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A portrait of our southern neighbor in crisis, written by an award-winning reporter and told by mexicans from every walk of life.
In the Zapotec villages of Oaxaca, one can still hear the three-thousand-year-old tale of the Binniguendas. The Zapotecs once believed that the Binniguendas, a race of demigods, would come from the sky to build giant palaces and bring prosperity. But the Zapotecs, like millions of Indians in the economically depressed southern states of Mexico, eventually got tired of waiting for celestial help to relieve their misery. They turned instead to more earthbound saviors.
About three decades ago, millions of Mexican Indians began fleeing the poverty of Oaxaca, Chiapas, and other poor states for the evanescent promise of wealth in Mexico City, their new Zion. They fled primitive housing, malnutrition, alcoholism, robbery, rape, incest, and illiteracy. But most of all they fled unemployment. They came with unbridled hope and little money to the soft-soiled, mountain-ringed valley in which the capital sits. Those with friends or family often lived temporarily on the roofs of oneroom shacks of those who had come before them. They used sheets of plastic to shield themselves from the high-plateau rains and the chilling dew of daybreak. More aggressive newcomers squatted on land that no one seemed to want, especially in the uninhabited expanses east of Mexico City. Long ago this land had been the bed of Lake Texcoco, the once-vast body of water that had protected the magic Aztec city of Tenochtitlan. By the time these hopeful settlers arrived, however, the lake had become an evaporating cesspool. These days, it throws up dried fecal matter when the arid winds of late winter and early spring rip across the valley.
Thenewcomers begged, borrowed, and scrimped to get cinder blocks or flattened oil drums to construct their new dwellings. In the beginning, they often lived for months with only two or three walls and little that could be called a roof. As their numbers grew, they created impoverished metropolises, such as Nezahualcoyotl, whose three million residents claim it is the world's largest slum. Mexicans call these slums of open sewers and unpaved roads ciudades perdidas, or "lost cities." One of them is Ayotla, home of Adelaida Bollo Andrade, one of the millions of Zapotecs who migrated from Oaxaca.
From the day Adelaida came to the Valley of Mexico in 1980, she has taken whatever work she could get. A squat, leatheryskinned woman in her forties, she looks ten years older than she is. She has been a door-to-door laundress. She has hauled cement bags at construction sites. But most of all, she has been a maid. Maids ("muchachas de casa" in Spanish) are at the lowest rung of the social and economic ladder of Mexican society. Even poor families often have maids, who, in Mexico, are a necessity, not a luxury. If you want to have your garbage picked up, or your mail delivered, or your house protected from burglars while you're away, you get a maid. Things don't work without them.
One reason why so many can afford maids is that they are paid so little—typically, the minimum wage of about three dollars a day. They are not alone in this respect. About half the Mexican work force makes the same or less—what the poorest, least-educated American can make in an hour. Imagine what kind of society the United States would be if half its workers made the wages of a McDonald's cashier, a restaurant dishwasher, a parking-lot attendant, or a field hand. Who would buy automobiles, appliances, homes, and the other big-ticket items that make the enviable American economy what it is? Who would have the money to go to college, or even high school? With an uneducated middle class, what kind of culture or government would there be? How many people would be able to afford even the nutritious food, adequate health insurance, or other things that Americans take for granted as the basics of a developed society? The answer to those questions are at the heart of Adelaida's story, the story of a typical worker in a proud nation that somehow hasn't become developed, even though it has achieved the world's thirteenth largest economy.
The minimum wage was what Adelaida was making when I first met her in 1986. My wife and I hired her through an agency to fill in for two weeks while our regular maid went on vacation. Later, when it became necessary to replace our first maid, we hired Adelaide Americans in Mexico often feel uncomfortable about having a maid. Many prefer to call them housekeepers. Perhaps that discomfort explains why we paid Adelaida about three times the normal wage for maids in Mexico City. But she and we knew that her short time with us would be a financial aberration. When we left Mexico, her salary would revert to what it had always been.
The Mexican constitution guarantees an adequate living wage to all Mexicans. But, as labor officials often tell the government's National Minimum Wage Commission, not even half the basic needs of atypical family are usually met by the prevailing minimum pay. To understand what that means, one need only look at where and how a minimum-wage earner lives, as we eventually did with Adelaida. The impressions we gained from those visits to her home are some of the strongest we retain of Mexico. It's not that the poverty was so overwhelming. Ayotla isn't the poorest place in the world, although a visit there or to any of Mexico City's slums would make any but the most unfeeling American appreciate how fortunate he or she is. My wife, Sally, and I had seen worse poverty in Central America, Africa, and Southeast Asia. We had both visited Nezahualcoyotl and other Mexican slums. But that was all abstract poverty. We dealt with its surfaces: flimsy housing materials, inadequate hygiene, tattered clothing, substandard food, rampant disease. Ayoda presented the poverty of someone we knew and lived with. It would not go away when the visit was over. It was poverty we were forced to think about.The Mexicans. Copyright (c) by Patrick Oster . Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
Posted March 28, 2003
I read this book while living in Mexico as an exchange student. It was in a local bookstore, and it really helped me to understand people that I saw everyday. It gave me an entirely new perspective on the Mexican people that I encountered on a daily basis. After I read the book, I observed the kinds of people that were described in the book, and I found the book to be extremely accurate.
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Posted December 31, 2009
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