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Sunday December 17 2017
One Woman’s Decision to Return to her Zapotec Roots in Oaxaca

Alvin Starkman

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The Role of Family and Culture in Shaping One Woman’s Decision to Return to her Zapotec Roots in, Oaxaca.

Part I

Gloria Morales Pérez spent most of her life in Anaheim, California, living what for many Mexican immigrants is the American dream – hard work resulting in a lifestyle that included going to the show and for Chinese food on weekends, taking the children to Disneyland, and spending the occasional evening in a Latin nightclub. But on September 23, 2010, the 25-year-old Zapotec native returned home to the tiny municipality of San Bartolomé Quialana, Tlacolula, in the southern Mexico state of Oaxaca.

Gloria shed her blue jeans for customary regional garb of colorful satin dress and brightly embroidered apron; left her two California jobs to spend virtually every waking hour raising her children; and gave up the anonymity of urban living together with the freedom to do as she pleased, in favour of tolerating traditional indigenous normative behavior.

The bright, attractive and fully trilingual (English, Spanish and Zapoteco – locally referred to as dialecto) Oaxacan, resides with children Juan age 6 and Daniel age 3, and mother-in-law Mariana, in a one bedroom brick and cement house tucked away at the end of a spacious dirt-floored courtyard, part of an extended family compound. Husband Benito owns this particular portion of the homestead. He plans to also leave California, in about three months, to reunite with the rest of his family.

The answer to why Gloria gave it all up and returned to her cultural roots, a daunting transition for most, lies in understanding the circumstances leading to her family’s initial emigration when she was only six year old, examining the role her parents played in determining the twists and turns her life took while living in the US, delving deeper into her California lifestyle, and learning a little about San Bartolomé Quialana.

San Bartolomé Quialana, Tlacolula, Oaxaca

San Bartolomé Quialana (“San Bartolomé”) is a 10 minute drive from the city of Tlacolula de Matamoros, capital of the district of Tlacolula. Tlacolula is noted for its Sunday market, attracting both merchants and buyers from the city of Oaxaca, as well as from towns and villages within Oaxaca’s central valleys and further beyond. Aside from the broad array of goods available for purchase at the market, the tianguis, as it’s commonly termed, attracts tourists and Oaxacans alike because of its color and pageantry, attributable in large part to the large number of Zapotec natives in attendance from villages such as San Bartolomé, and nearby San Marcos Tlapazola, noted for production of terra cotta pottery.

Founded in 1422, almost 100 years before the Spanish arrived in Oaxaca, according to 2010 census statistics the village has a population of 2,471. Sixty percent is female and 40 percent is comprised of minors. Eighty-five percent of residents over five years of age speak dialecto, most of whom also speak Spanish. Of those 15 years of age and older, 441 are illiterate. Of youths 6 – 14 years of age, 70 have not attended school despite the fact that the village has five schools, one of which is officially bilingual (Spanish-Zapoteco). Half the population has not completed public school. The closest high school is in Tlacolula.

There are 524 households in San Bartolomé, 265 of which have dirt floors and 27 of which consist of only a single room. Construction materials are predominantly clay brick, cement and adobe, with laminated sheet metal often used for roofing. Most but not all households have electricity and indoor plumbing. Eight residences have computers, 75 have washing machines and 413 have televisions.

San Bartolomé has a health clinic provided by the Mexican national health care plan (IMSS), although only 27 residents are paid participants in the broader program. The village has a small daily marketplace, Tuesday being its official market day when vendors from a couple of surrounding villages such also ply their wares. There are six variety stores where one can buy clothing, tacos and other simple, freshly prepared small meals, as well as packaged snacks, beverages and household goods; but residents generally do their shopping in Tlacolula. It costs only 5 pesos (about 45 cents) to there by sharing a moto taxi (tuk-tuk).

There is a small police force serving the municipality’s 50 square kilometres (which includes farm lands surrounding the village proper). The municipal government coexists with indigenous customary law known as usos y costumbres, not uncommon in towns and villages throughout southern Mexico.

The predominant economic activity of San Bartolomé residents is subsistence farming, although according to statistics less than a quarter of the population is engaged in any remunerative enterprise. Animal husbandry and cultivating herbs, vegetables (mainly corn, beans, squash), agave (or maguey, used in the production of mezcal) and some fruit are the primary activities, supplemented by hunting. There is also cottage industry manufacturing such as sewing and hand – embroidering as well as basketry using a bamboo – like river reed known as carrizo and hemp – like twine known as ixtle, derived from agave leaves. Production of corn – based foodstuffs for sale in Tlacolula such as tortillas, tlayudas, tamales and atole round out the list of most frequently encountered activities. Building trades are also represented (i.e. carpentry, iron works, electrical, and of course bricklaying).

The Morales Pérez Family in San Bartolomé Quialana Prior to Emigration to California

Gloria was born in San Bartolomé on February 21, 1986. She has three siblings. Sister Lidia (age 21) and brother Miguel (age 26) were also born in San Bartolomé, while Miriam (age 17) was born in Anaheim. While in San Bartolomé, their mother Emilia eked out a modest existence by sewing and embroidering, and selling hand – made tortillas. Her father Luis was never really a wage earner in the village. He left at age 14, and returned only periodically, of course long enough to marry Emilia and father the children.

