A Travellerspoint blog

Charitable Donations for Visitors to Oaxaca: CORAL

Non-Profit Oaxacan Rehabilitation Center for Hearing Impaired, Needs Aid

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

When the Cole-Gardner family recently vacationed in Oaxaca, Mexico, they brought along several basketballs, soccer balls and baseball gloves, to donate to indigenous children without ready access to such sports paraphernalia. They'd read this writer’s article about the opportunity to help Oaxacans in need, by filling an empty suitcase earmarked for packing Oaxacan handicrafts, with used clothing or anything else available for donating. They also brought 668 hearing aid batteries to donate to CORAL, Centro Oaxaqueño de Rehabilitación de Audición y Lenguaje, A.C., a non-profit organization providing assistance to the deaf and hearing impaired and their families in Oaxaca.

CORAL, the Oaxacan Center for the Rehabilitation of Hearing and Speech, is a vibrant NGO relying on donations from predominantly private and local corporate foundations, to assist mainly young, hearing impaired children whose families are of extremely modest means. The four-pronged enterprise consists of an audiology clinic, hearing and speech therapy center, early detection hearing loss program, and a social work component. One would be hard-pressed to find a more commendable aid organization, in preparation for a visit to Oaxaca and wanting to contribute clothing, cash, or of course hearing aids and components.

History of CORAL, Oaxacan Center for the Rehabilitation of Hearing and Speech

In 1988, an Oregon couple, Drs. Richard Carroll and Nancy Press, began investigating the problems besetting poor, rural Oaxacans. They spent months at a time away from their medical practice in the US, visiting indigenous and mestizo communities. They identified a major impediment to progress in the pueblos: deafness and hearing loss in a number of children, not being treated when hearing impairment began, or ever.

While there was perhaps only one audiologist in the entire State of Oaxaca when the doctors began, over the course of the ensuring decade they nevertheless managed to assemble a team of professionals to assist in what became their passion: to identify the hearing impaired, and provide aid – any kind of aid they could muster through their own resources, and in due course charitable contributions of others.

In 1999, CORAL rented premises in Oaxaca, enabling it to continue the work of Drs. Carroll and Press in a more formalized fashion. It thereafter began associating directly with a registered American charity with related goals, Child-Aid. In 2008, CORAL purchased its current premises, so as to better enable it to advance its goal of identifying those Oaxacans who are deaf or hard-of-hearing, assess their needs and those of their families, and act.

Work of CORAL as a Charity in Oaxaca, to Assist the Deaf and Hearing Impaired

The virtually non-existent component of audiologists in Oaxaca in the 1980s, has grown to at least six, two of whom work at CORAL on a part-time basis. Its hearing impaired facilities now employ eight specialists trained to assist the hard-at-hearing and deaf, and one volunteer. The total complement working at CORAL is 15 individuals. Its director, Oaxacan Saul Fuentes Olivares, is a career NGO organizer and employee. Its coordinator of promotion and fundraising, Megan Glore, is an American, curiously with a Masters’ in ethnobotany from the University of Kent in Canterbury, England. They, like the rest, are dedicated to ameliorating the problem of hearing impairment among young children in Oaxaca which would otherwise go unnoticed, and untreated.

The CORAL audiology clinic is designed for testing and diagnosis, repairs and maintenance to hearing aids and hearing-related accessories, and ongoing support. Individuals of all ages have access to the clinic.

The therapy center currently has 35 children enrolled. Parental attendance is a prerequisite. The program consists of morning group sessions and afternoon individualized treatment. Attendance is optimally required four days per week, and 10 is the maximum number children per hearing and speech specialist. With such numbers it should come as no surprise that there is a waiting list.

The early detection program is designed to identify and treat children in infancy, by sending staff out into the field, as well as training doctors to recognize and screen for hearing loss behaviors. A major component of this work is to assist parents in identifying normal childhood development and what to do if they suspect a hearing problem.

Analysis begins as early as two days after birth, with therapy commencing as early as six months old. While therapy generally continues for about two years, there are children who have been treated through the clinic for profound hearing loss for up to nine years, using different therapeutic modalities.

Through the social work component of CORAL, staff travels throughout the City of Oaxaca and into rural communities to identify and serve deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals. Once in the home, staff educates on the use of aids, troubleshoots problems, provides resources, and monitors.

