Juan de Dios Gomez Ramírez has been leading Global Exchange trips to Oaxaca since 2005. This month, in the lead up to our annual Day of the Dead trip to Oaxaca from October 28-November 5, we are featuring a write-up of his fascinating background, written by Juan de Dios himself. And yes, there are still spots available on this year’s trip! *Please note the following has been translated from Spanish.
by Juan de Dios Gomez Ramírez
I was the tenth son of thirteen brothers, my mother Francisca Josefina was a native of a Zapotec community in the South Sierra of Oaxaca, and my father, Leonardo Zechariah, was a mestizo from a Zapotec community of the town of Etla. I was born in 1957 in the city of Oaxaca, where I lived for the first few years of my life. When I was 4 years old my family moved to live in the Federal District for my father’s work.
The last year I lived in Mexico City, 1968, was fateful for Mexico: it included the terrible events of Tlatelolco and the Olympics. During the first years of high school I lived in a village in Oaxaca and I had friends with whom we would walk to school an hour daily. We also visited the hills at the foot of the high cerro de San Felipe and repeatedly climbed to its Summit to admire the great landscape of the Central Valley and the city of Oaxaca, instead of being in school as all the other students. During the last year of high school I started working as an apprentice to a photographer in the center of the city.
My high school studies passed with an awakening to politics, long hair and work. They were years convulsed by the student movement that was emerging from the University, demanding greater opportunities for participation in decision-making of University life. The clumsy handling of this situation by the Government proliferated arbitrary arrests (myself and my roommates included), as well as the killings of citizens at the hands of the police. During that time I regularly attended the school of fine arts of the University, as an irregular student of screen printing and engraving workshops. That link took me to work more than one year as a restorer of colonial paintings from the Temple of Santo Domingo de Guzmán, an emblematic architectural monument of that period that resided in the city.
Yucatán, a rich academic and social experience
In 1977, the police and the army patrolled the city, and took the facilities of the University as a measure to turn off social revolt. That year I finished my high school and I wanted to study anthropology, but in Oaxaca there was no school, so without much hesitation I traveled to the city of Mérida, Yucatán, and with the recommendation of an anthropologist friend I was accepted. But not everything was so easy, because to sustain me in school I had to find a job. That situation forced me to temporarily quit school to work in the small town of Valladolid, in a school for Mayan-Spanish bilingual teachers. Then I moved to Puerto Juarez, in the State of Quintana Roo, where I worked as a signwriter in the nascent tourist city of Cancun. This work allowed me to become familiar with boats of all sizes, hotels and restaurants before opening, as well as listening to lectures, projects and views on world tourism (which still did not come) as well as allowing me to save to return to University.
After a while I abandoned the idea of anthropology and was seduced by archaeology, to study the mysteries of ancient history. During the summer I enrolled in the Normal Superior de Yucatán to obtain a Bachelor’s degree as a teacher in social sciences and teach in high school. During the years that I studied for a Masters I became convinced that the traditional school system conditioned or inhibited some skills and talents of the students into specialized work force away from consciousness and social criticism.
Trade unionism and politics
At that time the President of the Republic was Lopez Portillo, whose administration was characterized by corruption and wastage, from which he tried to rebound with the nation by nationalizing the country’s banks towards the end of his administration. This new situation allowed for the creation of banking unions and the Henequenero Trust. Many co-workers agreed on the formation of a Trade Union and at a meeting of all employees we were appointed secretaries of the Executive Committee of the Single Trade Union of the Workers of the Henerquero Trust (SUTFH).
My public position led me to be postulated as a State candidate for a coalition of parties of the left (PSUM-PRT-PMT) by some local groups and anarchist unions in the first district based in Mérida. It was an opportunity – I approached people to show the degree of marginalization, exploitation and injustice of people living in the countryside and the city in various fields of Yucatecan society, as well as the great need to organize and implement political changes in legislation to ensure respect for the constitutional and human rights of citizenship.
We never believed that the State would allow our triumph, although the official results were very favorable, more than expected. However, a few days after the elections concluded, I was arrested by police, tortured psychologically overnight and released the next day on trumped up charges. Some time later, the Henequenero Trust signed a collective agreement with a ghost union, and so began a series of dismissals to waive labor without compensation of law. I was relocated and when my dismissal was imminent, we received the news that the Henequenero Trust was settled by presidential decree and with it came our dismissal with compensation.
A haven in the artistic life
After that episode, I dabbled in the field of painting and the Visual Arts, and decided not to return to work in the bureaucracy. My fondness for the drawing of the mayas took me to win a project I worked on with the support of several painters and bricklayers of the town; I painted a mural on a large wooden frame curated with stucco, and media reviews were benevolent with my work.
The return to the country of the Clouds
It had been more than 10 years since I had come to the Yucatan Peninsula, and nostalgia for going back to Oaxaca to be close to my family was more consistent. So, I made a trip to try my luck with the intention of finding a job. My return to Oaxaca was very pleasant, the climate and food that my mom made was the reward for many years of absence. Because of my experience, I was accepted at the Secretariat of Agriculture as an analyst, but after working 4 months without pay, having organized and conducted training courses and produced several brochures, I received a salary as a plumber, four times below what was offered. It was necessary to make use of my trade union experience to make them pay me the agreed salary, but I eventually had to leave the employment.
