Tag Archives: postaweek2012

Potter of Santa Maria Atzompa: Irma Claudia Garcia Blanco

The daughter of Teodora Blanco squats on her knees at the small potter’s wheel as if in prayer at an altar holding an offering.  Her legs are tucked neatly under her.  She is dressed in embroidered white cotton, white on white.  Behind her is a gray stucco wall.  She is framed in the expanse of memory.

The earth gives forth blessings: tamales to eat, atolé to drink, clay for the vessels that hold them.  A distant village, San Lorenzo Cacaotepec, is ancient source.  Then, clay was hauled by burro.  Now, husband Francisco drives the truck. The work is always heavy: dig the hard substance from pits deep in the earth.

The yield is terra-cotta red or deep gray like rain clouds or taupe like Isthmus sand.  The recipe is historic: Mix together clay and water. Use a long pine paddle hewn from a mountain log. Assure the consistency is pliable, exact.  Scoop it into smaller portions from which to create shape, form, structure.

Irma Claudia Garcia Blanco holds a portion of clay the color of steel. It is malleable and she presses her finger deep into its center.



She holds it like an infant, tender yet firm.  She caresses the clay body and a figure emerges.

The daughter of Teodora Blanco sets the cone figure aside and begins to roll a clay cigarette to shape one arm, then the other.

Her fingers are nimble.  Perhaps she will add an animal or anthropomorphic decoration:  bird, eagle, snake, lightning.  A chicken playing a fiddle!  A dancing cow!

 In the corner of the courtyard Tia guards the cooking pot filled with softening corn husks that will embrace fiesta tamales.

The daughter of Teodora Blanco has six daughters and one son. She remembers this as she works:  After childbirth the midwife covers her with a cloak of orange leaves, fragrant and soft, so her milk will come in sweeter.

Her husband takes the birthing water and discards it far from the house.  This is his role.  On the third day, her first sip will be clear chicken broth.  For 40 days, she will be confined to bed with the infant, drinking only unsweetened atolé to escape death.  This is mystical, in the old traditions, says Irma Claudia, as she works the clay that becomes a woman holding two chickens.

Lulu, the youngest daughter still at home, stands to the side.  She is quick with math and checks the transactions.

Years before a Rockefeller came here and anointed Teodora Blanco with fame.  Centuries before, her antecedents fashioned pots, fired in deep pits with wood ignited by dung.  This was their tribute to Monte Alban rulers who lived closer to god, high above Atzompa.  The vessels and figures offerings to embellish tables and tombs.

Now, the function is obscure.  We call this sculpture and decorate our homes, offices, gardens. The potter, daughter of generations, sits before her wheel.  It is metal, not clay.  The currency is pesos, not tribute.  The kiln is concrete, not adobe.  The fuel is still wood.






Irma Claudia signs her name for tourists, not royalty.  The beauty endures.


Irma Claudia Garcia Blanco Artesanias, Av. Juårez, #302, Santa Marîa Atzompa, Oaxaca, Mexico. (951) 558-9286.

Upcoming workshops:  Photography/Collage/Painting, Portrait Photography, Women’s Creative Writing + Yoga Retreat.

As mentioned in The Barra de Navidad Daily.

Monte Alban: Closer to the Gods

Atop the Zapotec world and about 15 minutes from the historic center of Oaxaca is the great Meso-american archeological site of Monte Alban, named by the Spaniards after siting the mountaintop covered with the blooms of the white morning-glory tree (left photo below).


The Spanish Conquistadores named Oaxaca for the  plant, called in Nahuatl huaxyacac, which they could not pronounce (pictured above right).  The pods contain edible green seeds used to flavor soups and stews.  Today, we see them nondescriptly bundled and sold in local and regional markets rarely remembering the important origins of this humble pod.

The Zapotecs of Monte Alban believed that the higher they built, the closer they would be to their gods to whom they prayed for rain and corn, for protection from earthquakes, for sun to yield more crops, and for other essentials of daily life.  Here, the sun, moon and stars determined life and its future.  The observatory, the geometry of the buildings, the size of the plaza were all determined by the solar calendar. The record of conquests were carved in the ancient rock — named swimmers and dancers by archeologists.


You can read much more about Monte Alban in archeological and history books or visit the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago where Monte Alban is cited among the great civilizations for its advanced organizational and government structure.


Sacred elements are carved into the stone.  The tiny steps were designed to hold the colored plaster that covered the temples, observatory and ball court.  Here is where the elite lived, closer to god, their ears pierced with plugs and their foreheads sloped as infants to signify their stature.  There were no human sacrifices at Monte Alban, according to our knowledgeable guide Pablo Gutierrez Marsh, only the offering of animals.

According to the Zapotec calendar, each day begins at noon.  The writing system is pictographic and has not yet been deciphered.  The plaza, which could hold 13,000 people, is flanked by two tall pyramids that visitors are allowed to climb.  They each lead to a high plaza where you can get a 360 degree view of the Oaxaca valley below.


During the Monte Alban I and Monte Alban II periods, farmers lived below and provided food for the ruling class who lived on the high terraces.  Ornamented pottery vessels were crafted in the village of Atzompa at the foot of Monte Alban.  Ceramics are still made there today.

I managed to climb the steep steps to the top of both temples flanking each end of the plaza.  At the top, humans appeared as if in miniature and the magnificence of place was astounding.  At the time when Monte Alban was first inhabited and construction began, around 700 A.D., there were no wheels or draught animals here. Only human labor carried huge slabs of stone up the mountain from the valley below.  Our group spent over two hours here capturing a sense of place.  The day was clear, sunny and brisk.  Perfect for climbing and walking.  I was on top of the world and so were our workshop participants!

Pablo, Deanna, Carey, June and Carole at Monte Alban

Photo Diaries: Blending Photography and Prose

What is photojournalism?  Our workshop instructor June Finfer, Chicago documentary filmmaker/photographer/playwright explains it this way:  It is making a picture, capturing the connection, creating something out of what you are feeling as you go beyond the surface of what you see.

Our charge this week is to make photographs and then write about impressions that our photographs evoke.  The narrative accompanies the picture.  June asks us to consider each photo and what persona relationship we have to it.  Can a photo answer questions such as:  What do you expect here?  What is it about this experience that has changed you?    “The exercise becomes like a picture story, says June. “Photography creates possibilities for a common language when language is a barrier. We all go to the same places and each of us comes back with a different feeling, experience, impression.”

Photograph #1:  Making Tamales by Norma Hawthorne

Las mujeres, the women, sit together under the palapa, ancient hands and some younger and still soft, take a fistful of soft masa paste, smear it into the cups of  tender young green corn husks.  They are comadres, sit together under starlight.  A child clings to his mother’s apron hem. Together they sing an ancient hymn of womanhood under the stars by the campfire, preparing the meal, obscured by steam from the cooking pot.  For eternity, for now, for us.

Photograph #2:  Tlacolula Child in Yellow by Norma Hawthorne

Lost underfoot or forgotten?  Which among those legs and backs is the parent who loves her and leaves her to look out at something distant, beyond her grasp.  It is a feast day.  Their attention is on the priest who gives mass and absolution.  She looks toward a future unknown.  Were she mine, I would hold her and cherish her, this small, delicate child dressed in yellow.

Photography #3:  Woman with Bundle by Norma Hawthorne

A refreshment is what she asks for.  I ask for a photo.  Perhaps, she says with lips pursed and a glint in one eye.  I am not stealing her soul.  Her hat is a bundle of grain stored in a grain sack, stamped words too blurred to read even magnified.  Here she is: proud, defiant, strong, survivor beyond what is possible to endure.  Her hat sanctifies her, a blessing.  She is my gift of the day and I return the gift with pesos for a refresco.  A dios.

