Monthly Archives: November 2010

Organic Mexican Produce, Fair Trade and the Cocaine Market: A Discussion

With permission, I am sharing this email that came in to me today as a follow-on to the discussion about Fair Trade chocolate, and where Mexican chocolate comes from.  The following comes from a reader who only buys organic and who is frustrated with the demise of the small Mexican farmer as NAFTA drives down prices and drives up the production and sale of cocaine.

“The “organic” designation in Mexico is very difficult to get.  It is strictly given, but costs a fair bit to renew every year.  You can buy a number of Mexican products (I know a coffee grower in Guerrero) where the growers only get their “organic” designation every few years so the product might not be labelled.  It is simply too expensive to do every year.

“I can though buy “organic” Mexican limes that are small and irregular in colour and shape and very flavourful.  I can buy “organic” US limes which are the size of oranges and all uniform in size, and have a bland flavour.  I will bet that the Mexican ones are honestly organic, and that the US ones have chemicals and are GM (genetically modified).  Unfortunate that this is allowed to exist.

It is worth research as well, how much it costs to get “fair trade” designation. Large companies who can afford it, are more likely to have the legal right to use it than small producers.  There is a lot of trickery in these things…  one of the funniest ones I find now is people being “green” and advertising “organic bamboo” clothing for a higher price than cotton.  Fabric made from bamboo is actually “rayon” which has been sold for many years.  Since bamboo grows so quickly (I am sure you notice that in Oaxaca) it doesn’t need chemicals.  There is always a way to get more money than something is truly worth.

“I spend lots of time in Mexican markets, and lots of conversations with sellers – unfortunately because of the “free trade” agreements, foods like avocados from Mexico were banned from sale in the US for many years, in competition with those from California.  At the same time, most of the apples and pears that you find for sale in Mexican markets are from the state of Washington in the US.  It is all a mess, not just as simple as one might think.

“Mexico is losing its closest trading partner as far as produce goes.  The US is the largest user of cocaine and other drugs, so the so called “free trade” agreement is pushing people to get involved in the drug trade, a product that can easily be sold within the US.”
Central to this discussion, is the impact of fair trade in Mexico on the business of tourism.  As the demand for illegal drugs in the U.S. goes up, the drug trafficking in Mexico will also increase along with the associated violence.  I am hearing daily about the fear people have of traveling to Mexico.  And, while the violence is pretty much contained to the U.S.-Mexico border states, there is widespread fear of travel to all parts of Mexico, including Oaxaca.  Perhaps it is time to redefine Fair Trade?

Chocolate: What’s Not to Love About It?

Click here for Kathleen’s Chocolate story

My fellow writer, expat food aficionado and socially/politically/environmentally conscious advocate for responsible living has just written an important article.  I encourage you to read it.  The slave trade in Africa, a centuries old practice, endures because of the world’s love for chocolate.  Kathleen Dobek writes about the chocolate candy makers who don’t and do use fair trade practices, the regulations and compliance issues around chocolate manufacture, and what we can do to ensure that we are not supporting companies that are not adhering to ethical labor practices.

I love chocolate.  What’s not to love about it is the enslavement of children who harvest the cacao bean for some of the world’s leading chocolate manufacturers.  Kathleen has researched and written a great article.  Please read it.

It raises the question for me about Oaxacan chocolate.  Where does the cacao bean and chocolate come from that goes into making that delicious, frothy morning cup of hot chocolate.  Where does the chocolate come from that is the primary ingredient for mole negro, my absolute favorite mole that covers chicken and rice?  If anyone knows the answer, do tell!

This comment just came in to me via email from Silva:  the chocolate used in Oaxaca for drinking and mole comes from the Mexican State of Tabasco.

She sent this link to the USDA web site for an explanation of terms regarding organic labeling.

