Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Mud, Manos, and Corazón

Living in Mexico often gives me the chance to enjoy the simpler things in life. En "el Norte", it is easy to get caught up in first world comforts, often mistaking them for progress. I remember receiving a book entitled Handmade Houses as a gift one Christmas. Wonderful dreamers they were! And I was pleasantly surprised to see that those dreamers still exist and are building their homes in Mexico as they have for centuries.

Don Marciano's kitchen
Recently I was contacted by my friend, Angeles, who invited me to accompany her and four of her students on a trip into la Sierra Sur de Oaxaca. Angeles teaches architecture at La UNAM (Universidad Autónimo de Mexico). She is heading up a project to preserve traditional building techniques: mud, stone, and adobe, by finding and interviewing people who still know the secrets of building with the earth.

Our first stop was in San Tomás, a small pueblito in the region of Miahuatlán. We had no arranged visits, but Alicia, a natural builder familiar with working in the comunidades, soon lead us to a stone and mud house and struck up a conversation with the owner and builder, Don Felipe. Before we knew it, Don Felipe was showing us around and sharing his knowledge of natural building with pride.
The house Felipe built
All of the materials for his house came from his land: stone, timber, and earth. I was curious about the mud, which was white, not brown. He knew his land well. He took us to the place where he got the earth near his spring. He added some water until it was just the right consistency to stick together solidly. It took Don Felipe two years to build his house, but like many of the other houses in the area, it will stand for many, many more.
Doña Lorenza Agustina
One of the highlights of the visit was meeting his 84 year old aunt, Lorenza Agustina. She has not been able to walk for over fifteen years, yet she was a bright light in her somber earthen kitchen, upbeat and full of positive energy. Like the walls that surrounded her, she has settled firmly into place.
Don Felipe con su barro
Felipe then gave us directions to the house of Don Marciano, one of the elders of the area who was a master builder. After a good while of roaming the bumpy dirt roads, we found the house. Don Marciano is 87. His daughter told us that his memory was not what it used to be, that he might not be able to remember much of his earlier days. But what he had done all of his life was well engraved into his faltering memory; he did not hesitate in recalling how to transform earth to home.
Don Marciano
La esposa de Don Marciano
We were treated like royalty by the family. Marciano and his wife had ten children, nine daughters and one son. They were there para servirle (to be of service). They gave us a tour of the farm, answered any questions that we had, and then invited us into the kitchen to serve us pan y chocolate a la oaxaqueño. Nothing better!

Nestora, one of the nine daughters

We made two more stops before I returned to Oaxaca. We spent the night in El Refugio in San José del Pacifico, where an intentional community had built their homes of mud and adobe, very beautiful structures. 
Again, all the materials came from the land where the houses were built. Although there were monetary costs involved in the building, they were minimal comparatively speaking. The greatest cost was undoubtedly in time and human labor.
These homes were built with mud, hands and heart, and one feels it immediately upon entering.The earthen walls seem to be smiling as they welcome you. It makes you feel as if you have become one with the earth, as if this is where you belong. Home is where the heart is, as the old adage goes. Add some well mixed clay and hands that are not afraid of hard work, and you have yourself a home that is in perfect harmony with nature and that nourishes the soul. May the knowledge and techniques needed to create such a space never be forgotten. Thank you Angeles for doing your part to make sure that never happens.
El Refugio, San José del Pacifico

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

The Grateful Dead: Part Two

El Panteón de Xoxocotlan, Oaxaca
The night of October 31st was the night in Xoxocotlan to illuminate the tombs of loved ones. The cemetery was aflame with candles of all sizes, and families camped out for the night around the tombs of family members who had passed on. There were tombs of all types, some rather elaborate
and others nothing more than a mound of piled up dirt for the many who could afford nothing more. They were equally beautiful and touching. I was invited to Xoxo with the owners of my apartment, Hector and Lulú. We arrived shortly after dusk and found the cemetery already aglow and many families already installed to pass the night with their loved ones. Despite the chilly weather, there was a feeling of warmth that permeated the cemetery. Marigolds and Cockscombs were everywhere, illuminated by candles of all sizes. I felt as if I had passed through a thin veil that separated reality from otherworldliness, not sure which was which! It was truly magical.

At one end of the cemetery was an enormous stage set up for the concert by Juan Casaos, a popular Mixteca singer, and La Banda Sinfónica Juventil of his pueblo in la Mixteca, a mountainous region of Oaxaca.There were monos de calenda, giant paper maché puppets, spinning around the stage and young people performing danza folklórico to the traditional Oaxqueña music. There was no doubt that "los muertos" were having a wonderful time, going back to their tomb for a shot of mezcal and then back to the concert to join the festivities! Just goes to show that there are advantages to being dead!

