Colour and Light, Part Two: A Cultural Vanguard

“Oaxaca, a la vanguardia en cultura.” (Oaxaca is in the vanguard of culture.)  So states a special report in our morning paper. http://www.noticiasnet.mx/portal/oaxaca/general/gobiernos/195390-oaxaca-la-vanguardia-en-cultura

The statement reflects everything I have been experiencing this week. The state of Oaxaca blends a respect for tradition with an awareness of contemporary issues, politics and ecology. Rural towns specialize in indigenous crafts of pottery, rugs, alebrijes (brightly painted fanciful wooden creatures) and mescal, but the valley also houses artists of the new Mexico, whose work is exhibited in urban galleries. Within moments you can travel back in time, or leap forward with new approaches and creative solutions to new problems.

Our friend Lynda Wilde is a photographer and writer who lives in Mexico during the fall and winter months www.lyndawilde.com. Lynda offered to take us on an adventure to discover some of the range of Oaxacan culture. Our first stop was  a tiny village three quarters of an hour out of the city, San Marcos Tlapazola, where she wanted to get  a new cooking pot from los Mujers del Barro Roja.

The road to Tlapazola
The road to San Marcos Tlapazola

The signpost outside of Tlapazola lists the population as 1500, but I think that this may be generous. The village is tucked into the side of a mountain, as are many of the rural villages.  An old reference book mentions the tourist Yu’u in Tlapazloa as a place to get a guide, and to stay the night. As we passed, it was clear that it has been deserted for many years – woe betide any tourist who heads there looking for accommodation!

But in the heart of San Marcos Tlapazola is an extraordinary family of women – the Mujers del Barro Roja – who have been making extraordinary red clay pots, plates and jugs for several generations.

Mujeres del Barro Rojo
Mujeres del Barro Rojo

The women work in a completely non-mechanized way, spinning their pots on pieces of leather stuck in the ground and firing them in a kiln coated with wood and donkey dung. Lynda visits them every year, and has made a film of their firing process. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6mpk_XcFPks  When we arrived the women greeted her with great hugs and smiles.

Their pottery is simple, elegant, light weight and incredibly functional. Polished and shiny, you can cook with them on the stovetop or in the oven. We sat in their small storage room and pulled pots from the shelves, comparing sizes and shapes, and searching to find lids that matched our favourites. If I weren’t flying home I would buy them all. I loved their feel and glow.

the red pottery of los mujeres del San Marcos Tlapazola
the red pottery of los mujeres del San Marcos Tlapazola

The sister’s warmth and humour was infectious, their way of life honest and indigenous. Their beautiful elderly mother sat polishing a small bowl. A young niece worked over an open fire preparing comida. Chickens scratched in the yard. There are no men in their world, and they seemed entirely happy and at peace.

With our purchases made, they sent us on our way with freshly made Tlayuda (a regional crispy, thin tortilla about 20” in diameter).

Lynda Wilde and los Mujeres del barro rojo
Lynda Wilde and los Mujeres del barro rojo

Lynda also wanted to show us the other, contemporary Mexico. Any excursion into the arts of Oaxaca must pay tribute to Francisco Toledo. Toledo is renowned for his artwork and his encouragement of the contemporary arts of Oaxaca. He was instrumental in starting an art library at the Instituto de Artes Gráficas de Oaxaca and in founding the Museo de Arte Contemporáneo de Oaxaca (MACO). He was also one of the driving forces behind the Centro de los Artes de San Agustín Etla http://www.cenart.gob.mx/vida-academica/centros-de-las-artes-estatales/centro-de-las-artes-de-san-agustin-etla/.

Centro de los Artes de San Agustín Etla
Centro de los Artes de San Agustín Etla

Founded in 2006, the centre is the first ecological arts centre of Latin America. Housed in a former spinning and weaving factory outside the small town of San Agustín Etla, it sits in atop Vista Hermosa, Beautiful View, looking over the valley of Oaxaca. The Centro de los Artes de San Agustín Etla was created to encourage training, experimentation and collaboration amongst artists in all disciplines. The classrooms, display halls, residences and libraries are an inspiration to national and international artists.

The Vista is indeed beautiful, as are the renovated buildings of the centre.

Centro de los Artes de San Agustín Etla
Centro de los Artes de San Agustín Etla

On the day we arrived, there were no classes going on, but we were able to wander through the facilities to our heart’s content. A new display showed us that the next phase of the project is to build a home for the study of mathematics, which to me seems thrillingly creative. There was also an exhibit of new work by Francisco Toledo– a wonderful show of drawings and watercolours created as an homage to Jorge Luis Borges’ fantastical animals. Ribald, sexual, surprising, the show revealed Toledo’s collaborative approach and incredibly artistry.

