Cultural Continuity and Sustainability in Oaxaca’s Tlacolula Valley

I thought it was important for the North Carolina State University Study Abroad students to spend an overnight in an indigenous Zapotec village while they were here in Oaxaca. So, I recommended to Professor Ricardo Hernandez that we include a stay in Teotitlan del Valle as as part of our itinerary.

Teotitlan del Valle church sits atop Zapotec temple, archeological site

The students were here in Oaxaca — the valley and the coast — to study sustainability. Through the experience they learned that the definition is wide-ranging and far-reaching. It has to do with the land and her people, traditions and beliefs, values and practices. It is economic and social and political. It is still small scale agriculture here where farmers use age-old practices rather than technology.

It is instructive to study cultures where people have been successful for generations by transmitting knowledge as a way of life.

The market experience in Teotitlan del Valle

Afterall, this is the region where corn (maize) was hybridized over 8,000 years ago up the road at Yagul. We talked about Monsanto and GMO, how to overcome hunger and develop crops abundant enough to feed people without sacrificing nutrition. We compared the industrialized agriculture of the USA and the disappearance of family farms, and noticed how things work — and don’t — in Mexico.

Olivia, Alysia and Emory enjoy artisanal hot chocolate

I arranged for them to sleep at two local bed and breakfast inns — Casa Elena and Las Granadas B&B — operated by three generations of women. They ate home-cooked and delicious meals prepared from locally sourced, organic meat and vegetables.

After lunch at El Sabor Zapoteco, Reyna Mendoza treats us to nieves de tuna

Teotitlan del Valle is one of the few villages that still operates a daily market. It is a sight to behold entrepreneurial farmers and vendors who sell native corn, squash, beans, squash blossoms, poultry and meat, and more, plus all the household necessities for a home to operate here.

After indigo dye demonstration, the group gathers for a photo, Galeria Fe y Lola

After the market, we toured the church and noted the carved stones inlaid into its walls. When the Spanish arrived, they razed the Zapotec temple and used the stones to build the church walls. The stucco has been peeled away to reveal this part of the village history. We walked around the back side of the church to see the recently restored archeological site that was the temple foundation.

Grace tries her hand at weaving with Omar, while Alysia is next in line

This is a rug weaving village. There are now about 10,000 people who live here and more than 2,000 looms. Only about a dozen families use natural dyes to color the wool they use. We visited one of them — the home workshop of Galeria Fe y Lola –to see the process and learn about this part of the culture.

In Teotitlan del Valle, the Chavez Santiago family makes red dye from cochineal
Professor Hernandez talks with master weaver Federico “Fe” Chavez Sosa

Student takeaways:

  • It was wonderful to be in the village market and explore it on our own.
  • Meeting 26-year old Omar Chavez Santiago from Galeria Fe y Lola was a testimony to artisan life and pride of workmanship — he is dedicated to continuing his culture. This is refreshing to see.
  • The church offered me a glimpse into the blend of Zapotec and Catholic traditions.
  • There is a reverence for community here that we don’t see at home.
  • Families are close-knit, welcoming to outsiders.
  • Everyone was consistently kind.
  • It was important to see the different ways people earn an income: baking bread, sewing, selling food, services and repair work, doctors and teachers, musicians and weavers — it looks like a self-sustaining community.
  • Walking the back streets of the town gave me a perspective for how people live in rural Mexico.
Watch and listen to Omar Chavez Santiago talk about natural dyes
Guillermo decides to take this one home to Wilson, NC

At Gracias a Dios mezcal palenque in Santiago Matatlan at the far end of the Tlacolula Valley, Emmy Hernandez, the daughter of mezcalero Oscar Hernandez, showed us the artesanal process of making this distilled beverage. Agave is an important native plant and agricultural product in the region. It contributes to Oaxaca’s economy and reputation as a tourist destination. This is also a family business and Emmy is the next generation to sustain it.

Mezcal, not at all like NC moonshine, yet still made by the same process

How many different types of agaves are there? They say over 200 types of agaves exist and 30 are suitable for making mezcal. Espadin is cultivated and easily to reproduce, and therefore, the most sustainable. The wild, or silvestre agaves, have a long growth cycle and are rare. I love cuishe (also spelled cuixe) and tepextate and tobala. For everyone harvested, some growers like Gracias a Dios are planting three to replace them. The wild ones are earthy and take on the flavors of the soil they grow in.

We are accepting reservations for 2020 and 2021 university study abroad programs. It takes about a year to plan this program. Please contact us for a proposal. norma.schafer@icloud.com

Agave in the fermentation vats — oak barrels, just like wine-making
Emmy Hernandez, the next generation to sustain artisanal mezcal

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *