Copal is the tree used to carve the wooden figures we call alebrijes in Oaxaca. It is a disappearing resource. Thanks to Jacobo and Maria Angeles in San Martin Tilcajete, where many of the region’s alebrijes are made, there is a bioconservation project called Palo Que Habla to replant copal trees for the next generation of carvers. On land near their home and studio, a vivero (nursery) is planted with young copal trees, as well as other native Oaxaca seeds such as corn, beans, squash and garbanzo.
Palo Que Habla means wood that speaks.
It is open to the public and there is no cost to enter. It is designed as an education center and families are encouraged to bring their children to see how important sustainability and biodiversity is now and for future generations. Please call ahead to arrange your visit.
It takes 30 years for a copal tree to mature before it can be harvested. But that doesn’t stop many from cutting trees when they are 15 years old or younger. Only the white copal wood is used for alebrijes. It is carved when it is fresh and soft, then dries and ages for up to a year before it is painted. The need to sell can take priority over ecological issues here and in many places around the world.
Jacobo Angeles became president of the San Martin Tilcajete committee to establish a community effort to plant copal seedlings and nurture them. He served as leader of this effort for the first six years of the program. The village committee oversaw 40 hectares (almost 100 acres) of land. But, as the trees grew, people became impatient and didn’t want to wait for them to mature. Jacobo and Maria decided to start their own project 10 years ago.
Now, the copal tree resources in the Ocotlan Valley of Oaxaca are depleted and Jacobo says he and other carvers are sourcing their wood from Yautepec, Xochitstlan and Yanhuitlan in the Mixteca region of Oaxaca, at least two-hours from the city. Angeles says that hundreds of pueblo artisans were cutting wood for alebrijes.
(By the way, it is the sap of the copal that is used for ceremonial incense in Oaxaca.)
Five thousand trees are planted three times a year in various locations, on a total of 140 hectares of land, or 346 acres. The biggest challenge, of course, is water. Young trees need tender care. Palo Que Habla nurserymen and women capture rain water and also use well water. Thirty years ago, they could depend on rain alone. Today, it is not enough.
The copal nursery project was started in 1994 when Maestro Rodolfo Morales saw that cutting copal was not sustainable without a plan to put new trees in place to replenish those that were being used for the folk art. Since then, the Rodolfo Morales foundation has donated saplings to the program to ensure a continuous supply of copal.
The Vivero/nursery project is expansive. It aims to create a pollinator garden for butterflies and bees, and will produce local honey from the hives. Lavender fields have been planted. Stately and sacred ceiba trees line the avenue bordering the seedling cultivation area. There is a space for resting and relaxation, as well as well-equipped toilets and a guest house.
I’m in awe of and admire the dedication of Jacobo and Maria Angeles to preserve their culture through commitment to agricultural sustainability via Palo Que Habla. More than this, their vision is to create a teaching and learning environment to sustain diverse regional craft traditions of Oaxaca and the Ocotlan valley.
A recent addition to the portfolio of studio craft is Mogote Ceramica. This is a high-fire clay workshop where functional and decorative pieces are made from local clay, native to San Martin Tilcajete. They are fired in gas kilns at 2246 degrees Fahrenheit and are lead-free. Potters from the region make beautiful glazed pieces that are reminiscent of pre-Hispanic and contemporary design. When I was there, I met visiting artists from Korea, Japan and Mexico City, some of whom are in residence.
The ceramics studio is across the street from the alebrijes workshop, beyond the parking area. Don’t miss it. Take a peek into the sales gallery, too, to see if there is anything there that appeals. My dad was a potter, so I have a special affinity for this craft. I left with eight pieces of pottery! Years ago, I stretched to buy alebrijes made by Jacobo and Maria. They are in North Carolina. They are beyond my capacity now!
Remember, you are welcome to look and admire and there is no charge to visit any of the workshops or the nursery. Enjoy!
Best of Oaxaca’s Biodiversity at Ejido Union Zapata: Day of Plenty
Oaxaca celebrates indigenous food and handmade at the annual Agro-biodiversity Fair in Ejido Union Zapata. This once a year event is building traction. The main street of several blocks, cordoned off for booths and foot traffic, was packed by noon. The natural food color was beyond belief.
Day of Plenty: native corn varieties with tortillas
Criollo, organic-natural tomatoes + More
Billed as a seed exchange, farmers came from as far away as Chiapas, the Coast of Oaxaca and the Mixteca Alta, the high mountain range that borders the states of Oaxaca and Guerrero. Weavers working in natural dyes and mask makers joined in. For sale were seeds, fruit, vegetables, flowers, tortillas and tamales.
Coconut from Oaxaca’s coast. Have you tasted coconut crackers?
Fitting for Thanksgiving Weekend, it was a day of plenty.
Amaranth seeds, protein-rich, makes sweet treat
There is a big and growing movement in politically active Oaxaca to conserve native food: chiles, tomatoes, corn, peppers, squash, coffee, chocolate, amaranth, jicama and more. There are so many different varieties of each.
Sierra Mixe handmade ceramics, utilitarian beauty
One of the leaders, Rafael Meir, was present along with government representatives of Oaxaca and Mexico. Leaders are becoming more conscious about the importance of keeping GMO contained to what has already infiltrated the commercial tortilla business. Yet, there is still much more to do.
Public education has so much to do with the success of programs like this one.
House made sesame crackers — yummy, or buy seeds and make your own.
Backstrap loomed textiles rom San Juan Colorado
I was so happy to see Yuridia Lorenzo and her mom, Alegoria Lorenzo Quiroz from the Colectivo Jini Nuu in San Juan Colorado. They were selling their beautiful blouses and dresses made with native coyuchi, white and green cotton and natural dyes. Participants in my Oaxaca Coast Textile Study Tour will visit them in mid-January.
Alegoria Lorenzo Quiroz and me.
If you missed it, I hope you will mark your calendar for next year. Although the dates may float, so I’m not sure exactly when it will be held. Check out these Facebook pages to keep track: Rafael Meir, who is director of Fundacion Tortilla de Maiz Mexicana. Watch a VIDEO of the fair.
Zapotec words describe native food
Another benefit of attending is to taste and buy mezcal, Oaxaca’s organic, artisanal alcoholic beverage distilled from fermented agave. I bought a bottle of sylvestre (wild) jabali mezcal grown and distilled in Teozacoalco in the Mixteca Alta by Mezcalero Javier Cruz. Que Rico!
San Juan Colorado Katyi Yaa coop, native coyuchi cotton, natural dyes
I’m noticing that Oaxaca is becoming inundated with foodies and followers of What’s Hot on the food and beverage scene. We’ve got free walking tours led by guides holding colorful umbrellas and flags downtown who get paid with tips. We have USA restauranteurs coming for cooking classes to bring the cuisine home. Rent prices are escalating in the historic center. If one lives on the peso, everything is at a premium now. Those of us who live here always ask if the influx of tourist dollars trickles down to the pueblos, the makers, the field and kitchen workers. What is your experience?
Corn, snake, cacao symbols on wool, back-strap loom
Back-strap loomed wool, San Pablo Villa de Mitla, corn, snake, cacao symbols. That’s why fairs like this one are so important — to buy direct from those who produce. Slow food. Slow fashion. Slow mezcal. Saludos.
Know the Natural Richness of Mexico
Chiles, squash, Mexico’s gift
Posted in Cultural Commentary, Oaxaca Mexico art and culture, Photography, Textiles, Tapestries & Weaving, Travel & Tourism
Tagged agriculture, biodiversity, fair, Mexico, native food, Oaxaca, slow fashion, slow food, Union Zapata