Friday, November 13, 2020

Manuel Vasquez Castellanos: A Tailor-made Life






Manuel Vasquez Castellanos is a sastre cortador (tailor/cutter). He spends ten to twelve hours a day in his small taller, (workshop) on Calle Quetzacoatl in the Centro Historico de Oaxaca. Although his taller is not his declared residence, he has a bed in the back and spends many a night curled up after a long day of work. "I like my taller; tailoring has been my life since I was a kid," he explained to me. "I come in each day around ten after breakfast, and call it a day around nine or ten at night". 




Although he still works hard, not all of those hours are spent working. Many are spent reminiscing of the "old days". He speaks of the best sastres in Oaxaca in the 1960's like a baseball fan speaks of hall of famers. They did quality work in a time when hand sewn garments were still in fashion and worn with frequency. "Now, " he claimed, "there are not many people who wear hand tailored suits. It is much cheaper to buy them off the rack and price has over-ridden the importance of quality and a good fit".

Manuel is both a tailor and a cutter. He explained the difference this way:, "Cutter and tailors are responsible for taking a flat piece of cloth and turning it into a three dimensional object (a suit). A cutter's role in this process is to fit the garment perfectly to the client's figure, and that is the skill that truly differentiates their role".
Manuel  started an apprenticeship in tailoring in 1953 at age seventeen in Mexico City. He came back to Oaxaca in 1960 and opened a shop with some friends. "It was the epoch of hippies and bellbottom pants", he told me. If you wanted to survive, you had to follow the fashions and make what the client wanted. He started working on making pants because they were easier. Jackets were the most difficult and came toward the end of the apprenticeship. He mastered all the stages of his apprenticeship and went on to become a cutter in addition to a tailor. He has clients both rich and prestigious and humble with meager incomes. "As my father taught me, we are all the same".   In 1980 he was invited to teach tailoring at the Escuela Municipal de Sastreria, a local trade school that was opened that year. He no longer teaches at that school, but two of his former students, both women, are now in line to take over his business when is is gone. He told me that nowadays there are more female tailors than men.

Manuel is now eighty years old, and his is a dying profession. "Conmigo termina la tradición (the family tradition ends with me). His children all have jobs as professionals and have no desire to continue in his footsteps. Most youth do not want to enter the profession as it takes much time to learn to do it well and it is hard to make a living as a tailor. He is happy that he has two ex-students interested in carrying on his work. "It is important to share what you know so that your art form does not die out. It is now time for the younger generation to take over.". 

So they come regularly to learn from "el maestro" (the master), and he tells me he also learns from them.
He is proud of what he has done with his life and is happy that teaching has allowed him to share his skills with others. 
Despite the fact that demand for his services has declined, Manuel has not changed his daily routine; he arrives after breakfast and quits around nine or ten in the evening, and he still spends many a night in the bed in the back of his small workshop. There is still a need for clothing for people whose body shapes do not fit into the norm, people who cannot find clothes off the rack that fit them. And there are the people who attend the weekly Danzon events in the zocalo who need the period clothing that goes back to the 1930's and the Pachugo look of the zoot suiters. Outside of Manuel, there are very few tailors who remember this style. 

When I walk by his taller on Quetzacoatl Street, I invariably find Manuel there, either leaning on his sewing machine catnapping, or at his work table preparing a precision cut for some lucky client in need of a perfectly fitted jacket. His life is encapsulated in the small workshop of Sastreria Vazquez Castellanos. There are photos, diplomas and certificates of appreciation that define who he is. Each one has a story behind it that he is glad to tell. And this is why he spends so much time in that small  taller: It is his life, a tailor-made life that he will always treasure.


