Monthly Archives: February 2010

Editing Video with Subtitles: Zapotec to English

When our film maker participants interviewed Magda, she began answering their questions in Spanish but then switched over to Zapotec, an indigenous language thousands of years old that is spoken in villages throughout the Oaxaca valley.   Zapotec is an unwritten language.  To learn it, you must be phonetically agile.  With Eric at our side, he translated Magda’s Zapotec into English as she spoke.  This was one of the surprises of being on location in Teotitlan del Valle.  Many of the older people here speak very little Spanish, as we learned that afternoon, when Magda told us that she had not completed her education beyond second grade.  In all the years I have known her, I had assumed that she was a fluent Spanish-speaker and this was another discovery that unfolded during this week together.

I am at the table where our instructor Erica and participant Lauren are making the subtitles for the nearly completed video that is the product of our work this week together.  They are listening to each film clip and referencing the English translation that Eric made and then matching what Magda said in Zapotec to the English translation.  It is a process of question, answer, figuring out which answer matches to which frame.

In the background is the rug room as Las Granadas.  It is late February and over eighty degrees outside.  The sun is strong and the sky is dappled in white clouds.   Birds sing and dogs bark.  The rugs are tapestries of natural wool, bright oranges, reds, blues, greens, purples, gold.  In the kitchen on the center island is homemade flan baked by Eloisa waiting for our premiere fiesta tonight, when all the filmmakers and subjects will gather to see their films for the first time.  We’ll lay a table with homemade pizza, quesadillas made on the comal, aguas de jamaica and pepino, fruit, jicama and dip, mucho mezcal and cerveza.  It will be a grand finale before we all disperse tomorrow morning.

Making Tamales with Mole Amarillo at Las Granadas

Magdalena comes through the turquoise front gate into the courtyard compound of Las Granadas carrying two bundles of corn stalks.  They are almost as tall as she is.  At first glance, this looks like the discards of the harvest that will be added to the compost pile.  But, NO!  After cutting off the long ends and soaking the stalks, they become the envelope for the most delicious tamales amarillo that we will eat for comida later that day.   The women of the family encircle the kitchen’s center island, a team of experienced and very talented cooks:  two mothers-in-law, Magda and Marina, and three adult sisters, Josefina, Rosalina and Natividad.  Nati is the youngest and a mother of two-year old Arnulfo.  Her husband has been working in the U.S. for almost two years and she hopes he comes home in the next four or six months.  That is the plan.  She misses him.

This is a traditional kitchen.  Everything is made from scratch and by hand.  Each morning the women go to the local market to shop for the fresh ingredients that will become our meals.  One of the documentary films that will be made this week will feature Magda who will prepare the corn and make tortillas from scratch using the ancient metate (stone grinder).  The joy of being in this house all week is to eat from this kitchen, breakfast, lunch and dinner!  Every morsel is made with care, love and regard for the food.  And, as guests, we applaud the art and work of women who give us this sustenance.

The masa is prepared into a ball of corn dough.  A small piece is torn off and rolled between the palms of Magda’s hands.  Marina uses a tortilla press to flatten the masa balls between two pieces of magenta plastic wrap.  The tortilla peels off easily.  She hands it to Magda who filled the pancake with mole and some pieces of cooked chicken.  Then, she takes a soft corn husk and artfully folds and wraps the tamale into a little package.  Later, a pile of tamales will be steamed in a big pot in the outdoor kitchen, just before we eat the midday meal at 3:30 p.m.  It is an assembly line production that takes several hours with many hands.

Usos y Costumbres: Zapotec Wedding Traditions

The relatives of the groom were preparing for this wedding weeks in advance.  They bought the plumpest chickens, ordered the folding chairs, tables and red and blue striped fiesta tent, asked the baker to prepare the biggest and lightest cake, hired the melodious local band, and arranged for the magistrate to perform the legal marriage ceremony.  The church ceremony will take place next year.  The courtyard of the family compound where the ceremony was to take place was freshly painted in a deep earth red.

The women of the family began their preparations days earlier, cleaning, making fresh tortillas, and preparing the chickens, cleaning and cutting them, making the rich red and picante barbecue sauce that would be spooned over the cooked meat served in a bowl and eaten as a soupy sauce.  On the day of the wedding, sisters, aunts, cousins arrived at dawn, their dresses covered with checked aprons embroidered in huge flowers, to start the wood cooking fire that would provide the heat to slow simmer the chicken pieces for five hours in spices and chiles.  This would be the main meal of the day to be served at the three o’clock lunch after the ceremony.  The fiesta would be for one hundred family members of the bride and groom.

