Amy with SMU-in-Oaxaca

Amy spent winter break 2007-08 in Oaxaca, Mexico, where she and other SMU students explored culture, art and anthropology – visiting villages, churches and museums; participating in festivals; and working alongside the indigenous people of Oaxaca.
Amy is a junior from Austin majoring in studio art with minors in art history and women’s studies.

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Hierve El Agua and Mitla

Excerpts from Amy’s blog:

Sundays are quiet in Oaxaca. It is a day of rest, a time intended to be spent with family and with God.

Amy-car.jpgAfter a filling breakfast the group filled the van and headed to Hierve EL Agua, truly an incredible landscape. Hierve El Agua, located in the mountains, is one of the most spectacular sites I have been to.

Amy-falls.jpgAs water bubbles or “boils” out of springs (Hierve El Agua translates as “boils the water”) and cascades down cliffs, carbonates are deposited forming stalactites (I’m a science nerd) and travertine “waterfalls,” which overlook a valley. It is a naturally formed hot springs. This petrified waterfall drops into the valley, several hundred feet below. This is one of two waterfalls in the world that is petrified.

The water is not actually hot in temperature, rather cold but heavy in salt content. The mineral build-up/accumulation can be seen throughout the “swimming” area, which are two moderately sized pools of water, formed by tiny vein-like water pathways. This all ultimately leads to the petrified waterfall. The water petrifies so rapidly that one can actually see the individual water droplets, accumulated like stacked beans or a reptile’s scales.

Amy-air.jpg If there is any scenario perfectly suited for mediation, Hierve El Agua is it. The sense of stillness present here leaves me unable to speak. Any description would be inadequate. It is seeing a landscape for the first time. My favorite line regarding ‘seeing’ is by artist Robert Irwin, he says “seeing is forgetting the name of the thing one sees.” This is quite similar to what occurred while visiting this space, as my tongue failed to work, my mind failed to pull from its mental file what exactly I programmed a “landscape” to be.

Amy-water.jpgThat description aside, there soon were other visitors in the space, generating a more interactive and social situation. Everyone seemed to be taken into a trance by the waterfall and pool’s structure. I did enjoy seeing the mixture occur between the Europeans, Americans and locals. We all seemed to be observing one another, like foreign landscapes. A very strange and curious interaction. I am not sure what to make of this. I did feel a bit like an “obnoxious American” however, as our group was louder than the others, utilizing various technologies to “capture” the environment. – I am being a bit cynical here, but there is something in the way that the others – Europeans and locals – used nothing but their minds to register the space.

There is a piece by Agnes Martin that parallels my experience of Hierve El Agua. She says:

In my best moments I think “Life has passed me by” and I am content. Walking seems to cover time and space but in reality we are always just where we started. I walk but in reality I am hand in hand with contentment on my own doorstep.

Amy.jpgMitla:
The main ruins of Mitla lie within the area of the modern town; I believe it is about forty minutes away from Oaxaca and the site of Monte Alban. Mitla was established as early as 900 BC and was inhabited from 750 AD until 1512 AD. It was built and inhabited by the Zapotecs and was known to be the palace of the high priest.

The outside walls are covered with unique patterns that can still be found in tapestry, jewelry, and sculpture from this region of Mexico today. Two types of structures seem to be at Mitla. The most famous is the group of buildings including the Palacio and Hall of the Monoliths. Though these buildings are old they are in excellent state of preservation and show few effects of the frequent earthquakes in the area (our group experienced two while in Oaxaca).

I think these buildings were built about interior courts, sometimes as separate buildings, in one case connecting to two courts, without access from the outside. There are large monolithic round columns, estimated to weigh several tons. The perfection of the stone cutting, so carefully done that the stones are largely if not entirely set without mortar.

The other incredible aspect is the patterned carving, made of small interlocking pieces of stone carved with great accuracy. The Zapotecs, early on, did develop stylized symbols for Lightning, as a snake with flames above its eyes, and Earth, as a mask with a cleft head, but it’s hard to see either of these symbols in the grecas, let alone a feathered serpent. The designs continue in use today in the rugs of many of the Zapotec weavers living nearby. Fragments of what were evidently hieroglyphic paintings also remain on some of the surfaces.

The Zapotec religion worshiped two main gods, Sky and Earth. The Zapotecs made a major distinction between objects containing “life” and objects that did not. The forms of their gods that contained “life” were Lightning and Earthquake. Lightning was the most powerful. Dead ancestors from the ruling class could join Lightning as a cloud person or ben zaa. Ben zaa were venerated and worshiped in what some describe as similar to saints in western religions.

The name Mitla comes from the nahuatl wordmixclanfor “place of the dead.” Burials at Mitla were reserved for special members of the upper class. They were undoubtedly destined to become cloud people who could intercede with Lightning on behalf of the population.

Nearby the ruins of Mitla is a Spanish Catholic Church, Grupo de Iglesia, that has been built from – and over – an elaborate Mixtec patio. The Aztecs conquered Mitla around 1494 and when the Spanish took control they demanded that the locals convert to Catholicism. Because they were competing with the natives’ beliefs and with the ancient spiritual and symbolic buildings (like Mitla) the Spanish built a new church on top of a portion of Mitla’s site, searching the original temple for building materials. I feel that this is a reminder that while the European and the indigenous may coexist in Oaxaca, they never fully blend.

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