A Travellerspoint blog

Traveling light to Oaxaca

Alvin Starkman M.A., LL.B.

First-time travelers to Oaxaca, as well as return visitors and snowbirds, can all help to improve the financial lot of many struggling residents, aside from simply visiting the city and spending.

It’s a fact that tourism has indeed returned to the central valleys of the state of Oaxaca. But as a result of the US economic crisis in 2008, so have many Oaxacans: Oaxacan immigrants, documented and otherwise, had previously been eking out a modest existence north of the border, often wiring money back to their motherland on a regular basis to help out parents, children and extended family members in need. With fewer available jobs, the people flow has now been reversed. Oaxacans are coming back to their native soil. The economic implications are twofold:

1) There are now more Oaxacans vying for work which continues to be a scarce commodity.
2) With fewer Oaxacans working in the US, less money is being sent home.

Many hotel and B & B guests arrive with two suitcases … one filled with their clothes and toiletries, which fits snuggly inside a larger one. The latter is used for the flight back home, to pack up purchases such as rugs and other textiles, black pottery and a variety of different ceramic pieces, alebrijes, and more traditional fine art. That larger suitcase need not be brought down empty. Those who have already been sensitized to Oaxaca’s economic plight sometimes ask what they can bring to leave behind, filling their second piece of luggage with used clothing, pencils and pens, T – shirts and caps with logos of their local sports teams, and much more. And then there are the travelers with young children who recognize that by the time the next summer arrives in their hometowns, the kids will have outgrown virtually everything they’ve brought down for them to wear. Here in Oaxaca they find new homes for shoes, shorts, jeans, dresses and shirts.

Within less than an hour’s drive from downtown Oaxaca, townspeople in marginal communities subsist on tortillas, beans and rice, with meat and poultry reserved for only the most special of occasion. Medical clinics and dental facilities are often stocked with inadequate equipment, instruments and supplies, and schools lack books. Even the brightest students and those with the most drive and desire are denied the opportunity to complete their secondary education because the cost of transportation to attend high school in the larger centers is prohibitive relative to the means of their families.

Every visitor to the city of Oaxaca has the potential to make a significant contribution to the economic amelioration of residents of towns and villages in the central valleys, apart from buying handicrafts and art.

We all have much more clothing than we need. Just look in your closet or in that chest of drawers in the basement. You might even find your daughter’s old pair of eyeglasses from two prescriptions ago, useless to you but invaluable to a downtown optometrist with ties to villages with children whose parents have no money to buy glasses. Dig out that gift from your mother-in-law --- the sweater that’s far too gaudy, or the T – shirt she brought for you on her trip to Turkey three years ago, still in the plastic wrapper. Do you really think that as you get older it’s realistic for you to actually start exercising as you did before, and that you’ll actually lose that paunch and fit into those size 32 jeans? How long do you think it will take for those shirts with Saturday Night Fever collars to come back into style? Here in Oaxaca they’ve never gone out of style.

The reluctance to personally distribute what you can no longer use is understandable. Certainly filling up a couple of green garbage bags in the course of your annual spring cleaning and then taking them to the local clothing drop box is easier, and the anonymity which comes with it is somehow preferable. It precludes any possibility of that feeling of discomfort that often results from directly confronting differences in economic status. But for those Oaxacans in need, all contributions are welcomed and tremendously appreciated.

Bring whatever you can. And if you’re not a packrat, there are other ways you can help:

1) Ask your neighbors and relatives. They’ll be happy to use the new-found closet space.
2) If you’re a medical or dental professional, search the shelves in your storage cabinet for instruments that have become obsolete for your state-of-the-art practice.
3) If you’re a manufacturer with over-runs, or wholesaler, jobber or retailer with stock that you just can’t move, consider packing up whatever will fit into that extra suitcase.

Not knowing what to do with it once you land in Oaxaca is certainly a legitimate, but not insurmountable concern. Again, there are several options:

1) The manager of your hotel or B & B might assist in distributing clothing to members of his cleaning staff who in all likelihood are of extremely modest means, or might suggest that some items be given to one of several local charities such as Estancia Fraternidad or Casa de La Mujer.
2) If you plan to tour some of the craft villages, your tour guide or driver might be able to assist you, although residents of the more popular and consequently successful towns such as Teotitlán del Valle and San Martín Tilcajete might not be the ones to whom your generosity should be directed. Consider spending part of a day getting away from the more traditional tourist sights, perhaps venturing into the hills and tiny communities, the inhabitants of which are predominantly campesinos. This affords an opportunity to see first hand the modest lifestyles of most Oaxacans and experience the “real” Mexico. Your chauffeur should be happy to accommodate, and you can distribute goods as and to whom you wish.
3) Drop your donation by the Oaxaca Lending Library on Calle Pino Suarez. Its volunteers are involved in a number of outreach projects.
4) Contact me and I’d be honored to come by your accommodations, pick up whatever you have, and ensure that it goes to good use.

Regular visitors to the city and the numerous returning snowbirds are afforded an even better and easier opportunity to help. Consider leaving your entire Oaxaca wardrobe and all your toiletries in Oaxaca, permanently. Remember, you still have more than enough to wear at home, and already having bathroom items awaiting you upon your return to Oaxaca can be quite convenient, especially in light of airline restrictions regarding sprays and bottles.

