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. 

Saturday, October 5, 2019

Making Mezcal: The Livelihood of Juan de Dios

Juan de Dios and his team of oxen
Juan de Dios is a mezcalero, a distiller of the maguey cactus that is the signature alcoholic spirit of Oaxaca. He has been in the mezcal business for forty-six years, since he was five. His still is on the family ranch in Santiago Yogana, Oaxaca, where his father farmed and produced mezcal before him. It is a trade that is passed down in a family and you learn by doing. You inherit the land and the work that goes with it.
I first met Juan de Dios at my friend Luis’ place, in Ejutla, an hour and a half outside of the city of Oaxaca. Luis is a leather artisan and a participant in my “oficios” (occupations) project. I had told Luis that I was looking for a mezcalero to photograph and interview and he told me he would introduce me to one. The next time I visited Luis, Juan showed up and invited me out to his still the next day to photograph. I gladly accepted.
El Equipo: The Crew and me
I arrived in Ejutla early to take the cooperativo pick-up to the small, isolated pueblo of Yogana. I told the driver where I was going and he said he would let me off near Juan’s place. Forty-five minutes later he dropped my off at the end of a dirt road that ran into a river. “It’s just across the river, you can see it from here. There is a foot bridge to get across”. And sure enough, I found Juan at his still waiting for me.

Grinding the maguey cooked piñas
Since that day I have been to Juan’s several times to photograph and interview him. Since I always try to do business with the people who are kind enough to share their stories with me, Juan has become my “mezcalero”. He showed me the whole process from start to finish. He brought out his team of oxen to grind the maguey hearts (piñas). A good team of oxen costs around 50,000 pesos ($2500 US) and lasts about two years before they need to be replaced. He took me to his earthen “horno” (oven) where the piñas are cooked and showed me several different types of maguey used in making mezcal.
Delivery of Tobalá piña
He explained that he plants some of the maguey plants such as Espadin and Arroqueño,and buys other wild maguey like Tobalá and Cuishe which are now difficult to find due to the boom in the popularity of mezcal around the world. It takes a plant six years to reach maturity and Juan plants 100-200 plants a year. But the wild maguey like Tobalá and Cuishe are dying out and are being over-harvested to meet the public demand. 
Juan is a small producer. He still does things the way that his father taught him many years ago. He does not have the right to bottle and label his mezcal and thus has to sell his product in bulk at a very low price. He sell his mezcal for 150 pesos for five liters. ($7.50). That is $1.50 a liter. In high end bars in the Oaxaca, mezcal is going for 100 pesos a shot ($5). He dreams about finding a market in the USA; he even suggested that i might help him with that. But I am afraid that is well out of my realm of expertise.
When I asked Juan what was the most difficult thing about his work he said,"being a mezcalero is not work. Some youth choose to go north to the USA to earn money. You need to have "ganas" (desire) to be a mezcalero. I enjoy my work, I learned how to do it well, I am proud of the mezcal that I make, and it allows me to provide for my family". What more can a man ask for? 

Sunday, June 30, 2019

A Life Set in Print

When I visited master printer Gabriel Quintas Castellaños in his workshop in Oaxaca Centro, I immediately knew we would make a strong connection. The Keis family has ink running through its veins. My father was a lithographer, my grandfather a typesetter for the Minneapolis Star and Tribune, and several of my uncles were also in the trade. It was what you did if you were a male in the Keis family. Being the first in the family to go to college, I broke with tradition. But the ink is still in my veins and my encounter with Quintas brought it to the surface again.

At age seventy-six, Quintas has been in the printing business for sixty-seven years: seven years as an apprentice and sixty years as a printer. When he was ten years old, he left for Mexico City alone and got a job working for the newspaper El Universal". He rented a tiny room in the attic of a building on Cinco de Mayo and worked an eight hour shift at El Universal learning to typeset and how to do maintenance of printing presses. 

He returned to Oaxaca at age fourteen and set up his own print shop. He began by typesetting newspapers and traveled extensively in the state of Oaxaca publishing newspapers not only in Spanish, but also in Zapotec. In addition, he  printed one hundred posters daily for local cinemas, dances and other cultural events. 

In 1987 he gave up publishing newspapers and devoted himself solely to commercial work and typesetting artist books and posters for exhibitions and cultural events. 
At that time he also began to buy presses and boxes of letters from print shops that were going out of business. What he has accumulated over the years amounts to a museum of printing in Oaxaca. He has over 4000 boxes of letters of all sizes and materials. He has also written a history of printing in Oaxaca that is near being finished. It is his hope that before he dies, he will be able to create a museum of printing so that the younger generation will be able to know how things were done in the pre-computer era. In this day and age of advanced technology, typesetting is a dying profession. Quintas sees the artistic aspect of his trade falling by the wayside as people choose the easier but less permanent form of publishing. In Quintas' words, "Dura más la más pálida tinta que la más brillante memoria" (the most pale of inks outlasts the most brilliant memory).

Despite some serious health issues, Quintas continues to work eight to ten hours a day in his print shop. "Es una vida bonita que he pasado tantos años aquí y sigo trabajando a la edad de 76 que tengo". 
"I love everything about my work, everything. This has been my life since I was a child. This has been my whole life".

Quinta's wife works with him daily, running the small Heidelberg press and binding books. They are the "old-timers of the trade, the "puristas". According to 

Quintas, "typesetters create as they work to make a piece that is pleasing to the eye". He is proud of his ability to always keep the aesthetic as his guiding principle. 

Right before I left Oaxaca to return to Oregon, Quintas typeset a poem I want to use in a photography exhibit here in three languages: Spanish, Zapotec and English. He welcomed the challenge of publishing in languages that were not his mother tongue and the final printing was without error in any of them.

Craftspeople like Gabriel Quintas are rare nowadays as is his profession of typesetting. The pride that he takes in his work  and the quality of what he produces is admirable. May his history of printing in Oaxaca be published and may his dream museum be realized while he is still on this earth. He has indeed lead the life of an artist, set in print.