A steady stream of water flowing down from the top of the mountain made the location ideal for the nineteenth century factory, and in the twenty-first the flow of water encouraged the creation of Arte Papel Vista Hermosa. An artisanal paper making facility just down the mountain from the Centro de los Artes, Arte Papel encourages the use of natural fibers and techniques, using ecologically motivated production processes and contemporary artistry. The discipline and craft of the institute’s paper artists are reflected in the sheets of hand made paper and paper creations (jewelry, kites, hand bound books) offered for sale. Paper, I thought to myself, is easier to carry home than pots.

A workshop at Arte Papel Vista Hermosa
A workshop at Arte Papel Vista Hermosa

From the peace and beauty of Vista Hermosa, Lynda said she’d like to take us to an industrial park. An industrial park? “We’re going to visit a glass factory,” she said. “I need some new glasses.”

We drove through a gate surrounding a number of sterile looking buildings.

Xa Quixe, the glass factory
Xa Quixe, the glass factory

Walking through a yard of machinery and broken bottles we entered Xa Quixe, a Zapotec word meaning, amongst other things, “a time for transparency”. http://www.xaquixe.com/. Inside the factory we were greeted by Padro, who informed us that they were not blowing glass that day but we welcome to look through the showroom and factory.

While lacking the natural scenic beauty of Centro de los Artes, Xa Quixe is equally inspiring in terms of artistry. Founded in 2002 by Salime Harp Cruces and Christian Thornton, Xa Quixe has a mission to produce original designs while being commited to environmental and social ideals. “Xaquite is a calling to a disciplined process manifested through creative action with fire and glass,” says the translated web site. The web site is a wonderful combination of poetry, imagery and information, blending Zapotec history with contemporary sensibilities.

Glass pieces in Xa Quixe
Glass pieces in Xa Quixe

Standing in the slightly dusty showroom, I was hooked. Sleek forms had been stretched into bird like sculptures. They nestled beside functional glasses in organic forms that begged to be held, admired and sipped from. And what a range of colours! The pieces were vibrant and full of life.

Padro and Salvador at Xa Quixe
Padro and Salvador at Xa Quixe

Padro introduced us to Salvador, who spoke fluent English – which was necessary in order for us to fully comprehend the innovations that Xa Quixe is undertaking. Environmentally conscious, he explained, they use recycled glass. Recycled glass doesn’t take colours well, but Christian Thornton has developed a new way of working, a new secret chemical process that allows their recycled glass to accept colour.

Salvador also explained that a glass factory uses an incredible amount of energy – the furnace is constantly burning at 1300° centigrade. In order to save on energy, they have converted the furnace to use vegetable oil recycled from restaurants. They are able to get it to burn hot enough, and to have no bi-product. Looking forward, they know that there will be a huge competition for recycled oil, so they are working to develop a solar heating system. Solar? I ask. Solar up to 1300°? Yes. They think they are about 3 years away from that, Salvador says. Solar, plus an ecologically friendly combination of hydrogen and methane.

Inspiring. Blending modern technology with ancient craft and social consciousness. Salvador and Pedro are people who bubble over with the love of their profession and their art. This was a new Mexico for me, a forward-thinking Mexico of innovation.

Now I if I can just find some bubble wrap to pack up my hand blown mezcal glasses…

On our cultural adventure in Oaxaca
On our cultural adventure in Oaxaca

For Fearless Drivers: A Journey into the Sierra Juárez mountains

Just north of the city of Oaxaca is the Sierra Juárez mountain range. It is the land of the Sierra Zapotecs, one of the first indigenous peoples of Mexico, whose ancestry stretches back to at least 1000 BC. The mountain range is known for its incredibly rich natural diversity, with over 2000 different plant species, tropical evergreen forests, and a cloud forest that forms a band 1,000 – 2250 meters high. In Zapotec, Schiaa Ruavia means the “hill where the cloud is born”.

We rented a car and asked our friend Lynda Wilde, a fabulous photographer from Kingston, Ontario, if she would drive us into the cloud mountains. Heading out of Oaxaca on a cool morning, she also drove us backwards in time.

Teotitlán, 37 kilometers outside of Oaxaca, is the gateway to the mountain road. The town sits under the shadow of el Picacho, the mountain where, legend has it, the Zapotecs were born.

el Picacho
el Picacho

The town has been Zapotec for 2500 years and Zapotec is still the primary language. Teotitlán is famous for weaving. Rugs and tapestries are made on hand looms, mostly with locally sourced wool and dyed with natural, traditional dyes. Even though tourists flock there for the authentic craft, it is small and retains ancient customs and ways.