Pack it all up in a few boxes, or better yet buy an inexpensive chest of drawers to store your belongings, like I did about a dozen years ago when I was a frequent visitor to the city. Toss in a few bars of soap or pieces of cedar to keep it all fresh smelling. Then impose upon one of your Oaxacan or expat friends to keep it for you in a closet, corner or storage room. For your subsequent visits to the city all you’ll be bringing down will be two suitcases filled with treasures for those in need. And remember, with all that Oaxaca has to offer shoppers, craft collectors and art aficionados, there’s never a risk that you’ll return north with empty luggage.

Alvin Starkman has a Masters in anthropology and law degree from Osgoode Hall Law School in Toronto. Now a resident of Oaxaca, Alvin writes, tours couples and families to the ruins, craft villages, market towns and more off the beaten track destinations, 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. You can arrange for Alvin to pick up the contents of your extra suitcase by emailing him at oaxacadream@hotmail.com.

Posted by titosarah 13:23 Archived in Mexico Tagged family_travel Comments (0)

Focus on Hilarino Olivera Cruz

Short essays on rural Oaxaca mezcal production: Part I

Alvin Starkman M.A., LL.B.

The rural mezcal producers of Oaxaca keep the tradition as pure as it was centuries ago. They pepper the villages and roadsides where tourists rarely venture. Their operations are a far cry from those of Benevá, Oro de Oaxaca, the brands of the Chagoya family, and the few designer labels vying with one another to corner the Manhattan sipping market.

Hilarino Olivera Cruz has a small fábrica de mezcal (mezcal or mescal “factory”) near his hometown village of San Lorenzo Albarradas, about an hour and a quarter drive from the city of Oaxaca, en route to Hierve el Agua. But he and his wife María Sara don’t just produce mezcal. They can’t afford to rely on distilling alone to eke out their modest, working class existence. Out of the same premises they operate a tiny restaurant, El Tigre, without the benefit of electricity, employing their daughter-in-law Alma; María Sara also has a door-to-door Avon-style sales business from which she earns perhaps $50 or $70 a month; Hilarino together with their eldest son Claudio, Alma’s husband, run a dump truck; and as is the custom with most craft-producing and other cottage industry families, they have their fields of milpa to tend, yielding corn for making tortillas, tamales and like products used to provide for personal consumption, and in the case of the Olivera family, also for restaurant use.

On the one hand hard working mezcaleros such as Hilarino are not permitted to export commercially, since they are not members of the regulatory body known as COMERCAM, yet on the other they struggle to maintain the artisanal, or pure, traditional hands-on nature of production, and resist the adulteration of their spirit through modern processing methods including the use of chemical additives … for everyone’s benefit.

You won’t find Hilarino flogging his mezcal in downtown Oaxaca with the aid of heavily made-up, attractive, smiling teenage girls offering free tastings. Nor will you encounter him when taking a Sunday tour bus to Mitla or Tlacolula, and sauntering up to a fine oak bar for samples of cremas (sweet, mezcal-based products), jovens (un-aged mezcal) or what’s represented to be five or ten-year-old añejos. The photo op that’s provided will appear quaint enough, but won’t come close to revealing the true history of the tradition, or the present reality of the struggle of the rural producer.

Hilarino’s market is not the tourist trade, but rather residents of Oaxaca, Mitla, the nearby Mixe region, and of course his own community. The same as it was for his great-grandparents: “I remember the stories my parents and grandparents would tell, about how it actually was way back then,” Hilarino reveals. “They were campesinos. They would harvest mainly wild agave known as tobalá. A caravan would set out, comprised of perhaps 10 or 15 mules or donkeys and an equal number of people helping out. Cousins, aunts and uncles would organize themselves and take the mezcal on what would be like a trade route, in pottery or metal receptacles, down into the valley and up throughout the mountains. Each animal would carry 3 containers, one on each side and another on top. My relatives would be gone for anywhere between a couple of days and two weeks, often returning home with 2 or 3 less mules … that’s how hard the journey was. Of course now it’s much easier.”

Easier is a relative term. Then it took two or three days to pulverize the baked agave prior to fermentation, hammering it with a wooden mallet made of tree burl. Now it’s crushed by a horse or mule reluctantly pulling a multi-ton limestone wheel over it for a couple of hours, persuaded with the assistance of a crop-like piece of leather, or simply a stick … and then it’s time for the next batch.

Hilarino began learning how to make mezcal when he was about seven years old. Out of economic necessity he moved with his family to Mexico City at age 11, and remained there for the next 15 years. Upon return to Oaxaca some 14 years ago he built and opened his current facility, the mezcal operation with adjoining eatery. Initially his father worked the business with him, but about four years ago the elder Olivera opened up his own restaurant beside his son’s, and since then they’ve been competitors of sorts. Hilarino explains: “But my father can’t produce mezcal on his own, since I’m the one with the equipment (clay and brick still with copper attachments, pine fermenting vats, limestone wheel and ring for crushing, and beast of burden), so when he has a batch of agave he wants to process, we work out an arrangement for him to use my production facility.” In fact one of Hilarino’s brothers does the same thing, buying agave and renting Hilarino’s premises to produce, and then selling to his own customers. Occasionally others from the village make similar arrangements with him.

Hilarino distills roughly 500 liters of mezcal a month. His average sale is about 5 liters. He owns a few different pieces of land upon which he has 5,000 plants, with exclusively the espadín variety of agave under cultivation. At least 90% of the mezcal produced in the state is espadín, the rest comprising mainly wild varieties.

