Monday, February 15, 2021

Teodoro Bautista Perez: The Earth Beneath his Feet

Teodoro Bautista Perez is a campesino in the most traditional sense of the word. He started to work the land under the guidance of his grandparents in the sixties when he was ten years old. They had learned from their grandparents and the traditions of working the land were passed on from generation to generation with much pride and respect. At age sixty-eight, Teodoro has changed the way of working the land very little since his childhood. He has his junta de toros (team of oxen) and besides planting his own fields, he contracts out to plow the fields of others in Capulalpam de Méndez. Since the countryside is very hilly and the steep slopes make it dangerous to plow with a tractor, the junta is the only way to go. The animals do not damage the earth as much as the heavy tractors that tear up the hillsides and open them up to erosion. Teodoro still makes the wooden ploughs and yokes for his junta. It is part of the tradition passed down from his grandparents. It is about being self-sufficient.

Teodoro reminisced of the days when ninety percent of the families in Capulalpam grew their own food and worked the land with their own junta. Now he claims, there may be thirty percent who farm the land and there are only three teams of oxen left to do the plowing. Despite the seeming timelessness of Capulalpam, some things have changed. "In the old days there was plenty to eat: corn, beans, wheat, animals that we raised. But we had little money to buy clothes and shoes and other things that we needed. People worked hard and we got by. Nowadays people have become flojo (lazy). Farming is hard work. Es muy duro, pesado.  People are abandoning working the land”.

Fewer and fewer of the youth in the pueblo are interested in farming. Now that there is a secondary school in Capulalpam, young people have other options for earning a living. Those who can afford it go the university in the city of Oaxaca an hour and a half away. Many do not come back as it is easier to find good jobs in the capital then in the pueblo. Some of those who remain go into farming, but the majority seek less demanding jobs that pay more for easier work.

Teodoro told me that a team of oxen costs about 40,000 pesos ($2000 US), a lot of money for a farmer in Mexico. First you have to train them, which is not an easy task. It takes about a year to train a team, and if you pay someone else to do it, that is another 20,000 pesos. So Teodoro trains them himself. A team lasts three to four years. "Once a team is trained they can do the work by themselves", he explained. "You have to handle the plough but they know where to go, when to stop, when to turn around". But it is hard work to get them to that point. Oxen are enormous creatures and do not like having a yolk put on them so they can pull a heavy plough through the hardened earth.  You need to know how to handle them or you can get hurt badly.          

I wanted to get a portrait of Teodoro with my backdrop and he proposed doing it out in his field where his plough and yoke were. We jumped in his pickup and drove the mile or so to where his terreno was. The landscape is very steep and hilly and the soil broken up and hard to walk on. I dragged my backdrop down a steep hill and Teodoro went and got his yoke and his plough. This is where he wanted to have his portrait taken. This is where he belongs, with his head held high and the earth beneath his feet.

Monday, February 1, 2021

Israel Rojas Rojas: Huarachero with a Heart


I had been looking for a huarachero (sandalmaker) for some time before I was directed to the home of Israel Rojas Rojas in the barrio de la Merced in Oaxaca Centro. I was looking for someone who was a maestro (master artisan), but there were fewer and fewer to be found. There was no sign announcing his workshop and I had to ask around the neighborhood quite a bit before I found a door to knock on. When I did, a young man opened the door and informed that indeed this was the home of a huarachero, but that he had stopped working a couple of months earlier due to age. We talked for a while and he invited me and called his father, Israel. 

Israel Rojas

When I explained what I was doing, Israel perked up and became excited that I was interested in his life work. We talked for quite a while and he proposed to work for a while so that I could photograph him. I gladly accepted. His grandson, Ivan, had taken over most of the work when his grandfather decided to step back. But Israel was proud of the what he had done with his life. He started working as an apprentice when he was eleven. He learned by doing, and at eighty-eight, he had become a master. He had taken on several young people as helpers who could learn the trade, but none had the commitment and determination to stay with it to the end. When I asked Israel why, he told me that “ser huarachero es una vida muy triste, muy pobre” (it is a very sad and poor life). He also said that the hides used to make the huaraches often had a very unpleasant odor. It was enough to drive many away from the trade. The materials had also gotten very expensive and if you hired an assistant to help in production, your profit was nearly gone. Israel sadly believes that his is a dying occupation. It is not what it once was when there were hundreds of huaracheros in Oaxaca.

Israel managed to earn a fair living as a huarachero because he was able to work fast and not sacrifice quality in doing so. At his peak, Israel’s son and daughter worked with him and he took his product to Mexico City to sell. At one point in the 1960s, Israel could earn 250 pesos in Mexico City compared with 8 pesos in Oaxaca. Huaraches were very popular and many were being exported to the States as they were in vogue. But when the demand dropped off, so did the sales. Selling in the markets also meant that others could steal your designs; and they did. It is a hard way to earn a living. 

At eighty-eight, Israel no longer has the strength in his arms to work the leather as he once did. His grandson, Ivan, has taken over and makes a meager living doing so only because he does the making and the selling by himself without hiring help.

Ivan Rojas at work

Israel’s huaraches are high quality and well made. But what impressed me perhaps more than his leatherwork was his love of life and his joyful love for his wife, who he calls his pollita (little chick). When she came out in the courtyard once we were done photographing, his eyes lit up and a huge smile spread across his face. I offered to do a portrait of the two of them and he was thrilled. There was no question that she was the love of his life. And it was obvious that she felt the same way. If Israel put as much love into making a pair of huaraches as he does in caring for his wife, no wonder he did such superb work!

Los Enamorados at 88 & 91