Why CORAL Needs Charitable Donations to Help Oaxacans with Hearing-Impairment – Mainly Children of Families of Extremely Modest Means

Every family which participates in CORAL hearing impairment programs must make a financial contribution. But such donations are token or extremely modest. For example, CORAL currently has three designated categories of families whose members receive assistance for hearing loss:

• Families with monthly income of less than 1,000 pesos (about $80 USD)
• Families with monthly income of between 1,000 and 5,500 pesos
• Families with monthly income of over 5,500 pesos.

The clinic assists the hearing impaired in mainly the first two categories. The cost to patients in the third category is lower than the prices for products and services charged elsewhere in Oaxaca. Currently each and every one of the 35 children being treated at the therapy center comes from a family earning less than 1,000 pesos monthly. Consider the donations that such households can possibly make!

While for the past five years CORAL has applied to the Government of Mexico for assistance, and has in fact received financial aid, the lion’s share of resources comes from individual donors and a number of Mexican corporate foundations. The total revenue received from all sources for running the 2009 programs was about 1.8 million pesos, or under $150,000 USD – to pay 15 employees; utility costs; maintenance and taxes on the CORAL facilities; for all equipment (including hearing aid batteries which last only 15 – 20 days); and for two vehicles.

Plans to Enhance the Work of CORAL for Deaf and Hearing Impaired in Oaxaca

CORAL is currently working on several projects it’s confident will bear fruit within the next several months, enabling it to better identify and treat deaf and hearing impaired children in Oaxaca:

• Designating a fourth category of monthly family income is in the works, designed to increase contributions from the “wealthy.” With all 35 children in the school coming from families with monthly incomes of less than 1,000 pesos, revenue from CORAL program participants to date has been negligible;
• February, 2010, marks the beginning of an in-home training program for parents in the outlying indigenous communities. Since many deaf and hearing impaired children reside more than a three-hour bus ride from the CORAL offices and are therefore precluded from attending regular weekly classes, this new program will bring CORAL’s resources into the pueblos by educating parents – for all intents and purposes making them therapists of their own children. Naturally, ongoing professional monitoring will continue;
• A plan is underfoot whereby if all goes as anticipated, a particular Mexican corporation will be donating a fully-equipped vehicle to serve as a mobile clinic, enabling the work of CORAL professionals in the villages to proceed more efficiently;
• Through the auspices of Child-Aid, CORAL is a registered charity in the US. One is therefore able to deduct charitable donations against US income. As a consequence of an agreement between Mexico and the US, American donors are entitled to receive tax deductible receipts by donating directly to CORAL. Now, a new arm to the program is in the planning stages, making contributions even more attractive to generous and caring Americans. With the institution of a child sponsorship program, contributors will have a one-on-one relationship with a particular infant or youth, and be able to monitor a child’s progress and note their contributions at work. The program would be akin to Foster Parents Plan.

What Vacationers Can Do for Deaf and Hearing Impaired Children in Oaxaca

While cash charitable donations constitute the most obvious and easiest means of contributing to the work done by CORAL for the deaf and hearing impaired of Oaxaca, there are other ways of providing aid and assistance:

• The hearing aid batteries brought to Oaxaca by the Cole-Gardner family were actually donated by the Oregon Lion’s Sight and Hearing Foundation. Like organizations in one’s hometown can be tapped. Those with connections to product manufacturers should be able to approach those companies for similar aid;
• Many medical and dental supplies are accessible through dental equipment and pharmaceutical representatives, doctors, nurses, hygienists, and other staff in related fields. The beauty of items such as tooth brushes, dental floss, band-aids, and hearing aid batteries is that they are light, take up very little suitcase room, and do not need special packing to prevent breakage;
• Donations of used clothing are invaluable. If a family in Oaxaca with a child in treatment does not have to purchase clothes, it therefore has more resources to contribute to the child’s therapy as well as to other necessities of life simply not accessible to those “living on the edge;”
• Given that the therapy center serves a dual function of school, small educational toys and games, as well as sports equipment is helpful;
• Visitors to Oaxaca are at times considering a longer-term stay, as part of a sabbatical or when considering more permanent residency in the city. Those with specific training or experience in a field related to teaching, therapy or medical treatment for the deaf and hearing impaired, can provide much-needed volunteer services. Similarly, those with technical skills related to hearing aid components and other tools and equipment used in assessment and treatment can offer support. Finally, the assistance of a graphic designer, artist and / or computer programmer would be useful to CORAL in achieving its goals.

