Saturday, August 8, 2009

Interviews and presentations

Finishing and transcribing my goal of 25 interviews is a good feeling.  Most of the questions referred to opinions related to traditional food and perceptions of what constitutes healthy food and eating habits and trends.

Analyzing the interviews and developing a report with recommendations for culturally appropriate nutrition education workshops is the main task now.

I recruited some interviewees directly from the Centeotl’s office, and from the colmena groups in Zimatlan and in San Pablo Huixtepec, where we taught nutrition workshops.  The colmenas (beehives) are women groups that participate in community development workshops and a micro-loan program called bancomunidad.  UC San Diego students developed a nutrition workshop hat I helped implement in the San Pablo colmenas.  During the workshop I was close to having everyone chant with me ‘Fuera los refrescos y las sopas maruchan!!’ but I restrained myself and emphasized lead risks and the nutritional virtues of the amaranth and the quintoniles instead.

I also contacted potential interviewees through a presentation at a DIF meeting.  The local DIF (National System for the Integral Development of the Family) chapter is led by Do~na Eva, the wife of the presidente municipal of Zimatlan, the local government official.  About 50 ‘abuelitos o personas de la tercera edad’ (the word elderly doesn’t sound as nice) attended my nutrition presentation and provided comments related to the changes in diets they observe with younger generations.

A key element in learning about diet habits and nutrition related opinions was spending time with a host family in Zimatlan.  Interacting with this family was a privilege and it gave me the opportunity to taste many great local dishes such as gui~nadu, a blend of beans, corn masa, peppers, and herbs.

To learn more about the role of nutritional supplements I approached doctors and nutritional supplements distributors directly.  Most people were welcoming.  I even had to cut short an interview when one woman seemed to want to go on after two hours. Only two people refused to be interviewed.  One was a woman doctor who responded with a flat ‘I’m not interested’ to my enthusiastic ‘My name is Naya, I’m carrying out interviews as part of a study related to the health of migrants…’.  I thanked her and moved on.

Carrying out interviews in Zimaltan and in San Pablo, moto-taxis were my best friends.  I could often just say the name of a person and general directions and the driver knew where to take me.  The only challenge sometimes was to find a moto-taxi if I wasn’t near a main street.

The bus ride to Zimatlan from Oaxaca City is often interesting.  The only thing I hope for is good music since it usually plays loudly and I have to hear it for an hour and a half.  It varies from techno to ranchera or reggaeton.

From the bus, a few days ago I saw a bicycle pilgrimage to Juquila, an important Catholic site where the image of “la Virgen de Juquila” is venerated.  There were a few hundred bikes decorated with plastic flowers on the handlebars.  Most pilgrims had regular clothes and some carried a small wooden cross on their backs. An ambulance and trucks carrying green house like glass cases decorated with flowers and holding the image of the ‘Virgen de Juquila’ followed the bicycles.  Although I am not religious myself I was touched by the pilgrims demonstration of faith.

The bus ride can also be informative.  I took this picture of a common sight, a family owned small grocery store.  In front there's a little table with one of the most important products for sale: soda.  The signs covering the walls are often sponsored by beer or soft drink companies.  The white letters say: abarrotes, cerveza, palomitas, sopas instantaneas, jugos y licuados. 

Roasted wild blue mushrooms for dinner

San Vicente Lachixio is a village 3 hours away from Oaxaca City, to the south of Zimatlan.  When I first arrived in Oaxaca I introduced myself to Nicandro, one of the community development projects organizer.  After interviewing him, he said ‘you should talk to Domingo’ he is from a town that conserves many of their food traditions.

Domingo Torres, a Centeotl staff member, invited me to visit his community of San Vicente Lachixio, where most if not all children have Zapotec as their first language.  This village has high rates of migration, by Domingo’s estimates, about 40% of the population migrates at some point in their lives.  In effect, all the families I had contact with during my 3-day visit had a relative who presently was, or had been in the US.

San Vicente is very different from Zimatlan.  It’s an area covered by pine forest.  People cultivate corn but there’s also production of peaches, cherries, apples, and pears.  When I heard that a wide variety of wild mushrooms grow in the area I made sure to visit.  Mushrooms are amazing creatures.  Not only do they play an important role in decomposing matter and making nutrients available to plants, they are tasty too.

