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.

Monte Alban

Excerpts from Amy’s blog:

Monte Alban, occupying most of a mountain near the valley of Oaxaca, represents a “profound social and cultural transformation result[ing] in the region’s first state.”

Monte Alban “represented a form of government far more complex than any that had developed in the region before.” The foundation of Monte Alban triggered a process of economic and politic integration, but above all, a great demographic concentration. …

Another side note: Monte Alban is the colonial-period name for the highest ridge of complex hills where the ancient Oaxacan capital was located. The site’s aboriginal name is not known with certainty, but the hilltops that make up Monte Alban were given names in Miztec and Nahuatl (the language of the Aztecs) on a pictoral map … Monte Alban has been referred to as the “hill of the lord” or “hill of the feathered head.”

Located around Monte Alban are terraces that radiate out from the center. Located on these terraces are clusters of apartments and living quarters. The terraces also served as fortifications, which blocked access to the main center. A distinct feature that punctuates this idea is the existence of a wall, which cuts across the terraces and blocks what would have been the easiest route to the main center.

Gullies also ran through the terraces, and at certain points, areas were enlarged to create cisterns, which trapped and held water. The architecture of Monte Alban was very formal and public. The city is arranged running north to south, with two large platforms at either end of the great plaza. On these platforms is found an intricate arrangement of pyramid-temples, palaces, patios, as well as tombs. The east side of the plaza is lined with six residential buildings and a ball court.

In the center of the plaza are three buildings placed closely together. In front of the (I think south) platform is a round structure believed to have been an observatory, which stands alone in its placement. On the other side of the plaza are three structures that balance out the “city” layout.

The architectural style found at Monte Alban appears to be regional. It is characterized by a technique called a doble escapulario, or double recess. It appears that the buildings were covered in plaster, and it is possible that it may even have been brightly and intricately painted and detailed with sculptured stucco. Another feature of Monte Alban is the fact that over 100 formal tombs have been found in the city, all of which have a similar characteristic form. The tombs have been found underneath the courtyard floors, some underneath the great plaza, and mostly under the patio floors of the apartment houses located along the slope of the ridge.

It is obvious that Monte Alban was an important public and ceremonial city. The architecture indicates that the social and religious beliefs were the driving force of the people. The rich religious history of the city is indicated by the fact that each temple is built on top of a previous temple, and everywhere is the image of gods.

It is also apparent from the tombs that a form of ancestor worship was also very active in Monte Alban, with some ancestors apparently becoming semi-deified themselves. You add this to the fact that the apartments appear to house people based on lineages, and what emerges is a city built by the people for the people.

Monte Alban was a pure urban center that existed in the early development of highland civilization. The greatness of this accomplishment influenced the idea of state and urban structures for future generations.


Sitting on the steps of Monte Alban – thinking of the rituals, the spiritual elements embedded in the space and the silence – reminded me of a piece written by Adrienne Rich, called Cartographies of Silence:

The technology of silence
The rituals, etiquette

the blurring of terms
silence not absence

of words or music or even
raw sounds

Silence can be a plan
rigorously executed

the blueprint of a life

It is a presence
it has a history a form

Do not confuse it
with any kind of absence

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Backstrap Weaving

Excerpts from Amy’s blog:

On the agenda: weaving workshop with a backstrap loom and lunch.

n18807799_32603322_2475.jpg
We visited a small village in Teotitilan, again situated a few miles outside Oaxaca City. The backstrap loom is ubiquitious in Oaxaca, Guatamala, Veracruz and Latin America. Unlike a traditional floor loom, the backstrap loom is portable and considerably smaller. It also is constructed through simple materials, essentially pieces of wood, rope and a small leather strap that is utilized as a belt to wrap the heart of the loom around the waist. The remaining rope forms an acute angle with its ends tied to a tree or post several feet ahead.

The individual weaving either is seated on a low stool (pictured) or standing, their body pulling back to keep the rope and thread taut. This method of weaving produces much narrower textiles: rebosos (bands of material used to wrap and carry babies or worn around women’s heads), fajas (types of belts), huipiles (indigenous blouses) and skirts.

