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!
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- Norma Schafer and Oaxaca Cultural Navigator LLC has offered programs in Mexico since 2006. We have over 30 years of experience developing and delivering award-winning programs for Indiana University, University of Virginia, George Washington University and University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
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