(2nd post on rational behavior of people too hastily judged irrational)
“These villagers have some really messed-up building practices.”
That’s a common reaction by gringos on first visiting rural Mexico. They see half-completed brick or cinder-block walls, apparently abandoned for a year or more, or exposed rebar sticking up from the roof of a one-story structure. It’s a pretty common sight.
In the 1990s I spent a few months in some pretty remote places in southern Mexico’s Sierra Madre Oriental mountains exploring caves. The indigenous people, Mazatecs and Chinantecs, were corn and coffee growers, depending on elevation and rain, which vary wildly over short distances. I traveled to San Agustin Zaragoza, a few miles from Huautla de Jimenez, home of Maria Sabina and the birthplace of the American psychedelic drug culture. San Agustin was mostly one-room thatched-roof stone houses, a few of brick or block, a few with concrete walls or floors. One had glass windows. Most had electricity, though often a single bulb hanging from a beam. No phones for miles. Several cinder block houses had rebar sticking from their flat roofs.
Talking with the adult Mazatecs of San Agustin wasn’t easy. Few of them spoke Spanish, but all their kids were learning it. Since we were using grade-school kids as translators, and our Spanish was weak to start with, we rarely went deep into politics or philosophy.
Juan Felix’s son Luis told me, after we got to know each other a bit, that when he turned fourteen he’d be heading off to a boarding school. He wanted to go. His dad had explained to Luis that life beyond the mountains of Oaxaca was an option. Education was the way out.
Mazatecs get far more cooperation from their kids than US parents do. This observation isn’t mere noble-savage worship. They consciously create early opportunities for toddlers to collaborate with adults in house and field work. They do this fully aware that the net contribution from young kids is negative; adults have to clean up messes made by honest efforts of preschoolers. But by age 8 or 9, kids don’t shun household duties. The American teenager phenomenon is nonexistent in San Agustin.
Juan Felix was a thinker. I asked Luis to help me ask his dad some questions. What’s up with the protruding rebar, I asked. Follow the incentives, Juan Felix said in essence. Houses under construction are taxed as raw land; completed houses have a higher tax rate. Many of the locals, having been relocated from more productive land now beneath a lowland reservoir, were less than happy with their federal government.
Back then Mexican Marxists patrolled the deeply-rutted mud roads in high-clearance trucks blasting out a bullhorn message that the motives of the Secretariat of Hydraulic Resources had been ethnocidal and that the SHR sought to force the natives into an evil capitalist regime by destroying their cultural identity, etc. Despite being victims of relocation, the San Agustin residents didn’t seem to buy the argument. While there was still communal farming in the region, ejidos were giving way to privately owned land.
A few years later, caver Louise Hose and I traveled to San Juan Zautla, also in the state of Oaxaca, to look for caves. Getting there was a day of four-wheeling followed by a two-day walk over mountainous dirt trails. It was as remote a place as I could find in North America. We stopped overnight in the village of Tecomaltianguisco and discussed our travel plans. We were warned that we might be unwelcome in Zautla.
On approaching Zautla we made enough noise to ensure we weren’t surprising anyone. Zautlans speak Sochiapam Chinantec. Like Mazatec, it is a highly tonal language, so much so that they can conduct full conversations over distance by whistling the tones that would otherwise accompany speech. Knowing that we were being whistled about was unnerving, though had they been talking, we wouldn’t have understood a word of their language any more than we would understand an etic tone of it.
But the Zautla residents welcomed us with open arms, gave us lodging, and fed us, including the fabulous black persimmons they grew there along with coffee. Again communicating through their kids, they told us we were the first brown-hairs that had ever visited Zautla. They guessed that the last outsiders to arrive there were the Catholic Spaniards who had brought the town bell for a tower that was never built. The Zautlans are not Catholic. They showed us the bell. Its inscription included a date in the 1700’s. Today there’s a road to Zautla. Census data says that in 2015 100% of the population (1200) was still indigenous and that there were no land lines, no cell phones and no internet access.
In Zautla I saw very little exposed rebar, but partially-completed block walls were everywhere. I doubted that property-tax assessors spent much time in Zautla, so the tax story didn’t seem to apply. So, through a 10 year old, I asked the jefe about the construction practices, which to outsiders appeared to reflect terrible planning.
Jefe Miguel laid it out. Despite their remote location, they still purchased most of their construction materials in distant Cuicatlan. Mules carried building materials over the dirt trail that brought us to Zautla. Inflation in Mexico had been running at 70% annually, compounding to over 800% for the last decade. Cement, mortar and cinder block are non-depreciating assets in a high inflation economy, Miguel told us. Buying construction materials as early as possible makes economic sense. Paying high VAT on the price of materials added insult to inflationary injury. Blocks take up a lot of space so you don’t want to store them indoors. While theft is uncommon, it’s still a concern. Storing them outdoors is made safer by gluing them down with mortar where the new structure is planned. Of course its not ideal, but don’t blame Zautla, blame the monetary tomfoolery of the PRI – Partido Revolucionario Institucional. Zautla economics 101.
San Agustin Christmas Eve 1988.
Bernard on fiddle, Jaime on Maria Sabina’s guitar.
San Agustin Zaragoza from the trail to Santa Maria la Asuncion
On the trail from San Agustin to Santa Maria la Asuncion
On the trail from Tecomaltianguisco to San Juan Zautla
San Juan Zautla, Feb. 1992
The karst valley below Zautla
Chinatec boy with ancient tripod bowl
Mountain view from Zautla