Mexico, a kaleidoscope


 (To see photo albums, click on “picasaweb”. Bolded items are in the albums.)


I went to Oaxaca because, years ago, I met Oaxacans who were transcribing elders’ oral histories to be used in indigenous language literacy programs. I wanted to see indigenous and mestizo (culturally and socially mixed) Oaxacans. Secondly, websites on Oaxaca include spectacular images of landscapes, people, food and crafts. (For example, see Norma Hawthorne’s .) Thirdly, I’d be there over Días de Muertos (the days dedicated to remembering those who have gone ahead), and descriptions of the related practices were also appealing.

October-November temperatures in Oaxaca are really pleasant, cool in the morning and evening, warm at mid-day. It’s perfect for walking and being outside; the sun a bit strong, so people do seek shade. The air is clear, and colors brilliant. Buildings are painted, watered plants are green. The temperature, light, and aromas and sounds are exquisite. Many of the buildings are registered – “catalogados” – as colonial. There are cobbled streets, and downtown ones are restricted to pedestrians. Like Trinidad and much of Cuba, from their frontage on the street, buildings go way back to the center of the block, so a lot goes on beyond the front door!

Mexico City, or DF (Distrito Federal) is somewhat cooler and less colorful, but still quite clean and pleasant. It’s a ball to watch masses of people and gorgeous museums, great to travel around except at rush hour, and easy to visit very cheaply.

PEOPLE: places, practices, food, Alameda and Zócalo, protest, economy
















PEOPLE places, practices, food, Alameda and Zócalo, protest, economy

In his family’s tapete (woven wool carpet) shop on Alcalá was Luis, a fellow in his 50s who spoke a lot of English. He’s composing an essay on the benefits of bilingualism; he spoke only Zapoteca as a child, learning Spanish in school and English much later. He needed to re-type a couple of paragraphs to correct them (with a typewriter!) and asked me to help by dictating it to him. It took a while, but it’s a relationship.

Joel (Yoel?) is a Oaxacan who now lives in San Francisco. He’s been gone at least 15 years, and is here to divide up an inheritance with his brother. He finds the people here to be somewhat lazy – but he’s learned that they’re getting what they want out of life, and they’re able to live far more cheaply and with less work than he is! He’s with a woman of Italian descent in San Francisco, and they have a 10 year-old daughter. He owns a trophy shop.

Armando is a young man who sells clothing in his family’s business at Tlacolula. His area of the market was quiet and cool when I got there, and after we chatted a bit, he invited me to sit. I think he’s single, and lives in Mitla with his mother. His sister lived in Vancouver for a while, as a student. His brothers finish woven rebozos (shawls), weaving the ends into a complex macramé pattern. The huipiles he sells are brought in from all over the country. He also bakes and sells cookies.

He says that in Mitla, there is almost no economic activity. Nobody farms any more. There has been so much drought, and so many crop failures, they won’t take the risk. No industry. Even weaving (as in the cotton weaving I purchased there) isn’t the same. At one time, business was really good and they brought in people from other communities to help with the weaving. They learned the skills, returned home to do it themselves, and send the finished pieces to Mitla for marketing. (This might explain why there was only one working loom in the family enterprise I visited, where I bought the “placemats.”) “So how does that make you feel?” I asked. Not good. He thinks Mitla is better off than some towns further off the beaten track, that tourists never visit. One good thing is that everyone in Mitla speaks Zapotec.

On the camión (bus) to Mitla, the young woman next to me began to weep. A few days earlier, her father had fallen and hit his head. He refused surgery, and died. I gave her M$100, the only thing I could think to do for her and the quiet infant in her arms.

There was middle-aged Mexican (i.e. from D.F.) couple on the tour to Monte Albán. They spoke of political demonstrations w/ disgust: they repel tourists, and nothing would be accomplished. (No one agreed or disagreed with them.) The husband kept taking cell phone calls – loudly. He did it even when we were being shown ceramic techniques by a potter; I, too, spoke loudly, asking several questions, trying to make it hard for him to hear the other end of his conversation. He moved away. The wife was robbed at the market at Tlacolula when two couples planted themselves around her, front and back, and wouldn’t allow her to get through. By the time they moved off, her bag had been slashed and camera removed.

