Review of the Oaxaca, Mexico, episodes
Alvin Starkman, M.A., LL.B.
An international documentary film production company was drawn to the central valleys of the State of Oaxaca while investigating regions of the world where sustainable living still plays a major role in the way people live. After a preliminary visit to the state capital to scope out the feasibility of story lines, its production team ultimately shot two, five-segment episodes in the heart of Oaxaca.
The mandate of The Veria Network’s cable TV series Under the Sun is to capture a broad diversity of locales, organizations and individuals involved in healthy, harmonious, holistic, and environmentally friendly living and business enterprises. Each episode features British born Nathan LeRoy, a self-proclaimed adventurer, investigating how age-old means of production persist into the 21st century, and examining sustainable systems and products. This is done with a not-so-subtle underscore: maintaining and promoting unity with the natural world provides humankind the best opportunity to survive and thrive for generations to come.
LeRoy accompanies internationally acclaimed native Oaxacan chef Pilar Cabrera Arroyo (Bon Appetit, The New York Times, Toronto Iron Chef judge & competitor) to Oaxaca’s Pochote Organic Market. An interesting discussion ensues as to the certification process in respect to organic products. LeRoy propounds that forcing growers to leap through hoops in attempting to obtain certification is actually inconsistent with supporting small- scale local production. He then accompanies Chef Pilar to her Casa de los Sabores (House of Flavors) Cooking School for a lesson in preparing three dishes – an organic salad with a honey mustard garlic dressing; world famous mole negro, the most labor intensive of the many moles, traditionally made with approximately 35 ingredients; and a delightfully fresh and uniquely flavorful organic rose petal sorbet.
Our adventurer then meets up with a family of San Martín Tilcajete wood carvers and painters, headed by Jacobo Ángeles and María Mendoza. His goal is to learn about the town’s longstanding Zapotec woodcarving tradition. While trekking through the countryside he and Jacobo discuss the properties and uses of the copal tree from which most figures – known as alebrijes – are carved. Leroy then explores the use of natural pigments for coloring the pieces; María deftly uses her hands as palettes as she variously mixes tree sap and bark, honey, pomegranate, corn fungus, berries and other natural substances to create a veritable rainbow of paint colors.
Next he receives a lesson from a triumvirate of absolutely charming apron-clad abuelitas (little grandmothers) on how to make three refreshing drinks, each of which is typical to the region and commonly found in both urban and rural Oaxacan markets: agua de Jamaica (juice or water of hibiscus flower), agua de limón (a natural limeade made with the outer peel), and the uniquely indigenous pre-Hispanic drink, tejate. Making tejate is a true art, and highly ritualistic. If a step in the process goes awry, the end result simply won’t cut it. Being the Drink of the Gods in pre-Hispanic times, process must be perfect.
Leroy then gets out into the fields just after dawn one morning, with a woman whose family has been making the naturally fermented drink known as pulque, for generations. Pulque is perhaps the single least understood drink in Mexico, at times mistakenly noted as the first stage in the production of mezcal and tequila. The plant, one of several pulquero varieties of agave or maguey, must mature in the field for 15 – 18 years before it yields aguamiel or honey water. At sunrise and sunset the liquid is religiously harvested from a deep well in the center of the plant. Natural fermentation of the aguamiel occurs over the course of just a few hours. Be it myth or science-based, the indigenous guide counsels as to pulque’s curative and life-prolonging properties.
In the final segment of the episode LeRoy learns about cochineal ( cochinilla ), the minute insect which feeds off of the nopal cactus. Cochineal has been commercially cultivated, harvested and exported since early colonial times because of its unique property – it yields a strong, natural red dye which to this day is used in the production of such diverse products as Campari, Knorr and Campbell soups, lipsticks and make-ups, Danone yoghurt, hot dogs and cookies. Manuel, the engineer / manager of the museum and educational facility known as Tlapanochestli, explains the historical importance of the cochineal industry while going through the lifecycle of the insect and production technique currently employed. Experimentation into the use of other natural dyes and fibers continues at the research station.
