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Walking Tour of Some Major Sights in Downtown Oaxaca, Mexico

semi-overcast 25 °C

Alvin Starkman, M.A., J.D.

Many visitors to the south central Mexico colonial city of Oaxaca spend only two or three full days here (aside from touring the central valley routes), not long enough to really learn about its cultural history, its contemporary greatness, and a little about its underbelly. There are indeed some detailed walking tours of the city contained in some guide books, but each of the three or four downtown routes requires a couple of hours to complete, if justice is to be done.

One tour a day is often all that tourists have the stamina to do, given the sun, the elevation and jet lag. This, then, is a down-and-dirty single touring route for those who will be in the city for only a short period of time, and want a brief overview of what there is available. It is suggested that you do the tour your first full day, in the morning, and then return to the places which pique your interest later on in your visit.

Upon your arrival, obtain a complimentary Oaxaca city map from your lodging. All accommodations give them out for free. The centro histórico, or downtown historic center, is usually clearly demarcated, and all the streets noted in this tour route should be noted. The walk takes a couple of hours. It begins at the upper end of Calle Garcia Vigil, and concludes at Calle Morelos, near the Soledad church, towards the west end of downtown. There, at the Jardín Socrates, you can relax and enjoy a fresh, cool nieve, or sherbet. If you’re not up to walking without a break for a full two hours, you can stop for a drink and snack mid-way, at one of the outdoor restaurants lining the main downtown square, or zócalo. Consider Terranova, east side of the zócalo, second outdoor restaurant from the bottom.

Beginning the tour, walk up Garcia Vigil until you see the old stone arches on the left. This area is known as Los Arquitos. This was a functioning aqueduct, built during the 18th century by the Spanish, delivering water to the city from a few miles further north, a suburb now known as San Felipe del Agua. Additional lengths of the aqueduct are as well found outside of the city and northern suburb. The aqueduct originally continued further downtown, with arteries extending out from it in both directions, enabling residents to obtain water. Note that the stone used in its construction is green limestone, used in most city construction during colonial times. It was also used to construct pre-Hispanic buildings. It is still used today together with cement and reinforced steel to build retaining walls for both residential and commercial buildings, and as interior adorning accents. You’ll no doubt come across the more common green stone, but perhaps also hues of pink and yellow during your visit to Oaxaca.

Los Arquitos now houses the odd restaurant, business, and home; in some cases you can walk through the archways and onto cobblestone streets. This is one of the quaintest neighborhoods in Oaxaca!

Turn around and begin walking back south. On your right, up a flight of exterior stairs you’ll encounter a state run craft store (ARIPO) with a smattering of artisans’ works from throughout the state. Take a look through the store since it will give you an idea of what you’ll be coming across during your visit to the city and outlying craft villages. Don’t hesitate to buy, notwithstanding that this will be your first day in Oaxaca, because the quality is good, and prices are not out of line. On the other hand, you might want to simply make a mental note of items you like, and the prices, and consider returning to the store just before concluding the Oaxaca segment of your vacation.

Continue along Garcia Vigil, up a bit and then begin the descent. About a block down on your right you’ll see the Benito Juárez museum, a home where Benito Juárez, Mexico’s first indigenous president, lived for part of his life. It contains period furniture, original documents and photos, and an explanation about Juarez´s importance, accomplishments, etc. Personally, I think there are much better museums in the city, but some history buffs might be interested in coming back and touring it.

Across the street and a bit further down is the Carmen Alto church. It was founded on the site of an Aztec temple which was dedicated to the corn deity. What better way to attempt to stamp out indigenous religions, than for the Spanish to build a Catholic church right on top of a native temple. This kind of thing was repeated time and again throughout Mexico, and in Oaxaca in particular (i.e. building the church at Mitla on top of an indigenous temple, using stones hewn by hand by the natives to build their own religious and administrative buildings). The Carmen Alto (las carmelitas descalsas) church restricted attendance to whites into the second half of the 20th century; those with overt signs of indigenous blood were restricted to praying in Carmen Bajo.

Turn left at the bottom of Carmen Alto, down a paved, wide pathway with shops on the right. It’s only a one-block walkway. On the right, halfway down is a small variety store, or so it seems. There are two rooms filled with contemporary and vintage masks for sale, but if the owner isn’t there you cannot get into that part of the shop.

