Category Archives: Cultural Commentary

Cafe Culture in Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca

Tucked into Pino Suarez #45 at the corner of the main drag, Benito Juarez, in Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca, is Cafe Vid. Almost smack in the middle of town. It has seven tables and 15 chairs, with all the warmth and intimacy you can imagine including excellent, custom-made coffee drinks and delicious snacks.

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It’s what you might call a coffeehouse if you lived in San Francisco or Los Angeles a generation past, complete with recorded jazz, blues, and reggae playing in the background. This would be a perfect meeting spot for writing or conversation.

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The owners are friends who have known each other growing up all their lives in this tight-knit village: Erika Mendoza Vicente and Miguel Esai Montanez Pedro, both age 26, and Sandra Vasquez Perez, age 25.

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The cafe has been in operation for five years. Erika, Esai and Sandra saved to finance the start-up themselves. In preparation for ownership and management, they each worked in the food industry in Oaxaca to get experience. They told me this was an experiment when they were young (smile). They have learned a lot in the intervening years.

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Erika, Esai and Sandra used their own money to outfit the cafe, buying all the commercial grade equipment mostly from restaurant supply companies. The Waring commercial waffle maker, comes from Guanajuato, made in the USA.

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Each is an accomplished barista. They learned to make coffee from the owner of La Brujula, one of Oaxaca’s great roasters and makers, who taught them the nuances of espresso, cappuccino, latte, frappe, moka and more.

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The coffee beans here are the best. Cafe Vid buys from La Brujula and Nuevo Mundo, another of Oaxaca’s excellent organic roasters.

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The menu includes flavored Italian sodas, hot and cold coffees, teas, hot Oaxaca chocolate, and frappes. You can order waffles, crepes (sweet and savory), homemade cheesecake, light sandwiches and baguettes of cheese and turkey ham.

You might want to save your appetite for an incredible Belgium waffle topped with fresh fruit and a drizzle of cajeta, big enough to share. Try the crepe spread with Nutella, then neatly folded into a triangle. You could pretend you are in Paris, if you wish. But there’s no need. You are in Teotitlan del Valle, one of the best villages in all of Mexico.

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Cafe Vid offers a frequent drinker card. Get seven stamps and the next drink is free. If you come to stay overnight for a few days at either Casa Elena or Las Granadas, two local guesthouses, it wouldn’t be hard to reach this threshold.

Every Zapotec has dreams. Erika, Esai and Sandra dream of a bigger space, a larger menu. They want to make breads and more desserts, roast their own coffee beans. I may even give them a lesson in how to make and bake a New York style cheesecake, a speciality I developed many years ago when I owned a gourmet cookware shop and cooking school in the midwest.

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These young people are dedicated, hard-working full-time weavers, so the cafe opens daily from 6 to 10 p.m., seven days a week. When you are in Teotitlan, consider a visit. Call them on their cell phone: 01 951 186 0743. The only thing lacking is an internet connection, since they can’t get phone landline service from the closest telephone pole because it’s at capacity. Darn.

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Other good village options: Cafe Drupa, Avenida Benito Juarez, up the hill two blocks beyond Av. 2 de Abril on the left. A family operation connected to a weaving workshop. Open 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. with wi-fi connection, good coffee, paninis and more.

Chromatica at MACO Oaxaca: New Sounds, Ancient Textures

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Inside the courtyard at MACO, once a conqueror’s palace

Chromatica, a multi-media art exhibition created by Guggenheim award-winning Mexican artist Tania Candiani, opened last weekend in Oaxaca at the Museo Arte de Contemporaneo de Oaxaca (MACO).  The exhibition takes a new approach to sight and sound.

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Chromatics is about how we communicate through music and color. It can be considered the interdisciplinary intersection between technology and art. Candiani explores the differences and similarities between language systems, sound and the logics of technology through her work.

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This is interpretive, intuitive and not always “in your face” evident through the various experiences of this exhibition that stimulates and questions the visual and auditory senses. The result is to create an emotional experience that could be somewhat uncomfortable.

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Old loom as modern sound machine

First is the sound of the traditional two-harness pedal loom used to weave serapes and rugs in Teotitlan del Valle.  At the opening, three Mendoza family weavers stood at looms in the courtyard with microphones recording the sounds of their creativity. They wove fast, slow, in harmony and not.

