A Travellerspoint blog

In The Fields with a Pulque Producing Family in Oaxaca

A Mexican Tradition dating to pre-Hispanic Times, Lives On in Matatlán, Oaxaca

Juana and her husband Andrés can always be found selling pulque in the Sunday market at Tlacolula and in the Friday market at Ocotlán, both popular destinations for locals and tourists alike in Oaxaca. Often they’re accompanied by one of their children. Juana can’t recall precisely for how many generations her family has been going out to the fields twice a day and harvesting agualmiel (honey water) from the pulquero agave, then allowing it to naturally ferment and magically become pulque; but one thing for sure is that her ancestors have been producing pulque in Matalán, Oaxaca, since the 19th century, if not earlier.

Although the town of Santiago Matatlán, about an hour’s drive from the city of Oaxaca, is better known for its mezcal (in fact it promotes itself as the World Capital of Mezcal) and for being one of the earliest colonial settlements in the state, it’s pulque which has a much longer history than the distilled spirit, in Oaxaca and indeed throughout Mexico. Best evidence suggests that imbibing the milky colored pulque for ritualistic social and religious ceremonies has been a tradition of the Zapotecs of Oaxaca and other indigenous groups dating to as early as the 3rd century AD.

The Family

Thirty-nine year old Juana Mateo lives with husband Andrés (46) and two of their three children, Beto (13) and Luz Clarita (6), in a spacious homestead on the outskirts of Matatlán. It’s accessed by a winding badly potholed dirt road which crosses a small creek. For the past eight months son Jorge (16) has been living with his girlfriend María de Jesús (17) at her parents’ home, at the other end of town, also well off from any paved roadways. Neither Jorge nor María de Jesús, and not even the barely teenaged Beto, attend school; not surprisingly Luz Clarita didn’t go to school this mid – January weekday, because of an apparent cough.

Jorge and María de Jesús can’t get married because the law states that men cannot marry until 18. There is no such rule regarding young girls. “We’re not ready to have children, and it costs a lot to make a big wedding, the tradition here,” Jorge explains. Juana pipes in, making sure the young couple are in earshot: “It’s better if they first mature a bit more, work, and accumulate money and use it to start a business and build their own home.”

María has a little dry goods store, while Jorge runs a tractor for his “father-in-law,” as he calls him (suegro). He also helps his parents with their business and works at a number of small mezcal operations when day-workers are needed in the production process.

The Outing

The seven of us pile into the family pickup late in the afternoon, together with an American couple along for the experience (contact me for further information if interested in a similar experience while visiting Oaxaca). It’s about 5:45 p.m., when we arrive at the fields to harvest aguamiel. Juana’s brother, Isaac, is already there and has almost completely filled a five liter plastic container. Isaac lives in the center of town with his wife and their children, and Juana and Isaac’s ailing 79-year-old father, Aurelio Mateo Mendéz. Isaac had earlier ridden to the fields on his bicycle, wanting to ensure that all the honey water gets collected before dusk. We got a late start.

As we accompany the family into the fields to the pulqueros yet to be “tapped,” Juana recalls that she and Isaac learned all about agave and its derivatives from their father and grandfather, who learned from their abuelos y bisabuelos. But Isaac laments that it’s not like it used to be:

“I remember that years ago the pulqueros grew much bigger around and taller than they are now. We’ve been using the same fields for so long that the land just doesn’t have the nutrients in it like before. We fertilize at least once a year, using only abono de toro y chivo (composed feces from cows and goats). The problem is twofold: chemical fertilizer is very expensive, and besides we want a 100% natural fermented drink; and we don’t have enough abono to fertilize as often as we’d like to, as we should. This year we had a problem with ice during November and December; it affected those small espadín agave over there, but not the large pulqueros. Even though most of the espadín leaves are brown and dead, the plants will survive.”

On the land behind Juana’s house, back at the homestead, there are smaller plots with young agave, both espadín and pulquero. These plants must be watered regularly during the dry season. At between one and two years of growth, they’re transplanted, but only during the rainy season, into the regular fields out in the countryside. From then on they need not be watered – but they should be fertilized. While the espadín used in mezcal production (there are other “designer” varieties used to produce mezcal yielding different flavors) matures at 8 – 10 years of growth, the average time it takes until pulqueros can be harvested is 15 years.