LeRoy heads out to the rug weaving village of Teotitlán del Valle, where sheep have been sheered, and their wool spun, dyed and woven into rugs in basically the same manner, since the mid – 1500s. He watches a villager sheer a sheep using nothing but a simple scissors and rope to tie it down; then takes a fascinating tour with Mariano Sosa, the head of a sixteen family co-op, to witness all the subsequent steps such as washing the wool without detergents, then drying and spinning it into yarn, followed by using plants from an experimental site to create natural dyes – with the process’ uncontaminated water returning to the earth; and finally weaving the most intricate of both traditional Zapotec and more innovative designs into tapestries and rugs.
For the next segment our host remains in the rug village, awakening well before sunrise to accompany Rocio and Malena of the extended family known as Casa Santiago to a mill to have corn ground into masa – in preparation for a lesson back at their homestead. Together with Gloria, the matriarch of the family, they prepare amarillo, the mole used in making a very special and typical festive dish unique to their town, tamales de amarillo con pollo. Breakfast includes hot chocolate also made from scratch, enjoyed in the traditional fashion – with a small loaf of pan de yema or egg bread, for dipping. The quaintness and welcoming nature of each and every family member is both striking and memorable.
Leroy then travels back in time to 16th century Toledo, Spain. The ancient and well-chronicled Old World knife-making technique is still practiced in the town of Ocotlán, by Apolinar Águilar. The master craftsman fashions knives, machetes, swords and much more, using only recycled materials. He demonstrates the use of his wood and skin bellows, stone and mud hearth, and a series of hammers, chisels, and other forging tools he himself makes to his exacting specifications. His products range from letter openers, to hunting and butchers’ knives, to turkey carving and cutlery sets, to martial arts weapons, and custom collector pieces. Even the fine finishes of the blades and handles are creating naturally, without the use of chrome or nickel, varnish or lacquer.
Our adventurer next arrives in Santiago Matatlán, the self-anointed world capital of mezcal (also referred to as mescal), for a visit with Enrique Jiménez, a spirits producer with a pedigree dating to his ancestors’ 1870 arrival in the tiny village. Enrique walks LeRoy through all stages of production of mezcal from the harvesting of agave in the fields, to baking it in a pit over flaming logs and river rocks, then mashing it with the use of a horse dragging a multi-ton stone, to fermenting in pine vats, and finally distilling in a brick and mortar firewood-fueled oven. The sampling of the finished product includes a two-year-old añejo aged in oak barrels, a much younger mezcal, and of course one “with the worm.”
LeRoy concludes his visit to the State of Oaxaca with a much needed relaxing and rejuvenating temazcal and massage. He arrives at the home of Doña Emilia, a retired nurse of Zapotec heritage. After decades of tutelage from her grandmother she has become an expert in the ancient art and science of temazcal. One of the hallmarks of temazcal is the environment in which the ritual is enacted – an adobe hut with water and lava rocks used to create and control steam. It’s akin to a sweat lodge where chanting together with aromatic and curative herbs and branches cleanse the body and soul.
Watching the two episodes of Under the Sun gives the viewer a glimpse into some of the present-day manifestations of sustainable living in the central valleys of Oaxaca – and can just as easily be a precursor to the experiences of those contemplating a visit to the city. Virtually every individual and institution highlighted is accessible by tourists within the context of a couple of well-planned tours to the towns and villages surrounding the state capital.
Alvin Starkman has a Masters in Anthropology and a law degree from Osgoode Hall Law School. Alvin has written over 90 articles about life and culture in Oaxaca for several Mexico travel publications. He consults to documentary film production companies working in Oaxaca, and leads personalized tours for couples and families to the craft villages, market towns, ruins and more off-the-beaten-track locations. He and his wife Arlene operate Casa Machaya Oaxaca Bed & Breakfast (http://www.oaxacadream.com), a bed and breakfast which combines the comfort of a downtown Oaxaca hotel, with the personal touch of country inn style accommodations.