Monthly Archives: July 2008

Documentary Filmmaking Workshop in Oaxaca Planned for Mid-January 2009

The Zapotec village of Teotitlan del Valle, 17 miles southwest of Oaxaca in the Tlacolula valley, becomes your learning laboratory for documentary filmmaking.  In this village of 7,000 people there are 2,000 looms, a multitude of weavers using natural dyes from plant materials — a 6,000 year old tradition, a 16th century Catholic church built atop Zapotec archeological ruins, sustainable agriculture programs, festivals and feast days, an environmental awareness program for children, people whose family members have gone to El Norte never to be seen again. The village, nestled at the foot of the Sierra Madre del Sur on a 6,000 ft. high desert plateau, offers a rich learning environment.  There are story possibilities galore that can feature indigenous art and culture, folk traditions, social justice, public health, education, immigration, women and families.

This will be a 5-day intensive, immersion documentary filmmaking workshop starting in mid-January 2009 (exact dates to be announced).   The workshop will be limited to 8 participants; we welcome participants at all levels, from beginner to more experienced.  You will produce a 3-5 minute short documentary film as your final project and show your film on the final day.  You will work together in small groups with expert faculty instructing you every step of the way, and then giving you the freedom to create an independent short subject film.  We will provide translators and lots of on-the-ground support.

We anticipate that the fee will include all instruction, 6 nights lodging, 6 breakfasts, 6 lunches, snacks, use of all equipment, bilingual translators.  We don’t have any more to tell you right now!

If you are interest in knowing more details as they develop or you would like to add your name to a waiting list, please contact me —

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.”

Folk Medicine and Spiritual Healing: Visit to the Curandera

We passed through the open door into the courtyard of the corner house that sits at one of the numerous back street crossroads of the village. Behind the tall wall that protects the house from the street was another world, but it wasn’t evident to begin with. Stepping in off the street, I entered a small store filled with neighborhood necessities: chilled soft drinks, beer and wine, packaged snacks — chips and cookies, bathroom tissue, laundry soap, small bins of avocados and mangoes, a stack of commercially packaged tortillas made in the city, jars of salsa. The convenience store is ubiquitous in Teotitlan. They exist on every other corner.

A woman greeted us in Zapotec expressing the traditional welcome – a tonal and gutteral tongue-twister that I have yet to master — her two hands outstretched to clasp my two outstretched hands. Her face was seasoned, creased, serious. Her hair was braided with red ribbon and wrapped around her crown. Her over-dress was the typical embroidered apron (mandil) that is the uniform of village womanhood. I would guess her age to be somewhere between 50 and 60, but she could have been older and it was hard to tell. She led us into the altar room and did not turn on the lights. It was dusky gray and the open door to the courtyard was back-lit with light that gave the aura of otherworld smokey, ethereal existence. She told us she learned her healing from her mother, who learned it from her mother, and so on and so on. We were in the process of beginning to expunge the demons from our bodies. Through association, any of us who had a relationship with those who had been in the car accident were ripe for the curandera. It was interesting for me to understand that interrelationships, emotional well being and support, and how something of significance that happens to one or two people can have an impact on many. When all heal together, the healing is faster and has greater benefits and results.

It was an honor and a responsibility to be invited to this very intimate and personal ceremony. We were there to get past the accident and move forward with our lives. Sitting in a semi-circle, we waited. The woman left the room. We looked at each other in silence wondering what was next. There were whispers and a giggle or two. In 30 minutes, she returned with glasses and a glass pitcher filled with a green, foaming concoction that looked like spinach blended with soap suds. She offered each of us a full glass and asked us to drink. Someone asked, what’s in it? A family secret, she answered. Herbs I pick from high in the mountains that are only available in the spring. They drank, I sipped. After each person finished their drink, the woman took a mouthful of the liquid, stood facing him/her, and spat the mouthful onto his/her face with such surprise and force that it propelled each of us backward a step. She murmured something, and went on to the next person. When the circle was complete, the eight of us thanked her and left. The family would make three or four more return visits to complete the cleansing process.

I went with curiousity, mild anticipation, and a sense of wonderment at being invited into this sacred and special space to share in this ancient ceremonial folk tradition. I came away with a sense of awe and respect for how important it is to honor what goes on in our minds. The stories we tell ourselves about “good and bad” are powerful. Standing together in this small community of family and friends, we could acknowledge the pain together, and strengthen our bonds of support through this ancient custom.

