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.

On the Dominican Route

An update from program director Kathy Windrow:

We traveled on part of the Dominican Route in Oaxaca, which begins in Mexico City, continues through Oaxaca and ends in Guatemala. This is the route taken by the Dominican friars who came to convert the indigenous peoples. We visited two of the greatest churches in Oaxaca:

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San Pedro y San Pablo in Teposcolula, with the finest open chapel in Oaxaca, and the church decorated with indigenous carvings and murals (floral patterns more important to the Indians than to the Spaniards), and paintings by the team of Andres de la Concha and Flemish Simon Pareyns.

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Santo Domingo in Yanhuitlan, built where the Mixtec were defeated by the Aztec (for refusing to pay tribute/taxes) not long before the arrival of the Dominicans, and a magnificent structure with Renaissance, Plateresque, Mudejar and Baroque stylistic qualities and a soaring retablo explained by Leslie on site; the church served as a school for woodworking, stone carving, and the Spanish and Mixtec languages.

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Testing our talents

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:

We ended our year weaving, so why not begin it by weaving, too?

Having sufficiently recuperated from the previous night’s entertainment, our eager group paid a visit to Santo Tomas Jalietza to work with several women, all family members. Here we sat on our knees and used a backstrap loom to make entirely different kinds of textiles than the previous day. (Photo left, Estel using the backloom.)

The backstrap loom is pre-Hispanic, however, these particular weavers use factory-dyed cotton thread in their weaving in order to move at a faster pace and to keep up with high demand.

Jan1-2.JPG This group of women artisans has received all kinds of awards and accolades for their exquisite work. We all took our chance with the backstrap loom, and it is clear that while some of us have the patience required to create this type of weaving, others of us will have to use our talents elsewhere – perhaps papier-mache. We’ll just have to wait and see. (Photo right, Megan and Rachel learning weaving techniques.)

Once again, we received a nice traditional Zapotec lunch, which helped personalize this workshop even more.

Jan1-3.JPGDuring the evening, we traveled to La Cuevita to take part in the New Year ritual of the Zapotec. For me, this was the most exciting excursion so far on this study abroad trip, and one of the neatest events to witness in my lifetime.

Considering that we were some of very few outsiders at this gathering made it even more special. Though outsiders we might have been, the local attendees took great pains not to make us feel so. I felt that our group blended into the scene quit well.

We set off fireworks, paid our respects to the small cave where the Zapotecs place their hopes for a prosperous year (photo left) and watched traditional dancing. What a night to remember!

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Back to their roots

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:

Dec31-1.JPG (Photo left, program director Kathy Windrow at the church in Tlacochahuaya.)

New Year’s Eve in Oaxaca was probably not the typical holiday for most of us here. Instead of making plans with friends and family and pursuing the usual year-end activities, we spent a good portion of the day at renowned artisans Maria Luisa Cruz and Fidel Cruz Lazo’s house.

I would not have wanted the year to end in any other way, as it was the perfect experience to help usher in a new decade. This dynamic married couple make beautiful rugs. Their unique methods and high marks for quality have earned them numerous awards in Mexico and abroad, and by the end of the workshop, I just could not leave Mexico without taking a piece of them with me.

Dec31-2.jpg Although they use a Spanish-loom brought over during the era of conquest and colonization, they decided some years ago to return to their roots by dyeing colors with natural elements found in the region. Many of us were surprised by how many colors one can extract from plants, such as limes and pecans. (Photo right, student Megan making vegetable dye.)

Dec31-3.JPG However, this family did not always utilize its natural surroundings to make such dyes. When tourism became popular in Oaxaca decades ago, most weavers used ready-made dyes. What makes this couple so interesting and important among weavers is their decision to abandon such pre-dyed colors. This approach has brought them a great deal of attention and much acclaim in art circles, and their weavings warrant a solid price considering the time and attention they give their work, not to mention the hours of labor put into each piece.

And to top it off, they graciously served us a traditional Zapotec lunch.

During the evening, we all went to eat a delicious meal and spent our after-dinner conversation reminiscing about the day. Afterward, we made our way to the main square where we proceeded to take part in the New Year’s Eve festivities. While none of us made it home before midnight, including our intrepid professor and her assistant, we did make it back to our hotel safely. So long, 2009!

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Monte Alban

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:

Dec30-1.JPG Arriving just prior to the swarm of visitors and tourists alike, we took advantage of the vast open space of Monte Alban (photo, left).

Like Mitla, this, too, was occupied by the Zapotec and also like its counterpart, exhibits sheer power and intellect. Still, there are some noticeable and appreciable differences.

Higher authority, such as the priests, lived within the site, while others, commoners, lived in the valley below. All, however, interacted with this sacred and religious space. Everything within this site has some meaning behind it, and part of the activities for the day rested in figuring out just what certain spaces were used for and what they have to say about the Zapotecs who lived there.

Dec30-2.JPG For instance, the ball court consisted of a space enclosed by pyramid-like walls and platforms that overlook the long narrow court. One can easily visualize the importance of such a place. A player would have needed a great deal of padding to protect their body from the impact of the rubber ball they played with.

A religious meaning is derived from such a place as well. The Zapotec were extremely knowledgeable, like other Meso-American cultures, concerning the intricacies of astrology and agricultural cycles. This is prevalent among various buildings, such as Structure J, a structure our instructor loves much – we were left feeling obliged to tease her with some good-natured ribbing. This site was abandoned prior to Spanish arrival, but since then, a great deal of restoration has gone into these ruins in order to maintain and display their importance to the pre-Hispanic history of Mexico.