Contact CORAL: Help The Deaf and Hearing Impaired Children of Oaxaca

Contact the staff of CORAL through its website (http://www.coraloaxaca.org), for more information about CORAL and helping the deaf and hearing impaired in Oaxaca through charitable contributions; or this writer to have your used clothing and other items picked up from your hotel or bed & breakfast.

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

Posted by titosarah 16:49 Archived in Mexico Tagged health_and_medicine Comments (0)

Chango Mezcalero: Pottery Mezcal Bottle from Oaxaca, Mexico

Collectible Oaxacan Clay Spirits Container Has a Curious History in San Bartolo Coyotepec

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

Chango Mezcalero has become a very collectible folk art item whose history has been recounted infrequently, if at all. While by all accounts it originated in the State of Oaxaca, home of mezcal – the spirit distilled from the baked, then fermented agave plant – it’s now highly sought after by collectors residing much further abroad.

The story of Chango Mezcalero may provide a link between the grey, functional pottery produced in Oaxaca’s San Bartolo Coyotepec initially during pre-Hispanic times, and the area’s contemporary black pottery or barro negro. Black pottery is stated to have resulted from the 1952/53 innovation of now famous Zapotec native potters, Doña Rosa Real and husband Don Juventino Nieto.

What Exactly is Chango Mezcalero, the Curious Monkey-Shaped Mezcal Bottle?

Chango Mezcalero is a clay receptacle in the shape of a monkey, often painted in brilliant colors, traditionally used for mezcal. In modern times the monkey shape has been manufactured as mainly decorative folk art, sometimes unpainted yet with detailed etching into the grey clay, occasionally bottomless and without a spout since it’s not intended for serving liquid.

The traditional Chango Mezcalero was used to hold, display and / or gift mezcal for imbibing, and hence the name. The clay bottle is just that, usually with a stopper made of cork, or a small piece of corn cob.

Some of the more common poses of the monkey include eating or simply holding a banana, arms across the chest, and one hand in front with the other covering an eye.

Chango Mezcalero served both the tourist and local trade. It’s encountered with Recuerdo de Oaxaca (Souvenir of Oaxaca) written on the back; and sometimes as a pair, with the name of a man painted on the front of one figure and of a woman on the other, suggested local use as personalized gifts – for weddings, anniversaries, birthdays and other rites of passage. Sometimes it’s found painted, yet with no inscription, by no means unusual since its original function was as a combined adornment and serving bottle kept on the shelves of cantinas.

Chango Mezcalero´s size is usually between 8” and 9.5” in height. The traditional forms hold between about 700 ml and 1 liter, respectively.

Linking Barro Negro and Chango Mezcalero in an Historical Context

Eighty-year-old Don Valente Nieto, sole surviving progeny of Doña Rosa and Don Juventino, states that anyone else in his hometown of San Bartolo Coyotepec who maintains that they or their deceased relatives were the creator of Chango Mezcalero, is mistaken or misstating fact. He believes that his father, a highly talented sculptor, was the innovator of not only Chango Mezcalero, but other fanciful clay vessels used for holding mezcal.

Don Valente reveals that it all began when cantina operators from Oaxaca – first one, followed by others – started coming to the Nieto-Real homestead, requesting the chango bottle for keeping, displaying and selling mezcal. Eventually other animal forms were requested and produced. While the gifted Don Juventino created those different shapes as well, Chango Mezcalero gained notoriety.

Don Valente notes the clay molds of the chango, mermaid, stylized owl and more, tucked away as mementos of his father’s legacy. He points to vintage photos of his parents alongside such figures waiting to be placed in a rudimentary in-ground oven for baking. Don Juventino died in 1973, at 70 years of age, while Doña Rosa died some seven year later, at 80.

Indeed Don Valente’s parents are the acknowledged innovators of barro negro, the shiny black pottery now providing the livelihood for most townspeople in San Bartolo Coyotepec. In fact Nelson Rockefeller was an admirer of Doña Rosa and her barro negro, and himself had a substantial collection of her work. Before the early 1950s innovation of black pottery, and dating to pre-Hispanic times, villagers were producing only utilitarian grey clay pieces such as San Bartolo’s noted cantaro form.

An alternate version of the origin of Chango Mezcalero comes from the San Bartolo Coyotepec family of Marcelo Simon Galan, deceased. His granddaughter advises that her abuelo used to go on trade routes with his grey clay pieces including water bottles and pitchers. She continues that someone once asked him to make a monkey form, he complied, and then orders began to come in from others. He worked with the clay, while others did the painting.
With further investigation more facts will hopefully emerge which may lead to additional credence being given to this version of the origin of Chango Mezcalero. For what it’s worth, one of Don Marcelo´s changos is on display at the Museo de Arte Popular de Oaxaca in San Bartolo Coyotepec.
Nowithstanding the foregoing, and subject to further information coming to light, if the Nieto-Real family was the creator of barro negro, now coveted by collectors of Mexican crafts across the globe, is it too far a stretch to suggest that perhaps the same family was the innovator of Chango Mezcalero? As to why initially a chango, perhaps there’s a relationship between the black-faced, monkey-feautured Memin Pinguin Mexican comic book character, and the origins of Chango Mezcalero.

Cautionary Notes Concerning the History and Significance of Chango Mezcalero

The foregoing is hypothesis, based on partial oral histories and an examination of various vintage and contemporary pieces. While some would discount the validity of oral histories vis-à-vis Oaxacan studies, they remain an important methodology for piecing together information including chronology; sometimes complementing, while at other times being the only viable research tool yielding results.

When examining the relationship between the development of pre-Hispanic pottery traditions, barro negro and Chango Mezcalero, one must keep at least three points in mind:

• The richness, diversity and multitude of pre-Hispanic art-forms developed in the central valleys of Oaxaca, as evidenced in, amongst other places, Oaxaca’s Rufino Tamayo Museum of Pre.Hispanic Art;
• Two oral histories exist in San Bartolo Coyotepec regarding the origins of Chango Mezcalero, and more may come to light (or perhaps have already been told), with the distinct possibility that there may never be any definitive answer – and perhaps development began at roughly the same time, at different workshops;
• There may indeed be physical evidence disputing the foregoing stories of the origin of Chango Mezcalero, and in fact close examination of bottles suggests that at some point in time it was produced using a different clay than that used for making barro products in San Bartolo Coyotepec.

Despite these and other caveats, the little, often colorful monkey-shaped mezcal bottle known as Chango Mezcalero, provides historians with fruit for further research, and folk art collectors with at least provisional answers to their queries.

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

Posted by titosarah 13:44 Archived in Mexico Tagged lodging Comments (0)

Ecotourism in Oaxaca: Arroyo Guacamaya

Visiting the Ixtlan District in Oaxaca's Sierra Norte

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

Arroyo Guacamaya is one of the closest ecotourism sites to the City of Oaxaca, accessible by private vehicle in about an hour, or public transportation. La Guacamaya has most if not all of the features and attractions of the more distant ecotourism locales in the Sierra Norte of Oaxaca, including mountain biking, nature trails for hiking and climbing, streams and waterfalls, lodging, children’s facilities, and a restaurant featuring fresh fish from the local trout farm – all within a community-managed forest promoting sustainable logging operations.

Getting to Arroyo Guacamaya, Oaxaca Ecotourism Site in Ixtlan District

The village of La Guacamaya, while in the District of Ixtlan, is only a 45 minute car ride from Villa Etla, and thus just over an hour from the City of Oaxaca. Accordingly, while there are a number of reasonably priced overnight cabins at Arroyo Guacamaya, as a day trip from Oaxaca one can easily enjoy a great deal of what the region has to offer.

There are a number of options for getting to Arroyo Guacamaya ecotourism site:

• Hire a tour guide, driver or taxi, although this option is best for just a day trip since one might end up paying for the driver’s down time if an overnight is preferred.
• Rent a car from one of the several vehicle rental facilities located both at the airport and in downtown Oaxaca.
• Seek out a Oaxaca ecotourism company, although this option might entail unnecessary expense, though an attractive option for those without at least a little facility with the Spanish language.
• From downtown Oaxaca near the Abastos Market, take the bus known as the autobus comunitario de Teococuilco de Marcos Perez, located at Calle Heriberto Jara #118, Col. Libertad.

La Guacamaya is 31 kilometers from the City of Oaxaca, at approximately 9,000 feet above sea level. One leaves Oaxaca driving north towards Mexico City along Federal Highway 190, and continues along the “libre” or free highway, keeping to the right rather than going on the toll road (“cuota”).

