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Saturday January 20 2018
One Woman’s Decision to Return to her Zapotec Roots in Oaxaca (Part II)

Alvin Starkman

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As much as Calfornia dreamin’ had indeed become a reality, a subtle sense of uneasiness eventually began to weigh upon Gloria’s psyche. Perhaps it had always been there. It wasn’t as if she had made the decision to migrate to the US and then had her dreams crushed. In her case aspirations developed as they do with American – born children, in the school playground, watching TV, learning from teachers, classmates and their families, and even participating in a lifestyle characterized by conspicuous consumption, leisure time and recreation, albeit to a limited extent; yet it was enough to create fantasies, more attainable than through buying lottery tickets.

Gloria’s parents played a major part in stifling the realization of her career potential and thus her ultimate decision to return to San Bartolomé.

Gloria opened her own doors to a future, and her parents firmly shut them. They both refused to sign for army enrolment. Her father’s positive immigration status, rather than at least easing the ability for Gloria to become documented and proceed with a professional career, was revoked as a result of his criminality.

While working two jobs was difficult, Gloria’s workplace employment significantly contributed to the ability of the family to live comfortably. “But there [in California] you have to work, work, work to have that lifestyle,” Gloria confesses, “and here [in San Bartolomé] people don’t have to work as much to get by.”

After much discussion, a greater understanding emerges of why Gloria returned, a thought process through which she had apparently not previously gone. As much as Gloria professes to having led a middle class lifestyle, by most accounts it would be considered working class, a difficult working class existence relative to life in San Bartolomé. It bothered Gloria that in California, at least within the context of her employment at the time, “work, work, work” would never lead to home ownership and being able to literally build a future. In San Bartolomé they can improve their own home, with much less effort, and work towards accumulating some of the material indicia of a middle class lifestyle. In Anaheim it would always be working to pay the rent and get by, albeit with leisurely Sundays and Disneyland.

That all – pervasive, anti – Mexican racist sentiment which permeates much of the US was felt be Gloria, and subtly worked on her. Notwithstanding her immediate family’s income, her linguistic skills, and development of her social and employment networks, while living in sunny CA there would always be a lingering sentiment of feeling out of place, removed from one’s roots and ethnicity. How it would have manifested had Gloria ended up proceeding in one or those two career options, one will never know.

“Benito didn’t want to go back,” Gloria admits. “When Mexicans like us return home with our American – born children, the children tend to get sick, and as a consequence the family returns to the US,” she explains. “Benito didn’t want to go through all that expense of coming here and then going back.”

In June, 2010, Gloria decided to return to San Bartolomé with their children. What had been in the recesses of her mind promptly came to the fore; she still cannot identify a precipitating event, comment or thought; the time had come.

Gloria arrived in Oaxaca on September 23, 2010. Benito plans to follow, in October, 2011. He says he’ll stay for 3 – 4 years.

Upon Gloria leaving Anaheim with her children, her parents moved in with Benito. The entire family subsequently moved into a different two bedroom apartment.

Lifestyle of an American Woman & Her American Children in San Bartolomé Quialana, Oaxaca

Gloria awakens to the sound of Juan’s four chickens and dog Frisky howling away in the courtyard, together with the early morning sounds of the street and her neighbors’ chatter and activities. She feeds the children. Their grandmother goes about her business getting her herbs and vegetables ready to take to market in Tlacolula. Gloria, accompanied by Daniel, walks Juan to school.

Juan struggles with Spanish. He grew up learning mainly English, with no Zapoteco. Daniel, by contrast, somehow managed to master Spanish, and that remains his most comfortable speaking tongue.

Several extended family members live in and around the compound, and village friends and other family are in close proximity, dropping by throughout the day. Gloria holds court either outside, or when the sun is beating down or it’s raining, in her main indoor living space. It contains a large dining table and chairs, a couple of smaller tables with clothes piled on top, assorted other chairs, a fridge and stove, and a tall contemporary-styled wooden, glass front china cabinet with drawers at the bottom. The adjoining bedroom has two beds; one for Gloria and Juan, and the other for Daniel. Their grandmother sleeps in the same room, but on the floor, as has been her custom throughout her entire life. Gloria’s brother-in-law bought a bed for his mother, but she wouldn’t use it, because she never has.

