Archive | July, 2010

In Tlaxiaco

28 Jul

It’s a bit lonely traveling where we don’t know people, and with limited opportunities for conversations with local folks. In language school we had a great time talking to Omar and the other teachers and the family we lived with about Oaxacan politics and culture, but now we’re tourists mainly interacting with waiters, hotel staff, and market vendors, some of whom have an inclination to share a few words, and some of whom clearly don’t.

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Still, we do want to explore some of Oaxaca’s diverse natural and ethnic regions. So on Friday we paid $6 each to catch the collectivo (van) that runs from Oaxaca City for Tlaxiaco, a market town in the Mixtec highlands two and a half hours northwest. Our van wound its way through the high rutted hills, rising out of the Central Valley. The Mixtec people have lived in this region since long before the Spanish conquest. With the passage of centuries, the land has been exhausted by farming and logging. While some of the hillsides and valleys are still used to raise corn, on others the thin soil is barely covered with sparse grass. We passed many areas where the land has eroded into deeply rutted bare red soil, cut into mazes of ravines and gullies. The exhaustion of the soil, together with lack of government support for small farmers and the import of cheap corn from the U.S., is one of the reasons that so many Mixtec people have left the region for the U.S. or other parts of Mexico such as Baja California. Still, much of the land is still producing corn, beans, squash, and avocados and now that the rains have come, this part of Oaxaca has turned green. Giant sabino trees with their massive trunks, and groves of carrizal, looking like a cross between bamboo and corn, line the edges of the muddy streams that flow through valley fields.

Eventually we reached Tlaxiaco and carried our packs through the crowded, clanging commercial district to the central square, where we checked in Los Portales hotel, walked through the hotel’s restaurant in the graceful old patio, and finally settled into our room .

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On Saturdays, Tlaxiaco hosts one of the largest tiangis (markets) in Oaxaca; it draws vendors from all over the Mixteca Alta (upland) region.  Standing on the hotel’s front steps Saturday morning, we saw dozens of vendors setting up their awnings on metal frames. Every stall had a specialty – traditional and modern clothing; CDs and DVDs, often pirated; tacos filled with fried meat, cilantro, and salsa; plastic cups with chunks of pineapple, papaya, and melon; hardware, everything from hammers to plumbing supplies to hand-made wooden saddles; fireworks; books and magazines; and lots and lots of produce. There were piles of tomatoes, greenish yellow mangoes, little mountain peaches and apples, squash blossoms and leaves to make into soup, lilies, all kinds of dried beans, gladioli, piles of sweet bananas, bags of limes, wild orange mushrooms, chrysanthemums, black-skinned avocados, bundles of sugar cane, and piles of dried plants labeled according to their medicinal qualities. We bought sweet pastries and coffee seasoned with sugar and cinnamon and chatted with the vendor who told us she’s trying to learn Mixtec so she can talk with more of her customers.

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Finally we walked forty minutes north from the noisy market to the town’s outskirts where we found green fields, wildflowers, and a little river running strong with the recent rains.


Nopal – Legend, Food, and Natural Dye

20 Jul


Nopal Cactus/Nopal

The nopal cactus grows widely in Mexico. The national flag shows an eagle entangled with a serpent, standing on a nopal. Legend says that when Mexica (Aztec) nomads saw this eagle at a lake in central Mexico, they know that they should settle at that spot. Their settlement grew into the great city of Tenochtitlán.

Nopal is an important part of the Mexican diet, rich in vitamins. When the spines are scraped off, the “leaves” can be cooked and used in a variety of dishes. The fruit, called “tunas,” have a sweet taste and can be bought in Mexican markets. Nopal “leaves” are actually enlarged stems. The real leaves evolved into the spines.



In colonial times, the greatest wealth in Oaxaca came not from gold or silver, but from the cochineal, a tiny insect that lives on nopal leaves. Indigenous Oaxacans knew how to extract a red dye from cochineal, more brilliant than any before seen in Europe. The dye created vast riches and was used to dye garments of the upper classes and royalty in Europe. The cochineal boom ended only when German chemists developed cheaper aniline dyes in the 1800s. Today, Zapotec weavers in Teotitlan del Valle raise cochineal to use as one of the natural dyes in their world famous hand-woven rugs.

