In the mountains near Oaxaca, tales of El Norte: among weavers and migrant workers who left family and home for work across the border — and returned. Conversations from a time before COVID.
By Paul Theroux
On a sojourn in pursuit of understanding, writer Paul Theroux set out five years ago to travel the length of the U.S.–Mexico border. Then he drove his old Buick south, visiting villages along the back roads of Chiapas and, here, a mountain town near Oaxaca. An excerpt from On the Plain of Snakes: A Mexican Journey.
In the small Zapotec-speaking town of San Baltazar Guelavila, I asked Felipe, a local man, the meaning of “Guelavila.”
“It means Night of Hell, sir,” Felipe said.
“And this river?”
“It is the River of Red Ants, sir.”
“That hill is impressive.”
“It is the Hill of the Nine Points, sir,” Felipe said, indicating the separate small peaks of the ridge with a dabbing finger. “Our soul goes there when we die.”
“The maize in the market is colorful.”
“Our maize has four colors,” he said with pride. “Red, white, purple, and blue. It is from ancient times.”
“That big snake painted on the side of the house,” I said, “it’s unusual.”
We were in the center of town, near the plaza and the market. The town itself was off the main road south of Oaxaca, at the end of a potholed track three miles into the mountains. A mural painted on the flat, high end-side of an adobe building near us depicted the blue archway entrance of the town, a man plowing a field, a woman making tortillas, and another man digging a chopped agave plant to cook in an oven for mezcal.
But the largest image in the mural was a sensuous snake, coiled around one upright of the blue archway. The snake’s singular feature was a rose blossom attached to — apparently growing from — the top of its greenish head.
“The snake is a symbol of our town,” Felipe said. “We believe that local people hunted this snake with the rose on its head day and night, because capturing it would bring us good luck.”
“Wouldn’t it be dangerous to capture a snake that size?” It was thick, with a darting tongue, and in the mural about thirty feet long.
“No danger, sir. Because no one ever caught the snake, and as a result they never had good luck.”
Felipe was a cotton weaver who made scarves and caps, his looms located in a two-story building at the edge of San Baltazar. Making adobe and distilling mezcal were the town’s other industries. Felipe had been to the States. He gave me the most succinct version of a border crossing.
“I crossed the border. Everyone was kind. My bosses were good to me. The thing I missed most was eating with my family. It’s very lonely in the United States. So I came home.”
All this time, whenever I arrived in a town like this, I was under the influence of my memories of the people I’d met — many Oaxacans — on the border. Many of the men in San Baltazar had been to the States, including a certain man who Felipe, clearing his throat with an awkward cough, warned me had a superior attitude as a result of having spent a lot of time over the border. That sometimes happened. A person went across, spent years in the States, then returned presumido (stuck-up).
I asked Felipe whether he could round up some returnees from the States and meet me under a tree near the weaving operation, the building with the looms. It was a lovely morning in San Baltazar, finches flitting in the boughs of the big shade tree. We sat on folding chairs, the men, young and old, sitting or standing, and the dog of one of the older men lay snoring at his feet. The sun streaming through the boughs gave them shadow-carved faces.
From his tone, I was sure the first man to speak was the stuck-up one. He was not conceited, but he was the loudest, the most reckless, and in a society where modesty was valued and boasting frowned upon, he might have seemed intimidating. But he was funny in the way of a person wishing to take charge, so humor took the sting out of his bluster.
“My name is Nilo,” he said. “Like the river.”
A big man in a dirty red T-shirt, he reclined on the thick up-raised roots of the tree, wagging a sandal on one foot, and rather than facing me, he shouted his answers to the fifteen others gathered there.
“It’s an adventure!” he shouted. “You leave your family — you don’t know whether you’ll live or die!”
This dramatic opening seized the attention of the others, and hearing the shout in his sleep, the dog twitched one of his ears.
“Where did you cross?” I asked.
“Tecate — I walked across,” he said. “It was easy then. I was with twenty-six people, four from this town, the rest from Mexico City. I paid 450 pesos, which is nothing, really” — about $25 that morning. “Now they charge 15,000” — $830. “But you can always get someone to pay, and then you pay them back. Listen, if you work hard, you can pay it all off in a year.”
