Kaitlin Henning is a undergraduate at the University of Kentucky studying anthropology and international studies. Last year she became one of our two 2017 Hershberg Scholarship winners with her proposal to travel to Oaxaca to study social justice. A reflection on her experiences this past summer in Mexico are below.
This summer, thanks in part to the Hershberg scholarship, I spent two amazing months in the Southern state of Oaxaca, Mexico. These eight weeks were filled to the brim with experiences and adventures which have forever changed my perspective. As a student of the SURCO organization (University Services and Networks of Knowledge in Oaxaca) my classmates and I took classes on the effects of neoliberalism as well as experienced the beauty of one of the most biologically and ethnically diverse regions of the world through first hand field work. For the first half of the trip, our group took weekend trips to different parts of the state to speak and visit directly with activist groups and cooperatives who were experts on individual topics we would spend the week before learning about in class. These weekend trips took us from hundreds of meters up into the mountains to meet with indigenous communities struggling with land reform in the north to Afro-Mexican communities navigating identity politics on the southern coast.
One of my favorite trips was to the Vida Nueva women’s weaving co-op in the nearby town of Teotitlan del Valle. These women, varying in age but all members of the Zapoteco indigenous community, were defying traditional gender roles by weaving tapestries and making other weaved crafts and selling them themselves in the Oaxaca markets. Traditionally, the practice of making and selling these items were considered men’s work but to preserve the tradition after men in the community relocated due to labor migration, women in this community took over the trade. They use the money they to earn to buy supplies as well as execute an annual community project. After making us a delicious meal, these ladies showed us how they cleaned and spun wool, which, to my classmate’s and my chagrin after trying to emulate their actions, is much harder than their expert hands make it look. They also explained to us the various methods they use to make the all-natural dyes they make to color the wool, and how delicate this practice is in order to achieve just the correct hue. They demonstrated how the addition of acids and bases can change the shades of colors as if by magic. Each pattern they incorporate into the tapestry and each color has a specific meaning important to the representation of their culture and the themes they are trying to present through their art work.
My last few weeks in Oaxaca were spent conducting research on and gathering testimonies from indigenous community radio stations. These stations use the sound waves as a form of vigilance to inform their communities of the truth in news when the media does not honestly report events that are of relevance to them. This was most markedly noted when in 2003 the village of Santa Maria Yaviche was attacked by a paramilitary group supported by the government after attempting to unite with the Popular Indigenous Council of Oaxaca to claim their rights. This attack was not reported by the media and the news of the killings would have been silenced had it not been for the use of these community-ran radio stations that shared their testimonies with the state through this medium. My research took me to five different towns to meet with community DJs and learn about the specific causes for which each station was organized. These causes ranged from women’s empowerment to environmental preservation.
In addition to this research, I am now also drastically more comfortable in my Spanish speaking abilities. Not only did I attend Spanish classes and interact with my Spanish-speaking host family every day, but all my research interviews were conducted in Spanish as well. This practice gave me a practical experience with the translation process that is already serving me well in my Spanish classes at UK this semester.
I will never forget my time in Oaxaca and am immensely grateful for the lessons this scholarship as afforded me. On this trip, I met some of the most amazing people and accomplished things I never imagined I would be able to do. My limits were tested for the better and I have returned to campus with the knowledge that I have accomplished hard work and am ready to do more. I would like to thank Mrs. Hershberg and the World Affairs Council for their generosity, without which, I would not have been able to experience this adventure of a lifetime.