Sara and I were warned to keep our bags in front of us by the women we asked for directions when we were at the Tlacolula tianguis. As I walked by a bowl of squirming worms (used to make sal de gusanos – worm salt – and in bottles of mescal), a fellow laughed and spoke in English about how delicious they were. People were seldom unfriendly!

An architect and his wife (also an architect) sat by me at the Pasatono street dance and were joined by a couple of woman friends. He’s the guy who dances with everyone, but best with his wife. He’s at the university – and preparing an interdisciplinary diploma course on the architectural use of space, connected through all other areas of human endeavor.

Attending the concert of Quinteto de Metales Kamaapyë at Teatro Macedonio Alcalá I became acquainted with Juana Vásquez, an indigenous woman. I wanted to know if she knew the group, what she thought of them, etc. Yes, she did; they were good. She also knew Pasatono, and thought it particularly positive that they had people dancing in the streets with no alcohol.

She’s from a town in the Sierra. I thought she called it “Yalala,” but it’s “San Hidalgo Yalálag.” When she grew up in the 1950s and 1960s, they walked two days to get to Oaxaca. Then transport trucks were introduced, and it took 8 hours. At the demand of the community, the Mexican gov’t put through a highway, so it now takes 3 ½ hours by bus, 3 by taxi.

The theatre has changed a great deal, she says. It was remodelled a few years ago. Before, it was only for the elite. “We couldn’t come in here wearing huaraches,” (sandals) she said. She works in culture in her village, to recuperate and pass on the language. When she went to school, if they were caught speaking Zapotec in the classroom, they were made to stand outside in the rain or sun as punishment. Still, they received training in the language at home, so they didn’t lose it. Parents said, “Go to school and learn what you need there,” but they insisted on teaching the important stuff at home.

Since the highway came through. young people don’t want to work the land. Their teachers insist they needn’t learn farming, but how to live in the city and earn money. When she was young, parents insisted they had to know how to live off the land, how to grow food, as a basic minimum, in case everything failed. It is essential the indigenous ways be sustained; that’s the only way humans will survive.

With the road comes television, so even the poorest home has skype. That can be a good thing, but the technology has to be used carefully, and has to be evaluated to protect the culture. Only we indigenous people know how to live sustainably. (Where have I heard that before?) She mentioned that she’d worked with anthropologists and Canadians before, and was very articulate on indigenous rights and autonomy. She’d met Inuit people at an indigenous conference organized by a Canadian. (I didn’t ask her where.) I gave her my card, and she told me her name: Juana Vásquez.

I’ve been looking her up on google since I came home.

Martínez, Gabriela Reconstructing the lives of Zapotec women. Center for the study of women in society. Retrieved October 29, 2012 from

Juana Vásquez Vásquez works w/ ethnohistorians Nancy Farriss and María de los Ángeles Romero Frizzi in Oaxaca on colonial documents in Zapoteco.

Yalálag: una propuesta para la reconstitución de los pueblos indígenas de México (2000). Derechos para todas (Agosto-Septiembre-Octubre 2000). Retrieved October 29, 2012 from

She’s published an article w/ Romero as well.

Vásquez has been arrested for political activity, e.g. Asamblea Comunitaria, opposing the “grupo caciquil.” “El Gobierno del Estado y los grupos caciquiles implementados por éste” is equivalent to “Indian Act Government.” She has also collaborated with North American feminist playwrites.

Have a look at this article.

On my walk to the beautiful Acueducto de Oaxaca, I came to a fellow my age, washing his car. He told me what he knew about the colonial aqueduct. He was still washing when I returned, so we talked longer. He’s an economist, who was in university in the 1970s during the Allende gov’t and the coup; we enjoyed sharing opinions on No. His son also did an economics degree, but is an artist at heart. We talked about the significance of philanthropy here – Francisco Toledo, Harpe, María Isabel Grañén, etc.