The agave on Hilarino’s fields is sufficient to service his regular trade. But occasionally an out-of-state client will request a large quantity of mezcal, perhaps 800 – 1,000 liters. “When this happens,” he confesses, “I have to go out and buy mature plants from a neighbor, since I simply can’t harvest my agave whenever a special order comes in. I have to wait those 8 – 10 years until the plants in a particular field are ready to be harvested.” But the finished product maintains its quality and character, since Hilarino remains the producer, using his own equipment and particular recipe, and the agave, albeit not from his own fields, comes from the same San Lorenzo Albarradas micro-climate.

It’s such cooperation between local producers, together with a united voice, which is required to ensure that small-scale, traditional production of quality mezcal continues. To this end Hilarino has recently joined the ninety-member association, Fabricantes y Expendedores del Tradicional Mezcal Oaxaqueño A.C.. Its function, at least in the estimation of Hilarino, is to maintain the artisanal nature of the industry; resist the move towards increased industrialization and the ability of large producers to label any spirit produced with or containing additives, as mezcal; and provide small producers with an opportunity to have their products exposed to and promoted in a wider marketplace.

But the reality is that the big producers and exporters of mezcal in Oaxaca need the mom and pop operations much more so than the latter need the former. Why? Because the little guy will always continue to survive by selling his mezcal in his local market, using the centuries old production technique, while the exporter relies on that age old tradition for his marketing … and it’s kept alive not through his 21st century innovations and “improvements” to productions methods, but rather by the Hilarinos in the state.

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 (including into the mountains for mezcal tastings and learning about traditional production methods) , 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 15:14 Archived in Mexico Tagged tourist_sites Comments (0)

Manuel Reyes: sculptor and painter from Oaxaca

A Oaxacan artist of exceptional talent and vision

Alvin Starkman, M.A. LL.B.

Artist Manuel Reyes aspires to exhibit his work in art galleries in Oaxaca and Mexico City. Give him that exposure over the next couple of years, and there’s little doubt his genius will be known in New York, Chicago, and further abroad. American, Canadian and European art collectors are already tapping their Mexican networks to figure out how to make their way to his modest home and workshop in the village of Yanhuitlan, an hour and a half outside of the city of Oaxaca, to marvel at his artistry … and buy it up.

Reyes was born in Mexico City (d.o.b. 20/12/72) to Oaxacan parents. He balks at any suggestion that he is not pure Oaxacan: “My parents are from the Mixteca Alta, right in this region of the state, and I’ve always considered myself a Oaxacan. That’s my heritage, my birthright. I just happen to have been born out of state. While I’ve had training from some of the grand masters of Mexican art, I’ve developed a large part of my artistic style from watching and speaking to local artists right here in the Mixteca.”

Reyes began studying art in 1990. He attended the Escuela Nacional de Artes Plásticas in Xochimilco, Mexico City. He moved to Cuernavaca in 1995, where he was mentored by the likes of Roger Von Gunten, Joy Laville, Francisco Lastra and Juan Soriano. He studied predominantly seriography, sculpture and painting. In 2003 Reyes returned to the Mixteca, and has since then re-established his roots. “The lessons I learned through my formal training have been invaluable, but I gain inspiration and have adopted techniques not solely from my maestros, to whom I owe a great deal, but also from the artists and craftspeople of the Oaxacan district of Nochixtlán.”

Reyes works together with his wife Maricela, a gifted artist in her own right. In fact their six-year-old daughter Natalia does ceramics with her mother, and painting with Manuel. “Some of our pieces are not only inspired by Natalia, but she actually participates in their creation. Look at this oil mixed with sand on canvas, with its fanciful and childlike figures. Natalia actually began the piece, and I just brought to fruition what was in her mind and she had already begun to put to paper.”

“My main influences are Rufino Tamayo for my painting, and Maribel Portela for my sculpture,” he continues. “But what I’ve learned from the people of my culture has been invaluable to my work … the use of a wood-burning kiln made of mud and brick, about the different kinds of clays for sculpting --- many of which are available in Oaxaca --- and how to mix different kinds of soils to create a broad range of paint colors and tones, and textures. In the end my pieces are products of my local environment, or at times made from materials I’ve sourced from other parts of the country.”

While Reyes obtains his clays from many different areas, most are from four main locales: a riverbed about a kilometer from his home, upstate at Huajuapan de León, the town of Santa María Cuquila, and from Zacatecas, northwest of the nation’s capital. Each compound has different qualities. His Zacatecan clay is strong and has a sandy texture, making it suitable for sculpting his large, almost life-size human figures; more utilitarian pieces such as plates and cups are made with earth from Cuquila; pieces which he intends to burnish are sculpted from clay from Huajuapan de León; and he mixes local soil with the Zacatecan earth to yield a more malleable and easily workable clay.

For colors, Reyes often looks to other parts of the nation so as to enable him to obtain the variety he needs. “That painting hanging in our kitchen provides a good example of the range of colors I derive from combining different earths. Many of my paints come from the environment. I brought a kilo of clay from Chihuahua and used it to make paint for that male figure looking skyward. That white is an oxide.” Indeed the breadth of colors he is able to create for use on both his sculptures and his paintings is remarkable.

