Tuesday, June 12, 2012

A Window into a Remote Village

Serendipity could be the headline of this week’s Digs.  On Friday I led a study group of Nuestros Pequeños Hermanos supporters on a walk through downtown Cuernavaca.  That trip takes us to Morelos’ anthropology museum housed in the Palacio de Cortés.  I intended that we only visit Diego Rivera's famed mural but a temporary exhibit titled “Tlamacazapa” fortuitously caught my eye.

In the exhibit photos by award-winning photo-journalist Rodrigo Cruz poignantly portray daily life in Tlamacazapa, a remote mountain village in the state of Guerrero. Informative captions give us insights into the villagers' lives, especially those of women.

Their lives, shaped by poverty, are rarely understood or even contemplated by those who haven't experienced it first-hand.  In addition to the photos there are fascinating and intricate baskets and weavings and a display of the furnishings of a typical house.  Women from Tlamacazapa are there two days a week to weave and to teach visitors to weave.

Women carry water home in the early morning, as they do every day.
Photo: Rodrigo Cruz

For me the word Tlamacazapa conjures up the warm, intelligent face of Susan Smith, who has almost single-handedly put it on the map.  Smith, a Canadian nurse with extensive experience in underprivileged communities in Africa, the Arctic, and Latin America, came to Mexico on vacation in 1996.  She’d recently completed a doctorate focusing on community health and development and sought rest and recreation.  With friends she visited the remote, wretchedly poor Guerrero town of Tlamacazapa.  Vacation was put on hold; vocation took its place. 

Tlamacazapa’s Nahuatl name refers to “people who are fearful”.  The village, now with 6,000 inhabitants, formed 500 years ago by indigenous people fleeing the Spanish conquerors. Centuries of isolation have not been kind.   

All three wells in the pueblo are contaminated with natural lead and arsenic.  Harvesting firewood for both heat and cooking has degraded the environment further. Prior to the arrival of Dr. Smith, rates of infant mortality, illiteracy, male alcoholism and mental retardation were among the highest in Mexico.

Jose Antonio plays a stimulation game with Gabriela, a 15-year-old promoter in the 
Special Needs Program, seated in the narrow passageway outside his concrete block house.  
His mother watches with anxious interest. Photo: Rodrigo Cruz

Dr. Smith has come to see Tlamacazapa as representative of marginalized and impoverished communities throughout the world and hopes to develop a social justice template for use in other regions.   In a recent lecture at the University of Calgary she characterized her work as addressing three areas of a “Poverty of Spirit: the physical world of contamination and disintegration of the environment; the social world of economic poverty and violence; the emotional world dominated by fear, resentment and hate.”

It took years for Dr. Smith to gain the trust of this community.  Her first successes were a result of her medical training and the ability to provide medical care and education.  Gradually she trained village women to be midwives, nurse assistants, and teachers.  Now, fifteen years into her work in Tlamacazapa, ATZIN -- the non-profit organization she founded -- focuses on substantial programs in four areas:  health and healing; community education and literacy; income generation for women; and environment, water and sanitation. 

The only widely available natural resource in Tlamacazapa is palm. For generations the people have woven baskets that the men of the pueblo carry to sell throughout Mexico. Chances are you have a Tlamacazapa basket in your very own home.

Lucia, mother of seven and traditional midwife, weaves a large
basket while sitting outside her house.
 Photo: Rodrigo Cruz
Building on the skills of master palm weavers, Dr. Smith encouraged them to improve the quality and variety of the baskets, leading to more lucrative markets.  Simple baskets gave way to artisan creations that Susan markets to high-end stores and carries with her wherever she lectures. 

It is the baskets that will pull you into the exhibit. You can't help but think of the smiles on the weavers' faces as they gave free reign to their ability to skillfully manipulate palm into scenes from their daily life.  Pigs, chickens, children in the corral feeding them -- all rendered in palm weaving which is smooth to the touch.  Some of the baskets in the shape of farm animals are even gender specific.

A charismatic speaker, Susan has inspired hundreds of men and women and is living proof that one person can make a difference.  Her 1996 decision to vacation in Mexico turned out to be much more than serendipitous for the people of Tlamacazapa and indeed for all of us who have learned from her.  For more information about Susan, the baskets and ATZIN, please visit their website at http://www.atzin.org/.

The exhibit is open until September 23.  All signage is in Spanish and English.

No comments:

Post a Comment