Photograph #4:  Señor Secundino at Las Cuevitas by Norma Hawthorne

Rugged, etched wood, rough-hewn, the texture of life — furrowed brow, creased cheek, gnarled hand, cracked leather strap, bristled mustache, mottled goatskin pulled taut over pine drum, rough pine, watch the splinters, tiny diamond pattern in finely woven straw hat, a brim offering a bit of shade.  But now it is night.  The shadow cast by an exposed light bulb defines him: solid, durable, tenacious.

Photograph #5:  Sunset at Las Cuevitas 2012 by Norma Hawthorne

Shadowy figures, silhouettes mark time until sun sets.  Beyond are mountains, magnificent purple, black.  Sun rays spray the clouds like a crown of glory.  In the dusk muffled voices utter a universal prayer for the ages:  peace, good health, shelter and warmth.  See the distant town.  The church steeple.  The call to forgiveness.  Feliz y prospero año nuevo. 

Oaxaca Women’s Creative Writing and Yoga Retreat is coming up March 2-9.  Consider joining us.


Portraits of Las Cuevitas: Caves of Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca

After an incredible meal of sopa de verduras (vegetable soup) seasoned with hierba santa (a green leaf with a faint scent of licorice), mole negro (black spicy chocolate sauce) with chicken, traditional tamales stuffed with chicken and mole amarillo (red-orange spicy sauce made with chiles, corn paste [masa], and chicken stock), we piled into two cars for the trip to the caves.   We followed the tuk-tuks and pick-up trucks filled with villagers and arrived just in time for the 4:30 p.m. mass.


As the mass ended, people in line turned to each other, shook hands and welcomed in the new year with the blessing of “paz” — peace.  The band began to play and we formed a procession down to the grotto where each of us made an offering of a few pesos at each of the three altars set into the sacred rock hillside.  Children waited patiently at their parents feet or in their arms.

Boy waiting at Las Cuevitas

After making a prayer in the chapel, we picked our way up the hillside, over the rock escarpment and stone debris, past the playing band, to a spot where we  build our symbolic homes, construct our dreams, make our wishes for the coming year.  To do this conjures up truth and certainty.  It will happen.  We pile loose stones one atop of the other to form casita walls, then gather dried grasses and lay them atop rusty coat hangers bent to hold the roof.   A flat rock becomes a ramp for an abuela.  The sun begins to set.

The shadows of people are cut-out dolls against the pure blue sky.  Children play and dance under feet.  The firecrackers sizzle, explode, shoot skyward like rockets.  Prospero ano nuevo.


As dusk approaches, the chill of night descends.  Families sit by their miniature houses and dream of the future.  Women unwrap snacks and sandwiches for a picnic.  Young people hold hands. School will begin in a few days.  A curl of smoke rises from the valley below.

Men and boys haul in bundles of twigs and small branches for bonfires.  Many will camp here overnight in this sacred space.  The story goes that a virgin appeared here and then returned again.  A story overlaid upon an ancient Zapotec tradition, perhaps.

Now, Sr. Secundino Bazan Mendoza holds his handmade drum, stands by his compadres in the band.  This weaver-musician has served his church for over 53 years.  His granddaughter Estercita sits by the campfire above.

In silhouette, families sit cross-legged on the side of the hill facing south, watching, waiting, feeling the soft glow of the sun sink into the western sky. Warmth turns to chill.  I put on my wool rebozo.

Now, it is almost dark.  More people are streaming in from the village to make their wishes as we leave.  The vendors line the dusty path between the parked cars and the steep steps to the chapel, selling sticky, hot fresh sugar buns, cookie wafers, sandwiches, pizza and beer.  Children fall asleep in their mother’s arms or on their father’s shoulders.  Teens help their aging grandparents down the steep, slippery, rocky slope.  Cuidado, they call out.  Careful.  The rocks are loose underfoot.  Now, there is hope that this year’s  prayers will be answered:  a son without papers in the U.S. will return home to be embraced after a 15 year absence, a house under construction for four years will be completed, a debt will be repaid, there will be enough food for the winter, enough visitors to improve the economy, a turn for the better.

Feliz y prospero ano neuvo.  Good dreams and wishes for the year to come.