Taking the road out of Oaxaca past the airport, we head toward Ocotlan. We are in the little blue Toyota pick-up that can! Eric drives, Elsa is in the middle with her legs straddling the “four on the floor” stick shift, and I am snuggled between her and the passenger door. It’s a tight fit. The invitation cover is brightly printed with designs of little girl toys: dolls, flowers, bows, a teddy bear. The inside reads like a poem. We are invited to attend the baptism of three-year-old Betzy Noemi at the church on the zocalo in the village of San Pablo Huixtepec, followed by a reception and dinner at the home of the padrinos of her mother and father in the even smaller village of Santa Ines Yatzeche, in the Zimatlan district deep into the Oaxaca valley. We make a turn where the highway forks to the right, heading on the road toward Puerto Escondido, passing the turn off to Santa Ana Zagache where Rodolfo Morales restored and painted the extraordinary church. The earth is black where it is freshly turned, ready again for planting. Fallow fields are stubbled with cut corn stalks. Green acres of alfalfa lay before us. We pass under an arbor of jacaranda trees that line both sides of the row, their trunks painted bright white, looking like zebra stripes. A sign says, fresh strawberries sold here. Donkey carts travel down the paths that line the fields, children sitting atop the cart with whip in hand, fathers and mothers working the fields. “We are in the land of the Huixache,” Eric announces. We pass through Zimatlan, a district of about 35,000 people, then are careful to read the road signs to mark the direction to the village of San Pablo; there it is, turn left, zig zag through the village streets, ask people which way to Santa Ines, and find ourselves on a dirt road leading through the fields. At another dirt lane intersection, we hail a tuk-tuk and ask the driver, which way? There, he says, thumbing backward, and we follow his freshly beaten path into a small pueblo of adobe, brick and concrete buildings. This is a humble village, Eric remarks.
Betzy Noemi’s father, Vitaliano, works with Eric at the Museo Textil de Oaxaca. He travels via collectivo for the daily one hour commute to the city, arriving by 9 a.m. and leaving at 8 p.m. He is fortunate to have this job. Most of the men in this village have left to go to the U.S. to work. They are campesinos, farmers, who have worked this land generation after generation, for thousands of years. The men who have returned all say they worked in Seaside, California, near Monterrey. This village has it’s own Zapotec outpost there. For Teotitlan, the outpost is Moorpark, California. This is the story of villages throughout Mexico. A congregation of women, ages 12 to 60-ish, are preparing food in the outdoor kitchen in the next courtyard. I walk in and ask if I can join them. As we talk, one woman says that families have not seen their brothers and grandfathers for over 20 years. There is sadness in her voice and in her eyes, and I am again reminded of the impact that U.S. immigration policy has on families and villages — without documentation we have created lost generations.
We had been greeted by Vitaliano’s father and mother and invited to take a seat at one of the long tables set up for the fiesta. It was 2 p.m. In one corner of the courtyard, a group of older men in cowboy hats were drinking beer and finishing off bowls of higadito. We were immediately each served a plate of sweet bread and hot chocolate, the traditional fiesta offering to guests. Then came the piping hot bowls of higadito, the scrambled egg in chicken soup mix I am familiar with from Teotitlan fiestas. But this version was cut in a large cube and floated like a custard flan in the soup. It was spiced with tomatoes, peppers, onions and cilanatro, like an omelet. Then came the beer, the Corona Extra, the golden hallmark of every family celebration. The local band had it’s own table, and every 10 minutes would play a tune, always off-key, then sit down for a while, then get up to play again. The chickens are running under the table between my feet. I am offered a Corona by Vitaliano’s father and he tells me to spill a few drops on the ground before drinking it, so the earth will continue to give back. He is a pre-school teacher in the village, where children learn in Zapotec and Spanish; they learn to write in Zapotec here.
At 3:30 p.m. Betzy Noemi arrives from the church and comes through the kitchen courtyard with her mother, father, grandparents and a procession of other family members. She is dressed in sparkling, glittering white with a white crown on her head. She is a princess. As she passes through into the fiesta courtyard, everyone gathers and throws confetti. The traditional women wrapped in jaspe shawls, with red and blue ribbons braided through their pigtails, are covered in a shower of confetti, too. There is an ethereal halo of confetti raining on the crowd as people press in to offer congratulations and present gifts. This will be the last big party for Betzy Noemi until her Quinciniera at age 15.
