Stranger in Oaxaca

The start of my adventure began this past November when I received my acceptance letter into the ProWorld Service Corps program. I will spend two months assisting members of the community in an Anthropology related project, most likely affiliated with the Union de Museos Comunitarios. Follow me through the entire ProWorld experience as I make my way from all of the preparations and finally embark on my journey to Oaxaca, Mexico!

Monday, November 06, 2006

My Last Week in Oaxaca

I am writing this entry in the safety of my own home back in Waukegan. I should start by saying my time in Oaxaca was absolutely wonderful. I learned so much by living in the city for two months. I had the opportunity to really get to know the area, the people and the culture. I was also there long enough to experience and form opinions about the marches, protests and violence that have had a profound impact on the way the people of Oaxaca are currently living.

I have never seen the Oaxaca so many people talk about with great fondness and nostalgia. When I arrived, the city was covered in graffiti and the APPO (Asemblea Popular de los Pueblos de Oaxaca) along with the teacher's union had taken up residence in the centro, particularly in the zocalo area. Initially, I didn't feel very affected by their presence, aside from the occasional inconvenience they created as I tried to pass through the city going about my daily routine. Though a number of stores, cafes and restaurants had permanently closed by the time I arrived, I was still able to enjoy many of the cultural and historical attractions the city has to offer. None of us really ever felt unsafe because all of our Oaxacan parents had reassured us that the APPO was protesting peacefully, which they were for the most part.

Last Sunday, after weeks and weeks of gradual destruction of the city, the federal government decided to send in the Policia Federal Preventiva to take measures to remove the APPO and their supporters from the center in hopes of restoring some kind of peace. However, this caused a great amount of uproar amongst the protestors and my last weekend and majority of last week was spent hiding out in my home on the south side of town because it was too dangerous to leave our neighborhood.

The APPO has not taken kindly to the police presence and as a result the supporters of this movement have done everything in their power to make the city virtually unlivable. The picture of the burned bus on the right is just one of seven that were set on fire and put in the middle of major roads to block traffic from coming in and out of the city.

The other photo is of the federal police. They are standing in front of one of the street entrances to the zocalo to prevent the APPO from entering. (They physically removed every single protester on Sunday and Monday and have since been gradually removing barricades, graffiti and garbage from the area). The Friday before I left was my very first opportunity to see the kiosk in the zocalo up close. Prior to that day, the APPO had been using it as their camp ground to display political statements. Now it is the cleanest I have ever seen it.

On Day of the Dead (Thursday), the APPO stayed in one of the universities very close to my neighborhood and the police tried to remove them, which led to a lot of bloodshed and violence. I think what's frightened me most is the manner in which people are fighting. The APPO has taken to creating malatov bombs made from household products, which they hoist at the police with plastic tubes. The police's response to this is to simply pitch them back. The sense of professionalism that we tend to associate with the police or military in the United States is not necessarily the same in Mexico, which terrifies me. As the violence increased that day, the police brought in helicoptors and dropped tear gas into the neighborhood. Fortunately, I was in the center that day meeting with my group when all of this happened and stayed away from the area until my family could safely leave and pick me up. I think that was by far the most upsetting experience I had throughout my stay in Oaxaca. It kills me to see these people destroying such a beautiful, usually peaceful city that relies primarily on tourism to fuel its economy. The tourist market has virtually died as a result of all the protesting and violence that have been going on for over 100 days. However, people are hopeful that things will improve dramatically by December 1. While I was fortunate enough to spend all of my time in Oaxaca (under relatively peaceful circumstances given the political upset), the rest of my group has chosen to relocate to Guanajuato for the duration of their volunteer and class time, which will make for a sad departure from their families and friends, but most importantly a safer living situation.

On a happy note, I am still planning to revisit Oaxaca this January to see how our museum exhibit comes together at Santo Domingo. I received e-mails today from Vero, the secretary of Unión de Museos Comunitarios and Rosie, one of my wonderful project partners. Both assure me that things are still running smoothly and they are anticipating the completion of the exhibit in time for the December 15th deadline, which would be great because we are hopeful that it will draw more people into the artisan communities of Oaxaca, thus helping the local economy.