Friday, September 11, 2020

Doña Queta: A Life Built upon Service and Respect


My name is Enriqueta Contreras Contreras. I am a curandera (healer) and a midwife. I am Zapoteca and I speak my native tongue”. (Doña Queta: Video interview 2019)

Doña Queta & her daughter Norma

I first met Doña Queta in 2018 while working on my oficios (occupations) project. Midwives and curanderas are such an important part of the culture of Oaxaca, that my project would not be complete without one. As luck would have it, I was introduced to an American woman that was working on a midwifery project that included Doña Queta. She told me that Doña Queta had become very leery of doing interviews or being photographed as she had had some bad experience with people who were trying to use her for their own benefit. She told me she would make the contact for me and explain my project and its purpose and get back to me. A few days later I got a message that informed me that Doña Queta was willing to meet with me. There was no quarantee it would go any further, but she was willing to meet to hear more about my project.

The meeting went very well. There was an immediate click between us and she agreed to let me come photograph her and do an interview. She told me that she can tell much about a person and their intent when they walk through the door. Her intuition told her that I was respectful and that she could trust me. Over the course of the next year I went to see Doña Queta several times. She was always warm and welcoming. There is a sense of pride in her bearing that has been hard earned over her eighty plus years on the planet. Her journey to success and acceptance has never been an easy one. This is part of her story:

Enriqueta Contreras Conteras was born in the indigenous pueblo of Benito Juarez in the Sierra Norte of Oaxaca, an hour and a half outside the city. Her father died when she was three years old. She had several siblings and the family was very poor, so at the age six she was given to another family in the community who did not have children. They sent her into the countryside to care for their sheep and goats. The couple drank heavily and when they did, they did not feed Doña Queta. She survived by teaching herself about the plants that grew in the wilderness. Her grandmother was a curandera and partera (healer and midwife) that lived to be 115 years old. She believes that her gift for healing was inherited from her grandmother. Doña Queta had seen her grandmother assist at births on several occasions, and had seen her prepare herbal remedies many times. But she was self-taught from the age of six. She had an intuitive sense about nature and medicine. She never went to school and did not learn to read and write until much later in her life. Her intelligence was a natural one; she claims that Nature herself showed her how to care for the things in nature.

In time, she began working at health centers in the local indigenous communities. She was very popular among the people because of the way she treated them, both medicinally and humanly. All that she did was based on respeto (mutual respect) and respect for nature. But because she did not hold any formal diplomas for what she did, and jealousy caused by her popularity with the patients, she was often not accepted by other health workers, and was asked to leave more than one community because of that. She was committed to being of service to her people and never gave up her journey.

She makes all of her own herbal remedies with plants and flowers from the Sierra Juarez, where she grew up. She is extremely knowledgable and very meticulous in their preparation. She has a temascal (sweat lodge) that she uses as part of her midwifery, and a room where she works that is full of her remedies and tinctures.

Over the course of years, Doña Queta has become bi-literate, taken some first aid courses from the Mexican Red Cross, and found a following among midwives in the United States and Canada. She now gives workshops in Mexico for local midwives and visitors from abroad, and has traveled to other parts of Latin America and North America to give workshops.

 "Healing is a great responsibility, it is no game. You have to move a lot of energy, physical, emotional and spiritual". She is a master at doing that. She has made me a tincture to strengthen and protect lung, counseled some dear friends after the loss of a loved one, and offered her services without charge to those in the community that could not pay.

 Her work in the community was finally recognized nationally when she was awarded a certificate of appreciation for her work in women's rights in Mexico. Her daughter, Norma, is following in her footsteps and will be in line to take over the practice when Doña Queta is no longer able.

The message that she continually reiterated to me was this: We  have to respect each other, if not, no healing can take place". I have nothing but the utmost respect for Doña Queta, and I am honored that she invited me into her life. 

Maria Sabina Recognition


Thursday, September 3, 2020

Pelota Mixteca: A Game of the Gods

 


Alberto Pachego Santos lives in Ejutla, Oaxaca, and is a master glove maker. He specializes in making and repairing guantes de pelota Mixteca, eleven-pound gloves worn to play the ancient ball game from Pre-Columbian times. The gloves are made from layers of rawhide and tanned leather with over three kilos of round -headed nails pounded into the face of the glove. It is this part of the glove that strikes a two -pound compressed, rubber ball. The nails are an essential element in the glove-making process and are now extremely difficult to find. So Alberto no longer makes new gloves and dedicates himself to repairing old gloves that the players bring him. 

