Category Archives: Oaxaca Mexico art and culture

Where is the Chili Pepper Capital of the World?

In a nod to Mexican Independence Day today, and in appreciation for all that Mexico has given us, me thinks the answer to this question is MEXICO. However, New Mexico thinks otherwise. It’s newest license plate proclaims this as truth and features big red and green chili peppers next to the identity number of the plate and the slogan: New Mexico, Chili Capital of the World. It’s true, New Mexico was once a part of Mexico and before that New Spain. Spanish and Mexican roots run deep here. So we don’t get confused, the license plate here also says, New Mexico, USA.

The origin of the chili pepper is clear. The indigenous peoples of Mexico had fully domesticated chili peppers far earlier than 1492 and the arrival of Columbus in the Americas. Archaeologists date the origin of chilis back to 5000 BC in the country’s Tehuacán Valley.  The word “chili” can be credited to Nahuatl, an Aztec language from which many modern terms are derived, such as chocolatl and tomatl. The history of chili is a fascinating read.

There are over 60 types of chilis that claim Mexican origins. These include jalapeño, habanero, poblano, Anaheim, and more. These are the names for fresh chilis. Once they are dried, they take on a different identity because the flavor changes. For example, the chilaca chili, rarely used in its fresh form, becomes chili pasilla when dried, a staple of Oaxaca mole sauce. For more about biodiversity and origins, click here. For a varietal explanation, click here and here.

Here in New Mexico, chili pepper history comes much later. By all accounts, seeds were introduced by the Spanish in the late 1500’s to many of the pueblos and by the early 1600’s, became an important cultivar to use in southwest cuisine. Chili, as in the stew that combines spicy chili pepper flavor, meat, onions and tomatoes, traces its origins to Texas and rapidly spread throughout the region. Adaptations in the Midwest added beans and fat. Have you ever been to a chili cook-off?

Now is the season for roasting Hatch Chili in New Mexico.

The Hatch Chili is uniquely New Mexican, first cross-bred in Northern New Mexico in the early 1900’s by a horticulturalist wanting a milder version of jalapeño. It is available in August and September, depending on the weather. This short window of buying and eating opportunity gives it a caché of being rare and has taken on a mystique of desirability. There is a Hatch Chili frenzy here now. In front of the Taos Albertson’s and Smith’s supermarket, on the historic plaza, in the Walmart parking lot, I see outdoor roasters fueled by propane, with serious young men loading and tending the roasting bins. Bags of fresh roasted Hatch Chilis are offered for sale inside. The aroma of smokey chili goodness fills the air, invades naval passages, causes eyes to tear if you get too close.

Does the Hatch Chili make New Mexico the Chili Capital of the World? Not likely. However, I concede, my adopted state is the Hatch Chili Capital of the World, and I salute her for that. Hatch Chili pancakes anyone?

Where to Buy Hatch Chilis fresh and frozen:

Family, Culture, Community and Covid in Mexico and New Mexico: Thoughts

Preface: It’s Labor Day. We depend on labor wherever we live to work the fields, harvest food, wash dishes or cook in restaurants, sew clothes, tend our nursery-school age children and grandchildren, build, repair or clean our homes. Before I learned the word, Huelga from Cesar Chavez when I participated in the California Farm Workers Union demonstrations, I knew from my teacher-father the value and importance of taking a stand to protect basic human rights — a fair wage, health care, education. He was part of the California Federation of Teachers Local #1021 that went out on strike in 1969. He was proud of that. Our mom was scared. There was no income for months.

Now that I’m in New Mexico, I am constantly reviewing the similarities and differences between living here and in Oaxaca. The similarities are startling, especially as it relates to our indigenous First Peoples. This week, The Washington Post published an opinion piece about how the Navajo Nation has suffered during the covid pandemic: Navajo Culture is in Danger. I encourage you to read this. It offers insights into a way of life that is essential to cultural survival.

Here and in rural Oaxaca villages, Native American families live together in multi-generational households, often encompassing four or five generations. They care for each other in close-knit communities where language, values and culture are shared and transmitted. This is an important way cultural survival mechanism.

Living in close community poses huge risks to the vulnerable, especially the aged. We know from history that disease ravaged indigenous peoples with the European conquests, decimating huge swaths of the population. The covid pandemic reiterates how a rapidly spreading airborne disease can bring sickness and death to rural communities. Most hold the attitude that they want little to do with government intervention because of historical mistrust, abuse and discrimination. Lack of access to clean water, health services, education, and economic opportunity shape these attitudes. Poverty and isolation are huge factors.

The Washington Post article addresses how the Navajo Nation, hard-hit by covid early in its cycle, is weathering the disease. Small houses are built adjacent to family dwellings to house grandparents to make sure they stay safe, separated from family but not too far away! The tribe has a successful vaccination campaign and a high percentage of their people are vaccinated now.

What I loved about this article was the effort to keep loved ones safe in auxiliary dwellings, and still keep them close to the family and community. I’m not certain that this is a practice in Oaxaca, where family celebrations and observances are a priority and people gather in large groups despite the on-going threat of the pandemic. Most often, it is the octogenarians who are the keepers of culture.

For those of us traveling soon to Oaxaca, we will need to stay vigilant to maintain safe distance and wear face masks during Day of the Dead celebrations at the end of October. It is very likely that celebrations will not be curtailed much at the cemeteries or in the streets. Traditions are powerful. It is also doubtful that elders will be housed in adjacent small homes for protection there like the Navajo are here.

