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CHAPTER I Introduction: Why Peasants Change OXEN lie listlessly in the dung and mud, and tall stalks of corn stand in the fields of Coyotopec, probably much as they grew years before. Only the occasional passing of a car on the highway dissecting the village or a radio blaring in the dis­ tance makes the bustle of far-off Mexico City seem real. The state of Oaxaca has not shared in much of the phenomenal economic growth that Mexico City and northwestern Mexico have undergone; the contrast is stark, and life in a Oaxacan village seems, on the surface, relatively undisturbed from that of centuries past. Coyotopec never was an entirely isolated, self-sufficient village. It has long been involved in an intricate peasant mar­ keting system that has had its focus in the nearby capital city of Oaxaca, to which, on Saturdays, the characteristic black pottery of the village has been brought, along with any corn and garden vegetables left over after subsistence needs have been met. And with the small cash earnings, minor purchases of goods from other villages or of manufactured products have been made. Some Coyotopec peasants have also traveled to other less important markets to sell or buy goods on other days of the week. The women have been the merchants, and it has been they who have set up the blanket with the familyproduced goods to be sold. To the increasing number of tour­ ists who buy at the famous Saturday market, the world of the INTRODUCTION Oaxacan peasant seems far removed from the twentieth cen­ tury. Yet it is these very tourists who have ensured a certain limited degree of prosperity for the artisans of the village by buying their black pottery for decorative purposes at a time when imported manufactured goods are replacing pottery for daily use in the area. Peasant farmers in Coyotopec feel the changes of the cen­ tury. The electric light bulb hanging in their one-room houses does not always bring light because of the difficulty of keeping up with the costs, but it is as important a part of the house as the altar on the wallor the rolled-up straw mats usedfor sleep­ ing. Large containers of purified water also demand an extra outlay of cash, but they have become a recognized necessity of life. Although their farming methods do not differ significantly from those of their forefathers, Coyotopec's peasants are very much aware of new methods being used. Tractors are not a part of their personal experience; yet, they know that campesinos (peasants) in the North are able to increase their yields significantly with the machines from the United States. No longer do Coyotopec's peasants talk of the future as if it will bring an indefinite extension of the past. Change has become the norm. Peasant farmers in Coyotopec are deeply concerned with the river that cuts through the village fields. At most times it is nothing more than a lazy stream which winds through the milpa, but during the rainy season it spills over its banks and rages downstream. Flooding can damage some of the nearby crops. More importantly when the river swells to unusual dimensions, those with fields on the other side cannot cross it to tend their crops. If such conditions last long enough, as they did prior to the previous harvest, much of the corn is ruined. The peasants of Coyotopec have long depended upon the movements of the river. Yet they no longer view this situation WHY PEASANTS CHANGE as unalterable. They now believe that man can overcome the limitations of his physical environment. Man-made improve­ ments can do away with the uncertainties of flooding. Their idea is simple: to build a footbridge over the river. They know, however, that such an undertaking is beyond the financial capabilities and engineering skills of them and their neighbors. In 1970, after much discussion, the peasants with fields across the river organized and selected a spokesman. He went to the city of Oaxaca and there submitted an official request to the government for the public construction of a footbridge. To date, all requests have resulted only in nega­ tive responses from the government. Coyotopec's residents are certainly not the only peasants in recent years who have engaged in new kinds of political action in attempts to mold their environment. Peasants in many parts of the third world1 have begun to join organiza­ tions and political parties and to participate...


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