Tuesday, October 4, 2016

A Guardian of Zapotec Tradition: Don Remigio Matus

Don Remigio at Work

 I received word recently from my friend at Lidxi Guendabiaani de la Cultura Juchitán, Yolanda Lopez, that Don Remigo Matus, a Zapotec palm artisan that I photographed in 2014, had passed away. He was eighty-three years old and had been practicing his oficio (trade) for over sixty-five years. It is at times like this that I realize the true significance of my oficios project. The lives and stories of people like Remigio usually go unnoticed. They work long hours doing honorable jobs that allow them to live simply. They are humble folk that earn little, but take much pride in what they do and in preserving their culture. In many cases, the jobs that they do are on the verge of dying out. The "modern world" offers young people easier jobs that bring more lucrative incomes. So as people like Remigio pass away, so do many of the traditions and ancient ways of doing things that define a culture.

Don Remigio was born in the house where he still lived until his passing. He learned his trade from a friend of his father when he was fifteen. He fell in love with sewing palm and bought his own sewing machine when he was seventeen. It was an old Singer foot pedal machine, the faithful tool that he worked with daily for over sixty-five years. He made bags, tortilleras, rugs, albanicos (fans) and one of his specialties (although not made of palm) a traditional Zapotec sombrero called Charro 24. It is worn in many of the traditional dances from the region of el Istmo and Remigio was a master at making them. He provided many young Zapotec dancers in Oaxaca's renowned Guelaguetza with their Charro 24. His palm work was an integral part of the many velas y regadas thast take place every year in Juchitán. He was viewed as a master of his trade.

The day Yolanda and I went to visit him, he offered to make me a sun visor. He took a quick measure of the circumference of my head, grabbed some bands of palm, and starting masterfully pedaling his Singer. It was hard to interview Remigio with the rhythmic "chica, chica, chica" of the needle bobbing in and out of the palm. But then Remigio was not a man of words. He'd rather listen to the music of his Singer than talk. It was as if his sewing machine were a piano and he was playing one of his favorite pieces for me. A wonderful gift.

The magic of Remigio's craft was in his hands and in his feet. His feet pedaled the machine at just the right speed and his hands moved the palm strips with ease in front of the needle. When I asked him how many people were still doing this kind of work he told me "two of us". There is no one interested in learning from him and continuing his craft. It takes too much time and work for too little pay. When I asked him if he ever wanted to do anything else with his life, he laughed and said, "no, nothing else. I am here working, just waiting for death to arrive". And it did. Rest in Peace, Don Remigio, or as they say in Mexico, "Q.D.P. Que descance en paz. You will be greatly missed.

I would like to sincerely thank Yolanda López Goméz and the entire team of 
Lídxi Guendabiaani Casa De La Cultura de Juchitán for all of their help in providing me with opportunities to photograph and interview artisans of the region. Without their help in establishing confianza with these people, this never would have been possible. They are doing an extremely important job in trying to preserve the rich cultural heritage of Juchitán. Felicidades amigos!

Yolanda López Goméz
Remigio in his Charro 24

Bands of palm

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Working to His Heart's Content

Roberto with his newly tanned hides
Roberto Sanchez is a curtidor (tanner). He learned his profession from his father many years ago, but left it temporarily to explore other occupations. He tried working in the campo (fields), construction work, and a few others, but eventually he came back to tanning when he was forty. He spoke to me in Spanish, but his mother tongue is Diidxazá, el Zapoteco del Istmo de Tehuantepec. "A mi me encanta trabajar" (I love to work)he told me. "When you work in the campo or construction, you can't work when the weather is bad. But with tanning you can. That is what I like best about this job".

He is on the job each morning at six dressed in shorts, a tee shirt and barefoot. His routine varies from day to day depending on where he left off the day before. Tanning is long process; there are hides to clean and prepare after they arrive from the slaughterhouse, others to cover in lime and soak in holding tanks, and still others to sew and sink for curing. You cannot rush things if you want to do a quality job. 

