Diversity characterizes the people of Oaxaca, Mexico. Within this city of half a million, residents are rising against traditional barriers of race and class, defining new gender roles, and expanding access for the disabled. In this rich ethnography of the city, Michael Higgins and Tanya Coen explore how these activities fit into the ordinary daily lives of the people of Oaxaca.
Higgins and Coen focus their attention on groups that are often marginalized—the urban poor, transvestite and female prostitutes, discapacitados (the physically challenged), gays and lesbians, and artists and intellectuals. Blending portraits of and comments by group members with their own ethnographic observations, the authors reveal how such issues as racism, sexism, sexuality, spirituality, and class struggle play out in the people's daily lives and in grassroots political activism. By doing so, they translate the abstract concepts of social action and identity formation into the actual lived experiences of real people.
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Women are just lazy! They do not like to spend the time fixing their hair or doing their makeup right. It takes a lot of time, and you have to work very hard at it. It's all part of how you develop your look.
—Debra Blanca and Iracema Gura, male transvestite homosexual prostitutes in their twenties, talking about their views on women while standing on their street corner waiting for clients
Debra Blanca and Iracema Gura are both young male transvestite homosexuals who work the streets of Oaxaca as prostitutes. Debra is from the coastal city of Pochutla. She has been living in the city of Oaxaca for about five years and has been working the streets for nearly that long. Iracema is from the other side of the state, near the city of Tuxtapec. She has been in the military and has studied nursing. About three years ago she moved to Oaxaca and began living as a transvestite and working the streets.
Both Debra and Iracema are proud of their sexuality, of their socially constructed gender, and of the work they do. They are part of a collective of fifteen transvestite male prostitutes in the city. They are hip, literate, and politically concerned about sexual rights and the problem of AIDS. They seek a level of respect and tolerance that they know is not yet present in the city of Oaxaca.
I did not do much in my youth. In fact, I spent most of the time in bed. I did not go to primary school until I was about sixteen.
—Rocío Matos, a twenty-four-year-old woman who has had polio since infancy, sitting in front of her bedroom at her parents' house and talking about her life
When Rocío was an infant afflicted with polio, her parents were attempting to make a living farming in the coastal regions of Chiapas. The special needs brought on by her illness caused the family to move back to the valley of Oaxaca. Her mother is from one of the Zapotec communities on the Mitla end of the Oaxacan valley. They lived in her mother's village for a while. During this time her father and older brothers worked in the United States, and through their earnings, the family was able to build a house in the city of Oaxaca. Rocío, her older sister, and her mother maintain a store and have various small-scale vending enterprises, such as selling tamales. Rocío stayed home until she was about sixteen years old; then, through her own motivation, she started primary school. At that time she either had to be carried or had to use a wheelchair to get around. She heard on the radio that there was a new program at the Civil Hospital that could give people with polio an operation that would allow them to walk. Thus began for Rocío a six-year odyssey of operations, rehabilitation programs, more operations, and constant struggles to learn how to walk. Now, with the aid of braces and crutches, she walks and has become an autonomous young adult attempting to make her own life. She is active in sports and has been taking classes in dressmaking and computers, hoping to have her own business someday. She recently ended a relationship with a young man who was "normal." She felt that no matter what he said, at some point he would abandon her for someone who was also "normal."
I do not give a fuck what anyone thinks because I am cursed with the behavior of always telling people frankly what I think. I guess you can say that I have a lot of balls.
