A Travellerspoint blog

Canadian artist Fiona Dunnett

Images of self and death in Oaxaca are muted by comic style and collage

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

Comic strips, a young Canadian’s self portraits, and photographs of violent deaths in a Mexican daily newspaper, make strange bedfellows. But they constitute a major part of the driving force for the creative energies of artist Fiona Dunnett, a resident of Oaxaca, Mexico.

Ottawa-born Dunnett has been living in Oaxaca since 2005. As in the case of so many artists who now reside in this city in southern Mexico, her arrival has been rather circuitous. And like so many others, her artistic talent has been influenced at virtually every stop along the way. At age five she left Canada for Bangladesh with her Canadian diplomat mother and the rest of her family. After three years it was back to Ottawa, and then a further three years in Zimbabwe.

“When I left Zimbabwe I felt close to South Africa. I took a course in stone sculpture while there, so yes, I suppose living in Zimbabwe has had somewhat of an influence on what I do today,” she surmises. But it was her upper level academic training, first at the Canterbury School of Arts, followed by British Columbia’s University of Victoria from which she graduated with an Hons. B.A. in Fine Arts, which exposed her to the personages who have impacted her creativity the most.

“I’ve had a strong interest in the work of Gustav Klimt [1862 – 1918],” Dunnett reveals. The Austrian symbolist painter was one of the most prominent members of the Vienna Art Nouveau movement, yet a controversial figure in his time, criticized for his works being too sensual and erotic. She continues: “But it’s Lichtenstein whose art I’ve actually made more of a conscious effort to respect and carry forward, imprinting it with a bit of my own personality and life experiences.”

Roy Fox Lichtenstein [1923 – 1997] was a prominent American pop artist, whose work was heavily influenced by both popular advertising and the comic book style. The latter clearly shines through in Dunnett’s more recent works, and in an earlier piece which graces a wall in her home in Oaxaca’s Xochimilco neighborhood which she shares with her boyfriend and three others: “That one’s based on a dream I had, certainly with overt comic book imagery; in the particular dream there was a calenda (parade), with bodies being dragged through the streets. I once did a series based on my dreams. I dyed the red sky forming part of the background of this canvas with cochineal [the minute insect with naturally produces carminic acid, and was an important export industry for Oaxaca during colonial times].”

Dunnett is much too modest. Since moving to Oaxaca there’s no doubt that she’s put her own mark on the comic style, with her un-daunting desire to learn, and innovate. The geographical, cultural and political environment in which she lives provides her with diverse opportunities for artistic inspiration. She attended a workshop to learn about the use of natural dyes such as flowers, plants and of course cochineal, at the educational and research facility known as Centro de Difusión de la Grana Cochinilla Tlapanochestli. “For quite some time I’d been thinking about using natural dyes in my work, but it wasn’t until a couple of years ago that I realized that here in Oaxaca [actually a few kilometers out of the city, in Santa María Coyotepec] I had the opportunity to learn about their use from an expert, Manuel Loera Fernández, the chemist at Tlapanochestli. There’s just so much artistic stimulation in Oaxaca that it’s hard to resist taking advantage of everything available.”

Dunnett has also participated in more traditional hands-on seminars, at the well-known Graphic Arts Institute of Oaxaca (IAGO) and at a couple of other institutes in the city. Towards the other end of the spectrum, she credits two local graffiti stencil art groups with providing her with additional inspiration, which becomes apparent after an examination of her work.

“I began moving out of realism and into stylized, surreal works towards the end of my Canadian academic training. It was about the same time that I began working with mixed media, my strong preference at this stage of my development.” Coming to Oaxaca was perhaps the catalyst she required in order to begin more experimental work, within the context of an extremely encouraging environment.