But more interestingly the backstrap loom provides a more direct relation to the hand and to the body. The postion of the body in which it is focused upon is one’s center, or the waist/abdomen. The center of one’s waist is considered to be the center of one’s body … The backstrap loom is also in direct contact with the body, in a kind of collaboration with the body – that becomes both a mental and physical collaboration.

Our group was allowed to join in and participate in weaving. The process was tedious but suprisingly easier than I thought. The simplicity of the tools juxtaposed with the complexity of the resulting pieces is astonishing. The backstrap loom is deeply rooted in Latin American culture, and I think it is absolutely fascinating to watch and engage in. I plan to bring a backstrap loom home with me from this trip, as I would like to further push its potental and experiment with the loom in aspects to performance art and time-based processes of multiple-exposure photography, video, etc….

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Tule Tree

Excerpts from Amy’s blog:

Amy-tree.jpgOur group was taken to see the Tule Tree, widely admired for its longevity and huge dimensions: at over 2000 years old, El Arbol del Tule, which is actually an Ahuehuete Cypress, is amongst the oldest living trees in the world. With a 10 meter (33 feet) diameter trunk, it is also considered by many to be the broadest tree in the world.

The circumference of the trunk is an amazing 54 meters (178 feet). It is over 40 meters (130 feet) high, boasts a foliage diameter of over 51 meters (170 feet), and weighs over 500 tons!

The Tule tree is a unique natural monument and the area in which it lives is also of great natural value. I would describe the Tule Tree as like coming upon a haze of green, where your eye can’t decide where to pause and the sight of its mass, being in the presence of its mass, is disorienting and striking. I remember the stark contrast of the church’s crisp white walls, the sky was piercing blue and then, suddenly, a mass of green.

The branches are entangled, grown together and grown apart. There were many tourists and locals around. An interesting event occured while near the tree: a funeral procession began and entered through the garden and into the church. This was a very intense experience, as it came upon quickly. I was so absorbed in the tree and suddenly looked up to see a mass of people and a band headed in my direction.

It was somber and touching; radically different, however, from a funeral one finds in America. A live band was playing very loudly as the people entered, and the group entered as a collective following. There was a casual element to the process, but nevertheless sincere and sorrowful.

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New Year in the Zocalo

Excerpts from Amy’s blog:

Amy-NewYear1.jpgNew Year’s eve was very pleasant and exciting. A small group of students including myself sat at a table in the Zocalo, Oaxaca’s main square, to watch the festivities and eat dinner.

A mixture of local Oaxacans and tourists strolled by, with frequent personal visits to our table from some cute children selling candies, bracelets and other goodies. Some of the girls had recently purchased another Oaxacan “specialty”: 15-foot-long balloons, and ended up giving them to the kids.

One little girl in particular came to our table bearing goods to sell. We explained to her that we did not have spare change, but she sang anyway, hoping to receive something in the end (money, candy, etc.). This was adorable: she clearly had the words memorized, the act was down solid … so much that in the moment her voice hit the final note her hand, right on cue, came flying out palm-up ready to get her reward. Absolutely hysterical. Quite the charmer.

On a side note to this, though: There are many, many very young children who sell goods on the streets, some in pairs and some individually. It is hard to resist them, and they are fairly smooth salespeople by age 7. This is a much different scenario than you would find in the U.S., but quite common in Oaxaca for young kids to walk about the streets. Some are seriously without – homeless and lack parents. Others work with their families, alongside them in the street markets.

Oaxaca is said to have a serious homeless population regarding children. I feel there needs to be more emphasis on this situation and more education aimed toward the tourists here, because it is difficult to realize this when simply visiting for a week. Granted there are situations such as this everywhere, but it would be a start for this problem to gain a bit more attention.

