30 June 2006

VIEWPOINT: Economic turbulence ahead?

ANALYSIS from the Guadalajara Reporter

Democratic Revolution Party (PRD) candidate Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador closed the Jalisco portion of his campaign last Saturday in front of an overflow crowd of at least 10,000 supporters clad in yellow and green (the latter being fans who watched Mexico's World Cup match earlier that afternoon) – an audience estimated to be five times larger than his predecessor Cuauhtemoc Cardenas attracted in 2000 for a similar event. The PRD aspirant outlined his economic platform, which emphasizes subsidies to poor households, price supports and massive investments in refineries for Pemex and bullet trains from Mexico city to the hinterlands – all without raising taxes. Above all, though, it represented a departure from the macroeconomic path charted by presidents Fox and Zedillo.

"We don't have to put the country in debt or raise taxes," he told the crowd.

"To say this is populism is an exaggeration."

The proposals drew rave reviews from the sympathetic audience, but jeers from many analysts, who compared it to something out of the 1970s, a decade of economic turbulence in Mexico.

"His economic program is just funny money," said George Grayson, a government professor at the College of William and Mary in Virginia, who penned a book on Lopez Obrador titled: "Mesias Mexicano" (Mexican Messiah).

"His 50 promises could have been [former president Luis] Echeverria's platform 30 years ago."

Echeverria, who governed from 1970-1976, castigated business owners and implemented spending programs that led to a sharp peso crash and high inflation. President Vicente Fox has been perceived as not having implemented change in Mexico, but interest rates and inflation are both at seldom-seen low levels and economic growth has recently accelerated. The jobless rate remains stubbornly high, however, and many Mexicans don't have bank accounts or jobs in the formal economy and are thus unable to use financial instruments that would allow them to take advantage of the stable macroeconomic climate.

Mural columnist Sergio Sarmiento was also among the skeptics of Lopez Obrador's proposals, especially the PRD plan to boost incomes of families earning less than 9,000 pesos per month by 20 percent. He politely pointed out, "The last time we had something like this was in 1982, when [former president] Jose Lopez Portillo ordered a 30 percent increase in salaries, which produced a subsequent economic collapse."

The Federal Electricity Commission (CFE) released figures to the El Economista newspaper that estimated a 10 percent cut in power prices – something the PRD promises to do - would cost two billion pesos. Pemex, which remits more than 60 percent of its earnings to the federal government, lacks funds to build new infrastructure – something Lopez Obrador wants to see happen without private-sector participation.

"The era of privatization is over," he said last Saturday.

Lopez Obrador intends to finance the spending by improving tax collection – in a country where tax evasion is rife – and slashing the cost of government. The latter proposal could prove difficult as many public-sector unions now support the PRD instead of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI).

Bernardo de Leon, an architect in Guadalajara, bought into the PRD proposals, saying, "I live well, but I'm not scared at all.

"The only people who are scared are all those panistas (National Action Party supporters)."

28 June 2006

Mint knocks out Canadian traveler

Story by : DAVID AGREN

‘I should have listened to my mother. She told me not to take candy from a stranger.’

Colin Godwin thought nothing of accepting candy from a stranger after boarding a Michoacan-bound bus in Guadalajara. The complimentary mint, however, knocked him out for 30 hours, more than enough time for the supposedly-generous man, who had given the candy and helped Godwin stow a bag in the overhead rack, to steal the Canadian’s laptop computer, money and passport.

“I should have listened to my mother,” Godwin, 67, said in an interview from his home in Coquitlam, British Columbia.

“She told me not to take candy from a stranger.”

Godwin, a prospector, climbed aboard an Omnibus de Occidente bus in Guadalajara on June 2 for a six-hour trip towards Cuatro Caminos, Michoacan, where he and a Mexican partner have been scouting for copper deposits. A frequent traveler to Mexico, who had just arrived in Guadalajara the night before from Vancouver, Godwin, swallowed the mint, which he now believes was laced with Rohypnol – the infamous date rape drug – at the beginning of his trip to Michoacan. He awoke in a hospital bed 30 hours later in Apatzingan, remembering nothing of his journey.