Manuel’s canvases are generally “mixed technique” as he refers to them, a combination of oil, acrylic and natural earth. Depending on the inspiration for a particular work, and the imagery he seeks to convey, the order and manner of application and the texture and origin of the soil applied, will vary.

Reyes goes on to explain the sexual imagery captured in many pieces from his current crop of sculptures: “I’ve been doing a fair number with nude males since 2005, not initially by specific design, but rather because that’s what is often depicted in pre-Hispanic art and representations of day-to-day activities, and that’s the kind of work that I’ve enjoyed doing over the past three years. When you look at the earliest Zapotec clay figures, and in fact those dating to Olmec and earlier times, that’s what my ancestors were creating. A number of sculptures portray hope and prayer as well, so much a part of ancient times, with head looking upward to the heavens and hands raised.” When questioned about the over-representation in his figures of males with dangling phalluses, Reyes points to a couple of female pieces: “Look at that female warrior over there. But notice the belt I made for her, with penises hanging from it, her trophies.”

Reyes readily acknowledges that this is still a business, his livelihood, and when gay male collectors began taking an interest in this phase of his artistic development, it motivated him to continue with it and further experiment with the theme of male sexuality as depicted in the codices and sculptures of earlier civilizations.

But Manuel’s work also reflects his personal interests and passions, his reverence for Oaxaca’s present day rich cultural traditions, and his eclecticism whereby he’s prepared to push the outer boundary of what’s traditionally considered art, at times combining aestheticism with pure functionality: “I know a really good carpenter here in Yanhuitlan, and thought of combining our two trades, sort of as a fun project. I asked him to make me a cabinet with shelves and doors. I painted it and then put six mask tiles, each with a fair bit of relief, on the door panels. It came out really funky and a collector bought it within a couple of weeks of when I’d finished it.

Reyes has begun experimenting with masks as an art form. Their use at fiestas and for parades is common practice in Oaxaca, the tradition dating back perhaps 3,000 years, when permanent settlements were first established in the region. He pays tribute to the ritualistic use of masks with one of his sculptures, a marcher holding a mask in front of his face, still a common sight at Oaxacan celebrations today.

On a recent visit to Reyes’ home, the music of Lou Reed was playing. Rock, blues and other genres of the 60’s and 70’s are included in this extraordinary man’s list of delights. And of course, they are reflected in his work. He’s created clay painted figures of John Lennon, Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison, simply as a way of paying homage to some of his rock idols. Led Zeppelin’s Stairway to Heaven was the inspiration for one of his more “traditional” sculptures, with four men each climbing up a rung of a ladder made of reinforced steel covered with twine, each step framed by horn-shaped clouds.

More recently Reyes has become interested in depicting vestiges of the material culture of his indigenous forebears, combining his gift as a skilled artist with the work of an applied archaeologist. For example he recently found a potsherd with a painted design, and through extrapolation has created an entire, accurately crafted three-footed vessel.

Through his art, Manuel Reyes is continually looking for new modes of self-expression, while at the same time reflecting on diverse cultures, both present-day and of the near and distant past. He’s a true renaissance man whose golden touch will undoubtedly, over time, become appreciated by an increased following. The exhibitions of his work in Huajuapan de León and at the Museo del Arte Popular in San Bartolo Coyotepec where one piece remains on permanent display, pale compared to what’s in store for Manuel … and art aficionados around the globe.

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 successful career as a litigator until 2004. Alvin, while still a good-standing member of the Law Society of Upper Canada, now resides with his wife Arlene in Oaxaca, where he writes, leads small group tours to the villages, markets, ruins and other sights, is a consultant to documentary film companies, and operates Casa Machaya Oaxaca Bed & Breakfast ( http://www.oaxacadream.com ), providing the comfort and service of lodging in a Oaxaca hotel, with the personal touch of a quaint country inn.

Posted by titosarah 14:13 Archived in Mexico Tagged lodging Comments (0)

A rich wood carving tradition in Oaxaca, Mexico

Spotlight on Jacobo Ángeles

Alvin Starkman M.A., LL.B.

Try searching the Americas to find creators of folk art with more form, symbolism and importance to the development and sustenance of their culture, than those of indigenous ancestry in Oaxaca (wa–HAW–ka), one of the southernmost Mexican states.

Many so-called experts in folk art have mistakenly written that the origins of Oaxaca’s wood carving tradition date back fifty or sixty years, to a small number of carvers residing in one of the central valleys of Oaxaca, a few miles from the state capital of the same name. The error has consistently been equating the recent commercialization of the art-form with its origins, and ignoring its pre-Hispanic roots and subsequent development.

Jacobo Ángeles lives with his wife María and two children in San Martín Tilcajete, one of three main native Zapotec villages, where most residents earn a living from carving and painting colorful figures, often generically referred to as alebrijes. The others are Arrazola and La Unión Tejalapan.

At age 12 Jacobo began learning to carve from his father. Later on he was mentored by village elders. “Over the past few decades our craft has without a doubt changed dramatically,” Jacobo explains, “with the use of more synthetic paints, a tremendous increase in the range of figures being carved, and with domestic and international demand for our carvings growing exponentially and affecting how and what we produce. But remember, my ancestors were carving animals right here in this region before the Spanish arrived in the 1500’s. And we were using only natural paint colors which we derived from fruits and vegetables, plants and tree bark, clay, and even insects. In my family we still use what we find around us to make paint for our figures, and our wood of choice continues to be the branches of the copal tree.”

