Mexico

The folklore of Oaxaca, Mexico

Wall Mural, Oaxaca, 2011. Photo by Margaret Everett. Does it look as if this skeleton has braces, or is that just me?

I love folklore and myth so much that I have written a book about the history of an evil spirit -the Windigo- in Indigenous religion in the United States and Canada. So every year around Halloween I do posts that focus on mysteries.  I first did research in Oaxaca, Mexico back in 2004, and soon afterwards my wife chose it as the site for her anthropological field-work. For years my family and I would travel to Oaxaca. I fell in love with its Indigenous heritage, arts, culture and -perhaps most of all- food. And of course the folklore, which Hilary Morgan Leathem’s captures in her piece “Oaxacan Ruin Lore: When the Stones Come For You”

While it has now been years since I last returned to Oaxaca, this piece brought back memories of Monte Alban and Mitla. While Monte Alban is much better known, Mitla is an evocative (albeit much smaller) site. Although it can be easily viewed in an hour or less, for me the locale had an evocative, eerie feeling.  What I like about Leathem’s account is how it connects these Zapotec ruins to contemporary folklore. As Leathem describes the ruins haunt the local imagination: “Yet what is quite possibly most unique about Mitla are the stories where the landscape—or, rather, the ruins themselves – do the bewitching. There are multiple accounts of Mitla’s ruins haunting locals through disturbing and vivid dreams. . . . .In every instance where the ruins have possessed people through dreams, the individual descends into an atypical form of madness. They are struck with “ruin envy” and cannot rid their minds of the ruins.”

Wall in Oaxaca City, Mexico. Circa 2011. Photo by Margaret Everett

Mexico’s Indigenous heritage is so vast, deep and influential that haunts all aspects of Mexico’s rich folklore. My family and I was once driven through Oaxaca City by a taxi driver, who told me that underneath the city there were networks of tunnels that ran from one colonial Church to many other locations. At the time I thought that the idea was absurd. Now I wonder if this particular legend is not another aspect of this Indigenous legacy. If you want to learn more not only about Mexico’s mysteries and folklore, but also its Indigenous peoples and history, I highly recommend the podcast Mexico Unexplained by Robert Bitto. In the episode, “The Mysterious Tunnels of Teotihuacan” Bitto described how over a century of explorers and archaeologists have searched for an underground network of tunnels and grottos beneath this sprawling Meso-American city. The episode is worth listening to for the sense of wonder that may be evoked by some recent finds. But more particularly, this episode made me question if the folklore if I heard from that taxi driver perhaps had its origins in the stories about the tunnels under Teotihuacan. But then, caves and the underground world have always been important in Oaxaca’s Indigenous traditions (Steele, 1997).

Since the Spanish often built their colonial churches on the temples of the Indigenous peoples, perhaps it was not impossible that there were in fact tunnels under these sacred sites in Oaxaca city. I wonder what might turn up after a flood causes a sinkhole in Oaxaca someday. After all, wasn’t the Templo Mayor in Mexico City uncovered by electrical workers entirely by accident in 1978? There is so much missing and hidden in Mexico. And it is not only ruins that haunt the country’s imagination, but also tales of lost cities and islands. 

Mexican bar sign, Oaxaca City, Mexico. Photo by Margaret Everett around 2013.

If you want to hear about another mystery, please read this post on the Vela Incident. Or if you are interested in hearing more about global topics, please listen to my podcast, Dispatch 7. You can find it on Spotify here, or by searching whichever podcast platform you prefer.

Reference:

Steele, J. F. (1997). Cave Rituals in Oaxaca, Mexico. Conference paper, presented at the Society for American Archaeology conference in Nashville, TN.

Shawn Smallman

Ruined building, Oaxaca, Mexico. Photo by Margaret Everett.

