Monthly Archives: January 2009

Mi Bautizo–Betzy Noemi: Sunday in Santa Ines Yatzeche

Taking the road out of Oaxaca past the airport, we head toward Ocotlan.  We are in the little blue Toyota pick-up that can!  Eric drives, Elsa is in the middle with her legs straddling the “four on the floor” stick shift, and I am snuggled between her and the passenger door.  It’s a tight fit.  The invitation cover is brightly printed with designs of  little girl toys: dolls, flowers, bows, a teddy bear.  The inside reads like a poem.  We are invited to attend the baptism of three-year-old Betzy Noemi at the church on the zocalo in the village of San Pablo Huixtepec, followed by a reception and dinner at the home of the padrinos of her mother and father in the even smaller village of Santa Ines Yatzeche, in the Zimatlan district deep into the Oaxaca valley.  We make a turn where the highway forks to the right, heading on the road toward Puerto Escondido, passing the turn off to Santa Ana Zagache where Rodolfo Morales restored and painted the extraordinary church.   The earth is black where it is freshly turned, ready again for planting.  Fallow fields are stubbled with cut corn stalks.  Green acres of alfalfa lay before us.  We pass under an arbor of jacaranda trees that line both sides of the row, their trunks painted bright white, looking like zebra stripes.  A sign says, fresh strawberries sold here.  Donkey carts travel down the paths that line the fields, children sitting atop the cart with whip in hand, fathers and mothers working the fields.  “We are in the land of the Huixache,” Eric announces.  We pass through Zimatlan, a district of about 35,000 people, then are careful to read the road signs to mark the direction to the village of San Pablo; there it is, turn left, zig zag through the village streets, ask people which way to Santa Ines, and find ourselves on a dirt road leading through the fields.  At another dirt lane intersection, we hail a tuk-tuk and ask the driver, which way?  There, he says, thumbing backward, and we follow his freshly beaten path into a small pueblo of adobe, brick and concrete buildings.  This is a humble village, Eric remarks.

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Betzy Noemi’s father, Vitaliano, works with Eric at the Museo Textil de Oaxaca.  He travels via collectivo for the daily one hour commute to the city, arriving by 9 a.m. and leaving at 8 p.m.  He is fortunate to have this job.  Most of the men in this village have left to go to the U.S. to work.  They are campesinos, farmers, who have worked this land generation after generation, for thousands of years.  The men who have returned all say they worked in Seaside, California, near Monterrey.  This village has it’s own Zapotec outpost there.  For Teotitlan, the outpost is Moorpark, California.  This is the story of villages throughout Mexico.  A congregation of women, ages 12 to 60-ish, are preparing food in the outdoor kitchen in the next courtyard.  I walk in and ask if I can join them.  As we talk, one woman says that families have not seen their brothers and grandfathers for over 20 years.  There is sadness in her voice and in her eyes, and I am again reminded of the impact that U.S. immigration policy has on families and villages — without documentation we have created lost generations.

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We had been greeted by Vitaliano’s father and mother and invited to take a seat at one of the long tables set up for the fiesta.  It was 2 p.m.  In one corner of the courtyard, a group of older men in cowboy hats were drinking beer and finishing off bowls of higadito.  We were immediately each served a plate of sweet bread and hot chocolate, the traditional fiesta offering to guests.  Then came the piping hot bowls of higadito, the scrambled egg in chicken soup mix I am familiar with from Teotitlan fiestas.  But this version was cut  in a large cube and floated like a custard flan in the soup.  It was spiced with tomatoes, peppers, onions and cilanatro, like an omelet.  Then came the beer, the Corona Extra, the golden hallmark of every family celebration. The local band had it’s own table, and every 10 minutes would play a tune, always off-key, then sit down for a while, then get up to play again.  The chickens are running under the table between my feet.  I am offered a Corona by Vitaliano’s father and he tells me to spill a few drops on the ground before drinking it, so the earth will continue to give back.  He is a pre-school teacher in the village, where children learn in Zapotec and Spanish; they learn to write in Zapotec here.

