In the background to the lives of many Oaxacan Indian migrants is the system of usos y costumbres, a system of Indian local governance in Mexico which requires them to fulfill unpaid service jobs in their village.
This story ran in the LA Times and was fascinating to do. I went to Santa Ana del Valle, a village where migrants had been trying to change the centuries-old system. (Many thanks to the French-American Foundation for its grant funding.)
The system of unpaid municipal service jobs goes back, in some form, for centuries. But it was a system that functioned because everyone lived in town, and it helped the town remain unified, if also poor.
Now, with so many migrants in LA, the system doesn’t work as it did. It fractures towns often, rather than unifying them. It continues to create poverty by both forcing government to be done by people who don’t really know how to run a modern city government and by not paying workers, forcing those who take on these jobs to go into debt or sell land or animals.
There was a lot more to the system that wasn’t possible to include — such as its role in religious persecution. Some villages have used UyC to run out Protestants who’ve decided they don’t want to participate in the annual religious rites and festivals that are also part of the system.
Isaias Garcia (photos above, with wife Angelica Morales), by the way, was, in his day, one of the great Oaxacan Indian basketball players — basketball being a kind of second religion for Oaxacan Indians.
I wrote about his brother, Zeus, and his attempt to restore the purity of amateur basketball to the sport in America in my first book, True Tales from Another Mexico: The Lynch Mob, the Popsicle Kings, Chalino and the Bronx.