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“Fascinating. Beautifully written. Deeply researched. With sensitivity and respect, Wendy Call has written about the modernization of a centuries-old community. It’s a story happening everywhere, including our own backyard. This is a book written with humility, bravery, and wisdom, and honors those who trusted the writer with their incredible stories.”—Sandra Cisneros
“A terrific read. Wendy Call has reported passionately and written sensitively about the people of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec—one of Mexico’s great cultural repositories—at a crossroads in their history. That there are no easy answers to the dilemmas of modernity and cultural authenticity is the painful conclusion she draws us to, in one engaging episode after another.”—Alma Guillermoprieto
“Wendy Call has a big, pertinent story to tell—globalization—and she does a marvelous job of bringing it to life. On every level, the work succeeds. She has merged an enormous amount of investigation with a graceful belletristic tone, ferreting out the subject’s contradictions and complexities. It’s a beautiful job.”—Phillip Lopate
“The story of the isthmus of Tehuantepec is the story of the world. We know its heart. Brave people all, who resist the tide that disrespects language, landscape, and a way of life. Wendy Call has recorded loss, love, pride, and hope in a way profound and clear.”—Denise Chávez, author of Loving Pedro Infante and founder/director of Border Book Festival
“Wendy Call’s book offers us much more than a personal view of the people in the Isthmus of Tehuantepec. She challenges mythologies about this region of Mexico and provides a vital assessment of the current state and collective concerns of indigenous people who are resisting globalization. Her work is illuminating.”—Elena Poniatowska, author of Here’s to You, Jesusa! and Massacre in Mexico
“No Word for Welcome maps the complexities of Mexican lives, and also of the human heart. Wendy Call’s narrative gorgeously tells the stories of people who have held on to their families, cultures, and identities despite the encroachment of our global world.”—Loung Ung, author of First They Killed My Father and Lucky Child
— James A. Cox
— Clare Sullivan
— Jeff Conant
— Orson Moon
On the porch of the general store fifty villagers sat on piles of wood or carefully stacked bags of cement mix, waiting. The murmur of their words, in the throaty tones of Mixe, mixed with the thrum of late September rain. The porch was large enough to accommodate the whole group without crowding, small enough to allow them to speak without raising their voices and still be heard. Beyond the porch, webs of barbed wire separated backyard gardens of banana, papaya, mango, and tangerine trees from velvet patches of low-slung forest. Past the gardens, buses and tractor-trailers grunted along a two-lane highway, slowed by axle-cracking speed bumps and potholes. Far beyond the highway, green-draped hills undulated toward blue mountains, the Sierra Sur of Oaxaca State.
Carlos Beas ducked his head under the rusted edge of the porch roof, striding into the meeting a bit late. He wore old blue jeans and a t-shirt; the villagers wore wide-brimmed hats and sun-bleached work clothes. People nodded and mumbled their hellos to Beas as he stepped onto the porch. "Buenas tardes. Ya llegaste." They welcomed him to their village with the normal greeting, "You have arrived." He bobbed his head in response. A smile skittered across his face but his light brown eyes stayed serious. The villagers' huaraches scuffled the cement floor as they moved forward to shake his hand. Only a few — mostly the local leaders — looked up to meet his gaze directly. Beas towered over everyone, though he is not quite six feet tall. He was the only one who sweated as the rain's steam rose around them.
The meeting had been called a few days earlier, after villagers had seen several strangers poking around their farmland. Those strangers had said they were surveyors working for the government. They offered no further information before they finished whatever it was they were doing and drove away in their shiny trucks. News of the visiting surveyors spread from house to house, crossing dirt roads and lines of flapping laundry. People got to thinking. Was this somehow related to the rumor that had been floating around for the past couple of years? About the new highway? What were those strangers doing, tromping through their fields, looking through boxes attached to metal tripods, taking notes and measuring distances? Did all this interest in their land mean that the rumored highway would cut right through their village?
The two-lane highway, the one visible from the porch of the general store, had been built in the 1950s. It grazed the fringes of this village, called Boca del Monte, in the center of Mexico's Isthmus of Tehuantepec. The villagers still referred to the opening of the current trans-isthmus highway with the derision reserved for old insults that might be repeated: "Cuando viene un rico con su carretera" ("When a rich man comes with his highway"). Once a remote outpost several miles from the railroad tracks, Boca del Monte became a roadside pit stop when the highway opened. Travelers stopped to buy sodas and eat grilled chicken. Some did not stop, but tossed their trash out rolled-down windows. Villagers built roadside shops and organized a litter patrol. The western edge of the village became a front doorstep to the world, a short detour from the Pan-American Highway, which ran across the isthmus east to west.
The village's name, Boca del Monte, means gateway to the mountains, or to the wildlands. It marks the entryway to the Chimalapas rainforest that covers the hills of the central region of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, where a road veered away from the trans-isthmus highway, through the village and many miles into the rainforest. Thanks to that side-route, much of the rainforest that it cut through had been turned into field and pasture. The people of Boca del Monte had seen decades' worth of chainsaws and bulldozers pass by their general store and into the rainforest, while truckloads of timber and cattle come back. As some of the villagers liked to joke, "Pretty soon, we'll be Boca de Nada — Gateway to Nothing." Still, they took the long view; their ancestors had lived on the isthmus for several thousand years.