Aside from a leaning towards the use of natural colors for backgrounds on her canvasses, one of the major identifying features of Dunnett’s work is her use of collage --- cut-outs from newspapers, magazines and comic books. Another is using photographs of her own head and face to provide the stimulus for her portrayal of expressions and poses she seeks to capture for each subject. Almost every head in every work is based on a self-photographic portrait:

“I started doing self-portraits when I began doing photography several years ago. Then when I moved into painting, I had this corpus of self-photos, so I was able to draw from them for my art. Although I wanted to shoot other people, I never felt at ease doing so. And though my boyfriend and I have been together for close to four years, I still don’t feel comfortable photographing even him. So it’s all me, perhaps because of being shy when it comes to shooting others. But that red one over there, textured with corn husks from tamales, it’s an experiment, using a face that’s not my own --- I think it’s best if I stick to my own face.”

Each face evokes different emotions, and images of self. “The faces make eye contact; viewers’ eyes move around each work and then return to the eyes and face,” she explains. It’s undeniable that Dunnett’s own pleasing facial features, and her comport, once transferred to canvas, play a significant role in directing the viewer. She has masterfully photographed her head and upper body at every angle and with a plethora of facial expressions for use in her work.

But there’s another reason we return to the images of Dunnett’s facial expressions: The torso and limbs of each primary subject portrayed is far too troubling --- each is a digitalized version of a photograph of a person who has died a violent death, usually in a traffic collision or as a consequence of domestic conflict, captured by Dunnett from both print and online versions of a Oaxacan daily, Noticias Voz e Imagen de Oaxaca. But in the artist herself, there is a sense of calm.

“I started using those photographs because they just began to jump out at me. You never see anything like it in Canada. In Oaxaca, it’s on the street corners and in the newsstands. Death here seems to be an everyday thing, and attitudes towards death are so different than from where you and I come from, not so hidden away.”

Dunnett stresses that her intention is not to invoke feelings of horror, nor reveal the gruesome. The facial expressions she initially captures with a lens, then transposes onto canvas with brush, lead us away. In the case of her work with a collaged iguana, it’s curiosity in her face, rather than demonic imagery of death, which draws one in.

The juxtaposition of death against the aesthetics of comic imagery is striking, almost as much as the multiplicity of presentations of Dunnett’s own self. It’s that combination which maintains the viewer’s awe of and transfixation upon her work. Perhaps Fiona Dunnett never should break out of her reticence about photographing the faces of others.

Alvin Starkman has a Masters in Anthropology from York University, and a law degree from Osgoode Hall Law School. Alvin ceased practicing law in 2004, when he and his wife Arlene began living permanently in Oaxaca. Since that time, Alvin has written over 90 articles about life and cultural traditions in Oaxaca, for newspapers, magazines, and websites promoting tourism in Mexico and abroad. Alvin and Arlene operate Casa Machaya Oaxaca Bed & Breakfast (http://www.oaxacadream.com).

Posted by titosarah 16:21 Archived in Mexico Comments (0)

Casa de los Sabores Cooking School in Oaxaca expands options

Alvin Starkman M.A., LL.B.

Internationally acclaimed Oaxacan chef Pilar Cabrera (NY Times, Bon Appetit) has expanded the roster at her well-known downtown Oaxaca cooking school, Casa de los Sabores (House of Flavors). Effective June, 2009, indigenous Zapotec chef Reyna Mendoza joins Pilar’s team, offering a new dimension to the already stellar selection of options available to intrigued foodies, those with a keen interest in Mexican cuisine, as well as chefs from around the globe seeking to add to their existing menus.

A native of Teotitlán del Valle, Reyna brings her knowledge, skill and experience to Casa de los Sabores. She specializes in the preparation of Zapotec dishes.

Reyna has worked with the likes of chefs Rick Bayless and Ricardo Muñoz. Accordingly, her pedigree is beyond reproach, combining technical aspects of the culinary sciences, with lifelong experience in the modest kitchens of her mother and her family’s other matriarchs of gastronome. And today, members of the Oaxaca Bed & Breakfast Association (http://www.oaxacabedandbreakfast.org) had an opportunity to learn for themselves.