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Javier and friend from Teotitlan del Valle, with natural colors

We could hear the beating of the treadles, loud, soft, harsh, subtle, the whoosh of the shuttle going through the heddles, the rhythms of wood against wool. The recordings can be heard in one of the exhibition rooms along with an abstract video of the work in progress. For how much longer will we hear this sound?

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Upstairs on the second floor of the museum, we see the historical elements used to prepare the wool.  The dyestuffs: cochineal, indigo and pericone (wild marigold). We see ancient stone grinders where people kneeled to prepare the powder. We see embroidery hoops embellished in red, blue and yellow, telling the story of the colors as recorded in the pre-Hispanic codices.

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Metates, manos de metates and cochineal powder

But there is more than meets the eye:  tone poems of color embroidered onto cloth that tell of the modern experience of traditional color in a changing, mechanized world. What does blue evoke? How does red make us feel? What is the human labor needed to give us these colors that we take for granted and enjoy?

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As the crowd gathered around an ancient loom converted into a sound box, people took turns cranking the take-up roll, traditionally used to wind the cloth as it is woven. In this structure, it turned the wheel to produce sounds. The “thread” was string — as in violin or piano.

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A cochineal painted room of breeding cactus gives us a sense of how many of these bugs are needed to color just one rug or garment. The color intensity penetrates.

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Old hand carders against a backdrop of blue

Questions? Did the exhibition go far enough? Were the exhibits as interesting as they could have been? All the explanations were in Spanish with no English “subtitles,” so the meanings could be harder for some non-bilingual visitors to “get.” Was there a clear path to meaning from one gallery to the next?

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Moving from the preparation of cochineal to indigo, we see the concrete vats replicated to show us how the color of the plant is extracted. There is an excellent video created by Eric Chavez Santiago, education director at the Museo Textil de Oaxaca about the process of preparing indigo. It would have been a great educational video to include in this exhibition — better than the one selected to show.

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Ceramic artists from Santa Maria Atzompa created bellowing birds in the “yellow” room. Push and pull the bellows to hear how sound emanates and enters our bodies for interpretation. Aren’t we all cogs in the wheel?

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Meaning comes from many sources. The exhibition raises questions about how technology impacts and changes people, traditional life, practices and uses. How many are using the metate now to grind the cochineal and indigo, when most have gone over to coffee grinders for ease of labor.

Does this change the outcome of the fiber and color? What about the practice of hand-weaving itself? Will automated looms result in lower prices, yes, and the disappearance of a handmade process, perhaps? Will people only do this for a hobby and not for a business or way of life? What does it mean for the continuation of culture to experience this change? What about the raw materials: The hand-spun wool and natural dyes, what will become of them and the people who make them?

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I presume these are the questions that the artist is asking us to explore in this exhibition. As supporters, appreciators and consumers of art and artisanry, how do we each contribute to the continuation or demise of hand craft?

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The contemporary art museum is located on the Andador — Macedonio Alcala between Murguia and Morelos.

Festivals and Faces: Chiapas Photography Workshop

Private Cooking Class Oaxaca: mmmmGood, Molotes and Memelas

How many different ways can corn be prepared? Here in Oaxaca, Mexico, the options are so numerous, I could perhaps count to a thousand. On Sunday, in honor of Carol’s XX birthday, David organized a private cooking class for five of us. The kitchen is miniscule. The results were huge.

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The most important ingredient was Vicky Hernandez, who David invited to teach us how to make molotes and memelas.

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These are two forms of the myriad ways to stuff or top corn masa.  Tortillas are the most familiar form. Vicky says memelas are a favorite Sunday after church meal for many families. Since it was Sunday afternoon, the analogy was good enough for us.

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In case you didn’t know, molotes are stuffed and deep fried torpedo shaped corn dough. For our cooking class, we stuffed them with a Oaxaqueño favorite: chorizo and potatoes. Chorizo, spicy sausage, came to Mexico with the Spanish when they brought four-legged creatures unknown to the New World.

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Memelas, on the other hand, are pre-Hispanic and look like individual pizzas cooked atop a flat griddle, then spread with black bean paste, salsa and topped with shredded Oaxaca queso fresco, our famous soft cheese that looks a bit like dry ricotta. You can add shredded chicken or pork, if you like.

