Reflections on a Community of the Heart: Ethnographer and the people of Juchitan, Oaxaca

by Anya Royce

Bido’ xhu—Earthquakes

On September 8, 2017, a Thursday evening, an 8.1 magnitude earthquake struck just off the coast of Chiapas and Oaxaca.  It was the strongest on record since 1932, almost one hundred years ago.  Of all the towns in Oaxaca, Juchitán de Zaragoza, the second largest city in the state, suffered the most devastation. I could not communicate with my family for almost two days.  The city had no electricity, no services at all. I finally succeeded in messaging a niece in Oaxaca City and found that my family was safe though the three extended families were all now living in the one part of the house that seemed sound.

60% of the homes and public buildings were damaged, most rendered uninhabitable.  Many families chose to move into the street in case of further tremors.  After the second 6.1 quake, my family went to stay with friends whose house had escaped almost intact. Many private and public buildings have been razed or are scheduled for demolition.  These include some of the oldest and most cherished buildings—the Escuela Central Juchitán, the first large secondary school in the city, brought by the efforts of local hero General Heliodoro Charis Castro; the Capilla Guzebenda (Chapel of the Fishermen) a landmark beloved by the inhabitants of the 7th section; the Charis home; the list goes on as inspectors go around the city, surveying and filling out forms, weighing the value as opposed to the cost of reconstruction.  Spared and marked for restoration, thanks to the experts from the Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia, are the parish church of San Vicente, the Casa de la Cultura, and perhaps the Palacio Municipal. Juchiteco architect Elvis Guerra has begun a project that would rebuild or build new structures that are traditional, that are in harmony with the landscape and traditions of the Isthmus Zapotec.  He has asked for my help by letting him use photographs of homes, building, and parks that I have taken in Juchitán since 1968.

Help has come from so many places, including a group of doctors from Cuba and a Chinese group who brought much-needed plastic tent-like homes, but what has made such an impression on me are all the individual Juchitecos and Juchitecas who know the essential and the possible and have made them happen.  Gubidxa Guerrero and the Comité Melendre and their Adopta un Horno fund a campaign to replace the big clay pots that serve as ovens for making totopos, a staple of the Isthmus diet and the economic base of many Juchitecas.  When they had enough ollas for the totoperas of Juchitán, they gave them to the women of smaller nearby communities. Young poet Elvis Guerra, helping distribute clothing and other goods that came in from distant sources, saw that there was nothing in the western clothes that older Zapotec women would be comfortable wearing. He launched a project for donating cloth, or money to buy cloth, for the long skirts (enaguas) and short square blouses (huipiles) that are the everyday costume of older women.  With leftover funds, he paid Zapotec women to sew the outfits.

These two projects addressed a fundamental need at the same time as they made it possible for people to work again.  The first once again made totopos, a basic part of the Juchiteco diet, available; the second made traditional clothing possible. Both allowed women to be economically productive again.

Adopta un Horno website, Guibidxa Guerrero, Facebook

Na Maria, totopera at work. Photo by Anya Peterson Royce, 2008

Juchitecas with their new traditional clothes


“Crear para creer, para recordar… Seguimos vivos y podemos iluminar el mundo…” Poet Irma Yodo. [“Creating to believe, to remember…Continuing alive we can illuminate the world”, trns. Anya Peterson Royce].

Poets, painters, musicians have responded to the tragedy of the earthquakes—now some three, not counting all the aftershocks, by helping the most fragile members of the community—the children.  They bring children together in workshops teaching them music, the prehispanic Zapotec flute and turtle shell drum.  One of these is offered by flute player Cosijopi Guisiubi Ahuitzotl who invites any who want to come: “todos los dias en la pista de los pescadores, séptima sección, apartir de las 5:00 pm. viva juchitán, sus tradiciones y su música!….. yo no puedo ofrecer despensa, pero si mi corazón y lo poco que se.”  Cosijopi Gusiuba Ahuitzotl. [Everyday, beginning at 5 in the plaza of the fishermen, 7th section, Juchitán, its traditions and its music, lives! I cannot offer goods but I do offer my heart and the little that I know. (trns. Anya Peterson Royce)]


Artists in Juchitán and neighboring Union Hidalgo have helped children past the shock of losing homes and schools by offering paints, paper, walls and letting their imaginations find a creative outlet.  Making handprints on a wall to say “I am here.”  Another project, painting Ojos de la Casa [Eyes of the House] on walls as if to say if there are eyes, there will be houses again.

