San Juan del Rio, Oaxaca: Mezcal on the Mountain

We didn’t start out planning a trip to San Juan del Rio, Oaxaca. It just happened as we moved into the day. Friend Sheri Brautigam, textile designer, collector and Living Textiles of Mexico blogger, is visiting me. After a roundabout through the Teotitlan del Valle morning market, we headed out to San Pablo Villa de Mitla to visit master flying shuttle loom weaver Arturo Hernandez.

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Don Arturo creates fine ikat wool shawls and scarves colored with natural dyes, including cochineal, indigo, wild marigold and zapote negro (wild black persimmon).  Sheri knew him from the Santa Fe International Folk Art Market where he exhibited in summer 2014.  I’ve known him for years through my friend Eric Chavez Santiago, education director at the Museo Textil de Oaxaca. So, of course, we couldn’t help ourselves and new rebozos made it into our collections.

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It was only eleven in the morning. I asked Don Arturo if he knew the village of San Juan del Rio, where some of Oaxaca’s finest mezcal is produced and sold under private label. He said, Yes, it’s only about forty-five minutes from here.

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I looked at Sheri, she looked at me. We said, Let’s go. I invited Don Arturo to come with us and he said Yes, once more. A native Zapotec speaker, we were lucky to have him with us. He helped find our way!

About Mezcal: The agave piña or pineapple is dug up out of the ground at maturity (seven to twelves years of field growth) and taken to the distillery, where it is roasted over a wood fired, rock-lined pit.  That’s what gives it a smokey flavor. It’s then crushed to yield the liquid that becomes mezcal. Good mezcal goes through two distillations.

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Years ago, Sheri  worked with a seamstress embroiderer Alma Teresa who lives in San Juan del Rio. Sheri designs gorgeous quechquemitls and Teresa crochets the pieces together. To reconnect with her was another reason to go.  Notice Teresa’s blouse and jacket, with the elaborate crochet trim. Seems like some of the most fun days in Oaxaca start with no particular plan.

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We headed out toward Hierve del Agua but made a left turn onto a winding road that soon became unpaved dirt, rough from recent rains. It took a good hour plus to get there from Mitla.  The road ends at the picturesque village, tucked away in a river valley. Houses are built on hillsides.  Other hillsides are terraced with mezcal palenques and maize crops. The stills are at river level.  They use the water to cool the distillation process. This is not yet a tourist destination.

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This village is known for small production, artesenal mezcal. I was on a hunt for reposado. What I found was an extraordinary reposado at a third the price of what I usually pay in Oaxaca city, plus a wild agave (silvestre) mezcal called Tepeztate from a mezcalero who is akin to a winemaker. He produces mezcal that he sells to some of the top hand-crafted brands.

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Sheri got a taste of just distilled mezcal, warm and just out of the still. At eighty-percent alcohol her engine was roaring after just a sip.  I inhaled and almost fell over. Don Arturo joined us. Being the designated driver, I had to be more careful. The whole thing reminded me of North Carolina moonshine, but the resulting product here is so much more refined it’s not even comparable.

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There are now so many varieties of mezcal, depending on the type of agave used and whether the mezcal is aged and for how long. Añejo can be aged as long as twelve years in oak which takes on characteristics of the wood. Wild agave has a distinctive herbal flavor and aroma. You need to taste to see which you prefer.

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This is a full day trip. We could have stayed longer and visited more mezcaleros. But I think we came home with some of the best produced in the village at a fraction of the retail price. If you go, bring your own liter size glass bottles with tight lids. Some bring gallon jugs to fill up. Plan to leave Oaxaca by nine in the morning. You’ll return around seven at night. Don’t go in the rainy season! You will slide all over the road!

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Who to visit?

  1. Redondo de San Juan del Rio, Rodolfo Juan Juarez, mezcalero. Tel. (951) 546 5260. Reposado and Tepeztate
  2. Perla del Rio Mezcal, Ignacio Juan Antonio, mezcalero, Tel. (951) 546 5056. Espadin joven.
  3. Alma Teresa’s clothing cooperative, a block from the church. She is sending two daughters to university in Oaxaca. Her husband went to the U.S. to work years ago and never came back.

 

 

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You can buy a road map of Oaxaca state at the Proveedora, corner Reforma and Independencia, in the Centro Historico. Comes in handy for exploring and having an aventura, like we did.

Coming Up: Oaxaca Portrait Photography Workshop, Starts Jan. 30, 2015

Mystery of Muertos in Oaxaca, Mexico

Procession, Dia de los Muertos

Procession, Dia de los Muertos

You may have noticed that I changed the blog banner to a night-time Oaxaca, Mexico, Day of the Dead cemetery scene. Rituals are ancient, family-centered and mystical. Dia de los Muertos will start at the end of October and continue through November 3 this year.  In Teotitlan del Valle, the traditional November 2 cemetery ritual moves to Monday, November 3, because November 2 falls on Sunday.

Teotitlan del Valle, Dia de los Muertos

Teotitlan del Valle, Dia de los Muertos

September brings rain. It has always been this way. (The ancients did not worry about global warming.) The circle of life is complete and comes around once again. The rains bring the October profusion of wild marigold blooming throughout the countryside, coming just in time as Mother Earth’s gift to decorate altars and grave sites to honor deceased loved ones.

Copal incense burners

Copal incense burners

Muertos is coming. The season is changing. This week, the night air turned chilly and I wrap myself in a handwoven wool rebozo.  Hot chamomile tea is on the stove. The corn has tassled and is ready to harvest.  There is a full moon and the evening sky sparkles. Days are still warm, but the afternoon winds bring with them a whisper of winter.