Amy-NewYear2.jpg
We finish our meal, which for dessert includes 12 grapes for good luck rather than the black-eyed peas I usually eat in the States. Midnight actually hits right as we pay our check. The girls and I had purchased very long sparklers and confetti eggs – so we lit our sparklers and broke confetti eggs amongst each other in the Zocalo. This was strikingly similar to the experiences I have had regarding New Year’s elsewhere, but needless to say an incredible experience to be a,part of the festivities in the main area of Oaxaca.

We migrated over to where the band was playing, with fireworks of all sorts dancing around. The environment was a mix of chaos and cultural richness – local Oaxacans were out celebrating with their families, dancing, some marketing and selling goods, streamers and balloons. Everyone was joyous and present – although the festivities were much more tame this year as a result of the recent political instability and uproar Oaxaca experienced only a year and a half before, with the teachers strike in the summer of 2006.

We made our way to the band, consisting of around 10 players, danced a bit and retreated home after celebrating. I felt incredibly blessed to have experienced Oaxaca and the zocalo in this manner. Oaxaca and Mexican culture place much emphasis on holidays, especially the new year, as it signifies renewal and birth.

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Tlacochahuaya and Teotitlan Del Valle

Excerpts from Amy’s blog

Amy31-1.jpgI’d like to begin with the group’s visit to the church in Tlacochahuaya, the most beautiful church I have ever experienced (16th-century church.) It’s cool inside, and the entire church – almost every inch of it – is painted in motifs of flowers and faith. The reds and blues and browns of the paints made from plants and earth and bugs understandably show the wear and tear of their years, yet they are deep and vivid in their emotion.

Amy31-2.jpgThe stories of faith, hope and suffering are evident, as well as potent images of Christ on the cross, wearing an intensely purple skirt. The mixture of the architecture, wall painting and religious imagery creates the feeling of participating in this kind of soft explosion, a spiritual party. Balloons hang from arch to arch, incredible mounds of flowers and candles situate themselves along the altar. The spirit of Oaxaca, its emphasis of repetition (constant spiritual involvement, the imagery of balloons, of flowers, religious symbols, etc.) is most certainly found in this space.

amy31-o.jpgAfter climbing a narrow, winding staircase our group is able to see the view from the second floor as well as the 16th-century, flower-decorated organ. With tiny faces painted onto its front it is quite mysterious. There are many historically significant objects and symbols present in this church and in Oaxaca in general that are rarely used today but continue to play a part in the space. Like spirits their bodies are vacant but the souls are present, in a way. This idea also links up with Oaxaca’s interest in the spiritual world, present in examples from Monte Alban, The Day of The Dead celebration, and New Year’s festivities in Teotitlan Del Valle.

Teotitlan del Valle
Teotitlan del Valle is near Oaxaca, a short drive in what seemed like the direction of Mitla. Like most communities in Mexico it is built around a central plaza and church. The mountains are behind the village, and family farms are found throughout. The community has a provincial, humble quality from what our group briefly saw. Thick adobe walls and tiled roofs were ubiquitous in the area we drove through. Although this village seems quiet and sleepy, it is a vital component (and very active!) to Mexico and the world through migration and tourism.

Teotitlan is renowned for being a Zapotec community involved with treadle-loom weaving. Local weavings are sold and demonstrations occur daily in homes and markets. At least one family member weaves in nearly every household (Esther says) … work is often split between weaving and farming.

Amy31-5.jpgThe opportunity our group had – to visit a family’s weaving workshop in Teotitlan – was unparalleled. The husband and wife collaborated in this process, making everything: dyes (all from crushed, organic ingredients like pecan), the yarn (hand combed, washed and spun), the process of weaving (made on a room-sized tapestry loom, with foot peddles made from rectangular blocks of wood).

Hand-woven textiles are an important part and product of Oaxaca, where both the horizontal and the body looms are used. Weaving on the body loom is, traditionally, a woman’s craft, while mechanical weaving is usually done by men (note to Esther for providing me with this information). The body loom is mainly used to produced two things: a rebozo, a scarf which is also used as a sash or hair tie. The body or back strap loom is a fascinating process, because it is so directly connected to the body (more on this later, when we visit the back-strap loom site).

