The Oaxaca Diaspora’s Protestant Ethic

My rule of thumb is to try to blog no more than about a page per chapter (depending on the lengths of the chapters) from the books I buy and read, but the following excerpt is from my favorite chapter so far in a book where I can hardly resist “reading aloud” every few pages. I was undecided about which of three thematic passages to cite: on Mexico’s Okies (the victim angle), Oaxacan self-help (the agency angle), or religion (the spiritual angle). I ended up concatenating two of the three. So I’ll have to do hard penance by biting my tongue through several other chapters. From True Tales from Another Mexico: The Lynch Mob, the Popsicle Kings, Chalino, and the Bronx, by Sam Quinones (U. New Mexico Press, 2001), pp. 102-103, 110-111:

Mexicans generally view the border and those who live there as only semi-Mexican—too close to the gringo, where too many of his ways are imitated. In truth, that is what shaped the [San Quintín] valley. With drip irrigation farmers saw the potential of growing for both the United States and Mexico and dropped subsistence farming for a very American capitalist ethic. Acres under cultivation went from two thousand in 1980 to almost twenty thousand in 1990. Nighttime electricity came to San Quintín. Then a few stores, a couple of motels, a movie theater, satellite television.

“I have uncles in the state of Zacatecas who grow chile,” says Ruiz Esparza, “They harvest the crop, but only apart of the profits goes back into the fields. They’re afraid of risking it all. Here, it seems they’re a little crazy. They risk it all every year. People here aren’t interested in having money in their wallet. Everything they have goes back into the fields.

“I look at the farmers of Oceanside, Bakersfield, Oxnard battling against the city, high water prices, taxes, and I see them keep going. They’re very brave. I think having those people before us as examples inspires us to do the same. If they can do it, why can’t we?”

From the north, San Quintín had its market, and from there it imported machinery, capital, and an entrepreneurial spirit. What the valley of San Quintín had never had was abundant labor. And that came from the south.

The Dust Bowl in all this became the states of Guerrero and, above all, Oaxaca, both states with enormous Indian populations who retain the customs and languages of their ancestors. Like the northerners with whom they now live, they are considered somewhat less than Mexican, disdained as “dirty Indians.” It was a strange yet perhaps appropriate pairing: two outcasts coming together to create something in the dust of the northern Mexico desert.

Agriculture in Oaxaca, like that in Oklahoma during the Depression, is a limp and stagnant thing. Inefficient farming and the division of land into ever smaller slivers have bequeathed the state a withering poverty, bloody feuds over land ownership, and generations of uneducated children. Hundreds of thousands of Oaxacan Indians—Mixtecos primarily, but also Triquis and Zapotecos—have been leaving home for four decades now. They are Mexico’s migrants, the cheapest labor in a cheap-labor country. “They provided labor that was easily exploited,” said Victor Clark Alfaro, director of the Binational Human Rights Center in Tijuana. “They were docile, didn’t speak Spanish, would accept almost any treatment and work hard.”…

But in Tijuana, migrant Indians also discovered San Quintín’s almost unquenchable thirst for cheap labor. Through the late 1970s and 1980s the valley evolved into a major stop on the Indians’ migrant trail, part of what came to be known informally as “Oaxacalifornia”—the diaspora that starts in San Quintín and runs through North San Diego County and up the state. Entire families came to the valley to live in labor camps designed for transient men. The camps teemed, and the work was tough in the hot sun and choking dust. But it was work, which was something Indians had never had in Oaxaca….

Indians transformed their new home when they came here to live. But just as profoundly, their new home changed them. And the clearest distillation of all those changes is the Protestant Church. “If you take a poll, you’ll find that 80 or 85 percent of those who are established here now are Protestant,” says Meza. That number might be high. But Protestant churches—especially of the more fundamentalist bent—proliferate in the valley. Indians here have become Baptists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Pentecostals, and scads of obscure denominations to which Luther’s Reformation gave rise. The new churches are symbols of economic success, of modernity, of the monumental power and attraction of the United States. The adoption of a Protestant faith is almost standard issue in leaving Oaxaca for a future.

And that process is best told by one man who, now in his late forties, stands clapping in unison with the rest of the Apostolic Assembly of the Faith in Christ Jesus. Twenty years ago Luis Guerrero took his family and left his Oaxacan Indian pueblo and its traditions, moved to the valley of San Quintín, and hasn’t yet looked back in fondness.

Guerrero, a Mixtec Indian who speaks halting Spanish in a thick Indian accent, faced a brutish dead-end life as a subsistence farmer, depending on unpredictable rains, in the village of Santa María Asuncion, where landholdings were no longer measured in acres but in meters.

In 1972 Guerrero was among fifteen people who had to pay for the village’s traditional party for its patron saint, the Virgin of Asuncion. It was the custom: every year a few people had to become deeply impoverished to throw the three-day party for everyone else. His job was daunting: he had to give 2,000 pesos—the equivalent of two and a half years’ local wages at the time—to buy food and alcohol for everyone, fireworks, candles, and more. The responsibility almost broke him. He borrowed the money at high interest rates, then left his young family and pueblo for that year to pick tomatoes in Sinaloa to pay it back.

In 1974 he began migrating to San Quintín with his family. Finally in 1978 they moved here to live, leaving Oaxaca forever.

Away from the cloistered atmosphere of his Oaxacan village, Luis Guerrero began a religious and secular awakening, one he likes to illustrate by talking about the books he bought.

In San Quintín he bought his first book ever—a Bible. In Oaxaca he had never read a Bible; though the whole village was Catholic, no one owned one. Like everyone else, he depended on a priest to know what it said. “I began reading it and I began to awaken my mind…. I like knowing myself: I went to the Catholic Church, the Apostolic Church, Prince of Peace, Los Olivares, Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Open Door—to see how each denomination preached.” He finally settled on the Apostolic Assembly.

Now thirsting for more, he bought his second book—a copy of the Mexican constitution. “In our pueblos in Oaxaca, we didn’t know the earthly law, or how to defend ourselves [legally]. Also we didn’t know spiritual law. So I searched on my own to discover what constitutional law said. I searched on my own to discover what the Bible said so that I myself could understand earthly law and spiritual law.

“Earthly law allows you to speak up for your rights with the police, the bosses. That’s why I put forth an effort to learn it. [In the villages] people don’t have education. The [local] authorities pressure them to fulfill tradition. They want them to put on traditional parties. [In Oaxaca] you can’t give your children education because the little money you earn you have to spend on parties for the saints. Our children have no shoes because of tradition. We came here to leave all that behind.”

3 Comments

Filed under economics, Mexico, migration, religion, U.S.

3 responses to “The Oaxaca Diaspora’s Protestant Ethic

  1. i think it is sad that there will most likely be a correlation made for future relationships with wealth and God’s blessing for so many of the newly wealthy protestants. it is what happened in uganda and other african nations. the prosperity “gospel” is rampant in places where “christians” prosper more than others around them.

    peter

  2. The same thing happened in other eras and parts of the world to newly converted–and newly connected to a larger economy and civilization–Buddhists and Muslims in Asia.

  3. i suppose that is something one has to always be on one’s guard against if one becomes a missionary overseas.

    peter

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