I spent three days with Julia (Domingo’s wife) and their 4 children, cooking, talking, eating and playing chess. One day we went to a family owned field to harvest the corn spared by some kind of wild animal that destroyed most of the crop.  Apparently, it’s a small dog size animal that feeds at night in packs.  Domingo’s family was very upset about the ruined crop.

All the food we ate in San Vicente was made in clay pots and over a wood fire.  Although many of the families have Lorena stoves, which reduce indoor air pollution and the amount of fuel needed (to decrease deforestation) Julia’s family is still working on building one.  The effect of the smoke was intolerable even though I spent at the most, an hour near the fire.  Feeling how irritated my eyes become after a few minutes, I can only imagine the effects the smoke must have on women and children who spend hours around it.

Many of the dishes Domingo’s wife, Julia, made, were completely new to me and many only have a name in Zapotec.  Curiously, most were vegetarian and had a base of grounded roasted corn or beans that made a mole, or a thick sauce.  Among the dishes we had were yucu yadzaa(Zapotec writers out there, sorry for the spelling) made with corn, peppers and spices.  Another dish was erze made with finely metate grounded beans and wild mushrooms.  I am still trying to find out what kinds of mushrooms those are.  Another blue mushroom, called cuil is eaten roasted, with lemon and salt.

Another dish we had was barbacoa the chivo, goat roasted in an underground oven.  The goat is cooked with spices and wrapped in avocado leaves.  It’s one of the most delicious dishes I know.

Domingo expressed that he wished to be able to write Zapotec because as far as he knew, there was no written form specific to his community.  A large area of Oaxaca, from el Istmo to the valleys and the Southern Sierra has Zapotec speakers.  However, the different dialects vary enormously.  For example, grasshopper in one dialect in the valley is gusharu, but it’s xedzdhu in San Vicente.  I remember these words because Xedzhu is the nickname I gave Jaciel, Domingo’s 3 year old son.

By chance, a few weeks before visiting San Vicente, I met Michael Swanton, an American linguist who specializes in the Mixted language.  He put me in touch with Mark Sicoli, a Dutch linguist researching the Zapotec of the Southern Sierra, where Domingo is from.  Mark has recently finished work related to the writing of the Zapotec and is developing a dictionary to be published next year.    He emailed us some of his work on the alphabet and Domingo has used this information to start writing stories to conserve the oral tradition of his town.  He is also interested in integrating the formal knowledge of Zapotec into the curriculum of the local bilingual school.  I am still struggling with counting from 1 to 10, but this is the first step to making my dream of learning Zapotec a reality.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

From reality show to humanitarian aid program

La Soledad is a small village that participates in Centeotl’s programs

A couple of years ago, TV Azteca, planned to air a new reality type show.  The idea was to place celebrities in a marginalized community to see how long they lasted carrying out the local way of life. The TV leaders choose ‘La Soledad’, a village set beautifully against a background of oak covered mountains.  Until a few years ago, this village was without basic water and electricity services and only accessible by a small trail.  Luckily, the initial TV plan did not work out.  Someone might have realized that turning a town’s poverty into a set for entertainment might not be the most sensitive thing to do.  In the end, the CEO of TV Azteca, Esteban Moctezuma Barragan, became interested in funding a housing project in La Soledad in collaboration with Centeotl.  Mr Moctezuma flew to la Soledad personally by helicopter to oversee the inauguration of 30 new houses .  Pictures:

With support from Centeotl, the residents of La Soledad have started multiple development projects, including a wooden toys workshop, fish ponds, and amaranth crops.  Nicandro, Domingo and Elda, who carry out many of Centeotl’s programs, took the summer program group (mostly students from UC San Diego) to visit this town and attend an amaranth workshop.

It is traditional in Oaxaca that when you arrive somewhere you acknowledge and greet everyone.  As residents of La Soledad, mostly women, arrived to the workshop, they shook hands with every single person in the student group, about 20 people.  When Nicandro asked the women to tell us about their community, they only smiled to each other.  One said that they felt shy because there were so many ‘gueros’ present.  As Nicandro began to tell us about the town, the women added a few details here and there. 

During the second part of the visit, we observed how to make ‘agua fresca’ with the amaranth leaves and alegrias, a candy made with roasted amaranth grains.  We also had time to buy some of the locally made toys, and to take a quick tour of the fish ponds, and the communal chicken coops.  To say goodbye, we shook every single person’s hands and thanked them.  I could sense their hospitality when many responded ‘we hope you come again’.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Wonder crop: Amaranth

Centeotl, my internship home organization promotes amaranth cultivation and consumption.  Although the nutritional profile of this grain is similar to quinoa, containing tons of protein, folic acid, etc, etc, it is rarely eaten in Oaxaca, except in the form of alegrias, a candy made with amaranth and panela, unprocessed sugar.  The leaves are also edible and high in iron but outside of Centeotl I haven't heard of anyone that eats it.

Amaranth, known as huautli in nahuatl, was an important item in prehispanic religious ceremonies.  According to training that Centeotl gave us, amaranth was prohibited by the Spanniards because it was used in a similar way to how communion is taken in the Catholic church.  People who continued the crop or consumed the products had their hands cut off in punishment.  In the diet of pre-hispanic Mexico, amaranth, together with corn, was a basic element, together forming a complete protein.  Luckily, amaranth survived in some communities and now Centeotl as well as other nonprofits and private companies, seek to revive its use.

In Greek, amaranth means ‘unwithering’ and it is a crop with great potential to decrease malnutrition in low-income communities because of its high nutritional content and the low requirements for production, although harvesting can be complicated.  Additionally, the grain’s cost is 3 times that of corn and can become a significant source of income in a community of ‘campesinos’.

There are different varieties of Amaranth but the most used in Zimatlan and neighboring towns is the Amaranthus hipochondriacus.  Since taking the Centeotl workshops and doing interviews in Zimatlan and nearby communities, I have tripled my enthusiasm for amaranth.  I eat it every day and I try to come up with new ways to integrate it in common dishes.

Centeotl has been working with local communities since 1994.  They work with youth in education and cultural development, community development through microloans with women groups, and housing and sustainable agricultural projects.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Puebla conference y Zimatlan

The IV Summer Institute on Migration and Health gave an overview of migration and health. Between presentations, cultural tours and networking cocktails we had a full day every day. There was an overview of the issues involved with migration from health care access in the U.S. to the implications for family members left behind. Two important programs I learned about are the ‘Ventanillas de Salud’ and ‘Vete Sano, Regresa Sano’. ‘Ventanillas de Salud’ is a program to provide information and basic health care services to migrants at Mexican consulates. ‘Vete Sano, Regresa Sano’ is provided by the ‘Secretaria de Salud’ and focuses on migrants as a vulnerable population.

Participants came from many different Mexican and American states and even from Canada. The presenters were equally diverse. Two highlights for me were the presentations by Dr. Achotegui from the University of Barcelona on the ‘Ulises Syndrome’ and the mental health of migrants, and a talk about traditional medicine by Carlos Zolla, from the UNAM. I will never forget Maestro Zolla’s example of el ni~no volador, the ‘flying kid’ who flies off a swing and needs the assessment of the mom and the grandma who decide on multiple treatments, from domestic to traditional, to allopathic medicine.

Puebla is a beautiful city. The architecture, mainly Baroque, is similar to Oaxaca’s, but the streets are wider and seem busier. We also visited a beautiful nearby city: Cholula, one of the oldest in Mexico, and an important religious center well before the Spannish conquest. There are about 148 churches in the places where there used to be indigenous religious buildings.

Besides the cultural treats, Puebla{s food was also great. Puebla is famous for the variety of candies and for the ‘mole poblano’ although when it comes to food, I have to side with Oaxaca (of course) as the original home of mole and for the title of most representative and diverse cuisine in Mexico. Interestingly, an herb that is not consumed in Oaxaca but I saw everywhere in Puebla, including in cemitas, is papalo, with a taste very similar to tepiche. This is a plant of prehispanic origin.

Back in Oaxaca, as part of an ethnographic research class from UC San Diego, I will be living with a host family in Zimatlan for three days each week. This is a great opportunity to observe cooking practices and talk at length about health issues with the people of Zimatlan. There are three children in my host family, Cindy, Carla, and Eric, and they are very fun to hang out with. Both parents, Ana and Carlos work during the day but in the evenings like to talk about the comparison of life in the U.S. and in Mexico over chocolate and pan dulce. Zimatlan has a high migration rate to the US and fairly every person I have interviewed has a relative who has migrated to the US at some point in their life.

