After five days around Oaxaca city and into the rural Tlacolula Valley, our group of 13 people boarded the Little Airplane That Could — the 13-passenger AeroTucan, for a 35-minute flight to Puerto Escondido.
Over the next five days we would immerse ourselves in the the bio- and cultural diversity of Oaxaca’s Pacific Coast.
There we would meet meet a mango grower and an organic peanut butter cooperative, participate in an baby sea turtle release of endangered Ridley hatchlings, swim in the bioluminescent Laguna Manialtepec, explore the delicate ecosystem that supports mangrove trees (worldwide mangroves contribute to 30% of the earth’s oxygen), climb seacoast rocks in search of rare murex snails that give up purple shell dye, understand propagation and cultivation of native pre-Hispanic brown, green and cream-colored cotton, delve into genetics and plant hybridization of corn, coconut, and beans at a federal research institute.
A highlight of this part of the study abroad experience was the day we spent in Tututepec, the ancient Mixtec capitol, in the mountains overlooking the ocean. From this vantage point, 8-Deer Jaguar Claw, the most famous and powerful Mixtec warrior, ruled a vast territory before the Spanish conquest.
After visiting the archeological museum and murals at the cultural center, we went to the home of 27-year-old weaver Luis Adan, who is rescuing the traditions of his people. Luis Adan is researching and reproducing ancient textile patterns using traditional back-strap loom weaving techniques, and native cotton that he grows, cards and spins by hand.
Luis Adan traveled two hours by bus to Puerto Escondido to take us along the rocky coastline searching the crevices for the allusive caracol purpura. Sustainability, we learn, comes in many forms. Luis Adan milks the snail to extract the purple color, applying the liquid directly to skeins of hand-spun cotton or silk. The snail is then return to the rocks, alive, to regenerate. The purple color is woven as as accent color into local cloth, rare and costly.
At the Mango Orchard: most of the mangoes grown along the hot, humid coast of Oaxaca are organic. Farmers use no insecticides and apply a bio-fertilizer mix of molasses and rice flour. Water from wells is pumped using a microaspersian watering system. Along the coast, farmers plant mango, papaya, peanuts and sesame. Whatever they grow depends on market demand.
Growing papaya takes more of an investment because it requires pesticides. Small scale farmers can’t afford organic certification because it takes four years to get a field certified as organic. Farmer Gil told us he pays field workers 200-300 pesos a day when the Mexican minimum way is 100 pesos a day; he has a hard time finding labor.
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Oaxaca celebrates indigenous food and handmade at the annual Agro-biodiversity Fair in Ejido Union Zapata. This once a year event is building traction. The main street of several blocks, cordoned off for booths and foot traffic, was packed by noon. The natural food color was beyond belief.
Day of Plenty: native corn varieties with tortillas
Criollo, organic-natural tomatoes + More
Billed as a seed exchange, farmers came from as far away as Chiapas, the Coast of Oaxaca and the Mixteca Alta, the high mountain range that borders the states of Oaxaca and Guerrero. Weavers working in natural dyes and mask makers joined in. For sale were seeds, fruit, vegetables, flowers, tortillas and tamales.
Coconut from Oaxaca’s coast. Have you tasted coconut crackers?
Fitting for Thanksgiving Weekend, it was a day of plenty.
Amaranth seeds, protein-rich, makes sweet treat
There is a big and growing movement in politically active Oaxaca to conserve native food: chiles, tomatoes, corn, peppers, squash, coffee, chocolate, amaranth, jicama and more. There are so many different varieties of each.
Sierra Mixe handmade ceramics, utilitarian beauty
One of the leaders, Rafael Meir, was present along with government representatives of Oaxaca and Mexico. Leaders are becoming more conscious about the importance of keeping GMO contained to what has already infiltrated the commercial tortilla business. Yet, there is still much more to do.
Public education has so much to do with the success of programs like this one.
House made sesame crackers — yummy, or buy seeds and make your own.
