Axe blade with blacksmith's mark

From the roadside they appear as a prison chain gang in the southern US, working away with picks, shovels and wheelbarrows, lacking only the supervision of a shotgun toting warden on horseback à la Cool Hand Luke. Such an assessment is not far off based on the Oxford definition of tequio, “forced labor, imposed on the Indians by the Spanish.” But here in modern Oaxaca the occasional Sunday tradition is more in the nature of moral suasion or civic responsibility.

In a society still based largely on a cash economy without financial records, and where it’s a stretch to find homes with realty taxes above $100 USD per year, it’s no wonder that government doesn’t have the tax base or infrastructure required to attend to public works projects in communities as little as ten minutes from downtown Oaxaca. Amelioration of neighborhoods thus falls on the shoulders of its residents, from paving roads, to resolving drainage and other utility issues, to erecting buildings for town meetings. While lobbying the municipality at times proves fruitful to the extent that it may kick in some cement or loan large equipment, the elected neighborhood committees solicit the assistance of inhabitants to get the work done.

And so on Saturdays throughout the State one often hears the blare of a voice emanating from a cartop loudspeaker trolling the local streets to raise awareness of and hopefully garner participation in the following day’s co-operative activities. Frequently the elderly, infirmed, or households where a male head is absent will not contribute labor, but they are not relieved of their responsibilities. Just as important as muscle is the energy to fuel it. Come by with a few bottles of soda, a potful of tamales or 75 buns, perhaps spread with refried beans. Or you can simply pass by and give the man with the notebook 100 pesos: within such a micro-level system, detailed records are kept and later posted at the local chapel or outside a committee member’s home, enumerating name, address and type of contribution….labor, peso amount, refreshments and so on.

It’s much more difficult and embarrassing to shirk your responsibilities to your community in Oaxaca, than it is in the Western world where bureaucracy and anonymity enable us to defer and at times avoid paying taxes, yet we nevertheless reap the benefits from those who do pay. Broad tax based representative government has its advantages, but it still seems more palatable making direct contributions to a community effort and seeing immediate results.

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Alvin & Arlene Starkman’s Casa Machaya Oaxaca Bed & Breakfast ( http://www.oaxacadream.com ) combines the comfort and service of quality downtown Oaxaca hotels, with the quaintness of country inn lodging. Oaxaca accommodations with a personal touch. Ask about Alvin’s Oaxaca tours, fully personalized. Casa Machaya is a founding member of the Oaxaca Bed and Breakfast Association.