About a minute’s drive beyond the Pemex gas station at the entrance to Villa Etla, there’s a clearly marked blue sign indicating “Arroyo Guacamaya Ecoturismo, 13 kilometers,” with an arrow indicating a right turn off the highway.

After leaving the main highway, and until arriving at Arroyo Guacamaya, one does not make any additional turns. It’s therefore an easy drive and extremely difficult to get lost. The road begins as a four-lane paved secondary highway, then narrows to two lanes, and finally, for the rest of the drive one is on a dirt road, often dusty depending on the time of year.

One quickly passes through the villages of San Miguel Etla and then San Gabriel Etla, each with a quaint old stone church located on the right side of the road. The terrain is rolling hills, with mixed semi-tropical vegetation.

The pavement ends shortly thereafter, and the balance of the drive is a gradual climb along a dirt road with numerous easy-to-navigate switchbacks. The roadway is not particularly conducive to motion sickness, so one need not be concerned in this regard.

Ascending, the vegetation changes from agave, cactus and mixed brush, to scrub oak and coniferous forest of predominantly pine. Note the brilliant yellow and occasional red bromeliads growing on the trees.

Arrival at Arroyo Guacamaya, Sierra Norte, Oaxaca

About 45 minutes alter having left the main highway and witnessed changes in vegetation, elevation with corresponding ear popping, and temperature, one finally arrives. A blue sign directing visitors to the cabins and restaurant is clearly visible with arrows pointing to the left down a smaller roadway. To the right the road continues on for a couple of kilometers to the hillside village of La Guacamaya.

Aside from ecotourism and sustainable logging operations, villagers dedicate themselves to predominantly agricultural enterprises. For about half of the year the main products harvested and taken to market (i.e. the nearby Wednesday Etla market) are fava beans and potatoes, and for the remainder of the year fresh flowers (in particular azucenas which have strong cultural significant to natives of the region), berros (similar to watercress), and ocote (wood used as kindling).

Facilities at Arroyo Guacamaya, Oaxaca Ecotourism Site

As of early 2010, the ecotourism site consists of:

• Five brick and adobe cabins each with lighting, a working fireplace, washroom with hot water, and beds. Electricity is provided by solar panels. Beds consist of bunk beds and double beds. Four of the cabins house up to four people, and one up to a family of six.
• A restaurant consisting of a large dining room with kitchen, able to accommodate up to about 50 diners.
• Children’s swings and Jungle-Jim style climbing apparatus.
• An adobe temazcal, scheduled for completion later in the year.

The dining hall, in addition to serving aluminum-wrapped grilled or fried fresh trout, serves standard Oaxacan fare such as meats and quesadillas. Sides include salad, spaghetti with vegetables and mushrooms, beans and tortillas. The fish broth is equally as fresh and delectable as the appetizers and main course offerings. Beverages include water, soft drinks, beer and mezcal.

Ecotourism Activities at Arroyo Guacamaya, Ixtlan, Oaxaca

Adan is a conscientious bilingual guide and resource person, up on ecotourism matters, and anxious to provide advice and interesting information. Consider spending at least one afternoon with him, partaking in the various activities.

The pursuits one can enjoy include:

• Climbing through forests up to the mountain peaks of Siempreviva and La Portillo, from which exquisite panoramic vistas of the valleys and numerous hamlets flecking the mountainsides can be appreciated.
• Mountain biking.
• Walking through the village.
• Learning more about local economic activities and obstacles to the continued sustainability of the community through ecotourism.
• Visiting the trout farm, its pools fed by fast-flowing waters from an alpine spring.
• Hiking to nearby streams and waterfalls, over soft, thick beds of dried pine needles.
• Taking note of and photographing interesting mountain plants such as sedum and echeveria.

As noted, the temazcal should be completed in the year 2010. Tourists to the village will have an opportunity to partake in the ancient healing custom of temazcal – sweat facilitated through the use of steam combined with medicinal herbs – cleansing the body and soul. Some have described the ritual as being akin to the Iroquois sweat lodge.

For children, while the foregoing activities are both safe and educational, Arroyo Guacamaya holds the additional attraction of wooden teeter totters and climbing apparatus, located steps from the restaurant, cabins and temazcal.

