Friday, June 16, 2017

The Blood of the Earth

Francesca Martinez Aragón and her sister Angela are potters. They live in the house their family has lived in for generations turning the red clay that is unique to San Marcos Tlapazola into ollas, comales, cazuelas, floreros and platos. They work in a manner that has not changed for hundreds of years. 
Nearly all of women of San Marcos work clay. Francesca is the president of the local
Francesca & Angela Aragón
woman's cooperative that has over 120 members. Because San Marcos is off the beaten track, very few people go there to purchase their products. Francesca takes the group's work to craft fairs in the city of Oaxaca three times a year. Some women go to the market in Tlacolula, the nearest big pueblo, to sell. They have no wheel for throwing their pots, only a special round stone that they place the clay upon. A corn cob is used for shaping the pot from the outside, a gourd for hollowing and shaping the inside, the sole of a shoe for forming the opening, and a stone that has been passed down over the generations for polishing.

All of the materials used are local. The woman go with wheelbarrows to get the red clay, the pigment, and fine sand used in their pots. They do not have kilns, instead the pots are low-fired in the courtyard of the property using local firewood. Pots are covered with wood and remain in the fire for two hours. They are then polished using the special family stones.
Don Antonio
Doña Maria Aragón Morales

Francesca and Angela began to work clay at a very young age. They were taught by their mother and grandmother. Their mother still makes plates and comales in her old age. Men do not work clay; they are campesinos and plant corn and other crops to feed their families. Their father, Antonio, worked the fields with his team of oxen and a wooden plow until two years ago. Besides the clay work, the women also help in the fields planting beans for the family table.
 Their life is one of sheer simplicity. When I  asked Francesca about how much money she made a month, she replied "Very little, just enough to pay the electricity and telephone and buy the materials we need for our work". Otherwise, they are nearly self-sufficient. For Francesca, the thought of stopping working is nonexistent. She cannot foresee a day when she could not work, it is her life. Neither Francesca nor Angela ever married, their work needed all of their attention. And being president of the cooperative requires lots of energy. 

So they go on working as they always have, shaping the rich, red clay of San Marcos, planting their corn and black beans, and selling enough to pay the bills. It is as if the red clay runs through their veins and nourishes their soul. Their life is so interconnected with the soil that they do not notice time pass. Their entire life is hecho a mano, not just their pots.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

The Baker on Quetzalcoatl Street

Fernando Cuevas Cortés is an artisan bread maker. His family has been baking traditional sweet breads for three generations: conchas, ladrillos, polverones, and specialty breads like pan de muerto and Rosca de Reyes. His earthen oven is located in the back of his home on Calle Quetzacoatl in the Centro Histórico of Oaxaca. His family has lived there for four generations and the Panadería Nanchalito opened its doors as a local establishment in 1963. Before that, the bread baked was sold by the women of the family in their stall in the Mercado Hidalgo in the barrio Reforma. 

Fernando learned to bake at the age of sixteen from his stepfather. They baked twice a day and the bread was brought to Mercado Hidalgo where his mother, Doña Estela, sold it. She sold in that market for forty-seven years before her death in 2012. In 2002 my late wife, Marie Le Glatin Keis, sketched Doña Estela selling her bread in that market. Ten years later, after Marie’s death, I returned to Oaxaca looking for some of the people she had sketched over the years. Upon arriving at the Mercado Hidalgo, I found only three women selling bread at their stalls. I showed Marie’s sketch to one of the women who said she knew the woman in the sketch well; it was her mother-in-law. Doña Estela had died one year earlier on exactly the same date that Marie had died in 2011. I photographed her at her mother-in-law’s booth in the market, but she suggested that I go visit her husband, Fernando, who looked very much like his mother. The next day I visited Fernando at the bakery, he showed me a photograph of his mother, told me the story of the bakery, and invited me to spend the morning with him as he baked bread to send to the market.

Fernando is very proud of his earthen oven; he had it rebuilt in 2004. The bread it produces is much more flavorful than those baked in industrial gas ovens. He explained that with wood, the bread bakes from the bottom upward, and the oak that is used to fire the oven gives it a very special taste. Business was very good in 2004; he was selling to restaurants and hotels and had four people helping him bake; each day he sold everything. He had a quality product made with all natural ingredients, hand crafted, and baked in a wood-fired oven, just like his ancestors had done before him. His business was booming.

Then in 2006 came the Popular Uprising in Oaxaca. A conflict between teachers and government led to violent confrontations, deaths, and a dramatic drop in tourism in Oaxaca. Many small businesses were forced to close and Fernando lost most of his restaurant and hotel clients.  In 2015 he and his wife separated, and he had no one to sell in the market. At age seventy, Fernando fears the days of Panadería Nanchalito are limited. He works alone now and his legs are suffering from the eight-hour days spent standing while baking. He has varicose veins and his joints are stiffening. His two children are professionals and are not interested in taking over the business. Fernando feels sad that a three-generation old baking business is nearing an end. “I love what I do; it fulfills me as a person”. He provides a much-appreciated service in the community and has a faithful clientele of neighbors and friends that he sees daily.  He is proud to still be doing things in a traditional way, using healthy ingredients, and baking his bread in his oak fired oven. To Fernando, it is an honest and meaningful way of making a living.