Pilar invited colleagues from the association to attend her cooking school, so that owners and managers of small hotels and bed & breakfast guest houses in Oaxaca, would be able to experience for themselves what Reyna can add to the vacation of any visitor to the city and its central valleys. And for four hours, we grilled, chopped and filled, and finally indulged in the fruits of our labor, at this hands-on demonstration.

While we prepared a complete comida, we focused on the preparation of three distinctly different types of Zapotec-style tamales. The complete menu consisted of:

1) Tamales of mole amarillo with chicken, wrapped in large corn stalk leaf;
2) Tamales of mole negro with chicken, in banana leaf;
3) Tamales of mole negro with quesillo, in banana leaf;
4) Tamales of black bean, flavored with avocado leaf, wrapped in corn husk;
5) Salsa of tomatillo and dried Oaxacan chile
6) Salad of organic lettuce, locally grown tomato, avocado and scallion, with cilantro and chile poblano dressing;
7) Mango sherbet served with pecan cookie.

And of course, upon completing the preparation of the foregoing dishes, and throughout the comida, there were rounds of the requisite “salud,” while imbibing … Corona beer and village mezcal.
More than providing an opportunity for us to learn about Reyna and her ability to teach, and to experience for ourselves the exquisite flavor and ingredient combinations of Zapotec cuisine, it was one of those rare opportunities for members of the Oaxaca Bed & Breakfast Association to tell stories, laugh, and enjoy a day away from the office.

Classes for both traditional Oaxacan recipes with Pilar, and Zapotec cooking with Reyna, can be booked by contacting Pilar through her website, http://www.casadelossabores.com.

Alvin Starkman has a masters in social anthropology and law degree from Osgoode Hall Law School. Now a resident of Oaxaca, Alvin writes, takes tours to the sights, 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 downtown Oaxaca hotels with the personal touch of quaint country inn style lodging.

Posted by titosarah 15:54 Archived in Mexico Tagged food Comments (0)

Book Review: Mexican Folk Art From Oaxacan Artist Families

by Arden Aibel Rothstein and Anya Leah Rothstein

Alvin Starkman M.A., LL.B.

Aficionados of folk art of the state of Oaxaca in southern Mexico are already familiar with Arden Aibel Rothstein and Anya Leah Rothstein’s Mexican Folk Art From Oaxacan Artist Families (Atglen, PA: Schiffer Publishing Ltd, 2007). It was surprising to learn, however, that some people with an interest in the crafts of Oaxaca’s central valleys, are not even aware of this seminal work – particularly since it was first published back in 2002.

The 2007 edition of Mexican Folk Art is a comprehensive compilation and detailed examination of each major type of contemporary Oaxacan folk art, set out in a refreshingly user friendly format. The book is divided into ten chapters, each devoted to a different medium: Ceramics, Textiles, Woodcarving, Metal (including tin work, cutlery and knives), Miniatures and Toys, Jewelry, Candles, Basketry and Dried Flower Crafts, with the final chapter devoted to Day of the Dead.

Generally, each chapter begins with a broad description of an art form, including significant variations within. In the Ceramics chapter, for example, the divisions are Terra Cotta, Green Glazed, Multi-Color Glazed, Black (barro negro) and Painted Red. Often a village in Oaxaca’s central valleys is known for the production of a specific type of folk art. Accordingly, in some cases a chapter then proceeds to describe a particular pueblo, giving the reader additional context. We find descriptions of, amongst others, the ceramics towns of Atzompa, San Bartolo Coyotepec and Ocotlán.

Where a family is noted for a special innovation or its adeptness at creating a certain craft, a family history follows. The individual craftspeople are then highlighted. For the black pottery of San Bartolo Coyotepec, we find descriptions of the De Nieto Castillo family, of which the famed Doña Rosa was a member, along with biographies of her son Don Valente Nieto Real and members of his clan; and of the Pedro Martínez family with biographies of acclaimed Carlomagno Pedro Martínez and his relatives.