Alberto has been practicing his trade for over seventy-four years. He began working at his father’s side at age six. His father had learned the trade from his father. There are only two people in Oaxaca that make the gloves, Alberto and his uncle, Augustín who is ninety and making very few gloves now. Augustín is still able to make new gloves as he has a remaining stock of round-headed nails.

Alberto takes great pride in the craft he does. He truly loves the game, having played for thirty-five years before he fell and fractured his arm. He can no longer bear the weight of the glove due to that injury. But he claims that you had to be a player to understand the mechanics of the glove. Each player’s glove is custom made, depending on the position of the player, his size, and the way he strikes the ball. In order to repair a glove, Alberto must take the entire glove apart and redo it. It takes him a week to two weeks of full time work to complete the job, depending on the size of the glove. The total cost for the repair is around 4000 pesos ($200US). That is a lot of money in Oaxaca, but viewed as money well spent if you play Pelota Mixteca.



The entire reconstruction of the glove is done by hand, from the cutting of the leather to the sewing together of the multiple, thick layers. It requires much patience and diligence to do the quality of work that Alberto insists on doing. He works from early morning to nightfall daily, taking breaks to rest, tend his garden and prepare his meals. He loves his work; it is his life. He is concerned who will take over his craft when he is gone. At eighty, he is still alert and in good health, but there is no one apprenticing with him. It takes much time to learn all the stages of glove-making and repairing, and it's hard, physical work. Young people today can find an occupation that is easier and pays better thanks to technology. But it does not bring the satisfaction of playing an integral part of a game that has much importance in the Zapotec communities of Oaxaca. Alberto would think of doing nothing else but repairing gauntes Mixtecas. 

Deek and Alberto in Ejutla



Sunday, July 19, 2020

La Escuela Nacional de Arte: Music Makers Part 2



Yuniet taught jazz at La Escuela Naional de Arte in Habana. and he arranged to get us in for one of his classes. The school was situated on what was once a upper class country club before the revolution. Castro turned it into the National School of Art. It offered classes in all of the arts, and was free to all those who attended. That included room and board at the school as well as use of an instrument if you were in music. The students we visited were high school age and already playing jazz at a high level. 

Fred and Faye arrived the next day and Portillo had arranged for Fred to play with his brother's group at the La Zorra y el Cuervo, one of Habana's most prestigious jazz clubs. As fate would have it, a few hours before the gig there was a rain storm the likes  of which I have seldom seen. The streets were rivers and it got quite very chilly for Cuba. Portillo called to tell us he could not get int the city and that the gig had been canceled. Needless to say, we were all very disappointed and had little alternative but to stay at our apartment, drink Habana Club 7 años rum, and play cribbage.
Luckily Portillo had also arranged for Fred to play a few days later with an impressive, young jazz sax player, Yuniet Lombida Prieto. The gig was in the Salon de Habano in the Hotel Melia Cohiba, with the group, Kono y los Chicos de Cuba. The group invited Fred to come up and play a tune with them a few songs into their gig. They had not heard him play and did not know what to expect. "One tune might be enough" surely crossed their minds. They were playing jazz standards as well a some original music based on Japanese folk melodies. After the first tune, the the band members were all smiles. A brotherhood was formed and Fred stayed on stage with them for the rest of the set. The evening was a big success!

The visit to the Escuela Nacional de Arte was the high point of the trip. There were two groups of young musicians, one female and the other male. I think many of the female musicians were in love with Yuniet! Both groups were outstanding. Yuniet introduced us and the youth seemed honored to play for us.

Instead of using words to describe the experience, I have decided to let the photos do the talking: a series of portraits of the talented young people who played so passionately for us that hot, Habana afternoon.
 