Cultural Shifting: Understanding the Other

I want to bring up something that is sensitive for me, and that is my observation about how our cultures are so different. We hold different views about time and urgency, I think. Los Estadounidenses are in a hurry, are business focused and want to get things done and completed quickly. We are time oriented, like plans, arrangements made in advance, everything neatly organized and packaged, have a lower tolerance for taking it easy when things get a little messy. Visitors to Oaxaca are usually coming from these faster cultures where they are used to getting information quickly and where they make a decision based on service and responsive communication (or the lack of it). I notice that we (meaning those of use from the USA) are used to doing business this way and it is an expectation. Oaxaquenos know how to take it easy. It’s not a crisis if it doesn’t get done today. “We went to a baptism.” “It was my cousin’s birthday and there was a celebration.” These are not one or two hour events. They take all day and the entire family participates, so other things get pushed aside. Imperfection and “work in progress” is a way of life. It’s the process that matters most to Mexicans — the process of relationship. It is not about completing the task in record time. Work quality and excellence are priorities and standards of workmanship among people who love their craft are comparable to any fine crafts-person around the world.

So what, you may ask, is an El (La) Estadounidense? Mexicans say they are North Americans, too, so indeed they are Americans. They are also organized as the United States of Mexico, as a republic, in our model. They feel it is a geographic and political misnomer when those of us from the USA call ourselves Americans as if we had ownership rights on the term. So, those who are politically and culturally savvy call us Los Estadounidenses — the people from the United States, inferring USA — a useful term for cross cultural understanding.

Discuenta: Shopping Smart in Oaxaca

Hay una discuenta? Is there a discount? I often ask, and find that a shop keeper could offer from 10-20% discount if I pay with cash and don’t use a credit card. Credit cards are a hassle for shops because the charge for their use fluctuates with the daily exchange rate and it takes them a while to get their money. So, you have a lot more leverage with cash. Bargaining is expected in market stalls, especially at Abastos and Benito Juarez markets in Oaxaca city, or at the outdoor street vendor mall on Abasolo just off of Macedonio Alcala in the Santo Domingo neighborhood. In the markets you can start at 30% less than what is asked and see how flexible the seller is. Remember, that handwoven and handmade articles take a lot of time, and even without a discount, the price is well worth the labor, quality and materials. I often will determine the quality first, and then decide whether and how much I want to ask for a discuenta.

The “elegance trade-off.” There are many beautiful shops with fantastic crafts in and around the galleria walking mall of Macedonia Alcala. I love to visit Silvia Suarez at her shop, Malacate, on Avenida Gurrion. She is an elegant young woman and talented textile designer who has a flair for choosing the very best huipils and other textile art. It is an aesthetic experience to visit her shop, and prices range from moderate to high-end.

I found fanciful hand-embroidered huipils from the Isthmus of Tehuantepec at good quality and prices at Micaela-Hecho a mano, a shop on the corner of Gurrion and 5 de Mayo (enter from the interior courtyard from 5 de Mayo). There were lots of them priced in the neighborhood of $35 each — a great price, almost comparable to what you would get them for at the market in Juichitan without suffering that excruciating 6 hour curvy-road bus ride over the Sierra Madre del Sur. Michaela buys the embroidered pieces and sews them into blouses herself, thereby passing the savings on to her customers. She also makes fun Milagro necklaces and bracelets — great gifts.

I also like to stop at Librera Grana Purrua and Tally to see if there are any special finds. At El Mano Magico, I say hello to my friend, Alejandra (Ale), who is the shop manager and wife of weaver Tito Mendoza, Arnulfo’s cousin.

A Bargain Discovery. It doesn’t look like much from the street. In fact, it’s hard to see that there’s a shop back there through the courtyard, but my best “find” so far is an artesans cooperative called “Tradiciones Magia y Color Oaxaca.” Address: Macedonio Alcala #201 (enter from the street into a wide courtyard), between Murguia and Av. Morelos. I bought a fabulous hand-loomed cotton huipil dress there with intricate embroidery for $280 USD LESS than at the elegant shops or museum stores. Beautiful rebosos (shawls) hand-loomed in cotton and naturally dyed with embroidery fringes were 30-40% less than at the more elegant shops — for exactly the same item.

On this last trip, a man was sitting on the stone wall in front of Amate Books weaving straw hats from palm. I could tell from the craftsmanship that the quality was superb. Just like a Panama hat that sells for hundreds in the states. Cost: $7.50-10 USD each.

In the villages, you can ask for a discuenta, but remember, the prices are so reasonable, that if you get a 10% discount, this is VERY fair. For example, it can take 40 hours to weave a $300 rug.

Have fun, and keep your eyes open. You never know what you’ll discover next.