San Martín Tilcajete is located about a 40 minute drive from the city of Oaxaca, along a highway leading to the state’s Pacific resort towns, including one of the oldest ports, Puerto Escondido. Puerto Escondido was a hub for the export of coffee and other cash crops during colonial times, but is now a popular beach destination for Mexican and international vacationers alike. Many travelers combine their sun and sand vacation with a visit to Oaxaca, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, searching out unique pieces of folk art including dance masks, pottery and clay figures, rugs and tapestries, and antiques from the colonial period forward. And of course there are the pre-Hispanic ruins, galleries, impressive Dominican churches, museums, and renowned Oaxacan cuisine.

“My ancestors used a 20-day calendar,” Jacobo continues, “and each day was represented by a different creature. So every Zapotec person had an animal with whom he had a connection, and each animal had certain characteristics which carried over to the individual. For example, the jaguar represents power and ultimate strength, the frog is characterized by honesty and openness, the coyote watchful observation, the turtle always a troublemaker prone to breaking the rules, the eagle technical and strategic power, and so on. My people used to carve figures of just these 20 animals. They started out as small whittlings for good luck that people would keep in a revered niche in the home, or wear around the neck as amulets. They also carved larger figures for their children to use as toys.”

After much probing, an almost forgotten story emerges of the use of decoys of wood and other materials. Jacobo reveals: “My people used a variety of methods to attract different kinds of game, but for hunting birds of prey, rabbits, and deer, yes they at times used decoys. A painted wooden snake would be placed on the ground in an area where ants had trampled the grasses so the snake decoy would easily be seen by eagles. To hunt rabbit, my ancestors would attach a rabbit tail to one end of a straw hat, and at the other end another tail with a face painted on it. For deer, a crude wooden deer torso with real antlers would be placed in the tall brush. So carving was historically important to our people for not only totemic and related reasons, but it was directly related to our subsistence. All the written records from the period of the conquest, and not just local legend, confirm the importance of woodcarving.”

“But look at what we now carve. While in my family we still use natural paints, and still carve our totems, we’ve transformed a simple yet important and symbolic tradition into something very different. In our villages we now carve many more than those 20 animals because of collector demand. More importantly, we’re able to make our heritage better understood and appreciated by the world. In our own workshop, our painting depicts designs and representations of our culture … friezes from the ancient ruin at Mitla, symbols representing waves, mountains and fertility, the totems, and other metaphors for our culture, past and present.”

Indeed the world has taken notice. Jacobo’s work is prominently displayed in The Smithsonian Institute, Chicago’s National Museum of Mexican Art, and elsewhere throughout the continent and further abroad, in museums, art colleges and galleries. Jacobo regularly traverses the U.S. promoting Oaxacan folk art and his Zapotec heritage, teaching in a diversity of educational venues ranging from junior schools to university departments of fine art, and as honored speaker at art exhibition openings.


A visit to the Ángeles workshop, accessed by a heavily pot-holed narrow dirt road towards one end of the village, affords an opportunity to learn about this extraordinary skill-set, from Jacobo, Maria --- an excellent painter in her own right --- and some two dozen other members of their family who produce some of the finest quality carvings found anywhere on the continent.

The men do most of the carving, while women do most of the painting, but the tasks are definitely not exclusively based on gender lines. Carving is done with non – mechanical hand-tools such as machetes, chisels and knives. The only time a more sophisticated tool is used is when a chain saw is employed to cut off a branch and level a base for a proposed figure.

Except when a special order is received, the woodworkers in the family are given artistic license to carve whatever figure they wish. A piece of tree trunk will “speak” to one of these specialists, and be the inspiration for creating a particular animal: the shape, thickness, and bends and twists in the piece come alive. After the bark is removed, a detailed outline is drawn, defining the image with greater clarity and detail. The sculpting in earnest then begins.

“From the female copal tree we are able to make figures out of one piece of wood, often very large and intricate. This wood is soft and easy to work with. The male tree is harder, and branches tend to be smaller and somewhat delicate, so we use it to make animals which we assemble in the process.”

The carving alone takes up to a month, at times longer. The figure is then left to dry for up to 10 months, depending on its overall size and thickness. Because of the properties of copal, and Oaxaca’s semi-tropical climate, the wood is susceptible to termite infestation. Accordingly, during the drying process the piece is soaked in a gasoline / insecticide mixture for several hours. As an added assurance, it’s then placed in an oven, just in case eggs have evaded extermination. “All of our pieces are guaranteed to never have a termite problem,” Jacobo assures.

Since the figures are fashioned while the wood is green and more easily workable, the wood separates while drying. “There are a couple of members of my family whose main job is to fill the cracks before the painting begins.” For this remedial work they use wood shims as well as a sawdust-glue mixture. But even these slivers of wood and the sawdust have been cured. “We’re proud of our work, and never want to have any problems with any of our buyers, whether someone is spending $20 or $2,000.”

In almost all cases in the Ángeles workshop, one person carves and another paints. Once a figure has left the hands of the carver, all proprietary rights are released, and another member of the family is entrusted with the painting. Nephew Magdaleno explains: “Occasionally one of my cousins will come up to me and say ‘what do you think about these colors or this kind of design concept for this coyote,’ and I’ll give my feedback, but it doesn’t happen very often, and I’m invariably pleased with the result. For me it’s the form that’s most important, and for whoever’s painting, it’s the imagery it captures.”

