Confessions of a Looted Soul
Extractivismo: Oaxaca (5/8)

Confessions of a Looted Soul

Victor Terán has long used poetry to preserve Zapotec language, but as wind farms envelop his hometown of Juchitán, his words have become weapons of resistance to post-colonial development that threatens the future of Zapotec culture.

The North Wind Whips
By Víctor Terán
(Translation by David Shook)
The north wind whips through,
in the streets papers and leaves
are chased with resentment.
Houses moan,
dogs curl into balls.
There is something in the afternoon’s finger,
a catfish spine,
a rusty nail.

Someone unthinkingly
smoked cigarettes in heaven,
left it overcast, listless.
Here, at ground level, no one could
take their shadow for a walk,
sheltered in their houses, people
are surprised to discover their misery.

Someone didn’t show,
their host was insulted.
Today the world
agreed to open her thighs,
suddenly the village comprehends
that it is sometimes necessary to close their doors….

Nostalgic, intimate—almost confessional—the poems of Victor Terán lower the reader into a well of naked longing and solemn contemplation where scenes of gods and dogs, famine and lust, play out in something like a fevered dream. His fire burns on the page, but Terán has the eyes of a teacher, which he is: attentive, accessible, authoritative. He has been called “the preeminent living poet of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec” and he wears gravitas well.

Terán briefly breaks from our conversation to read a poem from his The North Wind Whips collection in Diidxazá (Zapotec), but he hasn’t invited us to his home to discuss poetry. Settled in his wooden chair under the shade of an almond tree, he angles our discussion toward the wind farms and the fate of Juchitán. “My fear,” he says, “is that it will become another Tijuana.”

Terán shares widely-held concerns that the completion of the trans-isthmus railway corridor (Transistmico) and Juchitán’s impending designation as a Special Economic Zone will incentivize foreign-owned, tax-exempt machiladoras (factories) away from the US border and attract poor migrant laborers to his beloved city. His concerns aren’t without foundation or precedent. After initiating a program of industrialization, Tijuana’s population more than doubled between 1980 and 1985, transforming the coastal city into a major cross-border drug trafficking corridor and a flashpoint for cartel violence.

The North Wind Whips Cont.
…Who can divine
why I meditate on this afternoon?
Why is it birthed in me
to knife the heart
of who uncovered the mouth       
of the now whipping wind,
to jam corncobs in the nose
of the ghost that pants outside?

The trees roar with laughter,
they split their sides,
they celebrate
that you haven’t arrived at your appointment.

Now bring me
the birds
that you find in the trees,
so I can tell them
if the devil’s eyelashes are curled. 

On this slow, sun-bleached afternoon, the predominantly Binizá (Zapotec) city seems a little rougher for wear perhaps, but not discernibly different than other towns on the isthmus. It’s a quiet, gridded city surrounded by communal farms and pastureland. An elderly gentleman comes to Terán’s gate to deliver eggs during our conversation, and they rattle on for a moment in Diidxazá like old school friends.

But the truth is everyone in Juchitán is on edge, and the curtain drops at nightfall. Damián Lopez, a local musician and filmmaker, explains that methamphetamines—crystal, specifically—flooded the city six years ago. “Before long it wasn’t uncommon to see school-age kids smoking meth in the parks in broad daylight,” as street gangs began to lay claim to specific neighborhoods. (It bears noting that MS-13 and 18th Street tags are a recurring feature on the city walls of Juchitán, Salina Cruz and many of the smaller towns across the Isthmus.) “No one goes walking around at night anymore,” says Lopez. “You’re going to get robbed.”

It’s a particularly tragic fate for a city that was admired as one of Mexico’s cradles of contemporary arts not long ago. El Maestro, the world-renowned painter Francisco Toledo, was born here and spent his later life building Casa de la Cultura and contributing to the city’s reputation as a cultural fountainhead. It was in the markets and plazas of Juchitán that Frida Kahlo became inspired by the “traje Tehuana” clothing, upon which she modeled her iconic style. Internationally-acclaimed photographer Graciela Iturbide spent much of the 1980s here at the invitation of Toledo, while working on Juchitán de las Mujeres, an ethnographic photo essay that triggered a wave of feminism across Mexico. Victor Terán has credited his “entrance to the world of poetry” to Macario Matus, the poet and local luminary who groomed a generation of Zapotec artists, writers, and musicians at Casa de la Cultura.

