Friday, November 25, 2022

A Lesson To Be Learned

Three Muxe Beauties

 I write this post on Thanksgiving day, 2022. I have many things to be thankful for: family, friends, and good health among them. But I want to add a word of thanks that events like la Vela de las Aútenticas Intépidas Buscadoras de Peligro (a transgender-gay celebration) can take place in Mexico without violence or bloodshed. This event began the day after the horrible mass shooting at a LGBT bar in Colorado. There were well over 1000 people present dancing, drinking and having a good time. There were straight people, gays and trans people all intermingling and respecting each other.  That is not to say that there is no discrimination. Mexico is not free of discrimination and hate. A few days earlier one of the Muxes (third gender) organizers of the event was assaulted. But the event went on without further incident. This year's Queen of the Muxes, Melisa Mijanos Boijseauneau, is a lawyer and became the first transgender official of the government of Oaxaca. In an interview with the press, she commented that for her, being crowned queen represents the resistance of a community that struggles every day against discrimination, violence and hate crimes, a community that resists to show the world its joy for the freedom to love and to be free. There is a lesson to be learned here and I feel privileged to have been present and accepted by everyone there. 
Reina Melisa 2022
Although the event is "a show" that is only a small part of the Muxes culture, it is still a sight to behold. The imagination and color that fill the venue are captivating. The runway for the coronation of the Queen was a five star performance and after two years of not having the Vela because of the pandemic, people were hungry for the spectacle. (See photos at end of this post)

But this trip to Juchitan was much more than la Vela de las Muxes. Two of the people that appear in my book, Somos Oaxaca, live in Juchitan. I was able to present them with a copy of the book they appear in. It was very satisfying for me to fulfil a promise I had made to them and to myself to bring this project to fruition.
I took a moto taxi to Roberto Sanchez' house without announcing my arrival. Roberto is a tanner and I had not seen him in over five years. He was quite surprised to see me, but was very pleased to receive the book. He told me much had changed since the pandemic and he had to change the location of his tannery, but he was still working. That is what gives his life meaning.

I then went to see Martin Valdez Toledo, a clay artist and and encyclopedia of Zapotec culture, especially in the Istmo region of Oaxaca. Martin specializes in making Tangú Yú, clay statues that represent Zapotec gods and goddesses dating back many generations. I told Martin that I was thinking about a photography project about "los sabios" (wise people) of Juchitan and he offered to help me make contact with them, Many speak only Zapoteco and Martin said he would be my translator. He is a true gold mine of cultural information. I am excited at the prospect of working with him.

Juchitán is a very culturally rich region of Oaxaca. Zapoteco is still widely spoken and the customs and traditions are deeply rooted. I have very good connections with people there who can open doors for me that are not easy to open. Now that my book, Somos Oaxaca, is finished, I would welcome a new project. Juchitan would be an exciting place to begin one. There are still many more lessons to be learned.
Martin Valdez Toledo
Muxe after church blessing

Tuesday, October 18, 2022

Mario Vasquez Bautista: Zapatero Remendón


Mario at work
When I first walked into Mario"s shop in Oaxaca, I had an instant flashback to O'Flaherty's shoe repair shop in St. Paul, Minnesota. His shop emanated the aromas of freshly polished leather and rubber cement, and although Mario's shop is a bit more rustic, it took me right back to my childhood.

Mario is a zapatero remendón (cobbler). His job is not to make shoes, but to give them new life. He learned his trade from his father in Mexico City over forty years ago when shoes were made of real leather and quality materials, not like today when synthetic materials have overrun the market.

Mario still works much like he did forty years ago. Much of his sewing is done by hand. He has a few basic machines: one for grinding, one for polishing and a heavy duty sewing machine for things that cannot be sewn by hand. Despite the "throw away culture" of the shoe industry nowadays, he says that there are still people whose occupations demand a good pair of shoes. Good shoes and boots are expensive, and many people opt to have them repaired rather than buy new ones. Mario is happy to accommodate them. He has never advertised his shop, but the quality of his work speaks for itself and brings him enough new and repeat customers to make ends meet.

The shoe repair business isn't what it used to be. At one time Mario had five employees working with him and his earnings were substantial. Now he works alone and his income is enough to put food on the table, but not much more. Mario said that even though his monthly earnings are meager, he has enough to keep him happy. "I have my house, a good wife, enough to eat, a big garden with lots of animals, and good health. I don't need more." 

At sixty-six, Mario was considering retiring, "When you get older, you begin to see things more clearly. It might be time to give my body a rest. If you stay active and do the things you enjoy, that nurtures you." His life as a zapatero remendón has served him well. He is proud to say that his children have good jobs as professionals and are successful in life. When I left Oaxaca in 2019, Mario was seriously considering retiring.

When I returned to Oaxaca in January 2022, I found Mario in his shop working. He told me had stayed open during the pandemic until November 2020 when he has a debilitating stroke. He was out of work recovering for over three months, went back to work, and then got a severe case of Covid which almost took his life. He was laid up in bed and receiving oxygen for six months. He had just reopened his shop two weeks before I arrived. He now sees his work as a way to keep active and happy and to avoid another stroke. Besides, he has a lot of make-up work due to his absence from his shop during the previous months, and as always, he intends to keep his customers satisfied.

