The following is an excerpt from an oral history interview with Agustín Luna Valencia, the former mayor of San Agustín Loxicha, a Zapotec community in Oaxaca’s Sierra Sur, and one of the seven remaining Loxicha Prisoners who remain incarcerated since 1996. The interview was conducted in the Central Penitentiary of Oaxaca in Santa María Ixcotel in May of 2013.
It was a Wednesday morning in May, the last month of the dry season and the hottest of the year, when I walked up to Cell 22, “la celda de los loxichas,” with a bag of mangos and my pen and notebook inside my morral. Agustín Luna Valencia, as always, was sitting in the open patio outside the cell, on a tiny wooden chair, low to the ground, silently sewing baskets out of colorful thick plastic string and long coils of metallic wire, under the tin roof that the Loxicha men built outside their cell to block the enormous Oaxacan sun and cover the three-tiered wooden altar, which they too built, for their images of la Virgen de Juquila, la Virgen de Guadalupe, and their other saints and icons. With his back to the wall, his girth and his silent composure, he looked like a sort of Catholic Buddha.
After six months of visiting the Loxicha prisoners in Oaxaca’s Central Penitentiary in Santa María Ixcotel, I found that there was little more “political testimony” that I could think to ask of Don Agustín, and little more that he could think to tell me. Yet I wanted to keep visiting, and he seemed to enjoy my company and my interest in his stories. So I asked him to tell me about the animals in San Agustín Loxicha. I knew of his fondness for animals and plants, as a younger man in San Agustín and still today, in prison, and this fact—that he had once loved caring for animals and that for seventeen years he had not seen an animal (other than rats, lizards, and city birds), nor the countryside, nor his home—seemed crueler to me even than anything I knew. Thus, having an inkling of what a bird might mean to a man in a cage, what a deer might mean to one who walked among them, and now does so only in his remembrance, I asked him to tell me some animal-stories. I sat mostly silent while he spoke and wrote.
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I always liked taking care of plants, taking care of animals. The animals that I kept most, the ones I most liked raising and cared for the most, were birds. As a boy, I had blue pigeons and later I had parrots too, in a cage. Perhaps that’s why I’m the one in a cage now.Me encantaban esos animales. People would sell me those blue pigeons, or someone would give one to me. It is around this month (May) that they hatch. Some of my blue pigeons once got away from my mother. “They got away,” she said. But those are domesticated animals. So I went outside and there they were at the top of a tall tree. “What now?” I thought. What signs could I make to make them come back?
Near the river where herds of deer go to drink water, between Santa Catarina and San Agustín, there was a mango tree. One day, around eighty-two or eighty-three, as I was walking to San Agustín, I passed by the mangal and heard some parrots crying out—big parrots, and baby parrots too. Their nest looked like a shell; they were crying and crying, and I heard the cry of a baby parrot, but it was coming from the ground. It must have tried to fly and couldn’t, so it fell. But I saw it was alright—¡y se me hizo el antojo! I carried it on my finger, covering it with my other hand, since I had no scissors to clip its wings. And I took it to my suegros in Tierra Blanca San Vicente, where I kept some cages for my blue pigeons. But on my way back, I decided to take it back to Santa Catarina so it wouldn’t bother my suegros. “¡Contentos van a estar mis chamacos que les traigo un periquito!” I thought (and how grinned when he said this). So we clipped its wings, and we kept him well taken care of. We would feed him every morning, and at night we kept him in a large bule, which we’d cover with a sheet so it wouldn’t get cold. One morning, I said to my son, “apúrate, vamos a darle de comer a tu periquito.” And my son—he was little then; now he’s a teacher in San Marcial Ozolotepec—said to me, “he’s lying down, maybe he’s asleep.” “Cuál dormido,” I thought, he must have died. And sure enough, ya estaba tieso.
Some birds carry messages. When we were little, my parents—my abuelos, actually, would tell us about certain animals. What they do. What they say. Like birds. There is the pájaro chismoso. Those tiny birds come in groups, a bunch of them together; they come to the cafetal around the house. My abuelos would say that when those pajaritos come around, it’s not a welcome thing; it’s a bad sign, something negative, for oneself or for the family. Perhaps someone will arrive with a chisme—y sí pega, eh—we’ve seen it happen. Maybe not right away, but the day after, a child may get sick, or someone else in the family. That’s what they signal. Finding them on the path, en el campo, is different. That just means that someone is coming from the opposite direction, and it’s usually true—se adelantan [de quien viene], y por eso se dice que son chismosos. They’re funny little birds, a color between brown and gray, como del tamaño de un limón.
There is also the tecolote and the tecolute, which is smaller, and the lechuza. These owls fly at night, and one night they may come and perch themselves in the tallest trees around the house. When they do, they too are bringers of bad news—también son malos agüeros. If it sings once, twice, that’s normal, it’s nothing to worry about. But if it stays and keeps on singing, or if it returns night after night—then you know it’s something bad. Someone in the family may die. Or someone may get sick.
Agustín Luna is from San Agustín Loxicha, a predominantly Zapotec, coffee-producing community in southern Oaxaca, where he served as mayor (presidente municipal) in 1996. On September 25 of that year, he and every other member of the town council (cabildo) were arrested by Mexican soldiers and taken to a military prison where they were tortured and interrogated about a guerrilla movement, the Popular Revolutionary Army (EPR), which had recently taken up arms against the Mexican government. During his tenure as mayor, Don Agustín led a multitudinous demonstration of Zapotec peasants from Loxicha, one of the poorest municipalities in all of Mexico, to the state capital, shutting down the city center in demand of basic services for their community. Within weeks, he and the cabildo were arrested, the first of hundreds of Zapotec Indians who were arrested, tortured, killed or disappeared under the guise of the Mexican government’s persecution of supposed guerrillas.
