While the coronavirus hammers Mexico, some Indigenous communities in the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca are finding creative ways to cope.

Oaxaca, one of Mexico’s poorest and most ethnically diverse states, is home to numerous Indigenous communities, including the Zapotec people. I have spent many years in the central valleys of Oaxaca conducting anthropological research in rural Zapotec villages, documenting the people’s livesmigration patterns and food culture.

So far, it’s working. While infections and death are rising relentlessly across Mexico, many Indigenous communities in Oaxaca remain largely insulated from the coronavirus. The Indigenous Mixtec village of Santos Reyes Yucuná reported its first infection on July 17, for example – four months after COVID-19 reached Mexico.

Cooperation is a cornerstone of Zapotec life in Oaxaca. A history of social exclusion by the federal government reminds the Zapotec not to rely on politicians to save them.

People work together from a young age, joining together in “tequio,” or communal labor brigades, to complete projects that can range from painting a school to repairing the electrical grid. Individuals, their families and their friends routinely work together to make small jobs go quickly and to make big jobs seem less overwhelming.

A Zapotec woman making tamales using locally grown maiz, or corn. Jeffrey H. CohenCC BY

The Zapotec also maintain relative isolation from broader Mexican society, my research shows. They grow food in their “milpas,” or garden plot, to supplement store-bought fare, and police their own communities with volunteers called “topiles.” With high levels of community trust and a history of self-rule that predates the Spanish conquest, the Zapotec who continue to live in rural Oaxaca neither need nor allow much outside access to their villages.

These three aspects of traditional Zapotec culture – cooperation, isolation and self-reliance – are all helpful in a pandemic.

Chapulines at a market. Jeffrey H. Cohen

According to researcher M.C. Nydia Sanchez of Oaxaca’s Universidad Tecnológica, Zapotec families are sharing scarce resources like food, information, water and face masks in what’s called “guelaguetza,” the practice of working together and gift-giving.

And at a time when Mexico’s food supply chain is under stress, villagers are ensuring no one goes hungry by ramping up their crop of “maiz,” the corn used to make tortillas.

“Chapulines” – grasshoppers harvested from the fields and quickly toasted over a fire – are returning to the table as a protein-rich alternative to expensive, store-bought meats that are no longer available locally.

The article was published at Indigenous Mexicans turn inward to survive COVID-19, barricading villages and growing their own food.

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