Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Giving Thanks in Oaxaca

By Kim Groves

We do not have the Thanksgiving tradition in Australia, and I’d never really had cause to think much about it. That is, until this past week, when I was included in my first such celebration here in Oaxaca.

You may accuse me of being sentimental (you’d be absolutely right), but this past week, as I went about my usual routine in Oaxaca, I took note of all that I valued. I was grateful for the little kids playing soccer in my street, and even for the music that spontaneously blasted from the churchyard; for the neighbours sweeping the footpaths, and for the men who refill the water in the park fountains. I was thankful for the mountains, and for the afternoon sun. Most of all, I was grateful for the opportunity to continue to work with the women of En Via.

It was the actual Thursday of Thanksgiving and I was out on a tour in Teotitlan, the main town in which we work. I was outside the church, in a small pocket of shade by the old gates with two of the borrowers; sisters Alicia and Elia Mendoza Pablo. Alicia had her baby boy in her arms and he was looking out adorably at all that was going on in the courtyard.


Suddenly I found myself talking about the unfamiliar tradition, and the idea of giving thanks. Asking them what they were grateful for in their lives, they both laughed a little, perhaps at how obvious was the answer. “Por la vida”, Alicia said. For life. “And that we have work”. Elia nodded with agreement as her older sister spoke, and then added, “Yes, for life, and for health. I am grateful for what we have. For the little we have”.

When I asked the same question to Lindsey Shilleh, a fellow volunteer with En Via, she spoke also of being grateful for the relationships in life: “the connections with people”. As she said this, she was struggling to cook a giant family size dish of sweet potatoes and leeks in what must have been the smallest couple of frying pans in Oaxaca. Later, I also saw Samantha Wattson, our very own Managing Director, standing attentively at her oven in the cutest purple embroidered apron made by Juana a borrower from Teotitlan. She was closely supervising the turkeys, which were also sourced from the town, to absolute perfection. 


Why was it so important to both of these women to cook these particular dishes? Simply answered, it was because they wanted to share their favourites with their friends. More than that, I felt it was a gesture that they felt at home here; that this tradition was just another layer to many others, from here and from afar, that have merged and grown in their hearts. They were grateful for those connections that they had made with the people here, and cooking was just a symbol of that creation. It may have appeared to a passer-by that the day was all about food, but I knew it was not the eating, but the company, that mattered most.

Like many national Holidays around the world, Thanksgiving can be historically problematic and politically contentious, and sometimes the message can get buried under mountains of food or excessive consumerism, but I believe there is something to this tradition that is worth remembering. Most importantly it is about sitting down to share, breaking bread with friends and family, and the act of being grateful, as Alicia and Elia reminded me, por la vida, and everything beautiful and challenging it entails.

Who would have thought that I would learn about Thanksgiving in Oaxaca, Mexico? It makes me, well, grateful, to be here, and to be amongst people who I know are constantly giving, and giving thanks, in so many different ways.



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