The mechanical loom or horizontal loom is another form of hand weaving. This is the process used at the weaving house in Teotitlan. Here wool pieces are woven onto large structures … tapestry weaving, what we were introduced to, can also be done using a horizontal loom. These looms are capable of weaving cloth many yards in width, making rugs and other larger textiles. The symbols found in Mitla (not but a few minutes away from Teotitlan) are ubiquitous in the rugs of Teotitlan for two reasons. I believe it is for the purpose of tradition – to incorporate and instill the spiritual notions embedded in the Zapotec symbols.

For example, the rug I purchased at the weaving family’s home contains a cross with a zig-zag triangle surrounding it. This is the ancient symbol for Mitla, and represents the fall of Mitla. In a way, incorporating Zapotec symbols into contemporary rugs preserves the history that is so near and vital to their identity. Also, I believe the symbols are present in contemporary work (not just rugs, actually, also in the wood carvings, etc.) for marketing purposes. This is a smart tactic, as indigenous people realize there is a demand from tourists for these “classic” symbols of Mexican culture.

The Zapotecs along with the Mayans devised sophisticated and complex symbols that are thought be among Mesoamerica’s earliest writing systems. Symbols and writing provided a venue for Zapotecs to express their identities and to reference themselves in terms of time and space. Many glyphs have to do with naming people and places, referencing time and expressing power. According to my research and Esther’s information, the Zapotecs may have venerated and respected certain spirits and forces, communicating with them by means of an image of a man accompanied by the appropriate symbols. Particular symbols may have represented certain powers, deities, or gods and may have been invoked during specific events or ceremonies, which may explain why some images and sets of symbols appear frequently.

Amy31-6.jpgBack to the loom: All weaving observed in Oaxaca, on both the body and horizontal looms, was initially done by men (Esther confirmed this). But women helped in preparation of the wool, spinning the yarn, and typing the fringe. The body loom is considered an ancient type in America and Europe but it is still used in many parts of Latin America. However, it has been largely replaced by the horizontal loom with pedals for easier, more efficient weaving. The width of weaving that is practical to the body loom is more limited than that on a frame/mechanical loom. However the continued use of the back strap loom and a more primitive type of floor loom provides material for the study of early, early weaving.

The video pieces fully illustrate the intensity of the process of making, of collaborating and thinking together as a couple – which is what our group was able to see with this family. We were able to examine the process of dying and weaving, a very mediative and concentrated task. During our stay the family made us the most wonderful meal/snacks: homemade guacamole, cheeses, chips and cokes. It was incredibly touching and generous. The idea of sharing and collaborating is found throughout Oaxaca, a kind of exchange that is rare in Western culture.

An interesting portion of the demonstration was when the family illustrated to the group how the red pigment is made using cochinilla (cochineal). Cochinilla is an insect native to Oaxaca that lives on the surface of nopals (prickly pear cactus). The insect is collected and sacrificed in order to make the scarlet color. From the cochinilla, the family obtains a wide variety of different tones of red by adding other elements such as baking soda, lemon juice, ash, and lime. Other colors in the family’s tapestries were indigo and green, obtained from river rock moss.

Following the color demonstration, we walked over to a loom where the husband was working on a tapestry rug. In his demonstration he explained that red rugs (use of cochinilla) are traditionally the most expensive rugs as are those with circular forms, arc, etc which require special attention when weaving as straight lines is the normal pattern. I will never forget the generosity of this family and the work made by them.

Amy31-3.jpg Following the weaving workshop, we headed to a nearby restaurant and mezcaleria to eat and observe how mezcal is made. Mezcal, like tequila, is made from the agave (maguey) cactus plant. At the mezcaleria, we were shown how the agave must grow for six to eight years before it is ready to be used. Once mature, its leaves are removed and the body of the plant (called a pina for its resemblance to pineapples) is ready for use.