Monday, October 30, 2006

Santa Ana del Valle

For my final week of fieldwork, Rosie, Joanna and I were sent to Santa Ana del Valle, which is a very short forty minute drive outside the city of Oaxaca. Santa Ana is known for its intricate textile weaving. We spent two days learning about the processes involved for preparing the wool and weaving with telares de pedal, which are the machines the artisans use to make very ornate tapetes, like the ones shown here.

I interviewed a women´s weaving group called Tejiendo Esperanza. Talking to these women was one of my favorite field work experiences during my stay in Oaxaca. Each of them has a really interesting story to tell. The weaving cooperative was formed a little less than a year ago as a means to improve the economic status of these artisans in this specific pueblo. The weavers of Santa Ana del Valle have very strong competition with another more popular weaving community called Teotitlan. The current political situation in Oaxaca has also closed off the international market to these women who previously relied on tourism to bring in the necessary income to provide for their families.

I am hoping I will have a chance in the future to go back to Santa Ana to work with these woman again. I would really like to do more to help them build a larger market for product consumption. One of the weavers told me right before I left that if the political situation in Oaxaca does not get resolved soon, they will no longer be able to afford to stay in the pueblo because the work they do is very laborious and hardly lucrative. As a result, Oaxaca is at great risk of losing some of the most important artisan forms that contribute to its cultural identity, a reputation that has been formed around age old traditions that have been maintained since before the Spanish conquest.

Our Weekend in Puebla

Last weekend the girls and I had originally planned to take a trip to Puerto Escondido to see the beach. But at the last minute we decided to go to Puebla because our project schedules required us to be back by Monday. Rachael and I have good friends who live in Puebla who offered to put us up for the weekend. So we took them up on their request, piled into a bus and left for Puebla early Friday afternoon.

After we arrived, we took the city bus down to the centro to see Puebla´s zocalo and have dinner. We ate at Sanborn´s, which is a Mexican chain restaurant you can find virtually anywhere. But they have awesomely large banana splits, so the other Maggie and I shared one. As you can see, we were filled with joy upon the arrival of our lovely dessert creation.

It was also really nice to explore another city that doesn´t have graffiti on all of the buildings. Virtually every surface of Oaxaca is covered with "Fuera Ulises!" We were actually able to see what a "normal" zocalo looks like without protestors, tents or barricades. The photo on the right was taken in Puebla´s centro.

Puebla is very historic and beautiful. One can find any number of things to do there. However, you are certain to find a ton of churches to visit during your stay because Cholula, a neighboring pueblo, boasts a hefty sum of 365! Saturday morning we visited this church, which rests atop one of the largest pyramids in the world. Apparently this pyramid´s size is comparable to those in Egypt. I had no idea! The climb to the top is rather steep (and the pyramid doesn´t really look like a pyramid in my opinion), but the trip up is completely worth it because the view is spectacular.

We also had time to visit the local mercado de artesanos, which was one of the highlights. You can find any number of things as you wind your way through three or four blocks of vendors selling everything from collector´s items to antiques of all kinds. Rosie and I met a really cool jewelry artisan from Belize named Joe. He and his "gal," as he referred to her, met there and began selling jewelry in other parts of Mexico. They recently relocated to Puebla and are planning to find other markets as well. They had a really cute puppy and very nice jewelry. I really like Puebla. The population is very eclectic because the community has a number of universities that bring in international students. Puebla also draws in a large population of individuals from parts of Europe and South America.

The photo on the right is of the huge cathedral located in the center of Puebla´s zocalo area. It was great to see this part of the city on a Sunday morning because everyone was out and about doing their shopping and preparing for the week. Rosie and I sat at a cafe located across from the church and watched as families hurried on their way to mass, children played in fountains and elderly men stood chatting about the latest news in the paper. Puebla was a much needed break from the chaotic state my city is in right now.

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Santa Maria Cuquila

This past month, I have been traveling weekly to complete interviews with various artisans from different pueblos in Oaxaca. One of my project assignments was to visit Santa Maria Cuquila to complete an interview with a traditional weaver and a ceramics artisan. Cuquila is famous for both of these traditional forms of artisanry. And up until very recently, these art forms served as a primary source of income for these individuals.

