Monthly Archives: December 2008

Yolande Perez Vasquez, Treasure of San Baltazar de Chichicapam

San Baltazar de Chichicapam is a hill town nestled in the Sierra Madre del Sur about midway between Tlacolula and Ocotlan de Morales and requires the better part of a day to get there.  The village is noted for its fine, hand spun wool created in the traditional method by women using the drop spindle or malacate.  [It is also known for producing some of the finest mezcal in Oaxaca.]  The best of the best traditional spinners is Yolande Perez Vasquez who has been recognized by Mexico as a national treasure.  I met Yolande a couple of weeks ago at the Friday night art opening at La Olla where the wool she spun and dyed with natural plant materials was used in the tapestries woven by Tito Mendoza and designed by Lisa Cicotte.  She was sitting along the wall in the back of the courtyard, a beautiful, regal Zapotec woman.  I didn’t know her or her role in the process then, but her presence drew me to her and I introduced myself and we talked some.  I discovered that her hand was integral to the art I was looking at and essential to the traditional process of weaving.  I asked if I could come to visit her at her home sometime and she agreed.

We approached Chichicapam from Ocotlan because we had gone to Oaxaca first to pick up my friend Eric Chavez Santiago, the director of education at the Museo Textil de Oaxaca.  His father, Federico was driving, and Sam and Tom Robbins, my photographer friends from Columbus, Ohio, were with us.  Federico has been buying his handspun wool in Chichicapam for as long as he has been weaving (at least 40 years) and knows how to get there.  The road from Ocotlan to Chichi is 22 km and is not well marked at the source.  There is some winding around city streets to find the route, so this is not an adventure you want to take lightly.  We climb into the rolling hills, passing the village of Santa Catarina Minas.  Farmers are carrying huge bundles of dried cornstalks on their shoulders, the last of the harvest.  A man pushes a wheelbarrow along the road filled with plastic tubing.  King sized cloud pillows float in the clear blue sky.  Sheep graze along the base of a mountain peak.  Bamboo pillar fences border a dirt side road.

As the road climbs, the terrain shifts to mesquite, organ pipe cactus, white flowering yucca, agave and herds of goats.  We pass over Puente Rio Lodo.  Trees give forth lavender and violet flowers.  Burros carry firewood.  A turbaned cow herder stands by the side of the road with long pole in hand.  Her cows are grazing on a hillock nibbling on dry grasses.  She is sucking on sunflower seeds and spits husks as we pass.  The landscape is vast, dry, endless.  We are in the bosom of the Sierra Madre del Sur.

Yolande Perez is age 65.  She learned from her grandmother when she was 8 years old.  Her grandmother spun and wove ponchos which she sold in the Ocotlan and Tlacolula markets and used in the early Guelaguetzas.  In 1970 Yolande formed a group of 400 spinners from the village who sold their wool to Teotitlan weavers.  Those were the prosperous years.  She and others were invited to national contests and to show their work in Mexico City, invited by the president, along with other noted pottery, weaving, and textile artisans.  Yolande and her son San Juan say that not much financial benefit came from these showcases and they have felt exploited.  Today, much of the wool that most weavers purchase is commercially spun because the price is less.  Weavers are using chemical (aniline) dyes because the tourist market demands lower priced goods.  The dye plant materials that Yolande grows in her garden or picks from the campo and the process to make tintas naturales to color the handspun wool is not appreciated or valued by most consumers.  There is little if any recognition for her role or the role of other traditional spinners or even the citing of the Chichicapam pueblo as being part of the process of creating a fine wool tapestry.  Most weavers in Teotitlan claim that they do all the production steps.

We are invited into the adobe complex.  The kitchen walls are lined with turquoise enamel cook and dye pots.  The floor is soft, spongy adobe.  A large wood work table is centered in the room.  There is the remnants of a wood fire under the comal in the corner.  Yolande, a daughter tells us, does not want to upgrade the kitchen.  She likes the traditional way of life.  We move to the courtyard under the arbor.  A dump truck filled with dried corn husks backs in almost on top of us and begins to spill its load, an avalanche of corn is deposited at our feet.  The family will husk each cob and pick off the dried kernels, basket them and take them to market for extra income over the winter months.  The husks are pale yellow tinged with purple.

