Only in Oaxaca do you wake up to find a guy cutting down agave cactus for mezcal in your front yard, Kalisa Wells told me yesterday morning. Kalisa is house-sitting for me in Teotitlan del Valle while I’m sojourning in Durham, North Carolina.
Kalisa is really there to puppy sit until Luz and Sombra come of age, ready to adopt out. It should be soon. Then, she’ll be taking care of Mamacita and Tia until I get back.
Kalisa Wells took all these photos! Thank you!
There has been espadin agave on the land where I live among the maize fields ever since I can remember. When I first arrived, twelve years ago, these were tiny immature plants. Omar, youngest Chavez Santiago family son, tells me these agave were planted seventeen years ago! Now, some are sending up reproductive shoots, topped with baby agaves. Bees swarm and give up agave honey. After a few months, the mother plant dies. Topples over. The dead stalk can be used for fire wood or home construction.
Farmers want to harvest the agave when it is ripe and before it sends up the stalk, when the sugar energy is concentrated in the piña, perfect for making mezcal.
When Teotitlan del Valle mezcalero Hilario and his son Emmanuel showed up to cut and dig out the piña, Kalisa took photos and a video to send to me. She keeps me informed about life around the casita. Don Federico supervised. It’s his land, his agave, and this is his cash crop.
Seems Kalisa has been buying local mezcal from them for a while. They make the distilled brew in their patio, behind the molina (mill) across from the church and market.
They are working hard on all the agave, writes Kalisa. I hear the sound of primitive and very effective tools. I hear the Zapotec language and the smell of fresh cut agave drifting into the casita.
Demand for artisanal mezcal has skyrocketed around the world. There are now more than 300 brands. There is worry and big buzz about whether there will be enough agave to satisfy the demand. Every food and beverage writer weighs in on this as they come to Oaxaca to sample the offerings.
Small operations, like those of Hilario and Emmanuel, are still producing home grown, home distilled mezcal for local consumption just as they have been doing for hundreds of years. Fiestas in Teotitlan del Valle are fueled by mezcal. It is de rigueur to bring a bottle as a host gift.
(Here in North Carolina, we call this beverage, moonshine, made the same way in a shiny, copper still.)
Some mezcal facts and tips:
- mezcal production has more than doubled since 2011
- there are about 30 types of agave cactus used to make mezcal — wild and cultivated
- it takes 10-12 years for an espadin cactus to mature
- wild agave matures in up to 35 years
- wild agave types include bicuixe, madrecuixe, tepeztate
- mezcal is not tequila, tequila is mezcal — don’t be confused: what’s the difference?
- the February 2017, farmer sold espadin agave piña at 10 pesos per kilo and more, up from 1/2 peso per kilo
- one baby agave (there are 800) at the top of a stalk now fetches 8 pesos each
- it is possible to harvest 20-30 piñas in a day
- how will growth and production keep up with demand — National Geographic: A mezcal boom spurs creative approaches to dwindling agave.
- The New Yorker– mezcal, rising to the popular culture — artisanal, organic, vegan, gluten-free
- at U.S. customs, declare your mezcal bottles by how much you paid for them, not by their weight (did you know that most of the weight is in the glass bottle)
I see by the photos that the landscape of my front yard has changed, denuded of espadin. The agave in my front yard and along the fence line is no more. Last year, I planted rows of immature espadin plants in anticipation that someday Don Federico might harvest these treasures.
I’ve expanded my cactus garden to include tobala, tepeztate and cuixe. It will take them many more years to mature and offer me unlimited high desert beauty. They may certainly outlast my lifetime!
Folk Art Makers in Oaxaca Artisan Villages: Kinship, Work and Compensation
I subscribe to a website named academia.edu that recently published a paper by Alanna Cant, an academic from Kent University, United Kingdom. Dr. Cant spent almost a decade studying and writing about the relationship between the owners of a large, successful wood carving and painting workshop in San Martin Tilcajete and the people who are employed there making alebrijes.
The article is important because it expands understanding about how folk art gets made and marketed, who gets recognition for the work, and a different form of compensation. It emphasizes how the importance of family relationships and kinship take priority over economic independence and personal recognition for artisan work.
Read it here: ‘Making’ Labour in Mexican Artisanal Workshops
We learn from this that making a name for oneself and making money is not the primary driver for most people who live in community.
It’s very important for us not to judge by our own standards, but to observe and understand the differences and similarities between cultures.
In many small villages throughout Oaxaca, in fact throughout Mexico, safety, security and economic well-being depends on mutual support. These practices are ancient and deep, embedded in tribal relationships rooted in loyalty and commitment. It is far more important for many talented crafts-people to support strong family relationships than it is for them to break away and start their own enterprise.
I’m not a cultural anthropologist, yet I extrapolate that this may be the norm in many villages of weavers, potters and embroiderers. Cooperatives are usually extensions of family units of parents, children, aunts, uncles and cousins — a social organization that differs in practice from co-ops in the USA. Producing quantities of artisan-made work depends on more than a few pairs of hands.
If you are a collector or appreciator of Mexican craft, this article may interest you. It will give you insight into the making of Mexican folk art and how indigenous communities are able to survive and support each other over 8,000 years of existence.
Their experience is very different from ours. Entrepreneurship and commercial success, too, comes at a cost as television and the internet make the world of things more important than the world of people.
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Posted in Cultural Commentary
Tagged Alanna Cant, cultural anthropology, economics, folk art, labor and production, Mexico, Oaxaca