NEW YORK. – In 2007, the Zapotitlan Salinas Valley, which forms part of Puebla’s southern Sierra Mixteca, was the main stage for a movie (Todos Hemos Pecado) that suited the fantasies of Mexico’s filmmakers.
Far from the glamour, bright lights and imaginary conceptions of the Mexican film industry, the indigenous women survive in a world that is not fiction, even though their circumstances seem to derive from the film-makers imagination.
This zone, heavily promoted by the state government, offers the international tourist, endemic cacti, ancient fossils, salt beds, exotic gastronomy and palm crafts. But in marginalized areas, the tourist economy does not seem to fill empty stomachs. Families live without basic services, such as potable water and medical care.
In San Pablo Netitlan, medicinal herbs are the only recourse for treating illness. From a high temperature to giving birth, treatment depends on the wisdom of local healers.
Women, who earn their living from selling hats made from palm leafs, survive on less than three dollars a day. To obtain the services of a medical doctor means that people must sacrifice much more than their weekly earnings.
This rural town of 450 inhabitants is 40 minutes from a major city (Zapotitlan Salinas Valley). Those that do not have a car or donkey must walk to the city. Broken bones are not treated by physicians. The "Hueseros" or bonesetters set broken bones and treat the fracture with ointments, prayers and the Popote herb.
Money is not the only thing lacking but so is food. The women anxiously wait for the singing of the Cheche bird because according to the ancestors their song brings rain. If there is no rain there will not be any crops and all hope is lost.
The rural women dig small holes in the dirt with their bare feet in which they plant corn. Between May and June, the indigenous people are constantly looking for signs of rain. A chicken wallowing in the dirt may be a good indication of the rain to come.
If clouds do not appear and rain does not come, mothers search for food in inhospitable terrain, full of rocks, thorns and eroded land. There they find herbs such as Chichipe or Chendes which they make into soup or roast with lime juice and salt.
There is no medical care, not even antibiotics, for those women who give birth. Herbs are the only solution. Herbs such as higuerilla, huele de noche and zumiate are used to heal both body wounds and those of the soul.
The midwives help birth babies that when grown will abandon their mothers to immigrate to New York. The majority of the young people from the Zapotitlan Salinas Valley reside in the Big Apple, far from their small world that refuses to accept its poverty as if it were folklore.
Estanzuela, Guadalupe La Meza, Agua Mezquite and El Manantial, are towns in which life is a daily struggle. Being born a female in these towns is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, they must carry on their shoulders the burden of taking care of the family. Their daily activities are divided between seeking food in the mountains, planting crops, selling hats made from palm leafs and rearing their children. And then there is the constant oppressive machismo.
Alcoholic husbands, domestic violence, lack of birth control and poor nutrition define their daily life.
In the Sierra Mixteca of the Zapotitlan Salinas Valley, women are not concerned about looks; there is no time for vanity. The deep wrinkles on the women’s bronze faces are scares of battles won.
It is much easier for the young men to say goodbye and cross the border in search of the American dream, than for young women to do so. The vast majority of young women can only accept the inevitable, the typical woman’s role. For instance, teenage pregnancy is common in these communities and is seen as a natural process.
The lack of employment and education results in the annual migration of young people to New York. Only senior citizens, children and women remain in these towns.
The tourist propaganda attracts many international visitors to the cacti forest of the Zapotitlan Valley, but leaves the marginalized towns out, lost in an almost perfect paradise.
How ethical is the exploitation of the arts and heritage of communities that do not benefit from the tourist economy? The photograph of a woman weaving palm leafs may be beautiful for tourism propaganda, but what happens to her circumstances and poverty. Why the silence on Mexico’s poverty?
Zapotitlan Salinas, an internationally known town for its artesian work of clay and stone, must confront its poverty and the resulting migration to the United States and its consequences of divided families, empty houses and abandoned wives and children.
In 1999, Bertha Barragan crossed the Arizona border with her three children. She had been abandoned by her husband when he immigrated to the United States. When Bertha arrived in New York she confronted her husband.
"My family was divided. In my home town I had to fight our poverty. In New York I have to fight my loneliness," stated Barragan.
In the Bronx, Barragan sells food to pay her rent. She misses her native foods but prefers to live in New York because of a better quality life. "Zapotitlan is beautiful for visitors, but for those of us that live there life is different. Without work in machista culture, women have few opportunities," said Barragan.
For Barragan, being indigenous should not be synonymous with poverty. "Treating illnesses with herbs is not traditional; it simply means that the indigenous communities do not receive the proper services. Living without basic services is not strength, it is an embarrassment," stated Bertha.
Poverty is not folklore but a reality.
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