Arroyo Guacamaya Compared to Other Oaxacan Ecotourism Sites

La Guacamaya is a relatively new ecotourism site in the Ixtlan district of Oaxaca. It stands alongside Cuajimoloyas, La Neveria, Benito Juarez, Llano Grande, Ixtlan de Juarez, and other similar yet longer-established village ecotourism sites, and boasts similar attractions. While still developing and therefore perhaps deficient in some activities such as horseback riding, the relative lack of tourist numbers in and of itself constitutes part of its allure. And of course, there’s the proximity to the City of Oaxaca, a significant bonus for most.

Contact Information for Arroyo Guacamaya Ecotourism Site, Ixtlan, Oaxaca

Arrangements for visiting Arroyo Guacamaya in the Sierra Norte of Oaxaca can be made through one’s hotel or bed & breakfast, or by calling direct: (951) 521-8127.

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

Posted by titosarah 10:55 Archived in Mexico Tagged ecotourism Comments (0)

The Veria Network's sustainable living series, Under The Sun

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.

Episode One

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.

Episode Two

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.

Posted by titosarah 14:08 Archived in Mexico Tagged tourist_sites Comments (0)

La rubia negra: The erotic art of Gerardo Navarro Gómez

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

Artist Gerardo Navarro Gómez lives in lush, tranquil and delightfully simple surroundings with his mother and three sisters. One would not expect to encounter art ranging from the mildly erotic to pieces that test the sensibilities of the most liberal among us. But yes, accompanying paintings which express religious imagery and childlike carefree scenes, are those of quite another theme, carefully tucked away from view.

The women in the Navarro Gómez family weave cotton textiles on their back strap looms, while Gerardo is busy painting all manner of contorted body parts spewing the lifeblood of humankind. On this day they all, matriarch included, lightly laugh and joke in response to this writer’s pointed and arguably embarrassing questions, sloughing it all off. No subject is deemed taboo, nor provokes shame. Perhaps the Eden-like environment is the key to the harmony between such seemingly different forms of creativity in one family. Gerardo, a bachelor, lives in the very Catholic and rural world of Santo Tomás Jalieza, sharing daily chores as well as workspace with three spinster sisters and their mother.

Santo Tomás Jalieza is a small town about a 35 minute drive from the South Central Mexican city of Oaxaca. Oaxaca is tucked away in a series of central valleys in the state of the same name, surrounded by the Sierra Madre del Sur mountain range. The region is a popular destination for travelers seeking a cultural vacation – rich in pre-Hispanic ruins, impressive Dominican churches dating to the 1500s, and museums and galleries. The area is also known for its gastronomic greatness, with arguably the best cuisine in all of Mexico – and of course its broad diversity of quaint craft villages, including Santa Tomás Jalieza.

Residents of Santo Tomás have been weaving cotton textiles for generations, more recently for primarily the tourist trade – tablecloths and bedspreads, table runners and placemats, napkins, purses, leather-trimmed belts, change purses, eyeglass cases, embroidered blouses, and more. In the case of the Navarro Gómez family, proficiency in this cottage industry dates back only a couple of generations, since Gerardo’s parents didn’t move to the town until they married. They then made it a priority to learn to weave, and with the assistance of relatives in the village, teach their children.

Through ranching and agriculture the inhabitants of Santo Tomás remain to a large extent self-sufficient, relying if not on sheep, goats or cows, then certainly upon chickens – and of course subsistence crops such as corn and beans, supplemented by squash. The vagaries of tourism in Oaxaca require it.

Navarro grew up rejecting formal education, whether by design or circumstance: “I never did finish public school. I didn’t think I was learning anything, and in fact spent about four years languishing in first grade. Finally, when I was 14 I packed it in for good.”

But there was one teacher, Maestra Lupita, who did impact his future: “She was the only one, I now realize, who saw something in me that was different from the rest. She gave me crayons and a drawing book, and left me to work. I never asked her why she centered me out, and she never offered an explanation. She just left me alone most of the time, to draw.”

After school Navarro would tend his father’s goats, while sometimes doing a bit of leatherwork, and regularly jotting down his thoughts, even making little verses. Twice the government sent instructors to the village, initially to teach about working with animal skins, and then to show the townspeople how to combine textiles and leather to make purses and belts. Gerardo became proficient at making leather belts decorated with narrow strips of cotton textile produced by his sisters and mother on their looms.

But once again, he rejected convention: “I didn’t like doing that kind of work. I always felt under pressure and like I wasn’t really creating anything. I had no freedom. For someone to say, ‘I need 20 belts just like this in two weeks,’ just reinforced that I had to do something else and remove myself from the lifestyle of those around me.”