As a nexus of revolutionary artists, it is perhaps unsurprising then that Juchitecos have a notorious rebellious streak. Since expanding to the Isthmus of Tehuantepec from the Valley of Oaxaca around 1380, the Zapotec of Juchitán have resisted Aztec hegemony, repelled Spanish invaders, defeated French insurgents, and famously filled the ranks of Porforio Diaz’ army during the Mexican Revolution. Now five hundred years after the arrival of Hernán Cortés, Terán laments that Juchitecos find themselves with little power to resist unwanted globalization on the isthmus. He worries that Binizá culture may be extinct in fifty years.”

God of Dreams
by Macario Matus
Gúuzi Góope, like Moctezuma, dreamed
that some bearded white men
would come from the sea to dethrone him.
And yes, they arrived on huge ships, riding horses,
those men who the king had dreamed.
In the Zapotec kingdom there were wise men who dreamed.
They saw, clear as day, what soon would happen.
The dreams, they foretold, are waking realities.
And so they surrendered, handing over gold, land, and kingdom.
Dreams are real. The white men’s lie was real.
Now that we have awakened, we dream that truth is real.

Some years ago, while Terán was in the U.K. recording a selection of poems at the BBC studios, he spent a day touring the moors of Lancashire and came upon a grove of towering wind turbines rotating above the rolling countryside. He was awestruck by the bucolic scene, the subtle synergy between nature and industry. That day not only did he realize that wind farms and pastoralism could coexist, he had proof that the three thousand turbines encircling Juchitán in a dystopian future-scape were a tragic anomaly.

“The difference [between Lancashire and Oaxaca],” explains Teran, “is that the landowners on the Isthmus of Tehuantepec are not partners.” In the UK, for example, landowners can expect a five to six percent return—or around US$50,000 for a three megawatt turbine—on the annual turnover from wind farms. In the US, a single wind turbine lease can pay $8,000 per year. In Oaxaca, mutually beneficial cooperation is virtually non-existent. Government oversight of land tenure is notoriously lax and prone to corruption, leaving rural farmers with little recourse to negotiate fair compensation for land leases. The situation is complicated by the fact that more than 80 percent of Oaxaca belongs to communally-owned ejidos, and more than half of landowning ejidatarios are deceased. Although several hundred property disputes are still pending in courts, bloody conflicts between private landowners and ejidatarios led to nearly 80 deaths and dozens of disappearances between 2017 and 2019.

Your Memory
By Víctor Terán
Nostalgia has me boxed
in the stupid wall of the afternoon.
Someone somewhere bastes in happiness
beneath the fresh shade of love
The earth is like a great comal*
above God’s hot coals.
Gnomes hop across red-hot paths
while a dog
compulsively licks her vulva, then wanders southward…

Seldom are property disputes decided in favor of collective landowners in the courts. However, in 2018, the Mexican Supreme Court decided unanimously to grant an injunction (amparo) that halted the $1.2 billion Mitsubishi-backed Energia Eolica del Sur wind farm near Juchitán, citing that Zapotec community members have the “right to prior, free and informed consultation.” While the decision substantiated community claims of widespread misinformation and government coercion, it did little to alter the dynamics or the outcome.

The project was ultimately approved the following year. Covering more than 50 square kilometers, it will be the largest wind park in Latin America with a capacity to prevent 567,000 tons of carbon dioxide from being release into the atmosphere annually. The Energia Eolica del Sur, though hailed as a significant step in Mexico’s plan to wean off fossil fuels, has been met with scorn in Juchitán, where 132 fifty-meter-tall wind turbines will soon flank the city to the east and west. Despite the scale and import of the project, Terán estimates that ejidatorios who lease their land will only earn around “80,000 pesos (US$4,000) over twenty years.”

