Oaxaca is dominated by indigenous groups. They control the economy, the politics and, most important, the life of the state. They are its vibrancy. The nonstop parties, parades and festivals are indigenous; the vivid costumes are indigenous; the food and drink are indigenous. The warm welcome and gentle demeanor are indigenous.
“Women here are powerful,” an indigenous Oaxacan woman told me.
“Is that because of the indigenous tradition?” I asked.
“Claro,” she said.
Despite the wealth of its culture, Oaxaca is a poor state economically—the fourth poorest state in Mexico with a poverty rate of 62 percent. Economic development in Mexico has been fired by the new industries in Mexico City and along the U.S. border, as well as tourism in the big resorts on the Caribbean and Pacific coasts. The states south of Mexico City, with their torrid climate, indigenous cultures and isolation from major markets, have largely been left behind. Oaxaca is one of these states.
As a result, some 2 million Oaxacans have moved to the United States. Zapotec and Mixtec Indians from Oaxaca are in evidence at the border crossings with New Mexico and Texas, where women lugging young children beg for sustenance. Money sent back to families by Oaxacans in the U.S. is a major source of income in the state, almost the only major source of income aside from coffee, chocolate, mescal, handicrafts and a trickle of tourism. The state has not industrialized, unlike northern and central Mexico, and agriculture has hit on hard times.
Global warming has helped dry up the aquifers and streams. And NAFTA—the North American Free Trade Agreement that President Trump insists has hurt Americans—has worsened the plight of Oaxaca farmers. Their small, inefficient plots of corn and beans and wheat cannot compete with the industrialized agriculture of the American Midwest. Thus NAFTA has forced many of these small farmers off their land and, often, into the barrios of U.S. and Mexican cities.
When my wife and I first visited Oaxaca City it had about 100,000 residents; now it has half a million, and the gray smudge of pollution hangs along the base of the surrounding mountains.
What makes a culture successful is not simple. In strictly economic terms, Oaxaca could be called a failure. But in other ways, ways that over the horizon of thousands of years may be more significant and more lasting, Oaxaca has produced one of the most successful cultures anywhere on the globe.