by | Jun 8, 1998 | Generosity, Gratitude

Since 1995, I have spent several months a year in southern Mexico teaching or so I thought. Now, as I think about it, I was doing more learning than teaching. The people of Oaxaca (pronounced WA-HA-CA) were in general less well educated than I am. They are poorer and certainly less traveled. However, they were able to teach me a great deal about the important things in life, things like self-respect, honesty, industry, generosity ? The list goes on. Let me give you an example.

Norma is a poor woman from a mountain village and had come with her young daughter to the city in the hopes of making a better life. Unlike many others, she was lucky enough to have a skill. She was a weaver, highly skilled with the traditional back-strap loom, and yet with the fierce competition from other weavers, she was barely making it. She supplemented the income from the sale of her weavings by teaching classes to foreign tourists who spent more money on beer in a single evening than she made in a whole week of teaching them how to weave.

Norma knew that we foreigners were rich compared to herself and most other Mexicans but that did not affect her generosity. On the Day of the Dead (the biggest celebration in the Oaxacan year), she invited my wife and I to her house. She, her daughter, her mother, her brother and his family (wife and two children) lived in a single-roomed shack of cement blocks with a tin roof. The floor was dirt. There was no electricity and the water they used came from a tap in the yard that was shared by three or four other families.

We arrived and were immediately welcomed by Norma and her family. We were given the only chairs they had to sit on. They insisted. We had just sat down and Norma’s sister-in-law handed us each a bowl of stew and a spoon. They ate plain tortillas while we ate the family’s entire ration of meat for the week. Ellie and I were embarrassed by this but Norma and her family were not. They were clearly pleased at being able to entertain their “important” guests in proper style. The sacrifice they made was, for them, an honor rather than a burden. I wonder how many of us gringos would see it that way.

The generosity of the Oaxacan people is, I think, legendary. Even though by our standards they have nothing, they will give you everything. In the village of Ejutla, just south of the city of Oaxaca in southern Mexico, one of my assistants was admiring a cross on the wall of a friend’s house. In fact, it was the only decoration on any wall but as soon as my assistant said that she liked the cross, my friend’s wife snatched it off the wall and presented it to my assistant as a gift.

Neither she nor I knew what to say other than “thank you” which, of course, is the only correct response in a situation like that.


Shawn Haley is an anthropologist and a writer who has traveled around the world both as a researcher and as a public speaker. His most recent book, “Look at the Sky: Death in Cultures Around the World” was published by Eagle Creek Publishers ( ).

Shawn Haley