A wood-fire is burned in a deep pit (horno) and river rock is placed over the coals until they are incredibly hot. Then, the pinas are placed and covered with burlap, tin, and earth. Once the pinas are ready they are removed and trimmed. They are then placed on a stone for grinding that is very wide in diameter and ground by a large stone wheel that is pulled by a horse. (Esther did a wonderful rendition of this pulling act!) The extract that is collected is then fermented; the liquid is placed in what I think is called a “still” and heated. Once the liquid has fermented it is placed in oak barrels and is ready to age.

After lunch we retreated home to rest…

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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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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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The pottery workshop

Excerpts from Amy’s blog:

Agenda: Visiting the pottery workshop of Dona Rosa’s son and grandchildren in San Bartolo Coyotepec, Oaxaca & visiting the house and family of wood carvers in San Martin Tilcajete, Oaxaca.

Our group wakes early, has breakfast at the hotel (as we do each day, which consists of eggs, green mole and tortillas, yogart, fruits (fantastic papaya), cereals and juice. I find myself eating about six eggs each morning so that I am not exhausted by lunch.

Amy-1.jpgReady to go, we head to San Bartolo Coyotepec, the renowned site of Dona Rosa Nieto Real and her black pottery, now run by her son, Valente, and grandchildren, who make strikingly beautiful pieces (most decorative, not functional) everyday.

Our group unloaded and, thanks to Esther, was introduced to the herbs and cacti growing in the garden beds. The intensity of the smell – something similar to a pepper mixed with lavender, rosemary with sage, cedar with basil … very, very rich in both spiritual and functional purposes. Esther emphasized the importance of the herb in Mexican culture – the importance of natural healing; of healing the mind and the body (as cliche as that sounds to our Western mentality, it is very valid).

Esther then pulled several long branches from a large tree near the garden, its smell spicy, peppery and sweet. Its green branches resembled that of a cedar tree. I volunteered to participate in a demonstration she asked to give: a renewal and cleansing of the soul, through a ritual put into practice years before. This process invloved the pepper tree, as she used the pulled branches to tap several points of my body, releasing negative energies. I was instructed to stand upright, my arms lifted, making a “T” form. Esther then used the branches to tap my temples, stomach, knees, wrists, back and feet while lightly chanting for the negative energy to be released.

This was actually an intense experience, as the group was surrounding me, watching, their faces both blank and full. It could have simply been written off and deemed “amusing,” but rather the group was very serious and engaged in this process. I felt outside myself during this time. The intensity of smell, with Esther chanting, others acutely focused upon me, the sap of the branches accumulating on my skin – it was very real and very potent. Call it a placebo effect if you want, but I sincerely felt a sense of clarity and awareness after this process concluded. It was a kind of breakdown of an internal structure, an internal architecture: development towards lightness or a loss of weight. The smell of pepper was on my body for days. This experience reminded me of a piece written by Agnes Martin, a minimalist American artist. She says:

Moments of awareness are not complete awareness
just as moments of blindness are not completely blind.
In moments of blindness when you meet someone you know
well,
they seem hardly recognizable,
and one seems even a stranger to oneself.
These experiences of the mind are too quickly passed over and
forgotten,
although startling moments of awareness are never forgotten.

Amy-2.JPGWe make our way into the studio where Dona Rosa’s son, Valente Nieto Real, was working, demonstrating to the group this fascinating technique of making, of patience, of thinking and of integrating one’s body and mind together to make work.

A little background/additional information: Oaxaca is a state in which the indigenous groups and many of their pre-Hispanic and colonial cultural traditions persist. In the ceramic production within these communities, one can see the varied levels of technique, style and use in the utilitarian, ceremonial and ornamental pottery for which is made. Dona Rosa’s pottery is not as much functional as decorative. The black pottery cannot hold liquids as well as other pieces, but can be used for liquids if fired long enough. However this forces the pot to turn from a rich black with a full sound to a grayer piece with a hollow sound. The more gray version would be used to hold liquids such as Mescal, the local drink in Oaxaca.

