Sunday, March 28, 2010

Mexico 2010 - Part 2 - Oaxaca Crafts

Oaxaca – The Crafts

Some of our stuff!

One of the main draws to the Oaxaca region is the beautiful folk art. Much of it is now made specifically for the tourism trade, but that makes it no less beautiful, and it does all have cultural roots. As mentioned before, this is not kitsch stuff (though kitsch versions can be found). As a rule, it is all hand-made from natural local materials, and unique to certain villages, or groups of villages spreading out to the valleys surrounding the city of Oaxaca.

Our first foray into the craft world, besides being overwhelmed by the markets in the city, was to take a little tour that brought us to see the famous black pottery of Dona Rosa, and the alebrijes of Reyna y Zeny Fuentes. The tour sort of sucked because they only took us directly to those shops, and we did not get to see the towns. However the shops they took us to clearly produce some of the best work.

BARRO NEGRO (ba-roll the R- oh Nae-gro)

The workshop of Dona Rosa - Dona Rosa passed away in the 80's

The shiny black pottery is a unique method developed by an old woman named Dona Rosa back in the 50's that produces an ebony black shine on the pieces without the use of glaze or chemicals. The clay they use is unique to their village of San Bartolo Cayotepec, and something similar is only found in one other place in the world, somewhere in the United States’ Southwest. When fired the traditional way, the terracotta clay turns a matte gray and is super hard. It even sounds like metal when you beat on it with a stick. Before cheap Walmart-style plastic containers came around, this craft was exclusively used by the indigenous Zapotec people for carrying water, eating and storing food ,etc…for thousands of years. (The same pottery style and clay sourced from this village can be found in various ruins including Monte Alban and Mitla!) There was not much of a commercial market for their work until Dona Rosa came up with the technique of making it glossy black by using quartz crystal to polish the dried ceramic, and then firing it for a shorter time and lower temperature to produce this beautiful pottery. The funny thing about doing this is despite how it looks, it does not hold water when polished, so is of a purely decorative nature. Plus, it is not nearly as strong as the original method, as we found in our box of stuff we shipped home. Too bad. That Jaguar head was really cool before it broke!

Dona Rosa's Son (or grandson? She was really old when she died in the 80's)
Demonstrates the whole process)

The pottery is hand-built, shaping by hand and using large coils

Notice no pottery wheel is used. They put what's basically two inverted shallow bowls on each other to assist with turning by hand. They accomplish the perfect shapes and even roundness purely by hand with a seemingly innate ability. (In truth, they have been doing this since childhood, so they have a lot of practice!)

The detail work is done using a variety of very basic tools.

The last step before firing is to tediously polish the dried piece with quartz crystal.
This whole process actually takes several weeks, not five minutes like in this demo!

ALEBRIJES (Al-lay-bree-hays)

Cute little Rabbits

The alebrijes are whimsical beasts carved out of wood, dried, then painstakingly painted using the needle of the cactus for the detail dot work. The good pieces are all carved from a single piece of wood, so no glue or nails here kiddos. Though now they are mainly created for tourists, originally they were created to represent each person’s totem, assigned to them at birth (or something. Look guys, we’re not wikipedia. Just going by memory of our crappy Spanish skills, so don’t yell at us if this is wrong. Just enjoy our story.)

The men carve the objects (they claim they have the hard job)

This will be a spectacular piece when complete. It is all carved from a single piece of wood.
He did NOT glue the baby onto the back!!!

The women paint the alebrijes. Her daughter helps, but mom does the fine work. Even the designs on the beasts themselves have meaning, such as representing the sea, the sky, the earth, and something else. The sun might be the center, with the moon and sky above. We didn't get too deep into what it means when, but it's all symbolically painted onto the beasts according to your totem (or whatever you like as the tourist!)

They had much to chose from, and it was not cheap!

TAPETES - (Tah-pae-tae's)

Robin with "The Maestro" Isaac Vasquez Garcia at their home and shop
"The Bug in the Rug"
The tapete was actually made by his son.

The third art form we were very interested in was the art of weaving wool throw-rugs, called “TAPETES”. The Zapotec Indians specialize in this craft in and around Teotitlan. It is not an original art form. The technique is from Spain and they were forced into doing it as slaves to tithe to the ilks of Cortes, but they continued the craft incorporating Zapotec designs and meaning into their work. We actually got to take the chicken bus to Teotitlan and walk around. It’s just like the guidebooks say; you can walk around and see the looms in people’s homes. When they see you peeking through the door, they will often invite you in, show you the loom, and demonstrate the process. The home we went to was totally a family affair, with the young child, maybe 7, spinning wool into yarn, while the father was weaving. Now, before you get your panties in a knot about child labor, it was after siesta, so the kids were home from school, and the child got to run around in circles playing, then run back to the spinner and spin a little more yarn, run for a snack, spin some yarn, laugh at the gringos, do a little more work. This is not China people, and like it or not, this is how most families make their living in this particular village. In fact, each of the senior members of the family had their own loom and each loom had a work-in-progress of their own design. Each would weave for a few hours a day in addition to whatever else they did to keep the house running i.e. cooking, cleaning, working etc.

A little about the beautiful colors of these rugs. The dyes us all natural ingredients. The stunning reds and maroons come from the insects (cochinilla) that live naturally on the cactus plant. The little larvae, or whatever, live in white cocoon-like bits, and when you smear the bugs, they make the beautiful red. Then when you add other ingredients, such as lime, water, or lye, it changes to different shades of red, even to a dark maroon, almost brown color. A nice person at a different shop (Artesanias Gonazlez, all organic) demonstrated this to us on Grant’s hand. I mean, we watched him scrape this white stuff off the cactus on to his hand, squeeze the lime, etc… Well hell. Here are the pictures:

This is the cochinilla on the cactus

After scraping some onto Grant's hand, he rubbed it quickly with his finger producing this bright red smear.