While Navarro enjoyed the freedom of tending the herd – his father even bought him two cows when he was 21 – he became very ill, and was hospitalized. When he eventually recovered he found that he could no longer tend the livestock. His body’s defenses never returned to their former level of functioning, and thus he lacked the energy and fortitude required for herding.

In January, 1994, he left for California, intent upon beginning a new life: “I wanted to leave behind everything from my past, so I even burned all of my little writings from those afternoons out in the fields.” He returned in May, having found the Los Angeles lifestyle even worse; people were always rushing around and seemed to be under an undue amount of pressure.

Within three months of Navarro’s return, his life had indeed changed, dramatically.

Over the years the women – mother Mariana and daughters Margarita, Inés and Crispina – developed a reputation for fashioning cotton textiles of extremely high quality, by and large setting them apart from most others in town. Crispina in particular found a niche for herself, weaving fine thread into the most intricate of designs. Her notoriety spread to such an extent that she began to receive praise from craft aficionados even outside of Mexico. She’s been in the company of four Mexican presidents, most recently visiting former President Vicente Fox at his ranch.

The family had become accustomed to hosting dignitaries at their modest, yet spacious and immaculately kept homestead. Frequently artists would attend at their home to buy handicrafts, and to just chat and spend a couple of hours with the family. And who wouldn’t be so drawn to the family, residing within one of the most welcoming environments imaginable.

Acclaimed Oaxacan artist Juan Alcázar and his wife Justina Fuentes, a talented painter in her own right, was one such couple. Of course Navarro knew nothing of Maestro Alcázar at the time, other than that he was a man from the city who appreciated quality textiles. One day in early August, 1994, a visitor of German extraction, Helmut Kohl, came by to mire Crispina’s artistry. He noted Navarro’s fine leatherwork, and suggested that he might want to consider taking art classes with a friend, Juan Alcázar. Of course it was the same Juan Alcázar with whom Navarro had been acquainted for some 15 years, never knowing that Alcázar was an up-and-coming master of contemporary Mexican art. Within days Navarro was in Oaxaca to meet with Alcázar; on the 15th of the month he began being mentored by Alcázar and Fuentes

Over the next four-and-a-half years, day in and day out, from nine to six, Navarro would visit the Alcázar / Fuentes workshop, Taller Libre de Gráfica Oaxaqueña, working initially with pencil, then ink, and eventually watercolors. While others were in groups taking courses and otherwise learning to be artists, Gerardo would be off in a corner, his back to them, working away independently.

“Don’t even look at art books until you’ve been painting for ten years,” Alcázar counseled; no matter, since Navarro had not previously cracked a book, and never had any intention of doing so. In fact to this day, Navarro maintains, he has never looked in an art book, nor read about theory or technique, and is oblivious to the art of Chagall and Picasso – aside from the fact that some of his patrons have likened his work to that of such Grand Masters.

Navarro has never taken an art class, and even though he credits Alcázar and Fuentes with the development of his work and his success, they did not really “teach,” in the everyday sense of the term: “I’ve never been able to tolerate a classroom environment, and in fact have never studied or worked in a group. I think it probably dates back to my years in the fields. My father always warned me against socializing with others who were tending their own herds, for fear that I would become distracted. Of course I received guidance from Juan and Justina, but no, there were no lessons.”

Navarro had his first exhibition in 1995, after Kohl had advised him that he wanted to display his work in a gallery in Ajijic. Gerardo had no idea what to expect. When he accompanied Kohl to the framer the day before the inauguration of the exhibition, he was taken aback at how different his work then looked. But Kohl kept him grounded: “If you sell one piece you’ll be lucky; with two sales consider yourself a master; and never expect to sell three.” He learned that a gold star beside a piece meant it was sold. By 6 pm that first evening of the show, 15 of 16 pieces had gold stars.

None of those initial works offered for sale was erotica, though from the outset Navarro had been creating art with sexual content. He’s always feared exhibiting such pieces, even in his own workshop: “I still keep the erotica apart from the rest of my work, in a separate plastic sleeve, face down. I won’t show them unless people ask to see them; and besides, sometimes children come to our home, so I have to be careful. Even my larger works are on the floor facing inward.” He points to a large framed piece hidden behind another.