One of the men standing on the general store's front porch — one of the few who looked Carlos Beas straight in the eye — asked him about the route of the rumored new superhighway. As Beas began to speak, everyone turned toward him, subtly shifting position until the circle closed around him. "Maybe it's going to pass right through the village, maybe it's going to pass to one side," he said, tilting his head in a gesture of Who knows? Either way, it would separate farmers from their fields. "I don't know how the farmers are going to cross it — flying or what?"
Amusement riffled through the group. Unlike farm towns of the American Midwest, where single houses sit in the middle of corn or soybean fields, rural Mexican villages tend to cluster their houses near the small buildings where residents pray, buy cooking oil and sugar, and make telephone calls. In Boca del Monte some villagers walked more than half an hour from their homes, machete in hand, to the far-flung fields where they grew corn, beans, yucca, malanga, hot peppers, and tamarind.
"We just asked the government for more information about the route, so for the moment, we're only guessing," Beas said. "Look, here are some documents about it." He held up a thick manila folder, then slid out a letter and waved it. He began to read: "'The Director General of Federal Highways has contracted the services of the coinsa company to do the necessary fieldwork for the highway project.' So, according to this, on May 24th they have already contracted out the highway project." Beas paused as the younger ones whispered to a few of the older ones, translating his words into Mixe, the local language. Beas slipped the sheet back into the dogeared folder and pulled out a second letter. "And here, on August 25th, they tell you that's not true." He shuffled the papers again and held up a third letter: "And on September 22nd, they're telling you they're just at the research phase." His closed the folder and held it aloft. "What does all this mean, compañeros and compañeras?" He continued without a pause. "It means they're not taking you into account. I'm just here to tell you to prepare yourselves. This isn't like fifty years ago, when they paved the carretera. You can't walk across a superhighway; the cars go very fast. Those of you who have traveled to Mexico City know what a superhighway is."
Most of the people gathered on the porch had never made that trip of ten hours in the fastest, most expensive bus. From where they stood they could see the bus stop on the far side of the highway, where buses carried their young men north toward the U.S. border. Away. Vehicles on the current transisthmus highway passed Boca del Monte at residential speeds; children and old women sold bags of peeled oranges and baked totopos to drivers and passengers. The trans-isthmus road they saw from the edge of the porch felt no more like a superhighway than their general store felt like a Wal-Mart.
Beas continued: "If you don't pressure the government, I doubt they will build bridges for ox-carts and for people. Then how will you cross it? You can't fight this alone. If we don't watch out, the heavy machinery will be here at work before we know it."
Beas stepped out of the center of the circle. Several men rose slowly to speak. One mentioned that people had come from a nearby village, saying they had seen the surveyors, too. A second man stepped forward. "They have to get permission before they can come on our farmland. They can't just walk in here like cattle rustlers, screwing around." Another villager insisted it was important to confront those mysterious workers directly if they showed up again. If the villagers didn't complain, he said, the government would never know their concerns. Nods and ayes circled the porch. Until they knew more, the discussion was closed.
The group moved on to the final agenda item: an ongoing conflict between Boca del Monte and the national oil company, Petróleos de México, or pemex. The narrow pvc tubing of oil pipelines laced Boca del Monte's farmland. One line had ruptured the previous month, pouring pemex oil over cornfields and into the Sarabia River that wound through them. Black poison slicked their farmland and dead fish piled up on iridescent riverbanks.
The villagers had demanded retribution and pemex had offered a lump-sum payment of one thousand pesos per household, or nearly one hundred dollars, as much cash as a typical family earned in several months. It was one-time compensation for what could be a long-term problem. The soil would absorb the petroleum but would release some of it during each year's rainy season, bringing back the impacts of the oil spill — lower soil fertility, less oxygen for plant roots, and stunted plant growth — year after year.
"Perhaps the heavy rains have washed the oil away?" one man ventured.
"Yes," Beas replied. "Some of it has been washed away, but what about all the oil that had already seeped deep into the soil before the rains came?"
A middle-aged man stepped forward to speak in favor of PEMEX's proposal. Raindrops pummeled the porch roof more insistently. The circle loosened; people avoided one another's eyes. The man switched into Mixe, closing Carlos Beas out of the debate. He went on for a long time while Beas stared at the gray floor, concentrating so he might catch the general gist of the speech. The man finished, tipped his head in a slight bow, and stepped back to his pile of wood. The group seemed to soften a bit; the man was pulling them to his side.
Beas kicked at the floor and all eyes turned toward him. "What if, three years from now, your farmland doesn't produce?" A faint note of irritation tinged his words, his long hands cut the air sharply. "That money will be gone and you still won't have a way to feed your families."
A third man, the leader of the village assembly, spoke up to agree with Beas. With his words the tenor of the gathering shifted once again. The group murmured its assent as the rain faded away. Beas walked around the circle and shook hands with each person. He thanked them and said he would return as soon as there was more news. He turned and stepped off the porch into the last moments of daylight.