You’ve passed by several bohemian-looking street vendors, and are now at the city’s main pedestrian walkway, Macedonio Alcalá, where you turn right. On your left is part of the ethnobotanical gardens, with high walls. Walking down, on your right is the Institute of Graphic Arts, donated to the city by renowned Oaxacan artist Francisco Toledo. It houses a library and store where you can purchase items made in the hand-made paper factory located outside of the city at San Agustín Etla, also noted for its spectacular fine arts center housed in a restored 19th century textile mill.
On your left is the complex housing the Santa Domingo church and cultural center. Take a peek into the church, and remember it for a return visit. It’s the most elaborate church in this part of Mexico, with amazing gold, biblical stories painted on the domed ceiling, etc. The cultural center / museum is one of the finest in all Mexico, and if justice is to be done takes a couple of hours to wander through. The ex-convent itself is quite amazing. On the other (back) side of the church and cultural center is the entrance to the enthnobotanical gardens (on Calle Reforma). In revolutionary times it served as a cavalry barracks. If you decide to do the ethnobotanical tour it must be done with an on-site guide. Check, but English guided tours are generally on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays at 11 am, and during high tourist season should be booked in advance.
But stay on Alcalá, walking a block further down where you will turn left at the Jardín Labastida (your street map with show M. Bravo to the right, and Abasolo to the left; around the time of the revolution many street names changed, but your map should have the current names; in addition, some street names change at Alcalá, and others at Independencia.)

Before turning onto Jardín Labastida, just down Alcalá on the right side you should note Amate Books, the most comprehensive English language bookstore in the city. Now continue along the Jardín Labastida, along the middle walkway, and at the end you will find a reproduction of an early “toma agua” where locals would attend to “take water” from one of the arteries leading out from the aqueduct. The park used to be a place where young artists would sell their work, and often would get their start. The municipality decided around 2012 that it would no longer allow artists to use the park, a pity to my thinking.

Turn right at the far end of the park by the toma agua, and head down Calle 5 de Mayo. The left side of the street is completely taken up by the exterior walls of the luxurious Quinta Real hotel. Over the centuries it had housed municipal offices, a jail and a convent. You can freely walk through the hotel from 9 am to 7 pm, so use this as an opportunity to stroll through history, looking at the refurbished frescoes, the lavabos (wash basins) which were used by the nuns, etc.

Continue heading down 5 de Mayo, and turn right at the first corner, onto Murguia. On your right you’ll see Arte de Oaxaca, one of the best and oldest art galleries in the city, usually with high quality rotating exhibits. There is a permanent exhibit dedicated to the late great master of Mexican art, Oaxacan Rodolfo Morales. His influence can be seen in the work of most contemporary local artists.

Turn left onto M. Alcalá. On the south east corner you’ll find Taller de Orfebre, a good, quality jewelry store. Keep walking down. On your left you will come across the museum of contemporary art of Oaxaca (MACO), worth a visit at a later time. On Calle Morelos, just west of Alcalá on the north side you’ll see Monte de Piedad, the oldest pawn shop in the city, with something for everyone, but only at times, so you likely will not want to check it out, noteworthy as it is.

Still on Alcalá, south of Morelos on the right side is the law school, virtually across the street from, sorry, Burger King. On the left side, a bit up, is an old bookstore, Grañen Porrua. Walk through to the back and you’ll see a wall with a work of art by craftsman José Luis Garcia, a well-known artist from nearby Ocotlán de Morelos, known for its Friday marketplace.

Keep walking down Alcalá. The name changes at Independencia, and traffic on the street begins. But keep walking straight down and you’ll hit Oaxaca’s famed central square, its zócalo.

The zócalo has been important throughout history as a meeting place, for prominent locals to be seen and to mingle, and more significantly for protesters to air their grievances. Oaxaca’s zócalo is synonymous with civil unrest and disobedience, but it is virtually always a safe place to be, to have a meal or drinks and snacks and to people watch. Every night there is action on the zócalo, with mariachis, marimbas, and throughout the week on specific days the state band and dancing events such as for danzón. A good website which outlines both permanent weekly and short-run activities is http://www.oaxacacalendar.com. On the south side of the zócalo, where there are usually protesters, is the municipal palace, now housing art exhibits. It is also home of a famous mural depicting the history of Mexico.

Before walking up the other (west) side of the zócalo, note that there are two must-visit markets southwest of the zócalo, down a block and over to the west, the Benito Juárez and 20 de Noviembre markets. Do not miss them, if only for walk throughs. They are marked on your maps. Now walking up that west side of the zócalo you will pass by additional outdoor cafés and upstairs restaurants.

Just beyond the zócalo proper is another square, the Alameda de León, with the Cathedral on the right, and a landmark old hotel on the left, Hotel Monte Albán with some of the oldest original ironwork on the exterior that you will see in the city. Just up from it is the post office, and on the other side of the street in front of you, Independencia, is the Museo de los Pintores Oaxaqueños, usually worth a look see, perhaps on a gallery hopping day. Before leaving the Alameda, walk through the Cathedral and notice that the pulpit is in the middle rather than at the end, and the unusual seating arrangement.

Turn left on Independencia. On the right side of the street, at the corner of Tinoco y Palacios, is the San Felipe Neri church, where Benito Juárez wed. The inside has the best example of Baroque architecture that you will likely find in the state, certainly during your visit to the city. Across from the church is the Carmen Bajo church, a low building. During a major earthquake over a hundred years ago, it was destroyed and then rebuilt. By contrast, San Felipe Neri was not significantly damaged, so the original structure remains. The bedrock on the north side of the street is different from that on the south side, and hence one church stood while the other fell.