Fortunately, Godwin left an itinerary – something he recommends all travelers do – which allowed his Mexican partner to track him down. He also backed up his laptop data, losing only a day’s work. Securing a replacement passport for his trip home proved difficult as he said Michoacan authorities wouldn’t issue a police report.

Despite his misfortune, Godwin plans on returning to Mexico to extract drilling samples after the rainy season ends.

“I’m not down on Mexico at all,” he said. “I think this could have happened anywhere.

“Just be a little more intelligent than me,” he advised.

From the Guadalajara Reporter

26 June 2006

Dog lover battles city hall, neighbors – faces eviction

Photograph by : Farid Sanchez

Lawrence Gerard cares for 95 abandoned dogs at his house on Calle Libertad in Guadalajara. Due to fears the city will seize and “kill” the dogs, he seldom leaves his home.

Story by : DAVID AGREN

Lawrence Gerard wades through a sea of barking dogs to answer a knock at his front
gate, which fronts Calle Libertad and the U.S. Consulate General in Guadalajara.

“See how clean that is,” he said proudly, pointing towards a cement patio with a statue of Saint Francis de Assisi, where a young man recently finished scrubbing.

Gerard, a retired priest from New York, houses 95 abandoned dogs at his humble abode. Despite his efforts to keep his property clean, the growing dog population – and the resulting noise and odors – sparked a feud with several nearby building owners and restaurateurs, who blame the animals for driving away sales and making their properties unattractive to potential renters. Three neighbors sued Gerard – one allegedly uttered a death threat – and the municipal government has dropped off an endless stream of multas (fines). His long-time landlord recently issued an eviction notice, ordering Gerard and the dogs to leave by August.

“I’m not getting rid of the dogs,” Gerard said defiantly. “I can’t just throw them out into the street.”

Caring for abandoned dogs consumes Gerard’s retirement and modest income, which he supplements by selling vestments. He pays out-of-pocket to have each bitch spayed and every dog receives vaccinations. He orders 750 pounds of dog food every 15 days, which is delivered to his home. Due to fears the city will seize and “kill” the dogs, he seldom leaves his home. When he ventures out, he locks all the dogs inside. (The big dogs spend the day outside, while the small dogs live inside. All the dogs sleep in the house).

“When I get back, the house is a little messed up,” he admitted.

Gerard’s legal problems date back to last year, when in his words, “Three neighbors got together in a conspiracy to sue me ... to get rid of the dogs.”

He won the case, but lost an appeal. Gerard’s lawyer is now taking the case to federal court.

“We’re going to say this block isn’t a residential area,” he explained.

Offices and small restaurants line the street. Several of the buildings are vacant. Gerard said his neighbor, an absentee owner, blames the dogs for driving away potential tenants, “But the fact is it’s a run-down dump.

“He’s charging outrageous rent,” Gerard contended, adding that the owner’s son made a death threat.

The restaurant owner on the other side, “Threw dirty hot water at the dogs from the washing machine.”

Gerard insists the dogs only bark when provoked. Children passing by sometimes tease the canines.

“It’s always the fat kids,” he said. “They throw rocks and bottles at the dogs.”

The quarrels with his neighbors and city hall have taken a toll on Gerard’s health.
He sleeps poorly and suffers from stress.

“My nerves are shot,” he confessed, adding that he’s lost weight. “I fear for the lives of the dogs and my own life too.

“Right now, I’m living in fear.”

If evicted in August, Gerard said he has few options.

“I have no money to move,” he said. “I need a big place with lots of land and no neighbors.”

Sending the dogs to the municipal pound is out of the question. Most of the canines were rescued from the street. Others were dumped in his yard. Gerard posted a sign last year to encourage adoptions, but it instead prompted owners to bring by unwanted dogs.

“People dump dogs in the middle of the night,” he said. “Someone dropped off a box of eight puppies at one time.”

Gerard also rescues dogs from the street. He points to a small black-and-white mutt called Cookie Gittleman – named for a customer – that he “took away from a drunk in the street.”

Another mutt named Scooter simply showed up at the front gate.