One cannot help but gasp at the sculpting genius which goes into each piece: A starving dog scratching fleas, a bear with its paw in a honey pot, a snake constricting a wincing jaguar, a winged horse on its hinds, a woman with long braided locks and the body of an armadillo, or a deer, life-size by Mexican standards. There’s something particularly arresting about each creation: the ever-so-flowing and realistic movement, a fanciful stance, or a familiar pose striking a chord with our popular characterization. However the painting is anything but familiar. No color goes untested and the intricacy of and variation in design is remarkable.

Theories abound regarding the beginning of the modern-day manifestation of the tradition. Some say that because hallucinogenic mushrooms are native to this part of Mexico, drug induced revelations caused the imaginations of some to wander, ultimately becoming expressed in their carvings. The better explanation is that knowledge of colorful, large, papier maché alebrijes or dragon-like forms which originated in the State of Mexico, eventually filtered down to Oaxaca, and were the inspiration for the fathers of contemporary painted wooden carvings. “You know, it’s not accurate to refer to what we create as alebrijes, because to the older generation of Mexicans, and to true folk art collectors, alebrijes were developed near D.F. (Distrito Federal, or Mexico City, the nation’s capital), and what we do is completely different.”

Jacobo demonstrates how his ancestors created natural paints, historically utilized for dying clothing, painting buildings, and ceremonially as face and body decoration used for rites of passage, fiestas, prayer and other important occasions. Today their primary use, at least in Jacobo’s family, is for painting the carvings. He explains with the assistance of his machete and a tree trunk how he cuts away the reddish inside part of the bark of the male copal, allows it to dry, then toasts and grinds it: “This is a primary base that we use, which allows us to create a range of colors, tones and shades. Just watch.”

Using his hands as palettes, Jacobo begins by placing a small amount of the powdered bark in one hand, squeezes juice from a lime, creating a brown, which he then places on an unpainted wooden owl. “Yes the owl is also one of our sacred creatures, the great healer, quiet and humble.” He reveals: “Now over time, and in the sun, this color will change or fade and be absorbed into the wood. So what our ancestors learned to do was take the dried sap from the copal tree and heat it up with honey. The resulting liquid is then mixed with the paint, changing the color a little; see, it becomes a deep orange … but most importantly it acts as a mordent making the color permanent, and a little shiny.” He adds powdered limestone, and the color changes to black. With the addition of baking soda and more lime juice it becomes a deep yellow, and with more chemical it miraculously becomes magenta. A new base is then started, with crushed pomegranate seeds. Magically the pulverized pink is transformed into green with the addition of limestone powder. Mixed with the magenta, it becomes navy blue. With the addition of zinc it becomes grey, and with more zinc, white. Blue from the añil tree, indigo, is altered with the addition of bicarbonate, zinc, lime juice or the powdered lime mineral. Corn mold, a black gooey culinary delicacy known as huitlacoche, when fermented and then powdered, yields ochre. The red of the dried and then crushed minute insect, the cochineal, which feeds off its host nopal cactus, becomes orange with the addition of the juice of any of a number of acidic fruits.

The demonstration terminates with Jacobo asking, “what´s your favorite animal,” following which he finger paints a rabbit from the rainbow of colors on his palms, as only Alice could have imagined.


With approximately 150 families now producing painted wooden figures in these and a couple of other smaller villages, the questions left unanswered remain: What facilitated and drove more carvers to adopt the papier maché style of using brilliant color combinations, and how can everyone in these villages make a living from this solitary art-form?

As with other crafts in the central valleys of Oaxaca, their production wasn’t always the primary means of sustenance for the populace. Traditionally, handicrafts were a hobby or part-time trade, beginning with very few items being sold to the odd passerby, adventurer or traveler. In the case of rugs from nearby Teotitlán del Valle, there were trade routes that producers followed in order to effect more sales in other regions of the state, and in some cases beyond. But the primary means of family survival was working the land and small-scale ranching. And in the case of the carving villages, there never was a broader market, although in San Martín Tilcajete embroidered shirts, blouses and dresses were an extremely well-received craft throughout the 1960’s and into the 80’s.

Dramatic change in production and marketing of wooden carvings had its genesis in the 1940’s. The pan-American highway cut through the Sierra Madre del Sur mountains, reaching Oaxaca, opening up the region to the north, in particular Mexico City and the border states. Until then Oaxaca was relatively isolated notwithstanding a rail connection. By the 1950’s and early 60’s Americans and Canadians were prospering from the post-war boom, credit cards had been mailed to virtually everyone, and word spread of a new kind of vacation, in a third world country, Mexico. Jet air travel facilitated the transformation. The women’s movement meant more two income families, resulting in more disposable income for traveling. Mexicana Airlines and Oaxacan travel agents partnered to begin offering tour packages, which further facilitated tourism to the region.

The hippie movement of the 1960’s and early 70’s brought Oaxaca to the forefront of the alternative lifestyle, with throngs of youth and their pop idols traveling to Huautla de Jiménez, then a tiny Oaxacan village, to eat hallucinogenic mushrooms with the now infamous healer María Sabina. North American youth saw and purchased the first generation of contemporary wood carvings.