Yolande’s garden is filled with plants and flowers, a shady arbor, and a pen in the back that holds two sheep and a newborn lamb.  The goats have been shorn for their fleece which is piled and ready for spinning.  Yolande lays out a handwoven grass mat, pulls out her handmade wood malacate (drop spindle), and demonstrates for us the technique of handspinning coyuche (natural brown) cotton, locally cultivated silk, cotton, and wool.  She cards white and black wool together to show us how she achieves a soft grey color.  She spins the malacate and gently pulls and coaxes the thread out with her other hand and the thread is consistently even and pliable.  Hers is the first essential step in the weaving process.  Without fine handspun wool there can be no rebozo, poncho, or tapete, and her work is that of an artist.

The women’s spinning cooperative is no longer in existence since commerically spun wool is what most weavers are buying.  Now, Yolande tells us, there are a few young women in the village who are learning to use the malacate.  I wonder how long this tradition will continue.  Some of the weavers say they don’t like the colors of naturally dyed handspun yarn because they are softer and more subtle.  The marketplace drives demand, I remind myself.  If people know about and appreciate the craft and artisanry that goes into creating a fine woven textile, perhaps there will be a resurgence and compensation for people like Yolande Perez Vasquez and my weaver friend Federico Chavez Sosa or the 200 weavers commissioned by Remigio Mestas to create authentic, naturally dyed textiles.  The cost is double, but the handwork is extraordinary.

There is a possibility that Yolande will come to the Museo Textil de Oaxaca to teach and demonstrate.  She has participated in so many programs over her lifetime with little recognition or compensation that she wants to know more before she will make a commitment.  Eric understands this and because he comes from a family dedicated to preserving the traditions, he will do his best to give Yolande the visibility, recognition and compensation she deserves.  After toasting each other and the future with shots of mezcal in the coolness of the family altar room, we leave and head back to Ocotlan.  The visit was over two hours but definitely worthwhile.

If anyone is interested in purchasing handspun wool that is a natural color of the sheep or dyed with natural dyes made by Yolande Perez Vazquez, please contact Eric Chavez Santiago at the Museo Textil de Oaxaca,

Baptismo, Mercado, Massaje: Just Another Day in Teotitlan

The sound of familiar music drew me to the doors of the village church and another celebration.

[My guess is that village life is a mutual support society.  Families support each other by providing and paying for the services needed to sustain the constant celebration of life.  There is incredible joy for families, and economic benefit to those who create the music, food, flowers, and the red and blue striped tent rentals that mark the homes of celebrants throughout the village.  Okay, so the music is a little off key, but I can assure you that the cake will come from the best pasteleria and the tamales from an expert cook.]

I took my seat at the back of the church as the service was coming to a close.  The band led the way, playing full throttle.  Behind them came the family — father holding a little girl about one year old dressed in white, a huge smile on his face, his wife next to him was beaming, beautifully dressed in a gauzy pink floral dress and gold jewelry.  The rest of the family trailed behind them.  As they approached, I smiled and said, felicidades.  He stopped, asked me where I was from.  Carolina del Norte, I replied.  Oh, my brother worked in Raleigh for a while.  Why don’t you join us at the party, just follow us to our home.  I thanked them, and expressed my regrets.  I had a massage appointment with Annie that I couldn’t miss.  But, I was astounded at the generosity of the invitation, and reminded myself that this is what Teotitlan life is about — generosity and inclusion.  I joined the procession as it curled for a block or two along with abuelos wrapped in tradition jaspe-style woven shawls, tias from Tehuantepec bedecked in gold and high heels, and then peeled off.

First, a stop at the pasteleria to order my New Year’s Eve birthday cake, an all chocolate affair that would feed 20.  Then, I noticed the chocolate cake topped with flan double layer extravaganza and ordered one of those, too.  Federico was in the rug market today and I thought I would join him for a few minutes before heading off to Annie’s up the hill.  The Chavez Santiago family displays and sells at the rug market intermittently depending upon whether there is a celebration, trip to Oaxaca, or a commission to finish that might take priority.  Today the market was filled with tourists, and as a gringa sitting in the stall with a Zapotec weaver, I guess I was somewhat of an anomaly.  The English-speakers asked me where I was from, and from there it was easy to start the conversation about rug quality, natural dyes, cultural preservation, Spanish conquest history, and conserving authentic weaving and dyeing traditions.   I met a bi-lingual man from Texas who brings his children to Mexico to teach them about their cultural history and traditions.  He wanted to show his daughter rug weaving techniques so he went to the house where Dolores and Janet were weaving.  Another family from Cancun stepped in to visit and placed a custom order.  It was a good day.