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Frozen in time

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:

Dec29-2.JPG Petrified waterfalls – only two in the world exist, one in Turkey and the other in Hieve El Auga, Oaxaca.

Dec29-1.jpg Those who felt up to the challenge, myself excluded, made their way to the bottom of the fall to see something they may likely never see again: water petrified instantly. Others, like myself, viewed the fall from a distance while resting in or near the natural pools (photo, right).

This is a remarkable place, a great mix of locals enjoying their environment with ease and tourists and students trying to soak up every moment before departure. Perhaps some of us left part of ourselves there, frozen in time.

One can only imagine the importance of this place to those before us. While one scholar believed this site provided those below the mountain with much needed salt to preserve their food distributed to the larger trade network, others think the site was used for agriculture.

Personally, I find it hard not to believe that such an important commodity as salt would not be extracted from this site and traded elsewhere, but also don’t think that this land was only used for that purpose. It is very likely that it was also used for agriculture. And who knows? Maybe there were young folks just like us taking time to enjoy their awe-inspiring natural surroundings.

Group%20at%20Mitla-1.jpgAfter lunch at Rancho Zapata, we ventured to the archaeological site of Mitla (photo, left). Once a complex society occupied Mitla and the surrounding area, which can be easily traced in the architecture and physical layout of the domain.

This is an ideal place to see the fusion of Mixtecs and Zapotecs. Initially, the Zapotecs built and occupied this site, but eventually the Mixtecs migrated into the region and integrated with those already there.

Dec29-3.JPG Today the site is frequently visited and well maintained. It still holds great significance for those whose ancestors once lived within, and it is not hard to see why. Working without technologies such as metal, large slabs of stone were cut to provide the building with a strong infrastructure and walls. Performing such tasks required strength, intellect and remarkable political will.

Walking and climbing among these ruins inspires a great sense of awe and respect for just how impressive the abilities were of those ancient souls working without the convenience of metal materials. Also, the symbolism and color variation found within the stonework is impressive and telling, to say the least. Decoding meaning behind such designs as those found in Mitla is possible for those who read prior to visiting the site.

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Traditional yet modern

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:

Our first full day as a group was an ideal way to begin a class focusing on ancient and modern Oaxaca cultural history.

Dec28-1.JPG First, we traveled to San Bartolo Coyotepec to the home/work studio of Valente Nieto Reale (photo, right), the son of the famous potter Dona Rosa. Working in the same style and manner as his mother, Balente Nieto Reale maintains a strong sense of belonging and purpose. He carries on the tradition of creating black pottery like those preceding him prior to the creation of New Spain, but like his mother, he is careful to pay attention to the demands of the market.

His mother was strongly encouraged to make her black pottery glossier due to the particular demands from patrons from the United States, such as the Rockefeller family. It was interesting to learn that it took outsiders to see and promote the artistic quality of Zapotec potter Dona Rosa before others within Mexico afforded this family proper acknowledgement of their remarkable and inspirational work with clay.

We later learned that Valente continues to work in the same tradition as his mother, whose style and legacy he carries on with deep affection, always remembering to inject the love and energy she put into each piece she created. This workshop allowed us to see the artisan’s relationship with the clay and to appreciate all that goes into creating pottery molded without the aid of a wheel or processed materials. Valente used his environment to find the materials needed to create his pottery, such as gathering stones to polish the clay in order to give it the black shine consumers have grown to know and desire.

Not only did we watch him at work and ask questions, but we, too, created pieces, such as birds, pots and turtles. What I loved best about this workshop and interaction with the artist was witnessing firsthand the history behind an ancient practice, while understanding that artisans such as Valente are part of a larger regional and world market. Cultures are fluid, and a class set in Oaxaca aptly illustrates this point.

Dec28-2.JPG Toward the latter part of the day, we tested our painting abilities in San Martin Tilcajete (21 miles south of Oaxaca City) with a family that specializes in animal wood carving and painting. Although this folk art is relatively new, there are ancient elements that are incorporated into the craft as well.

Dec28-3.JPG While consumers can purchase wooden characters and pieces with vibrant colors (which can be found in any local paint store), others interested in buying something that resembles a more traditional piece can opt for work painted with colors driven completely by organic materials. Palms literally become palettes here. We were shown how to get colors of all sorts from local nuts, plants, and other materials. This method allowed these artisans to continue in the footsteps of their ancestors in creating natural colors, while simultaneously carving out something entirely new for people from around the world to appreciate. (In photo, Drew cleaning up after the workshop.)

Cultures are not static, nor should we expect them to be. There is always room to continue traditions and to create something new and representative of current times.

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Third time’s the charm

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:

Sometimes, no matter how much pre-planning and diligent organization goes into the booking of a trip abroad, things can go haywire at a moment’s notice. Unfortunately, a select few of the 2009-10 SMU in Oaxaca students learned this lesson the hard way.

Two back-to-back pre-dawn flight cancellations grounded about half of the class, but a third and final attempt to travel to Oaxaca proved successful. Although three of the seven students arrived as scheduled on December 26; the rest of us, including our fearless leader/instructor, joined our compadres on the following day.

Together at last, we headed right to Zocalo, the main square in the beautifully restored downtown area of Oaxaca City, festively decorated for the Christmas holiday. Some brave souls hit the ground running, trying foods such as small grasshoppers, while others opted for more traditional Oaxacan cuisine. After a somewhat nerve-wracking but exhilarating journey, our educational experience had begun.

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