Oaxaca

Brian Giesbrecht, Commentary, Culture Wars

Oaxaca is one of the best preserved colonial cities in Mexico. It has a bustling center, rich with busy markets – street vendors and music wherever you go. Oaxaca state has the largest percentage of Indigenous people in Mexico. Zapotec, Mix-tec and other peoples jostle together in the city, most living in villages in the three surrounding valleys. Sixteen different culturally distinct groups are represented, each with its own language and dialects.

The Olmec came first, then Zapotec, Mixtec, Aztec, and, ultimately, the Spanish. Each group rose, fell, and ultimately mixed.  Mexicans are basically Metis. Some with more Spanish blood and lighter complexioned, others darker and more Indigenous. Their culture is deep and rich.

The Indigenous groups govern themselves at the local level, according to their traditional ways. This includes dealing with less serious crimes and seeing to the usual administrative duties needed to keep villages and rural areas functioning. Despite such diversity, all Mexicans are equal in law, taking pride that the Mexican constitution makes everyone equal citizens.

In Mexico, there are no “status cards” providing one group superior rights. There are no special financial privileges, and everyone pays taxes. Mexicans take pride in the fact that they are self-reliant. While alcohol abuse is a problem – mainly the traditional pulque that Indians have made from agave since time immemorial, it is not nearly the massive problem that it is in Canada’s Indigenous communities.

So, the Mexican status quo is quite unlike that which prevails in Canada, where status Indians have status cards, special laws, special financial privileges, and special tax exemptions based purely on race. Mexico has no separate system, and Mexico’s Indigenous communities do not have the welfare dependency and alcohol-related child neglect problems that exist in many Canadian Indigenous communities.

Another striking difference between the Indigenous people of Mexico (basically everyone) and Canada’s Indigenous people is that in Mexico there is not the sense of grievance and victimhood that consumes Canada’s Indigenous people. Mexico lacks the endless series of victim inquiries and other demands on the federal government. Mexicans have no overriding belief that others are responsible for all their problems. Nor, do Mexicans have the sense of helplessness and dependency on the federal government and mainstream taxpayers. Mexicans are independent, self-reliant, proud of their independence.

And this seems odd, because as Mexican history unfolded there was no shortage of brutality and unfairness. Dominant tribes victimized the weaker ones.  And, when the Spanish arrived, brutality went off the scale. The “Encomienda ” system the Spanish introduced held the Indians in virtual slavery for five hundred years. And, the Catholic Church acted both as exploiter and protector. If one wanted to identify themselves as victim, the Indigenous people of Mexico would have good reason to make that claim. But they haven’t.

The Spanish were among the most brutal conquerors of old. The British in North America were pussycats compared to the fierce conquistadors. Spanish conquerors brutalized and exploited the Indians mercilessly. Yet, one only has to walk down a street in Oaxaca to recognize the contribution made by the Spanish. Their language served to unite the country. Their religion, remedied by the Mexican state takeover of all church property, still bring great comfort to much of the population. Oaxaca has beautiful churches on virtually every street corner. While the Spanish brought great suffering, they also made a tremendous contribution to what Mexico is today.

Not to say that Mexico lacks problems. The poverty is evident. In Oaxaca, one of the poorest states, most people get by on the minimum wage of 80 pesos a day. (80 pesos can buy a sandwich and a Coke at a tourist restaurant.) There are the usual tensions between areas and among groups – Mexico has its politics. And, Mexico being next door to a northern neighbor with an insatiable appetite for illegal drug, suffers from the tragedy of cartel corruption and violence.

So, despite having no end of problems, there is a real sense of brotherhood and sisterhood between Mexicans of all descents. And, with that, a strong sense of pride that everyone is equal under the law. Mexico’s diversity is honoured, and, while every citizen can celebrate their culture in their own way, there is the strong recognition that every citizen is, first and foremost, a Mexican. Every Mexican is equal under the law.

Mexico offers a model that Canada should consider.