A hand for Oaxaca: a Zapoteca economic and cultural reactivation model
On September 7th 2017, Perseida was in Querétaro, Mexico, when an 8.2 earthquake shook the isthmus of Tehuantepec in Oaxaca. She immediately rounded up food with the help of her friends and went home. “Arriving at the city was completely devastating, emotionally speaking. Whole streets had their houses levelled and all you could see was the mess, furniture on the streets, wrecked cars. It looked like a war zone. Something unimaginable to my people”, said Perseida. The city of Ixtaltepec, known for its colonial homes with colourful walls, had been completely destroyed.
Perseida and her friends started distributing the food they had brought from Querétaro when they noticed other groups were already doin the same. Then, they started looking for a different way to help people organize, when a local baker approached them asking for help to rebuild his bread oven.
From her time with Fundación Capital, where Perseida worked as a manager in a financial education program, she understood how important it was to restart developing the community in Ixtaltepec as soon as possible. “I called my boss and asked her for a methodology for economic reactivation in a post-disaster zone (…) and she said: Perse, that doesn’t exist, so you’re going to have to come up with one on your own”, said Perseida. With everything on their plate and starting from scratch, the group of youths started to ask for tequio – which means mutual help in Zapotec – for the reconstruction. Three weeks after the earthquake, the baker had already rebuilt his oven and given away over 5.000 breads throughout the town, in acknowledgement for the support he received.
This is how A Hand for Oaxaca was born, now the winner of the Rural Youth Innovation Award in the education category: from a group of young men and women wish to support in the face of the need to rebuild a completely disfigured city. “Then, rebuilding didn’t mean just recovering a material possession. To the families, it meant having a small light of hope on their path, also one of mental rebuilding”, explained. The magnitude of the community resilience program that A Hand for Oaxaca had begun was such that they ended up rebuilding 114 bread ovens in the whole region.
While A Hand for Oaxaca rebuilt bread ovens, the process of tearing down the houses was crushing people’s spirits: “People were dying from xilase… Xilase in Zapotec is like a deep-seated nostalgia that invades you and is said to snuff out the light in your heart”, said Perseida. The city looked grey. There were no more colourful, traditional homes like before. This was when A Hand for Oaxaca launched a new project: “It was a communal mural program called ‘Let’s put the colour back in Ixtaltepec’ wherein we payed homage to the guardians of traditional crafts to show that the most beautiful things in our town weren’t the houses that fell, but instead the people that made Ixtaltepec special and that keep alive our zapotec culture”, said Perseida. It must be added that the murals are now painted on the walls of each particular artisan’s home, called guardians of ancestral knowledge, which has given them greater exposure and raised their income an average of 50%.
And so it went. People kept coming to A Hand for Oaxaca, which ended up building a People’s Cultural Center of Arts and Crafts. Committed to the region’s public policies regarding culture, the group is signing ever more educational partnerships today. Through them, for example, they just published a book to be distributed in schools, with the intent of contributing to knowledge about culture, to this rebirth of the zapoteca identity which sprouts with pride and follows the reconstruction of the region.
Today a methodology for post-disaster intervention finally exists. The youths of A Hand for Oaxaca created it as they went and implemented it as the result of a joint wish for resilience. This methodology is based on three pillars: emotional healing, economic reactivation and cultural activities. The program’s success is such that it is being applied to another state in Mexico, where people were displaced after a flood. “We firmly believe in the roots of a community as a way to work towards the welfare of communities”, said Perseida.
We at the IFAD share that sentiment. And we also believe in the capacity for innovation of youths who, like the ones in A Hand for Oaxaca, are capable of rebuilding entire cities, restore their spirit and substitute poverty and migration with cultural wealth and the pride of remaining in the territory.