All told, Mexican Folk Art showcases the works of 100 artists from 50 families living in Oaxaca or one of 13 nearby towns and villages. In most cases we’re enlightened regarding the personality, worldview and motivation of each individual carver, weaver or potter, as well as provided with a biographical sketch, enhanced with the inclusion of a direct quote. In this way the reader gains insight into the inspiration of each craftsperson. In many instances the authors also include a section on the techniques used by the artist, which variously includes the sourcing of raw materials such as wool from the Mixteca region of the state for making rugs and wall hangings, or clays from other regions of the state for changing tone and texture of sculptures; and processing methods including the extracting of natural dyes from fruits, plants, soils and the cochineal insect.

With its glossy front cover and approximately 700 photographs, Mexican Folk Art can rightfully be termed a coffee table book. But it’s much more. The photos in and of themselves bring the book, and the artists, to life: Apolinar Aguilar of Ocotlán, forging a red hot piece of recycled metal into an artistic hunting knife; a display of provocatively painted clay ladies of the night made by his cousin Julian, son of celebrated Guillermina Aguilar; Jacobo Ángeles of San Martín Tilcajete carving a figure from the wood of the copal tree, or standing alongside wife María and their family, each proudly displaying an exquisitely painted alebrije; Teotitlán del Valle weaver Isaac Vásquez, working at his loom creating a tapete, the pattern inspired by a pre-Hispanic pictograph; and fine examples of multi-colored highly detailed hand embroidery from San Antonino, such as the yoke and sleeve of a wedding dress.

This gem should easily entice any reader with an interest or background in anthropology, history or geography. The importance and influence of indigenous Zapotec ancestry and its present-day cultural manifestations shines through many of the ethnographic accounts. The genealogies (referred to as Family Trees) comprising one of the appendices are in-depth, and date as far back as the 19th century. They assist the reader in better understanding the historical and generational context of Oaxacan craft development.

To help those with an interest in exploring the craft villages and visiting the artists on their own, without the assistance of a Oaxaca tour guide, throughout the body of the book the address and all available additional contact information for each artist is provided, such as phone number and email. A second appendix consists of a series of easy-to-read pueblo maps, detailing the precise location of each featured artist, further facilitating contact.

Authors Arden and Anya Rothstein correctly caution that their presentation of artists constitutes “a sampler” of what’s available to those interested in exploring Oaxaca’s hinterland. They in fact encourage getting out and exploring on your own, finding that next folk artist who might rise to international stature. They are careful to qualify that their inclusions are based on which craftspeople are the most innovative, or produce work which is of especially high caliber according to certain criteria. The Rothsteins recognize that the work of any innovator of an entire class of folk art, and of those producing quality a cut above that of the rest, is often out of the financial reach of many. Therefore, they feature additional artists whose works are more affordable, yet also of exceptional quality.

Collectors of folk art often need a reminder that buying the work of a recognized name does not necessarily mean that the product is the best, in terms of coloration or patina, form, design, or the imagery it provokes, and that what strikes the fancy of most, or of the so-called experts, might not be your particular cup of tea. Along this vein, “honorable mention” is provided for makers of certain crafts whose works are not featured (under the heading of, for example, “Additional woodcarvers in Arrazola”). The clear suggestion is that readers should get out there and explore, and make their own determinations and choices based upon personal preferences.

Is it worth purchasing the 2nd edition if you already have the 1st? Certainly give it some consideration if you have not already enmeshed yourself in the appreciation and collecting of Oaxacan folk art by having explored the central valleys. Where the 2002 volume boasts 500 photos and features 87 artists within 44 families, the most recent publication, as noted earlier, has been expanded to 700, 100 and 50, respectively. Some of the craftspeople merely mentioned in the earlier volume under the “Additional” heading, have been elevated to “featured artist,” with their works and stories duly chronicled. And in some cases where families have grown and pueblo demographics have been altered, the authors have appropriately noted changes. Wisely, at least in this critic’s opinion, the U.S. dollar “Price Guide” has been omitted from this new volume, since more than anything else it likely lead to confusion for the buying public, with the potential of putting up barriers between artists and prospective customers. As between Mexican and American economies, there are so many variables and market conditions at play, best to allow vendor/creator and purchaser do their own assessment respecting value for workmanship.