Throughout the meeting I had stayed at the porch's edge, shaking hands and introducing myself only to the few who were brave and curious enough to approach me — as much a stranger as the surveyors who had prompted the gathering. I explained to those who asked that I, too, had come because of the rumored highway. I worked with a community organization in the United States that was concerned about the same things that concerned them. I wanted to learn from their experience, from the way they organized meetings like this one. I wanted to know what the highway would mean for Boca del Monte and the rest of the isthmus residents, the istmeños. They nodded and thanked me for coming and for my interest in their community. Their labored Spanish carried Mixe's deep rumble.
I attended that meeting in September 1999 as part of a month-long visit to the Isthmus of Tehuantepec. It was my third visit to the isthmus since first learning about the rumored highway in the summer of 1997. I'd planned my 1999 trip after receiving a letter from Carlos Beas in July. His note to me had begun, "Ya nos cayó el chahuixtle." He continued: "El chahuixtle in Mexico is a disease of corn plants. When people say that it has come, it means something bad has happened. Very close to Matías Romero, work has begun for the Highway." Even writing in Spanish he had to translate for me; indigenous words like chahuixtle didn't appear in most dictionaries. And his use of a capital "H" on highway, a dramatic flourish typical of him, carried great weight in Spanish, which capitalizes far fewer words than English does. He concluded his letter: "We've asked for information about its route and we'll organize a demonstration soon. We're still fighting with pemex about the oil spill, and there's not been much progress. I think we'll block the carretera. Warm greetings from all of us."
It had been nearly three years since the news of a planned highway had trickled south from Mexico City to the Isthmus of Tehuantepec. The rumor went like this: The new supercarretera would be four lanes wide, if not six; it would carry tractor-trailers at blistering speeds; it would cut obliviously through fields, forests, and villages; and it would return the Isthmus of Tehuantepec to the global prominence it had enjoyed in the years before the Panama Canal had been completed. The highway would run almost directly north-south, connecting the Gulf of Mexico to the Pacific Ocean. It would bisect the isthmus, which stretches east to west.
On July 22, 1996, a front-page headline in a Mexico City newspaper had announced, "Isthmus to Be Opened to Foreign Capital." The article was casually optimistic about the speed with which the highway would be built, claiming that half of the funds would come from "the royal families of the United Arab Emirates." The newspaper was wrong about that. Five days later it reported the istmeños' response to the news: "Three thousand campesinos, indigenous people, and residents of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec will begin a march to Mexico City next Monday, to demand ... a national referendum on the Trans-Isthmus Megaproject that the government is promoting." In spite of the immediate response from thousands of istmeños, who asked for the opportunity to comment on the grandly named Trans-Isthmus Megaproject, news was slow to filter into the region's smallest towns and villages. For the most part the only thing that people heard about was the highway, but that was enough for people to identify it as chahuixtle, as Beas explained in his letter to me: una desgracia, a misfortune.
The "we" of Beas's letter referred to ucizoni, the organization he had cofounded in the early 1980s. The Spanish acronym, pronounced "oo-see-SO-nee," stood for Association of Indigenous Communities in the Northern Zone of the Isthmus. It was a loose association, not a formal union, and required no particular political, ethnic, or religious affiliation — in this sense it was unusual among istmeño civic groups, which tended to draw membership from people of a single ethnicity, political party, or church. UCIZONI's members lived in indigenous communities — rural villages or, more rarely, urban neighborhoods. The large majority of the members were Mixe. Some belonged to one of the other ethnic groups of the isthmus: Zapotec or Mixtec or Chinantec or Huave. A few members weren't indigenous at all, but mestizo, like Carlos Beas. Nearly all ucizoni members lived in the "northern zone" of the Oaxacan isthmus, which is to say, the central isthmus, because the northern isthmus belonged to the state of Veracruz.
When it came to troubles like the highway rumor, centralisthmus residents turned to ucizoni, the organization could get responses even from government agencies that ignored everyone else. ucizoni staffers had written letters and made phone calls, asking state and federal government officials for more information about the new highway's path. The fat manila folder that Beas had brought to the meeting in Boca del Monte was the result of that work. The letters in that folder provided the sort of answers they often received from the Mexican government: confusion and contradiction. The plan for a new four-lane superhighway across their land might have been an outrage, but as far as UCIZONI members were concerned, it was no surprise.
Excerpted from No Word for Welcome by WENDY CALL Copyright © 2011 by Wendy Call. Excerpted by permission of University of Nebraska Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Posted May 5, 2012
It is rare for the journalist/reporter to achieve the writing skill of the novelist. Wendy Call has succeeded beyond measure in her illuminating description of the disruptions NAFTA has brought to provential Mexico. Her work is a pleasure to read.
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Posted June 24, 2011
No Word for Welcome is an amazing book written by a masterful storyteller. Wendy Call has managed the nearly impossible: she's perfectly captured the beauty and complexity of Mexico in writing (no easy task and without any cardboard cut-outs or well-warn cliches) and she's made an interesting (think non-academic)and persuasive case for why we should all consider, seriously, what has happened to Mexico.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.