Next week we will be teaching a basic nutrition class to women’s groups called colmenas, beehives.

Nicandro, one of the program coordinators has started a blog about CENTEOTL’s activities:

Visits to CECIPROC’s sites

A few weeks ago, by invitation of the program’s director, Dr. Alberto Ysunza, I had a chance to visit La Luz, one of the communities CECIPROC is working with in the coast of Oaxaca.  CECIPROC AC (Centro de Capacitacion Integral para los Promotores Comunitarios/Integral Training for Community Promoters Center) is a nonprofit carrying out different nutrition related projects in the Sierra and Coast of Oaxaca.

During the six-hour car ride to the coast the landscape changed dramatically throughout with the crossing of the Sierra Sur mountains. On the road, Laurencio, one of the program managers, had to swerve many times to avoid hitting a dog, then a cow, a donkey, and even an iguana, while driving curve after curve.

CECIPROC’s current projects include building bathrooms that allow the human waste to be used as fertilizer, training women to grow home gardens, and building brick stoves that reduce indoor pollution and deforestation.  The general focus of the programs is nutrition improvement of disadvantaged communities.  Herdez is one of the financial supporters:

I stayed in Cacalotepec for a few days, under the tutelage of Moises, “Moi” for short, one of the community organizers. Moi belongs to the Mixe community, an indigenous group that prides itself in never having been conquered by the Spanniards.  He speaks two different forms of the Mixe language and Spanish.  His sense of humor, story telling skills and hospitality made me feel at home.  I also got the strong sense that he is deeply committed to working with rural communities to improve the quality of life.

At La Luz, Moi oversees the day-to-day running of a project based on the use of human waste turned fertilizer to grow vegetables for home consumption.  It is a similar project to the one two American women are implementing in Haiti:

From anecdotal evidence, the main activities of coastal towns like La Luz are fishing, and cattle raising.  Therefore, vegetables intake in the coast is fairly low and most produce is brought from outside of the communities.


As the community organizers, Moi and Laurencio explained, it took months to convince the women to use the dirt that comes from the toilets.  CECIPROC funded lab tests to prove the safety of the dirt that results after the human waste rests for 6 months and took pictures of sewage watered crops in Puebla, from where some of the produce distributed to the coast comes from.


During my visit, Emiliano, a local farmer taught the women how to prepare a bed to plant vegetables like cucumber, lettuce, peppers, tomatoes, radish, and squash.


The visit to the coast will be a highlight of this summer.  Although this area is sometimes unbearably hot, the raining season has started and everything is turning green.  The landscape of the ocean with the lush mountains was simply beautiful.


The last day I was in Cacalote, as Moi was driving me to the bus station, I shared with him that I hope to return to Oaxaca and stay in communities to learn the indigenous languages.  He was silent for a few seconds and said that sometimes accumulation of learning can be like acquiring material goods in self-interest.  I hadn’t expected that answer, but when he explained further that as long as you store what you learn to acquire prestige, there is little merit in this.  He mentioned, ‘if you learn something, then apply it as soon as you can, what good is it otherwise?’ Moi has mentioned multiple times that he did not complete a primary education.  However, multiple times I was challenged and impressed by his insight.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Some updates

Ninfa’s family lives in Cuilapan de Guerrero, about 40 minutes outside of Oaxaca City. Last week, we visited her sister Felipa who has a year old baby, Jasmine. The baby is adorable, is beginning to walk and loves to dance.

On another note, this last weekend my mom invited me to the wedding ceremony of her friend Wendy. Wendy and my mom are volunteers at COMI (Centro de Orientacion del Migrante de Oaxaca/Center for Orientation for Migrants of Oaxaca), a catholic center that provides temporary housing for migrants from Oaxaca and Central America. At the party, I found out that Wendy, her husband and Betty, another volunteer, are all Berkeley alumni!

The ceremony was great as well as the dinner and party that followed it.

Today, I tuned in to watch on-line the live video conference with the title “Espacios de acción y resistencia de las mujeres indígenas migrantes”/”Spaces of action and resistance of migrant indigenous women” which is part of an Interdisciplinary Seminar on Gender Studies presented by El Colef, in Tijuana.