Other background on Dona Rosa: She stood out as a unique artisan in Coyotepec for many years. Her studio’s work has received numerous awards and is included in collections world-wide including those of Rockefeller and the Smithsonian Institute in the United States. The technique she developed to give the black pottery its trademark sheen is the burnishing of the pot with quartz. No glazes are used and the process of working on the wheel is not with a machine but with two concave clay pots, resting upon each other, slowly spinning.

The group also saw the process of clay-making, all done on-site, through a fliteration system – concrete “bathtubs” that naturally sort/sift through, break down the clay to a pudding-like state. In addition to being introduced to Valente’s clay-making process our group was able to work with the clay as well. We each made pieces, a bird/dove, similar to the piece Valente demonstrated making; a few students made turtles, some made symbolic/metaphorical pieces. I felt like a cupcake with sprinkles, so I made one.

I remember taking a photo with Valente before we departed, he was very calm and wise. Gentle but nevertheless present. The manner in which he worked – his process – reminded me again of Agnes Martin. In her book “Writings/Scriften” she says:

Work is self-expression. We must not think of self-expression as
something we may do or something we may not do. Self-expression
is inevitable. In your work, in the way that you do your work
and in the results of your work your self is expressed. Behind and before
self-expression is a developing awareness I will also call “the work.” It is
an important part of the work. There is the work in our minds, the work
in our hands and the work as a result.”

We leave San Bartolo and the black pottery. Head for lunch.

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“Wa-ha-ka”

Excerpted from Amy’s blog:

We arrive in Oaxaca, somewhat exhausted but eager to see the city. Others sleep and rest through the morning, but I simply could not wait to walk around. My roommate Halei and I walk throughout the city’s square, through markets, delis, restaurants and the zocalo (actual heart/square of Oaxaca), Santo Domingo and through to a wedding ceremony.

Amy-1.jpgIt was a spectacular manner in which to begin the day and ultimately the trip. Walking through the markets that morning has become one of the most vivid memories of the trip. I was immersed in the textures, smells, language, sounds and color. The locals exuded a kind of peaceful but active energy, intently listening to each other in conversation. In the markets there were many activities and roles in which the locals involved themselves: basket weaving and cooking; they were musicians, salesmen and women, etc. – all while interacting with visitors, their own children nearby – looking sincere and alive.

The markets were very similar to the visual stimulation and experience one has while in Chinatown (Manhattan). The visual stimuli, in particular, was both this kind of real cultural immersion and, quite literally, a spiritual experience. The color, combined with the accidental but nevertheless wonderful formality of the manner in which baskets spilled onto the floor, their circular shapes creating multiple orbs; the way the chapulinas (grilled grasshoppers) spilled onto one another – everything had a chaos to it, but also an order. A structure and order I had rarely experienced before. It was as if everything unified and linked together.

I decided to travel to Oaxaca long before I knew about the SMU abroad trip. I have for years now been very interested in Mayan and Zapotec culture, Oaxaca, specifically in regard to the Monte Alban site, Guatamala, and Veracruz. When proposing this trip to family and friends I also mentioned the aspect of weaving (even better, back strap weaving) that would be integrated into the trip. …

… Everyone was completely fascinated about Oaxaca and of my description of the activities we were to do. I found that the reactions were about 50/50: people either knew of Oaxaca, speaking of it as one would of a great love affair, or they knew nothing about it, did not know how to pronounce it nor where they familiar with its location. It usually went about like this : “what? wawaka? oxwawa?” “no. wa-ha-ka. oaxaca.”

I remember when we stepped off the plane the morning we arrived in Oaxaca city. The air was so crisp. The fog fuzzed the landscape. I remember stepping off the tiny airplane, walking across the strip into the airport to claim our baggage. The small airport was dense with people and noise but everything seemed to move a bit slower, a bit crisper. People were friendly and lively.