Continue walking west along Independencia until you come across an outside staircase on your right, just before the Soledad temple. Walk up the stairs, visit the church (known for the story of the Virgin of the Soledad), and then sit down at one of the outdoor stands at Jardín Socrates for a cool, refreshing nieve, sherbet made with either water or milk. The range of flavors is remarkable. On the north east end of the square is the school of fine arts. While Oaxaca does not have a particularly good reputation for education, fine arts and linguistics are exceptions. Above Jardín Socrates and to the west of the fine arts school is a large open area with seating, Plaza de la Danza where there are frequently artistic performances.

Your tour is coming to an end, so walk back to your hotel, presumably to the east, along Morelos, the street above Independencia at the top of Plaza de la Danza. A couple of blocks over, as you are walking back, on the north side of Morelos you will see the Rufino Tamayo Museum of Pre-Hispanic Art. Make a mental note of it, and the days and hours of operation, since it is a really nice, well arranged museum with exquisite figures in it, easily seen in a half hour or so. Even for those who are generally not museum-goers, this one should pique your interest.

Enjoy Oaxaca!

Alvin Starkman first visited Oaxaca in the late 1960s, as a teenager. He frequently walked the city streets between 1991 and 2004, when he took up permanent residency. Alvin operates Mezcal Educational Excursions of Oaxaca (http://www.ads.oaxacacalendar.com/MEE/). He can be reached at mezcaleducationalexcursions@hotmail.com.

Posted by titosarah 17:17 Archived in Mexico Tagged walking mexico of city guide tour oaxaca Comments (0)

Oaxacan Temazcal Recreates Pre-Hispanic Tradition

Southern Mexico Curative Steam Bath Ritual Lives on Today in Oaxaca

Before the arrival of the Spanish, the temazcal was a village sacrament for the indigenous people of Mexico. It involved cleansing body and mind with curative plants, heat and vapor. But it was the ritualistic aspect of the activity, with the uniting of tens of community members at a time, which likely led to the conquistadores outlawing the practice. Even if religion was not specifically expounded in storytelling, chanting and prayer, the mere acknowledgement of the power of nature was surely enough to create unease in the minds of those early, very Catholic invaders.

In the village of San Juan Guelavía, a short drive from the southern Mexico city of Oaxaca, Maestro Albino Melchor Cruz explains that while the Spaniards were concerned with permitting the practice of the temazcal to continue as a traditional gathering of many, they were much less apprehensive about its persistence on a smaller scale; perhaps an adobe hut into which a couple, or a shaman and an infirmed pueblo member entered. This would have been much less threatening to the order they wished to establish and affirm. Thus the more intimate manifestation of the temazcal was allowed to persist, likely unchecked.

In modern-day Oaxaca the small, ceremonial temazcal appears to be more the norm. But according to Don Albino, there is no right or wrong way to either perform, or experience it. While he and his disciple / assistant Carmelita and her daughter Karina carefully bind together branches of select herbs, he explains that “no two temazcales are the same, and it´s not appropriate to just go out and copy what someone else has created.”
Don Albino’s igloo-shaped construct holds up to forty individuals on two circular levels; seating platforms are made of red clay brick, mortar and stone. In the middle there is an earthen pit, four feet in diameter into which hot rocks are placed. Yellow marigolds encircle the pit, just above it.

The walls are adorned with tied branches of aromatic herbs and once again marigolds, one of the two flowers customarily employed at Día de los Muertos rituals. In the middle, hanging from the center of the domed ceiling by a hemp-like rope is another floral and herb arrangement.
But a temazcal is much more than going into a chamber and sweating while becoming revitalized through verse, steam erupting as a consequence of water having been poured over red hot rocks.

On a Saturday afternoon in June, 2013, while my wife and I are awaiting the arrival of others who would partake in the experience along with us, Don Albino explains that the temazcal has already begun; from the first moment we sat down and began our instruction, through our initial cleansing in the course of rubbing and swatting ourselves with an array of bound leaves, and with massage.

A young, impressionable Albino began taking martial arts classes at age 17. Over time he gradually started to reflect more and more about what he was doing, and why. He had earlier begun assisting his father, a chivero [in Oaxaca, someone who roasts meat in the traditional way – see below] by trade. He first became exposed to the concept of universal energy through his martial arts training, and by his father via a concomitant, fire. In a highly ritualistic fashion dictated by age-old custom, father and son would prepare meat, most often goat or sheep, in an in-ground oven over firewood and rocks; the festive meal accompanying rite of passage celebrations.

It was inevitable for someone like Albino, born and raised in the nearby city of Tlacolula de Matamoros, from time to time to hear about temazcal and its basic functioning. Its ritualistic and spiritual aspects were not all that foreign to him given his prior life experiences. He proceeded to seek out someone who could teach him more about it. And so it was upwards of two decades ago that Albino encountered healer Don Álvaro, who first exposed him to temazcal.

Over the ensuing years, under Don Álvaro’s tutelage Albino began doing research, in due course visiting the homes of shamans and others with expertise in the science and art of temazcal, in diverse parts of the country. They eventually would become colleagues of Don Albino, travelling to his facility in San Juan Guelavía, maintaining a healthy interchange of ideas and techniques.

“When you’re attending alone for a temazcal, it’s total introspection, as if you’re looking into a mirror. If you’re with another, there’s that intimacy as you would share with your partner. And if with two others there is the sense of being with guardians, your parents if you will. Finally, when there are more, as in a group, it represents and provides the feeling of community, as you’ll experience today.”

As Carmelita begins to tell her story in the presence of her daughter, my wife and I, and two of our friends, Don Albino’s words start to ring true. Perhaps it’s because we had all been given basil flower and leaf and asked to rub it all over our clothed bodies, then close our eyes and reflect, and finally express our thoughts to the others. But it’s more likely as a result of empathizing with Carmelita’s earlier struggles, as she acknowledged, with headaches lasting from a week to a month, an unhappy first marriage, her feeling of incompetence in her ability to raise her family. Temazcal had become her salvation.

This may have been a unique experience which will never be repeated, but it was nevertheless indicative of what can happen in a group environment, defenses slowly falling by the wayside with each step of the process; recognizing the nakedness, the primordial truth in simple words. Carmelita explains:

“The temazcal, beginning here and now, and concluding after we leave that dark, steamy, herb-infused chamber, is not a new consciousness, but rather something we all have, that is awakened; a love of oneself – and you can’t love another until you love yourself.”

The others arrive; a family recently relocated to the state of Oaxaca from Nayarit. Don Albino gives each of us a selection of branches of curative plants tied together, and asks us to whack ourselves with the bouquet, directing us to each part of our bodies; head, shoulders, knees, toes, and everywhere in between, back, front and middle. “Harder, much harder, you can do it,” he advises. He next places a sprig of yet another herb in our hair, then from behind massages our heads, then gives a brief shoulder massage followed by lifting us up by embracing tightly below the chest area. He instructs us how to breathe.

We are each given a cup of citrus tea, made with the herb cedrón. He then takes a Lord of the Fliesian conch and blows it several times, once as he stands behind each of us. Finally, he massages each of us for a minute or so while we lie on our stomachs. Disciple Carmelita massages Don Albino.

The temazcal chamber is in close proximity to a circular enclosure where firewood has been heating up rocks for the past couple of hours. The campfire smell had been pervading our preliminary activities and the tail end of our discussion, so when we were finally asked to walk over to the chamber, what we encountered came as no surprise.

“You can wear whatever you want into the temazcal,” Don Albino reassures, “just as you are if you like, but yes, it will be hot and steamy, so if you have a towel or sheet, or a bathing suit, it would be more comfortable for you.”

This is the real deal, I quickly conclude shortly after entering the dark room; a combination of chanting, rattling of gourds containing corn kernels, steam, waves of herbal aroma, all over the course of at least an hour-and-a-half. And the ceremonial nature of it all, with detailed explanation by Don Albino grounded in both science on the one hand, and lore mixed with convincing conjecture on the other.

While there may be little in the way of documentary evidence of the ceremonial use of temazcal, academics have nevertheless written extensively about its use, including its curative powers and the assistance it afforded mother and newborn around childbirth. The archaeological record cites the discovery of codices, figurines and remnants of pre-Hispanic temazcales, together confirming its importance. Don Albino in fact notes its ritual significance while discussing the archaeological sites of Monte Albán, Yagul, San José el Mogote and Mitla.

I had experienced the other end of the temazcal continuum several years earlier, in a small, much more enclosed setting. While I found it relaxing and enjoyable, and in fact sensual given the intimacy of the environment, there was a pervading subtext of hokey and contrived, duly noted by me. Here, by contrast, there was no mumble jumble I could not understand. No catholic rhetoric. Of course not, if indeed we are truly partaking in an experience with origins predating the Christian era.

Don Albino emphasized community context of the temazcal, and thus its broad importance became abundantly clear as the day progressed. I felt that I was understanding what was behind it all, and hence learning with a greater sense of historical and in fact personal appreciation.

With Don Albino discussion includes but runs much deeper than a mere mention of the elements of fire, water, earth and wind. He had earlier noted four doors, but I didn’t completely understand their significance until we were all inside the chamber and participating in the ritual.

There is a small window at one end, and a doorway at the other. A blanket covers the entrance until Don Albino summons his son to begin. A pitch fork with a hot rock is ceremoniously passed by son through the doorway, to father who gingerly places it in the pit. The process is repeated three times. Then a bucket filled with water and a bouquet of aromatic plants. Darkness prevails. Don Albino shakes the water-drenched spray over the rocks. Steam rises. The heat increases as vapor permeates the room with each dousing. Don Albino cranks it up a notch by swinging the flowers and herb branches dangling from the center of the ceiling, back and forth and around.

This is the first door, the east, fire, representing birth and song, the singing of birds. We are welcomed to join in the chants. Two participants are shaking the rattles. Then more water. Waves of herbal fragrance ebb and flow. For two of the next three doors, again rocks are brought in and placed in the pit, steam rising and encircling. And twice mezcal is passed around, each of us pouring a small cup for our neighbor. It’s then poured onto the rocks, changing the scent to the distinctive sweet and smokey smell of distilled agave.

The second door represents water and the sea, the south, transforming suffering to happiness. Carmelita expresses her thoughts as she had done earlier, her struggles. The rest of us are welcomed to give thanks to whomever, for whatever, more or less obligatory; at least I feel somewhat compelled to say something. For the rest it perhaps comes easier.

The third door, the west, is wisdom, learned from our ancestors and carried forward through birth of generations. It corresponds with earth. And finally the north, from which the wind blows, providing a time for stillness.

Throughout this phase of the experience Don Albino once again massages our heads and shoulders and blows the conch, walking behind each of us as he does so. There is no talk of the father, the son or the holy spirit, but rather god in the most general, spiritual sense. The Maestro also teaches a little science as well, instructing us about the impact of being in the steamy, fragrant temazcal, on our blood and on vital organs such as lungs and kidneys. There is time for reflection. He again encourages deep breathing.

Don Albino suggests that the experience is coming to an end. Most of us slowly descend to our hands and knees as we leave the chamber, head first. “Notice,” Don Albino conveys, “how you’re leaving the temazcal, headfirst crouched down, as if emerging from the womb to a new life.”

In a sense it did seem somewhat like birth I suppose, or rather a rebirth; at least to the extent of having made new acquaintances with a special bond between us, a sense of community with the group members. Will it last? Something will definitively endure.
Don Albino provides temazcal experiences to individuals, couples, families, and groups of up to 40:

(951) 562-0492; CEL 0449511965173

Alvin Starkman has written over 280 articles about life and cultural traditions in the central valleys of Oaxaca. He and his wife run Casa Machaya Oaxaca Bed & Breakfast. Alvin assists travelers visiting Oaxaca to plan their vacations, and often takes tourists to the nearby sights including markets, ruins, craft villages and quaint mezcal distilleries. He operates www.oaxaca-mezcal.com.

Posted by titosarah 11:25 Archived in Mexico Tagged mexico in oaxaca temazcal Comments (0)

Tlacolula, Oaxaca, Hosts Nieve, Mezcal & Gastronomic Fair

Festival to Feature regional mezcales, sherbets which will surprise, and regional crafts and other culinary fare.

Alvin Starkman, M.A., J.D.

Fried grasshopper and tamarind ice cream? Well, actually it’s a sherbet, but nevertheless it’s one of the more exotic treats available at the annual Festival de la Nieve, Mezcal y Gastronomía in Tlacolula, Oaxaca.

This exquisite extravaganza of flavors, aromas and unmatched color and pageantry, takes place each year at the end of the Easter celebrations. For 2013, it will take place from April 5th through 7th.

Tlacolula de Matamoros, a 30 minute drive from the city of Oaxaca, is best known for its vibrant Sunday marketplace where women dressed in traditional native garb come down from their hillside villages to buy and sell all manner of products.

But many visitors to the state’s central valleys are not aware that there are other customs associated with the city and environs, and it’s those rituals which are precisely what organizer Alvino Cruz Melchor wants both tourists and Oaxacan residents alike to experience, to appreciate and to delight in:

“At the conclusion of Semana Santa processions and masses, it’s customary for friends, family and compadres to gather and enjoy homemade nieves, and sometimes aguas frescas [fresh fruit juices] as well as a variety of local fruits marinated in vinegars. But it’s the nieves which are the most traditional, popular and provide a sense of pride in and for our community. Just look at all the nieve stands along that that one walkway, popular for Sunday market visitors.”

In 2012, approximately 30 nieve producers participated in the festival, with more than 50 flavors available for sampling and for sale, ranging from the more common flavors such as those found in downtown Oaxaca neverías, to the more exotic, both water and milk based. For 2013, the target is to have as many as 60 different sherbet producers in attendance.

“Our goal is also to celebrate and promote the longstanding mezcal, handicrafts, music and broader gastronomic traditions in the district of Tlacolula, and hence while nieves are the main impetus for the festival, we can’t forget the rest; they deserve our support and our promotional efforts,” Cruz Melchor continues.

In 2012 there were 15 mezcal producers exhibiting at the festival. For 2013 there will be a photography exposition outlining the history of the region’s mezcal production, as well as a conference centering upon the spirit’s past, present and future.

In 2012, 20 craftspeople exhibited their artistry, and for 2013, organizers’ goal is to substantially increase that number. Nearby San Juan Guelavía is noted for its fine basketry made of carriso (bamboo-like river reed), San Marcos Tlapazola for its red clay terra cotta pottery, and Teotitlán del Valle for its tapetes, carved gourds and handmade beeswax candles.

