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Liberating a Cultural Treasure

March 04, 2001|M. Delal Baer | M. Delal Baer is chairman of and senior fellow at Mexico Project Center for Strategic and International Studies

WASHINGTON — All eyes are riveted on Mexico as guerrilla leader Subcommander Marcos leads his dramatic march for peace from the jungles in the southern state of Chiapas to the nation's capital, Mexico City. But far from the lights and action of the national policy debate over the rights of Mexico's indigenous people exist small Indian communities in which the gentle murmurs of peace and prosperity offer inspiration for those who stop to listen.

The ruins of Monte Alban, a magnificent 10th-century archeological site, are visible when you raise your eyes to the green mountaintops surrounding the village of Arrazola. The pyramids that dot the steep ridge are a constant reminder to the inhabitants of their ancient cultural roots. This is Zapotec country in the southern state of Oaxaca, where most of the people still speak their ancestral language and preserve their communal rituals. Arrazola is a glowing example of what can happen when local traditions and local creativity not only are cherished, but valued in the global marketplace.

Almost every home in this small village is a tiny enterprise. Family members are devoted to the local craft: the carving of fantastical, brilliantly painted wooden animals. The presence of visitors is welcome and quickly detected by the town's children, who guide potential buyers to the homes of their parents. The lizards, dragons and magical rabbits of Arrazola have made their way to the trendy boutiques north of the Rio Grande, bringing prosperity to this unlikely place. The number of satellite dishes perched on homes and shiny pickups parked in garages is striking. It is even more striking when you consider that villages just down the road, which subsist only on agriculture, are barely making ends meet.

The tradition of carving these hallucinogenic figures is not an ancient one, according to one village elder. Rather, it was the doing of one man, whose creative genius inspired an entire community to follow in his footsteps. Anyone in town can direct you to the house of Don Manuel Jimenez, and most likely, he will greet you at the door himself. There, you wend your way past the modern farm machinery and the quirky decorative ponds that dot his yard, into a receiving room that is positively bourgeois by any standards, and certainly by the standards of rural Mexican society. Don Manuel and his family obviously are doing well.

"The images come to me in visions in my dreams," he tells you when speaking about his personal creative process. "Spiritual preparation is needed," he hints mysteriously. "My figures are alive." His art was sought after by no less a collector than Nelson A. Rockefeller, who lost much of his collection to insects that consumed the copal wood pieces and inspired Don Manuel to switch to cedar. "My pieces sell for thousands of dollars in the United States," he informs proudly. Indeed, you notice the fax machine in his sitting room, together with a perfectly respectable stereo system and a Bible with a painted image of the Virgin of Guadalupe on its worn cover.

Don Manuel has nothing but scorn for the carvings of the townspeople, crass imitations inspired by commerce rather than the soul. But it is hard to criticize an activity that so obviously has transformed the living conditions of the villagers for the better. After all, times were not always so good for Don Manuel or for the three villages that now devote themselves to such wood carvings. The old master gets a sorrowful look on his face when he remembers the years of poverty that he endured, traveling the far reaches of the Mexican republic toiling at poorly paid jobs. In today's era of revived Zapatista mystique, he is exactly the sort of person who, as a young man, might have swelled the ranks of immigrants to the United States or turned to the radical guerrilla movements for which Oaxaca is famed.

But the happy story of this master carver and his acolytes is being repeated in small towns throughout the state of Oaxaca, famed for the cultural richness of its indigenous culture. And while Oaxaca is especially fertile cultural terrain, the seeds of an artisan revival are sown throughout the indigenous communities of Mexico, from Chiapas in the south to Chihuahua in the north. All are tribute to a happy marriage of local culture and global commerce.

There are about 10 million people who speak an Indian language scattered throughout Mexico. They are mostly rural, often isolated, poor and score the lowest on every social index imaginable. Yet, they also are Mexico's cultural treasure, something that lends a mystical air to the country. It would be a terrible mistake to think that these Mexicans, because they are Indians, are somehow unable to respond to the opportunities offered by inclusion in the modern world. And it is a mistake to assume that the modern global economy cannot accept them on their own cultural terms.

Mexican President Vicente Fox and Marcos have more in common than they may care to admit. They are both charismatic leaders who enjoy extraordinary moral legitimacy: Marcos because he vindicates the dignity of a long-neglected people and Fox because he vindicates the Mexican people's longing for democracy. As the soldiers of Marcos' movement journey toward Mexico City, the nation holds its breath. Never have two men had a greater opportunity to offer up their considerable political prestige to the cause of men like Don Manuel and the millions like him who are waiting for their moment in the sun.

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