After claiming our bags the group was introduced to one of the most vivacious, engaged individuals I have ever met: Ester. Ester was our travel guide-leader-woman of all things in Oaxaca. She grew up in Oaxaca, became educated and taught as a professor with her husband, has sons who now work for her under the travel agency she runs. … Our group was enormously blessed to have her with us, traveling along our sides each day, filling our experiences with rich information and insight.

guzman.jpgThe afternoon with the group and Esther is devoted to walking through Oaxaca’s main streets and specifically visiting the Church of Santo Domingo (The Chapel of the Rosary) and the ex-convent. This ex-convent is now the Cultural Museum of Oaxaca. As its name, Santo Domingo, implies, the church and monastery were founded by the Dominican Order. Begun in 1572, they were built between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries, with the monastery as an active component from 1608 to 1857. …

In 1972 it became a regional museum, and in 1993 a full restoration took place. Now there are cactus gardens surrounding Santo Domingo, as well as festivities with the locals; the front courtyard is bustling with teenagers and Oaxacans every evening. The architecture is very, very beautiful: intensely symmetric and baroque style. The church is famous for the interior decoration and the elaborate altar made of gold and beautifully carved wood. The Chapel of the Rosary is striking. Masses are held as well as weddings.

Upon entering the church a wedding was in place. Thousands of paper confetti in pinks, yellows and blues were strewn across the floor, people were entering and exiting – among this “chaos” a wedding occurred and it didn’t seem to phase the bride and groom. The front altar had a kind of magnetism to it, with copious amounts of gold leaf and highly decorative paintings. The ceiling when first entering I saw the Tree of Life, a beautifully carved and painted piece with images of angels and entangled vines, incredibly detailed and colorful, depicting the lineage of Felix de Guzman, the founder of the Dominican Order. There is no way to adequately describe what I felt while in this space, with the quiet murmurs from the wedding, the architecture’s magnetic quality and the light from the outside piercing in.

n18807799_32641720_2405.jpgThe Camino Real Hotel was a few blocks away. We passed through one of the main outdoor markets, filled with woven textiles, jewelry, mainly. I picked up a hand-woven scarf made of silk and a small red bracelet.

After gathering everyone together we visited the Camino Real, a magnificent hotel with vividly green gardens and blooming flowers. This was also the location to a very important convent. Built in 1576, the Santa Catalina convent was home to Dominican nuns for almost 300 years. In the mid-1800s the State took over the property and used the building as a prison, government offices, and later as a school. In the 1970s a full restoration project was undertaken with the goal of returning the building to its original state.

This hotel was also to be our destination for the later part of the evening, where our group would eat traditional Oaxacan food (mole sauce!) and watch the Guelaguetza. This is the scene for spectacularly colorful regional folkloric dances performed by several different ethnic groups from the seven main geographic regions of the state. The entire city comes alive with color. Color is everywhere from the beautifully hand-embroidered dresses and huipiles, to the food and to the paper streamers decorating the room.

Suddenly, the stage burst into color as women and dancers, dressed in flowered blouses and skirts coquettishly circled the men, in sparkling white and red costumes. For an hour and a half, group after group preformed the state of Oaxaca’s traditional dances. In all colors of the rainbow, they radiated a lively energy in a seducing fashion. With fruit (pineapples!) and silky, brightly colored skirts, the ladies brought the traditions of Oaxaca’s Indian past alive. All the dances were exciting and very picturesque. …

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Delayed Departure

An excerpt from Amy’s blog:

Classic story pinpointing Mexican culture versus Western (more specifically American) culture: After waiting in the Mexico City airport for an hour or so we were ready to board our flight. I think the flight was initially scheduled to board and depart around 9 pm. All strapped in and ready to go, we sat on the landing strip at, alas, 10:15 pm. Flight delays have come to be a fairly ordinary event, so we thought nothing of this extra time. Except Oaxaca’s airport did. After circling the landing stip several times the pilot’s voice entered the plane’s speakers:

Nuestras disculpas. podemos non volar a Oaxaca esta tarde. El aeropuerto de Oaxaca cierra a las once y ellos no esperaran. Proporcionaremos un vuelo manana por la manana.

(Our apologies. We are unable to fly to Oaxaca this evening. Oaxaca’s airport closes at eleven o’clock and they will not wait. We will provide a flight tomorrow morning.)

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