Guests began to arrive at 12:30 p.m. and took their seats in rows set up in front of the head table reserved for the bridal party.  They came with gifts:  cases of beer, bottles of mezcal, arms full of floral bouquets, bags of one liter soda bottles, cellophane wrapped cookware and dish sets, big boxes covered with silver and white wrapping paper tied with huge white or silver ribbons.  Inside might be a blender or a special piece of pottery or cooking knives.  Gifts were deposited in the altar room to be opened the next day.

At 12:45 p.m. everyone who had arrived gathered in the altar room, the ceremonial center of the home.  The brides’ family gathered in a line on one side, the groom’s family in a line down the other.  First, the bride’s father spoke about giving his daughter in marriage to the family of the groom (she would come to live in his village with his family) and the happiness of the family with this betrothal.  The groom’s uncle, the family patriarch, spoke about the delight of the marriage and welcoming the bride into the groom’s side of the family.  Then, the bride’s family went down the line and greeted everyone on the groom’s side.  When this pre-ceremony was complete, everyone took their seats for the official legal ceremony to begin.

Fresh flowers were everywhere.  The wedding party was framed by the looms and dyed yarns in the background.  Children ran up and down the aisles.  The tone was festive and casual.  The magistrate asked the couple to promise to be friends their entire lives together and the ceremony closed with a handshake.  The kiss came after the champagne toast.

Out back behind the house, four women were supervising the chicken cooking and serving, and two hovered over the steamy broth fanning the wood fire.  Smoke curled and ashes fluttered through the air like snow flakes. They prepared 100 bowls.  One woman kneeled in front of the huge cauldron, reaching in to pick out three juicy chicken pieces, choosing both light and dark meat, for each bowl.  She stacked the bowls in another empty cauldron, and then just before serving, the hot, bubbling soupy sauce was poured into the bowl.  We carried them into the courtyard and handed the bowls to the groom’s uncle, who took them first to the wedding party and then personally served the rest of the people in the room.  It was his gesture of welcome as gracious host.

Of course, none of us (except for some of the men) could finish our meals, which is the idea!   Colorful plastic buckets were provided to all who desired to take their leftovers home.  Fiestas are designed to give people more than they can possibly eat and provide plenty to take home to savor the next day.  Food is a central part of every family celebration, as is the giving and receiving of gifts.  I imagine this might be a link to a centuries old tradition of paying tribute and of reciprocal responsibility of taking care of each other in a communitarian society.

A huge bowl was placed before me.  I took fresh chopped cilantro, onion and cabbage and added it to the broth.  I took the fresh corn tortilla, tore off a small piece, took a hunk of fall-of-the-bone chicken and put it inside, wrapped it like a mini-taco, and dunked it in the spicy broth.  My fingers were deep red from the color of the sauce.  Spoons and forks just don’t work as well.  Between the bites, I sipped cold Corona beer and accepted one shot of mezcal that created a shiver as it went down.  I was in heaven.

After we had all eaten, the chairs were put to the side of the patio in rows and the tables folded and put away.  Cake was cut and served.  Then, the band played (after they had eaten) for the bride and groom to have their first dance.  We all joined in.  By that time, five hours had passed and the party was not yet over.  It would continue well into the night.

The aunts, uncles, cousins, brothers and sisters of the groom would return the next day to wash the dishes, clean up and put the house back in order.  They would share another meal together and the newlyweds will open their gifts, starting their formal life in the comfort of extended family and age old traditions.

Homage to Dolores Porras

It has been three years since I visited folk art potter Dolores Porras in her village of Santa Maria Atzompa.  She was still actively creating decorative pots painted with figures of sirenas (mermaids) with wild hair and tantalizing three dimensional breasts, sculpted figures of madonnas and angels, fanciful pigs and burros.  The shelves were packed with stunning pottery and it was difficult to choose which piece I could take home that would be small enough to fit in my suitcase.  I was with photographer friends Sam and Tom Robbins from Columbus, Ohio, and my godson Eric Chavez Santiago.  There were two inverted pots covered with faces in bas relief.  The pots rested on the opening, bottom side up, displaying probably eight of these faces as if they were sisters or multiple personalities.  Sam and I each bought one and mine takes center stage on my dining room table, an homage to Dolores Porras.