Oaxaca benefits from the social and cultural activism of a number of prominent citizens. Francisco Toledo is the world-famous artist who created the Instituto de Artes Gráficas de Oaxaca (IAGO). It was a colonial house, all on one floor, great thick stone walls, cool and sturdy – and almost all the rooms are walled with built-in wooden shelves full of art books from all over the world, in all languages, collected by Toledo. The whole thing is for the use of art students. It’s the perfect temperature, the perfect humidity, so comfortable and beautiful, even the smell lovely. What would have been the courtyard is now a café with an overhead framework supporting vines.

Toledo was also involved in the creation of several other art centers and museums in Oaxaca – another being Centro de las Artes de San Agustín Etla (CaSA), an eco-friendly art institute.  His botanical and ecological interests are also apparent in the Jardín Etnobotánico de Oaxaca, which he initiated. It forms part of the Centro Cultural Santo Domingo, together with the Museo de las Culturas de Oaxaca.

One is Alfredo Harp Helú, a former owner of Banamex, founder of FAHHO (Fundación Alfredo Harp Helú de Oaxaca, ) which has created the Centro Académico y Cultural San Pablo in a Dominican ex-convent, with the Museo Textil de Oaxaca and much more. They focus on the study, documentation, preservation and innovation in indigenous cultures and communities of Oaxaca

It’s amazing to be with books in a natural atmosphere, which this climate allows. There’s the wonderful Biblioteca Infantil de Oaxaca, or BS (the children’s library). (The floorplan of the building, in order to avoid cutting down trees, resulted in an S shape!) Windows and doors are wide open to fresh air and natural lighting. FAHHO is responsible for this and for another library, a baseball training camp, etc. The children’s facility has rooms for computers, infants, adolescents, and the Biblioteca Jorge Luis Borges for the visually impaired, initiated by Toledo.

Dra. María Isabel Grañen Porrúa (doctorate in art history) is president of FAHHO and owns Librería Grañén Porrúa, a great bookstore. Her father owned the first store in Mexico City for 27 years, and she opened this one 13 years ago. To celebrate  the combined 40th anniversary of the bookstores, there was a concert of Pasatono, a group of 7 classically-trained musicians who play the many kinds of Oaxacan popular music. It was on Alcalá street, where altars and sawdust tapetes had been the day before. The concert was really a street dance and crowd sing-along, so chairs were arranged in a U around the dance floor. ( is a sample, but the group is now about three times this size.)

The Teatro Macedonio Alcalá is a gorgeous, small theatre, great sound system, and 5 storeys of balconies. I went there for the Metropolitan Opera’s HD Live performance of Verdi’s Otelo, something I’d long intended to do at the Cineplex Odeon in Grande Prairie. In the audience was a smattering of Mexicans, and a whole lot of American expats, (as I gathered from their conversation).

Another concert at Teatro Macedonio Alcalá was by Quinteto de Metales Kamaapyë “Música tradicional oaxaqueña como música de cámara” (traditional Oaxacan music as chamber music). Was it ever good! It included two trumpets, a trombone, a tuba, and a French horn. Like Pasatono, they’re classically trained, and play great traditional music (i.e. Spanish colonial origin). Seldom have I heard brasses that good. Oaxaca has some great public music programs. One fellow, from Puebla, played two trumpets, fingering one with each hand – ambidextrous. All he needs is another mouth. The other trumpet is from Oaxaca. Three musicians are from Tlahuitoltepec and are Mixe (pronounced mije). They all wore ponchos from Tlahuitoltepec. It was a free concert, put on by Centro Cultural San Pablo as part of an international colloquium on applied linguistics.


Women come dressed in many different ways: blue jeans, skirts and blouses, some dresses, wrap-around skirts (enredos), some with rebozos. Age doesn’t always correlate with clothing. Profession does: women in the tourist trade dress “traditionally”. Women’s clothing is, in general, very modest. No bra straps show; no cleavage; nothing above the knees; definitely no shorts! (When I found myself on a street with a dozen girls scattered on both sides, wearing tight pants, high heels and cleavage, I knew I was on hooker row!) Traditional women wear skirts, usually below the knee. Modern women wear trousers. Men usually have on jeans and tee shirts. Older men might wear a guayabera. Women’s ceremonial clothing and traditional dancing are seen at most public celebrations, religious or secular.

