The excursions that my classmates and I take to other parts of Mexico never fail to surprise me. With every trip to a new pueblo or city, one assumption or another shatters under the force of experience. Our stay in Capulálpam, a Zapotec pueblo in the northern mountains of Oaxaca, was no exception.
My classmates and I expected to see rustic shacks and hand-embroidered clothing. Somehow, we had come to understand indigenous communities as something along the lines of the American Amish.
However, when we got to Capulálpam, we found a beautiful town with well-trimmed grass, modern houses and shiny SUVs. Many families owned three TVs and one computer. Children carried iPods and wore punk-style clothes and Converse sneakers. It was possible to drink water from the faucet, a rarity in Mexico. And there’s a zipline down by the river.
I felt confused. Such modernity seemed contradictory to the idea of preserving indigenous culture. In a town where the people act and dress no differently than “mestizos,” what made them Zapotec?
Finally, on my last morning in Capulálpam, I asked my homestay sister, Claudia, what she thought about the mix of traditional and modern life in her community. She gave me a puzzled look.
“Our traditions don’t dictate our daily lives,” Claudia said. “They’re in our form of government and in our celebrations.”
The festivals in Capulálpam revolve around Catholic holidays, but many activities during the holidays hearken back to older Zapotec culture. During the feast of the town’s patron saint, the men erect a tall, greased post and attempt to climb to the top. At other times, elaborate dances with colorful costumes and ancient props — like poles with colorful balls and ribbons on the top — draw people from neighboring communities.
The structure of society in Capulálpam also leans toward tradition. The government is an all-male council, women are elected to organize fiestas and the land is communally owned.
The librarian in Capulálpam, a woman who also hosted two of my group members, was frustrated over government corruption.
“The council tells us we can’t cut down our own trees for firewood because of the ecosystem,” she said. “But then you see a truck drive by with wood for the big companies.”
No, the people in Capulálpam do not live in rustic shacks or wear hand-embroidered clothing. I was foolish to think so. They maintain their culture in their festivities and social structure. However, the challenge of avoiding corruption — a universal problem — remains.
Sara E. Howard is a junior journalism and politics major. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.