Hello again from Oaxaca! As this is a study abroad experience, this post will be more focused on some things that I have learned the past couple of days, since the other one was pretty much just about food. Food is still my favorite part, but hey, learning is good too.
This Saturday we had our first excursion with the ICO and went to Monte Alban, one of the earliest cities of Mesoamerica and the political, economic, and social center of Zapotec society for hundreds of years, with a population of about 17,000 people. Just by looking at the ruins one can derive so much about Zapotec society: it was violent and war-driven, with huge arenas for human sacrifice and battle-esque sporting events; they had a fascinating system of religion with many gods, the Jaguar being most important; religion and politics were closely intertwined with the many temples also being the political centers of the different sects; it was not an isolated city but rather had a complex system of trade and competition with neighboring indigenous groups; and so much more. We went with an anthropologist who does research in Mexico on Prehispanic societies for a living, so he was an endless source of information and could tell us the history and significance of each section, especially when we went to the museum and looked at the artifacts. In other words, the trip was basically anthropology heaven. It’s also in a gorgeous location, with a panoramic view of the valley of Oaxaca and the surrounding mountains, and was very humbling to stand underneath gigantic temples over 2,000 years old.
Then, on Sunday, I went to Mass (la misa) with my family at a beautiful cathedral. It was a very interesting experience and I’m glad I went, but it was also a little uncomfortable for me. I loved the singing, the exquisite architecture and art, and participating with my family in something that is very important to them. I also really appreciated the “sermon” section– even though it was in Spanish, I picked up on the main points which were about avoiding materialism, always treating others with love, and working for peace in our community and the world. The rest was pretty ritualistic and I didn’t quite know what to do with myself for most of it, especially during communion. I also spent a solid 10 minutes thinking about my “pecadas” (sins), and then asking for forgiveness. So that was new! But overall it was fascinating to be in a very catholic church in a very catholic city, and also interesting to learn more about the culture. For example, only the women in my family went to Mass, and the vast majority of the audience consisted of women. Women seem to be pretty in charge of family, religious, and social life here, which is quite different from the “machismo” culture I was expecting. My initial impression is that although I sometimes get negative attention on the street and women definitely still have a disproportionate role in housework and childcare, women and men seem to have different but equally important and “powerful” roles, which is pleasantly surprising.
After Mass on Sunday, we were delayed about a half an hour getting back to the house because of a teacher protest. In Oaxaca, the public teachers have been on strike periodically for many years, with many grievances against the government. This came to a climax in 2006, when there were many riots and violence from the protestors and the police, and about 20 people died. The teachers occasionally march through the streets, and have been camped out in the Zocalo, or city center, I think for a couple of months. I have seen two of these demonstrations thus far (completely non-violent), and everyone has different opinions about them. Many people agree with their grievances, which include lack of government transparency, corruption, discrimination, and other protest-worthy causes, but do not not agree with their methods because they are very disruptive to every day life in Oaxaca. I will not write much about the teacher protests now because I still don’t know enough to have formed an opinion about or a holistic understanding of them, but it’s a very interesting topic that many people are reluctant to talk about or acknowledge, and I will write more once I learn more.
It’s probably becoming obvious some of my main interests and reasons I chose this program: to improve my Spanish, immerse myself in a different culture and learn more about anthropology, and learn about things like gender and social justice movements that I’m very interested in (I know that’s bad grammar, but “in which I am very interested” just sounds too pretentious). The past few days have been full of great learning experiences, and every day I have a new adventure that makes me glad I chose to come here!
Until next time,