No Word for Welcome: The Mexican Village Faces the Global Economy

By Josie E. Davis

The archives are stuffed with the how-to’s and what ifs of globalization and the often unsuccessful attempts to resist it.  But here, in the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, we find a map of village persistence amid “signposts of globalization” as translator and grassroots organizer Wendy Call follows over a decade long response to “El plan de Ochoa,” the Mexican government sponsored Megaproject to instill new highways, shrimp farms, and a handful of development projects affecting farmers, schools, forests, and fishing communities across the Isthmus region.

Call introduces herself as both archivist and activist.  “Like Miguel Covarrubias, I have fashioned my map of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec in the form of a book.  It is not an easy choice because text implies story, a narrative that stretches out on a straight, unbroken line from beginning to end.”  Cartographers, she explains, “map their own imaginations … But like a map, this story is not linear; it is two-dimensional, extending in many directions at once.  Just as every map is provisional, so is this story.   And so this story stretches out like a road toward the horizon, beyond the covers of this book, disappearing into the mist of the future.”

No Word for Welcome: The Mexican Village Faces the Global Economy  is anything but a disappearing act for Wendy Call whose three years in the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, Mexico, are the steadfast yet sprawling roots of this energized, modest, and well fed account of the people and places surrounding the “large spider-web of industrial-development projects known collectively as the Trans-Isthmus Megaproject.”

Call doesn’t waste any time in her translation of the Isthmus and of herself.  “I carried around a press pass but had come to the Isthmus of Tehuantepec as a grassroots organizer looking for new ideas.  I wasn’t exactly a journalist but I did tend to use that word when I introduced myself because it was one that people recognized.  The only other writers Istmeños usually knew about were poets and novelists, and I surely wasn’t one of those.”  Language on the Isthmus is heartily endangered while giving balance to each collective community.  As a professional translator, Call beautifully documents and researches her subject, “accompanying” the lives of Istmeños, “To simply be with someone, even if I did nothing, somehow carried value.”

Call officially quit her job as a grassroots organizer in Boston and moved to the Isthmus of Tehuantepec for two years in 2000.  The book opens on the footsteps of a small village in the Northern Isthmus, Boca de Monte, the “gateway to the mountains,” for a community meeting between villagers and Carlos Beas, founder of the Association of Indigenous Communities in the Northern Zone of the Isthmus (UCIZONI) to discuss what happens when “a rich man comes with his highway.”

In each stage of the book Call is generous in her time and recollection of the experiences which shape and challenge the Istmeños within the context of global change:  “the adaption made the resistance possible … They consider the situation, weigh their options, and take only what they need.  Their refusal to simply accept it all is their refusal to accept that they, like many of the world’s people, are superfluous in the global economy.”

Beyond the stories and archival memoirs that Call weaves into these pages – not unlike the “embroidered red dress and long yellow ribbons,” of the Juchiteca women – No Word for Welcome is a rich and exquisite guide to the history of the Isthmus and beyond.  Call reaches for the Isthmus of Tehuantepec with slight expectation and is gifted the task of linguist and historian, author and journalist, observer, activist, and friend.

It’s difficult to walk away from this book and not feel inspired.  Call’s endless questions and curiosity lead us into the mangrove forests of the Isthmus; the bilingual Spanish-Ombeayiüts schoolyard of San Mateo del Mar; the decorative conference room of Felipe Ochoa in Mexico City; or a Zapatista rally in Oaxaca City.

map showing the relief of the isthmus

“It’s small, it fits in the palm of the hand, it doesn’t weigh heavily on the shoulders, yet it overflows the heart.” As Call herself wades deeper into the farming and shrimp farm villages of the Istmeños, the book quickly expands at a tranquil yet critical pace by where education and language is at the heart – and expense – of new highways, commercial shrimp farms, political climate change, and ecological conservation.  “I hadn’t moved to the Isthmus of Tehuantepec to learn about education, but I came to realize that I wouldn’t understand much else until I did.”

“My first lesson in Maritza’s classroom was one in lingustics, woven into her morning greeting,” Call continues, blending entry level Ombeayiüts or Huave with fluent Spanish or, as is most commonly known on the Isthmus, Mol.  “Why send their children to an institution that was mol, that was controlled by outsiders?  What if their children forgot Ombeayiüts?”  Or, perhaps it’s better said in the words of a four year old student himself.  “No, maestra, I don’t want to speak Spanish.  It’s mol, and I’m not mol.”

No Word For Welcome is a chance to remember and build upon a movement toward sustainable resistance – what does it mean to accept the upper hand of change?  Who is responsible for maintaining tradition and entertaining the future?  Call puts forward her personal archive with both humor, humility, and an absolute desire for knowledge and history – her map, like the many she has collected before, is an offering to the Isthmus – where the heart is in the palm of one’s own hand.  Peeling back the layers of earth where highway meets ocean we discover the Isthmus as a shield, not unlike the mangrove whose “hands held the ecosystem in place,” protecting young shrimp beneath its roots, “A mangrove forest of black, red, and white mangrove species rose up to our right, dwarfing us with a wall of blue-green leaves.  To our left, land dissolved into water.  Even at midday, clouds of birds whirled overhead, black wings angling in cerulean air.”

In more than enough ways Call has earned her keep as a translator of the Isthmus of Tehuantapec.  A perfectly titled manuscript, I encourage reading and thus acting upon this book with the same flourish of curiosity and ingenuity that abounds in Call’s storytelling and across the Isthmus.  “Ah, the isthmus, the place the Spanish never truly conquered, the place women command economic power, the place where globalization is embraced and rejected with equal force.”

No Word For Welcome by Wendy Call 
Review: Josie E. Davis
Publisher: University of Nebraska Press, 2011
Pages: 352
ISBN: 978-0-8032-3510-6
Price: $29.95

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