The tables are filled with floral arrangements of pink and fushia roses. Streamers, balloons, and hanging toys decorate the tent awning. Guests are given little baskets adorned with flowers and pink gauze, filled with candies, and minature pink candles to take home with them. Little tins tied in pink ribbon are passed out. Elsa opens hers to discover a wooden rosary. A baker brings in six large elaborately decorated cakes frosted with pink roses, interspersed with real ones. It is difficult to tell them apart. He places them on a four-tiered pillar center stage for us all to admire. The local band continues to play. More offerings of Corona come our way. Suddenly, the band gets up and plays as it marches to yet another adjacent courtyard. Everyone gets up and follows.
There is a burial mound and at the head is a wooden cross. The men of the family, along with Betzy Noemi and her parents and grandparents, stand behind the cross. Someone says a welcome, a blessing for the people and the food, and honors the day. The grandfather pulls the cross out of the ground and with it two large bottles. They are filled with hot mezcal and sugar cane. Under the mound, lies the roasting goat and beef deep in a stone cavern filled with hot charcoal. The meat has been cooking for 24 hours in large cauldrons of simmering spiceyness — peppers, herbs, avocado leaves, who knows what else? The cauldrons are covered in tin foil, placed into a heavy metal cage, lowered, then covered with tin sheet roofing, then covered with dirt. I watch as the men take turns shoveling away the dirt to reveal the grave where the meat has been cooking. There is reverence in their work as they celebrate the animal sacrificed for their well being. In the corner of the courtyard is a live goat tied to a rope, watched over by an aging man. I wonder why this goat wasn’t chosen and another was harvested for our meal instead. As the hot cages and cauldrons are lifted up and out with rope and rebar utensils, two women pass trays of golden El Presidente mezcal. The woman in front of me says that the two special mezcal bottles that have emerged from the ashes with the meat are potent. Their contents will result in “borracho mas rapido.” No es bueno, she murmurs and lifts her eyes to God.
Most of the crowd has returned to the fiesta courtyard by now, but I linger to take photos. Men come over and ask in halting English, where are you from? Carolina del Norte, I say. One says, “I worked in Hollywood for six years, near La Brea, in a Thai restaurant.” He must have been the invisible one, washing the dishes day after day, six or seven days a week, sharing an apartment with six or 10 other men, sacrificing to save enough to send money home. Being here in this village and participating in the ritual of life gives me a perspective and appreciation, and helps me put our labor force into context. It is about individuals and families who agree to separate in order to provide sustenance, just as we honor and give reverance to the meat that is pulled from the grave to give sustenance to this gathering in celebration of life. It is a ritual in celebration that we all enjoy in our own cultures, but here I give it special meaning because a huge part of our labor dependency in the U.S. is tied to small villages like this one.
The cauldrons of simmering meat are put on large wood planked tables in the cooking courtyard. Vitaliano’s mother takes an avocado leaf from among the many covering the meat, reaches her fingers into the meat, pulls off a hunk, puts it on the avocado leaf and hands it to me. It is dripping with spicy saucy liquid and I hold the leaf and bite into it. It is soft and sweet and delicious. Barbacoa de chivo. The band plays on.
First course: A soup of hot spicy goat broth that Eric calls consomme. This is the liquid that the meat has been cooked in. Platters of chopped cilantro and cabbage, with wedges of limes, are brought to the table. We are served styrofoam cups of consomme, and add the cilantro and cabbage, squeeze lime juice into the broth. I stir the mixture with my spoon to cook the raw vegetables and wash my hands with Purell before eating. I have greeted lots of people with the Zapotec double handshake. There are cut potatoes, carrots, green beans, and mystery meat (Eric says liver, intestines and brains) swimming in the broth. I sip and pick out the vegetables.
Second course: More beer and another round of mezcal.
Third course: A plate of barbacoa de chivo (a big mound of meat, more than I can eat), with salsa and black bean paste, plus fresh corn tortillas wrapped in pink and white striped plastic bags. There are no utensils. We tear the tortillas and use them to scoop up the pieces of meat, rolling the meat in the tortilla and stuffing our mouths. Spicy juice oozes on my fingers (there will be remnants of this for eternity in my journal book), and from the side of my mouth. What we don’t eat, we cover and take home.
By now, it is 5:30 p.m. A huge bandstand has been assembled on the street in front of the house and salsa, banda, and ranchero music will start shortly. This fiesta, which will cost between 12,000 and 20,000 pesos — a princely sum in a humble Mexican village — will continue with dancing and eating well into the night and perhaps til dawn. For us, it is time to go. We have a 6:30 date with Federico and Dolores in Oaxaca, and they have kindly come into the city to pick me up to take me back to Teotitlan, another part of the Oaxaca valley, so I don’t have to take a bus or taxi. It is important that we are on time. We pay our respects, give thanks to the family with words of congratulations, felicidades. I am welcome to return any time, they tell me. “Aren’t you going to stay to dance with us?” some of the men say as we leave. I will come back another time, I say, and perhaps I will.