Juana’s homestead includes smaller enclosures where the family raises chickens, ducks and goats, strictly for family consumption; they have a large field of mature nopal cactus as well, available for the family to pick paddle by paddle to make soups and salads, and other dishes which traditionally may call for nopal. These nopal appears very similar to the variety used for growing cochinilla – the tiny insect used to create natural dyes of red, pink, orange and purple – thick and fleshy, essentially without thorns (espinas).

We walk along mainly empty fields, already plowed and waiting to be planted with young agave once the rains begin. We pass by a roofed, three-sided hut made of dried river reed (carriso) and laminated metal, used to provide shade and shelter from inclement weather, and to keep a bit of clothing and tools of the trade. There’s a simple wooden bench inside, a few hooks for hanging things on the “walls,” and no more.

Continuing along, we reach three plants which Isaac has not yet harvested this afternoon. Juana is carrying a large clay pitcher. Little Luz Clarita is struggling with a big wicker basket containing a scraper (raspador) used for shaving out the plant’s well, a number of half gourds of different sizes (jícaras), and a plastic sieve.

Upon a pulquero reaching maturity, it is readied for the harvest; some of the bottom leaves (hojas or pencas) are removed to more easily facilitate access to the middle of the plant, its heart; and other leaves are bent over backwards with the needle-sharp point gingerly inserted into another leaf to reduce the likelihood of the harvester or an assistant being stabbed. A simple prick which breaks the skin and draws even the smallest amount of blood, can result in swelling and pain which lasts two or three days.

Next, a well is dug into the heart of the plant, optimally before the stock (chiote) appears. Aguamiel is taken from the orifice before dusk, and again early morning. Aguamiel is very sweet as long as it’s extracted at a time of year when there is no rainwater which manages to seep into the well. Juana confirms that business dictates harvesting year round, but that it’s more difficult and time consuming during rainy season, and the aguamiel is inevitably of a lesser quality and requires more work in order to produce pulque of an acceptable standard.

Today’s aguamiel is the sweetest, clearest and most flavorful honey water I’ve ever tasted. It’s the middle of the dry season. Juana has brought along five-day fermented pulque is case we want to compare, or prepare a mixture of pulque and aguamiel for a moderately fermented beverage. I like my pulque strong; and with aguamiel as honey-rich as I’m sampling, I’m in heaven drinking each, separately, without “adulteration.” In due course a little pulque will be added to the aguamiel, a starter to the fermentation.

“The doctors confirm that pulque is very healthy for you, especially if consumed every day, first thing in the morning,” Isaac states convincingly. “It’s good for the blood,” he assures. In response to my query he continues: “Yes, better than mezcal, because it’s 100% natural, coming directly from the plant, not like mezcal where the agave is first baked, then mashed, then fermented, and finally further processed through distillation. Pulque is pure. You remove the honey water, and it ferments, plain and simple.”

At the conclusion of each harvest the well is scraped out a bit more using the concave metal raspador. With each scraping the well becomes deeper, able to produce more aguamiel. For the first couple of weeks of the harvest you can get only up to about a liter twice daily, and thereafter the plant yields up to five liters of aguamiel, in the morning, and then again late afternoon. Of course there comes a point in time when the yield begins to lessen, towards the end of the plant’s productive life.

After removing the aguamiel with a jícara, then straining it through the plastic sieve into another half gourd, it’s poured into the pitcher. We all smile as we taste the fruits of their labor, remarking about the quality of the harvest. Then, before moving on to the next plant, Andrés covers the well with a folded agave leaf on top of which he places a broken piece of concrete, to hopefully keep insects and rodents from gaining access to the honey water as it seeps into the well over the course of the subsequent 12 – 15 hours.

At the next plant, before scooping out the aguamiel Isaac has to remove pieces of old cotton shirts from the top of the well: “It doesn’t matter if you use penca with a rock, or whatever kind of material is available, as long as no little creatures can get into the well and drink or contaminate the aguamiel.”

