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. 

2 Responses to Ocotlan, Alebrijes & Susanna Harp

  1. Absolutely, Chris. Please send photos, and I will post them. Ephraim Fuentes is a well-known carver and many love his work. Thanks for your thoughtful additions and comments.

  2. Hi,

    Our group of six just returned from a week in Oaxaca during Guelaguetza. My wife and I have a small collection of alebrijes and did make it to San Martin Tilcajete — although I neglected to bring your article as a helpful guide. However, Ephraim Fuentes did have two large fox-like figures (a male and a female?) that we loved at first sight and bought ($320 for the pair). The quality of his and his wife’s(?) work is equal to anything in our collection, and the non-traditional style is appealing. Although we may have missed seeing other good carvers (again, lacking your guide), the inventory of pieces was quite good in the dozen shops we visited along the main town entry road. Still, we saw few tourists in general around Oaxaca during this week of festival activity.

    The tianguis at Tlacolula reminded us of market days in Guatemala — one of the best days of our visit.

    If you would like to see the Fuente figures, I’ll be happy to send photos.

    Chris Hugo
    Port Orchard, WA (near Seattle)

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