Monthly Archives: January 2011

Puech Ikots (Words of Our People) Collective Brings Economic Hope to Oaxaca’s Remote Highlands

Jenny Smith and I bumped into each other online.  Virtual worlds connecting, so to speak.  There was a strange name linked to hers:  “Puech Ikots.”  It peaked my curiosity and I discovered this artisans collective making alebrijes (fanciful carved and painted wood figures) in the remote mountains of the Sierra Madre del Sur.  That presented a whole world to discover and started our dialog.

Anteater by Ofelia Hernandez Ruiz, $250

Here is the story about Puech Ikots in the form of Q & A.

Note:  To inquire about sizes and to purchase contact Jenny Smith.  If you have trouble with the link copy and paste this:

Oaxaca Cultural Navigator: How did Puech Ikots get started and why?

Jenny: Puech Ikots means “words of our people” in the Huave language of Oaxaca. Carlos Orozco, my co-facilitator in the project, is an indigenous Oaxacan of Huave descent.  The project was created by Carlos with my help in 2009.  Our goal is to contribute to the self-determination and economic independence of indigenous artists in Oaxaca, while also giving them the opportunity to develop their craft.  We also want to promote Oaxacan art and culture to the American public in general.  As the translation of Puech Ikots’ name suggests, we feel that the art of Oaxaca is one of the purest forms of expressing the spirit of the place and its people.

White Puma by Patricio Melchor, $175

OCN:  Who is involved with it in Oaxaca?

Jenny: Carlos Orozco directs the project in Oaxaca.  He is an artist, musician, and cultural activist.  The membership of the collective has been fluid.  Right now we have a core membership of six artists who are very committed to the collective.  Over the past couple of years we’ve worked with about a dozen people total.  Historically, we haven’t been limited to one place — we have worked with artists from various locations in Oaxaca state.  Carlos is based in Oaxaca City but regularly travels to remote areas of the Oaxacan Sierra to meet new artists and tell them about the collective. Members are welcome to join or leave at any time; the collective is always open to new members.  The only requirement (as such) for participating is that the artist should live in an area where he/she does not have easy access to traditional tourist markets.

OCN:  Who is involved with it in the States?

Jenny: I am the facilitator and contact person in the USA (Chicago).  Our fiscal sponsor here is the Cuentos Foundation, which is a 501c3 dedicated to fostering cultural understanding and expression through art.  I am part of the board of directors of Cuentos.  The foundation itself is not part of the Puech Ikots project, but we work together on events and we’re grateful for their support.

Seahorse, $200

OCN: Why are you involved?  What motivated you?

Jenny: I loved Oaxaca from the first time I visited in 2008.  I met Carlos during that trip and we became good friends.  He had the original idea for a fair trade/cultural exchange artistic project, and over the course of a year we developed this idea.  I was, and still am, very excited to be a part of it.  I have a strong personal commitment to the concept of fair trade.  It’s also important to me to support initiatives that are local and indigenous-directed.  So for me, supporting these talented people in this organization is an act of solidarity. Puech Ikots is non-hierarchical and based on a “usos y costumbres” model, so decisions in the collective are made by consensus and all collective members have a voice.

OCN: Where is this particular village located in Oaxaca?

Jenny: Sierra de San Pedro Mixtepec is about four to five hours from Ocotlan via pick-up truck.  You can experience a bit of the drive in the YouTube video.  However as I said before, we work with artists in other places as well.

Purple Frog by Patricio Melchor, $200

Porcupine by Jose Hernandez, $300

OCN: How is it different from San Martin Tilcajete and Arrazola, the two most famous wood carving villages?

Jenny: Puech Ikots specifically focuses on artists who do not have access to traditional tourist markets such as San Martin Tilcajete and Arrazola. We developed the project for this purpose.  We want to support these artists by facilitating their ability to preserve and develop their cultural heritage while also making a living. Puech Ikots alebrijes are sold at prices the artists determine to be fair.  The proceeds are then returned to the members of the collective.  We feel that this is fair trade in its most direct, grassroots form.

