Monthly Archives: April 2013

Oaxaca, Water and Back in the U.S.A.

The topic of water, scarcity, abundance, conservation, and consumption has been on my mind ever since returning to the U.S.A. from Mexico, landing in the San Francisco Bay area last Saturday night.  I am here in Santa Cruz, California, now for a week to visit my 97-year-0ld mother.  Almost fully recovered after breaking a hip, I am grateful that she is mobile, fully aware and for our time together.  I am also grateful that I can climb into a hot shower at my sister’s house and not worry (too much) about using more than a half-bucket of water, which is the case in Oaxaca.

In reality, I am aware of the water coming freely from the shower head and faucets.  I am aware that I can ingest this water, keep my eyes and mouth open and my nostrils uplifted.  If some gets down my throat, so what!  This awareness is heightened by my experience living in Oaxaca, where it is dry, dry, dry and water is scarce, scarce, scarce, and ingesting plumbed water is verboten.

On the return flight north, our routing is over the Sea of Cortes aka Gulf of California.  The wide Colorado River mouth is at the notch where Baja California meets northern Mexico.  It is dry, dry, dry.  From the air I can see the salt and silt and the curve of the riverbed undulating like a snake.  It reminds me that water, precious water, is diverted upstream in U.S. territory to sustain plants and animals.   I think of Mexico and the paucity of water, the rough terrain, the few fertile areas for cultivation of food, the high mountain ranges that make up most of the country. Is there hope for the Colorado River delta?  Perhaps, according to this New York Times article.

Water costs money in Oaxaca.  I can tell when the holding tank on the roof of the house where I live is low because the water pressure drops to a trickle.  If I do a laundry — even on low water level and gentle cycle — I will use about almost half of the holding tank!  Now I know why local women soak their family’s laundry in buckets before putting them through a rinse cycle.  This way they will conserve at least fifty-percent of the water usage.

Marianne Kinzer, in the Winter 2013 issues of ReVista, a David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies at Harvard University publication, writes,  “The story of water in Oaxaca, Mexico, a picturesque place that draws international tourism, illustrates Mexican, Central American and worldwide water problems.”


For me, the issue is local. I have learned to collect water.  There is a bucket in the two shower stalls and in the kitchen sink.  I use this gray water to wash floors and water plants and trees.  The dry season lasts for months and these plants are thirsty.  My Oaxaca world is small and focused on the details of daily living — water, food, transportation.  When I run out of water, I call Dany Hernandez who comes to deliver for 100 pesos.  This fills up the tank and life goes on until the next week, when I can safely predict I will run out again (depending on how many loads of laundry I do).  Doing a hand wash has become more of a routine, with the exception of bed linens.  I am constantly conscious of water scarcity, cost and consumption.

For the last few months, as I walk along the dirt road to the casita, I cross what the locals call the Rio Grande.  This is a stream bed that can be a trickle or a rushing torrent during the rainy season that only lasts a few months.  When it is wet, I have to find another route. Usually it is parched and crackled like alligator skin, easy to cross, another reminder of water scarcity.

Someone told me this week that within twenty years the polar ice cap will melt.  Climate change is not a myth.  I may still be alive, based on my mother’s age and if I have her genetic load.  What will the melted ice cap mean for coastal flooding, tides, availability of water beyond the flood?  As I shower and make coffee from tap water here in Santa Cruz, I think about whether the luxury of fresh, clean water will be but a memory.  I believe we are beyond the tipping point.

P.S. I ordered another camera body which arrived yesterday to replace the one I lost.  Facebook iPhone photos of the Puebla adventure are posted if you are interested.  Otherwise, I resume life in the U.S. until the end of June when I return to Oaxaca once more.

Shopping in San Antonino Castillo Velasco, Oaxaca

My sister and I set out for San Antonino Castillo Velasco, Oaxaca, to visit the potter Don Jose Garcia Antonino who makes life-size human figures sculpted from local red clay called barro rojo.  We decided to go before everyone arrived for the wedding so that we could focus on the shopping day at hand.  Barbara has been wanting to get one of Don Jose’s sculptures for years.  She was set on getting one she could see eye-to-eye with.  Yes, they are that big!



Jose Garcia Antonio‘s daughter dusts off the figure Barbara selected while his granddaughter watches us.  He is featured in the recently published book, Grand Masters of Oaxaca.  Calle Libertad No. 24, San Antonino Castillo Velasco. Telephone (951) 539-6473.  email Jose Garcia’s son at


San Antonino is mostly known for it’s intricate multi-colored embroidery with designs of flowers and birds that embellish blouses and dresses.  The quality and amount of the embroidery plus the finish work determine the price of a garment that can range from 200 pesos to 6,000 pesos (that’s about $17 USD to $525 USD).  The white on white version is known as the Oaxaca Wedding Dress.

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Here at Artesanias Viki on Calle Libertad No. 1, (telephone 571-0092) sister Barbara models a manta (natural cotton) blusa with hot pink embroidery on the bodice.  Dueña Virginia Sanchez de Cornelio and her daughters, also included in the Grand Masters of Oaxaca folk art book, have a stash of stunning blouses and dresses in all types of colors, sizes, intricacy of embroidery, and prices.   Note the pansies and the little figures that make up the smocking on the bodice of the white dress.  These can take six to nine months to embroider, we are told.

