Poverty And Indigenous Cultural Preservation In Oaxaca

Mexico is a somewhat above-average country in terms of per capita GDP, but that average figure masks huge disparities. When I went to southern Mexico last December it was clear that outside of the central city of Oaxaca you were looking at a very poor area dominated by low-productivity agricultural activities and traditional crafts. But as an interesting Guardian piece observes, there’s a tension between aspirations for development and aspirations for cultural integrity and preservation:

Elena Gonzales folds yarn between her fingers. Her tapestry is woven in an intricate pattern of ochre and indigo, with fibre that has been dyed using moss and bark, fruit and flowers. Here in the hills of Oaxaca, in southern Mexico, indigenous Zapotec communities have been weaving rugs for more than two thousand years. Elena spins the loom and the centuries fall away.

Like many Zapotec children growing up in the 1980s, Elena did not attend school. Faced with a primary curriculum that took no account of Zapotec language or culture, her parents decided that she should be educated by her community. She was taught to weave by her grandmother. Self-sufficiency is the historic norm in Oaxaca, but in recent decades as rural life has become increasingly entretejidos – interwoven – with the modern market economy, Zapotec children who have not gone to school are finding themselves on the wrong side of an urban-rural education divide that excludes them from employment and contributes to deepening poverty.

Obviously, the dilemma here is real. Not only does formal education improve one’s earning potential, so does better transportation and communications connections to the outside world. And Spanish-language competence has a higher market value than Zapotec-language competence. So insofar as you put an overwhelming premium on cultural preservation, the tendency will be for that agenda to entrench poverty. After all, the authentic cultural tradition of indigenous peoples in southern Mexico involves being poor. That said, we do see in Denmark, the Netherlands, Flanders, Sweden, etc. that it’s actually quite possible for a country to become very much a part of the global economy while still retain a distinct language community.

[UPDATE]: Apologies, I neglected a hat tip to Erik Loomis who’s decided to “disagree” with me in a very nasty way despite the fact that it’s not clear what we’re supposed to be disagreeing about here.