Only on my third trip to the Tlacolula tianguis did I notice the variety of community-defining skirts worn by groups of women. There are a lot of short-sleeved blouses (e.g. puffed sleeves, darts) with skirts: satin, plaid, pleated. Sometimes there is also a distinctive overblouse. Flowered headscarves (like Ukrainian babas’) are tied in various ways, under the chin or behind the ears. Erasto spoke of periodic changes in community fashion, how families that can afford it replace whole wardrobes every couple of years, selling the old ones to tourists. Women make the family`s clothes, so they bring about change.

Traditional women – indigenous women – don’t wear makeup.

In complete contrast to clothing, there is a whole lot of sexual physical affection in parks, church yards, benches in the shade, on buses, etc. Really deep snuggling, lying in each other’s laps, everything but actual sexual touching and intercourse. Asians would be shocked – which is likely why they’re not here!

Street vendors sell necklaces, wooden spoons, fruit picks and bookmarks, paintings on bark, dolls, blouses, bags, delicious nut brittle (sunflowers, walnuts, almonds, pecans and/or amaranth in honey) and much more. Street musicians play accordion, guitar, electric piano harmonica and / or sing, often accompanied by a child or spouse who requests money. In DF are organ grinders in khaki uniforms, one cranking, one extending the cap. The uniforms are, I am told, their own invention. There are also quite a few beggars, often women with children and people with various disabilities. Everyone seems to back off quickly in response to “No, gracias,” but I tried to remember to carry loose change at all times.

It is the custom here, when getting up to leave a restaurant, to wish nearby diners “Buen provecho.” As everywhere, when people are asked for directions or advice, they’re happy to give it.

City buses in Oaxaca cost M$5.5, or about $0.40 CAD. They’re fairly minimal, with plastic seats and open windows, but they definitely work! Travelling between local towns cost about $10, I think, often on upholstered seats with air conditioning. The same trip by colectivo (a taxi-cab full of 5 people) cost $15, and was more crowded. Luis (of Rosa y Luis Arroyo Núñez, manager, casadelosabuelosoax@gmail.com advised me to sit in the back seat of colectivos. When three people are crammed into the bucket seats in the front, it is decidedly uncomfortable. These provide great transportation, and only enough Spanish to find out where to find a vehicle is needed. (Luis, Rosa and their sister, Ita, offered most useful information!)

I was interested to see how babies are handled. As a North American friend said, “We have so many containers for babies!” They do not. Babies may be in slings that attach them firmly to an adult’s body, or they may be in arms, but they are seldom in a stroller. They sleep soundly in the arms of their adult, or in slings of many types, whatever motion or noise there may be.  Though they were everywhere (including strapped to a mother working in the market or selling Sharpie pens on the metro, jobs deemed compatible with childcare), because they were always warm and secure, I almost never heard a child cry. (Two to three children per woman seems to be the most common number.)

People are often seen walking arm-in-arm with elders, including those scarcely able to walk. Actually, most people walking together (provided one is a woman or child) touch, hold hands, hold arms.

I’m told that the money spent on funerals here is far more than what is spent on weddings. Everyone who attends anything or plays any role has to be served food and beverages: the novenas, velatorios, funeral, graveside, forty-day mass, anniversary. It’s a great deal of money, plus the burial. It’s hard to find where to bury people, as city cemeteries are full and a person can only be buried in a pueblo burial ground if they belong to it.

Mexican newspaper reporting is much more gruesome than Canadian. There is a section of the paper every morning (fortunately it is a segregated section) dealing with minute details and photographs of injuries and body parts, including cadavers stitched up after autopsies. And I’m squeamish about verbal or written reports!

I learned to ask for “agua purificada” or “agua pura,” and that would get a free glass of water from a big bottle rather than paying for my own bottle. I’m not so sure about the water the glass is washed with, but it didn’t seem to have ill effects.