Footnote: Today begins the 10 days of the Jewish New Year. This is a time to reflect on our place in the world, what we can do to actively “repair the world,” our relationship within it and with others. On Rosh Hashanah (today), the Book of Life is opened and for the next days, we review behavior, intentions, deeds and misdeeds. We use this time in self-reflection to set things right with ourselves and others. On Yom Kippur, the Book of Life is closed and the promises for change we make is “sealed.” This open book period gives us a chance to start fresh and steer a new course. We reconnect with family and friends, renew spirit by being in nature, take action to make change where it is needed.

I have been in New Mexico for almost four months. New beginnings are intentional, spark creativity, and create opportunity. At this moment, I’m grateful to again ask the questions: Who am I? Who do I want to be?

Rosario’s Bolsas: Embroidered Oaxaca Shoulder Bags

Rosario is my Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca, friend who is an excellent embroiderer. I asked her to make more shoulder bags to send to me to offer to you. The dimensions are similar for all of them:

  • The bag is 8″x10″ (Because they are handmade, there is some variance.)
  • The shoulder strap is 43″ long. Use as a shoulder or cross-body bag.
  • They are lined and have an inside pocket.
  • The zipper is sturdy and easy to use.
  • The floral motif is carried over from front to back.
  • The embroidery is dense and detailed.
  • Each bag costs $58 plus $12 mailing. Total is $70. We can combine orders.

To Buy: Please email me norma.schafer@icloud.com with your name, mailing address, item number and your payment preference. I will mark it SOLD. You can purchase using Venmo, Zelle, or PayPal. I will send you account information when you tell me you are ready to purchase.

I’ve known Rosario for years. She comes from a humble family that works hard to make ends meet. I have encouraged her to develop her sewing and needlework skills, and give her a new sewing machine a couple of year ago to help her sew dresses and blouses and to make these bags.

Thank you for supporting this handwork. It’s not too early, either, to start thinking about the season of gift giving and how special a handmade gift from Oaxaca would be!

YES! Back to Oaxaca for Day of the Dead 2021

Whew. I just bought my plane ticket to return to Oaxaca, after last leaving in March 2020. That’s 17 months ago! So much has happened since then. To many of us, I’m sure. For me, it’s been a crazy year-and-a-half. I decided to sell my historic tobacco warehouse condo in downtown Durham, North Carolina, in December 2020, and move to the wide open spaces of Northern New Mexico. My small casita on the Rio Grande Gorge is just beginning. My return to Oaxaca has been delayed because of this construction project.

Now, I’m concentrating on getting back to my Oaxaca world — my family of weavers, Galeria Fe y Lola, who I live with in Teotitlan, the artisans who are important figures in my life, my two adopted campo dogs who I miss immensely, my friends who are permanent residents. It’s a perfect time to return by revisiting the meaning of Day of the Dead that brings life and death into perspective.

We have a small group participating in the October 28-November 4, 2021 Day of the Dead Culture Tour celebration. This is a culture tour that concentrates on being in the villages for this very important observance. I have space for a few more people and welcome your participation IF you are vaccinated! Most of our activities will take place outdoors and all the artisans we visit will be vaccinated. We will adhere to strict Covid-19 safety precautions.

I’ll get my third “booster” vaccine before I leave New Mexico to make sure I have maximum disease resistent antibodies!

If you wish to participate in this tour, please contact me at Norma.Schafer@icloud.com I am offering several discount packages to entice you to come along!

My friend Carol Estes, a permanent resident, just returned to Oaxaca, traveling by air. She will be writing about her experiences with travel safety, and also what she observes on the ground. Another friend, permanent resident Jacki Cooper Gordon, wrote that protocols are mostly being followed in Oaxaca city now and most people (except for young American tourists), are wearing masks everywhere. Open air restaurants are welcoming clients and tables are well-spaced for social distancing.

Honestly, this is not to say there aren’t risks. Each of us has a different genome and each of us responds differently (physically and emotionally) to health threats. My feeling is that with all safety protocols in place: vaccine, booster, hand-sanitizer, face masks, goggles or face shield, and social distancing, I will be fine. If I do get sick with a breakthrough case, it will likely be mild; I will not die or need hospitalization. The data confirm this. For immune compromised people, the risks are much greater, of course.

Que En Paz Descansa Maria Meza Guzman, Tenejapa, Chiapas — RIP

We got word yesterday that our friend Maria Meza Guzman* died. We don’t know the causes and it’s not really important. What counts here is that we have lost a great traditional back-strap weaver from the highland Chiapas village of Tenejapa. Maria operated a women’s weaving cooperative across from the village zocalo since the early 1990’s.

I have been bringing groups to visit Maria since 2017. It was always our first Chiapas Textile Study Tour stop in Tenejapa where she greeted us with a warm smile and hugs of welcome.

In the early years, most of the ceremonial women’s huipiles and men’s sashes were woven with local sheep wool that was naturally dyed. We could still find these at this cooperative along with the bolsas (shoulder bags) used daily by men and women. Mostly, now, the garments are woven with commercially dyed cotton and glittery polyester thread. Maria only offered pieces of the highest quality workmanship and we could depend on her to give us a back-strap loom weaving demonstration to show how the designs were integrated into the base cloth using the pick-up weaving technique (also called brocade here or bordado) found around the world. The technique is difficult to master and Maria Meza Guzman was a master!

I offer this photo gallery as a tribute to Maria’s memory, her skill and the imprint she left on us of all the goodness of the Chiapas highlands and her talented indigenous people. When our 2022 Chiapas Textile Tour group returns in February, we will miss her. Que en paz descansa, Maria.

*PLEASE NOTE: Maria Meza Guzman is the aunt of Pedro Meza who, with his mother, Maria Meza Giron, founded Sna Jolobil The Weaver’s House in San Cristobal de Las Casas. It’s easy to confuse the two sisters. Maria Meza Guzman opened the Tenejapa weaving cooperative to give visitors and collectors another option to purchase fine quality weavings.