When I mentioned to the local Juchitecos that I was going to photograph a curtidor, they all reacted in the same way: with a wrinkled up nose and a nauseous look on their face. "¡Huele horrible"! (It smells horrible). "Be prepared". And they were right. I found it tolerable, but just barely. I asked Roberto if the odor bothered his neighbors. He said that when he first set up in el barrio de Las Pilas, he was alone in the monte (hills). But as people moved out of the city, those who moved near him were upset and wanted him to move. "They knew I was here and what my work was", he explained. "They didn't have to build here". 

Besides the disagreeable odor, there are serious environmental and health hazards, depending on the process used. The vast majority of tanneries use chemical and organic compounds that are detrimental to the environment and the people who live in it. They also use  large quantities of water and produce a vast amount of pollutants. But Roberto is proud of the fact that his process is puro natural. He uses no chemicals; he even uses the waxy substance in a bull's horn to lubricate his needle when he sews the hides.

Hides are purchased at the slaughterhouse in Juchitán. When they arrive at Roberto's, he needs to clean the hides before they are treated with lime and put in a holding tank for two weeks. This will soften the leather and make it suppler. Next the hides are put in a clay pot filled with water and corn masa to soak for three more days to remove the lime.

When the hides are removed from the masa, they are sewn together with an opening at the top so they can be filled with water and submerged in a final holding tank for another six days. The bark of the Guamúchil tree (Pithecellobium dulce), which grows right outside of Roberto's tannery, is ground and added to the water to further soften and preserve the hides.

The final stage in the process is drying the hides before transporting them ten hours away to Veracruz to sell. The are purchased primarily to make saddles and other equestrian equipment. As hides become harder to come by, the price goes up. People come from a distance to buy hides at the slaughterhouse in Juchitán. Roberto's natural process yields a high quality product that continues to sell well, despite the competition. He is proud of his work and the fact that he is not harming the environment.

The pale white hides floating in the murky, brown water made me wonder how working in this every day affected Roberto's health."The Guamúchil bark has medicinal properties", he explained. "People come here from far away to get the bark to treat infections and skin diseases. It's good for me".

Roberto end his ten hour day tanning hides with a cold, well deserved, forty ounce caguama of Corona. The heat is intense and his day has been long. It is time to relax a bit and then clean up. He will be back on the job again at six in the morning, rain or shine. That is what he loves about his job: he can work to his heart's content.

Sunday, July 3, 2016

Poems of Resistance and Acts of Love

Marie's sketch for the anniversary of the Mexican Revolution

Teacher Training Center in Nochixtlán
The sad events taking place in Oaxaca and other parts of the world have moved me to think about resistance and people’s willingness to risk imprisonment and death for their beliefs and values. Spending six months a year in Oaxaca has given me an opportunity for first hand experiences. I have worked with some of these maestros (teachers) who were recently attacked in Oaxaca and heard personal stories that helped put the situation in perspective for me.

In March 2015 I was invited to give a bookmaking workshop to a group of maestros at El Centro de Maestros, in Nochixtlán, an hour and a half from Oaxaca. This is where the recent attack and killing of eleven people occurred. A group of thirty eager teachers devoured all I had to offer them and asked for more! They were wonderfully dedicated individuals who work many more hours than they are paid for, and many work under extremely difficult situations in very isolated communities. But they are devoted to providing the children with the best education that they possibly can. It is more than a job; it is a mission. The poster on the wall in the photo to the left reads: “Education is an act of love, an act of courage, it is a practice in liberty directed toward reality that does not know fear, but rather seeks to transform it through solidarity and fraternal spirit. (Paolo Freire)

Earlier that day, one of the teachers had invited me to give a workshop at his small rural school in a nearby pueblo. It was a peaceful, well kept school with a fine little library that the teachers were very proud of. The inscription on the wall  outside reads: "Education does not change the world; it changes people who then change the world". The children gobbled up the bookmaking project just as the teachers had. They were eager learners taught by dedicated teachers. It was an honor to have been invited to work with them both. 