The artisans still use the traditional processes to weave and create pottery. Cuquila is one of the only pueblos in Oaxaca that has preserved the original ceramics making process that predates the Spanish conquest. Above is a photo of Sra. Marcaria. She only speaks Mixtec, so I had to have Emiliano (our host and a member of the Union of Community Museums committee) translate everything into Spanish. Marcaria was a very gracious hostess and took time to show us each step of the weaving process. Here she is beginning to form the hilo (skein of yarn) with the wool she collected and cleaned from one of the sheeps the family owns. She wears a huipil to help preserve this weaving tradition. Though she does not weave huipil, that form of artisanry is prevalent in other nearby pueblo communities. Huipiles are often worn for celebrations such as weddings, festivals or religious ceremonies.

My interview with Abraham, the ceramics artisan, was a little easier because we were able to converse directly in Spanish. He was also a wonderful host and took time to show us how to prepare the clay with renilla (a bonding agent collected from a specific type of rock in the region). He has been working with clay since he was a child and still spends a lot of time completing special orders for other community members and people who request products during the holidays.

Rosie, one of the newer ProMexico participants and my wonderful photographer, and I stayed in Cuquila for two days. I´ve become accustomed to sleeping in rather rustic accomodations during my pueblo visits, but this trip proved to be a very humbling experience. Emiliano was kind enough to host us for the evening and we were put up in his guest house, which is located a few miles outside of town in the mountains. Cuquila is very beautiful, but very hilly. And unfortunately earlier that afternoon, we had a terrible storm that lasted about four hours, leaving the streets flooded and everything soaking wet.

While our accomodations were very nice (we had a real bed and electricity), we did not have any running water and I´m pretty sure I saw a bat outside our door right before we had dinner. (Ask to hear my bat story sometime if you haven´t already heard it. I am very afraid of bats, even though I know they won´t harm me.) I shrieked when I saw that bat and Emiliano immediately built a fire outside our door after I explained what happened. He said the fire would ward off any other animals that might be nearby. Rosie and I were both thinking, "Oh dear God! What other animals could possibly be out here!?"

Our trip to the outhouse, located up the mountain to Emiliano´s house was quite an adventure because there are absolutely no lights what so ever and you can barely see your hand, let alone the latreen. So we lit a candle and proceeded to make the short climb up the hill to the latreen using its light and the light of our cell phones. The latreen was really clean and the next morning we discovered they had painted "Bienvenidos a Cuquila" on the front of the door in yellow paint, which I thought was really nice. Rosie and I have learned that baby wipes can be used for anything. We use them to wash our feet, which get dirty during our daily walks, especially in the pueblos. They are great for washing hands and faces, cleaning tables and counter tops and sanitizing somewhat questionable things. If you ever come to Mexico, I highly recommend baby wipes!

Our trip to Cuquila was very successful in terms of the work we accomplished for our artisan exhibit. We learned a lot about the different weaving and ceramics processes and also about the history of the community. Working here was a wonderful opportunity to put some of my anthropology skills to use. We also received a lesson in humility, which has made us even more grateful to the individuals generous enough to open their homes and kitchens to us as we do our work. A lot of the people in Oaxaca live daily without the luxury of running water or electricity. Simple tasks such as washing the dishes become very laborious because there is a constant struggle to conserve what little water there is. I have certainly had to step outside of my own comfort zone to accomplish some of my work here. Yet doing so has proved to be an incredibly rewarding and life enriching experience.

My Visit to México

One of my goals during my stay in Oaxaca was to venture to other parts of Mexico. After talking to a few friends, I decided it would definitely be worth it to visit the D.F. and fortunately I had the opportunity to do so a few weekends ago because I was invited to Rachael´s brother´s wedding, who also happens to be a good friend of my family. I boarded the bus to Mexico early Thursday afternoon and was well on my way around 3:00. It took over an hour to simply get out of the center of the city, due to the numerous street barricades and insane amounts of traffic that have accrued as a result of no police presence here. The drive to Mexico from Oaxaca is really pretty. I passed through a number of mountains and valleys along the way. And the time passed rather quickly until we arrived on the outskirts of the city around 7:30 that evening. Once we reached the D.F., I felt like it took us almost two hours to get to Tasqueña, the bus station where I was to be picked up. I was so happy to arrive that evening. Not to mention I was starving!