By the 1980’s, as a consequence of multiple factors, Oaxacan alebrijes had become well-established as folk art, with the market continuing to grow. The economic implication was that farmers and ranchers were able to spend more time carving and painting, and less time in the countryside and in marketplaces vending their produce and animals. With a new toll-road opening from Mexico City to Oaxaca in 1995, access to the southern state became even quicker and easier, and safe. In good conscience, travel writers were no longer able to warn tourists about driving the switchbacks, back-road banditos, or cars overheating on secondary roads without service stations.

The future market for the artistry? While the odd visitor to a Oaxacan coastal resort such as Puerto Escondido, or the more popular Huatulco, does visit the state capital and the workshops of carvers like Jacobo, most do not. Within the next four years a new highway to the coast will open, cutting road travel time by at least a third. Even more sun worshipers will visit Oaxaca, and marvel at the art of Jacobo and María Ángeles.

Since opening their family workshop in 1996, without a doubt Jacobo and María have singularly raised the quality bar for other villagers who aspire to mirror their success. With Oaxacan wood carvings of superior quality now well established on the world stage, and access no longer an impediment, the challenge for others in San Martín Tilcajete will be to achieve the success of the Ángeles family through production of like quality, until now eluding most.

A challenge for all carvers in the region is to ensure a continuous supply of copal to meet demand. A reforestation project spear-headed about 15 years ago by the late master of contemporary Mexican art, Rodolfo Morales, continues through his Foundation. The Ángeles family with friends and other villagers spend the last Sunday of each July, in the midst of the rainy season, planting, a part of their sustainable living effort: ensuring an ongoing supply of raw product, cutting only branches for making figures so that the tree continues to grow, reducing waste by utilizing the slivers and sawdust in repair work and any remaining twigs and branches as firewood for cooking, and using the sap and bark in paint production. “And you know,” Jacobo reminds, “for generations we’ve been using the hardened sap as incense, mainly at religious cememonies. There are even knifemakers down the road in Ocotlán, who engrave their hand-forged blades using a special ink made with the sap. Have you visited the cuchillería of Ángel Aguilar?”

For high end collectors, we can only encourage the success of all efforts aimed at maintaining the growth and development of the Oaxacan woodcarving tradition, since it satisfies and advances our penchant for and obsession with quality hand-fashioned craftsmanship. For the artisans in the region, aside from the obvious economic importance, it’s part of maintaining their Zapotec heritage and illustrating the richness of the culture to the broader world.

The workshop of Jacobo and María Ángeles is located at Calle Olvido #9, San Martín Tilcajete, Ocotlán, Oaxaca ( t: 951-524-9047 ; w: http://www.tilcajete.org ; e: angeles@tilcajete.org ).

Alvin Starkman together with wife Arlene operates Casa Machaya Oaxaca Bed & Breakfast. Alvin received his masters in social anthropology in 1978, and his law degree in 1984. Thereafter he was a litigator in Toronto until taking early retirement. He and his family were frequent visitors to Oaxaca between 1991 and when they became permanent residents in 2004. Alvin writes about life and cultural traditions in Oaxaca, tours couples, families and small groups to the craft villages, ruins, colonial churches and more off-the-beaten-track destinations in Oaxaca state, and is a special consultant to documentary film production companies.

Posted by titosarah 14:39 Archived in Mexico Tagged tourist_sites Comments (0)

Sí señor, will that be testicles or head?

A rich Oaxacan culinary tradition

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

Some say it’s one of the oldest professions, yet it garners little if any respect from most of the population notwithstanding the tradition that has been its trademark for generations: the chivero, or slayer and preparer of goat, and its barbequing in an in-ground oven. There are a number of other caprine cattle that are cooked in the ancient style, including ram and sheep. Since the early nineties, here in Oaxaca the most popular / unlucky of these inhabitants of the hills has been the borrego pelibuey, a variety of sheep.

Oaxaca (wa-HAW-kah) is a colonial city tucked away in a valley surrounded by the Sierra Madre del Sur range in south central Mexico. Boasting no less than 16 indigenous cultures, it should come as no great shock that such a custom has been maintained in the state for hundreds if not thousands of years. However the modern institution of baking a variety of meats in a pit extends far beyond Mexico, and in fact is practiced in the Caribbean, Central and South America, Hawaii, and much further abroad. After all, before the advent of coal, gas and electric ovens, if circumstances dictated something other than grilling over an open flame, our ancestors had little choice but to innovate in this fashion.

What began with humankind’s Darwinian development of a simple invention of necessity has become a highly ritualized and esteemed convention.

Whether you’re traveling, visiting, working or living the life of a retiree abroad, as you become integrated into your host society, on balance you’ll be invited to partake in at least a portion of the pomp and ceremony associated with barbacoa, as it’s more commonly known in Mexico.

In Oaxaca the custom is reserved for fiestas marking significant rites of passage such as key birthdays and anniversaries, and weddings. It cuts across class lines, observance ranging from campesinos in the smallest of back road villages, to the upper class in the backyards of their luxurious homes in gated suburban communities.

While varying only minimally depending on local mores, practice begins with the purchase of the appropriate number of candidates at a private farm or livestock market…unless you’ve been raising your own. One counts on each beast serving between about 25 and 40 people, depending on size. Plumping them up for a few days never hurts, if you have the space and inclination.