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Vicky lives in Monte Alban, a barrio of Oaxaca under the shadow of the famous archeological site. It’s likely her family has been preparing food this way for centuries.

The Salsa

When I arrived, the salsa was well underway. We had gone to Abastos Market the day before and I bought these gorgeous purple miltomate, otherwise known as tomatillos or cherry tomatoes. They were cooked whole in a saucepan along with chile pasilla, garlic, cilantro and salt.  Vicky says to use 5-6 large dientes (teeth) of garlic or 10 small teeth for this recipe.

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It’s very garlicky and good. She probably had 2 cups of water, enough to cover the 5 or 6 chiles and an equal number of miltomate. You cook this at a simmer on the stove top until the mixture softens and thickens. Then you put it all into the molcajete and with the mano de molcajete you do a wrist-twisting motion to make sure you are smushing this and not pulverizing it. No luiquadoras (blenders) allowed!

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The Molotes

Okay. First you are going to take 4 medium size potatoes, peel and 1/4″ dice them, then cook them until just bite soft in a saucepan of salted water. Drain. Set aside.

Next, you are going to buy 1/4 lb. of chorizo. Back when I used to live in South Bend, Indiana, I had to go to the far corners of the west side of town to find the sole Mexican market where I could buy chorizo. Now, in the U.S.A., Mexican immigrants are everywhere, and thankfully, so is their food. Go find chorizo. Cook it in a fry pan until all the fat renders away from the meat. Drain. Cook again. Mix the drained, cooked chorizo with the potatoes. Do not salt or spice in any way. Set mixture aside.

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Make masa dough from the dried bag you buy in the Mexican food section of the supermarket. Or, buy it fresh from the local lady at my village market. Your choice! Cut 2 circles of plastic wrap about 5″ in diameter. Make a 2″ ball of masa dough. Put on of the pieces of plastic on the tortilla press. Sprinkle with flour. Put the dough ball in the center of the circle. Dust with flour. Cover with second plastic circle. Press the dough lightly until it expands to a 3″ circle. Flip the dough circle to the other side. Press lightly one more time. Peel the plastic off and lay one side of the tortilla in your palm. Peel the other plastic circle off. With your free hand, put tablespoon of the chorizo-potato mix in the center of the tortilla. Fold over the long side, then fold and pinch the short sides. Shape into a bullet or torpedo. Coat in flour. Pinch together any dough that may have separated. Drop into hot cooking oil and fry both sides until lightly browned. Drain and reserve. Keep going! One or two per customer …. or more.

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To serve: Rest the molote on a lettuce leaf. Top with shredded lettuce, salsa and guacamole just before serving. Roll the lettuce leaf around the tasty torpedo and bite. This is a finger food. It’s fine if it explodes in your mouth.

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The Memelas

For this you need a calc-coated clay comal and you need a charcoal brazier because you are cooking the tortillas on the comal that sits on top of the hot coals.  You could improvise, I suspect, by using a clay pizza round but your tortilla can’t be cooked in oil. It has to be dry cooked and can’t stick to the bottom of the pan.

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Make the tortilla form as above. Put it on the clay comal. As soon as the bottom is browned, remove it from the comal. Pinch up the edges like you are forming a ridge around the circumference as if you were making a pie crust. Then, make a few pinches in the center. This is to hold the filling. This little dough circle is burning hot when you remove it from the cooker, so my thumb and forefinger weren’t used to the heat. Vicky did it in an instant, as if she had been preparing food this way for the last 40 years.

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Make a bean paste. You can use canned black beans and put them in the food processor or blender. Cook the bean paste with ojo de aguacate. That’s an avocado leaf. It adds an incredible flavor. Schmear the past on top of the cooked memela. Return the memela to the comal. Top with shredded cheese and salsa. Ready to eat when you see the beans and salsa bubbling.

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Guacamole

Most people here make a more liquid style guacamole, not the chunky stuff we eat in the U.S.A. for scooping up with tortilla chips (totopos). So, you can put your regular guacamole recipe into the blender and add a little yogurt or cream or water until it is the consistency of heavy cream.

At 5 p.m., when we finished eating, I was so stuffed with corn that I couldn’t eat a thing for the rest of the day. God bless Oaxaca, Vicky, Carol and David.