I thank Yuniet, Gerardo Portillo, the students at la Escuela Nacional de Arte, and all of the Cuban people I encountered for their openess and generosity. There is a part of my spirit that stayed in Habana with them!






Thursday, June 11, 2020

Music Makers: Notes from Habana




Osvaldo & Alga Marina
In the winter of 2017, I took my second trip to Cuba. I had gone the previous year with my friend, Helene, and I fell in love with the place. This trip the plan was to meet my friends Fred and Faye in Habana and spend a couple of weeks exploring the music scene there. Fred is an accomplished sax player and wanted to play with some Cuban musicians. I had some good connections in my friends Osvaldo and Alga Marina. They had lined me up with people to photograph the previous year and we had formed a strong bond in a short time. Osvaldo was a talented jeweler and Alga Marina had been an educator. They were both very involved in the Cuban Revolution, especially in regards to the arts. So when I asked them if they could put me in touch with someone who could arrange for Fred to play with some Havana musicians, they did not hesitate.

Gerardo Portillo
 A few days later I was contacted by a french horn player named Portillo. He offered to help in any way he could. His brother was a well known jazz pianist and Portillo thought he could get Fred a gig playing with them. As a professional musician, he had lots of good contacts. Since I had arrived in Cuba a week before Fred and Faye, I arranged to meet Portillo one afternoon in Havana and talk about possibilities. I mentioned to him that I was a photographer and asked if it would be ok to take some shots during my stay. He assured me that that would be fine and offered to arrange for me to photograph a few of his musician friends

La mamá de Portillo


We met again the next day and he invited me to a rehearsal of one of the national bands he belonged to. After the rehearsal he asked me if I would be willing to go to his mother's house and take a photo of her. She was old and in poor health.When we arrived, we found her not doing well at all; I was only able to get one shot  for Portillo. She died a few days later.





Amadito Valdéz: Percussionist of Buena Vista

Portillo then told me we were going to the home of Amadito Valdez, one of the original members of the Buena Vista Social Club. We stopped at a cultural kiosk and I bought a copy of a new biography about Amadito, upon his request. When we arrived, Amadito signed my book and wasted no time getting to the point: He wanted to do a tour in the US and he wanted me to help arrange it! Buena Vista no longer existed as the original group, and he was in dire need of work. I told him I knew nothing about such things and he responded that it did not matter. He had press releases I could use, and he felt his fame would carry him a good distance in the US. He also thought that Fred, being a musician, must have contacts that could be interested. I did set him up with a cultural promoter in Oaxaca, but nothing ever came of it.

 Portillo and I got together once more before Fred and Faye arrived. This time he arranged for me to take some shots of two very popular female vocalists, Zule Guerra (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WDSU3qLnEzQand Dayme Arocena. Zule was an up and coming artist who had drawn a lot of attention in the 2015 Habana Jazz Festival. Dayme was an Afro Cuban jazz vocalist who had  won the 2015 Juno award for best jazz album (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NmVojfQJ6Jo). I could never have had this opportunity without Portillo's help.
Dayme Arocena
Zule Guerra

















The following day my friends were arriving in Habana. I had arranged for a nice apartment in Vedado, a short guagua (1950's taxi) ride from Habana Vieja. Portillo had come through nicely; he had arranged three gigs for Fred with some of Habana's finest jazz players. The adventure was about to begin.

Part 2 to follow soon and will include a visit to Cuba's Escuela Nacional de Arte.




Wednesday, April 22, 2020

A Simple Life: Tecla & Nahum



This winter I made my first visit to Capulálpam, one of Mexico’s Pueblo Mágico. Tucked away in the Sierra Juarez of Oaxaca at 6700 feet, it is deserving of the title. It is a pueblo that prides itself on its environmental consciousness, the preservation of its Zapotec roots, and the sincere friendliness of its inhabitants.