I then collaborated on a government program which promoted cultural and artistic activities, as well as workshops, on drawing, screen printing, photography, etc. However, the state bureaucracy did not allow me to fully develop the programs, and poor management of the budget and a thousand bureaucratic procedures prevented simply beginning work in the communities. I soon understood that these government programs were only to give an appearance abroad that the Government took care of indigenous communities without actually doing anything of substance.
I decided to return to Mérida, where I went to work in the newspaper Diario de Yucatan, which is the largest circulation on the Peninsula. My work was as a graphic designer and I trained to use computers, which then were still not common. I spent about a year in the journal which allowed me to have a rapprochement with the guild of journalists. Then I began a printing workshop, in which we worked with some friends on several projects, and after having saved some money I returned to Oaxaca with the idea to set up permanently.
The movement and indigenous journalism in Oaxaca
Upon my return, I was invited to work in the isthmus of Tehuantepec with the union of indigenous communities of the area north of the isthmus (UCIZONI), to develop a project which consisted of video and audio of the customs of the indigenous peoples who inhabit the region (Zapotecs, mixes, Zoque, Mixtec, chinantecos and Afro-mestizos); It was a monthly magazine which held for 3 years, with the implementation of a program of training workshops in communication, press and the accompanying cultural and agricultural projects. This work allowed me to attend meetings and national and international indigenous conferences to participate in various committees and delegations, notably to promote a campaign of 500 years of indigenous resistance in the Yucatan Peninsula during the summer of 1991. The following year I was invited by the University of Victoria Canada to deliver several lectures on the project of indigenous journalism, where I stayed for a month.
New routes and the Oaxacan social movement
In 2005 we began our partnership with Global Exchange, receiving groups through the “Reality Tours” program, with the first group visiting in the month of November for the celebrations of Day of the Dead.
In July a delegation of teachers from the United States arrived through GX, and we carried out visits scheduled in the middle of marches, barricades and police actions. In the month of November a second Global Exchange delegation was interrupted on the penultimate day, Nov. 2, about the difficult conditions that existed in the city. On November 25th I was arrested by the Federal Police and two days later I was transferred to a maximum security prison, accused of criminal organization, setting fire to public buildings, etc., where I remained for a month in extreme isolation and 2 years process of parole, until I was acquitted for lack of evidence.
In 2007 I was invited to work on the implementation of a “participatory planning workshop” on the bays of Huatulco National Park, in the small low coastal community of Coyula, where I worked for 6 months on the development of a community ecotourism project and made a tourist route through the coast of Oaxaca to the Afro-mestizo area through the lagoons of Chacahua. In the village where I live currently, Sta. Cruz Xoxocotlan, the Commissariat of communal invited me to work as a consultant. We developed an ecotourism project to protect the slopes of the hills of Monte Alban, areas comprising the communal property of the population. At the end of that year we established the Association Ecoturismo Comunal El Chapulin A.C. (ECOCHAC). We started with a diagnosis of the site’s features, and invited several specialists and through their suggestions started a program of reforestation and a storm water recharging area. At the end of that year the book The Battle for Oaxaca was published by Editions Yopepower, in which I give testimony about my arrest and federal imprisonment in Nayarit, as well as the cruel treatment to which we were subjected.
Community ecotourism and Monte Alban
Throughout the year of 2008 I dedicated myself to developing ecotourism projects in the communal land. We called upon all schools in the municipality to reforest and in 3 years, with the support of students and teachers, 16 thousand seedlings of native species were sown. That year a flow of tourists to Oaxaca resumed, as the 2 previous years it had fallen off almost completely. I had a small Global Exchange group during the month of November, but local schools were our main economic support during that year and the next. During 2009 through ECOCHAC we conducted several workshops with members of the community and edited some publications related to the environment and ecotourism (www.ecochac.wordpress.com) which remains up to date and is intended for the students of the schools of the municipality.
Seminars, solidarity tourism and Mezcalier
In the year of 2011, I did a seminar on migration – “the first inhabitants of Oaxaca were former migrants” – for students from Quebec of the College Edouard-Montpetit of Canada. Through the contact of Global Exchange, we began a series of cultural exchange experiences. That year we restarted our journalistic work in the “Indian regions” program.
In 2012, we had several workshops for various agencies and schools, and that year we started our cooperation with Food Sovereignty Tours, on the recommendation of GX, with whom we organized the week-long seminar “Sovereignty Food and Heritage Food of Oaxaca”. In the middle of that year, I was invited by the owner of the old House of the Mezcal bar to select traditional mezcals in the palenques or artisan factories and to organize tastings at the bar and other sites for the dissemination of this traditional drink. Through tastings the consumer can become informed about commercial mezcals and their drawbacks for the health and economy of populations and areas in which traditional mezcal is closely linked to the ceremonial life and culture of indigenous peoples.
During 2014 was invited to deliver several lectures to various body such as Forest Stewardship Council, A.C., (FSC Oaxaca), Witness for Peace, the Intercultural University of the State of Mexico, Universidad del Mar and other educational institutions, and also to carry out some tours of archaeological sites and communities. We convened and organized a workshop on how to install a TV channel on the internet, addressed to indigenous organizations. We also continued advising some projects of community-based ecotourism (S. Pedro Nexicho, Teotitlán del Valle, San José de el Chilar, Coyula, among others).
I occasionally continue to publish articles in newspapers and local magazines. And we are now working on preparations for the launch of the 3rd workshop of training for cultural guides, museums and projects of community-based ecotourism by 2016, with the support of the University of Oaxaca.