Magos hererra
The evening of November first there was a special concert by Magos Hererra, a Mexican jazz vocalist now living in New York. She just happens to be one of my favorite performers! I thought I had died and gone to heaven!! Magos and her group performed outside on a very chilly Oaxaca evening to a full house. She encouraged us to applaud to keep warm, and we did.
She  herself wore a pancho given to her by Chavela Vargas, one of Mexico's most revered musical divas, who passed away in 2012. This concert was a special offering to Chavela. Magos was accompanied by a very talented group of musicians from DF (Distrito Federal). A superb performance despite the cold that kept the string players rubbing their strings to keep them tuned properly.
How was I able to get photos so close up? No security thugs guarding the stage, no check for concealed weapons at the concert site. Just a lot of good people celebrating Día de los Muertos and enjoying the incredible cultural richness of Oaxaca.

Santo Domingo
After the concert I walked to La Iglesia de Santo Domingo, a few hundred meters away. I arrived just in time for a light show projected on the facade of the church. Apparently the concert was not enough! ¡Qué chido!

My altar for Marie, minus the mezcal glass which I drank!
I went home at midnight, sensually saturated, poured myself a shot of mezcal, and one for Marie, and went to bed. I was literally "Dead tired"!

Monday, November 3, 2014

The Grateful Dead: Part One

In remembrance of the 43 students that disappeared in Guererro
Día de los Muertos has come to an end, and besides the scores of roaming spirits who have decided to stay on this side and celebrate for a while longer, things are going back to normal. What a different way of looking at death! There is normally an “alegria” in the air, and instead of sadness and melancholy dominating the scene, there is celebration and fond remembrance of loved ones passed on. This is still the case, however Día de los Muertos 2014 is also shrouded in sadness and outrage. The disappearance and probable death of forty three young students in Ayotzinapa, Guererro in late September, has placed the spotlight on deaths that never should have happened.
Plaza de la Danza, La Soledad
Many of the typical decorations of ofrendas and tapetes (sand paintings) have focused on this tragic event. Since September 25th, there has been no sign of the students, no bodies identified, although they have discovered mass graves, and remains are awaiting DNA testing. In the meantime, the well respected daily newspaper, La Jornada, has reported that government official have offered families of the missing students one hundred thousand pesos each for their silence. A national student strike has been called for November 5th in all parts of Mexico. Mexicans are fed up with the deaths of innocent people caused by cartels and corrupt government officials. Unrest fills the air.

But the resilient spirit of los Mexicanos shines through, despite the cloud above them. Families still make the traditional mole to share with visitors on November 2nd, the last day of the celebration. Although mole can be purchased in the market ready to use, many families still prefer to prepare it themselves, a complicated and time-consuming process.  There are four types of chiles to be toasted over a charcoal fire. There are plantains, almonds, prunes, raisins, peanuts or walnuts, cinnamon, clove, sesame seeds, onions, tomatoes, oregano, and a special bread for mole to be added ingredient by ingredient.
Doña Soledad's mole
Once everything is toasted and mixed together, it is brought to the local mill to be ground. Doña Soledad took hers to the Mayordomo Chocolate mill a half kilometer away from our house.  Weaving through traffic with her hand truck was risky business, but she got there in one piece and did not lose one drop of mole!
Al molino
Then back home with the ground ingredients to cook it for a few more hours, stirring constantly, bien seguro, to avoid burning. It is a full day of preparation, morning til night.
Yesterday I had the pleasure of sharing her mole with family members and friends. It was well worth every minute of toasting, grinding, and stirring! ¡Muy, muy sabroso!

On the way to the molino to grind the mole ingredients, were stall after stall of flower vendors selling marigolds (cempasúchil), cockscomb (Terciopelo), and a variety of other flowers to adorn the altars and tombs of loved ones. There were truckloads of  flowers along the busy streets, and nearly everyone you saw had a bouquet or two in their arms. And next to the flower vendors were those selling copal, a mineral burned as incense on the ofrendas.
Copal vendor with customer
The altars and ofrendas deserve a whole blog to themselves. But since long blogs are hard to read, let it suffice here to give you a sample or two.

I always wondered where the name Grateful Dead came from; now I think I know. Who wouldn't be grateful for the abundance of all the things you liked while you were alive: food, flowers, drink, tobacco and music?

The figure below holds a banner that reads:"Death says, with me there are no bribes". Perhaps the government official who ordered the massacre of the students in Ayotzinapa should take these words into account!
Parade of Barrio de la Noria, where I live