Other foodstuffs for which Tlacolula is noted include tejate, the pre-Hispanic corn and cacao based drink; pulque, the fermented beverage derived from the honey water of the pulquero class of agave; its own unique formulation for making barbacoa of goat and sheep in an in-ground oven; and scrumptious pan de Tlacolula, loaves of egg bread made with any combination of chocolate, raisins and cinnamon swirled through the center.

The annual Festival de la Nieve, Mezcal y Gastronomía de Tlacolula, like most grand Oaxacan fiestas, includes much more. As tradition dictates, towards the end of the merriment there is a Guelaguetza, that uniquely Oaxacan celebration of the state’s broad diversity of cultures, expressed through song, dance and vivid indigenous dress. For 2013, the Guelaguetza begins at noon, Sunday, April 8th.

Anyone for nieve of mango, chile piquín and worm salt?

The following is the schedule of events for the 2013 festival, the principal venue being the area around the esplanade in front of the Tlacolula de Matamoros municipal offices:

Friday, April 5
10:00 – Festival inauguration
11:00 – Photography exhibit; the history of mezcal
12:00 – Nieve tasting and presentation of artisans
14:00 – Mezcal tasting; producers of the region
17:00 – Lace trimming and weaving exhibition; Casa de la Cultura
20:00 – Film screening: “Animus Trujano”

Saturday, April 6
10:00 – Chess discussion; Casa de la Cultura
11:00 – Exhibition of modified automobiles; state’s auto clubs
12:00 – Performance by the San Jacinto Amilpas orchestra
13:00 – Mezcal tasting; producers of the region
15:00 – Honors presented to participant owners of the modified cars
18:00 – Evening music concert

Sunday, April 7
08:00 – Taw Kwon Do; state schools competition
10:00 – Conference on the history of mezcal
12:00 – Guelaguetza
14:00 – Traditional nieves tasting
15:00 – Mezcal tasting; producers of the region
16:00 – Prizes and honors ceremonies for participants

Alvin Starkman operates Oaxaca Culinary Tours with Chef Pilar Cabrera Arroyo (http://www.oaxacaculinarytours.com) and Casa Machaya Oaxaca Bed & Breakfast with his wife Arlene (http://www.oaxacadream.com). He is an aficionado of mezcal as well as of other beverages produced in Oaxaca, in particular pulque and tejate. Alvin often assists visitors to the central valleys who are eager to learn about the state’s distilled and fermented drinks.

Posted by titosarah 13:10 Archived in Mexico Comments (0)

Making Rope from Mezcal's Ixtle Fiber in Oaxaca, Mexico

Sustainable industry on the wane?

Valentín Rodriguez stands 10 yards away from Juana, who is peddling a large, thick wooden wheel with long strands of fine fiber attached. Don Valentín is nimbly twisting the threadlike filaments, known as ixtle, almost magically transforming them into rope, known as mecate. Remember when twine was made of light colored fibers such as hemp, linen, cotton and sisal, before the Western marketplace became flooded with brilliantly colored polypropylene and nylon cord of varying calibers sold in hardware stores from large rolling spools? For the time being, at least in Oaxaca, it still is.

Producing rope from the broad, spiny leaves of a particular class of agave plant is one of the oldest surviving manufacturing industries in Mexico, dating back well over 2,000 years. And in the southern state of Oaxaca it today represents yet another dimension of sustainability relating to the production of mezcal and pulque.

The 70-year old Zapotec craftsman is making rope out of the pencas of pulquero agave, as he’s been doing for the past 55 years. The only difference is that now Don Valentín buys the fiber in 150 or 200 kilogram bales. When he first learned his trade he fashioned the fiber out of fresh, green agave leaves, using an extremely labor intensive process. Some folks in his hometown village of Santa Domingo Xagacía still do it the old fashioned way, from scratch.

Valentín Rodgriguez and Family; From Santa Domingo Xagacía to Colonia Yasip, Tlacolula

In 1984, Don Valentín moved from Xagacía to his current homestead in Colonia Yasip, a neighborhood in the foothills above Tlacolula de Matamoros, about a 40 minute drive from the state capital, Oaxaca de Juárez. Tlacolula is best known to both visitors to Oaxaca and residents of the state for its vibrant Sunday marketplace.

Don Valentín lives with his wife, five children and grandchildren. A sixth, Simón, lives directly across the street, with his own family. Simón and his wife also make mecate. Altogether there are a half dozen families in the colonia and surroundings making mecate and other ixtle by-products. They sell them mainly to stores and in regular weekly and livestock marketplaces in cities such as Oaxaca, Zaachila and of course Tlacolula.

“”We used to make a lot more products other than just rope; mecate is now used mainly for tying farm animals and sometimes as clotheslines and the odd other assorted use,” laments Don Valentín. He still produces the mecapal, a long piece of twine affixed to a woven forehead band, employed by campesinos to carry mainly firewood on their backs; from the forests, through the fields, along dirt roads and pathways, and finally to their homes. But the days of producing clothing, footwear, floor mats, netting known as ayates utilized primarily for harvesting crops and holding and carrying infants, and even hammocks, are fast disappearing.