“He walked in like he owned the place,” Gerard said. “He’s a real gentle dog.”

Gerard has found eight homes for his dogs in recent months, but needs more willing owners. He charges 200 pesos, which offsets the cost of the vaccinations.

“If they can’t afford the vaccinations, they won’t look after the dog,” he explained.

And despite his struggles, he promises to keep fighting.

“It’s going to get ugly if (the city) comes for the dogs.”

From the Guadalajara Reporter

20 June 2006

Businesses cash in on World Cup


Story by : DAVID AGREN

Beer flowed early last Sunday morning as Tapatios packed Guadalajara’s restaurants and bars to watch Mexico’s opening World Cup match, which El Tri (as the national team is known) dutifully won, thumping Iran 3-1. The victory continued Mexico’s tradition of starting strong in the tournament – although its teams usually fade and ultimately flame out in the round of 16.

Mexico played tentatively in the first half against Iran, but put aside off-field distractions to pull off the win. (Protestors dogged the Iranian team, though; the country’s controversial president stayed home, but mused about attending the World Cup.) Mexico goalie and Guadalajara native Oswaldo Sanchez, whose father passed away late last week, suited up and stole an almost certain goal from Iran early on. Chivas striker Omar Bravo scored Mexico’s first two goals, the second off of a pass from Antonio Naelson, aka Zinha. Naelson, a Brazilian-born midfielder, headed home the insurance marker late in the second half.

Coach Roberto La Volpe, who caught flack from World Cup organizers for smoking on the sidelines, deftly tweaked his roster in the second half, making substitutions that paid handsome dividends. His oft-derided decision to include two foreign-born players instead of temperamental star Cuauhtemoc Blanco proved genius.

While Mexico thrived in its opener, the United States stumbled, losing 3-0 to the Czech Republic. England scraped by Paraguay 1-0 and later toppled Trinidad and Tobago 2-0, but only after scoring twice in the game’s waning moments. (A distiller promised each Trinidad and Tobago player a barrel of rum if they upset England.)

Along with the national team, many Guadalajara businesses and national and local political candidates also boosted their fortunes last Sunday. Both of Mexico’s television networks drew mammoth audiences; more than three times as many people tuned in for the game than the last presidential debate. North of the border, more fans watched the Mexico match – in either English or Spanish – than the NBA finals.

Establishments showing the game saw sizeable crowds; many places offered breakfast and drink specials. German suds proved especially popular.

“We’re selling a lot of German beer this month due to the World Cup,” said Alejandro Orozco, business manager at Cerveceria Minerva, a Zapopan brewery that recently began distributing foreign beers.

Perhaps to avoid losing business, many of Guadalajara’s ubiquitous taco stands installed television sets – complete with rabbit ears – although reception was a bit fuzzy at some locations.

“If you don’t have a television, the customers will go somewhere else,” said Cesar Diaz, owner of Happy Fish on Avenida Tepeyac.

After the final whistle blew, fans armed with flags and horns and decked out in green shirts flooded the area surrounding the Glorieta Minerva, where squads of riot police kept a close eye on the festivities. Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) volunteers, wearing faux Mexico jerseys that read, “Zamora 06” across the back, worked the crowd. An especially rowdy group, hoisting a giant flag, circled the monument countless times.

Vendors, peddling giant sombreros and flags of all sizes, reported brisk sales in the area.

“Today is far better for sales than Fiestas Patrias (Independence Day celebrations),” said Abel Hernandez, a vendor who parked his cart at the corner of Avenida Mexico and Golfo de Cortes.

“It’s like a tradition,” he added. “You buy a flag and go wave it at the Minerva.”
Herandez predicted Mexico would reach the quarterfinals – one stage beyond where El Tri exited in each of the past three World Cups – which would ensure a worthwhile haul for his small business. An unexpected loss, though, could jeopardize profitability.

“If Mexico doesn’t win, we’ll still sell some things, but not nearly as much,” he explained.

Mexico next plays Angola on Friday at 2 p.m. before tackling Portugal on Wednesday at 9 a.m.