OCN:  How does the relationship with the artists work?

Jenny: We do not pay for the art up front.  The artists give their work to Carlos who give it to me to sell in Chicago and I return the money to the community.  There is an enormous relationship of trust in this relationship that is very humbling.  This is thanks to Carlos’ reputation and effort in working in indigenous communities. Carlos and I do not keep any of the profits.  We barely make enough to cover administrative costs (postage, publicity, fees for entering art events, etc).

We are working on addressing issues of sustainability with this model, however.  This is our major challenge right now.  Carlos and I manage the project ourselves, and unfortunately don’t have the resources to pay for the art up front. This means the artists have to wait — sometimes quite a while — to get paid.  The artists know this when they enter the collective, but it can be very frustrating for them when sales are slow.  Some have chosen to leave the collective because they were uncomfortable with the uncertainty.  Carlos and I are working on trying to get cash reserves to be able to pay the artists right away, but it’s difficult.

OCN:  What do you dream about accomplishing?

Jenny: In addition, we also want to pursue cultural programming in Chicago.  We had an event last month at an art gallery in Chicago where I presented video footage of the collective and talked about Puech Ikots, and it was very well received.  We’d like to have artistic events/workshops here too.  Our 2011 goal  is to compile all the video footage we have into a short documentary.  One long-term dream we have is to open a Puech Ikots taller (workshop) somewhere in Oaxaca, where our artists can have a space to work.   We feel that we’ve accomplished a lot in a short time, but there are still so many things we’d like to do!  Really, when we started this project we had no idea where it would take us.  So it’s been very exciting for us to see that there is a lot of interest.

Blue Ram, $175


See the Web site:

Here is a video about the project.  Featured are Patricio Melchor, his wife Ofelia Hernandez Ruiz, and his grandmother, along with Puech Ikots co-facilitator Carlos Orozco.

To learn more about Puech Ikots and how you might help, contact Jenny Smith.

You can also find out more about the Cuentos Foundation at


Documentary Photographer Bill Bamberger to Lead Day of the Dead Expedition, Oaxaca, Mexico

Bill Bamberger, award-winning documentary photographer will teach in Oaxaca, Mexico during Day of the Dead 2011.

See the complete Photo Expedition Course Description here.

For two decades Bill Bamberger has been photographing Americans and their daily lives. His photographs have appeared in Aperture, Doubletake, Harper’s and the New York Times Magazine.  He has appeared as a featured guest on CBS Sunday Morning, About Books (CSPAN2), and North Carolina People with William Friday. His first book, Closing: The Life and Death of an American Factory (DoubleTakeBooks/Norton, 1998), won the Mayflower Prize in Nonfiction and was a semifinalist for the Robert F. Kennedy Book Award.

Bamberger’s work explores large social issues of our time: the demise of the American factory, housing in America, adolescents coming of age.  A trademark of Bamberger’s exhibitions is that they are first shown in the community where he has chosen to photograph prior to their museum exhibition. Closing: The Life and Death of an American Factory premiered in an abandoned department store a block from the closed furniture factory, while Stories of Home was first shown in a custom-designed 1,000 square foot mobile art gallery on San Antonio’s Mexican-American West Side.

Bamberger has had one-person exhibitions at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History, the North Carolina Museum of Art, the Yale University Art Gallery and the National Building Museum.  He was one of fifty-six American artists to participate in Artists and Communities: America Creates for the Millennium, the National Endowment for the Arts millennium project where he produced part II in an ongoing series about teenage boys coming of age.

Bamberger lives in Durham, North Carolina and teaches photography at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.  He has lectured at museums and universities throughout the country and has taught classes and workshops pro bono in underserved communities across the country.

Visit Bill’s Website:


Woven Lives Movie — Vidas Entretejidas — The Best of Oaxaca Weavers and Their Textiles

University of Wisconsin-Madison faculty member and textile artist Carolyn Kallenborn is in the final stages of completing the subtitles of the documentary film she has produced called “Woven Lives.”  It features six extraordinary weavers from the state of Oaxaca who exemplify the best of contemporary weaving that has evolved over centuries.  Their work is rooted in an ancient tradition that provided clothing for an indigenous people.  Today, these are works of art.

The movie features the work of Federico Chavez Sosa and Erasto “Tito” Mendoza Ruiz, great weavers who I am proud to call friends.

The movie features the work of Federico Chavez Sosa

Kallenborn’s film is described here:

“Drawing upon the richness of sights, sounds and beauty of the people and landscape of Oaxaca, Mexico, Woven Lives provides a fascinating look at contemporary Zapotec weavers from six different villages. This colorful documentary celebrates their extraordinary textiles and illustrates how the art of weaving cloth has helped the Zapotecs retain their culture and identity for thousands of years. The story traces the integration of ancient techniques with new technologies and explores how the artisans are now looking to the past to help them move forward into the future.”

Woven Lives Movie — Like It and learn about it on Facebook.

See more about the movie on the website:

Find Federico Chavez Sosa @ Av. Francisco I. Madero #55, Teotitlan del Valle or in Oaxaca at Av. Cinco de Mayo #408. Tel: (951) 524-4078.

Find Tito Mendoza Ruiz @ El Nahual Gallery, Av. Cinco de Mayo, Oaxaca.

Buen Provecho! Cooking Classes in Teotitlan del Valle

Buen Provecho!  Bon Appetit!  Enjoy the meal!

When you come to Teotitlan del Valle why not take a cooking class from Reyna Mendoza Ruiz?   Reyna is part of the well-known Mendoza weaving family.  Her brother is Erasto “Tito” Mendoza and her cousin is Arnulfo Mendoza.  She deserves recognition in her own right for the experience and knowledge she offers visitors who want to learn traditional Zapotec cooking.

The only hitch is — classes are only taught in Spanish! So, if you don’t speak Spanish you can bring along a translator or attempt your own interpreting based upon keen observation, and knowledge of ingredients and measurements.

I have been to Reyna’s home on several occasions over the years to see the weaving work of the family — which is pretty extraordinary.  They weave in the Saltillo style which means the loom is warped with 22 threads per inch resulting in a very small and fine tapestry often with complex designs.

Example of Saltillo-Style Woven Handbag by Mendoza Ruiz Family. This bag was woven by Tito Mendoza Ruiz and is in my personal collection.

So, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that Reyna is giving cooking classes.  A bonus to visiting in Teotitlan del Valle.

Here are the contact details: or see Reyna’s website: Here is a link to El Nahual Folk Art shop owned by Tito and his wife Alejandrina Rios

Mexico City food writer Lesley Tellez took a class from Reyna recently and wrote about it on her blog:  The Mija Chronicles.  I’m sharing it and some great photos of Lesley’s experience with you here.

Chef Pilar Cabrera of Oaxaca Teaches at Canadian Chef’s School

I read this blog post below and then the first thing I did was ask Pilar if I could take a cooking class with her when I get to Oaxaca in early March.  I am waiting to hear and keeping my fingers crossed.  Anyone want to go with me?

Pilar just completed teaching a series of cooking classes in Stratford, Ontario, Canada.  These photos of the dishes she created are extraordinary.

Pilar stands among the leading culinary figures of Oaxaca, Mexico where Mole (moh-lay) is king.  Her command center is the kitchen and dining room at La Olla Restaurant, adjacent to Casa Las Bugambilias B&B, on Av. Reforma between Av. Constitucion and Av. Abasolo just around the corner from the Ethnobotanical Gardens and Santo Domingo Church.

Her food is innovation yet traditional.  I love the torta vegetariana on pan integral, a beautiful whole wheat bun that is flavorful and healthy, stuffed with quesillo, avocado, and sprouts.  Her squash blossom soup is among the best I have ever tasted, smooth, rich and creamy, a blossom floating on the surface like the elegant, edible flower that it is.  My pet peeve is lukewarm soup.  I can always rely on a hot, steaming bowl of liquid to arrive at my table at La Olla.

Now, I am eagerly awaiting Pilar’s reply for the possibility of my participating in her cooking class.  Stay tuned!