Tuk-tuk time for me.  I hopped into one of those little three wheel red moto-taxis that ply the village lanes and we huffed and puffed over the cobble stones, across the river, onto the dirt and stone road that leads to the hillside where Annie lives.  I am entering shiatsu heaven.  First a bit of tea and talk, then I’m down on the mat.  When I emerge an hour later, magically all my back pain from carrying talavera tile in my backpack is gone.  I’m light footed down the hill, gaze at the golden stumps of shorn cornstalks dazzling in the last moments before sunset, stop at El Descanso for a bowl of fresh vegetable soup and agua de pepino con limon, and arrive home just in time to greet Eva Hershaw, a university student applying to graduate school, who came to Oaxaca to create a photo documentary of people who grow traditional maize (the non-bioengineered kind).  We had been carrying on a correspondence and I suggested that she first connect with Itanoni, the Oaxaca bakery that only uses native corn.  I invited her out to the village telling her that everyone here grows corn just like they did 6,000 years ago.  She joined us at the kitchen table as we were finishing late comida, and she met the Chavez family and talked about her project.  We will help her connect with local farmers and invited her back to join us for the Las Cuevitas new year celebration on December 31 and January 1.

It is a good day!

Four Days in Puebla: Part Four or Los Tigres del Norte

Sunday in Puebla is difficult to think about right now as I lay in bed at the Chavez family home in Teotitlan.  After walking and taxi rides all over Puebla this morning in a quest for the ultimate talavera pottery for Sam first in the El Parian district and then a swing through Uriarte, then a stop at Dulces El Lirio on Avenida de Los Dulces for a gift box for Dolores, followed by a final coffee on the Zocalo at the ubiquitous Italian Coffee Cafe, and then a four and a half hour bus ride to Oaxaca, I was dreaming of a great night’s sleep in our quiet little village out in the countryside beyond the city hubbub.  I’d had my fill of Puebla traffic, press of people, visual stimulation, a lumpy hotel bed, and city sounds. Don’t get me wrong, I like Puebla a lot, but I was ready to come home to Oaxaca.  The family picked me, Sam and Tom up at the ADO bus station, we grabbed a very delicious bite to eat at VIPS (pronounced BIPS, which is also owned by Walmart along with El Porton), and made our way back to Teotitlan.

We arrived home to our lane packed with cars and the 10:30 p.m. start of a Quinciniera at the house next door.  The live band, Los Tigres del Norte, which Janet says is famous in the U.S., will play continuously until 2 or 3 a.m.  Our house is shaking like an earthquake — the bass is pumping, the strobe lights are flashing in sync with the music, the alley entrance to our casa is jammed with bicycles and roving teenagers, and between each song the M.C. calls out something I don’t understand to honor the coming of age woman child who at 15 is now fair game for courtship and subsequent marriage.  Beer and mezcal will flow freely through the night.  I’m not exactly sure what to do right now.  I’d be game to crash this party, but our family was not invited and don’t want to go.   Seems as if there was a dispute a couple of generations ago between two brothers in the family that has not healed.  I can walk out on my balcony and see the revelry in the courtyard next door.  Ear plugs are just not going to do it for me tonight.  Hasta la vista, baby.  In Mexico, you never know what to expect next!  Sit back against the pillow and enjoy the music.  Descanse.

Four Days in Puebla: Part Three or Stairmaster to the Sky

Packing it in once again, this third day in Puebla began with breakfast once again at Hotel Royalty (yes, we like it) and then a stroll around the Zocalo toward the Museo Amparo.  I had arranged with our taxi driver earlier this morning to pick us up at the Zocalo at 1 p.m. and take us to Cholula where there is an archeological site and some remarkable churches.  The Museo Amparo has an outstanding pre-Hispanic art collection, stone carvings, Mayan stele, ceramics, jewelry, funerary objects, and traditional European 17th and 18th century home furnishings fitting the Spanish nobility that settled the city.  A lovely gift shop of Mexican handcrafts, a coffee shop/cafe, and a retail shop for Talavera de la Reyna that makes produces some of the highest quality pottery in town can also be found.   A Diego Rivera portrait of Sra. Amparo graces the lobby space of what was once her majestic home.  An exhibit of the work of contemporary Mexican artist Betsabee Romero captured our attention, especially the tires carved in Aztec patterns and then used to print designs on cloth.  We spent about two hours browsing through the galleries.  At noon, Sam and Tom decided to stroll around the Zocalo while I caught a taxi to the Uriarte Talavera gallery and factory at 4 Poniente 911 at Calle 11 Norte.  I promised to be back at the Zocalo by 1 p.m. for our taxi trip to Cholula and I was!

