Monthly Archives: December 2007

Questions About Future Zapotec Life

Augustin Ruiz Gutierrez is writing his thesis in preparation for graduation from the University of Oaxaca.   He is 24 years old, just like Eric Chavez Santiago, and they were school mates during their growing up years in Teotitlan and is one of a few who went on to high school and then college.  We met Augustin last year during the Teotitlan posadas and he invited us to meet the leaders of Bii Dauu, a weavers cooperative of extended family members whose mission it is to preserve the traditions of Zapotec culture, including designs, natural dyeing techniques, education, sustainable development, and permaculture.  Augustin is a documentarian, taking videos of village life, commenting on the culture.  His thesis question is one that all cultures, societies could benefit from asking continually as it helps to define the vision of a people.  He called to ask if he could interview me and Stephen about our impressions, beliefs, ideas to include in his thesis research.   These are his questions.

  • In 20 or 30 years, what do we think will happen with Zapotec weaving and natural dyes? 
  • What type of organization would best communicate the principals of educating people about appreciation their traditions and values, to work cooperatively and not competitively?
  • Is it possible to develop a system where cooperation and sustainability were equally important to making money?
  • Can we create a national and international market for our weavings that supports both income generation and cultural continuation?  How do we protect the heritage of our people and compete in the world market? 
  • Is weaving a rug with natural dyes the best way?  I(n the future, is it worth it to have this as a standard of quality?  Does the marketplace care?
  • Can you be an artist and be successful without compromising the principles of cooperation and sustainability, economic equality?
Currently, there are no easy channels of distribution for highest quality, naturally dyed rugs from Teotitlan del Valle.  Indeed, most families work independently, even brother to brother, to weave and sell their work.  Every summer, in July, a large tractor trailer trucks pulls into the edge of town and parks for several days.  Weavers bring their work, mostly tepetes (rugs) woven with chemical dyes that the importer pays a low price for and can resell in New Mexico or Arizona for a big profit.  Here there are middlemen who contract with households to weave for this shipment.  Weavers will get paid about $25-100 per rug, depending on size, and the mark-up in the States will be 4 to 6 times grater than what they are paid.
There is no gallery in Teotitlan del Valle that showcases the highest quality work.  There is no “stamp of approval” that guarantees that a guild of weavers has agreed that a rug meets certain standards of quality.  If one walks through the shops and rug market one can appreciate the variety and differences between the rugs:  heaviness and strength of the wool used, even edges signifying that there are two large chords of cotton on each side that add strength to the piece, the purity and subtlety of color that connotes the use of natural dyes.  
Augustin says that there is little support from the state or federal government to continue the traditions of weaving in the village and he is fearful that in the next 20-30 years the use of natural dyes and traditional colors will die out.  He comments that people are most concerned about feeding their families and will do whatever they can to get paid, and compromise the quality standards to sell their work.
We talk about how important it is to identify all the people in the village who are committed to working with natural dyes and to document who they are and their work.  We explore how we might organize more visits to the U.S. for great weavers who have not been discovered by the guide books and the New York Times, whose travel editors continue to send people to only those most well known and most expensive.  We talk about ways to mount exhibitions in the U.S., in Oaxaca City, in Mexico City, in San Miguel de Allende, in San Augustin Etla.  All of this requires commitment, money, organization, and someone to doggedly lead the way. 


