Mexico at the Crossroads: Coatz—spam Embodies NAFTA

By David Schmidt

Visitors who walk into the rural town of San Juan Coatzóspam, in southern Mexico, follow a narrow road that snakes uphill amidst towering trees, hanging Spanish moss and clouds of fog. At the entrance to this Mixtec indigenous community, the road forks in two—one road leads uphill towards a rural health clinic; the other road leads downhill towards the graveyard.

Five years ago to the day, I traveled to Coatzóspam to research the effects of the North American Free Trade Agreement on Mexico’s rural towns, later publishing an article on the subject in The Progressive Populist [“The Face of Rural Mexico,” 10/1/06 TPP]. I described a community that had become nearly a ghost town, drained of its lifeblood by the effects of neoliberal economics. As a coffee farming community, Coatzóspam’s former livelihood was lost as coffee prices fluctuated wildly following the passage of NAFTA in 1994.

I recently returned to the community five years later to find a place that had undergone potentially far-reaching changes … partly as a result of the Populist article itself. In the years since I first visited Coatzóspam, the coffee farmers of the community of a little more than 2,000 people have formed their own organization. In this sense, they are in a less vulnerable place than they were five years ago … yet the future status and stability of this organization remains unknown.

The company representing the transnational corporations of “Big Coffee”, known by the acronym A.M.S.A., has been recently vying to lock the coffee farmers into an exclusive contract; if they sign an agreement, it will severely limit their ability to seek new markets or negotiate prices.

However, the coffee farmers have also been in contact with some worker-owned Fair Trade organizations that may help them sell their coffee. The coffee farmers of Coatzóspam stand poised to either become dependent on big business or to collectively increase their negotiating power. While nearly all young people were absent from the town five years ago, I noticed far more adolescents in Coatzóspam during this visit.

Some of this likely has to do with the increased accessibility of education: the massive APPO protests of 2006 eventually brought a coalition government into power in the State of Oaxaca, which has granted some of the protesters’ initial demands, including free school uniforms and subsidies for education. As a result, the streets of towns like Coatzóspam are now full of children and teenagers in school uniforms on any given weekday morning.

In fact, I found much more evidence of a thriving social fabric during my recent visit. “People have been attending the town faenas (voluntary community work projects) more frequently than they did before,” said Juan Juarez, an old friend from my first visit.

“I think a lot of people have gotten over their indifference and have grown tired of bickering and partisan political divisions, and realize they really want to contribute to their town.”

I attended one of these faenas; a good 70 men and women were there with shovels, hoes and machetes, helping to reforest the countryside with new saplings. Coatzóspam may be a community weakened by the dynamic of outward migration, but it is far from being defeated. To be sure, outward migration continues. However, some of the town’s past migrants to the city have now returned and started businesses with their savings. New store fronts have rapidly cropped up on the main street of Coatzóspam: general stores, paper and stationary shops, a rotisserie chicken business, an auto detailing service, even an internet café. Remittances have contributed to community development projects as well; the town’s Main Street has been repaved, and a new recreational center and basketball court has been built since my last visit.

In addition, folks who spend extended periods of time in the city bring back more than just their monetary savings.

Along with the unmistakable chilango and norteño accents of the urban areas of Mexico where they worked, many former migrants return to Coatzóspam with new ideas, increasingly viewing everything in terms of monetary gain. One young man who spent years in the northern Mexican town of Ensenada showed me an ancient pre-Hispanic necklace. “I found this in a cave up in the mountains,” he said, holding out the carved stone relic. “It’s part of our cultural heritage. Made by our ancestors centuries ago. One of the sacred pieces from the history of the Mixtec people. How much will you pay me for it?”

In addition to changing cultural attitudes, an ever-present danger associated with modernization is the loss of the Mixtec culture in Coatzóspam. For the first time in the history of the town, I found that the youngest generation of children speaks Spanish almost exclusively, in a community that has traditionally spoken the indigenous Mixtec language. And yet, cultural extinction is not an inevitable fact for the community. Many of the people of Coatzóspam have made valiant efforts to preserve and promote their own language and culture—one of which was inspired, in part, by my article published five years ago.

As Alejandro Morales Pacheco, one of the teachers from Coatzóspam, told me: “Seeing that article in print was a wake-up call for us teachers. We asked ourselves, ‘how is it that this foreigner cares about the loss of our cultural identity, but we haven’t done anything about it?’ So we got together and decided to publish a book to be used in our schools, using the town’s language, history, legends and folklore as curriculum, giving kids an education more contextualized in their own Mixtec identity.”

At this point, the entire community of Coatzóspam stands at a crossroads. Its cultural, economic, social and linguistic future is uncertain. I can imagine three potential scenarios for this town and others like it.

The community may be swallowed up by mainstream Mexican society, losing its unique cultural identity and history and being seamlessly absorbed into the non-Mixtec culture.

In a different and I fear more likely scenario, Coatzóspam may lose its own cultural identity without being allowed a place in the Mexican mainstream, either culturally or socioeconomically. Without any sense of community identity and with little economic opportunities, the town could become a form of rural “ghetto”, its youth turning primarily to the cholo culture of delinquency. Drug use, gang activity, violence and social disintegration would increase. At best, a benevolent drug lord might take the disenfranchised town under his wing.

In a much more ideal scenario, Coatzóspam could become a thriving community which is integrated into the modern world in many aspects, without losing its cultural identity. Townsfolk would retain their history, become bi-culturally and bilingually literate, and remain proud and conscious of who they are as a people.

The people of Coatzóspam have a few short years to make some key decisions and figure out which path it’s going to be. At this point, however, it remains an idyllically tranquil place to visit.

In the valleys downhill from the town, dozens of other communities slowly light up, creating constellations that stretch into the darkness for miles.

Ricardo, a mentally disabled man who volunteers at the church, climbs the bell tower to ring the ancient colonial bells every day at sunset. The toll of the ancient bells has an ambiguous tone.

It is either ringing in a renaissance of the Mixtec culture in Coatzóspam, or tolling the death of the town’s traditions, legends, stories and language.

David Schmidt lives in San Diego. Email

From The Progressive Populist, March 15, 2012

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