Tuesday, February 12, 2008

A village in the distance


Here are the opening paragraphs of the first chapter of Three Dollars a Year (Delphic Studios, New York, 1935) by G. Russell Steininger and Paul Van de Velde:
San Pablo Cuatro Venados, a small and somewhat inaccessible Mexican village, hangs on a slope of the high western Sierras. It is a curious and primitive community the inhabitants of which are Zapotecan Indians. Life offers them little. Their lot is both meagre and hard — a situation that seems not to distress them in the least.

The natural setting of San Pablo is one of majestic but tortuous grandeur. Mountains overlap and tower above mountains. Their sides drop precipitously into deep barrancas only to rise again, sheerly and suddenly, into more formidable and gigantic ranges. The tremendous scale of this scenic background is intensified by the almost dwarf-like stature of the natives — a physical characteristic reflected in the low doorways of their houses.

San Pablo sprawls over the mountain side and in appearance is merely a collection of thatched-roofed huts tucked here and there on an occasional patch of level ground. The whole is dominated by a twin-towered church of little merit. Throughout the five or six hundred years of the pueblo's existence comparatively few foreigners have trod the steep winding trails which serve as village streets.

For centuries however, in either nearby mine or distant market place, the San Pableños have known the white man and his ways. Christian teaching and European methods followed swiftly on the heels of the Spanish Conquest. Despite these alien influences old customs and habits still persist and the current life of the San Pablo Indian is essentially the same as that of his forefathers.

The fate of the San Pableños was sealed centuries ago. They perhaps do not realize that their institutions and activities — that they themselves — are the inevitable result of ancient causes which they are almost powerless to modify. In their present position they are encompassed by futility and should they desire to better themselves, which plainly they do not, they would have no choice but to abandon their village. Fear and physical geography have determined their history, their psychology and their economics. A long-standing and unending feud with the neighboring pueblo of Cuilapam and an impoverished soil make this a certainty. The direct route from San Pablo to the market place in Oaxaca leads through Cuilapam, but this road the San Pableños dare not take. Instead they trudge another five miles for the sole purpose of avoiding enemy territory. The crushing force and mounting burden of adverse circumstances seem to indicate that, in the long run, these Indians are bound to lose out and that, within the course of time, their village may disappear.

The history of San Pablo can be summarized as a series of escapes. From the very beginning of its existence the inhabitants have endured the constant menace of extermination. Blood has flowed and continues to flow: the blood which has forever been a symbol of Mexico from pre-Conquest sacrifices to recent revolutions. San Pablo was established as a Zapotecan Indian military outpost, a buffer settlement representing the advance guard of one warring tribe against another, and accepted the dangers, privations and sufferings which always accompany such a role. The warriors of this encampment incessantly watched the activities of their enemies — Mixtecan Indians who lived in Cuilapam, at that time a small village nestled at the foot of Monte Albán.

November 25, 1521 was a crucial day in the affairs of the little Indian garrison of San Pablo. It was then that the Spaniards, bent on conquest and captained by Francisco de Orozco, entered the Valley of Oaxaca. For the San Pableños the arrival of Orozco and his band practically constituted a miracle and had the Spaniards not appeared exactly when they did it is probable that today San Pablo would not exist. When the Conquistadores reached the valley a bitter civil war was in progress. It was a war of revenge and a fight to the finish. The Mixtecs had determined to conquer the Zapotecs beyond any hope of recovery and were on the point of achieving complete success when a common foe — the white man — arrived. The Indians temporarily dropped their grievances and united against the invaders. San Pablo was saved.

Time however has increased the hatred of original enemy tribes and their descendants are now hereditary foes. Not so long ago the entire population of San Pablo deserted the village and fled to the mountains, fearing complete annihilation at the hands of the Mixtecs. Intervention on the part of Paul Van de Velde and of the Mexican authorities undoubtedly prevented a catastrophe and the San Pablenos are again back in their homes, at peace for the moment but not knowing how long it will last.