Amaranth – An Ancient Mexican Grain

19 Jul



Amaranth is one of the world’s most nutritious plants. It contains large amounts of protein, vitamins, and minerals. In fact, it was one of the principle sources of protein for pre-conquest Mexicans. The Spanish, when they saw how strong it made the indigenous Mexicans, forbade them to eat it. They claimed it was diabolical. Mexicans stopped eating it, except in a candy called “alegrías,” the recipe for which has been passed down by Mexican cooks for centuries. Today, because of the amaranth’s association with poor campesinos, many Mexicans consider amaranth to be a lower-class plant than vegetables introduced from Europe. Mexican nutritionists, however, are promoting increased used of amaranth and other varieties of “quelites.”  Both the foliage and seeds (popped like corn) are edible.  (Info and photo from a tour of Jardin Etnobotanico de Oaxaca.)

Farmers Take Action to Conserve Water in San Antonino, Oaxaca

15 Jul

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Small farmers in Oaxaca’s Central Valley used to be able to count on ample water to produce their corn, livestock, and vegetables. But recently, water scarcity has threatened the ability of these farmers, mainly of indigenous Zapotec heritage, to support themselves. The valley is drying up for several reasons. The City of Oaxaca, its population now around 300,000, uses more and more water. Worse, reduced rainfall, due to deforestation and global warming, have caused frequent periods of drought since the 1990s.

Growing water scarcity is a key reason that many Oaxacan farmers have been forced to migrate to other parts of Mexico and to the U.S. in search of work. Oaxacan farmers also say that federal water laws, designed for northern Mexico’s vast expanses of commercial farms, treat Oaxacan farmers in an unnecessarily harsh manner. During recent decades, the government pressured farmers into registering the wells they had dug to irrigate their crops. The government then began metering the farmers’ use of their own wells, and fined them when they exceeded federal limits. These rules made it even harder for the farmers to feed their families.

In response, farmers in the small village of San Antonino have used their own creativity, money, and labor to develop a local water conservation system and recharge their depleted aquifer. They are cooperating with 11 other villages with assistance from Flor y Canto, a local group dedicated to protecting indigenous rights in Oaxaca.

This week, our Witness for Peace delegation traveled to San Antonino to see the project first hand.

Project leaders Delfín Hernandez Sanchez, Elias Santiago Hernández, Claudio Ortiz Reyes, and Teresa Aguílar Serna told us they had to initiate the project on their own, without government support. The work was done on Sundays with téquio (community) labor. Though they had limited formal education, they designed the project using their own ideas and knowledge of local conditions. One of them told us: “We had no engineers to help, so we were the engineers. We didn’t study. We just had a need and we were hungry.” Only after the project proved successful did the municipal government start to assist by building additional wells. Now experts come from far away to see the accomplishments of this tiny group of farmers in San Antonino.

The key element of the project consists of 120 hand-dug filtration wells. The wells collect rainwater and runoff from the fields to recharge the local aquifer and supply water to separate irrigation wells.  An average well 15 meters deep takes around a week to dig. We saw one well under construction. At the bottom, so deep we could barely see them, two men were excavating. The farmers told us that yes, the work was dangerous, and they have to be careful. When they dig deep it is hard to breathe at the bottom of the well. As a workplace safety teacher, I shuddered.


After the digging is complete, concrete tubing is installed to reinforce the walls. The well is filled with rocks and sand to filter the water. Though the government accused the farmers of collecting polluted water, studies by two Mexican universities have shown that the water is not contaminated. Farmers told us that they use no agricultural chemicals to grow their corn, squash, radishes, green beans, parsley, flowers, and other crops. They fertilize their fields with a mixture of local materials, including animal manures and egg shells.

After beginning work on their project in 2006, the farmers had to wait three years for results. Finally, the level of water in the wells began to rise. After the farmers proved that their system was successful, the municipal government installed another 60 wells.

We asked to farmers why they had stayed in San Antonino instead of emigrating. “This is our home,” they told us. “We did it for those who will come after us, for our children. We can’t leave them a desert, we need to leave them water. What will they think if we leave them no water? One day they will approve of what we are doing.”

The farmers of San Antonino are still poor, and they have to work hard to raise their crops. But things are better now. Today, the farmers say, they collect enough water during the rainy season to produce crops year round.

But the staff of Flor y Canto say that villages throughout the Valley of Oaxaca still struggle with water shortage and could be helped by using the methods developed in San Antonino. The farmers of San Antonino need allies to continue their work.