The Quest: La Union Tejalapan and Gabino Reyes

It is no small feat to get to La Union.  It is not on the map.  None of us had been there before, including Eric who was born an raised in Teotitlan.  The little Chevy that could was packed with Eric driving, our two photographer friends, Sam (a “she”) and Tom, Stephen and me. We decided to set out on the adventure late in the afternoon, after a day at San Augustin Etla and a stop at Atzompa and the studio of Dolores Porres.  It was 4:30 p.m. and we were told there was a shortcut from Atzompa to San Lorenzo across a dirt road that could have been a dry river bed. We passed through hill country with cattle, sheep, houses made with tin sheeting, a lumber mill protected by a fence decorated with animal skulls and vertebrae, burros and horses grazing by the roadside nibbling at the roots of dry grass, prickly pear and saguaro cactus, red-tipped prairie grasses swaying in a gentle breeze.  If one takes the conventional route, you would head toward San Lorenzo from the highway going to Mexico City.  One must go through San Lorenzo, a modest sized town in the Etla Valley, continue on about another 8 miles to San Felipe Tejalapan — the road punctuated by “tope” or speed bumps every 100 yards, making the trip twice as long as it might have been .  We continued on the paved road until we got to a fork, made a left at the roadside stand/bus stop.  There, the narrow road turned to a hard packed clay and we inched our way up asking directions to the home of Gabino Reyes, one of the famous La Union carvers.  The road was lined with thatched huts that sell various staples and sundries. At the crest was a cluster of government buildings, a school, and community center.  Usually, in every craft village there is a central mercado that sells a selection of the work the village is famous for.  That was not the case here.  So, we stopped and asked again, continued forward down a deep arroyo, around a bend, up again.  We passed a traveling carnival setting up for a village fiesta.  We passed an adobe hut with a pig stye out front, four pigs tied to a tree and grazing, a lone goat in the front yard along side an elderly woman with a switch in hand.  We stopped a woman waiting for a tuk-tuk and asked again. Go back, she said. It’s the house you just passed.  We parked, climbed up the steep walk, past a copal tree that was scarred with cut limbs, the oinking pigs, and greeted the old lady who grinned at us toothless. Out came Gabino and we introduced ourselves. He had only two alebrijes at home — a snake with a turtle in it’s mouth for $450 pesos and a alligator with a baby on it’s back, about 80% completed, that he would sell for $1,000 pesos “trabajo interruptus” as Stephen noted.  He said he sold most of his work before it was finished to Tally, a lovely folk art shop across the street and around the corner from Santo Domingo Church and El Che Restaurant, and to a collector named Linda in the southwest (I couldn’t understand the rest).  Sr. Reyes’ workshop is the kitchen table, which is under the palapa (covered cooking area) at the entry of the small, four room adobe house — probably no bigger than 600 square feet at best.  The table was covered in oil cloth decorated with poinsettias, and held small paint jars, fine tipped brushes, and fine wood shavings left from carving the alligator.  The cooking area was comprised of a raised hearth built of clay formed in a U-shape.  The open side of the U is where the wood is added for the fire, and the U forms a cradle on top to hold the clay ollas (Oy-YAH) or jars that are the cooking vessels.  There was something delicious cooking and the hot red fire glowing under the dusky dark palapa was magical.  It was amazing to us that a famous carver who is collected by many, lives so simply in a style that Westerners would consider impoverished.  We decided not to buy because the choices were few, but considered the adventure well worth the experience and the time.  I asked Sr. Reyes about other carvers in the village and if they had any work to show; his reply was yes, maybe they had a few more pieces, but they would be harder to find.  We decided his house had been hard enough to find and decided to turn around and get back to the city while there was still a bit of daylight.  This was the most remote craft village I had been to, most others being along the tourist trail and within 30-45 minutes from the city.  However, if one is on the quest to purchase an alebrije from La Union, my best recommendation is to go to Tally where the selection is much greater and the cost to purchase will be almost the same as going to Sr. Reyes’ casa en el pueblo! 

