Tag Archives: San Martin Tilcajete

Oaxaca Mardi Gras with Jacobo and Maria Angeles

It’s Fat Tuesday, otherwise known as Shrove Tuesday, the day before Lent. Here in Oaxaca, Mexico, we have our own version of Mardi Gras or Carnaval in the Zapotec village of San Martin Tilcajete.  The people know how to put on a good party.

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A group of artists, collectors and supporters of Penland School of Crafts from North Carolina are with me and certified tour guide Rene Cabrera for a week. Our time is almost over but this is the first opportunity I’ve had to write a blog post.

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Our days have been packed visiting artist and textile studios, attending workshops, rising early to get to markets, and staying out much too late dining in Oaxaca’s exquisite restaurants.

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Today we arrived in San Martin Tilcajete early to get a jump start on the comparsa that we were told would start at eleven in the morning. But, life in Oaxaca is on Zapotec time.  The Zapotecs know that whoever controls time controls the world.  In reality, the formal festivities didn’t begin until four in the afternoon.

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So we shifted plans, went to the workshop home and studio of famed alebrijes carvers and painters Jacobo and Maria Angeles. What was planned to be an hour demonstration of alebrije-making techniques became a full day of watching the carvers and painters become transformed into revelers and merrymakers.

PenlandMardiGrasBest20-10 PenlandMardiGrasBest20-9 Jacobo and Maria welcomed us and invited us to stay.  They are warm and hospitable people, the largest employer of talented painters and carvers in their village and do so much to promote the artisans of the village and Oaxaca.

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After lunch — anyone for a tlayuda? — several of our more courageous Penland participants were invited to join in the face and body painting to become part of Jacobo and Maria’s comparsa entourage.

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We then followed them down village streets, costumes with cow bells clanging, voices ringing in shouts, cheers and grunts, breaths panting, dust kicking up under our feet.

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It was ninety degrees fahrenheit in Oaxaca today and this was no easy task, keeping up with young men painted to the nines and ready to party.  We sucked a lot of water to stay hydrated and pulled sun hats down over our faces in protection.

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The smarter villagers huddled in the shade of their doorways to watch the revelers shout and clang up and down the streets.

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I’ve got a lot of catching up to do to keep you up to date. This week we did an indigo dye workshop and made shibori scarves, took a cooking class and made mole amarillo, visited San Pablo Villa de Mitla archeological site and entered the inner sanctum of Oaxaca artist Rudolfo Morales’ bedroom and studio.  We met painters and lithographers, learned about Oaxaca’s contemporary art scene, and tried our hand at making a woodcut. With a mezcal tasting, we learned about this Oaxaca art form and how this artisanal beverage is crafted.

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On Thursday, seven of us will be continuing on to San Cristobal de Las Casas to explore the art and archeology of that wonderful region.  More to come!

Whirlwind Day Two Shopping in Oaxaca — If it’s Friday, it must be Ocotlan

Sheri picked us up in her white van at the pre-determined 9 a.m. hour, early by Oaxaca standards, though the streets were already abuzz with honking vehicles.  Our first stop was the ATM (exchange rate 13.12 pesos to the dollar) to stock up again for the day long adventure down the Ocotlan highway.  We passed the airport and headed south along the valley highway that leads to some incredible crafts villages, stopping for gas at Pemex the state-owned oil company.  The earlier the better along this road because the Ocotlan market attracts people from throughout the region whose motivations are to shop for the sheer pleasure of it or for survival needs of buying and selling everything from oilcloth table coverings, hammocks, woven baskets, pipes and gaskets, kitchen utensils, leather belts, children’s plastic shoes and everything else under the sun, including live turkeys raised for market, feet bound in twine so as not to escape.  The van boasted New Mexico license plates, a good fit for around these parts, although vehicles are brought down from every state in north America to be bought, sold and traded.

We circumvented the hubbub, stopping first at the three Aguilar sisters whose shops you might miss if you didn’t pay attention.  They are on the right side of the road heading into Ocotlan, about three blocks before arriving at the zocalo, market central.  This is true folk art at its best.  Josefina sits with legs tucked under her on a padded blanket in the courtyard of her home and sales area forming figures out of soft clay that will later be fired in a kiln that may not reach more than eight hundred degrees.  Grandchildren dart around playing with kittens.  Sons and daughters participate in the clay forming and painting.  Tourists from all corners of the earth stream in and out.  This is a famous stopping place for collecting Oaxaca art, yet the prices of the pieces match the humble working and living space:  smaller figures range in price from one hundred and fifty to two hundred and fifty pesos.  That translates from about twelve to twenty dollars each.  Collectors and dealers buy, pack and resell these figures in the U.S. for triple or quadruple the cost.