When Gloria and the children moved into the house last September, it had a dirt floor. With the assistance of her extended family, she has slowly been making the modest abode more comfortable. It now has a concrete floor. The washroom has been built, but is still an outhouse. For showering, the family goes next door to Gloria’s brother-in-law’s home.

From Benito’s weekly income of about $500, he wires $100 to Tlacolula for Gloria to cash; he occasionally sends $150. It’s enough to get by, and helped a great deal with the initial improvements to the house. To get the money Gloria must go to Tlacolula every week. Sometimes she goes with the children to the Sunday tianguis to shop; sometimes she goes during the week, if only to pick up her money from the storefront wire service.

Most days Gloria dresses in traditional regional clothing – a brightly embroidered apron over a locally made, long colourful satin dress. “In 17 years of living in Ahaheim,” Gloria asserts, almost boasting,” I wore a dress only twice; once for my quince años, and again for my wedding.”

Gloria is often pressured by her mother-in-law to wear only traditional dress, but she now puts on “normal” clothes when she feels like it. But she admits, “I’m now comfortable wearing this kind of clothing, but it took a while. Now I wear what I want and I won’t yield to pressure from anyone in the village.”

San Bartolomé, not unlike other villages in Mexico, or even in small town USA, is a rumor mill. When Gloria has had visitors from California, if there happened to be a male amongst them, the looks, innuendo and suspicion would begin. And even if the group was strictly female, “cavorting” out of the house in the evening was unacceptable. But Gloria has gotten used to it, and has found her own inner means of coping.

Gloria gets to Oaxaca every 6 – 7 weeks, but no more. It’s usually to go shopping with the children in a large American-style supermarket (Soriana), and to the movies. She’s taking the children this Saturday so that Juan can buy a special game from Soriana that his father promised. Benito is wiring an extra 285 pesos, so earmarked.

Benito speaks with Gloria three or four times a day. He has a long distance phone plan for which he pays $60 a month. It enables him to make unlimited calls of unlimited duration to Gloria’s land line. Gloria and Benito also text one another throughout the day.

Monday Gloria begins working ten hours a week at a Tlacolula commercial mezcal factory and retail outlet. The owners value her ability to communicate well in Spanish, Zapoteco, and English. She’s not entirely sure exactly what she’ll be doing, but has been going in from time to time to learn about the functioning of the operation. She has no idea about the pay.

Epilogue: Gloria’s Future in San Bartolomé Quialana, Oaxaca

By most accounts, while living in Anaheim Gloria was a working class American woman of indigenous Mexican decent; fluent in English, working two jobs, she and her husband raising two American-born children in a single family household. Their lifestyle was not all that different from that of working class urban whites with a bit of ethnic flare.

The dashing of Gloria’s hopes is not that unusual, either, in terms of parental control of decision-making over minor progeny. Her immigration status (to only a minor extent) and the strong sense of Zapotec indigeneity and the allure it apparently continually held for Gloria, were, together with that subtle American racism, determinative of Gloria’s life path; at least to date.

On balance, Gloria and her family will return to Anaheim some day. She’s concerned about schooling for her children:

“School here is okay, but in order to attend a good school, you have to go to a private school and that costs a lot. And to go beyond high school, you have to go to Oaxaca [or further abroad], and it’s very expensive. And of course American schools and colleges are better. I want the children to have a good education. Eventually we’ll return to the states, but it’ll be to better the chances for our children to get a quality education and have good careers.

“To get into the US when I was six, we took buses to the border at Tijuana. There were five of us, and I think the coyote charged us $400; but it was stressful, and took close to ten tries. But getting back into the US again? No, it’s not an issue; we know we can do it and will do it if we want to; the issues are how long it will take, and of course the cost, but for us, the ability to get back to Anaheim will never be a concern.”


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