She goes on to say that many people take the “USDA organic” label for granted. If you check USDA, you will find that the term means that up to 5% of the item can be chemicals and non-organic materials. This agreement was made by
pressure from Monsanto, Dole, etc. Many so called USDA organic items at the grocery store are NOT organic, but 95% organic. They can be identical to non-organic products, just cost more money – great profits for companies like Dole.  The only items that are organic are those that say “USDA 100%
organic”. I have never seen that label in a store.  Just worth keeping in mind when using that term…

Linda Martin’s Oaxaca Saturday Church Tour: Entertaining, Humorous and Historical

You have GOT to do this walking tour of Oaxaca’s great churches with Linda Martin.  She is funny, zany, creative, irreverent and informative.  She has a historical perspective on the history of Oaxaca and Mexico that will leave you chuckling.

Carved stone detail, Cathedral of Oaxaca

You can meet Linda at 10 a.m. every Tuesday and Saturday in front of the Catedral (that’s the major church on the Zocalo).  As Linda says, it is not Oaxaca’s most beautiful or ornately adorned religious edifice, but it was the home church of the bishop of Oaxaca, so has a very important place in the history of the city.

Linda Martin and Christine Zenino, travel writer and photographer, at the Cathedral of Oaxaca

We were armed with our cameras and Linda was most patient with us as we gathered around to hear the stories of saints, sinners, the conversion of the indigenous, and tales of war and rebellion.  She took her time to answer questions and wait for the stragglers who were busy “shooting” images of virgins, cherubs, stained glass, altars and supplicants carved from wood centuries ago.  You could visit these churches on your own, but it would just not be as rich or rewarding an experience.

Linda Martin's Walking Tour View, Oaxaca, Mexico

Basilica de la Soledad

The Virgin of Solitude (La Nuestra Senora de la Soledad) is Oaxaca’s patron saint.  It is considered to be Oaxaca’s holiest site, built between 1682 and 1690.  We came upon a family getting ready for a quinciniera, the 15th birthday celebration of teenage girls to welcome them into adulthood.

The Quinciniera Girl in Blue Gauze

During the two hour walking tour, we climbed stairs, traversed hills on narrow streets, visited four churches (Catedral, La Compania de Jesus, San Felipe Neri, and Basilica de la Soledad), plus historical and whimsical sights along the way, and wound up at her home where we had the opportunity to see her wonderful paintings (Linda is an accomplished artist), and make our 100 peso per person donation to help support Estancia which offers  a bed and meals to those accompanying a loved one on a Oaxaca hospital stay.

Sanctuary at San Felipe Neri

Along the way, we visited a religious reliquary shop that was doing a lively business selling home altar decor for Day of the Dead.  The choices were seemingly infinite as we passed through displays of infant to adult sized Jesus, the Virgins of Guadelupe, Soledad and Juquila, and stacks of  musc CDs and other religious and mood necessities.

Altar adornments

To contact Linda Martin in advance to confirm your participation on a Tuesday or Saturday walking tour, please email

Puebla Textiles at the Arts Cooperative “Siuamej”

So far, I have discovered only one shop in Puebla city that sells high quality indigenous, handwoven textiles.  Siuamej is a cooperative representing over 16 groups of women who work in local crafts from the various municipalities of the state of Puebla.  The sales help contribute to the well-being of more than 600 indigenous women scattered throughout the mountainous region of Puebla beyond this major city.

Most of the pieces are wool and woven on back-strap looms.  They are hand-embroidered with intricate designs of birds, flowers and geometric shapes and patterns.  The remote mountain villages are cold in winter and wool is a necessity.  Few pieces are reformatted for the “tourist” market, and as a consequence can be considered “traditional.”

Puebla weaving and embroidery style

Contemporary pieces are not likely to be woven with cloth colored with natural dyes.  The piece below is an antique and made of wool colored with natural dyes.  It is a riot of primary color and intricately embroidered.  The price was 5,000 pesos — a bit too rich for my pocketbook!  But hopefully, someone who knows its value will have snarfed it up by now.