Narvarro has been painting more erotic art in recent years. But he has never simply decided “I’m going to do erotica starting today.” In fact he doesn’t start out with a particular idea when he begins working, erotica or mainstream. The brush just takes him where it wants to go: “My mind seems to flow like a river; and so I just follow it, and if it keeps flowing after I’m finished a piece, then a sequence of pieces will emerge.”

Many of Navarro’s pieces include prose or poetry relating to the image represented. Sometimes words come to him when he begins a piece, thereby inspiring content, and other times what he writes comes about once a work has been completed. He embarrassingly acknowledges: “I know that because I’m not educated, there are always errors in spelling and grammar.” Such works remind of the Mexican votive painting style, or ex – voto tradition.

In Navarrós lighthearted La rubia negra (2006), the message is clearly conveyed without the use of prose: a lover’s teary upset and her boyfriend’s rejecting dismay upon his realization that she’s not a natural blonde. The title’s double entendre alone is sufficient poetic rhyme; the work’s familiar imagery serves to dispense with the need for more explicit eroticism.

In 1996, Fuentes told Navarro it was time to try working with oils. She gave him a canvas and frame, and told him to buy a couple of tubes of paint. After he sold his first oil, he went out and spent 1,000 pesos on as many tubes of paint as the money would buy. Everyone laughed, never having heard of anyone spending all their money on so much paint. But he was filled with excitement and ambition, so much so that within the next four months he had created 18 oils, exhibiting them for the first time in 1997. Oils are amongst the erotica in his workshop, on the floor, facing the wall.

“You just never know what people’s reactions will be, or how receptive they’ll be to that kind of art. A while ago a woman from the city bought one of my eroticas, a mermaid having oral sex with a mortal. She took it home and her husband wouldn’t let her hang it in their house. So they came back together, and exchanged it for a painting of a couple making love, with a crucifix on the wall above them, and an angel passing over, covering Jesus’ eyes.”

Navarro doesn’t perceive inconsistency between being Catholic and producing erotica, but then again he attends church infrequently: “I have my faith, and I believe in Jesus.” He continues: “What initially turned me off going to galleries to see other art or even my own, was when there was an exhibit of my work in one room, and religious art in another. The crowds were looking at my display, and hardly anyone was staying to look at the religious art. Someone came up to me and said ‘you’re the devil.’ My response was simple; at night we all lie down and spread our legs, so what’s wrong with that kind of portrayal in my art.”

For his oils and watercolors Navarro works in the most brilliant of colors. And with his ink drawings he uses sepia tones. Curiously, it’s more in his pieces done in shades of blacks and browns where he appears to let loose and enable bizarre sexual metaphors to predominate.

“I’m not interested in exhibiting my work in other countries,” Navarro readily indicates, then explaining his reasoning: “People come from far away to see me, not just my art. So what happens if I’m not here? It’s not fair to those who admire what I do, if they come by or contact me to make sure I’ll be around, and I’m away.”

The sisters echo the identical sentiment. They’ve only traveled out of the country to exhibit on two occasions. And when it comes to fiestas and other family obligations in Santo Tomás or Oaxaca, generally one family member will remain at home at all times. Being available for those who appreciate their artistry is a priority.

The division of labor in the Navarro Gómez household is wholly consistent with Gerardo’s personal worldview as represented in his art. Each family member has morning household tasks; sweeping the exterior hardened earth or the interior concrete floors, making tortillas, cooking meals, tending to the animals. And most are subject to weekly rotation. Gerardo does not begin his artistic day until all the rest of the work has been completed. And so equality between the sexes in the household spills over to his erotica – one sex does not dominate the other, and women appear to be just as active participants as men in the eroticism portrayed.

Much of Gerardo Navarro’s erotica speaks to his personal philosophy regarding monogamy and marriage. He has not been in a long-term relationship since beginning his career as an artist some fifteen years ago. He sees marriage as a compromise he’s not prepared to make. “Marriage is like a grave,” he maintains, then continues: “It kills love. In the world I know, the men aren’t around all that much. They’re off in the US under the guise of earning for their families, with the women and children left at home to fend for themselves. What do the women do?” Silence ensues, leading one to imagine what actually transpires behind closed doors in Santo Tomás Jalieza. Gerardo Navarro Gómez then returns to painting one of his favorite themes – the apple tree in the Book of Genesis, with Eve firmly in control.

Alvin Starkman received his Masters in 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 tours to the villages, markets, ruins and other sights, is a film consultant, 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 18:14 Archived in Mexico Comments (1)

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