I had wanted to go to Capulálpam for some time and had some possibilities of finding people to photograph for my project on occupations. A visit from my amiga, Shawna, gave me an added incentive to go. I had one contact there, Doña Tecla, a Zapotec women I had met while giving a workshop on children’s literature three years earlier. I had used the book The Woman Who Outshone the Sun: the Legend of Lucia Zenteno. It is a story about the importance of Mother Nature in our lives, especially the importance of water. The Zapotec poet that first published the story as a poem, Alejandro Cruz Martinez, was killed in 1987 while organizing the Zapotecs to regain their lost water rights. Doña Tecla reminds me very much of Lucia Zenteno both in her appearance and her spirit. She had invited me to Capulálpam to share the book with a group of woman working on a water rights project, but I was unable to go at that time. I searched Tecla out during this visit.
Capulálpam is a small pueblo where everyone knows everyone else, so it was not difficult to find her. I went to the community library where she works everyday for a few hours and we reconnected. She invited us to visit her and her husband, Nahum, the next morning. They have a small business that opens their home to students from the States who want to learn about the traditional Zapotec ways of life. They stay at their home, study the medicinal plants that grow in the garden and how to use them, and observe and learn about traditional farming techniques and food preparation. The day that Tecla invited us, they had no other visitors. I asked permission to photograph her making tortillas and she readily consented. She was proud to continue making tortillas by hand as her mother and grandmother before her had done. She uses non-GMO, maiz criollo (organic corn) grown from the seed bank of their ancestors and takes it to the local molino (mill) to be ground. It is the way that everyone used to do it, but nowadays even in Capulápam long-lived, traditional ways are changing. Doña Tecla served us a breakfast of salsa de huevos, freshly baked bread, and hot chocolate, a specialty of Oaxaca. When we finished, Nahum started the wood fire under the comal and Tecla began working the corn masa to
make her tortillas. We spent a wonderful morning together and were treated to fresh, hot tortillas right off the comal with a sprinkle of salt! When we left, I told them I would be back in a couple weeks with printed photos for them and to do a more formal portrait as well as a video interview.

Three weeks later I returned to Capulálpam with my camera, my portable backdrop, and tripod. I met Tecla at the library and we set a time for the next morning. When I arrived, her long, black hair was still drying in the morning sun and she had on a beautiful Zapotec huipil (blouse). She was Lucia Zenteno reincarnated! I asked her to gather the essential items to include in the portrait that would help define her occupation. She chose to bring her metate (grinding stone) a basket of maiz criollo, and her stone rolling pin. She looked exquisitely timeless.

When we finished the portrait shots, Nahum joined us for the interview. I have a structured set of questions for the interview that allows for the interviewees to expand on the questions or introduce something more that they feel is important. My interview with Tecla and Nahum was slow moving. They answered the questions briefly and succinctly, but at the end of the interview, I felt that I had not succeeded in drawing out their stories, that I had not gotten a true picture of who they were. Often people take a question and run with it; they use words to paint a picture of their life. But Tecla and Nahum are not in that category. They paint the picture of their life with their actions. 

It wasn't until later that day that I realized this; they had told me their stories with much depth and clarity. “Their story” was one of simplicity; their lives are centered round their home, their land and their traditions. They choose to live in another time, one that much of the world has long left behind to become “more modern”.  What matters to Tecla and Nahum is preserving the ancestral values and customs that have given their lives meaning. They continue to select the seeds they plant from the
seed banks they have preserved; they plow the fields using a team of oxen and a wooden plow that does not harm the earth as a tractor often does. They grow the vast majority of the food they eat and treat themselves with natural herbs from their garden when they are ill. This is what keeps them happy and healthy. 