The sun begins to set, with tones of red, pink and orange stratus cloud hovering over and between the distant mountain tops. We walk by pulqueros which have seen better days; that is, plants which have already been fully harvested. All of their leaves have been cut off and lay strewn about nearby. “That’s it, there’s nothing else you can do with the plant, except chop it up and use it as mulch or compost, or let it dry and use it as firewood, the same as with the pencas on the ground,” I state with confidence, subsequently recalling that the leaves are often used in the highly ritualized process of making barbacoa, preparing sheep and goat in an in-ground oven.

“Well, you’re right about the use of the discarded penques, but not entirely when it comes to the piña [or pineapple, the base of the plant as it appears once all the penques have been removed],” informs Isaac. “As long as the piña is still green, you can use it to make mezcal.”

When pressed in the course of ensuring discussion, they all admit that using this already-spent part of the pulquero agave, while capable of producing mezcal the process requires much more effort and yields much less mezcal per kilo of plant. The resulting mezcal is of a lesser quality than if starting from scratch with mature and untouched agave espadín, unless you go through the effort of distilling a third and perhaps fourth time. It makes sense that there would be some nutrients remaining in the pulquero, after it’s no longer capable of yielding enough honey water to make it worthwhile to continue the harvest. Amongst families which struggle to eke out a working class existence, it’s often worth the effort.

As darkness approaches I help Isaac lift his bicycle into the back of the pickup so he doesn’t have to ride home at night. Luz Clarita cuddles up beside me in the back, along with Jorge, María de Jesus and Isaac. The rest are in the cab. I ask Isaac how many families in Matatlán are still producing pulque. He answers, “about five; it’s not like it used to be. With the land and fertilizer issues I’ve told you about, and a reduced interest in drinking pulque, who knows if anyone in town will be producing it in 50 years.” We drop off Isaac at his front gate where he’s met by one of his sons. Then we return to Juana and Andres’ home.

The following Sunday, I see Juana and Andrés at one small stand in the Tlacolula market, and Jorge and María de Jesus at another, in a different part of the market. Each is selling pulque, mezcal, and tepache, a much sweeter fermented drink made with pulque, pineapple and sugar cane derivative called panela, known as piloncillo in other parts of Mexico. All three are produced by Juana and Andrés and family, just like Juana’s grandparents and their grandparents have been doing for generations. In the case of pulque, for how much longer, one must lament, is hard to say.

Alvin Starkman is a permanent resident of Oaxaca. He and his wife Arlene operate Casa Machaya Oaxaca Bed & Breakfast (http://www.oaxacadream.com). Alvin writes, consults to documentary production companies filming in Oaxaca, and assists tourists to the region wanting to visit the sights in Oaxaca’s central valley ( including embarking on more unusual adventures such as taking visitors on an aguamiel harvest). He also, together with Chef Pilar Cabrera, organizes culinary tours of Oaxaca (http://www.oaxacaculinarytours.com).

Posted by titosarah 14:21 Archived in Mexico Tagged and mexico in oaxaca pulque mezcal Comments (0)

Overview of Barro Negro of San Bartolo Coyotepec, Oaxaca

The Development of the Black Pottery Decorative Folk Art Form

Alvin Starkman, M.A., LL.B.

The plastics revolution of the 1960s had a profound impact on the southern Mexico state of Oaxaca. Throughout the decade, a dramatic change occurred in the means of production employed by a segment of the indigenous Zapotec population: an industry based upon rudimentary production of grey, functional pottery transformed into the folk art now known as barro negro, or Oaxacan black pottery. As a consequence, tourism to Oaxaca blossomed.

Until the 1960s, all but one family in the village of San Bartolo Coyotepec, a few kilometers from the state capital of Oaxaca de Juárez, were producing utilitarian clay pots for sale and trade throughout the region and further beyond … just as their ancestors had been doing for a thousand years or more. Indeed, the archaeological record as unearthed during the excavation of Monte Albán lays testament.

The History of Barro Negro (black pottery) in Oaxaca

The most common pottery form in the area, known as the cántaro, had been used for carrying and storing water, mezcal, milk and other liquids, for generations. Then in the early 1950s, a humble, personable woman named Doña Rosa Real, together with her husband Juventino Nieto, by chance developed an innovation to its appearance and functionality; if the pot, before firing, was rubbed with a piece of clear quartz, and then baked for only eight or nine hours rather than the traditional 13 or 14 hours, the result would be a shiny, black cántaro, purely decorative and unable to retain liquids without discoloration and filtration.