Mexican Folk Art is a well-researched exhaustive study of all major types of contemporary Oaxacan folk art and their makers, past and present. Don’t let its appearance as “just another fancy coffee table book” deceive you. It accomplishes what it sets out to do, and then some. It should be viewed as a guide, rather than a bible. If we’re ever blessed with a 3rd edition, perhaps the publisher will deem it advisable to place duplicates of the pueblo maps in a separate pocket … it would be a pity for such a wonderful work to become unduly worn by toting it from village to village.

Alvin Starkman 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 until 2004. Alvin resides in Oaxaca, where he writes, leads personalized 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 downtown Oaxaca hotel with the lodging style of a quaint country inn.

Posted by titosarah 13:24 Archived in Mexico Tagged tourist_sites Comments (0)

Short Essays on rural Oaxaca mezcal production

Part II: Recicado from the Mixteca Alta

Alvin Starkman M.A., LL.B

It won’t win any contests for being a quality spirit. And in fact residents of the region don’t even call it mezcal, but rather “recicado,” a Mixteco name, they say. But after a five hour drive from the city of Oaxaca, deep in the Mixteca Alta one encounters agave distillation which does take the prize for giving the true aficionado as genuine a glimpse as possible, into the means and materials of production likely encountered by the Spanish at the beginning of the Conquest: clay pots; carriso (river reed) tubing; mud and stone still; pulverizing using a tree burl and wooden trough; fermenting in an animal skin; and of course traditional baking in an in-ground oven.

Pueblo Viejo is a tiny hamlet an hour’s drive from San Juan Mixtepec, along a badly potholed dirt road. The tranquil valley leading to the settlement is known as Rio Azucena, and for good reason … the Sánchez Cisneros family lives alongside a river, a pre-requisite for producing recicado in this part of the state.

Nineteen year old Hilda Sánchez Cisneros lives with her sister, Natividad Sánchez, 47, and four of Natividad’s six children. The other two live and work in the countryside in North Carolina. Fernando, Natividad’s husband, is away this day, doing tequio (community service). Their 10 old son Esteban, and daughter Dália, 16, are fully trilingual, because they and their mother spent several years living in the US, and accordingly they had an opportunity to attend American public school. But here they are, eking out the most modest of existences, producing recicado for Friday sale in the San Juan Mixtepec weekly marketplace.

The family also subsists by growing squash, corn and beans. It’s clear that meat and fowl are not staples in their diet, not unusual for families in the most rural communities in the state.

The stream is an occasional provider, supplying the family with small fish at certain times of the year. And then there is rabbit, squirrel, possum, and fox. “I know that city folk won’t eat small animals like squirrel and possum,” Natividad explains, “but we do up here, when we can get it, and it’s actually quite good.” Esteban proudly adds that occasionally you can also come across coyote and wolf, but more often than not it’s higher up in the mountains.

Hilda and Natividad learned to distill from their parents and grandparents. However during the early years, the plants used in production were wild varieties of agave that had to be collected by climbing the hillsides. Then a couple of years ago Fernando went to Matatlán, the acknowledged world capital of mezcal, and brought back a number of baby agave espadín plants. Espadín continues to be the only type of maguey that is successfully cultivated throughout the state. So now the family is able to grow its own agave in this fertile yet sparsely populated valley, part of which forms the homestead. But the degree of knowledge of family members concerning scientific process and function, seems to be lacking, or rather basic.