In this time of pandemic I ask myself what will change for them? They already live a relatively isolated life as many campesinos (farmers) do. A part of their income comes from the foreigners who visit them to learn about their traditional lifestyle. But the border between the US and Mexico is now closed, depriving them of that much needed source of income. I have no doubt that they will survive despite this setback. They are self sufficient and incredibly able people. I am more concerned that if the virus is brought in, it could be devastating to the pueblo. Indigenous peoples have repeatedly been decimated by disease brought into their communities from the outside. I truly hope that their ancient wisdom and strong sense of community will protect them. For it seems evident to me that this pandemic will make us all reflect on how to live more simply and more wisely. This is what Tecla and Nahum have been doing all of their lives.

PS
Doña Tecla invited me to return and exhibit some of my photos from Capulálpam on May 15th, the Fiesta de Maiz, one of the most important festival in the pueblo. I agreed and had purchased my return ticket to Oregon to allow me to be present at the Fiesta. The pandemic has changed that plan. 

Deek and Nahum    Photo: Shawna Harvey


Tuesday, December 10, 2019

Preserving the Tradition: The Feather Art of Elfego Lopez Luis y Soledad Valentin Navarro


Elfego Lopez Luis and Soledad Valentin Navarro are feather artists. For over forty-five years they have dedicated themselves to creating penachos (headdresses)  for the dancers in the Valle Central of Oaxaca who perform La Danza de la Pluma (The Feather Dance). La Danza de la Pluma is a two-day long dance consisting of thirty-five different dances that depict the Conquista of Mexico by the Spaniards. The Spanish used the dance as a way to incorporate Catholicism in the native cultures, but it has also proved to be a vehicle for preserving indigenous traditions. Despite the fact that the Spaniards decimated the native populations by as much as ninety percent, their rich cultural traditions have survived and prospered. This is what gives meaning to the work that Elfego and Soledad do: preserving the traditions of their Zapotec ancestors. 
Soledad's father was a feather dancer and he also made penachos. As a child, she learned to make them working by his side. Elfego danced for three years in a local group and when he and Soledad married, they decided to dedicate themselves to making penachos. In time he learned to take accurate measurements and and build the frames for the penachos so that they are well balanced and comfortable to dance with. "What I like best about my work", he told me, "is that it has a purpose. It i a way to stay in touch with our roots and honor our ancestors. People seek us out to make their penachos and they appreciate our work".

In essence, what Elfego and Soledad do is draw with feathers. They are brought designs that the dancers want incorporated into the penacho and they have to figure how how to weave the colored feathers to create the desired design. Elfego commented that it is more than a craft; it is an art form. They both welcome the challenge and get much satisfaction from using their talents to please their patrons.
In order to maintain the large stock of feathers needed to make the penachos,  Elfego goes to small communities in the sierra when they have festive celebrations like weddings or quinceaneras. In the pueblos a large number of turkeys are slaughtered to make mole for the guests attending. Elfego gets permission to attend the celebration to buy the turkey feathers. He helps deplume the birds, a rather long and tedious job. But he enjoys the social aspect of meeting new people and sharing their traditions. "Both of us are happy", he told me. "Their job is done quicker and I get my feathers. After doing this, one realizes the value of a feather".
Elfego and Soledad have found a meaningful rhythm to their lives. In the morning Elfego goes out and works the fields he has planted with corn, beans and squash and Soledad tends to the things that have to be done in the home. And from mid-morning to near sunset they work on their penachos. Working from home allows them to be with their children and grandchildren and teach them their art form so that the Danza de la Pluma will not die out. "It is very important that we teach our children this because if we do not, our traditions will begin to die out. And if they die out, communities will not have their fiestas and cultural celebrations to give them a respite from their work. These are the roots of our ancestors and we must preserve them along with our mother tongue".
The wonders of technology have offered young people other often more tempting paths to follow as a livelihood and many of the old ways are slowly fading. However, the Zapotec pride that 
still flows through the veins of the indigenous peoples of Oaxaca gives hope that the Danza de la Pluma will still be performed for many years to come, and that the feather art of Elfego and Soledad will be continued by their children, maintaining a strong framework for the Zapotec rituals and traditions to survive and flourish in future generations.