Tuesday, March 15, 2022

Elizabeth Gonzalez Gutierrez: Modista

Elizabeth Gonzalez Gutierrez (Liz) is a seamstress and dressmaker. She has been cutting and sewing fabric for over forty years and has built a faithful clientele due to the quality of her work. Like many others in this project, she found that secondary school did not meet her needs. Instead of continuing her formal education, she decided to pursue an oficio that she could excel in, that of a seamstress. She studied for two years, got her diploma, and opened her first shop at age twenty-two. Her mother died when Liz was quite young and her work helped support the family. Besides her work as a seamstress/dressmaker, she began giving pattern cutting classes. She became a sought after teacher and  many of her ex-students went on to open their own shops. 
Her business was thriving until the revaluation of the peso in 1997. The financial crisis hit her hard. People opted to buy clothes at department stores rather than have their clothing handmade. Her classes also dropped off considerably. Young people were turning to online courses rather than in-person classes. It was a difficult period, but she managed to survive. What allowed her to survive was her ability to embroider typical indigenous designs and to transform older traditional garments into dresses for weddings, quince años, and evening gowns. She has learned to embroider the designs from the Istmo, Mixe, la Costa, el Valle Central and la Mixteca. She also designs outfits for the major fiestas of these various indigenous regions. This is very laborious and detailed work that takes much time and expertise. But because it is such an important part of the culture, people are willing to pay the price for a job well done. Liz is proud of the work she does. "No es justo una costura; es un arte" (it isn't just sewing; it is an art).
What Liz likes best about her job is the satisfaction she gets from cutting a piece of fabric and creating a garment that pleases her clients. She studied with a tailor and learned how to make the very precise measurements needed for a perfect fit. It shows in her work, it is an art form, not just a trade.
At age sixty-five, Liz has no plans on retiring. She loves the work that she does and wants to pass it on to the younger generation. She often works seventy-two hours a week and enjoys every minute of it. "As a seamstress/dressmaker, you never stop learning. New fashions come and go, people's bodies change size and shape, and we must change with them." As I was about to leave, she brought out a file of diplomas and recognitions that she had received during her life as as a seamstress/dressmaker. "When I am no longer able to do my work, there is no one to take over my shop. It makes me happy to know that those who I have taught will keep my oficio alive." In preserving her oficio, she is also helping preserve the rich indigenous traditions that make up the cultural fabric of Oaxaca.


Sunday, March 6, 2022

Luis Sarita: Talabartero

 Luis Sarita is a leather worker (talabartero). He makes a range of products, from saddles, harnesses and holsters to billfolds, belts and huaraches. I met Luis in 2019. I was searching for a talabartero and a tanner (curtidor), and was told I could still find some in Ejutla, a pueblo an hour and a half from Oaxaca. It took a bit of searching, but I was finally directed to Luis's workshop. I explained my project to him and he accepted to be part of it without hesitation.
After a friendly invitation to a copita de mezcal, I arranged to come back a few days later to photograph him. As I was getting ready to leave, he told me he was an avid player of Pelota Mixteca, an ancient ball game played by indigenous people in the region, and proudly showed his glove. At 72, he was the oldest player on his team. It was an important part of his life.  
When I came back later that week, I found Luis working at his table. It was covered with the  tools of his trade. Along with the punches and cutting blades were an assortment of hides and skins; cow and goat hides as well as snake, iguana and crocodile skins. Ejutla used to be a leather working center with many talabateros. Now there are four and there is only one tanner left. Cow and goat hides must now be purchased in Ocotlán, a nearby pueblo. The exotic skins are expensive and very hard to find and some are now protected by law and cannot be hunted. Luis understands the ecological concerns, but claims that as a talabartero, this is his livelihood. "If I cannot get the raw materials I need, how can I survive?"
Most of Luis' clients are local ranchers and farmers. Many come to Luis because he does all his work by hand, no machines are used. He even cuts his own thread from goat hide and punches all the holes by hand.  He has been working leather for fifty years and what he likes most about his profession is that he still follows the old tradition and produces high quality, hand made goods that will last many years. This is what sets him apart from other talabarteros. His way of working is dying out. Machine made and imported synthetic goods are adversely affecting his business, as are environmental laws protecting animals from being hunted. He feels that the profession he has practiced for fifty years is doomed to extinction. He is one of the last of his kind.
When I returned to Oaxaca in January 2022, his friend, Alberto, who makes guantes de Pelota Mixteca, gave me the sad news that Luis had passed away a few months earlier. His fellow players carried his casket to the Pelota Mixteca playing field and gave him the send off that he so rightfully deserved. 
Luis and his guante de Pelota Mixteca

For more information about Pelota Mixteca, see:

Wednesday, February 9, 2022

Carlos Ramiro Lopéz: The Last Scribe


Carlos Ramiro Lopéz is a public scribe. For nearly sixty years he has been using his typewriter to help people express themselves through the written word. It is what has given meaning to his life and allowed him to eke out a meager living.