Between the 1950s and the early 1960s, everyone else in the village continued to produce their grey functional pottery, while Doña Rosa and family toiled away with what became known as barro negro (black pottery). She developed a following of foreigners who collected Latin American folk art, including the likes of Nelson Rockefeller.

The Impact of Plastic on Pottery Production in San Bartolo Coyotepec

At the same time as Dustin Hoffman’s character in The Graduate was being extolled the importance of “plastics,” the people of San Bartolo Coyotepec were beginning to feel the adverse economic impact of those same plastic bowls and bottles. These new containers were colorful, break resistant, and cheap. The market fell out of the traditional cántaro industry. Doña Rosa’s family thrived, because at the same time, tourism was increasing due to:
• more two income families
• credit cards being mailed out to even Bar Mitzvah aged children making it easier to fly now and pay later
• hotels, travel agencies and Mexicana Airlines having created a new concept in travel to Mexico, the vacation package
• improvements to the new Pan American highway system enabling travelers to more easily reach Oaxaca, and
• the hippie movement taking notice of southern Mexico as a result of Oaxaca’s new-found notoriety as the hallucinogenic mushroom capital of the world.

With the foregoing changes in the Western World, more travelers began to travel to Oaxaca and visit San Bartolo Coyotepec. The market for barro negro thereby increased substantially. Virtually every potter in the village began burnishing his pieces with quartz, and removing them from the kiln “prematurely,” out of economic necessity and a burgeoning tourist market.

Increased tourism meant that even with other villagers copying Doña Rosa’s technique, the economic fortunes of her family were not significantly adversely impacted. On the contrary, some 30+ years after Doña Rosa’s death, her family still retains a healthy market share of tourist dollars spent on barro negro.

Black Pottery, San Bartolo Coyotepec, and the Family of Doña Rosa in Modern Times

Now, nary a piece of grey, functional pottery is produced in San Bartolo Coyotepec, although there remains a very small niche market. Many craftspeople in the village do barro negro demonstrations. Some artisans such as Carlomagno Pedro Martínez and his family have elevated the art form to new heights.

Until his death in May, 2010, on a daily basis Don Valente, the son of Doña Rosa and Don Juventino, would recount the fascinating story of his parents and their innovation, while working his magic not with an electric wheel, or even a foot pedal, but rather with only two clay plates, his well-kneaded buttery clay, the most rudimentary of tools – pieces river reed and gourd, a swatch of bull hide – and the most deft of hands.

Today, three of Doña Rosa’s grandchildren, Jorge, Javier and Fernando, and their sister-in-law Rocio, keep the family tradition alive, telling the tale of their grandmother.

Indeed it’s no wonder that the walls of the workshop and gallery are adorned with photos of Doña Rosa with Rockefeller, and Don Valente alongside the likes of Jimmy Carter, an array of Mexican entertainment industry stars, prominent politicians including governors and presidents, and yes, even The Pope.

Alvin Starkman is a resident of Oaxaca, and together with wife Arlene operates Casa Machaya Oaxaca Bed & Breakfast, a unique b & b experience just outside downtown Oaxaca (http://www.oaxacadream.com). Alvin has written over 200 articles about life and culture in Oaxaca, consults for documentary production companies filming in Oaxaca, takes couples and families to visit the sights in Oaxaca’s central valleys, and assists groups interested in learning about the food and drink of Oaxaca through organizing Oaxaca culinary tours (http://www.oaxacaculinarytours.com).

Posted by titosarah 15:06 Archived in Mexico Tagged san black rosa pottery oaxaca potter oaxacan bartolo coyotepec barro negro dona Comments (0)

Hierve el Agua in Oaxaca, Mexico

Oaxaca's Bubbling Springs and Petrified Waterfalls

Hierve el Agua is one of the least visited attractions along Oaxaca’s central valley touring routes. Yet for naturalists, photographers, hikers and those with an interest in ecotourism, it holds much more allure than most of the traditional sights.

What is Oaxaca’s Hierve el Agua?