Antique Rebozo Colored with Natural Dyes

The detailing is exquisite.  Cats, butterlies, eagles, dogs, turkeys, rabbits, birds, all adorn this marvelous piece.

This and the pieces below are typical of the Hueyapan region.  Siuamej represents the crafts of Chachahuantla, Chigmecatitlan, Cholula, Cuetzalan, Huatlatlauca, Mezontla, Pahuatlan, Yaonahua, and Zacatlan, in addition to the capital city.  Each area has a distinctive design style.

Puebla, an abundance of textile creativity

I bought a lovely, backstrap loom woven natural cotton (off white) quechquemetl (an over the head sewn-together scarf-like shawl) make in Cuetzalan, a town I have heard of but never visited.  I was tempted to go home with more, but I knew my two pieces of  luggage were already close to maximum weight.  Even a few ounces more might have tipped me over and I was already planning on wearing two outfits  on the plane ride home.

Puebla textile detail

Puebla textile detail

Here, you can see the traditional handwork along with the hand-tied fringes.  It’s quite lovely.  Most pieces are priced in the $40-$100 USD range.

For a complete visual compendium of Puebla textiles, see and search for the word “Hueyapan” which is the region where these pieces are made.

To find the shop Siuamej, walk from the Zocalo on Av. Juan de Palafox y Mendoza toward the antiques and talavera district.  The shop is a couple of blocks from the Zocalo on your left.  The address is Av. Juan de Palafox y Mendoza #206 Centro Historico, Tel. (222) 2 32 36 94

The Centro Historico, Puebla

Dolores Porras, Folk Potter Icon, Passes From Us on All Saints Day, November 1, 2010

What could I do to hang on a bit more to my memories of Dolores Porras?  I had visited her home in Atzompa, a pottery village on the outskirts of Oaxaca city, on numerous occasions.  I had come to know her late in life when her pottery style was well developed and she had created a following of collectors and admirers from around the world.  (See Wellesley College Professor Lois Wasserspring’s book, Oaxacan Ceramics: Traditional Folk Art by Oaxaca Women for reference.)  Then, she was prolific and her shelves were packed with sirenas (mermaids) sculpted and painted on the clay walls of vessels, urns, plates, and anything else that would allow a breast or nose to take form.

Sirena by Dolores Porras Circa 1970's

I have come to the conclusion that all of Dolores’ female images are related.  They are like sisters and cousins.  One wears a different color pair of earrings or her tail flares in an opposite direction and is adorned with a contrasting color.  Perhaps they are self-portraits — a common approach by self-taught artists who learn their craft from family members and village mentors.

I just acquired this vase (first photo above).  I purchased it from a friend who lives locally here in North Carolina because I wanted to have Dolores with me at home.  My other pieces are safely nestled in my Oaxaca bedroom at the Chavez casa — too fragile, I think, to ship. She belongs in both places that I love, Oaxaca and North Carolina.

Sirena in the movement of sunlight

Dolores was suffering from Parkinsons and was wheel-chair bound unable to work for the last year.  Her family sold off all her pottery in 2009.  I cried when I heard by email from Dr. Wasserspring that she had passed, although rumors were rampant during the last six months that she had succumbed earlier.  My tribute to her is this brief testament to her talent and generosity.

Dolores Porras, March 2009

There are moments in life when someone touches you.  Perhaps there is a link between my father, a potter, and Dolores.  They shared the same craft, the same affinity for translating their world into something solid and substantial that would endure beyond death.

Face or Breast? Folk art pottery by Dolores Porras, 2006

I can turn this three-dimensional pot in any direction and always see something different.  The perspective of shape and profile is confusing.  Is it a face or breast?

My Dolores piece at home in Oaxaca

This is a more recent piece with stronger colors and more defined and articulated painting and sculpture.

Jar with Emerging Faces

It is as if these figures are being born from clay.  I just love the allegory of life being formed from a ball of clay — the story of creation, a bibliography.