Friday, December 30, 2016

All that Glittered, Was Once Gold

I have walked in front of La Esmeralda Relojería numerous times in the past two years on my way to la Casa de la Cultura in Juchitán. It always caught my attention, reminding me of a storefront in Habana or el Puerto de Vera Cruz. The pull down metal door was wide open exposing the glass counters filled with jewelry, clocks and watches.
There was always someone sitting in the entryway, often an older, gray-haired man visiting with friends.  I wanted very much to ask if I could take a photograph, but I was too shy, too afraid of being refused. But this time I decide, “why not, they can only say no”. But they didn’t! 

I greeted the gray-haired man sitting in the entryway and approached the man working on a watch at the counter. I told him that I was working on a book project about “oficios” and showed him the 5x7 booklet I always carry with me of photos I have already taken of people doing their job. He recognized a few of the Juchitecos in the booklet and said it was fine to photograph him working, but asked me to make sure to take a few shots of his father, Vicente, the gray-haired man in the entryway. I agreed and told him I would bring him the photos a bit later.
And so the story began. I arranged to come back later to shoot and to do an interview with him. When I returned, José showed me into the living area behind the workshop and told me he would get his father. It was then that I realized that this interview would not be with José, but his father Vicente. La Esmeralda was his creation.

Don Vicente Fuentes Pineda is eighty-nine years old and has recently retired from his profession as jeweler and clockmaker due to failing eyes and trembling hands. But his mind is steady and sharp, even if his hands and eyes are not. He had no trouble looking back over the past eight and a half decades of his life.

As so many of the people I have interviewed, Vicente finished primary school and took up the trade of jeweler. He worked with his brother-in-law in a shop that made gold jewelry and sold precision Swiss clocks. After a time, Vicente decided he wanted to learn how to assemble and repair the clocks they sold. So he left his wife and two children and moved to Mexico City for a year where he found a relojero (clockmaker) who agreed to take him on as an apprentice and teach him the fine art of assembling and repairing Swiss clocks. When he finished his apprenticeship, he returned to his family in Juchitán and continued working with his brother-in-law in La Esmeralda.

I had gone to a vela (popular festival) in San Blas, an indigenous pueblo close to Juchitán, with a Mexican photographer friend who had invited me to accompany him in 1998. I was very impressed by the Juchiteca women that were decked out in amazing displays of gold jewelry. Even some of their teeth had gold caps! I found that it was not gold plated jewelry they were wearing, but pure gold. I was told it was a way of showing your social status in el Istmo.

Vicente was one of the jewelers who made those pure gold necklaces, bracelets, and earrings. He told me that when he was younger, gold was much cheaper. What then cost ten pesos now costs four hundred. He used to make chains and bracelets of pure gold coins that weighed 100 grams (3.5 oz). Besides showing social status, Vicente said it was more importantly a way of having capital to pay for the harvest when the rains came. Juchitán and the surrounding pueblos have a gold- based economy. The gold is pawned to cover the costs of the harvest, and when it is over, the woman buy back their gold jewelry. The same process goes on to this day.

Unfortunately, times have changed. Organized crime has moved into the Juchitán area and it is no longer safe to wear the gold jewelry in public. Instead it is stored in safe deposit boxes and brought out only when it is exchanged for cash for the harvest.

When it was close to my departure, Vicente sent his grandson, Diego, out to find me at la Casa de la Cultura. As a thank you for the photos I gave him, he sent me a stack of fresh totopos (traditional corn tostadas from Juchitán) and a piece of queso seco (Parmesan type cheese) for the trip back home. He is a man with heart of gold!

Vicente lost three of his sisters during the past year. All were over eighty. As he approaches ninety, he is still very alert and full of life. But he knows the clock is ticking. Luckily, he is a master clockmaker and knows very well how to deal with time. He could be with us for a long spell yet. I hope so. 

Sunday, December 11, 2016

The Magic of Juchitán: Ten Portraits

Las Bellas Juchitecas 
I just returned from my fourth trip to Juchitán to photograph for my “oficios” (occupations) project. There is a magic surrounding Juchitán that keeps drawing me back. Perhaps it's the call of the Tangú beckoning me to return as they usher in a new dawn, or the music of the Zapotec tongue resounding through the market offering iguanas and turtle eggs to tempt my palette, or las bellas Juchitecas, stunningly garbed in their colorful traditional trajes. It is all of these things, but most importantly it is the hard working, local artisans and crafts people who allow me to photograph and interview them for my project. I am sincerely touched by their openness, kindness, and generosity. They define the word work in the most dignified manner. This post will be a brief introduction to some of the Juchitecos that I was fortunate enough to have spent time with this trip, and who I will write about in detail at a later date.

 Don José Luis Ramírez: maker of Mexico's famous huaraches. José Luis is proud of making huaraches as they have been made for many years: with recycled tires as soles and nailed together permanently, not clued or sewn. He guaranteed me that if I had a pair of these sandals, I would wear them to my grave. So I placed an order for my next return.

Pedro López Orozco lives in Alvaro Obregon,Juchitán with his wife Matilde, and granddaughter Ana LuzPedro is in charge of the salt fields (salinas) and is a community leader. He took us to visit the salt fields and explained the extremely complex relationships that exist in this indigenous community concerning the ownership of the salt fields (public vs private) and the leasing of land for the construction of wind turbines to produce energy, which has seriously split the community.I want to return in April when they will be harvesting the salt again from the ocean and take time to interview him properly. 

Martín Valdéz: Tin Tangú Yú
I photographed and interviewed Martín last spring. He lives right down the street from the Hotel Central where I stay. He is a walking encyclopedia of Juchitán history and Zapotec culture. He explained that according to Zapotec legend, it is the Tangú Yú that ushers in the dawn each day. Besides making the traditional clay dolls, Tangú Yús, he is also a master of several other traditional art and craft forms.
This visit he recounted the fire that destroyed the central market in Juchitán in the 1920's and the rebuilding of the market that exists today. According to Luis, only women were allowed to sell in the market. Men had other important roles to play such as hunting, fishing, farming and trading, but it was the women who were in charge of the market. And to this day, the market is the women's domain and the men continue to play the roles that continue to make Juchitán de Zaragoza a prosperous and respectable community.

Cándido Carrasco is a painter of estandartes, colorful banners, that are an essential part of any vela, the traditional social and religious celebrations that are unique to the Istmo region of Oaxaca. Cándido is one of two people who still do this work. He has been doing his art form for over fifty years. I interviewed and photographed him last spring also. I stopped by this trip to visit him and found him working on an estandarte for the feast of La Virgen de Guadalupe. He also repairs broken or damaged niño Jesus statues, a very common element of most Catholic homes. His art and his life are inseparable. At eighty three, he has no intention of retiring from the work he so loves.
Vicente Fuentes Pineda is a retired clockmaker and goldsmith. He retired last year at eighty eight years of age as his eyes were getting bad and his hands were starting to tremble. Beside assembling and repairing Swiss clocks, Don Vicente was also a master goldsmith. He explained that, in effect, Juchitán is a gold based economy, and the Juchiteca women wore their pure gold jewelry to show their social position and to have capital to pawn to pay for the harvest. Once the harvest was over, they would buy back their gold. Unfortunately, no one buys precision 'Swiss clocks anymore, and the arrival of organized crime to Juchitán does not allow women to wear their gold jewelry in public. However they still have it stored in safe deposit boxes and use it as they always have in the past, as a stable means of exchange.

Don Mariano is a typesetter and printer. He owns a small shop where he specializes in making announcements,invitation and brochures. He also prints many engravings done by local artists.I did not have time to interview him this trip, but I will return. My father was a printer, as was my grandfather and nearly all of my uncles. I feel a connection to Mariano that needs to be explored further. And I want to hear him play his guitar more!

Nelson Lara is a maker of fine shoes. What he likes best is to design shoes that are original and high quality. He learned the trade from his father and grandfather as a child in El Salvador. I photographed Nelson two years ago and came back this trip to do an interview. He started out by sharing his heartbreaking story of the war in El Salvador and his forced migration. He still suffers much from the separation from his family and his homeland. Besides designing 
and making shoes, he is also a fine painter.
Pili is an embroiderer from the pueblo of Santa Rosa de Lima, near Alvaro Obregon. The majority of the inhabitants of this pueblo are embroiderers, women and men. Pili was embroidering in front of his house with his mother and sister. His younger brother came out to watch. These pueblos are so inclusive; it is a joy to meet such accepting and open people.

Yolanda López Gómez is my main contact at Lidxi Guendabiaani Casa de la Cultura de Juchitán. She personifies all of the good qualities of Las Bellas Juchitecas. Along with el Contador Vidal Ramírez Pineda, they have opened doors and established trust with the people of Juchitán that I never could have done alone. The work that they do to promote art and culture at Lidxi Guendabiaani is admirable. And on top of all that, Yolanda knows everyone in the mercado and is a fantastic cook!

There is indeed a delicious magic in Juchitán, one that I cannot resist. The magic is in its people and their culture, and in their strength and determination to hold on to it at all costs. It takes magic to do that in this day and age.

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.