Translated “the water boils,” Hierve el Agua is actually a misnomer. At two locations about 40 meters apart, water does indeed “boil”up from the ground; not hot, but rather forced to the surface by the earth’s interior pressure, arriving at roughly atmospheric temperature.

It rises to the surface, then channels into two man-made pools of fresh, mineral-rich water, suitable for swimming since the pools gradually reach depths upwards of seven feet. Taste the water before it reaches the lower pool, as it flows along a narrow canal from the puncture in the earth; it’s crystal clear and pure, of course aside from natural mineral compounds.

The Effect of Minerals at Hierve el Agua, Oaxaca

The bubbling water is rich in mainly calcium carbonate and magnesium. The minerals have built up over thousands of years, giving the effect of petrified waterfalls. Descending towards the actual site to swim or view the falls, one walks over mineral deposits, partially smoothed over in 2008, with the use of cement and lime to make it easier to ambulate. Thousands of years ago the surface was lower; it gradually rose to its present level, as a result of the mineral deposits.

Standing on the main precipice near the lower pool, one sees the postcard perfect petrified waterfalls, a photograph most often reproduced for promoting tourism. However, there is a different falls, accessed by a short hike.

Hiking and Walking Paths at Hierve el Agua, Oaxaca

There are numerous trails and pathways at Oaxaca’s Hierve el Agua, suitable for taking short hikes. Each route is less than an hour in duration, including stopping to marvel and take photographs.

Depending on the time of year, some paths may be somewhat overgrown, but certainly not to the extent that there is any undue danger, or risk of getting lost. The most well-traveled leads up and around to the top of the principal falls. One often sees people who have already made it there, just sitting and gazing back towards the pools, having a vantage-point for viewing the second impressive petrified falls.

Another pathway, requiring more navigational agility, leads down into the valley along a series of ridges and paths. One arrives at the base of the principal petrified falls, from where one can do a bit of climbing. But pause and look back every once in a while, and see the effect caused by the trickling water over the course of millennia.

Tourist Facilities at Hierve el Agua, Oaxaca

In 2008, government completed construction of a large, impressive, traditional swimming pool, as well as dining facilities just above the actual Hierve el Agua site. There are about a dozen small, modern restaurants alongside a shady, palm leaf palapa; there’s an equal number of row-house hotel suites close by, constructed years earlier. It is not known when any of it will be operational.

In the interim, there are several simple eateries lining the access route to Hierve el Agua, beside the parking area. Souvenirs, towels and bathing suits are sold in the same area. There are basic washroom facilities nearby, and more down at Hierve el Agua itself, adjoining rudimentary change rooms.

A larger restaurant, Alice’s, is located on the left side of the road, before reaching the gate where the entrance fee is paid. Arrangements can be made there for lodging at one of the Tourist Yuú overnight facilities. There are four cabins which provide rustic yet adequate accommodations for an overnight stay. Inquire at Alice’s for details. One can book by calling a cellular phone, either 045951106356 or 044951106356. The village where Hierve el Agua is located, San Isidro Roaguía, has a few small stores and a restaurant.

Accessing Hierve el Agua, Oaxaca

As of late 2009, the new highway which will ultimately cut driving time from Oaxaca to Huatulco, opened from just beyond Mitla, to San Lorenzo Albarradas, about four kilometers from Hierve el Agua. But the more scenic route is along Highway 190, passing by a few quaint roadside mezcal factories, as well as El Tigre, a combined comedor and mezcal palenque about ½ kilometer before the San Lorenzo turnoff, from where Hierve el Agua has traditionally been accessed.

Since about 2004, there has been conflict between the residents of San Lorenzo and San Isidro, as a result of which at times a toll is exacted in San Lorenzo so as to enable tourists to continue on to Hierve el Agua. It can be avoided by taking a less traveled, more circuitous dirt road mountain route to Hierve el Agua, through Xaagá. As of early 2011, access to Hierve el Agua has been restricted to the Xaagá route, although during rainy season as well as during times of higher than usual tourism, the drive can be extremely slow, and indeed somewhat precarious.

At Mitla there is a taxi service to Hierve el Agua, but be prepared for sitting on simple wooden bench seats in the enclosed back of a small pick-up truck. Otherwise, drivers and tour guides in the city of Oaxaca are available to take visitors to Hierve el Agua as part of a day touring which is popularly known as Oaxaca’s Mitla route.