Out of Teotitlán, the road begins a serious sequence of switchbacks. Checking directions in a guide book, we notice for the first time the cautionary sentence, “for fearless drivers”.

Switchback roads in the Sierra Juárez mountains
Switchback roads in the Sierra Juárez mountains

Linda has done this journey before in her four-wheel drive. Our little economy rental seems wildly inappropriate. It would be a suicidal drive in the rainy season.

Looking back on Teotitlán in the distance
Looking back on Teotitlán in the distance

But after travelling through seemingly endless, narrow, remote roads, we arrive at the bustling town of Benito Juárez (population about 1,000), fifty-eight kilometers north of Oaxaca city.

The town, originally called San Pablo Guelatao, was the birthplace of Benito Juárez, Mexico’s first indigenous president and Mexico’s most beloved native son. We are now 2900 metres (7200 feet) above sea level, sitting amongst the clouds. It’s cold, so we stop for hot chocolate and pan dolce beside the tourist information centre.

Benito Juárez tourist information centre
Benito Juárez tourist information centre

The mountains are home to endangered species of jaguar, ocelot and deer. One of the largest areas for butterflies and birds, there is a strong ecotourism movement to try to conserve the forest and protect it from the stresses of logging, agriculture and potential hydroelectric dams.

the Sierra Juárez cloud forest
the Sierra Juárez cloud forest

Los Pueblos Mancomunados is a group of eight small towns that have developed trails for hiking, mountain biking and camping in the mountains. The town of Benito Juárez is one of the starting points. We meet a Polish couple, who ask if we can tell them where the trail begins. We encourage them to go to the information centre, but they speak no Spanish. Intrepid, they head out into the woods. We hope they have a map.

In the centre of town we come across school children performing what looks exactly like “Speech & Drama”. A small girl declaims in the central square, her voice commanding the space as examiners make notes and parents look on.

Speech & Drama exams in Benito Juárez
Speech & Drama exams in Benito Juárez

Beside the square is a recreation of Benito Juárez’s birth home with adobe walls, tile roof and dirt floor.

Reproduction of the kitchen of the home of Benito Juárez
Reproduction of the kitchen of the home of Benito Juárez

Juárez was born in 1806 in the town of San Pablo Guelatao. His parents died when he was 3. He was raised by an uncle and became a shepherd. When he was 12, speaking only Zapotec, he walked to the city of Oaxaca where he was taken in by his sister. Here, his “thirst for learning” was recognized, and he received schooling at the city’s seminary. He became a lawyer, entered politics, and in 1857 became Mexico’s first indigenous president.

The statue of Benito Juárez in the town of Benito Juárez
The statue of Benito Juárez in the town of Benito Juárez

Throughout the country there are statues and monuments in his honour. March 21st, his birthday, is a national day of celebration. The town of San Pablo Guelatao changed its name in his honour.

Clearly this is a town of impressive orators.

Lynda takes us out of the town on a search for “Truchas Cuachirindoo Ixtlan”, a trout farm in the mountains. A trout farm in the mountains? We weave through the tiny streets of Ixtlan de Juárez, searching for handwritten signs that say “Truchas”. It’s like a scavenger hunt. After many false turns, and several dead ends, we find a dirt path that leads to a small parking lot. We’ve arrived.

We shiver as we settle at outside tables. But we are greeted immediately by Noel, the owner, carrying glasses of mezcal.

Laurie and Lynda warm up with mezcal
Laurie and Lynda warm up with mezcal

Noel grew up Zapotec and left to live in Los Angles before returning home to begin a family business. His English is flawless, so we are able to understand the story of the trout farm.

There is a stream running down the mountain, which Noel’s family has tapped into. They have set up a series of holding tanks and, working with water from the stream, have built up their fish nursery. The baby trout are furthest up the mountain. Our lunch trout are in a tank right outside the kitchen door.

Trout tanks at Truchas Cuachirindoo Ixtlan
Trout tanks at Truchas Cuachirindoo Ixtlan

Noel brings us cups of sweet Mexican coffee to augment our mezcal, and hot toastados to nibble on while he cooks our fish. My filet arrives sealed in aluminum foil. It’s been steamed over the wood stove. I open the foil and the warm smells of tomato, garlic, lime, epizote, onion, chili verde and quesillo (a thin cheese sauce) waft out.

The drive may be for the fearless, but it is certainly one well worth conquering your fears.

The view from Truchas Cuachirindoo Ixtlan
The view from Truchas Cuachirindoo Ixtlan