Teocintle, Mother of Corn

7 Jul


Teocintle is the ancestor of corn, which was first developed thousands of years ago in Mexico or Central America and now dominates world agriculture. I have to say I felt awe on first seeing this little plant in the Jardin Etnobotanico in Oaxaca. It is the basis of the great indigenous cultures of Mesoamerica. It is believed that migrating hunter-gatherers were first attracted not to its grain but to its cane, which is sweet to chew. But when they picked the cane, they inadvertently pollinated the plants. When they returned from their migrations, they found bigger and better plants. Hybridization continued, and eventually the early people began to value the seeds and plant them deliberately. Today, corn in many forms is still the basis of Mexican cooking. But native Mexican corn, and the millions of farmers who grow it, are threatened by subsidized corn imported from the United States under NAFTA, GMO corn varieties brought in by Monsanto, and drought due to climate change and destruction of Mexico’s rich forests.

Swords into Plowshares

6 Jul

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Soon after arriving in Oaxaca we toured the new ethnobotanical garden at the Dominican church and former monastery of Santo Domingo in Oaxaca. We saw giant magueys and agaves; flor de mayo (frangipani) trees whose waxy white flowers have a lovely citrus smell; cycads – the ancient gymnosperms that look like palm trees; teocintle, ancestor grass of corn, born here in Central Mexico; ceiba, the Mayan tree at the center of the universe; copal trees; palo mulato trees with delicate papery green and reddish-brown bark; giant cactus of many shapes including a wallful of climbing pitahaya cactus and an ancient cactus variety from before the time that cactus lost its leaves. A place of beautiful plants, wondrous to walk among.

Here’s how the garden came to be, if I understood the guide’s Spanish explanation. The garden is on the site of a Dominican church and monastery built during the 1500s.  Later, the site was taken over by the Army and nearly destroyed. The grounds where the garden is now were a cavalry practice and barracks, there was a jail in the former monastery, and the interior of the church was trashed. In the 1990s, the need for the Army to move south to Chiapas provided a pretext to sell the whole complex to a powerful US chain to create an expensive hotel and conference center. But Oaxacan artist Francisco Toledo got wind of the plan and convinced the government instead to restore the church, put a museum of Oaxacan cultures in the former monastery, and create the ethnobotanical garden. This is just one of the many things he has done for the city. How wonderful that artists are among Oaxaca’s greatest leaders.

I’ve been back to the garden several times, and hope to highlight some of the plants in future posts.

El Tejate – Bebida Tradicional de Oaxaca

5 Jul

El Tejate – Bebida Tradicional de Oaxaca

Estaba en el mercado de Tlacolula cuando ví por primera vez los puestos de tejate. Tal vez había leido de tejate ante en un libro de cocina de Oaxaca, pero no había puesto mucha atención. Pero el día segundo de nuestra estancia en Oaxaca, nos dirigimos a Tlacalula por ver el famoso mercado regional de domingo. Habían muchas cosas que ver, pero las mas fascinantes eran los puestos de tejate. Las que lo prepararon eran mujeres, algunas jóvenes y otras mayores. Lo mezclaban con ingredientes que tienen larga historia en el México indígena – el maíz, la almendra de mamey, y la rosita de cacao. Los mezclaban en ollas gigantescas. Hundían los brazos en las ollas hasta las codos, y removían suntuosamente la masa espesa. Parecía un ritual. En las mesas de los puestos, listas para recibir el tejate, habían puesto jícaras pintadas de color rojo y diseños fluidos de flores. Cuando querían añadir más agua, alzaban los brazos y dejaban caer el agua de una jícara.  Todo el proceso tomaba mucho tiempo, se dice que requiere de 2 a 2 ½ horas, pero cuando todo era listo, vertía el tejate en las jícaras decorados de flores y las ofrecía a los clientes. La mezcla, que parecía ser de leche cuajada, pero de color cafe claro con partes oscuras, a mí me parecía ser poción de brujas. Pero después, cuando la probé la primera vez en el marcado de Zaachila, supé, al fin, que el tejate tenía sabor sutil, fresco, y dulcecito. Me costó un poco de miedo probarlo, pero valió la pena. Sentí que había compartido en un poco de la cultura de la Oaxaca zapoteca.