Alvin Starkman is a resident of Oaxaca. He and wife Arlene run Casa Machaya OaxacaBed & Breakfast (http://www.oaxacadream.com), a quaint bed and breakfast just outsideof downtown Oaxaca. Alvin is the Oaxaca destination expert for a major international travel website, writes about cultural traditions in Oaxaca, consults to documentary production companies filming in Oaxaca, and assists in arranging small group culinary tours of Oaxaca (http://www.oaxacaculinarytours.com).

Posted by titosarah 10:11 Archived in Mexico Tagged in attractions el agua oaxaca hierve hieve Comments (0)

Oaxaca Day of the Dead Featured in Documentary

Acquainted with the Night

Alvin Starkman, M.A., LL.B.

Feature-length documentary “Acquainted with the Night” (Markham Street Films, 2010), is a brilliantly executed examination of how humanity explores, embraces and attempts to protect the night. Shot in seven countries and eight languages, director Michael McNamara and co-producer Jen Recknagel analyze the universality of elements embodied in dusk to dawn traditions – curiosity and the quest to learn, ritual celebration, fear and adaptation, and from a Western research perspective the concern for the night’s adverse impact on the individual, and society.

The movie is based on Christopher Dewdney’s book, Acquainted with the Night: Excursions through the World after Dark. While Dewdney breaks up the night into hourly vignettes based on science, myth and poetry, McNamara proceeds differently, showcasing key segments of time: daytime preparations, dusk, night-time activities, dawn and its aftermath.

In the film’s Prelude, individuals in a diversity of cultures and stations in life are shown preparing for darkness, foreshadowing what the night embodies for them:
• In the town of Atzompa, in the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca, a family walks along a dirt road with a wheelbarrow and arms full of flowers, destined for the cemetery, the beginning of its Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) rituals;
• Members of Astronomers Without Borders line up telescopes in Bhaktapur, Nepal, for viewing Jupiter and its moons;
• A team of researchers arrive at Arches National Park in Utah, to measure light pollution;
• On the Greek Island of Chios, villagers from two rival towns ready rockets and launching pads in preparation for a century – old, middle-of-the-night pyrotechnics competition;
• A group sets up high – power lamps in New York City near Ground Zero, for a tribute in lights;
• Artists at Parc des Buttes Chaumant in Paris, France, install their art, and lighting, for Nuit Blanche, a unique exhibition.

Introductions continue through Dusk, in Austin, Texas. Crowds gather before dark, eager to watch 1.5 million bats fly out from beneath an expansion bridge in a night-time feeding frenzy. This year the bats emerge unexpectedly early, but the film crew, on the ready, doesn’t miss a beat and catches the event as it happens.

Moving into The Night, we’re whisked worlds away, to a marketplace in Marrakech, Morocco. Children and adults alike are enthralled by the tales of a traditional storyteller, one of only two or three of his kind remaining. But storytelling is universal, as McNamara illustrates, taking the viewer from this Moroccan custom to Anglo- and French-Canadian homes in Canada where parents read the same bed-time story to their children, “Love You Forever,” in English and in French.

McNamara uses his characters, rather than a narrator, to thread his theses. Researcher Chad Moore, measuring light pollution with sophisticated instruments, decries the loss of the ability of Americans to witness true darkness. It “ties all people together across the planet,” states Moore. “We have to decide if it’s worth saving,” he asks rhetorically. Then in Nepal, as if to answer the question, we’re placed amongst astronomers encouraging onlookers to take a peak at the largest planet in the solar system. Curiosity, intrigue, marvel and the quest to learn about the night, each transcends culture and age.

Returning to North America, and The Night Shift, a long-haul trucker drives across Canada with her son, after dark, exposing us to the night’s working world – its allure, its danger, and its necessity. At the Sleep and Alertness Clinic in Toronto we learn of the afflictions which beset the night shift, and are told of modern-day disasters which have occurred during the middle-of-the-night as a result of human error – Chernobyl and Exxon Valdez are cited examples. If humanity must work throughout the night, as is suggested, how do we better adapt?