Next door, sister Irene sculpts hot women of the night and paints their hair yellow, applying blue glitter to create a dress, bosom prominent, one arm on hip, the other akimbo sporting a cigarette, a snake boa wrapped to cover cleavage (just barely).  Imagination flies.  A muerta, not yet painted, bares her skeletal teeth and she flaunts a haughty lilt of the head topped with a wide-brimmed hat to shade her from the strong sun.  How will I get these home?  I ask myself as I consider a purchase.  Oh, don’t think about it, I answer silently.  Go for it anyway, and I do, and because of my magic packing suitcase, everything arrives undamaged.  My prize possession from Guillermina is a skeletal crone whose flowing dress is painted black.  The hem is adorned with cream colored skulls, a red spider crawls along the folds of her skirt, a black shawl frames the sinister face.  Dia de los Muertos is characterized by underworld forms.

Forgive me if I repeat myself.  The impressions of Oaxaca are continuous revelations in memory.   As we head back out of town, we make a left turn almost immediately onto the side road leading to San Antonino, where I want to relocate Don Jose Garcia, the blind potter.  We go down a ways, turn right, make an immediate left at the next street and look for the clay animals that hang over the door to the courtyard that signals we have arrived.  A dog barks.  The door is ajar.  We ring the bell and step inside to be welcomed by the family.  Life-size clay figures cluster around the patio, are tucked haphazardly into corners, are laying on their sides — humans, animals, children.  We are greeted by Don Jose and his wife who guide us into the workshop packed with more sculpture, wall to wall, like the clay soldiers of Xian, men, women, and children stand or kneel side by side, almost alive, waiting to be adopted and taken home.

These pieces are glorious, primitive, raw clay, unglazed.  Some are rough.  Some are polished.  Each with a unique expression that conveys individuality and personality, a special quality that Don Jose has breathed life into as he forms the clay, braids the hair, fashions the nose, tilts the neck, arches the brow or mustache.  These are heavy pieces, primitive.  To ship them would require a crate and an investment of hundreds of dollars.  We admire and take our leave.

Hungry, our next stop is at Azucena where Jacobo Angeles operates a fine restaurant that caters to tourists and tour buses, Elderhostel, and other forms of non-adventure travel.  This is good for San Martin Tilcajete business, since Jacobo represents many of the finest carvers in the village.  On this day, there is a special exhibition of regional folk art on the grounds of the restaurant and gallery, a perfect opportunity to pick up another carving, to eat and drink well, and to make a necessary bathroom stop.

We backtrack to Santo Tomas Jalieza to visit Abigail Mendoza and her family at Nicolas Bravo #1.  On backstrap looms, they weave fine cloth with intricate figures that are fashioned into handbags, belts, wrist bands, table runners, and placemats.  Abigail does the finish work for the rugs woven by Arnulfo Mendoza and Tito Mendoza.  This is among the finest quality backstrap loom weaving you will find anywhere in the Oaxaca valley.

By now, it is five o’clock in the afternoon and the light is beginning to wane.  We travel along the highway back to Oaxaca with a trunk full of goodies, ready for a fresh mango margarita and guacamole at La Olla.  Descanse.

Chris Hugo Recommends Ephraim Fuentes — Alebrijes, Animalitos and Carved Wood Figures

Ephraim Fuentes is a talented wood carver from San Martin Tilcajete. Chris Hugo, from Washington State, wrote me to recommend Ephraim and tell about the great experience he and his group had visiting the workshop. I asked Chris to send photos to share with you, and he says, “These may be foxes or something mythical from the dog kingdom. The “male” is about 24″ tall.” He also gave me permission to share his impressions of their recent Oaxaca visit (below).

“Our group of six loved Oaxaca. We attended two Guelaguetza performances in the Cerro del Fortin, spent a 12+ hour day with Susana Trilling at her cooking school (our final day), and saw as much of the area as we could in a shortened week. We rented a house in San Felipe, and although the accommodations were great, the steep road to the house was severely torn up to put sewer lines in — so we had to walk several blocks (sometimes in mud) to get to a bus / taxi street. At least it didn’t rain until our last night (after graduation from cooking class). Overall, we were very lucky to mostly avoid rain during the rainy season, both in Mexico City (3 days coming and going) and in Oaxaca.

“I’m 61 and have been visiting Mexico regularly since 1959 — next year will be my 50th anniversary! I’ve visited over 20 major cities from Juarez and Nogales to Acapulco and Cancun and have never had a bad experience (other than the normal travel illnesses) — although my brother nearly died of typhoid fever in Mexico in 1957. In the past couple of years, we’ve enjoyed similar great adventures with welcoming cultures in Guatemala and Panama.

“Although some elements of the greatly segregated economy of Oaxaca benefit by tourism revenues, it was special to be there when so few tourists were out and about. I don’t think we saw a handful of tourists among the thousands of locals at the Tlacolula market.

“Oaxaca street scapes remind us of a much bigger San Miguel de Allende. The colonial charm of both cities puts a good face to the “real” Mexico.