It is often argued that whether a landowner makes a poorly-informed decision to lease their property is immaterial—it was their right to decide, after all, irrespective of the consequences. In Juchitán, however, that logic constitutes a fallacy of relevance in that it fails to account for the practice of intimidation. Several sources we interviewed for these dispatches requested that we omit their names. Two have been threatened with violent retribution.

Conflicts over wind energy development on the Isthmus of Tehuantepec illustrate an increasingly common phenomenon known as “green grabbing”—the appropriation of land and resources for environmental ends. More worrying for Istmicos are the cases of “green violence” in which private (or state) security forces use counter-insurgency tactics (often against local residents) to protect lands designated for environmental conservation or sustainable development. European energy giants like Siemens Gamesa, Accione and Naturgy have long been accused of authorizing violence against community activists and “defensores de la tierra” in their efforts to develop a clean, renewable energy source on the isthmus.

Just Yesterday
By Victor Terán
Just yesterday
my love was
like a kid breaking in
the year’s new clothes.

Just yesterday
I was a bell
joyfully coming and going
announcing mass.

Now I am
like the virgin bride whose lover
refused consummation,
like a sun finished burning
whose ash is scattered by the wind.

Mexico is still far behind countries like Germany and Denmark that have attempted to mitigate potential conflicts between communities and corporate interests by implementing “social acceptance for renewable energy” programs. Alternative solutions in the form of community energy projects, which seek to establish mutually-beneficial frameworks for communities and investors, are also conspicuously absent from Mexico’s development model. On the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, asymmetrical power dynamics reveal one of capitalism’s coldest axioms: Everything is for sale, even if you don’t want to sell it.

Terán’s principal concern is that the wanton imposition of large-scale development projects on local communities will result in land dispossession, urban poverty, and the inexorable degeneration of Zapotec culture. He explains that when Zapotec farmers lease their land, they have few alternatives aside from joining the surge of rural-to-urban migration to cities that are already too strained to meet the needs of new arrivals. Lacking the training or experience required to compete in the modern economy, they scrape by as manual laborers, gardeners, or security guards, often living in cheap apartments on the bleak outskirts of a city.

“It has already begun,” says Terán. “Twenty years ago maybe 80 percent of people in Juchitán spoke Diidxazá. Now I’d say it’s more like 50 percent. Parents see no value in teaching it to their children any more. What’s the use? If you want to get a job you need to speak Spanish.”

Although Terán has said that he doesn’t consciously think about language preservation when he writes in Diidxazá, he is keenly aware of its power. “Today, to write in an indigenous language, more than being a political statement, is a heroic act of survival. Survival because writing strengthens and extends the future of a language. Heroic because it means pain and suffering before the indolence of many of its own speakers, who forget their responsibility to their mother tongue, owing to their desperate struggle to find the day’s food.”

You Will Not Manage to Hurt Me
by Victor Terán
You will not manage to hurt me.
You will not break my existence.
The cathedral of light that you left me is immense,
warm and joyful.

You scented my existence for a long time.
You introduced me to paradise
with your lukewarm and naked body.
My hands still shake at the memory
of your fleshy ass.
My lips still tremble
when I remember the sweet taste of your nipples.

With these memories, how can I feel hurt?
Though you left me, how can I abhor you?
You left me with an ocean of dazzling fish,
an ocean of incessant fish.

Terán likens the poet to a great trickster, an exaggerated narrator. “Remember that literature is an artistic composition, an art of language, a recreation of reality. Not a reflection of that reality, but the making conscious of it, be it written in Spanish, Portuguese, English, Maya, or Zapotec.”

Before departing the serene confines of Terán’s courtyard, I’m compelled to ask him: What would you tell President Lopez Obrador if he were sitting here right now? “I’d tell him: Consider the real impact of the Transistmico on people’s lives. Don’t impose the project on people. Ask them what they want.”

Víctor Terán was born in Juchitán de Zaragoza. His books of poetry include Sica ti Gubidxa Cubi (Like a New Sun; Editorial Diana, 1994) and Ca Guichi Xtí’ Guendaranaxhii (The Spines of Love; Editorial Praxis, 2003). Terán teaches media education at a secondary school in Juchitán.

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