The dark side of earth’s most densely populated club district is revealed, under the watch of Toronto Police Department’s 52 Division. Another aspect of night shift work: patrolling nightly, and then rounding up mainly youthful revelers as they emerge from partying shortly after 2 a.m., high on drugs or a little too much to drink, in either case resulting in unruly conduct or violence. Detention and in some cases arrest follows; then finally the morning clean-up, Night’s Last Stand.

McNamara also illustrates how differently death is approached depending on societal mores. In the candle – lit Mexican cemetery his cinematographers capture the poignancy of an elderly couple lamenting the loss of their son, decades after his passing. He then switches to the somber spectacle of light near Ground Zero. On a subsequent night in the Mexican village, death is remembered no longer through solemnity, but now with comparsas – parades marked by reveling in costume, dance and song. McNamara then takes us to the pageantry of a Winter Solstice celebration at Toronto’s Kensington Market. The night is a catalyst for celebrating in similar, almost identical fashion, under dramatically distinct circumstances.

Particularly striking and thought provoking contrasts occur within the context of McNamara taking us to a makeshift outdoor hockey rink illuminated by the full moon, then to beyond Yellowknife, where The Dene, one of Canada’s First Nation peoples, emerge from their teepees rejoicing the awe inspiring Aurora Borealis, and yes, telling stories. Cut to Paris, where artificial light gives art a new appreciation, then to New York, where light pays homage to America’s fallen. It’s hard to resolve the conflict between utilizing and appreciating the night and all its wonder and beauty – a motive for its preservation – and perhaps just as valid, transforming and celebrating the night, which leads to its adulteration.

As dawn approaches, thousands of spent rockets are gathered on the Greek island, the Parisian art exhibit has lost its glimmer, the 9 / 11 lights are extinguished, the now exhausted Nepalese storyteller heads home, and the villagers of Atzompa depart through the cemetery arch, until next year’s Dia de los Muertos.

Acquainted with the Night takes the viewer on much more than a cross-cultural journey traversing the exotic and the familiar, and then back again. It opens our minds to a sampling of what most of us miss between going to bed, and arising for work the next day. It inevitably encourages many to re-evaluate an unnecessarily staid lifestyle, through examining a world not previously known to exist. It ensures that we expose our youth to more, yet at the same time cautions, and raises questions – with answers difficult to reconcile.

Alvin Starkman is a consultant to documentary film production companies. He received his Masters in Social Anthropology in 1978. After teaching for a few years he attended Osgoode Hall Law School, thereafter embarking upon a career as a litigator. Alvin now resides in Oaxaca where he writes, leads personalized tours to the villages, markets, ruins and other sights, and operates Casa Machaya Oaxaca Bed & Breakfast ( http://www.oaxacadream.com ), combining the comfort and service of a Oaxaca hotel with the lodging style of a quaint country inn.

Posted by titosarah 15:17 Archived in Mexico Tagged greece the of day dead morocco marrakech nepal film oaxaca aurora review borealis yellowknife chios Comments (0)

Oaxaca, Cuna y destino de la Civilización Americana

Book Review

Alvin Starkman, M.A., LL.B.

Oaxaca, Cuna y destino de la Civilización Americana is an impassioned plea for recognition of ancient Zapotec culture in the state of Oaxaca, south central Mexico, as the cradle of Mesoamerican society. As such, the treatise contends, it constitutes one of the world’s six great founding civilizations.

To buttress his proposition, author Juan Arturo López Ramos cites key evidence which supports the contention that Oaxacan settlement should be credited with developing the continent’s earliest known system of writing, calendar, cultivation, and first great city-state, Monte Albán. He bases his thesis on the fruits of primarily archaeological investigation by national and international researchers.

Background to López Ramos’ Knowledge and Investigation Regarding Oaxaca and its Pre – History

López Ramos was born in the Mixteca district of Oaxaca. He studied in Mexico at the Instituto Politécnico National, and did his graduate work at the Antigua Universidad de Alcalá de Henares, in Madrid, Spain. He then returned to Oaxaca to embark upon a career in politics. As both Secretary of Tourism, and member of congress, he gained exacting knowledge of Oaxaca, having had the opportunity to visit virtually all regions of the state. In addition, as a prominent politician he had occasion to meet with scores of academics working in the state over the course of more than two decades. He would inevitably be kept abreast of research in such diverse areas of inquiry as history, geography, anthropology and archaeology, botany and zoology, and linguistics, to name but a few.