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If you live in Oaxaca, I encourage you to call Vicky to organize your own private cooking class. It’s a lot of fun and bien rico (which means more delicious than you can imagine).

Vicky’s email is virginiahernandez2014@gmail.com  Telephone: 951 100 51 31  

Antiques in San Pablo Villa de Mitla, Tlacolula, Oaxaca

There is a tall, inconspicuous door on a San Pablo Villa de Mitla side street. Open it and discover a home gallery filled with antique treasures. The inventory is small and includes ancient stone metates, glass vases hand-painted with flowers and edged in gold, reliquaries and ex votos. Señor Epifanio knows his stuff.

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Scott Roth holding an old Mitla hand-woven textile

Upstairs via a narrow, concrete passageway painted in brilliant blue is a gallery filled with blown glass mezcal bottles, remnants of the time when this was how the agave liquor was stored. They are hard to find and very expensive.

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Dolls, old photos, books, chachkeh from Mitla, Oaxaca

Occasionally, there is a jewelry find, like the Mexican silver coin earrings from the early part of the 20th century. I returned a month later to buy them and they were gone. Rule for Shopping in Mexico: buy it when you see it. Usually, these things are one-of-a-kind.

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Hand-blown mezcal and water bottles, most from Oaxaca, 1950’s-1960’s

I’m reluctant to share the address and contact information. Only because I haven’t asked permission to cite the location, plus these things are getting scarce, and with scarcity comes higher prices. As demand rises, prices do, too. So, why am I publishing this?

So you can see the photos, of course.

Faces and Festivals Chiapas Photography Workshop

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Portrait of Scott Roth with old Zapotec textile from Teotitlan del Valle

 

Teotitlan del Valle Young Photographers Show at Oaxaca Photography Center

The work of young photographers, ages seven to twelve, from Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca, were featured at a festive gallery exhibition that opened last Saturday at the Centro Fotografico Manuel Alvarez Bravo.

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They participated in a year-and-a-half photography education project called Nuevas Visiones. Narrando historias visuales en Teotitlán del Valle —  New visions: Narrating Visual Histories in Teotitlan del Valle, sponsored by the photography center and various donors.

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The students met monthly in their village learning camera techniques, lighting and composition, and were given assignments, mostly just to wander and capture what interested them most.

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Juan Enrique Mendoza Sanchez, age 12, Teotitlan del Valle, in front of his photo

Participants

  • Uriel Bazán
  • Adriana Vicente Gutierrez
  • Montserrat Vicente Gutierrez
  • Juan Enrique Mendoza Sánchez
  • Beatriz Ruíz Lazo
  • Antonio Ruiz Lazo
  • Juan Diego Gutierrez Martínez
  • Uziel Montaño Ruiz
  • Javier Lazo Gutiérrez 

The instructor is Eva Alicia Lépiz. Thanks to Javier Lazo Gutierrez, age 25, course teaching assistant, for sending me this list and to Daniel Brena, director of Centro Fotografico Manuel Alvarez Bravo, and Ixchel Castellon, independent cultural manager, for producing this important program

Subjects ranged from brothers, sisters, a bedroom still life, and burros with the sacred mountain Picacho as backdrop.

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What amazed me in looking at the work through the eyes of young people was what they chose to focus on. Subjects we might consider mundane became, in their eyes, beautiful, dramatic and meaningful. A lesson for adults to learn.

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Family members and friends mostly gathered in the courtyard of the Centro Fotografico Manuel Alvarez Bravo to celebrate the accomplishments.

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The center helped with cameras and instruction. The village provided meeting space and local people gave support.

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Above left: instructor Eva Alicia Lepiz.

This is an excellent way to bring young people in closer touch with the visual senses around them and give emphasis to a creative form of personal expression.

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Other communities whose young people participate in this innovative outreach program include San Bartolo Coyotepec, Rancho Tejas and El Rosario Temextitlan.

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Above left is Javier Lazo Gutierrez, age 25, who was the teaching assistant for the course. He is a very accomplished photographer!

Funding is made possible through a generous grant from Homeruns Banamex 2014 and the Fundacion Alfredo Harp Helu de Oaxaca.

[Chiapas Faces and Festivals: Photography Workshop produced by Oaxaca Cultural Navigator, set for end of January 2016]

Don’t miss this exhibition. It’s a fresh view of the world.