A few weeks later, I was invited to Juchitán de Zaragoza by my friend Ana Matías, editor of Revista Sinfin, to be part of a book presentation of Los 43: Poetas por Ayotzinapa. Juchitán is an indigenous city that has seen much political struggle in its history. There is much concern over the disappearance of the forty-three students in the state of Guerrero. The reading was held at la Biblioteca Victor Yodo, a small neighborhood library created to honor Victor Yodo, a Zapotec activist who was
“disappeared” over thirty-five years ago for his social organizing. Victor’s daughter Irma, https://orionmagazine.org/article/endangered-language/, a celebrated Zapoteca poet, read a poem about her mother's strength and courage since her husband was taken away by the army. In her poem, Cándida, Irma asks: “With what words do we explain to a child what a missing person is, with what unit do we measure absence, the days of darkness, the unanswered letters to government officials…” Unfortunately many people in Mexico have posed those same unanswered questions. Repression is strong, especially if you are indigenous. It takes much courage and conviction to stand up for what you feel is right and just. Irma’s mother sat alone and thoughtfully listened to her daughter’s words, remembering only too well what had happened to her husband. She is very active in the teacher’s union and is a strong supporter of their resistance to government demands for an educational reform. She is not afraid. Several other poets were also present to read their poems. It was a very moving event, a testimonial to the resistencia shown by many Mexicans toward a government that tries, without success, to repress them. Twelve hundred copies of Los 43 were printed and distributed free at a series of reading throughout Mexico to pay homage to the missing students.

I cannot help but wonder what my wife, Marie, would have done in reaction to these recent events. She was very sensitive and aware of the injustices that were taking place around her. Several of her sketch-collages targeted the injustices that she perceived while in Mexico. They were her poems of resistance, her acts of love.

I believe that the resistance will endure and I fear that the repression will continue. I pray that there will be no more violence and bloodshed, but that is not evident. The government is threatening to attack the teachers again as I write this. The crisis in Oaxaca is dividing communities, with many people supporting the teachers and others strongly opposed to the tactics they use in their resistance. Lives have been lost, businesses forced to close, and friends pitted against each other as to how to resolve the situation. 

I do not claim that all teachers are as dedicated or qualified as those I met in Nochixtlán. There are some who should not be in classrooms. Corruption is pervasive in Mexico and the teacher's union has not escaped its clutches. But I do firmly believe that the vast majority of teachers are dedicated human beings trying their best to help children learn. They are poorly paid, lack essential materials to do their work, and have to overcome enormous hardships to do their jobs. This crisis is about much more than just educational reform, but I am not qualified to expound that. I can only say that I have met and worked with teachers who I would be proud to call my colleagues. They have some very legitimate demands that need to be addressed. I sincerely hope that dialogue between the teachers and the government can resolve the problems soon. I am certain that bullets and burning will not. 

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Larger Than Life: The Monos de Calenda of José Azcona

José (Pepe) Azcona is a “monero”. For over twenty-five years he has been making “monos de calenda”, giant paper mâché puppets that are an integral part of calendas, the popular religious festivals that are everyday events in Oaxaca.

Like many Mexicans, he has had to hustle all his life to make a living. His profession for many years was tire repair and he raised his family doing that. Tire repair brought in little, but it was relatively consistent. However, when work was slow he had to find other ways to earn money. He made piñatas, built gates, and even had a shoe shine kit for when things were really dark. In 2014, Pepe decided to devote himself “body and soul” to monos. “When life begins to get routine and boring, you need to change direction completely”, he told me. Once he made the leap, he began to get invited to dance in important calendas, sales and rentals of his monos increased, and he became known as the maestro de monos in Oaxaca

Unlike tire repair, income from his monos is very irregular. He had to learn to save for rainy days and be frugal. “When things are the darkest, there is a new dawn awaiting”, he told me. “I had my share of dark days”. But he is willing to weather these dark moments to do the work that he loves.

One reason that Pepe loves his work is the egalitarian nature of calendas. “They are a totally democratic form of celebration. It doesn’t matter what your ethnicity is, or your political party, or how deep your pockets are. Anyone can participate. It is a level playing field in which the rich and poor celebrate together”. 

Making monos allows Pepe’s imagination to run wild making a rooster for a neighbor child or a condom and sperm cell for AIDS Awareness Day. He welcomes visits from friends while he is working. I have to be happy to do my work; I cannot create if I am sad or depressed. I need an atmosphere of peace and tranquility that allows me to develop the potential for creativity that we all carry inside of us.” Friends provide him that atmosphere; they fuel his spirit.

