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.
The Biodiversity Fair celebrates Oaxaca’s organic food. This includes not only the criollo (natural, unmodified, original) corn of the Oaxaca Valley. The fair encompasses all parts of Oaxaca State where farmers are using organic fertilizers and native seeds: peppers, squash, tomatoes, sunflowers, and more! There is no GMO here! Please come to support the small scale growers who make our food nutritious and honest. Eat good food. Support small scale farming.
Here’s the poster. Union Zapata is a small village just before you get to the Mitla-Matatlan crossroads on MEX 190 Carretera Nacional.
Meet me at the Biodiversity Fair, Saturday, Nov. 24, 2018
My Friday Oaxaca Meander
After Thanksgiving at Los Danzantes with friends, I spent the day after NOT shopping on Black Friday, but meandering Oaxaca city, running errands and in a constant state of discovery.
Discovery One: Hierba y Dulce, a new vegan restaurant tucked in the patio behind Oro de Monte Alban silver and goldsmithing workshop on Calle Porfirio Diaz 311, between Matamoros and Morelos. Check it out! Comida Curativa. Curative Food.
In Need of Coffee: Nuevo Mundo
I made a quick stop at Nuevo Mundo, my go-to coffee purveyor. I love their roast. I’ve tried others and keep going back to this Oaxaca mainstay on M. Bravo between Garcia Virgil and Porfirio Diaz.
Discovery Two: They have a new roast at Nuevo Mundo called Gourmet. Darker and more flavorful than the house blend.
Pastry still life at Nuevo Mundo Coffee Roasters. Great sweets.
The messages at Nuevo Mundo: Wean yourself from using plastic bags …
Oaxaca environmentalism: Don’t use plastic bags.
and stop using straws that end up in the guts of marine mammals, are toxic and contaminate the environment. I say, Use your lips!
Straws are an environmental hazard, says Nuevo Mundo. Use your lips.
Global warming is real. Of course, eliminating straws from our juice sipping habits is only a small part of what it takes to reserve environmental destruction. Let’s get more teeth into the EPA and tell our governments to control big business emissions that pollute our environment.
The cloud forest at San Antonio Cuajimaloyos, misty mountains
But, nothing quite matches the real thing — a visit to the cloud forest high above the Oaxaca valley floor in the Pueblos Mancomunados where eco-tourism is front and center. A packed dirt road (that could be called a trail) goes between the villages along the spine of the Sierra Madre del Sur mountain range.
I imagine the Cotswolds might look something like this
Here you will find rustic cabins, simple and delicious comedors with local food prepared in homestyle kitchens by knowledgeable cooks, and a range of outdoor activities to delight hikers, bikers, runners, climbers, horse riders, and zip line enthusiasts. Some people like to go village-to-village to fully experience the mountains.
Flower gardens and succulents thrive in this climate
Perhaps not much could be better than being up here in a hot summer, when ten to fifteen degree cooler temperatures prevail. But, this has been no usual summer and cool weather in the valley means it is much cooler higher up. But, summer has just begun here and who knows? I may head for the hills again.
A beautiful hill town with vibrant color everywhere
San Antonio Cuajimoloyas hosted a race last Sunday and I decided to go along with Eric and Elsa, since he decided to compete with his Oaxaca running team. That meant leaving Teotitlan del Valle at 6:30 a.m. for the about forty-minute (plus) ride up the mountain on a very curvy road via the Tlacolula intersection.
Under cloud cover everyone is bundled up
We passed Diaz Ordaz and the vegetation started to change: dense pine forest, huge cactus the size of a cow, leafy ferns with arms outstretched ten feet, steep hills, flowing stream beds, an occasional bull plowing a vertical field.
It’s an un-selfie. Too cold to be fashionable.
Atmospheric, colorful houses, tin and lots of weathering
As we ascended, Eric turned on the windshield wipers as we entered the cloud cover. It wasn’t really rain per se. It was more like a soft blanket of drizzle, comforting, though the road was obscured and we couldn’t see more than twenty feet ahead.
Elsa in front of a giant, non-mezcal producing agave. Brrr.
Road signs welcomed us to San Antonio Cuajimoloyas. The scene was like a diffused Rembrandt landscape painting, the subjects in the foreground sharp and those in the background fading out to a blurred gray in the fog.
Runners wait for the horn to signal the race start
Packed dirt path makes for great hiking, biking, running
We climbed the 45-degree angle cobbled streets to the trailhead where the race would begin. There were two groups: the half-marathoners and those running a 10K. At this altitude, 10,490 feet, I needed to stop for breaths even though I’m a seasoned walker at 6K feet altitude. My Fitbit claims I climbed 23 flights of stairs that day.
Taking a long stretch to get those muscles ready
Those assembled looked much like USA runners and those all over the world. They had on the gear: hydration packs, polypropylene shirts and shells, familiar shoe brands, caps and scarves for warmth. We live in a small universe with much in common. Perhaps some day, the current government in the USA will recognize that.
A running team posing for the camera
Racers gather at the starting line and sprint as the horn sounds
Gosh it was cold up there! Refreshingly perfect for exercise and to be in nature.
Taking a hot chocolate break away from the cold
While Eric ran (10K in 58 minutes, a great time for him), Elsa and I hung out on the main street in a cafe, sipping Oaxaca hot chocolate and dunking sweet bread into the rich liquid.
After the race, let’s have some water! He’s happy with his time.
By The Way: We haven’t had much rain here since I returned in late June, so I’m hoping the clouds will give enough moisture for the annual Wild Mushroom Festival held in August in Cuajimoloyas. (Who says there’s no Global Warming?)
Another finisher who ran the 1/2 marathon
Onlookers or are they getting their morning exercise, too
On the way down the mountain, a San Miguel del Valle border sign
A view of Tlacolula and Teotitlan del Valle from up high
Where Teotitlan lands end, at the border of Cuajimoloyas, in Spanish and Zapotec
Our stop on the way home included barbecue goat tacos for breakfast at the Tlacolula Sunday market, and home by 1 p.m.
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.
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