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.

Home: Here we come

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:

One last gorgeous sunrise in Puerto Escondido, Oaxaca made me realize how much I am going to miss this place and the people who took us into their homes.

I consider myself to be an emotional and passionate person, and not surprisingly, this trip affected me in a variety of significant ways. Already, I am planning to return with a deeper understanding than before.

But for now, I will do my best to let the impression this place left on me soak in.

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Getting back to nature

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:

Jan13-1.jpg For our last day in Oaxaca, we visited the Chacahua Lagoon, which was near an Afro-Mexican village.

The day before had prepared us to identify various birds among the lagoon and helped make us more sensitive to their surroundings. Also, like the previous day, we saw locals fishing to earn a living.

What distinguished this day from the other, however, is that we traveled to a small village where descendants of African slaves currently live. The Afro-Mexican community was a humbling experience. Although they had electricity, the living conditions are difficult to convey in words.

Jan13-2-1.jpg Here we also visited a crocodile farm. Although the living conditions appear to be dreadful, we came to understand that all of the crocs are released back into the lagoon to counter their depleting population at the hands of hunters, which put some of our minds at ease.

The lunch portion of the day was an ideal way to end a study abroad trip. We took in the sun, freely indulged in the consumption of local fish and lobster, shared stories about our lives and reflected over this amazing study abroad experience.

Jan13-3.jpg By dinnertime, we were exhausted – an aftereffect of taking in so many sights and sounds. But although our eyes sagged and our muscles ached, we did not want this adventure to end. Just to think how much an individual can learn in a living classroom is telling, and perhaps why so many us are drawn to these types of classes.

After a mere three weeks in another country, we had learned so much about Oaxacan traditions, arts and crafts, economy, cooperatives, ecology, and a little about who we are and how we fit into this larger connecting environment and world. Although part of the purpose of this trip and class was to give us a sense of place in Oaxaca, I am confident that it also made us aware of our own sense of place back at home.

Time will tell, but I can only hope that we came to value cultural diversity and how such differences can be rewarding, eye-opening and humbling.

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I’m a bird watcher, watching birds go by

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:

Jan12-1-1.jpg I consider myself to be a bit of bird lover, but I haven’t ever been bird-watching per se, until today.

We traveled by boat through the Manialtepec Lagoon, along with our guide, Michael, a specialist of birds of the region. At first, it was difficult to make out some of the birds he identified, let alone to even find them in the vast landscape.

With our binoculars, however, we were able to see the slightest detail of birds hundreds of feet way, if not further, and they proved to be magnificent creatures. These regional birds play an important role in the ecosystem here, and to see them in their natural habitat is breathtaking.

With the wind hitting our faces as we glided along the lagoon, we felt caught up in the moment. We saw birds such as blue herons, scissor-tailed fly-catchers and, my personal favorite, of course, the brown booby.

These habitats, especially that of the fish in the lagoon, are essential to the local economy here. Numerous families make their living from catching various fish in the depths of the water. For those fish the villagers do not want, the birds, such as the pelicans, were eager to take off their hands.

Jan12-2.jpg Eventually, we came to a small beach where a humble restaurant stood and we took our lunch break. The cooks prepared our food on an outside burner, while those of us who wanted to could swim or stroll the beach at a leisurely pace. What a relaxing and rewarding first half of the day!

Once we arrived back home, we had the remaining day to ourselves. Some chose to lie in the sun, while others worked on journal entries. We all gathered once again to eat dinner at our hotel and to give oral presentations in front of the group. I spoke on the indigenous art markets, while another student impressed us with his knowledge on Structure J at Monte Alban. The interesting history behind woodcarving was also discussed. Another student moved us with her understanding of cooperative communities and their role in local identities, which really distinguishes this region from the United States, providing us with a strong sense of place.

With our oral exams behind us, we looked forward to our last day in Oaxaca – and our last day together as a group.

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Just a minor detour

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:

Jan11-1.jpg After a night of gusty winds and cold weather, we woke up to the warm sun of the Sierra Norte. Refreshed after a generous helping of breakfast, we drove to Puerto Escondido.

The day’s journey took us down long and winding roads at very high altitudes. Because of a teachers’ strike, we were at a standstill for a couple of hours.

After some negotiating, we managed to hop into the back of a pickup truck and were transported to the other side of the strike, where our bus drivers met up with us as soon as they could. After this minor delay, we arrived at our hotel in Puerto Escondido.

Only moments passed before one of the students made his way to the ocean and went for a swim. Others spent some time at the pool. Like so many nights before, we all joined for dinner and made plans for tomorrow’s ecological tour of a lagoon.

Although our journey had been long, we were happy and grateful to be basking in the sun at last.

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Moving onward

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:

Today was spent on the road travelling back to Oaxaca City to gather our things and to start the long drive to the Pacific. Other than sleeping in the vans, there is not much to report here.

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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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Dancing through the streets

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:

Jan5-1.jpg Arriving back at San Bartolo Muesum, we put the finishing touches on our puppets. We sewed the clothes using vibrant fabrics, painted features on the faces and glued hair that clearly distinguished the male from the female puppet. We worked as a team and laughed at each other and at ourselves.

Jan5-2-1.jpg In the end, we were proud of our puppets and were eager to display them for the locals of Oaxaca City.

Beginning at the beautiful Santo Domingo Church in Oaxaca City, we danced the streets among enormous crowds as we made our way to the Zocalo.