—María Elena de Sosa, a woman in her early sixties, sitting at a table on her patio in Colonia Linda Vista and explaining her views on life
María Elena de Sosa is an urban poor woman who has lived in the city of Oaxaca most of her adult life. She met her husband in her early teens when he was working on a construction project out on the coast of Oaxaca, near the city of Pochutla. They returned to Oaxaca and were among the first squatters in Colonia Linda Vista. They had eight children, six of whom survived to adulthood. Her husband died about twenty years ago, and through various forms of small-scale commercial enterprises, she has maintained her family. She is extremely proud of the fact that she was always able to work at home and thus watch over her children, for she knew better than anyone else that they could be hijos de la chingada. A passionate believer in the Virgen de Juquila (the patron virgin of Oaxaca), María Elena de Sosa holds that the Virgen has been her protector and guide throughout her difficult life. Politically, she expresses typical contradictions of the urban poor of Oaxaca: The government only "wants to fuck the poor people." Yet when she votes in elections, she casts her vote for the long-empowered Partido Revolucionario Institucional (Party of the Institutionalized Revolution), or PRI, the dominant political party in Mexico. Equipped with a strong personality to match her strong language, María Elena feels that our contemporary world suffers the wrath of God because we have lost the willingness to be kind and respectful to each other.
Only the spoon knows how empty the pot is.
—Guadalupe Castilla, a female prostitute in her mid-forties, standing in front of her one-room apartment (basically just a bedroom) and expressing one of her many dichos, or insights, about the lives of the poor
Guadalupe Castilla has worked as a prostitute since her late teens. She grew up in the northern part of the state of Oaxaca near the community of Huajuapan de León. In her early teens she moved to the city of Oaxaca after the death of her mother. Her work as a prostitute has taken her from the northern borders of Mexico to the resort areas of Cancún. In her youth she worked in the cabarets, but now she works the streets of Oaxaca in the afternoons for less than two dollars a client. She has saved her money and is now in the process of building a very modest house (or rancho, as she calls it) in a colonia some fifteen miles outside the city of Oaxaca. She is a wonderfully caring person who feels she took the best option open to working-class women like herself. She hopes she can soon quit and live on her little rancho. Unlike Debra and Iracema, she is not comfortable talking about either her sexuality or her profession.
I think that my landlord wanted to throw us out. Last night I brought home a woman who was in the last stages of AIDS. I put her up in my bedroom, for her family did not want to take care of her and she had no money. Tragically, she died in the night, and we had to go through a lot of hassle to get her into a funeral home, again for lack of money. The landlord was furious because I let a person with AIDS die in his house.
—José Antonio Peña, a thirty-plus gay male who is the chair of Renacimiento ("rebirth"), an AIDS care group in the city of Oaxaca, sitting in his bedroom and talking about his current conflicts with his landlord
José Antonio faces death every day. He is the chairperson of a local group called Renacimiento that directly helps people with AIDS. His group members openly express their gayness and thus have found themselves on the margins of the city's organizations. They have limited access to funding and receive little respect. José comes from a large working-class family in the city of Oaxaca. He has been actively gay since his early teens but has been "out" for only the last five years. The AIDS crisis and what it has done to his friends and lovers motivated José to become an activist. He was a primary school teacher for many years but now devotes himself to full-time support work. José is very open about his concerns and his belief that the organizational world should respond to the reality of gay lifestyles in Oaxaca. This position has placed him and his group in conflict with the other organizations in the city.
From the summer of 1994 until now, we have come to know the people introduced above as friends, collaborators, and allies in the various concerns with which they and we were dealing. We knew María Elena de Sosa for more than thirty years through our ethnographic work in Colonia Linda Vista; others, like Debra and Iracema, we met during 1994, when we were anthropologists returning to the city of Oaxaca to relearn the social and political dynamics taking place among the popular cultures there. Throughout the year, we encountered these folks in the context of their personal lives and in the context of the social networks that framed their fluid identities and affinities. We spent a great deal of time with them in the streets, in their bedrooms (which were often the only rooms in their homes), and on their patios, hearing about what streets, bedrooms, and patios meant to them in their personal or professional lives.
What all these people have in common is their attempt to compose their own ondas—that is, their own ordinary, everyday lifestyles in the context of rapid urban growth in the city of Oaxaca, Mexico. We refer to this as the ordinariness of diversity within a rapidly changing urban space. The social actors that we are dealing with represent not groups of exotic people but real people living in the actual material conditions of a Oaxaca that is being integrated into the postmodern world of consumer capitalism. This process over the last thirty years has transformed Oaxaca from a sleepy provincial town with a population of eighty thousand into a sprawling urban center of more than half a million.