Posadas in Teotitlan del Valle


Christmas in Teotitlan del Valle starts nine days before with posadas (procession) every night. The nine days represents nine months of Mary’s pregnancy, according to my Zapotec friends. On the first night, the baby Jesus is taken out of the creche in the church along with Mary and Joseph and carried through the streets under a tented portable altar, led by a group of musicians, many elderly, playing flutes, trumpets, trombones, clarinets and drums. A lay priest swings silver vessel filled with copal incense in front of the altar. They pass along a route that covers every neighborhood so that villagers can join in the procession, which often extends several blocks, and they march to the first home to host a posada. The next day, the posada will leave this house at dusk and move to the next house and so on and so on until December 23, when there is the posada ultima, a grand affair with prayers in the altar room of the home that is filled with copal incense and a greater feast than all the others. The village committee asks a household to host a posada and it is a great honor, but very expensive. It can cost $15-20,000 USD to host a posada because the entire village is invited to the feast. The term “guelaguetza”, which is Zapotec, in actuality means something like “obligation, pay back, exchange, mutual support.” So, families and extended families come together to lend money, provide beer and mezcal, contribute tamales (dulce, amarillo, pollo negro), turkey and guacalotes, and/or the labor to prepare them. To say “no” requires an explanation to the village committee, that not many want to have, and a “no” can trigger shame and isolation.


On December 24, families gather for a big Christmas dinner in their homes around 7 p.m. that includes three or four different kinds of tamales, chicken, nopal salad, fresh vegetables, fruits and pastries, accompanied by beer, wine and mezcal. We gathered, too, and after the dinner out came the gift exchange. It wasn’t until three or four years ago that the Chavez family started having a decorated tree and exchanging gifts. Zapotecs in the village tend to adhere more to a lower key gift exchange, but we are noticing now a stronger influence of American culture on the indigenous people and the overlay of the commercialization of the holiday season. After the gift exchange, we hear the sounds of the coming posada that will reach the corner of our street. Some run out to see the passing parade, and others in the family will join it as it continues on to the church, to reinstall the baby Jesus, Mary and Joseph in their permanent altars for another year. A midnight mass celebrates this and the close of the Christmas posadas.

La Noche de los Rabanos

The Zocalo is filled with light, people from throughout Mexico and around the world, balloons, itinerant vendors, strolling musicians. The atmosphere is festive, celebratory, one of relief, for this is a different year than last and people are thankful. Tourists are returning, the Zocalo is alive, a 30 foot Christmas tree is studded with white lights, there are noche buena (poinsettias) everywhere, and ringing the Zocalo is the display that attracts crowds who stand in line for 5 and 6 blocks ringing the area to see ancient tradition of carving radishes. They are sliced, shredded, carved in stars and circles as if a chef were preparing a totally radish dinner.

La Noche de Los RabanosLa Noche de Los Rabanos, Oaxaca

They are stuck together with toothpicks and wire to create nativity scenes, farmers plowing fields atop oxen driven carts or mechanical plows, dancers at the Guelaguetza, musicians plucking guitars and blowing horns and beating drums. The radish carvers, mostly from the campo (the country) near Ocotlan, stand sentry making sure that no one disturbs their creations, frequently spraying water from pump bottles to keep wilting leaves and red radish skin fresh and shiny. The winner of the best carved scene will win $10,000 USD, a princely sum. We are sitting up above the crowd on the second floor in the white table clothed El Asador Vasco, twelve of us, Zapotecs and gringos, when the winner is announced. An immediate shower of white firecrackers cascade like a waterfall from the top floor of the government building to herald our attention that there is a winner; it is a solid wall of twinkling light that goes on for about 5 full minutes, or so it seems. Everyone runs to the edge of the wrought iron railing to take photos, to ooh and ahhh, and to experience the glorious celebration. Then, near the Castillo (which is what everyone calls the Cathedral) another round of firecrackers goes off into the sky. It is about 10:30 p.m. and there is still a long cue waiting to circle the display of radishes that surround the Zocolo. The line won’t diminish until about 2 or 3 a.m. My sister says she was there at 11 a.m. and again at 3 p.m. when the crowds were few, there was no wait, and she could see the people doing the carving and setting up. By 7 p.m. the line began the snake and the wait was at least 2-3 hours. One trick is go into the Zocalo from behind the display to avoid the wait, which is what I did. I didn’t get to see the full view, but could get a good sense of the carvings and some of the detail. Along one end of the U-shaped promenade is where people fashion corn husks into flowers, dioramas of the nativity, and a multitude of fanciful decorations that one can buy to take home. It’s much easier to see and buy from the “back” than from the promenade side of the display.La Noche de Los Rabanos, Oaxaca