Jan5-3.jpg Drew and Daniel danced their hearts out, and sweated a great deal, while the heavy puppets rested on their shoulders.

They followed a group of women dancers while the rest of us followed in the footsteps of the guys.

Jan5-4-1.jpg I took on the role of the angel, and Meaghan, Vera and Estelle acted as the three kings.

Leslie and Rachel joined us in traditional costumes and passed out candy to the amazing children in the audience. We had a blast.

Jan5-5.jpg I don’t think that we have ever been in such a spotlight before, but we were humbled by the experience nonetheless.

After taking countless photographs, we relaxed at a great restaurant and prepared for the second leg of our journey in the Sierra Norte.

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Working in rhythm

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:

Tlapazola_firing_pots.jpg Although I have enjoyed every day of the program so far, today might just have been my favorite. Because of my academic and personal interest in Native crafts and continuation of tradition, the red clay workshop at Tlapazola was right up my alley.

Here we interacted with three generations of women potters. They work quickly and with great love. They used cornhusks to work the clay and to bring the piece to a desired height and thickness. They do all of this without a potter’s wheel, using the same techniques as in pre-Hispanic times.

Tlapazola_potters.jpg What I found most remarkable about this workshop was the interaction between the women as well as our group of onlookers. They finish each other’s sentences without hesitation and act as a unit, while still maintaining very individualized personalities. We not only watched them at work, but we engaged in memorable conversations about their lives and their histories, making this day very personable and touching.

I could not wait to purchase some pieces, as a way to both bring the makers into my home and to maintain a relationship, however distant, with the potters.

It is here that we also witnessed the impact that family members working in the United States have on the lives of those remaining in the community. While it might not be much money for some of us, the smallest amount makes a monumental difference for those here. Understanding the ramifications of this perhaps makes some of us more sensitive to an array of immigrant issues, but I only really speak for myself.

We were lucky, too, because they also fed us a yellow-based mole with chickens that came from their home, making this a well-rounded and deeply satisfying experience.

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Puppet makers

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:

Jan3-1.jpg Today, we learned the techniques involved in the creation of papier-mache at the museum in San Bartolo.

In order to participate in the Calenda in Oaxaca City, we first needed to make larger-than-life puppets for the two guys of the group, Drew and Daniel, to wear.

Jan3-2.jpg Although our attempts were messy, to say the least, we really enjoyed contributing to the process, each in our own way. Some really got into it, such as Meaghan, Rachel, and Leslie. Surprisingly, ours turned out really good. Drew applied paint to give the impression of skin tone and propped it up to let it dry for a couple of days.

Creating papier-mache puppets is a tradition that stretches back generations. They are used for the Calenda, which is the day the three kings bring presents to the children of Mexico, a continuation of their Christmas celebration.

Today was a lot of fun, and again, I will let the photos speak for themselves.

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Society and religion: Joined at the hip

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:

After Hernan Cortes’ defeat over Tenochtitlan, the Aztec Empire, in 1521, a fierce colonial war erupted and conflict continued for three more centuries. Tenochtitlan became Mexico City, the capital of the Viceroyalty of New Spain. Building on pre-existing indigenous political structures, viceregal officials began the construction of cities and towns, and this applies to Oaxaca as well.

But in order to gain the attention and devotion to Catholicism of the local indigenous population, colonizers needed to offer something familiar to their new counterparts. Therefore, an ongoing process of cultural negotiation took place, which allowed Indians, such as the Zapotec, to incorporate aspects of their culture into the art and architecture, such as painting indigenous faces on the angels and filling the statues of Jesus with corn, an essential component of Meso-American identity.

Cultural negotiation did not only apply to the indigenous population, but the colonizers also evaluated, accepted and rejected aspects of native life and art forms.

What emerged is distinctive to Latin America; therefore, art from colonial Latin America, including Oaxaca, must be understood within a colonial context.

Jan2-1.jpg Art and architecture in colonial Oaxaca, and Latin America in general, clearly demonstrate the role of religion in everyday life. Colonial churches stood as large testaments of colonial order and power. Although the cathedrals used European cathedrals as models, stylistic choices varied depending on the location within Latin America – therefore, applying European labels, such as mannerists, is not always appropriate. But sometime such labels help us make sense of what we are seeing.

Leslie, an honors student, led a discussion on Santo Domingo Yanhuitlan and showed us the various European and outside influences in the architecture. Her talk over this church allowed us to apply what we learned to the other cathedrals we visited on the trip, including the one we would see later that day.

Jan2-2.jpg Church officials, such as the Dominicans, attempted to make Christianity appealing to the indigenous population. Images of the Virgin Mary played a role in the colonization of indigenous communities. Her image became localized, and therefore people could relate to her better, than if her image had remained European in style.

Jan2-3.jpg Also, friars used mediums such as murals as teaching tools. Murals provided a space to teach ideas about Christianity. Indian artists, trained at academies, incorporated traditional ideas surrounding their precolonial culture into the iconography. This is part of the negotiation process that existed for both Indian and European parties.

Indians were used to building mission complexes. Friars created open-air chapels as a way to make the space appealing to Amerindians, and this allowed Indians to take aspects of their culture and apply it to their new faith. We saw this firsthand when we visited San Pedro y San Pablo in Teposcolula, where we not only took in the magnificent layout of the church, but we also ate lunch and played Frisbee.

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