The appearance of the chiote (stalk) is the first sign that the maguey has fully matured. Allowing the stalk to shoot up and produce baby plants should be the primary means of reproducing agave espadín. But Fernando and family harvest before the chiote ascends from the heart of the plant. This inhibits their ability to increase the number of fields under cultivation (the plant does produce “hijos” or children through the root system, but this is a secondary means of reproducing and is not relied upon in commercial enterprises). Equally important is that harvesting the plant prematurely, by not awaiting the chiote, cutting it, and then allowing the natural sugars an opportunity to gather in the base or “piña” of the plant, adversely impacts the quality of the finished product.

But just as traditional mezcal production dictates, the piñas are baked in a pit perhaps eight feet deep and six feet across, atop firewood and river rock. Rather than use synthetic material to cover the “oven,” a layer of palm leaf topped with earth is utilized. However the similarity between customary mezcal production, and recicado, stops here.

Instead of crushing the baked agave using a mule or pony pulling a limestone wheel over it, around a circular enclosure, the cooked plant is pulverized by human power, using a tree burl or hand hewn long wooden mallet to pound the baked agave into a pulp in a five foot long canoe-shaped wooden receptacle. Four posts --- thick, straight tree branches --- support a large “bag” made out of bull hide, at about four feet off the ground. Covered with plastic, the mash is left out in the sun to ferment, for four to five days.

Distillation takes place in an area sheltered by laminated metal roofing, located 20 yards from the home. The family employs four igloo shaped stills, aligned in a straight row. Fashioned from stone and mud, each is virtually identical to the next. Beginning from the bottom, the opening where firewood is placed contains a tubular stone which supports a clay cylinder into which the fermented juices and fiber are placed. Vapor rises from it into a bottomless clay pot. The pot is covered with a bowl, or whatever else is available for use.

Water from a halved and hollowed out tree trunk runs above the stills, and fills each of the four bowls through concave pieces of agave leaf leading from four exit holes in the canal above. As the vapor rises and reaches the bowl, by now cooled by the water, condensation takes place. Liquid drips onto another piece of agave leaf, this one affixed to the inside middle of the clay pot, and angled down to a small hole in the side of the container. The liquid exits the vessel through the hole. A hollowed length of river reed, tightly inserted into the hole and pointing downward ensures that the recicado flows slowly out of the pot and into an urn.

The primitive process does mirror many of the steps and adheres to some of the principles required to produce mezcal in the more artisanal technique. But key elements are lacking, no doubt reflected in the quality of the spirit:

1) as noted, the piña is not harvested at the optimum time;
2) fermentation is complete after only a third of the time usually required to adequately ferment espadín for mezcal production in Oaxaca’s central valleys, although exposure to the sun on a continual basis assists, as does the sheltered lowland semi-tropical environment;
3) recicado is distilled only once.

The result is a relatively low alcohol content watery beverage, almost sour to the taste. Yet the local populace buys it and drinks it, and pays about double the price it costs to acquire traditional 40 – 46 percent alcohol by volume mezcal in the towns and villages surrounding the city of Oaxaca. To be sure, I did try the recicado produced by a competitor up the road, and found it to be only marginally less displeasing.

On my return visit to Pueblo Viejo, I intend to bring two or three liters of my favorite village mezcals for the Sánchez Cisneros family to sample. The hope is that Fernando, Natividad and Hilda will embrace the opportunity to experiment with production, and conceivably begin to distill a spirit more acceptable to the palate … and with at least a bit of a kick. Then who knows, the family may even begin to market it as mezcal, leaving recicado to die a slow, and perhaps even welcomed death.

However care should be taken to not disrupt the basic means and materials currently used in production. They hold a strong attraction for the enthusiast willing to make the trek to Pueblo Viejo. But more importantly, the principles of distillation adhered to must remain for time immemorial, to bear witness to the proposition that the manufacture of spirits, beyond the mere fermentation of the juices of the agave, developed in the Mixteca Alta region of Oaxaca prior to the Conquest, and independent of the science and technology of the Western World.