I stayed at Marco´s apartment in Coyoacan, which is a historic neighborhood within the city. The area has a number of really interesting museums, restaurants, shops and a lovely park surrounded by numerous cafes and storefronts. The next day we ventured over to the Anthropology Museum and spent over three hours exploring the different exhibits. The museum is organized according to the various cultural regions in Mexico. We spent a lot of time looking at codices and Olmec ruins. The Olmec region is in Tabasco, which is where my familia Oaxaqueña is from. This is a photo of Marco beside an Olmec sculpture (they have the same shape nose).

The morning before the wedding, we decided to visit Frida Kahlo´s house, which is also located in Coyoacan. Her home houses a museum now and you can see a number of her paintings and belongings. There is a large garden area in back (pictured here). The museum is amazing and I highly recommend visiting if you ever have a chance to go to Mexico. It was really interesting to see the work she completed right before she died.

Around noon on Saturday, we drove up to the north side of the city for the wedding. The ceremony and reception took place in a garden just a few miles outside of the D.F. We left three hours early for the wedding because we thought we would have enough time to change prior to the ceremony. Traffic was really heavy that day and it took us all of that time to reach the location. So we ended up changing in the tiny bathroom of the ceremony site, which was rather comical because we rushed about only to find we were the first guests to arrive. About an hour after the wedding was supposed to start, guests began to filter in. The wedding party arrived all at once and the civil ceremony, which was very short, was followed by an elaborate celebration that involved the consumption of large quantities of mezcal and a LOT of dancing. Part of the groom´s family is from the Isthmus (a region south of Oaxaca). Traditionally women from the Isthmus wear very ornate wedding garb with ribbons in their hair. Pictured here is one of the cousins performing a traditional dance in which candy is thrown into the crowds. The dance serves as a means to wish the couple well, to ensure they have a sweet future together. They also perform a snake dance in which everyone participates and forms a huge congo line which is led by the newlyweds. The festivities lasted until two or three in the morning. I returned home on a bus the next day with 40 of Rachael´s nearest and dearest family members and friends, most of whom I got to know very well during our 8 hour drive.

Being a part of a family has given me the opportunity to do a lot of things I would not have had a chance to see or do otherwise. Witnessing a Mexican wedding ceremony and reception was quite an experience. Celebrations are strongly valued here and people enjoy having any excuse to throw a party or festival. To the left is a picture of Marco and me after we´d been dancing for what felt like hours. You can tell we were both kind of tired. After the wedding I retired my dancing shoes for about a week.

Monday, October 16, 2006

San Miguel Tequixtepec

Last Monday Natalie and I had our first excursion to the small pueblo community San Miguel Tequixtepec, which lies three hours north of Oaxaca. We were sent to Tequixtepec to investigate the palm weaving process, which has been a popular artisan tradition for many generations. The majority of the members of this community weave sombreros, which for many years was a decent source of income. However, today women generally weave sombreros and other craft forms (see photo on left) as a supplementary form of income. The women´s group I interviewed on Monday meets weekly to complete special orders. However, more importantly weaving gives them a break from their family and home responsibilities, as well as an opportunity to socialize.

The weaving process, depending on the specific craft one chooses to make, takes days. Generally women gather palma or purchase palmitas (pieces of palma used for weaving) at the local market. Palma must be dried prior to weaving. This process can take up to eight days. Afterwards, artisans prepare the palma by dividing each part into equal pieces. Once this task has been completed, the weaving process can begin. It was amazing to watch the women work because they don´t look at their hands as they weave, yet their products are extremely well constructed and very ornate, which you can see from the above photo.

In terms of my museum work, it is hard to say if our photos from this pueblo will be incorporated into the museum exhibit. We had a miscommunication last week with Cuahtémoc, our coordinator, about the types of pictures we would be taking. One of the challenges I´ve experienced with my project has been trying to understand the vision of the anthropologists who are coordinating this exhibition. While we meet regularly to discuss the progress of our work, it seems communication is lacking in some areas, which has made it particularly difficult to accomplish interviews and picture taking when community members are unaware of what we need. Although we have had a few minor bumps in the road, I feel I have really benefitted from this experience because I´ve learned how to apply my training in anthropology to a real situation. I´m sure my description is a little vague right now. But I look forward to sharing more about my project once it has all come together.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

Cooking in Oaxaca

Over the past few weeks, I´ve had the opportunity how to prepare a few kinds of local foods. Each week my abuela gives me a short cooking lesson. So far I´ve learned how to make chocolate, guacamole, juevos con tortillas (one of my very favorite breakfasts), juevos Mexicanos, which have been appropriately named for the presence of red, white and green ingredients (tomato, onion and jalapeño) and flan napolitano, a delicious combination of flan, chocolate cake and fruit.

