Politics, Business & Culture in the Americas
Photo Essay

Life in Oaxaca for the Ones Who Stayed Behind

Photographer Eva Lépiz followed families in southern Mexico, from where many relatives have migrated to the U.S.

October 19, 2021
Reading Time: 4 minutes

This article is adapted from AQ’s special report on the battle over fake news.

Stories of migration often attract attention—and deservedly so—for their dramatic combination of hope, uncertainty and adversity. But there is always a parallel story about those who are left behind. For them, the separation is a quieter affair, but not a lighter burden.

Here, Eva Lépiz portrays life in Teotitlán del Valle, a town of 6,000 people in the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca that has seen large outward flows of migration to the U.S. in recent years. Artisan crafts, community life and religious rituals continue—but not without a melancholy that comes with the absence of loved ones, especially in this Zapotec-influenced culture that puts such great emphasis on the extended family.

Enedina Zarita Bazán Chávez (57) and Juana Victoria Chávez (86) spend much of their time weaving wool rugs, a Zapotec tradition for which Teotitlán is famous. Families in Teotitlán receive more than $1 million annually in remittances from the U.S., money that helps sustain the making of these handcrafts, which lack access to large, commercialized markets. Several of Enedina’s and Juana’s nephews and cousins have emigrated to the United States.
Locals hold a trio of large beeswax candles studded with flowers. These are to be presented as a gift as part of a contentada, a traditional form of marriage proposal that brings together the respective families of the couple. For those who have family members who have left, fewer hands make such elaborate preparations a harder task.
Areli Chávez Bautista (25), Beatriz González Martínez (69), and Guadalupe Chávez Bautista (70) light candles as part of a Christmas festival reenacting Mary and Joseph’s search for a place to stay in Bethlehem before the birth of Jesus. These women have several relatives now residing in the U.S.: Beatriz’s daughter lives in Moorpark, California.
At a wedding, village women put their cooking skills to work in a show of guelaguetza, a traditional Zapotec form of community service. Villagers help others with tasks at marriages and other festivals, in the expectation that this help will be returned to them when the time comes.
Mobile phones are poised to film the spectacle, as a wicker structure lined with fireworks is lit aflame during celebrations for the new year. During the period around Christmas, many families living in the U.S. return to their native villages to visit family and keep alive the connection to their roots.
Men prepare for the new year at the Cerro de la Cuevita, a local landmark where traditional offerings are made. Townspeople stack rocks representing things they hope to obtain in the year to come, such as a house, animals or a car. Various relatives of Javier Lazo Gutiérrez (31), right, now live in the U.S., including his brother, several cousins, and his uncle Porfirio, a renowned Zapotec weaver who lives in Ventura, California.
Faustino Alavez Chávez (48) stands next to his mother’s grave. After crossing the border as a teenager in 1987, Faustino spent 26 years in the United States before returning to Teotitlán to spend time with his ailing parents. Now working in town as a taxi driver, he says he has no desire to return to the U.S.
Hosts pass around glasses of mezcal to guests during New Year’s Day celebrations. Many of those who migrate set aside money throughout the year to help pay the cost of traditional celebrations, like this one.
Elvia Quiñones Martínez (47), pictured at center bearing an effigy of the Infant Jesus, returned to Teotitlán with her family from Santa Ana, California, to play this special role in the traditional New Year’s Day procession. Elvia and her husband crossed to the U.S. 25 years ago in search of better employment prospects.

Tags: Mexico, Migration, Photo Essay, The Battle Over Fake News
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