Of all the attributes that set Latin America apart from its northern neighbors, perhaps none captivates quite like the regional tendency to put community before the individual. Few visitors to Latin America fail to observe the way the lives of so many Latin Americans interweave, and the way that interweaving expresses itself socially. If you’ve ever shared an afternoon meal in a Latin American home or enjoyed a dinner out until five in the morning, you’ve witnessed the way Latin Americans appreciate one another’s company. This spirit of camaraderie suffuses all levels of society, expressing itself in social customs, economics, and politics. It’s fair to wonder: is the communal spirit that keeps an Epiphany celebration going all night long the same that makes the region so resistant to globalization?
It seems that Wendy Call, a community organizer, translator, and writer from Seattle, wondered something similar. From 2000 to 2002, she lived on Mexico’s Isthmus of Tehuantepec, the narrow strip of land that connects the Yucatan Peninsula to the rest of Mexico, trying to learn why community organizing was so much more successful in Mexican villages than it was in Seattle. Her book No Word for Welcome: The Mexican Village Faces the Global Economy describes the time she spent travelling in the region, familiarizing herself with its inhabitants and their way of life and visiting its resorts and government offices. Her purpose: to study the villagers whose lives had been most deeply affected by globalization and development.
Along the way, she observed and articulated the concept of protagonismo, which she describes as the North American tendency to view lives individually, as opposed to the Latin American tendency to process and remember experiences in common. Call wonders: could it be the absence of protagonismo—of the tendency to see oneself as the primary actor in a grand narrative of life—that helps the Isthmus villagers band together and combat the threats globalization brings to their region?
This begs the question: what interest do the forces of globalization have in the Isthmus of Tehuantepec? Call begins her investigation with the archives of The New York Times. There she discovers articles dating to the late 1800s that explain what foreigners have wanted from the Isthmus over the decades: namely, passage from the Gulf of Mexico to the Pacific Ocean by any means possible, whether horse path, railroad, canal, superhighway, or Trans-Isthmus Megaproject—the latest extra-national incursion into the region.
But the real answers to her questions come from the people she meets on her journey—from people like Carlos Beas, an educated, middle-class organizer from northern Mexico, who, Call tells us, first moved to the Isthmus to teach anthropology. When his radical methods got him into trouble, he became a community organizer for an association of indigenous organizations. Beas, an honorary villager of the Isthmus himself, shows Call how the existing community council is used to educate people about the superhighway the government plans to run through their village.
Then there’s Maritza Ochoa, a teacher in San Mateo del Mar and one of the founders of a local group practicing “cultural defense.” Call spends hours in Ochoa’s classroom, observing how she negotiates the difficult process of teaching Spanish while at the same time preserving indigenous language and culture. There, she learns that the indigenous language of the Huave ties its speakers to the natural world and to each other.
There’s also Juana García, who, Call writes, “was my hostess because she was an organizer, one of those rare people who built bridges between her village and the world beyond it, between what should be preserved about her village’s way of life and what could be improved upon.” An inhabitant of the Chimalapas Rainforest (the largest in North America), García shows Call how those who illegally sell their communal lands to ranchers expose the rainforest to the threats of invasive species, deforestation, and drug cultivation.
Call’s graceful movement between cultures demonstrates her considerable skills as a writer, and especially as a translator. For indeed she has a translator’s ear for discerning the importance of the Huave language, Ombeayiüts, a word that literally means “our mouth.” Today it is spoken by only the 9,000 residents of San Mateo del Mar, a jaw-dropping fact that makes one wonder: if the Huave do somehow manage to win the geographical battle for their tiny patch of the Isthmus, can they possibly win the bigger struggle to maintain their language and cultural identity? It’s an open question.
No Word for Welcome ends on a mixture of sadness and hope. Industrial development has occurred, but organizing successes have unquestionably mitigated the worst effects of globalization: as of the book’s writing, there were still no industrial shrimp farms on the Isthmus, and the new superhighway is only four lanes wide instead of six. As Call’s friend Carlos Manzo explains, there is a difference between rebellion and resistance. Rebellion is flashy and captures media attention; then it dies down. Resistance, on the other hand, burns softly and continually. Wendy Call’s book is at once a portrait and a piece of that resistance, and a warning to the rest of the citizens of our global village.
Clare Sullivan is an Associate Professor of Spanish at the University of Louisville where she directs the Graduate Translation Certificate. She received an NEA Translation grant in 2010 to work with the poetry of Natalia Toledo, an indigenous writer from Mexico.
No Word for Welcome: The Mexican Village Faces the Global Economy
University of Nebraska Press, 2011
$29.95 hardcover, ISBN 978-0-8032-3510-6