Development of the Thesis of Oaxaca as the Cradle of Mesoamerican Civilization

López Ramos begins his analysis by distinguishing development in Mesoamerica from Old World civilizations, noting that the latter had the advantage of being in relatively close proximity to one another and therefore the ability to adopt or assimilate the cultural progress of their neighbors. By contrast, Mesoamerican civilization developed in isolation and therefore independent of outside influences.

After summarizing how Oaxaca was instrumental in the development of Mesoamerica by virtue of developments in astronomy, engineering, agriculture and social organization, the author sets up Oaxaca as the geographic center of Mesoamerica, noting its climatic, physical and biological diversity, and how as a consequence the state stands apart from other regions in Mexico. He emphasizes the quantity and broad array of vegetation and animal life in the state, and of course its ethnic and cultural diversity. Oaxaca’s unique position, in all of the foregoing respects, was therefore conducive to the development of a grand civilization.

The reader is provided with a review of the evidence of the earliest human occupation in Oaxaca (i.e. the rock shelters and pictographs found between Yagul and Mitla, contributing to the area’s recent UNESCO designation as a World Heritage Site), and the inhabitants’ crucial advancement through the domestication of squash, pepper, beans and corn. Campsites became villages, and through village life developed rudimentary adobe housing, industry (i.e. ceramics) and social structure including the earliest ritualistic behavior and governmental function.

The book truly shines where López Ramos advances his contention by illustrating that it was the Zapotecs and not the Olmecs, and it was in the central valleys of Oaxaca and not in Chiapas, Tehuacán, Teotihuacán, Veracruz or in other areas, where several indicia (aside from cultivation) of a great civilization first arose. Much of the evidence derives from the excavation at San José Mogote in the Etla valley, a settlement pre-dating others.

López Ramos acknowledges that the origins of pottery are in four areas, the oldest sites being San José Mogote and Tehuacán. But by comparing evidence at the two sites, he concludes that it was at San José Mogote where the first ever pottery workshop contained in a village, is encountered. The site also bears witness to the earliest use of consciously selected or tooled stones, and the first public buildings – constructed using deliberate astronomical orientation. The existence of a tombstone at San José Mogote, with the oldest writing in Mesoamerica, sets Oaxaca apart from anything similar found in the Olmec region of Veracruz or elsewhere. He then notes the antiquity of the calendar found at the same site, and that its complexity and accuracy exceed that of calendars of European societies of that era.

Using detailed description, López Ramos asserts the importance of Monte Albán, the first great city-state on the continent. He notes its significant advancements over the course of its extensive occupation, and indeed its grandiosity. He quotes archaeologists Damon E. Peeler and Marcus Winter who conclude that Zapotec astronomy played a major role in the design of Teotihuacán.

The author makes his case in a convincing manner, citing the research results of several academics who have worked in Oaxaca for decades. He does so in a highly informative, convincing, and in most cases readable and understandable fashion even for those of us without maximum proficiency with the Spanish language.

López Ramos Provides the Reader with a New or Renewed Appreciation of Oaxaca

In the course of the power-point presentation promoting his book, López Ramos cites the likes of D.H. Lawrence, Guadalupe Loaeza, Danish architect Jorn Utzon, and others who have marveled at Oaxaca and in some cases noted its influence throughout the modern world – just to ensure that even if you don’t entirely accept his thesis, from reading the book you’ll come away with a new or renewed appreciation of the state, and more particularly its central valleys.

Alvin Starkman has a Masters in anthropology and law degree from Osgoode Hall Law School in Toronto.
Now a resident of Oaxaca, Alvin writes, takes couples and families to the sights, is a consultant to documentary film companies working in southern Mexico, and owns Casa Machaya Oaxaca Bed & Breakfast (http://www.oaxacadream.com ), a unique bed and breakfast experience providing accommodations which combine the comfort and service of a four star hotel, with the personal touch of quaint country inn style lodging.

Posted by titosarah 15:15 Archived in Mexico Tagged culture of san jose civilization monte oaxaca alban cradle zapotec olmec mogote Comments (0)

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