Artist Francisco Ramos donates his time and love of art to children gathered in the 7th section of the city.


Children putting hand-prints on an intact wall to show that they are still here.

Painting ojos de la casa

Francisco Ramos and eager students in the 7a section

Poets and writers all bilingual in Zapotec and Spanish gather children around in classes and workshops about storytelling, poetry, and learning Zapotec.  Senior poets like Irma Pineda, Victor Terán, Natalia Toledo raise our spirits with their poetry and in readings.

Elvis Guerra offers a class in Zapotec

Victor Fuentes, story-teller, reminds children of their traditions.


There are also communal activities and gatherings that remind Juchitecos that they have grown and prospered through their actions for the common good.  Community kitchens popped up in most sections of the city—women cooking food and offering it to those who had lost homes and had no way to feed themselves or their families.  The “bolsas” or “canasta básica” is yet another project of the Comité Melendre, in which donated traditional foods are placed in plastic bags and distributed in outlying parts of the city.  The bags arrive in a colorful woven straw carrying basket, as one use for shopping or carrying gifts.  It is a generous and aesthetically appropriate way in which to take the gifts of food, a way to honor the dignity of each person who received the gift.

A Mass for 40 days, the 40 days since the first earthquake, will be celebrated on October 16 at 6PM in the broad street in front of the Municipal Palace. The Bishop of the Diocesis of Tehuantepec, Monsignor Oscar A. Campos will officiate in this ritual of honoring the departed and opening a path of prayer, music, and light for their souls.  At the end of the service, there will be a concert of traditional sones played by more than eighty musicians playing together to celebrate life and as a symbol of the unity of the Istmeño family. People are invited to bring a candle that will form a cross of light for their departed and a candle to be lit at the beginning of the concert for the Juchitán that lives and will be renewed.

“Bajo la destrucción y los escombros perduran los cimientos desde donde se levantarán nuevos hogares, viven también nuestras raíces y se abrirán paso hacia la luz, para volver a ser el pueblo de las flores.” [Under the destructions and darkness endure the foundations from which we will build new homes, our roots also live and they will open a way toward the light in order that we will become once more the community of flowers. Trns Anya Peterson Royce]


Tomorrow it will be forty days since the first earthquake.  Each of those forty days has brought tears, joy, gratitude, anger, loss, laughter, every emotion colored by an overwhelming sense of the beauty and sensibility of this community that welcomed me fifty years ago.  “Music and Light will make a flower bloom in the shadows,” the poster for the Mass and concert says.  I know this is true because of all I have come to understand over the past fifty years.  The last forty days I have seen hundreds of flowers take root and bloom as Juchitecxs of all ages and occupations minister to each other in ways honored in their language and landscape and values of recognition and reciprocity.  The city, the “settled place,” has been tossed and torn, moved off its literal foundations but it will bloom again, like the tree of hands with nesting birds on the poster for the 40 day Mass.

My friend, poet Irma Pineda, using a new children’s game spawned by the earthquakes, tells us this: “Playing the earthquake game, each child has to play a part: “You will faint,” “You will say ‘forgive me, God’’, “You will die”…”Why me? I died the last time!”  “It is they with their games and smiles who teach us that we can die more than once, because we are Zapotec [binnizá], because we are strong, because we remember that cry in the night of the earthquake, like lightning in the darkness: Rari nuaa, rari’ nuudu—I am here, We are here. So we continue; we will move forward,” (Pineda 2017).

Rari nuaa—I am here.

Anya Peterson Royce, Chancellor’s Professor of Anthropology and Comparative Literature at Indiana University.

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