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At 3:30 p.m. Betzy Noemi arrives from the church and comes through the kitchen courtyard with her mother, father, grandparents and a procession of other family members.  She is dressed in sparkling, glittering white with a white crown on her head.  She is a princess.  As she passes through into the fiesta courtyard, everyone gathers and throws confetti.  The traditional women wrapped in jaspe shawls, with red and blue ribbons braided through their pigtails, are covered in a shower of confetti, too.  There is an ethereal halo of confetti raining on the crowd as people press in to offer congratulations and present gifts.  This will be the last big party for Betzy Noemi until her Quinciniera at age 15.

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The tables are filled with floral arrangements of pink and fushia roses.  Streamers, balloons, and hanging toys decorate the tent awning.  Guests are given little baskets adorned with flowers and pink gauze, filled with candies, and minature pink candles to take home with them.  Little tins tied in pink ribbon are passed out.  Elsa opens hers to discover a wooden rosary.  A baker brings in six large elaborately decorated cakes frosted with pink roses, interspersed with real ones.  It is difficult to tell them apart.  He places them on a four-tiered pillar center stage for us all to admire.  The local band continues to play.  More offerings of Corona come our way.  Suddenly, the band gets up and plays as it marches to yet another adjacent courtyard.  Everyone gets up and follows.

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There is a burial mound and at the head is a wooden cross.  The men of the family, along with Betzy Noemi and her parents and grandparents, stand behind the cross.  Someone says a welcome, a blessing for the people and the food, and honors the day.  The grandfather pulls the cross out of the ground and with it two large bottles.  They are filled with hot mezcal and sugar cane.  Under the mound, lies the roasting goat and beef deep in a stone cavern filled with hot charcoal.  The meat has been cooking for 24 hours in large cauldrons of simmering spiceyness — peppers, herbs, avocado leaves, who knows what else?  The cauldrons are covered in tin foil, placed into a heavy metal cage, lowered, then covered with tin sheet roofing, then covered with dirt.  I watch as the men take turns shoveling away the dirt to reveal the grave where the meat has been cooking.  There is reverence in their work as they celebrate the animal sacrificed for their well being.  In the corner of the courtyard is a live goat tied to a rope, watched over by an aging man.  I wonder why this goat wasn’t chosen and another was harvested for our meal instead.  As the hot cages and cauldrons are lifted up and out with rope and rebar utensils, two women pass trays of golden El Presidente mezcal.  The woman in front of me says that the two special mezcal bottles that have emerged from the ashes with the meat are potent.  Their contents will result in “borracho mas rapido.”  No es bueno, she murmurs and lifts her eyes to God.

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Most of the crowd has returned to the fiesta courtyard by now, but I linger to take photos.  Men come over and ask in halting English, where are you from?  Carolina del Norte, I say.  One says, “I worked in Hollywood for six years, near La Brea, in a Thai restaurant.”  He must have been the invisible one, washing the dishes day after day, six or seven days a week, sharing an apartment with six or 10 other men, sacrificing to save enough to send money home.  Being here in this village and participating in the ritual of life gives me a perspective and appreciation, and helps me put our labor force into context.  It is about individuals and families who agree to separate in order to provide sustenance, just as we honor and give reverance to the meat that is pulled from the grave to give sustenance to this gathering in celebration of life.  It is a ritual in celebration that we all enjoy in our own cultures, but here I give it special meaning because a huge part of our labor dependency in the U.S. is tied to small villages like this one.

The cauldrons of simmering meat are put on large wood planked tables in the cooking courtyard.  Vitaliano’s mother takes an avocado leaf from among the many covering the meat, reaches her fingers into the meat, pulls off a hunk, puts it on the avocado leaf and hands it to me.  It is dripping with spicy saucy liquid and I hold the leaf and bite into it.  It is soft and sweet and delicious.  Barbacoa de chivo.  The band plays on.

First course:  A soup of hot spicy goat broth that Eric calls consomme.  This is the liquid that the meat has been cooked in.  Platters of chopped cilantro and cabbage, with wedges of limes, are brought to the table.  We are served styrofoam cups of consomme, and add the cilantro and cabbage, squeeze lime juice into the broth.  I stir the mixture with my spoon to cook the raw vegetables and wash my hands with Purell before eating.  I have greeted lots of people with the Zapotec double handshake.  There are cut potatoes, carrots, green beans, and mystery meat (Eric says liver, intestines and brains) swimming in the broth.  I sip and pick out the vegetables.

Second course:  More beer and another round of mezcal.

Third course:  A plate of barbacoa de chivo (a big mound of meat, more than I can eat), with salsa and black bean paste, plus fresh corn tortillas wrapped in pink and white striped plastic bags.  There are no utensils.  We tear the  tortillas and use them to scoop up the pieces of meat, rolling the meat in the tortilla and stuffing our mouths.  Spicy juice oozes on my fingers (there will be remnants of this for eternity in my journal book), and from the side of my mouth.  What we don’t eat, we cover and take home.

By now, it is 5:30 p.m. A huge bandstand has been assembled on the street in front of the house and salsa, banda, and ranchero music will start shortly.  This fiesta, which will cost between 12,000 and 20,000 pesos — a princely sum in a humble Mexican village — will continue with dancing and eating well into the night and perhaps til dawn.  For us, it is time to go.  We have a 6:30 date with Federico and Dolores in Oaxaca, and they have kindly come into the city to pick me up to take me back to Teotitlan, another part of the Oaxaca valley, so I don’t have to take a bus or taxi.  It is important that we are on time.  We pay our respects, give thanks to the family with words of congratulations, felicidades.  I am welcome to return any time, they tell me.  “Aren’t you going to stay to dance with us?” some of the men say as we leave.  I will come back another time, I say, and perhaps I will.

Las Cuevitas 2009: Building Dreams

The line cues along the mountain path that leads to two hillside cave/altars beyond the town.  It is said that the virgin appeared here and each year on New Year’s Eve and extending through New Year’s Day, the townspeople pay tribute to a miracle that happened longer ago than anyone can remember.  The altar cave is a shrine.  Those in line hold velacitas, little votive candles that will burn for 24 hours after they are lit at the altar.  A plate filled with pesos and an occasional dollar bill contains the tribute for prayers waiting to be answered.  It is 4 p.m. and soon it will be dusk.  Federico’s sister arrives just after we do.  Behind her is another friend, Alejandrina and her two children.  We contribute our pesos, say our wishes (shhh, don’t tell or it won’t come true), and climb the rocky hillside, past the small sanctuary nestled into the mountainside, past the brass band playing on the concrete bandstand, past the atole vendors, makeshift taquerias and pan dulce tiendas spread out from the back of pick-ups and mini-vans.  We pick our way around clusters of families who have built their dreams represented by the stones they gather from the mountainside, construction elaborate mini-houses that they wish for.  We climb a little further, find Federico’s mother and the extended family, and start our own stone constructions nearby.  Even in wishes and dreams, families congregate and stay together.

There must be 3,000 people on the hillside.  The sunset is coming and I scramble to collect rocks.  Five year old Lupita, Federico and Dolores’ niece, helps by bringing handfuls.  Sam gets on her knees and pitches in.  We help Federico and Dolores build a small but sturdy structure.  Lupita continues to bring rocks.  I ask her to find grasses so we can make a roof.  Bonfires on the opposite hill illuminate the horizon.  The sunset is spectacular and we can see the silhouettes of crowds of people against the fiery red sky.  People begin to put small votive candles inside their “homes” and there is a miniature village laid out before me, all warm and sparkly.  The fireworks begin, and teenagers are throwing fireballs into the sky.  I am offered a sweet crackly sweet tortilla that tastes like a cracker.  Everyone is eating this, so I do, too.   Another family up the hill has added 7 toy mini-cars to their garage, and adorned the landscape with branches that look like trees.  Yet another has created a barnyard with teeny plastic toy animals.  These are dreams of abundance.  These are metaphors for a satisfying and peaceful life.  The structure of a house represents many things and the symbolism can extend beyond the dream of a new casa or a garage full of cars.  This is a ritual that reaffirms hopes and dreams for a prosperous new year.

I surmise from what Eric has recounted, that Las Cuevitas is a pre-Hispanic New Year tradition that has carried over and been included in local Catholic village life.  The power of wishes is very strong.  The power of prayer is proven medically to heal people faster.  The warmth and glow of Las Cuevitas, the uniting of families in dreams and wishes for the future is a power to behold.

Feliz Compleanos y Prospero Ano Nuevo: New Year’s Eve Part Two

Celebrations for the new year begin at sundown on New Year’s Eve with the sound of firecrackers and bands playing throughout the village.  Small groups of young men gather at street corners waiting for something to happen.  Water is sprinkled on courtyards and stairways by women with brooms in hand to sweep up any dust and debris.  A 3 p.m. comida for extended family is common followed by a grand midnight supper.  This is an all night affair.

My birthday celebration begins at 5 p.m. in the courtyard of Las Granadas.  The sun will go down in an hour or so and we all bring along extra sweaters, jackets and shawls.  Federico has packed the special bottle of Chichicapam mezcal and a bottle of white wine.  We arrive to a festive table set with a big bouquet of white lilies and red geraniums, four bottles of wine (two red, two white), mezcal shot glasses, and a pitcher of fresh made jugo de jamaica.  I am surrounded by my Teotitlan family and friends:  Federico Chavez Sosa and his wife, Dolores Santiago Arrellanas, their children Eric Chavez Santiago, Janet Chavez Santiago and Omar Chavez Santiago, Eric’s novia Elsa Sanchez Diaz, Annie Burns, Roberta Christie, Sam and Tom Robbins from Columbus, Ohio, and Las Granadas proprietors Josefina Bazan Ruiz and her mother-in-law Magdalena.  In the kitchen is daughter La Princessa Eloisa Francesca, age 17, who is in her final semester of culinary school in Oaxaca, the young sons Willibaldo and Eligio, and two sobrinas (nieces) who are helping with the preparation and serving.  Eloisa’s betrothed, Taurino, also pitches in.  (Josefina tells me he is very helpful around the house and is weaving to earn Eloisa’s hand.)

We open wine, raise toasts to the new year, and I tell them how important each of them has been to me in my journey of Teotitlan discovery.  We raise a toast to my husband Stephen who is home in North Carolina and I let them know I will Skype with him later to send their best wishes.  Annie first invited us to Teotitlan to visit, where we were the first guests in the trial to establish a bed and breakfast at what was to become Las Granadas.  We slept in Magda’s bedroom where we used a clothesline as a closet and did our best to ignore the shotgun on the wall.  We celebrated Eloisa’s Quinciniera and the boys’ birthdays.  We shared lots of mezcal toasts over the years.  In our wanderings on that first visit, we met Eric and Janet selling rugs in the corner market.  As a textile artist, I could see that what the Chavez Santiago family created was exceptional and fairly priced.  I heard the story from Eric about their use of natural dyes, the reluctance about paying tour guides 40 percent commission to bring customers to their house, the hard work of the family.  I met Dolores, Federico, and Omar and our family-like relationship began.   Elsa Sanchez Diaz, Eric’s novia (girlfriend) of five years, is also part of the family, and has stayed in my NC home when she joins on U.S. exhibitions, lectures, and demonstrations. Roberta came to Teotitlan the following year, also through Annie, and set about helping Josefina construct  first rate B&B, while building an apartment on the second story of the courtyard complex.  She has become a good friend, too.  Sam and Tom Robbins are black and white art photographers from Columbus, Ohio, who I met two years ago at Casa de los Sabores and we have had several reunions in Oaxaca as well as North Carolina.  Eva Hershaw, a documentary photographer, who I have been communicating with via this blog and email to record the process of growing and making food with traditional maize, also joined in.  It was a special group assembled to help me celebrate.

For me, the assembly was more about the people than the food, but the food was spectacular.  Magda, Josefina and Eloisa prepared chicken tamales in mole amarillo, a veggie mix of fresh cut and steamed green beans and potatoes, and a plate of chopped succulent chicken to pass around.  One does not need anything else besides wine and tamales.  It is heaven sent.  I think I ate four or five, but wanted to save room for the cakes, the chocolate layer cake extravaganza with chocolate cream icing, and the chocolate cake topped with flan.  We lit huge sparklers that the two boys, Willi and Eligio twirled.  I blew out the one candle (thank you, I’m only 39), and wished each other a joyous new year, filling up again on mezcal and raising our glasses in salud.

Night had come over us and it was getting chilly.  It was now 8:30 p.m.  Federico and Dolores needed to return home to light the sweet copal incense to purify the house, and make preparation for the midnight party they would attend at the home of Fede’s brother Jose.  For me, the sparkling winter sky gave light to the future, and it was getting time to say goodnight.  Descanse.  Suenos dulces.  The assemblage wished each other happy new year with hugs and good wishes.  On New Year’s Day the party will continue.

Guacalotes on the Table: New Year’s Eve in Teotitlan Part One

The two dogs dozed in the late morning sun at Annie’s front door.  The guacalotes (a local type of turkey) are gurgling in the yard next door.  I am on the mat again for my birthday morning shiatsu massage.  Annie gives me the gift of an extra half hour and it is wonderful, soothing, a stretch for my muscles and balm for my soul.  Suddenly she gets up as we hear something scratching in the kitchen.  The dogs are not doing their job.  You’re supposed to be a guard dog, she says to Gavilan, the bigger of the two.  Anie, the French poodle, is a fluffy white wonderland of pet-able pleasure. Gavilan is muscular with short blonde hairs and if angered, can bark up a storm.  But today, they are both lazy and there is a guacalote on the kitchen table.  The creature is shooed out of the kitchen, the screen door is latched, the floral oilcloth table cover is peeled away, and Annie returns to my side to massage my fingers with her magic potion of salve mixed with powedered ginger and cayenne pepper to make my joints warm and more limber.

The ancient blue Nissan camionetta (pick-up truck) is parked out front.  I had a hell of a time getting it out of the narrow alley driveway no more than six feet wide to get to Annie’s.  There is no power steering.  After rocking back and forth, stuck between sand and two adobe walls, I finally backed it up into the parking area off this narrow alley, and got it going front first out and down to the street.  Now, I drive it back home and park it in front of the house and leave it for Federico to deal with later.  He is the master at maneurvering the alleyway.

This is my birth day, and my plan is to walk to the Ruu Dain.  I turn down the alleyway on foot, turn right onto the cobblestones and pass the old textile mill.  The road turns to dirt and two donkeys are tied to the chain link and bamboo fence, grazing.  The footpath narrows as it approaches the Rio Grande, a trickle of river that I cross hopping over boulders, and continue for about a quarter of a mile into the campo, where the countryside becomes farmland.

The Chavez rooftop is a flatbed of concrete and I sit with my feet in the well of the stairway and look onto the horizon.  The brass band is playing somewhere beyond the center of town, marking another celebration.  Sounds of trumpets and drums are wafting in the breeze.  I am surrounded my golden maize fields and neat rows of maturing agave cactus — a great cash crop for making mezcal.  The breeze is rustling the dried corn stalks in the adjacent field, subtle music like the sweet shake of a baby rattle filled with seeds.  A sheep baaahs.  A donkey brays.  The horse in the field behind me tugs at the rope connecting him to the mesquite tree.  Dogs bark in unison.  A half-mile down the lane a boy in a red shirt is helping his father in the alfalfa field.  Outdoor cooking fires curl as preparations are being made for the traditional midnight dinner before going to las cuevas (the caves).  Sun shadows spread across the rounded mountain tops.

Tonight, villagers will form a procession and walk guided by candlight to the caves beyond the village, camp, light copal incense, and offer prayers for a prosperous new year.  Prospero Ano Nuevo is the traditional greeting.  They will build their dreams using the stones from the earth, a new house, a car, something tangible or not.  It is peaceful here in the Ruu Dain.  A flush of quail fly from the undergrass.  Half a mile away the village is illuminated in the 4 p.m. sunlight with the 16th century church the focal point.  Adobe, brick and concrete block houses climb up the hillside.  Some are stuccoed in yellow, mango, peach, terra cotta, pecan.  A cock crows. My wristwatch says it’s time to go, time for the birthday party to begin.