Alvin Starkman has a Masters in Social Anthropology from Toronto’s York University, and a law degree from Osgoode Hall Law School. Alvin ceased practicing law in 2004, when he and his wife began living permanently in Oaxaca. Since that time, Alvin has written over 80 articles about life and cultural traditions in and around Oaxaca and its central valleys, for newspapers, magazines, and websites promoting tourism in Mexico and abroad. Alvin takes couples and families to off-the-beaten track sights such as the quaintest of mezcal factories, within the context of touring Oaxaca’s central valleys. The Starkmans operate Casa Machaya Oaxaca Bed & Breakfast (http://www.oaxacadream.com ), a unique bed and breakfast lodging combining the best in service of a fine Oaxaca hotel, with quaint and country inn style accommodations.

Posted by titosarah 13:11 Archived in Mexico Tagged food Comments (0)

Women Potters of San Marcos Tlapazola, Oaxaca

Alvin Starkman M.A., LL.B.

Every Sunday Gloria awakens at 3 am, and begins preparing tejate, a frothy, tasty corn and cacao based drink, which she will offer for sale in the Tlacolula market. A couple of hours later her sister-in-law María and Maria’s daughter Luci follow suit, but in preparation for their own day of vending pre-Hispanic-style figures and masks, comals, and an assortment of other fired clay bowls, cups, plates and containers. Sundays, the women laugh, is their day of rest, when they don’t have to worry about scrounging for firewood, tending fields, lugging raw material for kneading into clay --- the lifeblood of their economic existence --- and in the case of María, looking after preparing breakfast for Luci and her older brother and getting them off to school.

The family of four lives in a modest yet fair sized dirt-floor compound in San Marcos Tlapazola, a Zapotec village about an hour outside of Oaxaca. Nearby Tlacolula is known by tourists and native Oaxacans alike for the pageantry of its Sunday marketplace, its bakeries’ wonderful chocolate-filled buns, the church, proximity to fields of agave and mezcal factories, and products offered for sale by the women of San Marcos.

Gloria, María and Luci are 40, 38 and 12 years old respectively. While in the market, their traditional dress, consisting of brightly colored and embroidered taffeta dresses and head-dresses, easily sets them and others from nearby villages apart from the rest. Luci confesses that she also likes wearing regular clothing.

In her lifetime, only once has Gloria been to Oaxaca. The mere thought of venturing into the big city intimidates her.

Clumps of hard earth are soaked. On a concrete floor in an almost barren dark room, María kneads the then softened mud with water and a bit of sand, while kneeling and working her magic, until a buttery smooth clay is ready to be fashioned into a vase. With her hands raised to just about head level, she molds a cone, pounds out the inside to create a funnel, then places it on a small hard piece of plastic atop a flat stone, with a bit of sand as a buffer. The sand enables her to spin the form into a sphere. She uses rolls of clay to build up it up. A piece of corn cob is used to make the outside surface even, and another piece of plastic to cast the inside. A small round segment of hardened gourd assists in producing the desired, final exterior shape. A strip of soft leather facilitates the creation of a smooth finish. Then onto the next one.

Gloria is sitting a few feet away, beginning to burnish a small bowl she has removed from under a cloth covering several others. She’s using one of two almost golf ball sized highly polished river stones given to her by her grandmother. She has already coated the series of bowls with a mixture of a different, much redder clay, and water, so as to create a terra cotta colored paint tone. Once hard and dry, all that Gloria and María have produced over the course of days, is ready for baking.

Some alfareros in the town of Atzompa use above-ground brick and cement ovens. Others in San Bartolo Coyotepec and Ocotlán use below-ground brick-lined pits. Manuel Reyes in Yanhuitlán constructed his own twin kilns out of clay brick, lengths of re-enforced steel, and mud. But the women of San Marcos, each and every time they want to bake their clay pieces, build a makeshift enclosure at ground level, made variously of discarded bed spring, pieces of rusted through wheel barrow, bent bicycle tire rim, old sections of otherwise unusable laminated metal, and broken pieces of pottery which have not survived a prior firing.