“Thanks for helping to orient new visitors to Oaxaca — since there are no
sunny beaches with jet skis and 24-hour beer parties, we can only hope that
“Ugly Americans” won’t ever find their way there.”

Chris Hugo

“P.S. The travel guides for Oaxaca suggest using second class buses to get to
the surrounding villages. The day we tried to get to Ocotlan, the bus seats
were sold out, yet we wasted an hour to find that out (although, we enjoyed
watching the chaotic loading, unloading, and reloading the bus as the
station personnel tried to figure out who could go and who could not —
chickens, bails of ropes, and all). We suggest taking a taxi on the outbound
trip to villages and then grabbing any bus heading back into Oaxaca. Time is
just too precious to fiddle around at the big station across from the
Abastos Market and then not be assured of travel. Best to just get a taxi.
That raises another subject, taxi rates. We found them to be all over the
board — we got a taxi back from San Martin Tilcajete for 40 pesos, yet paid
twice that to get from our rental house to the First Class bus station a few
miles away. Generally, we could get anywhere around town for 40 pesos and
out to nearby places like Monte Alban for 60=80. Like all buying in Mexico
towns, you have to be willing to pass on the first taxi if the driver
doesn’t take your offer. You probably have good experience with this, and it
is worth sharing with new visitors.

“Of note, our air travel was to Mexico City where my family has been friends
with the owners of a boutique hotel (Casa Gonzalez) since my second trip to
Mexico in 1963. Our travel party of three couples stayed at the Casa,
enjoyed a night out with our hosts, and spent a rushed two days seeing
Teotihuacan, the Zocalo / Templo Mayor, and the Museo Nat de Antropologia. We
took the ADO line First Class bus to Oaxaca and the ADO GL Luxury Class bus
back to Mexico City. We couldn’t distinguish between the two, although the
GL cost about 20% more. Although the schedules say the GL is 30 minutes
faster, for our trips it was actually longer. Maybe it was partly due to the
spontaneous stop for a security check of all passengers and luggage by
soldiers along the highway.”

Alebrijes: In Search of the Masters

The three great wood carving villages are San Martin Tilcajete, Arrazola and La Union.  I’ve written about finding La Union in another post.   And, of course, you can find wonderful alebrijes in excellent galleries along Alcala, such as La Mano Magica, or  tucked around the corner and across the street from Santo Domingo, at Tally (5 de Mayo 409).  There is no limit to what you can find at every price range, from $8-10 USD up to thousands of dollars.  Some people like shopping on the street at the Tlacalula or Ocotlan market.  It’s important to note that the vendors here are usually not the artists.  They may be from a village; they may be a relative representing the craftsman and earning a commission.  Their offerings are usually smaller, more primitive and are not finely finished or painted.  But, these fancifuls can be a bargain and great sources for gifts. 

For collectors, the most accessible sources and the best range of choice could be found in the finest Oaxaca shops or in the Jacobo Angeles gallery “La Azucena,” on the highway at the crossroads to San Martin, where excellent examples from throughout the region are displayed.  But the highlight and most fun for any thrill of the hunt is going out to the villages in search of the masters.

For me, the search for a master does not necessarily mean finding the most famous (or most expensive) carver.  My process is to go to a village with a short list of carvers whose work I really like and stay open to discovering others.   I gauge the quality of their work by size, difficulty of carving execution, finish work (how well is it sanded and are there rough spots), painting detail, use of and variety of color, general artistry and movement, and use of  natural pigments.  Do the pieces have many removeable parts or are there discernable glued joints?  Carvings from one piece of copal is more highly valued, for example.  

Here are a few of my favorite carvers.  but, understand that you can arrive at their home studio/workshop and there will not be much there that is for sale at the moment.  It varies.  The best carvers are constantly producing their work and shipping immediately upon completion to galleries in Oaxaca or the U.S.   Sometimes I have gone to find  the person is not there.  If you can get a phone number and make an appointment in advance, that is preferable.  Now, I have a list of many carvers and am able to do this to ensure a connection. 

A few of my favorite San Martin Tilcajete carvers:  Jacobo Angeles, Justo Xuana,  Maria Jimenez Ojeda, Pablo Mendez Sosa

A few of my favorite Arrazola carvers:  Hector Martinez, Bertha Cruz

A few of my favorite La Union carvers:  Gabino Reyes, Sergio Santos, Calixto Santiago

Arrazola has a central artisans market that is quite good.  We always make a stop there to see the work.  On the last visit there was a great big Skeleton Couple, he bedecked in top hat, she outfitted in a dazzling dancing dress.  Ask around town, go in and out of workshops and you will likely find something wonderful to take home.  (See my post “Packing Tips” for how to get these home without paying an arm and a leg for shipping.)  

I also have a few fine pieces from my collection  for sale in my Gallery Shop:  www.oaxacaculture.com