I had not seen Dolores since, and when I visited her yesterday it was startling to see her wheelchair bound and frail.  She told me in a hushed, throaty voice that she has Parkinson’s disease, doesn’t want to eat and is losing her mind.  I know Parkinson’s.  A good friend in North Carolina has it and I have seen how it eats away at the nervous system, creating memory loss and immobility.  I asked Dolores if she was in pain.  Her only pain is that she cannot remember and she cannot see much.  Are you working? I ask.  Can you make your clay?  No, she said, I have no strength.

The shelves around the room were bare, only a few of her pieces remain to be sold.  I put my arms around her and kiss her forehead and tell her she is a great artist and thank her for her life and her creativity.  I give her magic kisses through the air and she kisses me back with her lips pursed, and we are there, two adult women, kissing each other through space and my eyes are wet and I just want to leave the room and sob.  This is such a loss of a treasured talent and it is painful to see how this disease robs people of their life’s energy much to early.  Dolores is age seventy-three but she looks like one hundred.

Outside, the courtyard walk is lined with piles of discarded, broken figures and plates, imperfect angels.  I lift up pieces and hold them between my fingers and discover a face plate made perhaps years ago, and then an angel.  Muy viejo (very old) says Dolores’s son.  Are they for sale?  Yes, he says.  I buy these and two extraordinary mermaid urns, the last two.  He and I cry.  I didn’t need these things, but to me, they are much more — my homage to Dolores Porras.

It’s a Rainy Day in Oaxaca

The canvas roof that covers the courtyard of La Provincia hotel (Calle Porfirio Diaz #108) is a symphony of raindrops.  It is pouring, and the forecast is rain for the next two days.  This means that our plans to go to Monte Alban and Atzompa today may not materialize.   We shall see.

First, a moment about this hotel.  It is a 3-1/2 star, rated by Conde Nast, two blocks from the Zocalo, and extraordinary.  There are two inner courtyards filled with plants,  contemporary art that is a juxtaposition to the colonial Spanish architecture, a great little restaurant, and lovely rooms.  I booked this hotel on and got a great rate of $129 per night.  Sharing with my friend brought the price down to an affordable $65 per night, including a breakfast of scrambled eggs, tortillas Suizas, fresh bread with homemade apple jam, sweet cakes, incredible coffee, and gracious service.   I would highly recommend staying here.

Yesterday was a whirlwind.  First, a walk to Marco Polo on Cinco de Mayo in the historic center for breakfast, then arrival at the Museo Textil de Oaxaca in time for the 10 a.m. opening of the special exhibit and sale of weavings from Chiapas.  A group of French people, originally from Lyon, have been working with weavers from Chiapas for the last fifteen years developing a textile cooperative called El Camino in their village for sustainable development.  They exhibit and sell in Paris, Mexico City and now Oaxaca.  The textiles are finely woven cotton in striking colors and come in an array of styles:  handbags, pillow covers, baby bibs, shawls and scarves, and tablecloths.  The villagers are handling their own production now and all the sales go directly to the weavers.  It was hard to limit my acquisitions, and I keep reminding myself that it’s good to buy textiles, they don’t break in shipment!

Next, we walked up Cinco de Mayo to visit Janet Chavez Santiago in her Galleria Fe y Lola, and stopped in next door to say hello to Ale and Tito at El Nahual.  Mucho caminando.  Along the way, Erica poked into a new shop at the corner selling amber jewelry from Chiapas and got a stunning necklace for about $35USD.  We were told that the Chiapas amber is all natural, untreated and has lots of bugs and inclusions.  It is beautiful.

After walking around the neighborhood, going in and out of galleries, we had lunch on the Zocalo at Terra Nova, a great spot for people watching.  We came back to the room for a rest and a change of clothes before going out again.   Our hope was to get a taxi to Arrazola but it was too late in the day, so we decided to treat ourselves to manicures and I added a pedicure.  Manicure was 130 pesos and pedicure was 140 pesos.  Total bill with tip was 300 pesos for both, which came to about $25 USD.

At 7 p.m. we met up with Stephanie, a friend who is living in Oaxaca for two months,  at Casa Oaxaca on Constituccion.  We settled into the deep leather seats in the bar and I had the most delicious mango Margarita ever!  The glass was rimmed in salt and guisano chile.  Yum, yum.   We settled in and decided to stay there for dinner.  Erica’s shrimp was the best dish among the three of us.  I had the vegetarian lasagna with spinach sauce and Stephanie had the cannelloni with an overly sweet béchamel sauce.

As we walked back to our hotel stopping to hear the flamenco music at Nuevo Babel on Calle Porfirio Diaz.  It was a great day.