Luis left the family more or less for the final time and moved to Washington state when Gloria was three years old, becoming a documented immigrant during a period of amnesty. He entered into a conjugal relationship with another woman, and had a child. But when word filtered back to him that his wife had “been” with another man, he returned to Oaxaca. But in fact, someone had tried to rape Emilia, she defended herself with a knife, and the aggressor ended up in the hospital. Luis didn’t learn the truth until arriving back in San Bartolomé. But that was enough for Luis to make a unilateral decision to relocate his family to the US. He selected Anaheim because San Bartolomé villagers before him had tended to migrate to Anaheim or other nearby California cities. This pattern of emigration is extremely common in the state of Oaxaca, other Mexican states, and in fact internationally as is born out in the anthropological literature.

For those first six year of Gloria’s life in San Bartolomé, she grew up in a Zapoteco – only speaking household, and accordingly learned very little Spanish given the more general make – up of San Bartolomé.

Socialization and Education of a Young Female Oaxaca Native in Anaheim, California

The first couple of years for any immigrant transplanted from a foreign culture are difficult, but for Gloria life was particularly arduous. Not only did she not know a word of English, but she lacked Spanish, a working knowledge of which would have put her in good stead for socializing with other Latin Americans, school children in particular. In her case, however, it was family dynamics which played a more significant role than for perhaps most in her position:

“At that time my mother had to work two jobs, so I was responsible for looking after my younger sister, and even my older brother. I hardly saw my mother for those first couple of years; and since my father has always been irresponsible, and a heavy drinker, he couldn’t be relied upon. My parents were always fighting because my father was unwilling to provide for the family, in large part because of his alcoholism.”

Luis had always found employment in the gardening and landscaping field, but his brushes with the law which landed him in jail (i.e. impaired driving) and his unwillingness to acknowledge his obligation as a major financial and emotional contributor to the family, resulted in significant challenges for Gloria, her siblings, and of course their mother.

Emilia was the rock of the family, often working two jobs, invariably in a hotel housekeeping capacity. But money was still tight for the family:

“Occasionally we would get to go to Pizza Hut or Chuck E. Cheese, but in those years we didn’t really have the opportunity to enjoy leisure time; we would never go to the movies, out to the mall, or even for walks.”

Gloria enjoyed going to school and learning. She had attainable career aspirations. Her parents, however, played a significant role in determining whether or not Gloria would ever achieve her goals, adversely impacting on the choices available to her and how she would react to their dictates.

Gloria was active in extra – curricular soccer and cross country. But it was her junior army class in Grade 11, JROTC (the US federal government Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps program in high schools), which motivated her the most:

“I really wanted to be in the army. I liked everything about it from what I had read, and what I was learning in JROTC. In fact I was the sergeant of my troupe. But my parents didn’t want me to join the armed forces because it would have meant moving away. They made it clear to me that they would refuse to sign my enrolment papers. Had I joined, the army would have helped me with my immigration papers.”

[Gloria, her husband, her mother and her Mexican – born siblings are all undocumented immigrants; only her father was “legal.” However his status was revoked as a result of his criminal record, and he was deported to Tijuana. He cleverly managed to use his earlier immigrant papers to return to California in January, 2011.]

Immediately after her parents had made their decision regarding the army, Gloria’s grades dropped, and she promptly became pregnant by her boyfriend Benito. Because her pregnancy was high risk and she required early hospitalization, Gloria had to drop out of school four months shy of graduating from grade 12.

Nevertheless, Gloria did not lose her motivation to achieve a career once her dream of entering the army had been dashed. Of her own initiative she entered the North Orange County Regional Occupational Program (ROP), a career – technical training program, with a view to becoming a medical assistant. She passed the first three – month semester, but was not permitted to continue because of her immigration status.

A Oaxacan Quinceañera Gets Pregnant, Married and is Finally California Dreamin’

Life changed dramatically after Gloria met Benito. They initially became acquainted at her quince años celebration. He was also born in San Bartolomé. In Anaheim he had been living with Gloria’s aunt. Like her father, he was employed in the gardening and landscaping field, but their similarities stopped there. He was kind, supportive, motivated to earn a living, and as Gloria subsequently learned, a caring husband and father.

By the time Gloria and Benito had met, both Gloria’s English and Spanish were excellent, but her Zapoteco had begun to wane. She credits Benito (as well as her mother) with helping her out, as words, phrases and grammatical structures in dialecto got garbled or simply forgotten.

Gloria and Benito married in Las Vegas, but subsequently had an Ahaheim church wedding. They initially lived with her aunt, but moved in with her mother when she was six months pregnant with Juan.

When the baby was 10 months old, the three of them returned to San Bartolomé for an eight week visit. In Gloria’s 17 years in Anaheim, that was the only time she returned home for a visit.

When Juan was a year old, just after the family’s return to Anaheim, Gloria began working as a supermarket cashier. She then quit in favour of taking two jobs, working at a fast food chain and at a gas station as the owner’s assistant. She maintained both jobs for five years, earning about $400 per week, until returning to San Bartolomé, with only one brief hiatus in the interim towards the end of her pregnancy with Daniel, until he was three months old.

After Daniel’s birth the family moved into their own two bedroom apartment. It was the first time that the children were able to have their own bedroom, with Gloria and Benito having their own private quarters. The family began leading what Gloria terms a middle class lifestyle. They went out and bought themselves a car. They had three steady incomes and did not have to contribute to the living expenses of the rest of her family, particularly burdensome when her father was either not around to help out or was spending a considerable portion of his income on alcohol.

The couple enjoyed going dancing from time to time. They would go out with the kids every weekend, going to the movies and then a restaurant for lunch or dinner, walking around and shopping downtown, and even spending a day at Disneyland; Gloria had friends who worked there, and accordingly she would receive free family passes from time to time. There was even disposable income available to buy modern electronics (a laptop and stereo system, for example) and the occasional special toy for Juan.


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