These beliefs are true, and when people hear this singing, they know that they must protect themselves somehow. So some people will go see a saurín, a man who knows how to read the corn seeds—esos hombres que juegan con el maíz—reading its movements and patterns in a gourd. You ask the saurín, why has the tecolote been singing by my house at night? What should I do? And the saurín will consult the maize to try and decipher where the fault is. Normally, the solution will involve rezos—for four days. Of course, there are those who don’t believe, and they simply say, “but those are nocturnal animals.” Before, children would catch a fever or a cough, but the abuelos couldn’t take them to the doctor, because there were no doctors or clinics in the communiteis, so they would go to the saurín.
The correcaminos can also say something. Their color is between gray and white and black. They come out in the day. So you might be out, en el campo, walking between pueblos, and one will cross the path in front of you. They run fast. When this happens, it means that the outcome of your trip will not be positive. If you are on your way to town, to San Agustín, to buy construction material, as people do, or to look for someone—you will not find them.
There used to be very tall trees—I don’t know if there are anymore, after these hurricanes—and eagles used to rest on them. If you see one high in a tree with its breast pointing in the direction from which you came, your trip will have good results. But if has its back towards you as you come upon it—then your trip will be in vain. Or you will be too late. Something bad will happen. Son astutos esos animales, they can be sneaky, and you might see the eagle walking on a branch when, suddenly, it turns around.
When you are out en el campo, almost any animal that crosses the path in front of you is a mal agüero: a deer, a skunk, a snake—especially a big snake—¡una culebrísima que se te cruza!
I remember when I was working as a teacher in Santa Catarina, around ninety-one, I would walk was six hours to San Agustín, three hours down to the Río Grande and three hours up. I would often see deer, but they wouldn’t cross in front of me. One time I left around five in the afternoon with my family, en bestia (on donkey or mule), with a child under my arm, and two other teachers who were with us. We were going up the cerro when we saw a herd of deer going down to the river to drink and then back around the cerro. But this is nothing strange, they live there. It becomes a bad sign if it crosses your path, or if the animal comes up to the pueblo.
“That he had once loved caring for animals and that for seventeen years he had not seen an animal, nor the countryside, nor his home—seemed crueler to me even than anything I knew.”
The deer is a very delicate animal. To hunt deer one has to be a very good shot. But one also has to be very prudent in order to avoid troubles. Not just anybody can shoot a deer. But if you are a hunter, and you know how to hunt deer, say that you shoot a deer—you take it home, you butcher it and you prepare it. You share it with your family and you share it with the people you know. But, if among those with whom you share it, there is a woman, and at one point you had an (extramarital) affair with that woman, then you will have problems the next time you hunt. You see, it’s a gift from the Creator (to know how to hunt), and not just anyone has it—so watch out next time you’re in the campo, because if you shared this deer meat with your lover, the next time you hunt a deer, you may shoot it, and you make certain that you got it. Then you come near and you load it onto your shoulders. But once you have it around your shoulders, it will no longer be a deer, it will have become a snake, and it will wrap itself around you and strangle you.
Not only that: even if you hunt a deer, and you give someone else some of the meat, and that person has a lover, it will still affect you. Back in the campo, you will shoot the animal, but when you come near, it will be gone. Or it may run into a river, keeping only its nose above the water—son astutos esos animales. Yet when you walk up to it, all you find is a snake. It’s less bad than if you’re the one with the affair, but it still comes around.
These stories are true. This happened to a friend of mine, who has passed away. He went hunting with his son—one driving the deer and the other carrying an old rifle. The boy shot a deer, but didn’t kill it. So they followed the trail of blood down to a river, and when they approached, they could see that the deer was no longer a deer, but a snake—¡una culebrísima!—and they were scared. The father knew how to read the maize, he was a saurín, and he said to the boy, “aquí hay una falta—something is amiss, and you must tell me the truth—do you have a lover?” “No,” the boy said. “Well, then you got away with just a susto, and it’s possible that the man you last sold this meat to then shared it with his lover.” “We must pray,” he said. So they got on their knees and prayed together, keeping an eye that the animal didn’t run away. Then he said, “you need to bathe,” so both of them bathed in the river in order to be protected. Lastly, they spoke to la madre tierra, with a prayer, they made their reverences and asked for permission to take the animal. After about an hour, the man walked up to the water and saw that the deer had once again become a deer. They hauled it out by its legs, it was already half dead. Pero sí le sacó un buen susto al muchacho. It may sound like a tall tale, but this is real. You can ask any older person in Loxicha and they will concur. These stories are true.
Just recently, my daughter told me that they saw a deer walk through the pueblo in San Agustín, and that it leapt—as you know, they like to jump—and it landed on the roof of the palacio municipal. Then it leapt again and fell (three flights down) to the street below. Ya quebrado, los municipales o los judiciales lo ocuparon para la botana—so, broken as it was, the judicial police who are stationed there at the palacio made a meal out of it. Still, it was a bad sign—and it’s not surprising, seeing as how things are right now in the pueblo.
The same thing happened in ninety-six; before the fiesta del pueblo, some neighbors say they saw a deer cross in front of the palacio municipal and go down to the cafetales below. It was just few weeks later that we fell into the hands of the authorities, and they took us away.
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Gracias, Bruno. This was a moving interview and a small step in the process of educating myself about my adopted country. I’d be interested to see what you wrote about Santa Muerte, as I go to Erongaricuaro with some frequency and have seen the disturbing, tacky chapel there. Please let me know if there’s a way I can access your work.
Saludos cordiales, Sara Fasy