A cousin sometimes comes by in a truck to sell Gloria and María a load of twigs, branches and rotted out logs, for anywhere between 400 and 1200 pesos, depending on the load size. Sometimes he brings by dried agave leaves, stock, and pieces from the heart or piña which have for some reason not been harvested for mezcal production. The women themselves often gather up similar pieces of potential fuel while in the course of walking the hills outside of their village, and tie them up to both sides of their mule before heading back home.

A day of baking can usually proceed smoothly if there is no rain, and any earlier precipitation has not left the wood wet; if it’s not too windy; and of course if there is a sufficient supply of burnable product on hand, and not too much of the scrap metal has been rendered unusable through the beginning stages of decomposition / disintegration.

Typically, María is in charge of process, while Luci assists, and Gloria divides her time between doing other household chores such as cooking tortillas and being called upon when María tires or has been affected by the intense heat, or a stage in production is time-sensitive.

All the pottery to be baked is assembled outside, in close proximity to the area where the “oven” will be built: a series of rustic clay pots --- an order for a client who makes and sells piñatas; three comals which were not sufficiently fired on a previous occasion; numeral clay figures of different sizes and forms, for the Tlacolula tourist trade; and an assortment of functional pots, bowls and plates, as well as a few small spoons and tiny colanders.

A circular base approximately two meters in diameter is created, using preferably bed spring placed atop a couple of staggered layers of brick, since such a foundation provides for aeration. Broken pots, old metal receptacles, roofing tile, and whatever else is close at hand creates a confining perimeter. Small twigs and pieces of agave heart are placed underneath. María cuts agave leaves with a machete. With the aid of an extremely heavy, meter-and-a-half long crow bar known as a barreta, Gloria pitches in by splitting log pieces and lengths of dried agave stock. María and Luci build a flammable base atop the spring. With gingerly proficiency, María both directs and assists in placement of the pieces. From her years of experience she knows how to best achieve even firing and avoid breakage.

More of each class of burnable, as well as dried tumbleweed, is carefully placed on top of the clay pieces. Hot ash from making tortillas is shoveled into crevices to facilitate incineration, while a couple of matches set to a few special added twigs, a natural kindling, assures a quick light. A fairly strong wind fuels an initially fledgling fire, and within seconds the blaze is raging and smoke is billowing. More branches and died agave parts are tossed on, with the upmost care since multi-directional wind tunnels have been created. Gloria must fully cover her head to ensure that spark does not ignite her hair. Each takes a turn extricating herself from the swirling, seemingly out-of-control flames. Finally, sheets of rusted metal are strategically placed alongside, and atop, to control the entry of air being drawn to the inner portions of the enclosure.

The morning’s work completed, flames are left to dissipate, while Gloria, María and Luci sit, have a drink of fresh fruit juice, and rest. After about 45 minutes baking will have been completed. The area will be left to cool, while Gloria and María return to their simple work room, add a bit of water to their drying clay, and begin kneading before once again beginning production of another diverse lot. Later in the day the oven will be disassembled, pottery removed with hopefully a minimal amount of breakage, ash dusted off. The women of San Marcos Tlapazola will then wrap and box their merchandise in preparation for their next trip to market.

Most Sundays María can be found sitting on the ground with Luci, with an array of rustic clay figures and masks, as well as a selection of traditional Zapotec cooking and serving utensils displayed in front of them, on one side of an outside aisle in the Tlacolula marketplace. Gloria will be directly across from them, pouring cups of tejate to thirsty passersby.

Alvin Starkman has a Masters in anthropology and a law degree. Now a resident of Oaxaca, Alvin writes, tours travelers to the sights --- including excursions to visit San Marcos Tlapazola --- 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 family_travel Comments (0)

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