The chivero, frequently with associate, family member and/or young apprentice, arrives a day before the comida (the largest meal of the day in Mexico, beginning anytime between 2 and 4 pm) to survey and give instructions before beginning. Are the cooking vessels, additional accessories, related foodstuffs and pit appropriate for the task at hand, or will there have to be last minute purchases or adaptations? Considerations include: type, dimensions and quantity of leña (firewood); requisite river rocks; age, size and composition of oven; type of grate; and even sufficiency of loose soil.

The better part of that first afternoon consists of the slaughter and skinning, cutting and cleaning, with procedures marked by care and precision, right down to evacuating the inside of each and every inch of intestine with the nimblest of digital movements, akin to, and no less delicate a process than spinning yarn from raw wool. Nothing is wasted. Virtually every entrail, organ and liquid is gathered, prepared and set aside for later use. No less important to the ultimate creation of a culinary coupe, parallel provisions are attended by others elsewhere in or around the home, principally the select array of vegetables is cored, cut and cubed, and herbs and seasonings sequestered. Best to have a healthy compliment of friends and relatives on hand. If you’re asked to attend a day early, you now know why.

By evening the maestro is ready to begin the process of curing the oven. One which measures roughly 3’ x 3’ x 4’ should accommodate about 4 animals for a party with upwards of 150 guests---the terracotta bricks lining the ground cavity need not have been fired to the same extent as those used in usual construction of homes, and the better view is to build the oven with minimally baked blocks. Logs are lit by nightfall. The chivero has the option of thereafter returning home for a brief break, or napping on site until the madrugada, perhaps 2 or 3 in the morning, when he must add further firewood to ensure continued consistency of heat. Atop this layer is strategically placed a stratum of rounded river rocks which will absorb and hold the heat pending completion of cooking.

At about 7 am, more wood is added and allowed to burn off, but not before the skewered hearts are barbecued over the flames---a taco delicacy---and several agave or maguey leaves have been charred. The previously prepared produce, with select innards and water to cover, now in an oversized cast aluminum cauldron, is placed on the scorching stones, as is a mixture of large broken corn kernels with a separate set of flavorings. An iron grate containing the quartered meat including head and organs---either plain, or enchilada (spiced)---with avocado leaves and the grilled agave placed atop, is gingerly lowered onto the vegetable receptacles. The blood, encased in stomach lining, is readied. On top of all is placed the petate, a large mat of dried palm leaf or reed. The subsequent coverings, at least one of which must be firm enough to withstand the weight of a final heavy layer, include one or more of a large flat grid of lengths of reinforced steel; a sheet of laminated metal; and a spread of sturdy plastic or vinyl. For further assurance a hill of dirt is then shoveled on top of all, then compacted with the aid of a light hosing of water. Tradition dictates that while the oven and its contents are being sealed for baking, a bottle of mezcal is placed within the mound of earth.

From when the first match is lit, the foregoing steps are much more than mere convention. They are carefully calculated, much in the same fashion as the most specific time and temperature stipulations contained in a difficult baking recipe in a gourmet cookbook. However I have yet to determine the scientific roll played by the wooden cross set on the crest of the mountain of tierra firma…other than symbolic of burial.

Guests tend to arrive between 2:30 and 4:30 pm, by which time the blood has curdled to the consistency of a terrine style accompaniment, and entrée has been roasted to perfection, its juices having dripped into the casseroles thereby creating a flavorful, vegetable and meat potage, and a thick starchy accompaniment, the corn having turned to mash aided by the meat’s juices. At their option, at the chosen hour, males in attendance may take a shovel and aid in the unearthing of the oven, with the one encountering the piping hot bottle of mezcal---contents by then smooth to the extreme--- being given the privilege of serving shotsful to others in the fraternity of assisting amigos.

The bouillabaisse is served, followed by the most tender, savory and succulent meat imaginable, with sides of sangre and the cooked large grain, preferably to the sound of live music. And yes, a limited number of guests are presented with the available crania having been opened so that they can scoop brain and/or eye into tortilla and top with salsa before indulging. Care must be taken to avoid insulting one to whom a head has been promised. At a joint birthday bash thrown with a fellow Aquarian, en route to delivering the delicacy to a comadre I wished to honor, a friend stopped me at his table and by the time I’d arrived with the prize to its ultimate destination, almost all but a bare bone skull remained. Finally, the testicles should be offered to others worthy of special tribute. But once again be mindful. At that same celebration, a five-goat-affair, someone absconded with all ten testes.

Alvin Starkman received his Masters in Social Anthropology from York University in Toronto in 1978, taught for a few years, and subsequently attended Osgoode Hall Law School. From 1986 to 2004 he was the litigation partner at Banks & Starkman, specializing in family law. Although a frequent traveler to Oaxaca since 1991, it was not until he ceased practicing law that he took up permanent residence in the state capital in 2004. In his spare time Mr. Starkman takes couple, families and small groups touring the craft villages, towns on their market days, ruins and other attractions including more off-the-beaten-track sights; writes articles about life and cultural traditions in Oaxaca; translates from Spanish to English for a Oaxaca-based website; writes a legal column for a Canadian national antiques newspaper; is occasional consultant to documentary film production companies working in Oaxaca; and together with wife Arlene operates Casa Machaya Oaxaca Bed & Breakfast.

Posted by titosarah 14:51 Archived in Mexico Tagged animal Comments (0)

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