I came to Mexico three months ago to start my third year here in Oaxaca. My plan was to write about the Indigenous people who live here. I would choose from the Zapotecs, Mixtecs, Mazotecos or Chinantecos, who comprise the majority of Indigenous people who live in the state of Oaxaca. But a strange thing happened. The more I started to feel like I live here and am part of this community, the less I wanted to write about them. The more I wanted to do something to help them. But what? And how?
Then I had the thought that I should take my own advice and do what you know. I know how to help people. Help them find their Voice. Help them make better decisions. Help them make more money. Next step was to start talking to them and my Spanish was now good enough to start. But where and how? You just don’t go up to somebody and start telling them what they need to do. The opposite is true. They have to ask for help first. Its easy to throw money at a problem but that usually doesn’t fix it. The old adage of teaching someone how to fish is better than giving them a fish.
I had many street conversations with the poor people who live here, but they tended to be brief and more formal. Pleasant but not enough. I was frustrated. Then it just sort of happened. There is a lending library that is here in Oaxaca, and a very warm, giving, community of ex pats have so many programs that reach out to the Mexican community. There is sponsorship in all the arts, and a host of venues that promote interaction. I did not have to invent the wheel. There was one program which I joined that did the trick.
It is an Interambio on Saturday morning that provides a setting for Mexicans to come to the library and speak/ learn English, while the English speaking people speak/learn Spanish. Its a two hour program. Up to four people sit at one table. That is where I met Abel. We became friends, After the Intercambio, we would go to a local restaurant and have lunch and continue our dual language conversation.
Abel is a 52 year old man who works as a field worker in local farms. He also sells fruits or vegetables or nuts or any other farm product that he can carry. He has no car. He lives sometimes with a woman who comes and goes in his life. She complains that she does not like his lifestyle. He earns 120 pesos a day, when he works. That’s $6. The local paper this week ran a story of the field pickers union demanding a minimum wage of 300 pesos per day. They now pay 50 pesos per DAY.($2.50).
Abel is a happy man who has a great Spirit. His sufferings and treatment by others could only be described as brutal. He describes himself as free and beholding to no one. He has a 23 year old son who has finished the university as an engineer but needs more school and licensing exam in order to make money. His education was paid by the government and he gets a stipend as a part time teacher.
Abel knew no restaurant in Oaxaca as he cannot afford to eat in them. He buys his food wholesale at the markets and cooks every meal at home. He said he needed to make more money as he wanted to keep his girlfriend. He had no confidence in his English although he was understandable. I helped him with his confidence. He said he had no startup money for any business. I convinced him what he had was very sellable. “What do I have”? he lamented. I convinced him he had two separate pieces of knowledge that need to be put together.
The first was he spoke enough English and second, he knows Mexican farmers. I told him he could organize English speaking tours of local farms. He could easily charge Gringoes 200 pesos ($10) for a trip to the farm, where they could purchase products, making the farmer happy. He could pay a driver out of the money he took in. He could build that up by eventually renting a van taking up to 8 people. Starting off at 4 people, and paying the driver, he could net 600 pesos, for a half day.
Abel, being a Spiritual man believes there was a reason I was sent to him. At other times he tells others I am his father. We both laugh. He made a promise to me on Saturday that he will not be afraid, and will begin his farmtour business and when I return in December, Jill and I will be his dinner guests, in a restaurant. I told him I will gladly take him out but I do want a free ride to the farm. We laughed, hugged and said our goodbyes. Hasta deciembre, mi amigo.