Yesterday afternoon, Natalie and I decided it would be nice to bake chocolate chip cookies for our families to show our appreciation for the numerous culinary lessons they have provided. So we walked over to Chedraui to buy ingredients. Chedraui is a huge grocery store that stocks food items from all over the world. Their candy aisle is quite impressive because one can buy all sorts of local and European chocolates. Having known this, we figured we would have absolutely no problem finding chispas de chocolate (chocolate chips), for our delicious creations that remind us of home. After searching the baking aisle, candy aisle and various cannisters holding large quantities of sprinkles, nuts and other types of food toppings, we realized our chispas de chocolate were nowhere to be found. Of course this wouldn´t prevent us from baking the famed chocolate chip cookies we were looking forward to sharing with our families. So we decided to buy three large bars of chocolate to cut into pieces as our substitute chispas.

Once we returned with our ingredients, Natalie´s family was eager to help us bake. So we proceeded to chop up the chocolate and prepare the cookie batter. When we got to the step where we needed to add the brown sugar, we realized the cookie batter somewhat resembled the consistency of bread dough. So we decided to add a little milk and a bit more flour in hopes of salvaging our soon to be delectable creations. As Natalie stirred in more ingredients, the batter became so thick she had to use her hands. We decided to proceed anyway and added the "chocolate chips" and a few M&M´s because after little Ruby ate about six pieces of chocolate, there really wasn´t much for the cookies.

When it came time to put the cookies in the stove, we realized no one in the family really new how the oven worked. The dial on the stove, which would typically have various degrees, simply had the numbers one through five. I assumed five was really hot, so we stuck the cookies in the oven on the third setting and waited a ridiculously long time for them to bake. As we checked periodically, Natalie and I realized our cookies were beginning to look like dinner rolls with brightly colored candy pieces. Because the cookies baked more like rolls, it took a long time for them to cook through. Natalie´s dad even recommended that we flip the cookies to ensure even cooking. After the first batch came out of the oven, we sampled our creations and sure enough, we had somehow managed to create chocolate stuffed dinner rolls.

These were the strangest cookies I´ve ever made in my life! I almost didn´t bring any home with me, but decided to share the product of my afternoon with my family, even if only for sheer comic relief. Surprisingly, my grandma thought the cookies were sabrosa (delicious)! And Marco, my brother, even claimed he would eat more at will.

Since I´ve been living here for a little over a month now, I´ve sampled a number of cookies de Oaxaca. And until yesterday´s revelation, I never really understood why most of them (even though shaped like cookies) generally taste like bread with sprinkles. I guess this goes to show, when in Oaxaca, do as the Oaxacans do-stick to bread!

Saturday, September 30, 2006

San Agustin Etla

This weekend´s group activity was a day trip to Etla, which is located just a few minutes outside of the city. Although Etla is famous for its traditional paper making, we spent the morning at the Contemporary Art Museum (see photo on the right). The museum houses two floors of paintings, sketches and photos, the majority of which are done by local artists. However, we also got to see the work of a few foreign photographers. The grounds of the museum are beautifully landscaped with fountains and flowers. It´s a great place to visit in the evening because there is a spectacular view the looks out over the city.
After the museum, we headed to one of the local balnearios (pools) called Vista Hermosa. This was the coolest pool I´ve ever been to in my entire life. And I don´t even like pools. Not only were there six different swimming areas, the compound also had a restaurant, water slides, a volley ball court, hammocks and most importantly, a GIANT trampoline. Here I am stuffing my face (as usual) with one of Oaxaca´s famous Tlayudas (imagine a giant tostada, only better).

