Blog 15 Apellidos

Blog  15             Apellidos                                                      13 February 2013


               So … our internet cuts out. I run the checks and it sedately flashes “Connection Error.” What I read is “CONNECTION ERROR!!!” We check everything we know how to check. We turn the router off, on, and over. Two of its lights blink green, the third is ominously dark. Miraculously, in walks Florencio, the manager of the Casita up at Casas Encantadas, and who knows everyone in and everything about San Pablo Etla: how to fix anything, where to buy anything, whom to call about anything, and besides is a really nice guy. Florencio retried everything we had tried to do, and then called the internet provider company on the Tammy and Karen’s house land line.

               “Maybe it’s a problem with the account?” he ventures.

                Linda and I look at each other and shrug. “Not a clue.”

               “What apellido is it under?” (What last name?)

                Linda and I look at each other and our eyebrows go up. Linda says, “Uh, this is Tammy and Karen’s house, but we don’t know their last names.”

“But they’ve got to be in our file of email correspondence with them,” I add helpfully. I go over to my computer, sit down, and the peso drops. How am I going to access the file with no internet service?

Florencio, the house phone still pressed to his ear, says: “Carlos?” 

Carlos Plata (aka Carl Silverberg) is Tammy and Karen’s manager, and the go-to guy for several other properties in San Pablo Etla. Linda dials him on her cell.

“Carl, we’re down at Tammy and Karen’s. Trying to figure out their last names, so we can check on their internet account. Do you know them?”

               Fifteen seconds of silence.

               “No. I don’t think they’ve ever told me. No, I … I’m sorry, I actually don’t know.”

               “But you work for them.”

               “Well, yes, but … well, you know: Tammy and Karen.”

Next Linda calls Tom and Judith. They have no idea.


               While Linda talks I’ve been going through the drawers in T&K’s private desk. There must be a letter somewhere. A bill from the electric company. Some canceled checks. But I don’t see anything useful, nothing with a hint of an apellido. Wait! I pull out a folded paper marked ‘Telephone List.’ I unfold it and walk over to the window where the light is strong. Twenty-five names and phone numbers. Bill and Mary. Jim and Kathy. Judith and Tom. Selma and Selina. Susan and Irving. Muanuela and José. Thirty names, individuals and couples, and not one single apellido. I hand the list to Linda and shake my head. “Nothing.”

“Call Bill and Mary,” Florencio suggests. “If anybody knows their names, they will.”

               Linda takes out her cell phone and calls their number. Mary answers. It’s a weak connection, so Linda goes out on our porch where the reception is a little stronger. As she closes the door I hear her say “Mary, our internet is out, and we’re trying to . . . “

               Florencio is still talking with the internet company on the house phone. I am pawing through the papers in with the kindling in the basket under the fireplace. Linda comes back in with a smile on her face.

               “Well, I learned something. Bill and Mary’s internet is out too. And Marsha’s. And Rebecca’s. It’s not our house account: it’s general outage in San Pablo Etla."

               Florencio hangs up. We thank him profusely for his effort, apologize for the wasted half hour. He leaves, and Linda and I sit down to lunch and an unconnectible afternoon.


But while we’re enjoying our salad (fresh organic lettuce and arugula and snap peas from Kathy’s garden, avocados and tomatoes from the Viguera Friday market) we get to thinking. We have been in San Pablo Etla almost a month and a half now, and we’ve never heard anybody’s last name. Not in casual conversations. Not at a half dozen social functions of one sort or another. The ex-pat community here doesn’t use last names.


Is it possible that they don’t even have last names any more? That they had to give them up at the border in order to get their Mexican resident visas? Maybe they’re all running from the . . . the what? The law? Their creditors? Their kids? Their . . . whatever it is that they moved here to get away from?

But then, the dozens of Mexican natives whom we’ve interacted with, some of whom we’re getting to know pretty well . . . we don’t know their apellidos either.


We furrow our eyes in thought, shading them with the anthropologist hats that we seem to have just put on.


It’s like this community —which we’ve come to know, at least superficially, and which we like and seems very accepting of us and our foibles — has been reborn here without the encumbrance of surnames. There seem to be about twenty expat couples and singles at the core of the community out here in the Etlas, and another twenty or so on the edges, together with their Mexican friends most of whom speak English better than most of the expats speak Spanish. All but a few of the expats are our age, people who retired in the last ten years or so and moved south. They all seem unfailingly nice to one another. Sometimes they talk about what they did in their former lives. The few who aren’t our age seem to be active in export businesses, mostly of artesanías, handicrafts, and they are well-connected to the local community in a number of business ways. We haven’t heard them use apellidos either, but we feel certain they have them. We can’t imagine that banks and the government offices that issue permits must demand them. The Commerce Ministry can’t be filing papers by first names only.


Maybe it’s just that for the expat community last names just aren’t relevant any more.


When we talk with people here about what they are doing, what they have done, the stories of their lives are fascinating. At least half are ex Peace Corps volunteers, with service in the ‘60s and ‘70s in Latin America, Africa, and Asia. Lots of professional people, many more than business people. Nurses. Public health administrators. A large number are artists, or arts connected, with a cumulative service record on boards of a couple of centuries or more. Ceramicists, painters, architects, sculptors, quilters, textile artists, writers. Most are engaged one way or another with the community: co-ops to foment the cultivation and marketing of heritage food crops. Conservation groups. A few have started small retirement businesses. Baking bread for the expat community. Supplying a couple of organic markets in the Centro (as Oaxaca City, is known) with fresh produce.             

Friendships here seem deep, not superficial, and we feel that among the many acquaintances we have made are a few who have already become friends.

           Nobody, in the 6 weeks we’ve lived here, has ever mentioned having too much time on their hands. We haven’t heard talk of a bridge group, or a golf circuit, or tennis, or swimming. For exercise people walk. People gather for social events, projects, the Tuesday movie night at Judith’s. People talk about books, and movies, but not TV shows (we may be the only expats in San Pablo Etla who watched the Super Bowl). People talk about progress on projects: new cabinets for the kitchen, paving the road up from Viguera, inauguration of the new viewing platform up at La Mesita at the edge of the eco-reserve. About politics, both local and US. Most are unhappy, some very unhappy, with the tenor of America’s behavior over the last couple of decades. Though a sizeable portion of the expat community are at lease marginally competent in Spanish, most of those who are not yet comfortable in Spanish are taking Spanish lessons (we haven’t met anyone, though, studying Zapotec or Mixtec). Some people swing through the museum-gallery circuit in the Centro every week. Some hang out at the Oaxaca English Lending Library. Lots of people hike, and quite a few are into birds, flowers, and forests. Living the good life.


Very pleasant. Very seductive.


David X and Linda Y