Off the beaten path and definitely a must-see, Santo Domingo Yanhuitlan is a small Mixtec pueblo located about an hour-and-a-half north of Oaxaca city, off the Carretera Nacional toll road to Mexico City.
It is the home of an extraordinary Dominican Church whose massive stone architecture is reminiscent of the finest European churches, complete with flying buttresses and elegant arched ceilings. Six thousand indigenous people constructed it beginning in the mid-16th century.
Ceramic artist, sculptor and painter Manuel Reyes lives here, too, with his wife Marisela, also an accomplished artist, and their two children. They are what draw us to this place since their work is not sold in Oaxaca city. They have been exhibited in galleries throughout the United States and recognized in numerous contemporary art journals and books.
Manuel understudied with potters from throughout Oaxaca state and has been working with clay for fifteen years. He uses a gas kiln and fires his work at 900-1,200 degree Fahrenheit temperatures, unusual for the region where most clay work is low fire, cooked in a shallow wood-fire kiln. Manuel gets his red clay from pits in San Jeronimo Silacayoapilla, not far from his home in Tlaxiaco. He says the clay from here is the strongest, the best.
Yanhuitlan is Marisela’s home. This is where they have created their life and work together. The children are also collaborating, making small clay figures and painting on canvas.
The clay is painted with natural mineral pigments that Manuel gets from the local region. Some of his work is primitive. Other pieces are highly polished polychrome with three or four colors.
Pre-Hispanic designs on clay come from pottery shards that Manuel finds in the region.
Marisela and Manuel invite us to join them for lunch. It is a homemade red mole with rice, black beans, fresh tortillas, and another type of tortilla, rougher, denser, made with wheat flour by Marisela’s mother. I pass on the mezcal because I’m driving! The head sculpture is a napkin holder. Magnifico.
The church is one of the most important colonial sites in Mexico. Why was it constructed in this tiny town that seems to have little or no importance today? Yanhuitlan was on a major pre-Hispanic trade route and the Mixtec temple there was a very important indigenous religious site.
The Spanish imported the European silk worm and Yanhuitlan became the center of silk cultivation for export. Silk, along with cochineal, made Yanhuitlan an important economic center. Hence, this imposing church — extraordinary and definitely worth the visit in its own right. Note the Mixtec carving embedded into the church wall. A practice for attracting and converting locals.
Couple the stop with a visit to the home studio of ceramic artist and sculptors Manuel and Marisela Reyes and you have a very satisfying day-long excursion to explore the art and creativity that is Oaxaca.
How to get there: Go north from Oaxaca on the Cuota–toll-road–to Mexico City. Exit at Nochixtlan. Turn left and go over the toll road bridge. Continue northwest. Follow the road signs to Yanhuitlan. The church can be seen from several miles away. To find Marisela and Manuel Reyes, go to Aldama Street which faces the side entrance of the church. Drive until the end. Their house is across from the Calvario church (metal dome), which is part of the original convent. firstname.lastname@example.org or call 951-562-7008 for an appointment.
Special thanks to Francine, Jo Ann and Tom for guiding me there!