The food and ambience at El Asador Vasco, which is above El Jardin, is great and reasonably price. We had a seafood soup from the Isthmus, house wine, entrees, dessert and beverages for 12 people and the total bill including tip was a tad over $200 USD. The meal was leisurely over almost three hours, and we were entertained by a group of strolling Mexican minstrels with guitaron, mandolin, twelve-string guitar, six-string guitar, tamborine, and pandero (a percussion instrument). Their voices were clear, strong and beautiful. The group leader knew Federico from when Fede was on the school committee in Teotitlan and the leader taught school there.It was after midnight when we got back to the pueblo and we didn’t wake up until 10 a.m. on December 24. Tonight, we are celebrating with a big dinner for 12 at home hosted by Dolores and Federico. The table is decorated with succulents from Benito Juarez that we got at the village market this morning, corn husk flowers that I bought at La Noche de los Rabanos last night, and small votives. Our meal will include green corn sweet tamales fresh made in the village, a potato salad mixed with pineapple chunks, onions, green and red peppers and mushrooms, ponche (punch made with guava, raisins, manzanitas–little apples, sugar cane, canela-cinnamon, panela–sweet Oaxaca chocolate, and pastel de chocolate with mocha, champagne y vino y cerveza Noche Buena and Modelo Negro y Claro. The guests are arriving.