COVID-19 in Latin America

Flyer for our upcoming presentation

Next Tuesday my department will be having a presentation on Zoom  about COVID-19  in Latin America. During this discussion I’ll be talking about Bolsonaro’s leadership in Brazil, and the current pandemic trends in that country. Dr. Rodriguez will be talking about Argentina’s response, while Dr. Young will be discussing the experience of both Cuba and Mexico. Since I know little about the COVID-19 situation outside of Brazil in Latin America, I am particularly interested to hear what my co-presenters will say. The talk will be 2pm West Coast (US) time. Please RSVP if you are interested in participating.

Shawn Smallman

Mexico and Safety

Panoramica Bahia de Acapulco. By Microstar (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Date rape drugs are a problem in many different nations. A recent article in USA Today, however, reveals systemic issues at Mexican resorts. Raquel Rutledge’s well-researched piece, “Mother’s nightmare at Mexico resort: ‘There is more to this deeper, darker story than we know,'” reveals the inability or unwillingness of Mexican authorities to investigate the use of date rape drugs at these resorts. On a personal note, about six months ago I heard a second hand account from one of my students, who described a case of a husband and wife, in which the wife was raped after they were both given a date-rape drug. I can’t know if this story is true, since I did not speak to one of the people who were drugged. But what was disturbing to me about this particularly story was that this case allegedly took place not in a resort, but rather in a restaurant in Mexico City. Again, this story was not first-hand, and I cannot attest to its veracity. Still, Rutledge’s piece suggests that travelers to Mexico should exercise caution, and that Mexican authorities should thoroughly investigate all such cases, which should include medical examinations for rape, and blood testing to identify the drugs used.

Curious to read more about drugs in Mexico? You can also read this post. I also recommend this Propublica piece “How the U.S. Triggered a Massacre in Mexico” by Ginger Thompson, which covers this topic in much greater depth than my initial blog post.

Shawn Smallman, 2018.

Best Map of the Global Drug Trade

I have been researching the drug trade in Latin America this year, and recently came across this map of the global drug trade by Eduardo Asta, who created it in 2014. This particular map has now been published in the Atlas of Design, which celebrates the best maps produced in the world, and is published every two years. Although the map is in Portuguese, the images are so clear, and the cognates so similar, that it should be easy for any English speaker to decipher the map. One of the points that the map makes abundantly clear is the scale of the cocaine trade between Latin America in Europe. While in North America we tend to focus on the drug war, and the flow of drugs across the U.S. Mexican border, it’s important to remember that this is one part of a truly global trade. The European market for cocaine is almost as large as that in the United States. The Caribbean also plays a key role in the transport routes that bring cocaine from the Andes to the U.S. East Coast, but U.S. media coverage of the drug trade focuses almost exclusively on the Mexican border. The map also shifts our perspective on the drug trade by emphasizing the critical role that Afghanistan and Asia play in the global heroin trade. Finally, Africa receives little attention in discussion of the global drug trade, but it has a massive market for amphetamines. To me, this map is a beautiful work of design, which visually conveys an immense amount of information without succumbing to clutter.

If you are interested in maps of the drug trade, look at this map of the Mexican drug cartels in 2015, and this collection of maps on the Brazilian drug trade. You can also read my post on the terrible massacre in Coahuila, Mexico.

Shawn Smallman, Portland State University

The AIDS Pandemic in Latin America

This week I had a chance to have a discussion via Skype with a class in Ithaca, New York, which had read my book on the AIDS Pandemic in Latin America. The class asked what had changed with the epidemic since I wrote my book, as well as what would I change if I were to write it now? The good news is that there has been a great deal of progress in the fight against HIV in the region. More people are receiving appropriate therapy, fewer babies are being born with HIV, and the rate of condom use is up in many nations. At the same time, the number of people living with HIV is slowly increasing, in part because people are now living longer with the infection, thanks to better therapy. …

What strange nightmare happened in Coahuila?