He added some lime, to make it a brilliant red, then added water and lye to show the different shades of red it turns.

Here is a close-up of the different colors. Grant's hand was stained for days!

The green, yellow, and blue all come from plants. The blue is really cool. They take it from this plant here, boil it, concentrate it, and then dry it to these indigo chunks.

The plant that makes blue/indigo

Chunks of blue dye, made from the above plant

All the natural products used to dye the wool. From the top clockwise:
Blue, black, yellow, insects for red, then a salt that sets the colors (I think).

Each batch of yarn is different, though they try to match colors. Obviously you can use the same batch of dye to make progressively lighter shades of color. We made our first purchase from a shop in Oaxaca city from a women’s collective, then stopped by the Maestro’s house. As much as we love our first rug, the Maestro’s work, and that of his family’s, was noticeably finer quality, and I had to have another. The Maestro has been featured in museums around the world, in National Geographic, and a variety of other magazines. We met him ourselves, and he graciously showed us the whole process.

Yarn drying

The Maestro's loom. His work is much, much more intricate and fine than the products
other people graciously demonstrated for us. All are beautiful though.

There were a few other weaving specialties, such as for tablecloths, curtains, that sort of thing, but we purchased the above products. We have never bought souvenirs of any type in our travels, so I think it says a lot about the quality and beauty of the products made around Oaxaca.

This three part series is going to be a four part series because I just could not fit the ancient ruins and coast into this post. Please bear with me, as we’re really busy trying to be a grown up right now, so get a little behind on our work. We love Mexico and are really excited about this last trip, so more is on its way!

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Mexico 2010 - Part 1 - Oaxaca City

Oaxaca –

In case you were unfamiliar, Mexico is actually the United Mexican States, or in Spanish “Estados Unidos Mexicanos”. There are 31 states, of which Oaxaca is one. Oaxaca is hard to get to as it is surrounded by mountains and ocean. Because of this, Oaxaca was and still is virtually ignored by the rest of Mexico. This allowed Oaxaca to develop their culture, food, crafts, and politics quite independently from other influences. Of course, being ignored also made them one of the poorest and more illiterate states in the country. This is especially true for the Indian populations, many of whom still speak their native language and do NOT speak Spanish. The two major native groups in Oaxaca are the Zapotec and Mixtec, though there are approximately 14 other unique indigenous groups in Oaxaca with distinct languages and cultures. The people of Oaxaca make some of the most beautiful and world-renowned crafts in Mexico. We are not talking kitsch here. They also have great coffee, wonderful chocolate, and tons of moles (food sauces, not rodents), and a lot of headache producing Mezcal, similar to tequila.

The City –

Ciudad Oaxaca is a beautiful city, and as I’ve seen in all my Mexico travels, a city of contradictions. You cannot throw a stick without hitting a 16th century cathedral, whether crumbling, or fully restored, or somewhere in between. All are full places of worship, so you must pay attention when taking pictures so as not to disrespect the more pious visitors. (Grant and I forgot that people like to go to church on Saturdays as well as Sundays. Oops.) Despite the grand architecture and bold blooming flowers and gardens, these beautiful cathedrals are surrounded by crumbling buildings and homes patched together with scrap tin, with very visible poverty at the entrances to all these important Catholic establishments.

In my opinion, the most beautiful cathedral in Oaxaca, which can be seen from our panoramic view above and from is Catedral Santo Domingo.

According to the Wikipedia, it took 200 years to build, starting in the mid 1500’s. It also now contains a great cultural museum. Though it is a huge tourist draw, the Church itself is not a museum, and is still used for worship.

We even saw a huge traditional wedding in it. We are assuming they were from a very elite Oaxaca family, as it seems like it would be very cost-prohibitive to rent this huge, colonial Cathedral for the average Joe.

The main Catedral de Oaxaca lies at the base of the Zocalo (every town has a Zocalo, which is the town square and center of social and cultural activity). It is pretty cool, only built in the early 1700’s as the first couple churches were destroyed in earthquakes.

Typical night on the Zocolo

We saw several other Cathedrals, most stumbled upon while strolling the streets. As a recovering Catholic, I was afraid I would be struck down by lightning, so did not linger.

Oaxaca has a lot of great regional food, but also has a lot of creative and international options. Funny enough, like the rest of us in our own home towns, locals like to venture out to try other cuisines too, LOL. It’s ok. Don’t feel bad if you eat a little pizza and have a glass of wine while visiting international cities like Oaxaca. Really, there are only so many tacos and quesadillas one can eat in three weeks!




By the way, did I mention how safe I felt in the city? Keep in mind ladies, wherever you are in the world especially Mexico, always dress conservatively. I.E., it’s best to wear pants or long skirt and avoid tank tops. Shorts are for the beach. Also, swallow your feminist pride, and pretend your boyfriend is your husband, try not to venture out in the evening without him or your best friend, and always smile and be polite (except when saying a strong “no” to unwelcome men trying to lick your hand), and you will largely avoid unwanted advances and Machismo, or angry looks from the grandmothers. Keep in mind, men, that no matter how tough you think you are, there are certain bars you just do not go into. They are easy to tell because on Sunday mornings, they are crowded with loud drunk men, and you cannot see into them. By following these little rules, Grant and I have largely avoided trouble in conservative Latin American countries.

This is just an introduction. I will talk about the crafts and coast of Oaxaca in the next post, and also offer up a tid-bit of the relaxing drinking part of our vacation on the Carribbean coast of the Yucatan Peninsula in the state of Quintana Roo(probably the best name for a state ever).