The Face of Rural Mexico

By David Schmidt

San Juan Coatzóspam, Oaxaca, Mexico

“The highway hasn’t done a thing to benefit this town. It just takes and takes from our community, leaving nothing in return.” Juán Juárez was describing some of the most radical changes seen by his town of San Juan Coatzóspam since the Spanish conquest. The construction of a highway through this Mixtec Indian population of Oaxaca, Mexico, coincided with the signing of NAFTA, and both would transform the formerly self-sufficient community into a culturally deteriorating town entirely dependent on the outside world.

The story of Coatzóspam is the other migration story — a story of migration, not from Mexico to the US, but rather from the countryside to the city. It is also an Everyman Tale — one that has repeated itself countless times in recent history.

While it would be unwise to idealize life in Coatzóspam before the advent of NAFTA, the town did enjoy a certain degree of stability, owing to several factors. Unlike many indigenous communities in Southern Mexico that have been completely disenfranchised, the people of Coatzóspam have fiercely guarded a tradition of shared land ownership. This coincided in town history with a strong sense of social cohesion among residents. Countless times in the memorable past, the entire town would be called together by the blowing of a conch shell to resolve a dispute, join in communal work or defend the territory from invading neighbors. This local unity lent the residents of the town a strong sense of pride in their identity as Mixtec people.

Likely the greatest source of economic stability was the Mexican Coffee Institute, known by the Spanish acronym INMECAFE. Affiliated with the International Coffee Organization (ICO), this nationwide intermediary between small producers and purchasers guaranteed farmers a minimum price of 3.50 pesos ($0.35 USD) per kilo. Should the price rise, INMECAFE paid farmers the difference. “The stability in price kept us working on a steady basis,” states Juán Juárez. “And when the price would rise, we worked even harder!” In addition, the institute provided farmers with an annual credit of 20% of anticipated harvest, to be repaid in coffee beans. “Nobody got rich farming coffee. With hard work and the support of the rest of the town, however, it was possible to support a family,” states Juárez.

The sudden changes coinciding with the signing of NAFTA would prove devastating to this fragile stability. The first major blow dealt was the dissolution of INMECAFE, a move that Mexican and American governments had been building up to in the preceding years of neo-liberal policies. Farming coffee became a gamble. The price plunged, and several farmers abandoned their fields within the first year, after which the price rose to 35 pesos per kilo at one point. “The few farmers who kept producing made out great,” says Juárez, “but only at the expense of those who lost.” The completion of the new highway facilitated the subsequent mass exodus of farmers to the city in search of stable income

Of course, the town still held communal possession of their land. When I would occasionally give a “look on the bright side” speech to a resident, stating that at least the people of Coatzóspam still possessed the land, I found it difficult to counter their jaded response: “What’s the point in owning land when the prices are so low, you lose money working it?” As local farmers couldn’t possibly compete with transnational agribusiness companies on the world market, many of them abandoned their gardens entirely. Most residents now purchase fruits and vegetables from the city ... with money earned in the city.

The former sense of town unity has been rapidly deteriorating, according to the local municipal president. “People don’t show up to communal work projects like they used to. Besides, much of the potential work force has left for the city. Out of every 100 young folks that leave town, about 12 or 13 end up coming back.”

Indeed, the generation gap was painfully noticeable as I walked around town. On observing the demographic, I thought of a friend who had visited Russia after WWII and saw an entire generation of young men missing. The difference in this case is that the war on the countryside has taken men and women: In a town of approximately 1,340 inhabitants, I was able to count the young men and women between ages 12 and 30 on one hand. In Coatzóspam, as in Mixtec towns all over Oaxaca, a child’s dream is no longer to become a farmer or teacher or doctor, but to become a migrant.

Many parents send their children to school only to teach them Spanish in preparation for this destiny. “Parents these days see no value in their own language,” says Alejandro Morales, a local teacher. “They just want to Hispanicize their kids; many parents won’t even speak the Mixtec language at home any more. I wouldn’t be surprised if our language disappeared from Coatzóspam in a generation or two.”

Associating their own cultural identity with poverty and shame and marginalized in the big city, many young Mixtec migrants adopt the culture of delinquency. Those that do return to town bring this city culture with them. “Kids come back corrupt and angry, they smoke marijuana and fight with each other, they graffiti our town.” Indeed, the colonial Catholic Church and even local relics from pre-Hispanic times have been tagged with gang slogans. “The worst is the annual town festival when youth come to visit from the city,” states Antonio Valdivia. “They come in dressed like thugs, acting tough, and end up brawling with each other. This never used to happen.”

After leaving Coatzóspam, I passed through Oaxaca City, where representatives from similar rural communities have joined trade unions and social organizations in demanding a more representative government for their state. When I discussed the loss of local culture, the outward exodus and the disappearance of social cohesion with representatives from a Zapotec Indian village, the story was all too familiar. “Sí ... todos somos Coatzóspam.”

“Yes, we are all Coatzóspam.”

David Schmidt is a member of the Sí Se Puede Coalition in San Diego, Calif., which is affiliated with the International Coalition for Liberty and Justice. Email

From The Progressive Populist, October 1, 2006

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