“I flew to Tijuana and tried to cross in a car. I was sent back that time, but the second time I made it. I was there a year and a half, working in construction and doing other things. I never made much money, so I came home.”
Nilo’s confidence and his casual way with sums of money impressed the younger men. And they must have noticed, as I did, that Nilo was the grubbiest man in the group, with squashed sandals and dusty trousers, now and then lifting his T-shirt to wipe the sweat from his face, exposing his rounded belly.
“Doing what sort of work?” I asked.
“Construction. I was in roofing.”
“How do you get hired?”
“Not a problem!” he yelled, enlightening me. “The guys doing the hiring are from here! Oaxacans. My brother’s in Utah — he’s been there twenty-seven years. I was in the States for fifteen.” He nodded with authority.
“I would have stayed, but my mother was getting old.”
As though to puncture Nilo’s bluster and give it a sense of reality, Felipe said, “It’s dangerous. All sorts of bad things can happen if you go with a stranger to the border. They might kidnap you and force you to get money from your family. You say, ‘I can’t pay.’ So they make you take drugs across.”
Nilo shrugged and made a face, as if to convey the thought, Hey, bad things happen everywhere.
“My brother,” Felipe went on, “the coyote dropped him at a house near the border. The people at the house robbed my brother of everything he had. It was obvious they were in cahoots with the coyote.”
“The polleros come here all the time,” the old man with the dog said, using the variant word for coyote. “They look for people who want to cross. I went with one — it was ’93. I flew to Tijuana and tried to cross in a car. I was sent back that time, but the second time I made it. I was there a year and a half, working in construction and doing other things. I never made much money, so I came home.”
I said, “Given the fact that there are dangers, and it costs money to go across, is it worth it?”
“Yes,” Felipe said. “If all you’ve got is a roof and nothing else, you go there. I was twenty-three when I went. I didn’t even have a roof. And there’s more work now than before. I went across, worked in construction and tree trimming, then got a job in a Chinese restaurant — doing dishes, then I was an assistant chef.”
“The snake is a symbol of our town,” Felipe said. The mural of San Baltazar Guelavila, near Oaxaca. Photo of mural by Thomas F. Aleto
“Why did you come back?”
“I couldn’t save enough money,” Felipe said. “Even after eight years I was still struggling.”
Nilo tugged at his grubby shirt and howled in contradiction, saying, “If you know how to save, you can save 8,000 in six months.” I took this to mean pesos, about $440.
“At the Chinese restaurant I was making $150 every two weeks,” Felipe said, and raising his voice, added, “I got into debt. I ate Chinese food for a year and a half. I never want to eat Chinese food ever again.”
I asked him the name of the restaurant.
“Chow Mein House,” he said. “In Azusa.”
Azusa is just off the 210 Freeway of Pasadena, on the way to Rancho Cucamonga, though Felipe lived in a house with other migrants in Covina, and took the bus to Citrus Avenue and Chow Mein House.
“How about you?” I asked a young man who’d been listening in silence.
He said his name was Isaac. “Have you been to the States?”
“No. But I’d like to see another place. To see how they live there. To know it.”
Another man piped up, “I’d like to leave here and find markets for my work.”
“What is your work?”
“Weaving,” he said, and explained, “Making rebozos and ponchos and shawls.”
“You should go. It’s amazing,” Nilo said, talking over the man. “It’s like being a goat in a green valley! You see it and you want to eat it all! You drink and eat and spend money!”
The old man with the dog said, “The work is hard. The pay is low. And sometimes there’s no work.”
I asked, “Did you see anything in California that you wanted to bring back here?”
“A community well,” he said. “We need more water here.”
“You can’t say there’s no work!” Nilo said. “There’s always this” — and he began gesturing — “you go into a department store, pick up some things, rip off the security tags, steal the things, and sell them on the street.”
Encouraged by the men’s laughter, he went on, “Or go to a grocery store, fill your shirt with shrimp” — he lifted his shirt and bunched it with his fists, the imaginary shrimp, to make his point — “and you walk out and sell the shrimp.”
I said, “By the way, that’s against the law. You can go to jail.”
“He’s joking,” one of the men said, in case I got the wrong idea about Nilo.
“Here in San Baltazar I was a rebellious young man,” Nilo said. “My father was gone. I broke windows. My mother was useless. Mothers can be weak! I was always drunk and getting into trouble. I needed my father.”
“Where was your father?”
“In California! He went when I was nine,” Nilo said. “It was the most beautiful time of my life.”
“I had no free time,” Felipe said, protesting. “I worked. I was tired. I slept. Then I worked again.”
I asked, “Did you see anything in California that you wanted to bring back here?”
“A community well,” he said. “We need more water here.”
Two women and two young girls walked from behind a one-story adobe building, the women carrying pitchers on their shoulders, the girls carrying clay bowls, a sudden biblical glimpse — attending women in long skirts, bearing drinks.
Men with stories to tell: Men of the town of San Baltazar Guelavila flank writer Paul Theroux. Photo courtesy Paul Theroux
“Tejate,” Isaac said. “It tastes good.”
The liquid poured into the bowls was gray, with a grainy texture and a scum of bubbles on the surface, and it tasted sweetish, a thick soup of — so they explained — maize, flor de cacao, peanuts, coconut, and roasted mamey seeds, or pixtle in Zapotec. Because of the extensive grinding, kneading, roasting, and toasting of ingredients, this pre-Hispanic concoction is called one of the most labor-intensive drinks on earth.
“Important people used to drink this,” Felipe said, and by important people, he was harking back six hundred years, because (in the long memory of Mexico) he meant Zapotec royalty, for whom tejate was reserved.
“Drink, Don Pablo! You are welcome here!”
Except for Nilo, the rest of the men were weavers, spending all day at a loom. Nilo explained that he had diabetes and was no longer strong. “Because of my diabetes they wanted to cut my leg off!” But he had refused, and stubbornly, defiantly still walked, though he had no work.
Felipe guided me into the nearby building and upstairs to the weaving room, where there were seven head-high wooden looms, some of the weavers sitting, thrusting the shuttles at right angles through the tight threads, pulling the beams down, working the treadles, and in all that effort — the rattle of skeletal frames and the stamping of treadles — lengthening the cloth by one thread.
(Recalling that, it seems a fit image for what I am doing now, fussing with my fingers and hesitating, then tightening the line and starting again, minutes passing, this memory of weaving enlarged by one sentence.) Some of the men who had been seated under the tree, talking to me, took their places on benches at looms and resumed weaving. With the clacking and chattering of the wooden machinery in this upstairs workshop, it was hard to hold a conversation, yet I noticed that the men were speaking in a language that was not Spanish.
I beckoned Isaac to a balcony and said, “Are you speaking Zapotec?”
“Yes,” he said. “We speak Zapotec among ourselves.”
A man listening said, “It’s like having a secret language! You can talk about someone who doesn’t speak it and say anything you want while in their presence.”
The town of San Baltazar was completely bilingual, the school taught in both Spanish and Zapotec. But Isaac’s son Alejandro, who was fourteen and said he was a student, was not in school that day, though school was in session. Alejandro was sitting at a loom, weaving lengths of black cloth.
“How’s business?” I asked Isaac.
“Demand is unstable,” he said.
“Yet we keep working,” Felipe said. “We work twelve hours a day. It’s hard. It’s like working in the States.”
This excerpt appears in the special 2022 Books Edition of WorldView magazine. Story updated April 30, 2022.
Paul Theroux began teaching English as a second language in Nyasaland as a Peace Corps Volunteer in 1963. During the nation’s transition to independence as Malawi, Prime Minister Hastings Banda accused Theroux of supporting one of Banda’s political opponents. Theroux was expelled from Malawi and was early terminated from the Peace Corps in 1965. He is the author of more than 30 books of fiction and 18 travel books including The Great Railway Bazaar, Riding the Iron Rooster, Dark Star Safari, and Figures in a Landscape. Copyright © 2019 by Paul Theroux. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.