From the Guadalajara Reporter

13 June 2006

Presidential candidate visits Chapala, touts economic policies

Story by : DAVID AGREN

Like a white knight – who arrived in a white SUV – Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, presidential candidate for the left-leaning Democratic Revolution Party (PRD), rode into Chapala last Friday, promising to rescue the country’s largest lake, which is often in an imperiled environmental state.

“We’re going to save Lake Chapala,” he told a boisterous crowd assembled in front of the town parish. Virtually all the presidential candidates promised to help Chapala, but Lopez Obrador was the only candidate to actually visit the town in 2006.

But along with riding to Lake Chapala’s rescue, Lopez Obrador also pledged to ease the financial predicaments of Mexico’s poorest families through schemes that critics charged would drag Mexico back to the 1970s, a period of extreme financial turbulence brought on by presidents indulging anti-business agendas. Shortly before visiting Chapala, the PRD candidate unveiled his economic policies, which, if implemented, would freeze prices, extend credit on easy terms and boost the incomes of poor families by 20 percent.

“We’re going to reduce the prices of electricity, gas and gasoline all across Mexico,” he said. “We’re going to guarantee prices for producers in the countryside ... we’re going to give credit.

"Bankers don't give credit to producers."

Lopez Obrador broached the banking topic frequently, invoking the ghosts of Fobaproa, a government bailout of the financial services industry after the last peso crash in the mid 1990s.

The intervention, which PRD supports said benefited wealthy financiers, still grates many middle- and lower-class Mexicans, who barely scraped by during the peso devaluation. Lopez Obrador repeatedly links Fox and the PAN with the scandal, even though it occurred during an Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) presidency.

"Because he received money from bankers ... (Fox) really hasn't accomplished anything," Lopez Obrador said.

Dressed in a trademark guayabara shirt – white, appropriately enough – and dress pants, the former Mexico City mayor struck back at critics of his proposals, saying, "I'm not an enemy of entrepreneurs ... or an enemy of people who invest money and create jobs."

Additionally, he reiterated his plan for giving seniors and single mothers monthly cash stipends – something he implemented during his term as Mexico City mayor.

Mural columnist Sergio Sarmiento was among the skeptics of Lopez Obrador's proposals. He politely pointed out, "The last time we had something like this was in 1982, when [former president] Jose Lopez Portillo ordered a 30 percent increase in salaries, which produced a subsequent economic collapse."

The PRD campaign rolled through Jalisco on a slight upswing; most public opinion polls showed Lopez Obrador closing in on National Acion Party candidate Felipe Calderon. Lopez Obrador insisted, though, “We’re 10 points ahead of the other campaigns.

He disparaged the mainstream polls and pollsters, saying, “(It’s) a war in the media.”

Lopez Obrador offered no proof of his supposed advantage. One spectator at the rally branded the unfavorable polls a “conspiracy.”

Along with spelling out his agenda, Lopez Obrador feted the PRD’s Jalisco candidates, who garnered mixed reviews from the audience. The crowd jeered gubernatorial candidate Enrique Ibarra, who until recently was a high-ranking PRI official. Jaime Mexia, the PRD aspirant for Chapala city hall drew cheers when he announced, “The first thing I’ll do is turn down my mayor’s salary.”

Lopez Obrador left the stage quickly after the event ended, putting little time into working the crowd (he had scheduled a rally for Ocotlan later that afternoon). A large group, though, chased his white SUV down the Malecon.

From the Guadalajara Reporter

09 June 2006

Debate leaves election outcome mired in doubt

Roberto Madrazo, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, Felipe Calderon

Story by : David Agren

Mexico’s second and final presidential debate on June 6 promised fireworks, but the fuse was ignited miles away from the made-for-television event, with unknown gunmen targeting the wife of a businessman supposedly harboring explosive evidence against Democratic Revolution Party (PRD) candidate Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador and National Action Party (PAN) candidate Felipe Calderon – who boasts of having “manos limpias (clean hands)” – fending off accusations of nepotism.

With Lopez Obrador and Calderon running neck-and-neck – three polls released last week said the pair were in a statistical tie – most of the attention focused on the two frontrunners, who sported drastically different demeanors – and attire.