When I first saw Don Carlos in his booth in Oaxaca's Benito Juarez Market in 2015, I knew I had to photograph him. His oficio (occupation) was one that most certainly was on its way to extinction. When I asked his permission to photograph him and include him in my project I received and abrupt and unequivocal NO! It took me four more years to be granted that permission.

In the early 1960s, Don Carlos set up shop in the portals of La Plaza Santo Domingo in Mexico City. He joined a group of about fifty other typists who filled the air with the click-clacking of words being put on paper. His was a valued profession in those days. But there were dangers as well. Scribes were frequently asked to forge or alter official documents, actions that carried with them steep fines and imprisonment. In 1985 he decided to leave Mexico City and move to Oaxaca. He has been there ever since.  

In the 1980s there was a demand for Don Carlos' work. There were politicians who came to him to type up official documents, migrants from the countryside who needed someone to pen a letter home to their families, and there were love letters to be written. Those times began to disappear with the advent of computers and were given a death blow by the arrival of the cell phone. People no longer had the same need for someone to help them compose and write their letters. Their phones had autocorrect and texting became the norm. The ritual of putting a letter in a stamped envelope and taking it to the post office was disappearing  along with Carlos' profession. His work was now comprised more of typing bureaucratic forms in triplicate.

In March 2019 I carried my backdrop to Benito Juarez Market to do the portrait of Don Carlos. This time he was ready and willing for the photograph. We had had time to form a relationship and I think he knew, that at eighty, his days as a scribe were nearing an end. Shortly afterward the pandemic hit Oaxaca, I left for Oregon, and after I left, Don Carlos decided to close up shop and not risk what otherwise might be awaiting him. When I came back in January of 2022, He was longer in his booth in the market. A market vendor told me he was still alive but no longer came out much due to the virus. His small wrought iron booth was locked up and would not reopen. This is the first of the oficios in my project that I have witnessed die out. However, I fear that it will not be the last.


Friday, January 14, 2022

Oaxaca 2022: May They Rest in Peace/QEPD

Dario Santos Paz
 It has been ten days since I arrived back in Oaxaca after my departure in March 2020. As a neighbor told me before I arrived here: "Oaxaca is totally the same, and completely different". She was absolutely right. My ride into Oaxaca presented scenes that were unchanged from 2020. The only big difference was the number of masked people in the streets: almost everyone. Upon arrival, my apartment looked as if I had never left. 
But then the "difference" began to show its face. The morning after I was back I set off to visit some of the people I had photographed for my oficios project. My first stop was a couple of blocks from my apartment, Liz the seamstress. 
Liz at Work

She saw me walking down the street and waved me over. After greeting each other and sharing our gratitude that we were both in good health, she went on to tell me that Dario, the blacksmith a half block down the street had passed. He was 80 and died of a heart attack. I had just finished writing his story right before I left Oregon. After leaving Liz I went straight to Dario's workshop to see his family. As I entered to see his daughter, I saw an altar set up for him with the last portrait that I had taken of him framed and in the center. I was very touched. She then told me that another blacksmith I had photographed a few blocks away, Jorge Diaz, had also died. Jorge's death was causwd by complications from diabetes. I am not sure if covid was involved. When I went to Jorge's shop on Xichotencatl to see his brother Moises, it was no longer there. 
Jorge Tocando
Manuel preparing silver
I was already aware that two other friends from the project had passed since I left, Manuel Garcia, silversmith, and El Pollo, Cantinero (tavern owner). Manuel died of covid at age 78 and Pollo of a hard living at the age 85. 

Pollo y Manuel
The next morning I called Benita, a palm weaver who makes beautiful baskets as I wanted to purchase a couple more. When I asked how she and her husband were doing, she told me that her husband Braulio has died a few months earlier. For many years Benita had been doing dialysis o Braulio three times a day in their home. His death was caused by kidney failure.
Benita & Braulio

Tonight I got in touch with the son of Israel Rojas, the sandal maker (huarachero) to find that he also has passed away this past November. HIs son, Ivan, told me that he died of natural causes at the age of 86. He was pleased to say that Israel was conscious and alert until the final moment.

I am deeply saddened by the departure of these friends. Over the past few years we have opened our lives to each other. We have formed bonds of friendship that are unique in many ways. When I communicated with Israel's son, Ivan, tonight he sent me a picture of a photo collage they had hanging in their home. It brought tears to my eyes to see the photos I had given them in such a place of honor. It makes me very happy to know that people value these photos as much as I value these people. 

I also found out tonight that another friend from the project had died, Luis Sarita, talabatero (leahter artisan). Luis died from a blood disorder. He was an avid fan and player of Pelota Mixteca. His friend, Alberto Pacheco informed me that they carried his coffin to the playing field and gave him a final send off in the manner he would have appreciated. 

The wheel of life and its culminating act, death, never stop. I am honored to have known these fine people. They have made my life much fuller.

Luis Sarita: Talabartero de Ejutla
Israel Rojas & wife