What I like best about my work is seeing people’s faces when I dance”. His monos are ten to twelve feet tall, and a peephole is made at waist level to allow the dancer to see where she is going. “It fills my heart with joy to see how my monos bring smiles of enjoyment that enrich people’s lives and nourish their souls”.

Pepe’s monos have evolved considerably over the years. It was after meeting his current partner, Sonia, that he started to pay more attention to anatomy. “Sonia is my muse; she is a beautiful woman and she made me realize that my female monas were not right. Their breasts were often more rectangular than round. I corrected that thanks to her. Breasts represent motherhood and nurturing. Since monos are fantasies, I decided to exaggerate the breasts to emphasize those qualities. ”
He particularly enjoys making “monos” for young children. “It is a way of planting cultural seeds in fertile soil. They will grow up and preserve these traditions. And whenever they see a mono, they will remember their childhood, because remembering is a way of reliving the past”.

Pepe doesn’t dance his monos much anymore. It is hard work; the monos are heavy and it requires a lot of stamina to dance several hours straight in a calenda. There is a younger generation coming up to keep the tradition alive and dancing. They are making their own monos and letting their imaginations run wild, just like Pepe. 

At this stage of his life, Pepe is happy to be el maestro de los monos and pass on his art form. His workshop on Heroes de Chapultepec is now a landmark in Oaxaca. He does not have to seek out clients for his monos, people find him. Young people call him to find out when the next calenda is, his monos are dancing throughout the state of Oaxaca, and Pepe manages to earn a modest living by doing what he loves to do most: make other people happy.

Sunday, June 5, 2016

El trabajo de todos los días (Everyday work)

 Each tortilla ...is a tasty round of applause... for the sun (Francisco Alarcón)

El totopo is type of corn tortilla made exclusively in the Istmo region of Oaxaca. It is an ancient form of food that dates back centuries, food from the sun. Totopos are made from zapalote, a native species of corn that grows well in the Istmo. The process for making them has changed very little over the centuries. It has been passed on from generation to generation, from mother to daughter. It is noble work.

Reina de la Cruz is a totopera. She is a thirty six year-old, single mother with two adolescent children and a mother who is ill. She has been making totopos for fifteen years. Six days a week she rises at dawn to prepare the fire in her earthen oven in the back of her yard. When the temperature is “just right”, she mixes her corn masa, forms it into perfectly round tortillas, and slaps them on the sides of her oven to cook “just the right” amount of time. “Es el trabajo de todos los días”, she told me, everyday work. 

The work she does is time consuming and the income that it generates is very meager. 

The price of corn rose a few years ago and it has made selling her totopos difficult. Her totopos now sell five to eight for ten pesos. Tortillas de kilo (sold by weight) cost fourteen pesos for thirty tortillas. The ancient food of the zapotecos is becoming unaffordable for many local families.  And this makes the economic survival of artisans like Reina difficult.
Reina & her mother, Maria
But despite its hardships, Reina likes her work. “I like that my family can still eat good tortillas,” she said. “They are “hecho al horno” (oven baked) and made with nutritious, local corn". Her job also allows her to be with her family full-time. It gives her some flexibility with her schedule so she can care for her aging mother, be involved in her children’s school and to partake in civic events.

But she regrets the fact that people don’t value the work she does. "They don’t want to pay the price that the work deserves.”  So to supplement her income, she weaves. It was something she always wanted to do as a child and was able to take classes when she was younger. She weaves after dinner sometimes if she has the energy. Otherwise it is on Sunday, her day of rest, when she can work on a huipil. “Es muy pesado el trabajo” (it is really hard work), she tells me. The huipiles from Juchitán are very ornate and exquisite. They take a long time to make, especially if you are making totopos ten hours a day. It takes Reina a week to ten days to finish a huipil when she is working  on it full time. And unless it is a commission, there is no income until it sold.

When I left Reina's house that day I left with a huipil for Quena and 25 totopos to share wit my good friends at the Casa de la Cultura de Juchitán who made these photo sessions possible. And I told her I might come back someday with my son, Joa, who just happens to be 36 as well. And..... he like tortillas!