Crops Rise Again As Pandemic Upends a Town’s Economy

Textiles used to anchor Teotitlán del Valle’s economy. But when the coronavirus struck, that industry withered, forcing residents back to their long-dormant fields.

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Crops Rise Again As Pandemic Upends a Town’s Economy

Ena Aguilar Peláez, GPJ Mexico

Four months after planting corn and pumpkin, Procoro Ruiz is ready for the imminent harvest. Like many residents of Teotitlán, Ruiz saw his textile business battered by the coronavirus pandemic. As a result, he has returned to farming to grow food for his family.

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TEOTITLÁN DEL VALLE, MEXICO — In March, Procoro Ruiz spent every day in his fields on a rented tractor, planting pumpkin, corn and nopales. Now that the rainy season has come and gone, he checks his crops each morning, awaiting the harvest. This is the work of his childhood, the labor that sustained his ancestors for centuries.

Ruiz, 50, and his family made wool textiles for four decades. But the coronavirus pandemic brought with it economic trauma so punishing that it has transformed the way he and the rest of this town’s people make a living.

In the case of Teotitlán, in Oaxaca state in southwestern Mexico, that has meant a return to their roots — the roots of their fields.

“When I was 10 years old, it was the opposite,” says Ruiz, a slim, strong man who smiles often. “Farming was our main form of work, and weaving was just a hobby. My father taught us to work in the fields, and now, with the pandemic, I’m back to doing it again.”

Teotitlán del Valle, whose population is 5,784, is an example of how the coronavirus is remaking the economic foundations of towns throughout Mexico, especially those that historically have imported basic products, such as food.

Those towns are again using the land to produce and consume those basic goods, says economist Abraham Paz, head of the office of the municipal presidency of the city of Oaxaca de Juárez, the capital of Oaxaca state.

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Ena Aguilar Peláez, GPJ Mexico

Antonio Ruiz (left), Soledad Ruiz (left background), and Margarita Mendoza labor in the family’s textile workshop at their house. The pandemic has halted sales, but the family continues to make products.

Decades ago, Teotitlán, located 28.5 kilometers (18 miles) southeast of Oaxaca de Juárez, was a quiet town with dirt roads, donkeys and horses, bulls and sheep. Residents lived in single-story adobe houses, most of them equipped not with toilets but latrines. People got their water from nearby rivers. They used carts or walked to get around.

Farming shaped the town’s social and economic life. Each day at lunchtime, neighboring families shared with each other the food they had grown in their fields. Farmers grew corn, beans, chickpeas, radishes, wheat and different types of squash, bartering their produce for eggs and other products, including wool.

Until the late 1970s, about 35% of Teotitlán residents worked in textiles. Then American merchants began to order wool rugs from Teotitlán to sell in their country, and the industry exploded. Eventually, Teotitlán textile makers sold globally. Ultimately, about 90% of the working population went into weaving full time.

The industry changed the town. Farming all but vanished, and residents depended on nearby towns to supply their food. Teotitlán blossomed into a tourist attraction, as visitors from all over the world came to buy textiles.

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Ena Aguilar Peláez, GPJ Mexico

Félix Contreras and his family run a textile store on one of Teotitlán’s main streets. The family used to buy the work of other artisans. But after the pandemic erupted in March, they could no longer afford to pay them.

Then in March, the coronavirus pandemic struck. Food sellers from neighboring towns could no longer enter Teotitlán, as officials sought to arrest the spread of the virus. The town’s textiles market, meanwhile, was restricted to Teotitlán residents or closed. Tourism crumbled.

“From May to [September], all our trips were suspended,” says Rómulo Moreno, who runs a travel agency in the city of Oaxaca de Juárez, a 40-minute car ride from Teotitlán.

He says he didn’t start bringing tourists back until October, and then only in small groups.

Textile maker Félix Contreras, 27, has a store on Teotitlán’s main street, but his location didn’t help much. He says his sales plunged by 80%.

Ruiz, part of a cooperative of 10 families, says sales had grown for five years straight, but after the pandemic they sold virtually nothing for eight months. Ruiz was in California on business in March when coronavirus-related restrictions came down. He had met with clients who were about to make an order.

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Ena Aguilar Peláez, GPJ Mexico

Juan Contreras weaves wool on a large wooden loom. Customers recently commissioned him to make a rug with a specific design.

“While I was there, everything changed,” he says. “I couldn’t see anyone. The sale was canceled. And when I returned, I decided to farm.”

Ruiz’s family owns 13 hectares (about 32 acres), and he now uses 5.5 of them for a variety of crops, including maguey, used to make mezcal.

Contreras turned to farming too. He teamed up with his parents and sisters to clear their land, and they planted corn, beans and pumpkin on his father’s 2 hectares (about 5 acres).

Juan Contreras, 69, no relation to Félix, has long worked in both textiles and farming. He recently added pumpkin, tomatoes, radishes, squash, zucchini and chickpeas to the other crops on his 2 hectares. “Now that I’ve seen how long the situation with the coronavirus is lasting,” he says, “in order to take precautions, I decided to dig a well for water on my land.”

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Today, once-fallow fields ripple with activity, and women are again gardening and raising poultry. Yuntas — a team of two oxen yoked together and working in fields — have returned to the landscape.

As of mid-December, the town had seen 23 confirmed cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. Teotitlán’s clinic doesn’t do COVID-19 tests, and so residents must travel to Oaxaca de Juárez for them. But few actually do.

More than 60 townspeople have died this year, but only one was officially diagnosed with COVID-19. Because of the lack of testing, it’s unclear how many lives the disease has taken.

The coronavirus has not made farming easy for Teotitlán’s residents. At first, worried that the virus would infect them, people remained in their homes and were scared to help in each other’s fields.

They eventually adjusted.

“Now that there are no textile sales, commercials on the radio offering produce and food have increased,” says Edison Hipólito, who heads the town’s radio station. “The community has diversified quickly. Diversifying is a way to find peace of mind.”

Ena Aguilar Peláez is a Global Press Journal reporter based in the state of Oaxaca.

Translation Note

Shannon Kirby, GPJ, translated this article from Spanish. Click here to learn more about our translation policy.