Ocotlan, Alebrijes & Susanna Harp

Yesterday we were on the road at 8:30 a.m., picking up the two Linda’s in the city and heading out to the big Friday market day at Ocotlan, the village of artist Rudolfo Morales, about 45 minutes by car from Oaxaca along a busy two lane road. For a while, we followed a truck loaded with cattle bound for market. The hills we climbed were grassy and dry, the color of wheat, like southern California in the summertime. The prickly pear cactus, agave and mesquite dot the horizon. It is high desert country, warm now, nearly 80 degrees in the midday sun.  Barbara spots the studio of ceramic artist Josefina Aguilar.  We make a quick u-turn, park and go in. The family lives and works there. On one side of the patio is the living area, open kitchen, dining room, bedrooms, and on the other is the low fire kiln, display and sales area.  There are stylized primitive figures of Frida in every variety and color of floral headdress imaginable, ample bosom and prominent brow accentuated. A happy couple stand side by side dressed in preparation for a wedding, never mind that they are skeletons to honor Dia del Muertos (Day of the Dead).  I buy a lovely made by hand and glazed skeletal lady paddling a flower covered boat destined for the River Styx for 100 pesos (about $10 mas or menos).  After all have made their purchases, we’re off to park and head to the big market.  Our first stop is inside the food stalls where we find the tamale vendor I remembered from the last visit.  We sit down to a lunch of fresh tamales with chicken and mole, 4 for 10 pesos ($1), fresh squeezed orange and carrot juice @ 20 pesos ($2), and then split up to wander.  At the edge of the Ocotlan zocalo is the government offices.  In one room are the bold, colorful, moving murals created by Rudolfo Morales murals of farmers  and villagers — much like those created by Diego Rivera, almost cubist in execution.  To me, they represent the fortitude and creativity of the Mexican people who have worked the earth and made it bountiful. The murals are filled with images of flowers, vegetables, fruit, an homage to the men and women who labor to give us food. Across the zocalo is the Morales museum which is contiguous to the church whose restoration he supported. The market is is cacaphony of vendors, food, live animals, inanimate objects all for sale.  Chili peppers, dried fish from the coast, gladiolas, Christmas decorations, cooking utensils, shoes, spices, cinnamon sticks so big they look like giant straws, embroidery thread, tea towels, baby clothes, shoes, copal incense, chapulines (spiced, dried grasshoppers) are piled on tables row after row. Canaries sing in their cages awaiting their next home. Ocotlan is famous for its woven “Panama” hats and an entire area of the market is devoted to their display. The latest pirated songs blare from the stall selling CDs for 15 pesos. In the center of the Zocalo, between the pairs of fountains are the vendors selling tapetes (rugs) from Teotitlan, alebrijes (carved animalitos) from Arrazola or San Martin Tilcajete, painted gourds from Guerrero, table cloths and dresses from Mitla, and woven baskets from Tlacalula (where the spectacular Sunday market is an easy competitor to Ocotlan).   Milk goats are tied to the lamp posts.  Across the street, basket vendors compete for space with the piles of cow hides waiting to be tanned.  On the way back to the car, we pass 10 turkeys are tied together, bundled and waiting to be carried off for Christmas dinner, an organic food store, money changer, and feed store. The aroma of chocolate being ground for mole permeates the air.Next stop, San Martin Tilcajete.  This is intended to be a quick stop!  Yeah.  San Martin is about 10 minutes from Ocotlan on the way back to Oaxaca City.  Jacobo Angeles, the famous woodcarver, has just built a beautiful restaurant and gallery at the crucero (crossroads).  Someone wants to stop at Ephraim Fuentes workshop, which is on the main street. There is not much on display and we leave disappointed, wondering, perhaps, if the drop in tourism has had an effect on production necessitating other types of work. Next, we stop at the workshop of Lucila Mendez Sosa and her husband. Eric remembers where she lives because of the turquoise door.  The last time we saw her she was very pregnant; now she holds a babe in arms who is about 12 months of age. When we visited her last the display table was filled with about 30 carvings.  Now there are three.  She says her husband is working construction with his father and won’t have time to carve until January. Our next stop is to the master carver Jacobo Angeles, who is on every “must see” list, and I believe, rightfully so.  He remembers us, welcomes us, takes us through the educational process of carving the copal wood, mixing the natural dyes in the Zapotec tradition, introduces us to family members who sit around the workshop tables caring and painting, and then gives us an astrological explanation of personality type based on age, birthday, and birth year.  There are few finished pieces on the gallery shelves.  Prices range from 150 pesos for small painted hummingbirds to 12,000 pesos for a large carved and painted bear.  A piece 18″ high and 12″ wide averages about $400-600 USD.  Jacobo’s pieces are very collectable.  I recently saw them in the Museum of Mexican Art in Chicago, and he goes to the U.S. at least once a year for a major exhibition at a museum or gallery.  He and his family are warm, welcoming, engaging and his desire is to educate collectors about the process of carving, the use of natural pigments, and the meaning of the symbols and designs used to paint the animalitos. Whether one purchases anything or not, this is a great experience not to be missed, even though the tour buses and private guides beat a path to this door, too! Susanna Harp at the Zocalo.  After dinner at La Olla (tlayudas, sopa de flor de calabasas, jugo de sandia) we walk to the Zocalo for a free Susanna Harp concert.  It is packed and she is already singing as we arrive. In the last year, during what the locals call “the troubles,” few people other than political activists and curious tourists (of which there were less than a handful) congregated in the zocalo.  Tonight there was a feeling of exhuberance, life, energy, future.  The Zocalo is the heartbeat of every Mexican village and city. In Oaxaca last night, I was aware that the purity and soul of Susanna’s voice as she expressed the hopes and dreams of her people resonated throughout the crowd. Her personal warmth conveyed to me a sense of calm, peace and hope that Oaxaca is recovering and healing from the psychological and physical violence of the last year and that all responsible are ready to restore peace and find other ways to resolve differences.  Here were were, the gringos from North Carolina, California, and Ohio, me, sister Barbara, the two Linda’s, Sam and Tom, arm in arm with the Zapotec Chavez family from Teotitlan del Valle, Dolores, Federico, Eric, Janet and Omar, and Elsa Sanchez Diaz, the descendant of Porfirio Diaz, strolling Alacala Macedonia, content, filled with happiness, belonging together.  Felicidades.