Backstrap loomed textiles rom San Juan Colorado
I was so happy to see Yuridia Lorenzo and her mom, Alegoria Lorenzo Quiroz from the Colectivo Jini Nuu in San Juan Colorado. They were selling their beautiful blouses and dresses made with native coyuchi, white and green cotton and natural dyes. Participants in my Oaxaca Coast Textile Study Tour will visit them in mid-January.
Another benefit of attending is to taste and buy mezcal, Oaxaca’s organic, artisanal alcoholic beverage distilled from fermented agave. I bought a bottle of sylvestre (wild) jabali mezcal grown and distilled in Teozacoalco in the Mixteca Alta by Mezcalero Javier Cruz. Que Rico!
San Juan Colorado Katyi Yaa coop, native coyuchi cotton, natural dyes
I’m noticing that Oaxaca is becoming inundated with foodies and followers of What’s Hot on the food and beverage scene. We’ve got free walking tours led by guides holding colorful umbrellas and flags downtown who get paid with tips. We have USA restauranteurs coming for cooking classes to bring the cuisine home. Rent prices are escalating in the historic center. If one lives on the peso, everything is at a premium now. Those of us who live here always ask if the influx of tourist dollars trickles down to the pueblos, the makers, the field and kitchen workers. What is your experience?
Corn, snake, cacao symbols on wool, back-strap loom
Back-strap loomed wool, San Pablo Villa de Mitla, corn, snake, cacao symbols. That’s why fairs like this one are so important — to buy direct from those who produce. Slow food. Slow fashion. Slow mezcal. Saludos.
Union Zapata is a small pueblo that is at off the Pan-American Highway Mexico 190, near San Pablo Villa de Mitla, about five miles from where I live. They grow organic corn, squash and beans just like many villages throughout the state of Oaxaca.
Native corn, indigenous to Oaxaca state, at the Feria Biodiversidad
Blue corn tortillas, one of my favorites
But, the native crops indigenous to Mexico are at risk as more farmers plant seeds that they can afford to buy, to sell produce in a competitive economy where retail price drives most decisions. Cheap corn introduced by commercialization is taking over Mexico.
Farming family from the Mixe region of Oaxaca
Farmers from all parts of Oaxaca state gathered in Union Zapata on Saturday, December 2 to promote their ancient crops. They came in vans, cars, trucks and buses from the mountains, coast and valleys, from remote communities that adhere to tradition. They are proud to show the produce that results from their labor. The native species have provided for the complete nutritional needs of native people for 10,000 years.
Carbon dating sets Mexican squash at 10,000 years old
I went to the fair with Carina Santiago, noted Teotitlan del Valle chef and owner of Restaurante Tierra Antigua, and Kalisa Wells, professional cook and caterer from San Diego. I am fortunate to call them friends. I had no idea what to expect and what I saw was amazing.
Rafael Mier holds Jaguar Beans, a rare, ancient strain
Carina and Kali introduced me to Rafael Mier from Mexico City and his aunt Caterina. Rafa’s grandparents came to Mexico City from Northern Spain. They were farmers. In the middle of the city they raised animals and crops. They grew up with their hands in the soil.
Are Mexicans more concerned about conserving chile varieties?
Today, Rafa leads a conservation NGO called Tortilla de Maiz Mexicana to educate farmers and consumers about the importance of growing, buying and eating native corn. He tells me that throughout Mexico, it is now difficult to find the real food that provides the complex carbohydrates-protein exchange needed for a healthy diet.
Some of Mexico’s corn diversity. There are 59 landraces.
Even if we believe we are eating native, organic corn in Mexico, we are being deceived. Tortilla and tlayuda makers are using processed corn they buy in bulk, pre-soaked so that it can be prepared faster. And, that’s what’s being sold in most village markets and at the tortillerias where machines spit out white corn tortillas, hundreds to the minute.
In the United States, there is a similar story. We want bright yellow corn, big juicy kernels, uniform in size and texture, easy to peel and consume with butter — melt in your mouth. This is genetically modified to suit American taste.
I could not believe the color of these squashes. Eye popping.