Xoxocotlan Ancient Cemetery

Xoxocotlan Ancient Cemetery

In the next few weeks, our Oaxaca snowbirds will return. Visitors will arrive to experience the wonder and mystery of Muertos, and bring with them much needed tourism dollars that artisans depend upon.

Pan de Muertos, Bread of the Dead

Pan de Muertos, Bread of the Dead

In the central valley of Oaxaca, we will light copal incense, gather marigold flowers, decorate homes and reflect on the meaning of life and death, memory and relationships. The scent of the copal and marigolds help guide the dead from and back to their graves.

Sueño de Elpis-Muertos Marigold Art Installation

Sueño de Elpis-Muertos Marigold Art Installation

Portrait Photography Workshop Starts at the end of January. Taking Registrations!

 

 

 

This Is a Test: Is This Post in Your Inbox?

I am not a tekkie, I’m a writer, although I’m also the webmaster, unfortunately. The back-end stuff ties me in knots. About a month ago, the company that hosts this WordPress blog, DreamHost, migrated to a new operating software. Yesterday, a couple of emails came in from readers who said they hadn’t received blog posts in a while.  I found out that in the process of installing the new software, I was unaware that the identification code to transmit my blog to subscribers changed. So, I’ve spent most of the morning figuring out how to find it.  I think I have been successful.  Please let me know, Dennys and Susanne and others, if you have gotten this post.

Friends of Guadalupe Update: 25 Donors and Counting!

Now, I’m back in the Teotitlan del Valle casita, unpacking after almost two months of visiting family and friends in the USA. It’s quiet and peaceful here. Everything is green from recent rains. More to come!

Klezmer Music in Puebla, Mexico: Who-da Thunk It

We are wandering around the Saturday flea market at Plazuela de los Sapos in Puebla, Mexico, in and out of aisles filled with rusted iron butcher hooks, old painted pottery, antique furniture, glitzy glam rhinestone jewelry in dazzling day-glow colors, brass hand bells new and old, religious relics, doll heads, ancient detritus of Tia Maria’s kitchen cupboard.

Then I hear it. The sounds of a band draw me to them. I can’t quite name the music although it sounds familiar.  We stand around listening. Put money in the violen case. And, ask, what kind of music is this.  Oh, it’s klezmer, says the percussionist.

Here is what we found: Tate Klezmer Band.

Is anyone in the group Jewish? I ask, knowing that Mexico has a history of Conversos, hidden Jews, who came from Spain during the inquisition, forced to convert to Catholicism and  kept their religious practices secret. No, she says. We play it because we love it. It’s lively and makes us feel happy, like dancing. It’s the music of weddings, she says, and they continue to play.

All are students in the music conservatory.  I want to invite them to Oaxaca to play at my next party!

 

Friends of Guadalupe: How Your Small Gift Counts

Updated October 16, 2014:  On September 30, I wrote A Prayer for Guadalupe, a post about our friend Lupita who was diagnosed with breast cancer and is being treated in Oaxaca. She is a widow with three children. Her resources are limited and a group of us have come together to for a fundraising effort to raise enough money for her to cover out-of-pocket expenses. We expect they will be substantial, since Lupita’s income depends on weaving and house cleaning, which she cannot do right now.

So far, we have collectively raised $3,211.  The cost of the surgeon was $1,350, which was paid out of this effort, and there will be expenses for chemotherapy coming up.

Thanks to all who have contributed.  It means so much. Will YOU add your name to this list?

FRIENDS OF GUADALUPE

    • David Aycock, Waco, TX
    • Sarah W. Aycock, Rayville, LA
    • Susan Bean Aycock, Oaxaca, MX
    • Anonymous, Oaxaca
    • Lena Bartula, San Miguel de Allende, MX
    • Barbara Beerstein, Santa Cruz, CA
    • Ellen Benson, Philadelphia, PA
    • Lori Benson, Oaxaca
    • Roberta Christie, Tallahassee, FL
    • Colleen Darling, Solvang, CA
    • Mary Erickson, Oaxaca
    • Jo Ann and Tom Feher, Seattle, WA
    • Janet Fish, Amsterdam, Netherlands
    • Norma Hawthorne, Graham, NC and Oaxaca
    • Jenny Heard, Everett, WA
    • Rachael Herron, Oakland, CA
    • Elliot Hughes, Berkeley, CA
    • Natalie Hughes, Berkeley, CA
    • Jesse Hughes, Berkeley, CA
    • Edgar James, Washington, D.C.
    • Elliot Jobe, Maple Grove, MN
    • Candace King, Calgary, Alberta, Canada
    • Kate Kingston, Trinidad, CO
    • Suzanne Kinney, Chicago, IL
    • Carol Estes Knox, Oaxaca
    • Kathryn Leide, Madison, WI
    • Deborah Mancuso, San Jose, CA
    • Elizabeth Moffett, Sonora, CA
    • My Mexico Tours, Santa Cruz, CA
    • Carolyn Nakasato, Pearl City, HI
    • Hollie Taylor Novak, Chapel Hill, NC
    • Melanie Schulze, New Braunfels, TX
    • Shannon Pixley Sheppard, Oaxaca
    • Lorajean Smith, Portland, OR
    • Julie Streeter, Beverly Shores, IN
    • Barbara Szombatfalvy, Durham, NC
    • Liduina Van Nes, San Francisco, CA
    • Michelle T. Verduzco, Oaxaca
    • Diana Youtsey, Portland, OR

Friends of Guadalupe:

Make Your Gift for Breast Cancer Treatment

 

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Click the PayPal button above to make your gift. It will be deposited into my Oaxaca Cultural Navigator PayPal account and I will convert it to pesos and give your gift to Lupe.  If you want to send along messages or prayers for healing, please include this.  If you just wish to send money from your account to mine, my PayPal account is oaxacaculture@me.com