I wanted to see for myself if there was indeed a distinction in quality between the work we saw yesterday strolling the Parian district and this pottery house that has been touted as one of the best in Puebla.  Indeed, Uriarte Talavera is of exceptional quality and also carries the mark DO4.  And, the prices reflect this.  Pieces of equivalent size were double the cost of what we saw previously.  But, I discovered the two rooms with the “seconds”  which were marked down 50 percent from the original price.  Okay, there were flaws.  The glazes weren’t even or ran and blurred or skipped.  Maybe the foot was imperfect or a piece had a missing lid.  In hunting through the piles of plates, soup bowls, sinks, serving pieces, demitasse cups and mugs, I managed to find some treasures where the flaws were barely noticeable if at all.  I found one lovely large globe handsomely painted in varying shades of deep and light blue, the glazes thick and juicy that distinguish fine Talavera, and made the purchase.  Original price, 650 pesos, sold to me for 325 pesos.  Now, it was 12:45 p.m. and I stepped out in front of the shop, hopped in a taxi seconds later, and easily made it to the Zocalo for the 1 p.m. reunion with minutes to spare.

We had negotiated a 90 pesos taxi fare to Cholula and it took a good 30 minutes to get there.  We are finding that taxi fares in Puebla are more reasonable than in Oaxaca, but we have seen very few European visitors during this trip, also unlike Oaxaca, where there is a mix of travelers from the U.S., Canada, and Europe.

Cholula’s main attraction is the Mixteca archeological site that was once a pyramid like those we see in Oaxaca however, without the fine detail.  However, this one is unique in that there are tunnels running up, down and sideways throughout the interior of this structure.  Walking through the tunnel after paying the 35 pesos admission fee made me wonder what would happen if there was an earthquake (Puebla has frequent quakes).  The walls are narrow and the ceilings are low, shaped like a pointed vault.  We twisted and snaked through the underground passageways for at least 30-40 minutes before seeing daylight.

The other attraction is the extraordinary church built over this pyramid, something the Spanish did repeatedly to lure indigenous people to the new religion.  To get there is like taking a stairmaster to the sky.  I must have stopped 10 times to catch my breath as I climbed nearly vertical stairs to the top.  But the effort was well worth it.  The gilded sanctuary is remarkable and behind it lies another smaller sanctuary (don’t miss it, it’s a gem) totally covered in gold leaf with stained glass windows of cherubs.  The 360 degree views of Puebla and the valley are spectacular from this vantage point far above the town, and I could see the curl of steam coming out from the Popo volcano in the not too far distance.  I spent a good 45 minutes at the top before going down.  Otherwise, Cholula is a small market town, as much as I could see, with vendors selling candies, Guatemalan textiles, knock-off Talavera, and cheap jewelry.  Worth a half a day if you have the time.

Our taxi driver returned to pick us up exactly at 5:30 p.m. as arranged, and by 6:00 p.m. we were sitting under the arcade of the Hotel Royalty.  Corona for Tom, margarita for Sam, and a mojito for me.  We each had our own huge bowl of guacamole and chips for dinner, and now adequately zonked, we headed back to the hotel for R&R.

The commotion, hubbub, honking, cacaphony of music, noise, traffic and rush of people is beginning to overwhelm me, and I’m now ready to get back to Teotitlan del Valle for a shiatsu massage with Annie, the comfort of the Zapotec countryside and village life.  Four days in Puebla is definitely enough for me.

Four Days in Puebla: Part Two OR Talavera Heaven

The Spanish architect designer Gaudi would have loved it here.  Handpainted, shiny glazed high fire tile work is de rigeur in Puebla.  Building exteriors, courtyards, archways and floors are covered in tile or embellished with tile inlays. There is a Moorish quality to this town that is fascinating.  As I look skyward, I see onion domes that top church chapels covered in tiles.  There are tall church bell towers that look like the Medieval turrets of Tuscany villages.  Streets are paved in quarry stone.  Hotel floors are a mix of red, yellow or black onyx and the polished stone of millions of feet treading back and forth over centuries.  The brass and copper studded doors, the fanciful grillwork, the Zocalo full of balloon vendors, dancing children, strolling couples, and courting novios add a remarkable flavor to the soup of Puebla de Los Angeles.  This Zocalo is smaller than the one in Oaxaca (or so it seems) but its Jacaranda trees are 100 feet tall giving it a sense of greater majesty.  A central fountain is reminiscent of Rome, complete with cherubs spouting water.