This corn has little nutritional value and converts immediately to sugar. Monsanto can export it to Mexico and sell it cheaper than the corn small scale farmers produce themselves.
Farmer-weaver from San Juan Colorado, Costa Chica
Corn is a staple in Mexico. When GMO corn converts to sugar as it metabolizes, indigenous people suffer from diabetes. This is a HUGE health issue here. I can tell you this from personal experience, since many of my local friends struggle with the disease, have amputations and die.
Organic coyuchi cotton from the coastal highlands of Oaxaca
San Juan Colorado and San Pedro Amuzgos handwoven huipiles at the fair
Some of us adhere to the Slow Food Movement. We want to know who makes our food and where it comes from. This is a way to eat what we believe, to ask questions about food sourcing from restaurants and cooks.
My late morning snack: organic blue corn stuffed with chicken and chilis
These are native hibiscus flowers used for drinks and stuffing enchiladas
I liken this to the #whomademyclothes movement started by the Fashion Revolution. I want to know where the cotton, silk and wool comes from. I want to know if plants and cochineal are the dye materials. I want to know if my clothes are mixed with polyester or rayon. I want to know who sewed them and were they paid fairly.
Order pumpkin pie from Jorge Daniel Bautista, Union Zapata, tel: 951-421-4697
Education requires commitment and social activism. Yes, it is difficult in our world to be a purist with so many hidden ingredients. But we can try! Isn’t that what counts most?
Teotzintle, the grain that corn was hybridized from in the Oaxaca valley
Teotzintle, a Nahuatl word, is the world’s original corn. It was discovered in the nearby Yagul caves and dated at 8,000 years old.
Pre-hispanic Amaranth is a great source of protein
The biodiversity of Mexican corn gives us 59 different varieties
After the fair, Rafael and Caterina joined us at Tierra Antigua Restaurant where Carina brought out her specialties of Mole Coloradito and Mole Negro for tastings. But first, we had her yellow organic corn tlayudas, followed by red corn mamelas.
Carina’s red corn mamelas, a delicious appetizer.
Carina’s husband, Pedro Montaño, has a milpa (field) where they grow only native corn and they use this exclusively for the tortillas and tlayudas they prepare in the restaurant.
Restaurante Tierra Antigua specialty of Mole Coloradito and Mole Negro
New and vintage masks from San Juan Colorado
The program receives limited funding from the government of Mexico, and this year, its 7th, the organizers sought donations from private individuals in order to hold the fair. It was only for ONE day. Transportation was provided for the participants who came long distances, but did not include overnight lodging.
Yira Vallejo from Pierde Almas mezcals was a lead organizer.
If I had known about this in advance, I would have alerted you in the days before to come out to the Tlacolula valley to enjoy the day. I hope to do this next year.
How you can get involved? Contact
Yira Vallejo at firstname.lastname@example.org, www.pierdealmas.com
If you are a U.S. university professor who wants to learn more about Mexico’s native plants and food, please contact Norma Schafer. Oaxaca Cultural Navigator organizes study abroad short courses and educational programs for faculty and students for cultural exchange.
NCSU students and faculty setting out to explore Oaxaca
Here’s what a few students say about our first day at Monte Alban.
“We went to see Monte Alban first to give us background about Oaxaca and culture we are stepping into.”
Climbing the pyramids for a long view of the archeological site
“People here in Oaxaca take pride in this historic archeological site.”
Copal tree flowering and with seed pods — sap used for ritual incense
“You don’t know what people are talking about until you see the significance of this place.”
A long view of Monte Alban, with Observatory in distance
“It was a good foundation for what we would see and experience.”
Monte Alban is one of those spectacular archeological sites that grasp your attention, teach about the sophistication of Zapotec leadership and demonstrate the astronomical prowess of indigenous people.
Guide Pablo Gonzalez explains development of this major Mesoamerican site
The visit there gave students an opportunity to see native plants and understand the local plant life and landscape.
Pencil cactus becomes tree, with poisonous sap
As we climbed the temples and examined the plant life, saw the glyphs carved into the stone, and understood the ancient systems of water retention and cultivation, we gained a greater insight into the importance of Oaxaca as the source of corn that was first hybridized here almost 10,000 years ago and spread throughout the world.
At the top of the Zapotec world, 1,000 BC to 800 AD
We approached from the north side of the Monte Alban. The site is on a mountain-top between the city and the ancient ceramic making village of Santa Maria Atzompa.
Caretakers take a break in front of “Los Danzantes,” the Dancers, carved stone
The glyphs and carvings tell a story of conquest and dominance over surrounding villages, as well as the glyph language of rectangles and circles. Figures carved upside-down into the stone represented conquered leaders from local villages.
Another view of Los Danzantes
The gold treasures from Tomb 7 are on view at the Santo Domingo Cultural Center next to the church. They were wrought by Mixtecs who occupied Monte Alban in the late classical period.
Stelae carved with circles and rectangles — ancient vocabulary
Students participating are studying agriculture, horticulture, landscape design, business, and nutrition. Each day, they have an intensive discussion with their professors about food sourcing, fertilization, bio-diversity and cultural impact on climate change.
In the clouds at the top of Monte Alban
Zapotec rulers lived high above the agricultural valley below. Humans leveled the mountain where the elite lived. The Spanish named the place Monte Alban. When they arrived the mountain was covered in trees with white blooming flowers.
A videographer with the group will make a documentary about the experience
Students will write a paper and receive three-credit hours toward their degree program. We have one doctoral student with us, too.
The Continental flight from RDU to IAH to OAX was easy, fast, painless. The plane left the gate in Raleigh-Durham at 2:30 p.m.(EDT) and arrived in Oaxaca at 8:30 p.m. (CDT). I was welcomed into the arms of family cousin Uriel Santiago (you can find him on Facebook: Teotitlan Fruit Company [UriCorp]). He managed to get my oversized bag stuffed with four months worth of clothing, shoes and workshop paraphernalia (LCD projector, tripod, camera lenses, writing notebooks, pens, external hard-drive, computer, iPad) into his tiny Chevy with room to spare. Uri named his Facebook page after a Pablo Neruda poem. In it, Uri says, “Neruda writes that ‘…and on the seventh day, God distributed the world, and South America was for the United Fruit Company‘ [see link for poem]. Gabriel García Márquez also talks about that in his 100 años de soledad [100 Years of Solitude].”
Quite fitting, I thought, since my last post was about cultural sustainability and big agribusiness. Zapotecs are quite good at poking sardonic fun at the disintegrating world around them as they continue to preserve culture through tight-knit communities organized and operated by self-governing, communitarian principles. A great example for thriving and staying true to personal values, which is why I love it here.
This morning I was greeted by Federico and Dolores who had already been to the daily market. The kitchen table was laden with huge chunks of fresh papaya, a delightful nopal cactus/tomato, onion, pepper salad, chapulines, rice, fresh steamed green beans and mushrooms, queso fresco sautéed in olive oil with scallions, and tortillas. I made a cup of my favorite morning beverage, that I call Choco-Cafe (Oaxaca chocolate mixed with coffee and a little sugar).
Now, it’s time to put the Oaxaca Photojournalism Workshop preparations aside (it begins this Friday evening), and take a walk in the campo (countryside) before we welcome Patricia this afternoon who will look at Federico’s extraordinary rugs he weaves with naturally dyed wool.
Why We Left, Expat Anthology: Norma’s Personal Essay
Norma contributes personal essay, How Oaxaca Became Home
Norma Contributes Two Chapters!
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Norma Schafer and Oaxaca Cultural Navigator LLC has offered programs in Mexico since 2006. We have over 30 years of university program development experience. See my resume.
Study Tours + Study Abroad are personally curated and introduce you to Mexico's greatest artisans. They are off-the-beaten path, internationally recognized. We give you access to where people live and work. Yes, it is safe and secure to travel. Groups are limited in size for the most personal experience.
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Dye Master Dolores Santiago Arrellanas with son Omar Chavez Santiago, weaver and dyer, Fey y Lola Rugs, Teotitlan del Valle