Lopez Obrador, wearing a dark suit and daring sunny-yellow PRD tie, looked serene, but stiff and out of his element – which perhaps answered why he skipped the first presidential debate. Speaking calmly, he outlined his agenda for Mexico’s poor – a constituency he champions.

“The poor first, that’s how we’ll govern,” he said, seeming to trot out the same answer for all of Mexico’s challenges – including foreign policy.

Although goaded, he avoided outbursts, defying his angry stereotype. He even ended the debate with the cheery comments, “Smile. We’re going to win.”

Lopez Obrador raised his usual hot-button issues, most notably Fobaproa, a bailout of the banking industry a decade ago.

Calderon targeted Lopez Obrador with every outburst, castigating the former Mexico City mayor’s job performance in the capital.

“(Lopez Obrador) left the Federal District as the most indebted city, the most insecure in the country, the entity with the highest corruption in all of Mexico, with the highest rate of unemployment and the lowest growth rate in the country,” the panista said.

Calderon spoke more forcefully than the last time, rattling off his proposals in monotonous numbered sequences. He initially seemed ready for everything; when Lopez Obrador alleged PAN improprieties in Fobaproa, Calderon flashed a photo of a PRD candidate, who supported the bailout.

But as the debate neared its conclusion, Lopez Obrador accused Calderon’s brother in-law of not paying tax on contracts received while the PAN candidate was energy secretary. The debate format prevented Calderon from immediately replying. The PRD later produced documents supposedly proving the improprieties. Calderon spent the day after the debate denying the charges.

The remaining three candidates on stage were largely overshadowed. Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) candidate Roberto Madrazo toned down his rhetoric and confrontational approach, which had turned off viewers in the last debate. He differentiated himself, speaking of a law-and-order agenda and describing the PRD and PAN as “a radical and conflictive left and (an) intolerant and repressive right.”

Most opinion polls show Madrazo running third.

Patricia Mercado of the Alternativa, one of the surprise performers in the first debate, kept speaking of controversial social issues, no doubt trying to solidify her modest support base. She captured lightning in a bottle during the first debate, but not last Tuesday. She needs two-percent support for her party to stay certified.

Most pundits declared Felipe Calderon the winner by a slim margin with Lopez Obrador a close second. Neither man delivered a knockout punch.

Several gunmen, though, delivered their own blows just prior to the debate, attacking a vehicle carrying the wife and children of jailed businessman Carlos Ahumada in an upscale Mexico City neighborhood. No one was injured. She had been scheduled to release a video that could have reflected badly on Lopez Obrador. A Lopez Obrador associate was shown accepting a large bribe from Ahumada in 2004. In a statement, the PRD denied any involvement in the shootout and suggested the event might have been staged.

From the Guadalajara Reporter

From cobblestones to cocktails

By David Agren, in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico

At first glance, Nina Harman's open-toe shoes with elastic straps and a small heel hardly seemed ideal for traversing the steep cobblestone streets of San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, a colonial town with a mushrooming expatriate population. In reality, she walked circles around her two visiting friends, who were wearing sports sandals, which supposedly offered plenty of support and had rubber soles.

"I hike in these," she boasted while taking a lunch break.

"I do everything in these shoes."

Everything includes going to formal events. The shoes, dubbed, "Combat, cocktail sandals," are extremely practical, yet elegant enough for classy occasions. Its deft mixture of style and functionality has won it an immense following in expatriate circles and increasing in markets beyond Mexico. The shoes combine a firm elastic upper with a sole designed for comfort and come in more than 500 styles, ranging from sandals to wedges, and 100 colors, including eclectic shades like green apple and teal. Ankle boots and mule-style models have recently been unveiled.

Harman said the shoes "really support your feet and allow them to breathe."As a bonus, "They make my Size 9 foot look like a Size 5."

"Even with high heels, your feet feel secure."

The shoes' inspiration came from an improbably source: an accountant. Santiago Gallardo along with several family members founded San Miguel Shoes 13 years ago. Gallardo previously worked as an accountant for several shoe factories before dabbling in shoe design. Despite his profession's reputation for dullness, Gallardo designed the original models. The business was based in San Miguel due to the town's tourist traffic and large expatriate population.

The expatriates brought the shoes to Canada, where footwear importer Cedric Morrice, learned of the trend. He described San Miguel Shoes as "all-age ... not necessarily a young shoe."

Although not yet one of his best-selling imports, he acknowledged, "My wife owns about six pairs."

San Miguel Shoes sell for around $35 in Mexico – depending on the model – but go for $80 - $100 in most Canadian boutiques. (Large chains generally don't stock the shoe).

Santiago Gallardo said his firm now produces some men's models, but has stayed focused on the female market because, "Women spend more."

When spotted the next day, Nina Harman, toting a bag from one of San Migue Shoes' outlets, sheepishly confessed, "I bought another pair," but later added her spend was a symptom of "an acceptable fetish."

Published in the Ottawa Citizen.

03 June 2006

Isolated indigenous village keeps alive centuries-old customs


Photograph by : D. Agren

Weaving sustains the meager economy of Tlamacazapa, Guerrero. Virtually all of the town’s residents either make or peddle palm-leaf baskets. It takes Vicente Procopio at least two days to weave a large basket, which he later sells on the street in Mexico City’s San Angel district.

Story by : David Agren

Fernando Lopez’s hands move so quickly while weaving a garbage can-sized palm-leaf basket they almost dissolve into a blur. It takes two full days to craft a large basket at his single-room home made of corn stalks with a tar-paper roof in Tlamacazapa, Guerrero, a remote pueblo in the rugged hills near the tourist town of Taxco. After finishing several pieces, he carts his merchandise to nearby Cuernavaca. Each large item fetches up to 250 pesos.

“Sometimes I make sales, other times not,” he said, sitting on an overturned bucket in a smoke-filled hut next to his milpa (cornfield), a large root smoldering in the corner to cook food.

Virtually the entire adult population of Tlamacazapa, like Lopez, either weaves baskets in hillside shacks or sells baskets in Mexico’s major cities. The cottage industry sustains the town of approximately 6,000 residents, but just barely. Tlamacazapa endures on the fringes of Mexican society; an isolated village populated by Nahuatl Indians in one of Mexico’s poorest and most corrupt states, where local caciques (strongmen) have long laid down the law and development is only gradually arriving. Vices and violence are common; ill health is rife.

Lopez’s story is fairly typical. He grew up amid violence and squalor. A good-natured and gentle man with a thick mop of black hair and a mustache, he sells what he and his family weaves. When not weaving, he works a milpa during the rainy season, tilling the thin soil with a hoe. Its modest bounty keeps his family fed. He lives with his wife and two daughters in Tlamacazapa. His two sons peddle bracelets full-time in Cuernavaca. Several of his children died as infants.

He learned weaving from his father, who used to drink heavily and beat Lopez’s mother. She died when Lopez was 14. His father passed on a few years later.

“He had his vices,” Lopez, who turns 50 on June 10, said in a matter-of-fact manner.
“I used to really like working with my father.”

Unable to produce a legal document for his childhood home, Lopez and his five siblings were tossed from their family’s land after their parents’ deaths. Many years later, he gained title to the vacant plot on the outskirts of town, where he now grows corn. Most diets in Tlamacazapa consist of little more than tortillas and salt. Meat and eggs are luxuries.

Many in Tlamacazapa regularly go hungry; Lopez and his family seldom eat three meals a day. Some residents exchange baskets for food, usually on poor terms. Operatives from Mexico’s political parties take advantage of the situation come election time, trading despensas (giveaways of food, building materials and sometimes cash) for votes.

“I’m not going to vote,” Lopez declared, saying the entire despensa scheme turned him off of the electoral process. A short time later he said he might support the Democratic Revolution Party (PRD).

Along with widespread poverty and malnutrition, water problems are rampant. Arsenic and lead contaminate the town’s wells, which dry up as the spring dry season drags on. During the spring months, town residents, toting used 18-litre glue and oil cans, hike several times a day to a well high above Tlamacazapa to draw water. Towards the end of the dry season, a child is lowered deep into the lone well with water to fill the villagers’ cans.

The new PRD state government recently installed a water pipe, but it carries fluid from a contaminated source – and only once a week. Another water pipe also exists; corrupt officials, however, charge high fees to access it. Bottled water is too expensive for most households.

Tlamacazapa also lacks adequate sanitation. Animals live in the streets; dung and debris litter the steep roadways. A Canadian charity started constructing dry latrines, which turn waste material into fertilizer. Some locals apparently sleep in the small buildings to keep dry during the rainy season.

Although living in an inhospitable spot nearly three-hours drive south of Cuernavaca, the local population persists and centuries-old customs are kept alive by the virtual isolation. Many of the women in Tlamacazapa still only speak Nahuatl, an indigenous tongue, and wear traditional costumes, consisting of skirts, sandals and colorful shawls. Trips to the doctor are rare; the local curandera (healer) is frequently called upon.

The isolation began in the 1500s shortly after the Spanish arrived. Legend has it the Indian population of Taxco fled into the hills to escape Hernan Cortes’ cruelty, settling on a mountainside they dubbed Tlamacazapa, which in Nahuatl means, “People of fear.” The basket-weaving industry reputedly took hold shortly thereafter, but no one knows its exact history. According to Lopez, the locals originally made petates (coarsely-woven mats).

The isolation lasted until the first half of the 1900s, when a bumpy road connecting Tlamacazapa with the outside world was finally constructed. Electricity – enough to barely power a small appliance in the average customer’s home – and a few telephone lines also arrived.

“The people never used to leave,” Lopez said.

Nowadays, many men from the town fan out across Mexico, hawking baskets of all shapes and sizes. Prices depend mainly on the distance the sellers travel and the basket size. The women stay behind, producing additional baskets and maintaining households.
Compared to some of his peers, Lopez sticks pretty close to home. On an average weekend, he sells between one and three baskets in Cuernavaca. Foreigners sometimes take home baskets, but “Pochos,” Mexicans back visiting from the United States, purchase more.

“They’re good customers,” he commented. “They pay well.”

Foreigners buy too, “But only when they’re on vacation.”

When working in Cuernavaca, he crashes in a room rented by his sons.

In addition to haggling with stingy customers, Tlamacazapa vendors like Lopez often battle with unscrupulous local officials, who sometimes demand exorbitant fees for permits and confiscate merchandise when payment isn’t forthcoming.

“Sometimes they seize our merchandise and remove it from the area,” he explained.

Buyers frequently travel up the rocky roadway dotted with political posters, roadside crosses and impromptu garbage dumps between Tlamacazapa and Buenavista, Guerrero (another road runs to Taxco, the municipal seat), but they seldom offer fair prices. Lopez occasionally sells to the middlemen, but only when desperate.

“Sometimes if you need food, you’ll sell,” he said.

According to Lopez, “The first time a buyer comes he offers a fair price.” But with each subsequent visit, the prices become less generous. A typical buyer offers only 80 pesos for a large basket. The palm leaves needed for weaving a typical basket often cost the same amount.

To save money, Lopez and his fellow vendors sometimes forgo taking a 20-peso combi ride to Buenavista or Taxco, instead trekking three hours along a mountainous path, which connects the town with a major highway junction.

“Sometimes I walk, hauling my merchandise, when I don’t have enough bus fare,” Lopez explained.

Additionally, Lopez often scours the nearby countryside for palm leaves to save a few pesos. The palm leaves are cut and painted prior to weaving. Each piece is methodically incorporated into the design.

Although it’s a tough way to eke out a living, Lopez seldom complains. He cheerfully recounted stories of living in Tlamacazapa and his adventures selling baskets during a recent visit by foreigners. His daughter Erika, a bubbly 14-year-old with a bright smile and playful nature, acted as a guide. Like many teenagers, she stopped attending school, even though the town has a telesecundaria (a junior high school with instruction via television). Most Tlamacazapa residents marry young.

And the vast majority will continue weaving baskets for the foreseeable future. As Lopez put it: “Here, we don’t have any other work except for the baskets.”

From the Guadalajara Reporter