This morning we left the hotel at 8:30 a.m. and took a taxi to the Zocalo where we ate a great buffet breakfast for $80 pesos at the Hotel Royalty.  This included fresh fruit (papaya, watermelon, pineapple), a made to order omelet (I chose two cheeses and onions), yoghurt, breakfast breads (one tasted like my marzipan wedding cake),  fresh avocado, tortillas, and chips.  Other options included sausage, scrambled eggs, cereal, chilaquiles, and pancakes.  Or, one could order off the standard menu.  Then,  the walking began.

My friend Sam (short for Frances, go figure) and her husband Tom collect Talavera tile.  They had been to Puebla before and this trip was a mission to search for more tile in their favorite La Reina pattern.  I had no plan but to tag along.  Ha, ha.  We headed away from the Zocalo, stopping first at the tourism center to get a better map, then made our way down Av. Juan de Palafox y Mendoza to the El Parian district in the neighborhood of 4 Oriente and 6 Norte.  This is Talavera Heaven, or at least one corner of it.  Actually, there is one family of potters that pretty much populates the two to three block area.  I learned that there are different qualities of the ceramics.  The authentic “certified” Talavera is made in the traditional process.  Then there is a variety called Rustica and another variety called Moderna.  The difference has to do with the type of clay used, the overglaze, and the kiln firing process.  Naturally, the traditional “certified” is more expensive and it looks like Majolica, but it is dishwasher safe and ovenproof.  The mark next to the signature on the authentic Talavera is “DO4.”  This is what you should look for on the bottom of the “foot” of the piece.  So, imagine 100 stalls lining both sides of four blocks, all selling decorated tile.  I’m a visual person but this was sensory overload.  I managed to make a selection of two small plates that I intend to give as gifts.  But as we were about to sit down for a respite and a bowl of homemade sopa de verduras (all fresh vegetables in a rich, spicy chicken tomato broth), I got swept into another shop by two very engaging young men, muy guapo.  And, I spotted one of my best finds of the day — a lovely painted piece in soft colors of lemon, green and blue, a veritable plate full of lemons hanging in verdant foliage.  This one is definitely a keeper.  So, now my backpack has two plates in it and my handwoven plastic shopping bag from the Teotitlan market contains another plate, plus my traveling paraphernalia: scarf, jacket for when it gets cold later, camera, dictionary, notebook to record momentary thoughts and expenditures, plus bottled water.  Sam is now laden with bowls and backsplash tiles.  Tom carries another bundle, plus they both are sporting cameras with big lenses.

Our quest now is Avenida de Los Dulces.  We are going in circles or so it seems, heading back toward the Zocalo, then making a turn onto Av. 5 de Mayo, passing the Iglesia Santo Domingo ( yes, we’ve been by here before), then going another block maybe, and making a right turn onto this street that is lined with candy shops — at least three blocks of candy shops many also selling high quality Talavera tile.  Oh, no.  We stop again, in and out, back and forth across the street, plying our way through mountains of dulces and then Sam and Tom find the ultimate Talavera tile shop where they place and order to ship back to Columbus, Ohio.  Meanwhile, I meander across the street to discover another incredible find of extraordinary handpainted DO4 mugs, bargain (getting a 10 percent discuenta), and now find myself hauling around what feels like 50 pounds of ceramics.

By now, it’s time for comida and we haul our weary bodies into the Hotel Colonial restaurant in a restored centuries old building, across from the Autonomous University of Puebla, and settle into an elegantly comfortable dining room with great service and a fixed price menu of $90 pesos for a five course meal.  The chicken mole poblano, for which Puebla is famous, was spectacular, rich and spicy.  I did pass on the dessert, keeping in mind that I wanted another chocolate and nut coated chocolate bar at the nieveria on the Zocalo.  After a stop through the municipal museum to see a black and white photography exhibit of Puebla circus life circa 1915, and a stroll through the balloon filled Zocalo, we indeed settled in for our evening “meal” of Italian Coffee Company coffee, ice cream and people watching before heading back to the hotel.

Such is life in Puebla.

To read more about the history of Talavera tile, go to: