Monthly Archives: August 2009

Choco-Cafe: Our Favorite Oaxaca Beverage

Every morning we wake up to the smell of fresh brewed coffee — with a Oaxaca flavor:  The addition of fresh grated Oaxaca Chocolate.  This way we keep our memory of Oaxaca alive as we start each day.  Here’s how it goes:  Stephen puts the ground organic beans into the filter and we turn on the pot.  We usually bring 10 kilos back from Elsa’s family coffee farm located in the highlands between Oaxaca and Puerto Escondido.  When we run out (which we do frequently), we turn to a fresh grind from Weaver Street Market (Carrboro, NC) or Trader Joe’s (most everywhere) that is a mix of Columbian and French Roast.  With our coffee paraphernalia, we keep a stick of hard Oaxaca chocolate that is blended with cinnamon, sugar and almonds and a small grater.  The grated chocolate goes into the cup first, then we add a little sugar or Splenda, pour in the coffee and stir.  You can buy this form of chocolate at good Mexican tiendas.  This is a delicious drink, and if you add hot milk, makes a great hot chocolate-style beverage.  Enjoy!

Recipe: Watermelon Tomato Gazpacho

As I was dreaming up this recipe and testing it before serving it to guests for dinner on Saturday night, I thought about Oaxaca, so the flavors definitely fit into what I would imagine a Oaxaca-style gazpacho to taste like:  fruity  and savory.


1/2 watermelon, peeled, cubed and seeded (pink flesh only)

1 English cucumber, cut in 2″ chunks

6 whole fresh tomatoesm medium size, cored, peeled, quartered

1/4 c. onion, chopped coarse

juice of one lemon

1/4 c. salsa verde (green chili sauce)

Salt and pepper to taste

Optional:  chopped cilantro; substitute scallions for the onion

Core the tomatoes and dip them into a hot water bath for 30-60 seconds so the skin can be easily peeled off.  Add the peeled and quartered tomatoes,  watermelon, cucumber, onion, lemon juice, and salsa together in a blender.  Blend for 30-60 seconds until you have a mixture that is smooth and drinkable.  Correct the seasoning:  add salt and pepper to taste.    This should have a nice bite to it, so add more salsa if desired, too.  Refrigerate for two hours before serving.  Pour into clear glasses and drink like a beverage. Serves 4.

Then, I thought:  what if I tried this with cantaloupe instead of watermelon.  That’s what I’m going to do next!

Cochineal Bugs For Job Creation

This week I was asked to provide an expert opinion on the feasibility of a project 
proposed to the Rolex Awards Young Laureate program by a young Oaxaca woman
who has been working in social action and community development.  Here is how I
responded.  Her goal is to create a sustainable agriculture program to help women 
gain economic independence.  Here is my response.

Cochineal is a small production crop that is very labor intensive.
Over the past hundred years, small production cochineal farms have disappeared
as the use of highly toxic chemical dyes have been employed by the local
population to dye textiles and other products.  This project is original because it
would focus on women, provide employment, and contribute to sustainable
agriculture and economic development through new product innovation.
It would have a huge impact on villages and families, and their economic well-being.
I know of no other venture or initiative of this type in the Oaxaca valley, and it is
feasible because of the way Zapotec communities are organized ... around the
principles of group support through mutual endeavors.  It is also an important
project because it re-emphasizes the value that cochineal has as part of the
indigenous culture, and because it is an organic compound that contributes to
better health.  In many villages that use chemical dyes, people have lung diseases
and cancer because they breathe toxic fumes in the dyeing process.  By supporting
cochineal as a preferred dye stuff, much can be done to reduce health hazards
related to chemical dye use.  I know of no other project like this in Oaxaca.

Many women in rural Oaxaca villages have lost their primary means of support
because the men in their families have migrated to other parts of Mexico or the
U.S. to work.  A project of this type would give women the self-esteem and
economic independence they need and deserve, and provide a collaborate
community for mutual support.  I believe it to be an important endeavor to raise
the standard of living in many Oaxaca villages.  Many weavers in Oaxaca are
adopting the use of cochineal in their dye process.  Collectors of fine textiles
prefer cochineal to chemical dyes.  If production increases through a project like
this, then perhaps the price of cochineal can come down making it more accessible
to more weavers.  Having the product readily available for sale in many weaving
villages throughout the state would help in the marketing.  I have not heard about
the recent studies regarding any harmful side effects of cochineal, so I cannot
comment on that.  I do know that it is used quite successfully in dyeing beverages,
lipstick, and other edible products.  It is the preferred RED for dyeing wool rugs in
Teotitlan del Valle, and huipiles that are made throughout Oaxaca.

I recommend that you support the applicant of this proposal.

Oaxaca Shopping: New El Nahual Gallery Showcases Tito Mendoza Weavings

Husband and wife team Tito Mendoza and Alejandrina Rios Sanchez are creative, talented and have a flair for design.  Tito, cousin of the famed Arnulfo Mendoza, is an excellent weaver in his own right and his intricate handwoven textiles are extraordinary.  Ale knows how to put together fabrics, whimsical animalitos, hand-wrought metal decor, and folkloric touches that create a magical space with unusual and interesting design elements.  Their modest adobe casita in Teotitlan del Valle, where they retreat on weekends, is full of antiques, collectibles, handmade furniture, and contemporary art.  The mix is beautiful and Ale has replicated this feel in their new gallery, El Nahual.

Now, after years of working in the gallery at El Mano Magico on the main cobblestone pedestrian thoroughfare of Macedonio Alcala in the historic center of Oaxaca, Ale is expressing herself through a new venture that she and Tito have embarked upon.

El Nahual is located on Avenida 5 de Mayo, parallel to Macedonio Alcala, and just down from where 5 de Mayo intersects with Gurrion, the side street that borders the iglesia Santo Domingo.  You will find lovely wool and silk handbags woven by Tito, intricately woven cotton handbags formed on a backstrap loom from one of the premiere weavers of Santo Tomas Jalieza, the silvercast jewelry made by Frenchwoman Brigitte of Kanda Designs, personally selected and highest quality alebrijes of all shapes and sizes, little mirror hearts that are perfect to reflect light from a bathroom or hallway wall, and giant red hearts with wings that makes my heart sing.  The two-room shop is full of surprises and the quality of everything is the best you can find anywhere in town.  The prices are fair and do not have an exorbitant mark-up.

The best thing for me when I drop by, is to be greeted by Ale and her lovely daughter Liliana, who give everyone who enters a warm welcome.

Wefts of Sea and Wind: The Textiles of Francisca Palafox — Textile Museum of Oaxaca Opening


What: Opening
Host: Museo Textil de Oaxaca
Start Time: Saturday, August 22 at 7:00pm
End Time: Saturday, August 22 at 9:00pm
Where: Museo Textil de Oaxaca, Corner Hidalgo & Fiallo, Centro Historico



Ikoot women from San Mateo del Mar, a small fishing village on the southern coast of Oaxaca beyond Salina Cruz, have been weaving here on backstrap looms for generations. Today, most women are no longer weavers, and if they are, the quality of process and product they create are generally basic.

Traditional huipiles (blouses) from San Mateo del Mar are finely woven white cotton decorated with supplementary weft designs adapted from beach and sea life.  Turtles, fish, crab, palm trees, shrimp, birds, butterflies, and stars are incorporated into the weaving with purple shellfish dyed thread. The village, however, has adopted the dominant Juchitecas style of dressing, so Ikoot origins are not immediately evident by the traje (local costume).

San Mateo del Mar is a humble, isolated village, dependent upon fishing for mojarras (a type of sea bass) and camarones (shrimp), which is sold in the local street market and exported to the larger, neighboring market towns of Tehuantepec and Juchitán. But mostly, the catch of the day provides food for the family.  There are not many young people.  An aging population implies out-migration to bigger cities for education and job opportunities not offered here.  This is a simple, and by all appearances, difficult life. The village is hammocks, palm thatched huts, tin covered palapas, sand, salt, wind, and intense heat.

Francisca Palafox is one of the last of the great Ikoot backstrap loom artisans. She is 33 years old, the youngest in a family of six children.  She was “discovered” by Remigio Mestas, who searches for master weavers in remote villages and encourages them to preserve their craft. Remigio provides raw materials such as cotton or thread of the highest quality and through old photographs or antique samples, both Remigio and the weaver re-discover and rescue ancient techniques. As a single mother, Francisca first worked selling dinner to the people of her village to support her children, finding time to weave only during the day. Over the past seven years, because of the commissions from Remigio, Francisca has been able to dedicate her time entirely to weaving.

Antonina Herrán Roldán, Francisca’s mother, now age 73, taught her daughters how to weave.  However, it was eldest daughter Elvira, who stepped in to mentor and guide her youngest sister, eight year old Francisca, teaching her to weave after school. Due to economic hardships, her parents had no choice but to take Francisca out of school, and so she began to weave full time. Francisca wove napkins with imaginative designs and successfully sold them.  By age 15, she had won several prizes that distinguished her among the group of local women weavers.

A woman in San Mateo del Mar taught Francisca how to weave the traditional figures into the Ikoot huipil. Soon, Francisca followed her own independent imagination and creativity, incorporating her personal aesthetic into the Ikoot pieces. In addition to the traditional figures, she learned to weave dancers, fishermen, and sailboats.

“I remember seeing an owl in one of my books in fourth or fifth grade and I got the idea to put it into the loom. When one is younger, the imagination is vast and untiring. Youth is so precious,” she says.

Eventually Francisca learned to weave an entire huipil on her own. Knowing that education was a missing piece in her life, after giving birth to her first child, she went back to finish the rest of her studies.

Francisca’s children, a son Noe, age 15, and two daughters, Jazmín, age 13, and Liliana, age 11, learned to weave when they were also eight years old. Lili, for example, helps coat the warp threads of the backstrap loom with atole (a corn drink) to make them stronger. Although Francisca´s children have a vast understanding of the Ikoot weaving tradition and a profound admiration for their mother, they also believe that in years to come it will become more and more difficult to find a sustainable living in weaving. Her son Noe says: “It’s as if my mother helped to preserve our traditions…thread by thread…” Francisca´s sister, Teófila Palafox, as well as their cousin Sabina, are also active weavers.

Francisca is well aware of the danger her community faces. Her daughters as well as other girls in the village no longer want to wear huipiles because they see it as attire incompatible with modernity. Whenever they do wear huipiles, the choice is the red, yellow and black huipil that the women from Juchitan wear.

In an attempt to share her knowledge, Francisca has invited women of the village to weave with her. But soon after realizing the arduous and time-consuming work it is (and without much economic return) they prefer jobs with regular pay that are not as tedious.  “Women come and see, but they don’t like this job.  They prefer looking for something else like selling tortillas…” Francisca explains.

Francisca is one of a few women in her community who continue to weave.  This small group of Ikoot is at risk of being absorbed into the larger culture and of losing their craft. And this is part of what makes Francisca’s work so important. The Textile Museum of Oaxaca pays homage to Francisca Palafox, whose work carries a whole set of cultural symbols, history and knowledge valuable to her village but also to the world at large. Francisca is one of the last caretakers of the Ikoot tradition. More than this, she is also an inspirational, courageous, self-taught, and self-sacrificing woman devoted to her unconditional companion, her backstrap loom.

“The loom is mine, and no one can take it from me…”

Francisca Palafox

Textile Museum of Oaxaca

Written in collaboration with Apolonia Torres and Norma Hawthorne

Translated by: Apolonia Torres

Edited by: Norma Hawthorne