Metropolitan cathedral in Mexico City, from the CIA World Factbook, which states that it is in the public domain
Metropolitan cathedral in Mexico City, from the CIA World Factbook, which states that it is in the public domain

In September 2014 there was a tragic event in Mexico when 43 students in the state of Guerrero, Mexico disappeared. Despite some conspiracy theories, it is now clear that all were murdered by a drug cartel, which worked in collaboration with both the local police and the mayor, as well as the mayor’s wife. Mexicans were shocked by this event, which caused a political crisis for President Enrique Pena Nieto.  The world media gave extensive coverage to events, as people were stunned at the brazenness of the crime. The Iguala murders became a symbol of the horror of the Mexican drug war, and the extent to which it has corrupted not only the police, but also political elites. But what happened in Coahuila, in northeastern Mexico, and why have events there not received similar coverage? …

Mexican Ambush

Since 2006, when the Mexican drug war began, perhaps 150,000 people have either been killed or disappeared. Very few of these murders have ever been prosecuted. Even the number of dead is controversial, and it is possible that the true figure is much higher. The Mexican government has had significant successes recently, such as the capture on February 25, 2015 of La Tuta, the head of the Knights Templar in the Mexican state of Michoacan. Still, as quickly as one cartel is destroyed, a new one emerges to take its place. In this particular case, the New Generation cartel is quickly filling the space vacated by the Knights Templar. If anything, the level of violence against the state seems to be increasing. …

Map of Mexican Drug Cartels

I’m currently working on a project that compares the drug trade in Mexico and Brazil. My goal is to try to understand the factors that have made the Mexican trade so bloody in comparison with Brazil’s trade. I believe that part of the reason is the nature of border. Most of the cocaine trafficked into Brazil passes through highly porous borders in Amazonia, which would be impossible to close to the same degree as the U.S.-Mexican border. The Brazilian drug trade is also geographically fractured, despite the existence of major drug organizations such as the First Capital Command (PCC), Red Command, Pure Third Command, and “Amigos dos Amigos.” The Mexican drug trade also overlays a major movement of migrants from southern Mexico and Central America to the United States; this both creates a population vulnerable to crime, but also develops networks that move people from south to north outside the control of the state. There is no parallel migration in Brazil. One issue I face with this project is the large number of variables that make the drug trade different in these nations. …

Falling Demand for Mexican Marijuana

"Seeding Poppy Heads" by Simon Howden at freedigitalphotos.net
“Seeding Poppy Heads” by Simon Howden at freedigitalphotos.net

In an earlier post, I talked about the move to decriminalizing marijuana in the Americas. What struck me last August how quickly this idea has gained political momentum, both within the United States and internationally. In the United States, medical marijuana is legal in 40% of states, while the next state to fully legalize the drug for recreational use may be Alaska. A recent article in the Washington Post examines the impact that this trend is having both in the United States and in Mexico. On the positive side, in Sinaloa the demand for marijuana has collapsed, with current prices just a quarter of what they were five years ago. Nick Miroff quotes one Mexican farmer about this economic transformation: ““It’s not worth it anymore,” said Rodrigo Silla, 50, a lifelong cannabis farmer who said he couldn’t remember the last time his family and others in their tiny hamlet gave up growing mota. “I wish the Americans would stop with this legalization.’” While this economic change should weaken the power of the major drug cartels, it has also had an unintended consequence: Mexican farmers are transitioning to opium, which is used to produce heroin. According to the article, Mexican cartels have adopted heroin as their key product, and they are pushing near treatment centers in the United States. …

Energy Reform in Mexico and Brazil

"The Offshore Drilling Oil Rig And Supply Boat Side View" by num_skyman at freedigitalphotos.net
“The Offshore Drilling Oil Rig And Supply Boat Side View” by num_skyman at freedigitalphotos.net

I’ve just returned from three weeks in southern Mexico, where the biggest political issue in the news has been the President’s energy reform plan. In 1938 Mexican President Lazaro Cardenas nationalized the petroleum industry. This measure attracted popular acclaim in Mexico, and fury in the United States. While President Roosevelt was pressured to act, he knew that World War Two was coming, and had little interest in alienating a key neighbor. The state oil company PEMEX is now Mexico’s largest economic organization, and a source of national pride. When you travel in Mexico, all of the gas stations have the green stripe and red eagle of PEMEX. But now the company faces massive challenges. …

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