SMU in Oaxaca

During winter term 2009-10, seven students will earn Art History/CF credit studying ancient archaeological sites, Colonial art and architecture, folk art and religious fiestas in the Valley of Oaxaca, the Sierra Norte, Sierra Madre del Sur and on the Pacific Coast as part of SMU-in-Oaxaca.

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Hidden in the mountains

An update from Anne, a graduate student in history with a focus on the U.S. Southwest and Mexico who is doing research on Indian history:

For the last four days, we have spent our time nestled in the majestic and rugged beauty of the Sierra Norte Mountains.

Here we have been exposed to an array of cultures and practices exhibited by local communities. This region is drastically different than Oaxaca City. Although this area is shaped by the world market economy and affected by out-migration, it also remains a bit more isolated than those pueblos easily accessible via Oaxaca City.

Here cooperation and community remain important to people’s lives and the villages’ identities. Although a social hierarchy exists, residents of towns such as Ixtlan, a place we visited, contribute to the maintenance and preservation of the town.

In a rapidly changing world – the result of a modernization of technology and transportation – locals find ways to reinvent themselves in an effort to deal with the complex changes of a global society. Through religion, cooperation and social structures, people preserve traditional ways but also adapt to modernization as well.

Jan6-1.jpg Work is difficult to find here, especially if you are elderly, but this is not to suggest that it is impossible. On our first day (Jan. 6) in this region, we went to Ixtlan to the Shoo-Betoo fish farm. After a couple of major setbacks, four elders successfully opened up a fish farm with the meager resources they were able to consolidate.

Today the same fish farm employs more than 15 people, provides needed food for surrounding communities, and stands as a testament to how people are resourceful, resilient, and capable of reinventing themselves in the latter years of their life.

Having the pleasure of meeting one of the four men who taught themselves a new trade was inspiring and telling about the people here. The farm has a restaurant, which we were able to sample for ourselves. It’s no wonder this business has taken off so quickly during the last decade.

That same night we settled into our cabins in Calpulalpan. Perched in the mountains and surrounded by forest, they provided us with view of the town just below.

Jan6-2.jpg During the first evening, we participated in the Calenda, which was more religious-based then the one the night before in Oaxaca City. We did not notice any other “outsiders,” which made the experience even more special and secluded.

The gracious hospitality of the community was particularly noteworthy. At the Calenda they gave us traditional rice milk drinks and provided us with cake and candy.

Afterward some of were still a bit hungry, but because of the holiday and celebration, restaurants were not an option. Noticing our dilemma, a local family took us into their personal centuries-old home, welcomed and fed us. This was not planned on our part, or on theirs. This indeed was such an extraordinary moment of generosity, a quality that distinguished the townspeople throughout the entire duration of our visit.

Jan8-3.jpg Although a small town, Ixtlan has one of the most beautiful churches in Templo de St. Tomas Apostol. This sacred site contains one the most magnificent retablos (alterpiece) to be found in the world. It is constructed of carved wood with gold leaf adorning each of the six paintings that make up the overall altarpiece. This is a jewel tucked away in the mountains and a large reason this town is known as a magic town, in addition to the town’s preservation of its history and culture. Drew expressed that this was his favorite church so far among the many of our travels.

Jan7-1.jpg Later during our stay (Jan. 7) we tried our luck at learning and performing traditional dances of Mexico and Oaxaca. First, we went to the Universidad de la Sierra Norte to interact with students there, to share a bit about SMU and then to learn from them a Mexican dance and/or song.

After our presentation, we broke into small groups and discussed aspects of each other’s cultures. Some of us, including myself enjoyed this a great deal. This interaction also made us appreciate the resources and opportunities that we have at SMU and in the States. But nestled deep in the mountains, this school had its benefits too.

We then presented the song or dance the students taught us to a large group of other students. Honestly, some of us were not the most rhythmically coordinated dancers on the spot, but we did share a lot of laughter over the performances.

Jan7-2.jpgToward the day’s end, we took a dance lesson at a studio. This was exhausting, but we did appear to do better in this setting as opposed to dancing at the university. Both experiences were memorable.

The day was not all fun and games, though. Earlier in the day, we visited the home of two elderly Zapotecs willing to share their history and language with us. When one of us asked about their children, we heard a somber and tragic story, one that they felt needed to be shared as a way to carry on their history and to remember.

I am glad that we have the type of group that people here feel comfortable sharing their past with. These sweet and life-affirming personal moments are invaluable.

Jan8-1.jpg The following day, Jan. 8, was an entirely different experience altogether. We visited a traditional medicine woman. Using Daniel as a ready and willing volunteer, she demonstrated a healing ritual and cleansing.

Liking what we heard and saw, each of us decided to have ourselves cleansed, too. Some of us even purchased natural ointments of various kinds. A few even returned the following day to receive a short massage and a steam bath.

marimba_kids_Calpulalpan.jpg That evening we had the pleasure of taking in a concert from a group of seven students, ranging from 8 to early teens. Each played the xylophone and sang. They were quite the talented group.

And finally, to top off this segment of our journey, we had a free day (Jan. 9) – hence the massage.

DSC02585-1.jpg Three students, Rachel, Drew, and Daniel, went on an early rain-soaked hike, while the rest went to the Cloud Mountains, which are situated in a higher elevation. I am posting two images (left and below) taken by Leslie of this magnificent place so that you can see the wide range of ecology.

DSC02545.jpg I, on the other hand, rested, caught up on my reading, and took in the amazing view from our cabins. In the end, we left just in the nick of time, as a big tour group was set to arrive closely following our departure.

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