Early Production of Ixtle and Its By-Products in Santa Domingo Xagacía

Don Valentín’s father taught him how to make mecate, and several other types of utilitarian products once needed for day-to-day living in Oaxaca; all from the fiber of the agave leaf. His father learned from his father; and so the tradition was passed down from generation to generation, beginning in the region once a sedentary lifestyle had been established by early Zapotec inhabitants.

Don Valentín recalls:

“Until I moved to Tlacolula we made mecate the way it’s still made today in my village. I learned every stage of the process from my father; but of course sometimes others taught me when the two of us couldn’t do everything by ourselves. We would bake about 20 leaves from the pulquero agave, piled on top of one another in a narrow pit, flipping them once after they turned yellow, making sure not to burn any too badly to render them useless for turning into mecate. Once we had a big pile of them we would pulverize them using a large, heavy wooden mallet, exposing the fiber. We then put big heavy rocks on top of them to squeeze out any remaining juice. We would bring down fresh water from the spring or stream, and leave the mashed fiber in the water for a couple of weeks until it began to rot. Later we mashed it again and left it for a further 15 – 20 days. Finally we would use a metal scraper to get off all the remaining flesh, then leave the completely fibrous material in the sun to dry for one or two days, depending on the time of year.”

Agave, Sustainability & Loss of Tradition

Sustainable industries in Oaxaca have been documented elsewhere as relating to the production of both mezcal and pulque. In the case of mecate and mecapales currently produced in Tlacolula by Don Valentín and others, there’s been a dramatic change since these rural villagers began to develop a more urban lifestyle facilitated through emigrating from Santa Domingo Xagacía.

“In the olden days, after making mecate and other products with my father back home, we would fasten it all onto our backs and walk a whole day to get to Tlacolula for the Sunday market,” Don Valentín explains. He continues:

“But after I moved, I learned about a tractor trailer that had begun to come to Oaxaca from Yucatán, filled with ready-made ixtle for sale. So I started buying bales rather than making it myself. The ixtle I used to make from local pulquero agaves was and still is much better than the industrialized Yucatán stuff we now use, but this way it’s much easier and quicker. Now, every two or three months I simply have a light transport truck pick up the ixtle from the trailer in Oaxaca.”

Don Valentín says that the industry is changing even more dramatically, with less Xagacía villagers producing mecate: “I think there are fewer than 800 people in Xagacía now. The older generation is dying off, and youth are leaving, either coming to Oaxaca, going to other states altogether, and of course many head to the US.”

There isn’t the demand as there was before, perhaps because of the lesser quality of the mecate made from imported fiber, inexpensive imported synthetic product, or the inability of men like Don Valentín to compete with rope of varying thicknesses which can be cut to any length in a matter of seconds. Yes, he does do custom work, but orders are few and far between. And how much can he charge, when his price for a dozen, four-and-a-half foot lengths of one-third inch mecate is only 20 pesos, about $1.70 USD?

Ixtle & Mecate in Oaxaca a Generation Hence

If Don Valentín and his family are any indication, in less than a generation a sustainable Oaxaca industry may have vanished. Five of six progeny do not maintain the tradition. Four are employed operating small, motorized three-wheeled taxis known as moto-taxis. The fifth, who is a chauffeur for a van company which transports residents between Oaxaca and the coast, is even more pessimistic: “I don’t think it’ll be around in even ten years, the way things are going.”

Don Valentín does now have a permanent Sunday stall at the Tlacolula market; but in addition to mecate and mecatales, he’s now making 100% synthetic carrying bags and selling them from his market stand. “That’s my bread and butter,” he bemoans.

Alvin Starkman is a contributing writer for Mexico Today, a program for Marca País – Imagen de México. Alvin has written over 270 articles about life and cultural traditions in Oaxaca and its central valleys. Alvin has a particular interest in mezcal, pulque and all agave derivatives. He enjoys sharing his passion for Oaxaca with tourists to the region. Alvin and his wife Arlene operate Casa Machaya Oaxaca Bed & Breakfast (http://www.oaxacadream.com).

Posted by titosarah 10:16 Archived in Mexico Tagged mexico oaxaca mezcal sustainability iztle fiber Comments (0)

Homage to Mexico’s Frida Kahlo in Oaxacan Handicraft

Fabric Frida and Diego Rivera Dolls are a New Craft Product Available in Southern Mexico

The competitive crafts industry in Oaxaca, Mexico, has a new art form to compete with barro negro and alebrijes, and perhaps more significantly the handcrafted colorfully painted clay sculptures of the Aguilar sisters of Ocotlán. Las hermanas Aguilar have a longstanding tradition of fashioning figures representing women in Oaxacan regional garb. But add the image of famed Mexican artist Frida Kahlo to the mix, and make dolls out of cloth rather than clay, and you have Friduskas.

La Casita Azul Grupo Friduskas Casa Taller de Tradiciones (Friduskas) is a small scale craft enterprise owned and operated by transplanted Veracruzana designer – artisan Dolores Leycegui. In her workshop just outside of the town of Arrazola, near the city of Oaxaca, Leycegui creates, hand embroiders and paints cloth dolls in a variety of sizes, each with the uni-brow facial feature of Frida Kahla. And when she makes male figures, they of course have a likeness to Diego Rivera. In both cases dress is true to local custom, thus wholly representative of the region (and era) which Leycegui seeks to portray in her artistry. The authenticity is remarkable.

The multi-talented Leycegui began sewing at ten years of age. She explains:

“I knew from an early age that I’d end up with a career using my hands, especially sewing and embroidering. For about 30 years I’ve been making embrooidered cloth dolls, and for the past 18 years I’ve have had my own business; initially in Veracruz, subsequently in Chiapas and Michoacan, and now here in Oaxaca. I plan to stay in Oaxaca for the rest of my life. The state is so stimulating for me; at least sixteen distinct indigenous cultures, each with different dress; and there have been so many changes over the generations and the centuries in the clothing styles of both native groups and the Spanish.”

Indeed, with only two years of residence in Oaxaca under her sash, Leycegui has already begun to further tap her creative energies. Her first collection of dolls epitomized the dress of the eight regions of the state. It’s her initial, and naturally still best – selling series. However she’s more recently begun working on a compilation of outfits customarily worn by the women of African – Mexican culture living in the Costa Chica of Oaxaca, near its border with Guerrero; and on a collection from the Porfiriato (1867 – 1911), the era of Mexican president Porfirio Díaz. “For decades to come I’ll have the inspiration all around me,” she explains, “to produce dolls based on the different designs of dress of this one state alone. I travel around the different cultural, climatic and physical regions, and meet with and learn from the people; and of course I also read and look at photographs and drawings of how people of both indigenous and immigrant roots used to dress. Just like we’ve changed the way we dress over the years, so have many of the peoples whose ancestors arrived in Mexico thousands of years ago.”

In addition to her doll collections, Leycegui also makes wood and fabric marionettes, often with the images of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, some in regional dress, and others with different imagery such as Día de los Muertos (day of the dead). Her talent extends even further. Just as a hobby, the collector of vintage sewing machines makes her own machines from clay, papier maché , fabric, and even by using recycled materials, exemplified by the miniature made using a plastic bottle cap as its base. “The bodies for this pair of dolls are made from plastic soda bottles,” she divulges with pride while revealing their hollow undersides.”

Virutally all of her ideas emerge from the deepest recesses of her soul, at the outset as dream revelations. She believes that hers is a pre-ordained mission. She thanks god on a daily basis for setting her on a particular path of continual creativity.

But the founder of Friduskas fulfills yet a further calling, one advanced through secular not spiritual assistance. Leycegui’s workshop is federally sponsored by FONAES (Fondo Nacional de Apoyo par las Empresas en Solidaridad), a branch of Mexico’s Secretary of the Economy. One of its missions is to aid small rural businesses in their efforts to assist specified sectors of the populace in self – determination.

In her own workshop Leycegui conducts classes for the local population and for urban Oaxacans, as well as for tourists to the region, in both making dolls and as an integral part of embroidering. She has coined the phrase “bordaterapia,” (embroider – therapy) which she explains as relaxation and development through the creative art of embroidering.

Through the auspices of downtown Oaxaca’s Casa de la Cultura (house of culture) she instructs a course known as Bordando Jugando y Rescatando (embroidering, playing and rescuing). The thrust of the project is to preserve the art of making traditional, regionally based hand – embroidered products including, of course, dolls. But just as importantly, she teaches Oaxacans of extremely modest means, those with special needs, and single mothers, segments of society often forgotten or allowed to wallow in predicaments often resulting from circumstances beyond their control.

Leycegui’s work with these less fortunate members of Mexican society began several years ago, prior to the birth of her own special needs child. Sebastián is the youngest of her four children. He has Downs Syndrome. “He’s the most beautiful person I know,” she gleams, then continues. “Yes, it was a turn of fate that I gave birth to a child with a condition I had already dedicated my life to helping through providing these classes. This workshop in now for Sebastián, and through it I’m training him to be an artisan, to be self – sufficient.”

Sebastián is symbolic of but one category of beneficiary of Leycegui’s artistry. Others include tourists to Oaxaca wanting to take home a colorful, 100% handcrafted memento of Mexican indigenous cultures; collectors of ethnic dolls of the world; and visitors to Oaxaca interested in commissioning a custom piece of Mexican folk art, with the face of Frida, Diego, or perhaps based on their own self – image.

Alvin and Arlene Starkman operate Casa Machaya Oaxaca Bed & Breakfast (http://www.casamachaya.com). Alvin has written over 250 articles about culture and life in Oaxaca. He assists visitors to Oaxaca to plan their excursions through the state’s central by helping them to plan tours, including for a visit to Friduskas.

Posted by titosarah 12:58 Archived in Mexico Tagged in artisans diego crafts oaxaca rivera barro negro alebrijes frida kahlo Comments (0)

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