Jumping on a giant trampoline is harder than it looks, especially if other people are bouncing in synchrony. As you can see from the picture below, I am still in need of a lot of practice. Perhaps I will have a chance to master the art of trampoline bouncing before I return home. We almost had a few near catastrophes, but for the most part quite an enjoyable time away from the noise and chaos that encompasses a typical Saturday in Oaxaca. Right before leaving, we took a few minutes to lounge in the hammocks and enjoy a lovely view looking out over the hills. Every now and then I have the opportunity to relax for a moment in one of these fine creations. Seeing hammocks on neighboring porches or in passing during my daily walks through the centro reminds me of how comfortable living here has become. I plan to bring one home as a reminder of the peace I have achieved by living in this amazing place.

Monday, September 25, 2006

San Martín Huamelulpan

This weekend our group ventured to San Martín Huamelulpan, which is approximately 2.5 hours northwest of Oaxaca. We left the city bright and early on Saturday morning so we would have most of the day to explore the area and meet with some of the community members. Upon arrival, we were greeted by two women who were representatives of the community´s local museum. It was interesting to see how much of an impact our presence had on this little town. The population of San Martín is approximately 1600 individuals (if I remember correctly). However, upon entering the city, one would be inclined to believe there are fewer. Many of the homes stretch up into the surrounding hills, creating the illusion that there really isn´t a city at all. The environment there was a great contrast to the congestion and noise I´ve become accustomed to in the city. Although we only met a handfull of people, each person went to great lengths to show his or her hospitality, which was much appreciated.

We covered a lot of ground in a day and a half. By far, one of the most interesting experiences I had this weekend was my limpia from the local curandera. Limpia is a long standing healing tradition that is still prevalent in a number of communities and among many families today. Often children receive limpias when parents or family members suspect someone has given them mal ojo or (evil eye). Unlike in the United States, it is not acceptable to fawn over a pretty child or make comments to the parents about how adorable or cute he or she may be. People generally consider this a form of envy, which can be a hazard to the child´s health.

The limpia process is somewhat complex and I don´t understand all of the steps (especially since the curandera was whispering in Spanish). However, the process went something like this: While I was sitting in a chair with my eyes closed, the curandera took a free range chicken egg and doused it in mezcal, then proceeded to rub it all over my body. It is thought that the egg can pick up energy from each person, which then impacts the reading of the egg once it is cracked into a glass cup. Before the egg is cracked, a number of local herbs and healing plants were tied together and wiped all over the top of my head, arms, torso and legs. This step serves as the limpia, or cleaning. Afterward, I opened my eyes and watched as the curandera cracked the egg into the glass cup. She told me that I was sick because I walk in dirty streets every day and prescribed a mezcal steam bath to cure me of this affliction. When she cracked my egg, the yolk did not rise to the top, which is why I was told I was sick. My friend Rachael underwent the same process and had very different results. Her egg yolk rose to the top of the glass, indicating she was healthy. The curandera asked her if she had a relatively easy and clean walk every day and she responded that she indeed did. Where as I walk through the grimy part of town each day, in muddy streets and through broken sidewalks, Rachael supposedly has a much easier route.

Perhaps the curandera´s analyses of our broken eggs were metaphorical. I can´t really say, as she did not stay long enough for us to ask many questions. But regardless of what any of us believes about this experience, it was wonderfully insightful to undergo a different form of healing (especially one that is so strongly embedded within the culture).

If you are thinking, "This ritual must only be used by people who live in rural Mexico," that is definitely not the case. A number of people I have spoken to in the city either have experienced a limpia or know families who perform limpias to protect and heal their loved ones. Natalie lives with a family who regularly uses this tradition to predict whether their one and a half year old granddaughter has been receiving too much unwanted attention. Ruby, a particularly pretty little girl, often receives a lot of stares because she is very light skinned (this is a quality that is somewhat exotic in Oaxaca). Normally a very happy go lucky baby, when Ruby cries, her grandparents perform a limpia to calm her. Though I have not been there to witness the process, Natalie informs me that Ruby generally regresses back to her usual behavior after this is done. While I can´t explain how the limpia actually works or the impact it has, I can appreciate the history behind this healing ritual and respect the faith people have in this act.

Aside from my limpia, I also had a chance to visit some of the local archaelogical ruins. Much of San Martín Huamelulpan remains unearthed, as there are over 10,000 archaeological sites and not enough archaeologists or funding to complete all of the work. This photo was taken on the church grounds which are adjacent to a large set of ruins that were onced used by priests and nobles for religious rituals and gatherings.