We probably spent an hour or more at the pottery studio and then a good hour-and-a-half with Señora Viki trying on clothes.  Good thing we did this trip sola — just the two of us.  After a lunch on the patio at Azucenas Zapoteca at the San Martin Tilcajete crossroads, we went to Mailboxes Etc. in Oaxaca city to pack and ship the girl, which Barbara nicknamed Viki!


San Antonino is just before you get to the town of Ocotlan de Morales, about 40 minutes beyond Oaxaca on the way to Puerto Angel.  There’s a sign that directs you to turn right off the highway.  It is beyond San Martin Tilcajete, the alebrijes village and Santo Tomas Jalieza, the backstrap loom weaving village.  You can make a day of it along this route.   Hire a taxi for 120-150 pesos per hour or take a collectivo for 10 pesos per person each way.

Our mode of transportation was trusty Teotitlan del Valle Sitio Zapoteco taxi driver Abraham.  Running errands later in the day, we hopped on a moto-taxi which we call a tuk-tuk.  Here’s a bit of pueblo scenery with Barbara profiled in the rear-view mirror!


Fortunately, I downloaded these into my computer before I lost my camera, so I’m able to share them with you.  Hope you enjoy.

Dance of the Little Old Men–Baile de Viejitos, Oaxaca

After a spectacular week of Semana Santa celebrations in Teotitlan del Valle, the village gathers for yet another tribute.  Dance of the Little Old Men, or Baile de Viejitos, begins on the Monday after Easter Sunday and goes for five continuous days.  It is an ancient pre-Hispanic Zapotec ritual centered around the way the community is organized and how well the voluntary leaders mete out justice and fairness.  The village leaders are assessed by each one of the five administrative sections of the village through an intricate process of information gathering, question asking, and feedback.



Each section has an opportunity to give feedback to the leaders through the men selected by each section to speak for them.  The men are dressed in disguise as elders, wise, strong, able to take a stand and tell the truth.  It is a power-leveling mechanism that is designed to humble the arrogant.

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Some call it Carnivale, like the pre-Lenten celebration, because there are masquerades and cross-dressing.  To the uninitiated, it looks like a springtime version of Halloween with costumed, dancing young boys.  They join the official masquers who accompany the Old Men as they act out their message through the dance and the tribute they pay to the leaders.  It is ceremonial and formal.

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And, it is fun.  There is excitement in the air.  The village gathers on stone steps that were once the foundation of a Zapotec temple.  The Municipio Building is ringed with folding chairs and behind them, vendors selling fresh-made fruit-flavored ices, cones stuffed with cream, do-nuts, and other sweets.  Another vendor sells steaming tamales seasoned with chipil. Parents buy bags of 5 peso popcorn for children to munch on.





The dance starts at 6 p.m. and goes well into the night.  All the leaders, starting with the president, dance in succession with the Viejitos representing the section.   The section representatives sit solemnly after they have presented their tribute — cartons of beer and mezcal.  Each section takes their turn — one section for each night.

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Oaxaca: Lost in the Revelry

Since last writing a blog post on March 26, my husband, sister, son and extended family arrived to celebrate our godson’s wedding on April 6.  Semana Santa came and passed.  We found ourselves in the middle of Baile de Viejitos–Dance of the Old Men, then multiple trips to the airport to pick-up family members.  I took a lot of photographs and planned to post them, but found no time as I guided my loved ones around the city and surrounding villages.  It takes time and energy to be a family tour guide, coordinate taxis, and get guest sleeping arrangements ready.

It also takes a lot of energy to party!  They really know how to do it up here wedding-style.  This wedding, with over 300 guests, was celebrated with a mass at Basilica de Soledad, patron saint of Oaxaca, followed by a fabulous all night dinner dance in the ethnobotanical garden.  The beer, wine and  mezcal flowed.  Floating lanterns ascended to the heavens.  Firecrackers announced the newlyweds.  As we entered the garden after the legal ceremony, the Teotitlan del Valle band played classical music and continued on during dinner under the stars.

After dinner, the band started the traditional Jarabe del Valle.  The padrinos of the wedding had the first dance with the newlyweds.  Then, the parents joined in.  The rest of us were invited for the general Jarabe.  We stomped our hearts out on the dance floor to the Jarabe del Valle, then to cumbia, salsa, and music through the decades starting with the 60’s.  I tried to hold out until the 6 a.m. planned end, but a few of us caved in and got into a taxi at 4 a.m.

Being somewhat dazed from lack of sleep and the hazy afterglow of mezcal, I left my wonderful Nikon D7000 camera with 17-55mm lens on the taxi seat.  So, I have no wedding photos to show, nor photos of the pre-wedding preparations.  I decided not to beat myself up — stuff can always be replaced.  Yes, there is a cost, but we are all healthy and content, so that’s what matters most.

On the Sunday after the wedding, with four hours of sleep under our belt, we gathered in the village for more eating, drinking and traditional Jarabe del Valle dancing under the fiesta tent.  Handmade tortillas, savory grilled, chicken, amazing kinship.  I’ve posted some of these photos on my Facebook page since I still have my iPhone!

My sister and I are leaving Oaxaca tomorrow for a few days in Puebla before flying to San Francisco, where I will visit my 97-year  old mother in the Bay Area for a week.  I’m returning to Oaxaca this summer, hopefully with another camera.  So stay tuned for more to come.