Caught in this whirlpool of fear and hate and condemned to an unending struggle with a topography angular and stubborn, the San Pablo Indians should be a morose and sullen lot. Certainly life for them is often little less than a mere existence. Food and clothing frequently fall short of actual necessities. But here is the paradox. Notwithstanding a life of seeming misery and bare sufficiency — often extreme poverty — these Indians are fundamentally happy and contented.

According to the Editor's Note at the beginning of the book, Three Dollars a Year was based on the researches of Paul Van de Velde, a Belgian scholar who was a member of the Sociedad Mexicana de Geografía y Estadística and various other scholarly organizations, and who was the author of a number of works on Oaxaca and its environs. The book was actually written by G. Russell Steininger, a landscape architect from Reading, Pennsylvania who had assisted Van de Velde in his researches. As far as I can tell it was Steininger's only published work. Though the book is a bit disjointed and marred by its condescending manner and confident assurance that the San Pableños are satisfied with their lot in life, it contains a number of evocative photographs and some interesting material on the customs, history, and material life of a small village in the Sierras.

The authors make it clear that the centuries-old animosity between Zapotecan San Pablo Cuatro Venados and the nearby Mixtec village of Cuilapam (now more of a town, and generally spelled Cuilapan) was one of the central facts of life in San Pablo. The animosity could be traced in competing maps, surveys, and legal actions, as well as in violence. According to an appendix, in just one brief period in the 1920s and early '30s the murders or disappearances of fourteen citizens of San Pablo as well as two Cuilapeños were attributed to the feud. The backwardness and isolation of San Pablo appear to have been exacerbated by its unfortunate location. Trapped between hostile Cuilapan and the rugged terrain of the Sierra Madre, the villagers were forced to work marginal agricultural lands. The “three dollars a year” of the title refers to the average annual income of the San Pableños, a meaningless figure for people who hardly belonged to an economy wider than their village boundaries at all.

It would be easy to assume that the description of San Pablo in the book is now completely out-of-date, and perhaps it is. But one aspect apparently remains unchanged: the occasionally violent feud between San Pablo and its lower-lying neighbor continues unabated. In 1929, in arbitrating a boundary dispute between the two localities, the Mexican Supreme Court had granted 522 hectares to San Pablo and 3,112 hectares to Cuilapan. That ruling was upheld by a presidential decree in 1970, but the San Pableños rejected it and continued to squat on land granted to Cuilapan. In 2001 another court returned 1,565 hectares to San Pablo. And just in the last few days (February 2008) there has come a report of yet another outbreak of hostilities. What follows is a rough translation:
There were tense moments in the municipios of Cuilapan de Guerrero and San Pablo Cuatro Venados, where residents of the two communities were on the point of a confrontation yesterday morning as a result of the dispute over communal lands in El Cucharito and Acapixtla districts, where the sound of gunfire was even heard. Fourteen inhabitants of San Pablo, among them Wenceslao Sánchez, president of Bienes Comunales, were detained by a group from Cuilapan as a means of pressuring (the San Pableños) to abandon the 400 hectares that they had invaded and deforested indiscriminately, in addition to diverting the course of the Río El Valiente, which supplies water to both communities.

It all began at 6:00 AM, when residents of Cuilapan, most of them women armed with sticks and machetes, set up blockades on the highway to San Pablo, first in San Pedro Acapixtla and then in El Cucharito, which is identified as the zone in conflict.

For his part, the Secretary General of the government issued a call to avoid bloodshed and to seek ways to solve the problem, which is more than 200 years old.
So even in an era of globalization — or perhaps especially in an era of globalization — ancient local conflicts over land, water, and tribe continue to flare in the Sierra Madre.


I've never been to San Pablo Cuatro Venados, but I may well have stared at it from a distance. The village is barely a dozen miles from the major pre-Columbian archaeological site of Monte Albán, which were constructed by the distant Zapotec and Mixtec ancestors of the warring villagers. The ruins, which I visited in 1980, occupy a plateau above the city of Oaxaca and provide an excellent prospect in all directions of the surrounding valley and the mountains beyond. Somewhere out there, to the southwest, is San Pablo, though I didn't know it at the time.