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.

Read more from Amy with SMU-in-Oaxaca

The wood carvers

Excerpts from Amy’s blog:

Hungry for lunch, Esther takes the group to a fantastic restaurant, owned by the family we are to visit that afternoon. The restaurant has homemade tortillas, salsas, cheeses as appetizers; I order the cactus soup and mole enchiladas. Both were rich and delicious, the mole sauce both sweet and spicy (like chocolate and chili). The group was able to talk together and relax a bit.

It was at this point I realized we all had vastly different backgrounds, interests and plans … each of us brought a new perspective to the surface and incorporated their experience from another context into the trip, resulting in a dynamic that was striking in a way.

n18807799_32641757_2812.jpgAfter our meal we headed to the wood carvers of San Martin Tilcajete, a family with the most sincere and generous demeanor. Their house was their studio, their workshop and ultimately, their lives. I related to this system of interconnectedness, where not only is the actual structure/architecture overlapping (house/studio) but the immaterial is constantly connected and rooted together (personal/professional roles, internal/external thought).

Each family member contributed a different role, with mostly the men as carvers and the women as painters. These roles paralleled the Western structure of what is considered “masculine” and “feminine” -which I thought was interesting. In fact, this role-structure is evident and implemented in many ways in Mexico, a factor that is deeply woven into the culture (unfortunately). I did feel the notions of what was considered “appropriate” for men and “appropriate” for women were highly conservative in comparison with American culture. This is in part a result of economic and political status in Mexico – but it is mainly a cultural result.

Tradition plays a vital role in Oaxaca’s social and political structures. For example, a story of tradition regarding men and women in marriage was explained to me by our guide, Esther. She explained that life in areas of Oaxaca is strongly segregated by gender. Men and women often work separately, coming together to eat in the morning and evening, and during ritual occasions they remain separate except when dancing. Traditional ritual dancing involves one man and one woman dancing detached, moving in opposite directions.

She explained that women’s experience of sexuality tends to vary significantly by age and by social status. Frequently there is a long, elaborate ceremony that occurs when the men choose the woman they wish to marry. The young man’s family comes to petition for the bride at four in the morning, bearing large baskets of chocolate, bread, and giant candies. This ceremony is one of several ceremonies associated with traditional weddings performed over a period of years. After the official engagement ceremony, a young woman will go live with her future husband and will often have one or two children with him before the church wedding. Gender as an organizing principle continues to be a key aspect of social life. Sexuality is certainly linked to gender but is not usually a separate aspect (I don’t think) of social identity in public situations/discourses in the community.

Regarding the wood carving workshop:
A demonstration was given at the wood carving workshop, informing us of the kind of tree used and the manner in which they paint the pieces. Consisting mostly of animals, these wood pieces are directly rooted in Zapotec beliefs of the spiritual life – taking the shape of animals, a symbolic representation of one’s soul. The animals were not abstracted figures but very representative and naturalistic renditions.

Each piece is meticulously hand-carved, painted and sold. Many wood carvings were painted with elaborately detailed patterns, shadowing Zapotec textile patterns and the structural patterns of Mitla (talked about further down). These wood sculptures are exhibited worldwide and, in many ways, exemplified Oaxacan culture: colorful, multi-layered (both in process and aesthetically), they have a sense of strength and permanence yet can be fragile and temporal (wood cracks, rots, color deteriorates, etc.) Therefore the structure parallels the layered complexity of Oaxaca. The process alone regarding the wood carving is time intensive, requiring patience and focus (similar to weaving, pottery making and other work structures in Oaxaca).

Our group was able to collaborate with the wood carvers, testing out the process of painting wooden animals/figures. This was interesting, as I was able to sit and converse with the family in Spanish, talking with them about their childhood in Oaxaca, how they became such prominent wood carvers and the symbolic elements of the carved animals. They seemed to occupy a sense of space that is foreign to most Westerners. They understand the process of how work, family, spirituality and living simply connect together, creating a unified and balanced state. There is no specific instance of this, and it is not something I can directly box in. It was pointed out to me through spending time, slowing down and listening, looking at them as they spoke: how they spoke, their body language and sensibility.

After painting our own sculptures we retreated back to the hotel. Just as we pulled out of the driveway (about a mile past the carver’s home) we were flagged down by a local who had been phoned by the one of the family members at the carving workshop. They explained that one of the students had left their painted animals and they were driving to deliver it to us. It, of course, was my sculpture that I had left. The selflessness and generosity of this family was striking and sincerely touching.

Oaxacans have a true sense of what it is to be human, to be connected on a profound level with others, both unfamiliar and familiar faces. However there is also much poverty and tragedy throughout this culture. The hardships and challenges some face here rest on an unfamiliar grounds to most Westerners. Although the living conditions are humble, simple and at times incredibly difficult and starkly different from our own there is presence and gratitude woven throughout the villages and indigenous people. All of these aspects are, again, present and deeply rooted but subtly placed: not exactly evident from a surface-level observation.

After relocating back to our hotel we rested for a bit. My roommate and I took the director, Kathy, out for a bite to eat at a small, family-run restaurant a few blocks from the hotel. We each ordered different dishes, I was completely hooked
on mole sauce (and intent on trying every type: rojo, verde, amarillo, negro; red, green, yellow, brown, black) so I ordered a chicken mole dish; Kathy and Halei had fish that looked fantastic. We walked through the outside markets on the way to the hotel, which surprisingly stay open late and remain somewhat active.

There are quite a few tourists in Oaxaca City, specifically Americans and Europeans. This mixture of tourists and indigenous Oaxacans is interesting- never once did I sense tension or animosity between the two groups, but instead a curious and involved exchange. Oaxaca is largely dependent on tourism to keep their underlying foundation and economic structure afloat. When the summer 2006 teacher’s strike and political uprisings occurred the tourism sharply declined, causing a harsh/detrimental cuts in a variety of businesses for the locals. It is interesting to experience Oaxaca after this event, and I am curious to see if the interaction/dynamic between Oaxacans and tourists has evolved or shifted in any way.

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