People very seldom wear sunglasses, but will shade their face from strong sun with whatever they’re carrying – a book, a parcel.

A variety or convenience store is called a “miscelánea”.


People walk the streets of Oaxaca eating constantly. In the door of a restaurant or a shop, someone sets up an anafre (a sheet-metal charcoal burner) on which tlayudas are prepared – large corn tortillas with a smear of refried beans, some chicken and cheese, salsa, folded over. Or quesadillas, Oaxacan pizzas, made with stringy Oaxacan cheese and mushrooms or squash flowers.

I heard a whistle which reminded me of knife sharpeners elsewhere. In Oaxaca, it’s a fellow with baked bananas in the most incredible baking apparatus, attached to a bicycle. Kerosene was in a bottle on top, with a rag in the opening. Don’t know what that was used for, as there was a wood fire burning in the stove. He put bananas on a Styrofoam plate and poured condensed milk over that. Warm and rich! Elsewhere, he’s known as a “camotero,” camotes being sweet potatoes. Perhaps he had them, too!

Another night-time food (perhaps because it’s warm) is corn – elotes y esquites, to be precise. Elotes are corn-on-the-cob. Esquites are corn kernels off the cob, usually boiled. I only ate the latter, prepared with mayonnaise, grated cheese, lime juice, and chili powder. Try this at home!

During the day, cut-up fruit (watermelon, grapefruit, papaya, orange, honeydew) with salt, lime and chili powder hit the spot, or the same with hunks of cucumber and jicama. Those satisfied the need for salad!

Churros can be really hard to pass up first thing in the morning, and I don’t even like doughnuts.

Café de olla (made in a pot, or dripped – not expresso ) is made with cinnamon.

Tejate is a remarkable beverage,  looking curdled. It’s made from maize flour, fermented cacao beans, mamey pits, and flor de cacao, ground into a paste, kneaded a whole lot and mixed with water. (See It’s very good and considered extremely healthy. Only served in markets, one drinks it out of a glass or gourd, as it’s ladled out of ceramic bowls – usually the green-glazed type from Atzompa.

Oaxaca has many wonderful smells, and one of the best comes from the shops where cacao and spices are ground to make mole and tablets for hot chocolate. Sweet hot chocolate is made with either hot water or hot milk (as one chooses), and often served with a sweet roll for dunking. I add a pinch of salt, when available! I`m not too crazy about atole, however. It`s rather like water and corn starch.

I really enjoyed snacking at the tianguis in Zaachila. Like all the towns in the Valles Centrales, it only takes about half an hour to get there from Oaxaca via colectivo.

One woman sold sugar cane, peeled and chopped in one-inch hunks, in a plastic bag w/ hot sauce and lime juice. She showed me how to eat it: bite off a piece with the grain, chew and suck, discard what remains. Given the last step, I really didn’t want a $5 bag, so paid for a couple of samples and to take photos. It just didn’t seem like a great idea to walk through the market dripping cane juice.

Everyone sells food to everyone else. (Does anyone cook meals for themselves?) There were steamed yucca and chayote being peeled and chunked. I finally bought a little bag of chapulines – grasshoppers. They really are delicious, fried with lime, salt and chile. For a while I walked around with that in one hand and a bag of coconut slices (green, just-beyond-jelly) in hot sauce in the other. Great combination. Then I stopped for a goat taco, which was spectacular.

Travel is easiest for the omnivorous.

Alameda de León and Zócalo – used for

Calendas – religious processions w/ brass band

Danzón – foxtrot, elegant, older people – precursor to salsa

Marimba concert

Mariachi band

Folk dance competition

Popular concert – cumbia and danzón

Classical music – horns

Craft – souvenir – vendors

Demonstrations – APPO, teachers

Feria del Libro

Race-car display

Buskers: clowns, mimes, comedians

In front of the Cathedral is the Alameda de León, a rectangular plaza with trees and benches, and beyond that vendors of clothing and souvenirs, under tarps. Immediately south is the Zócalo, a large square with trees, benches, low stone walls and pathways. Government buildings are on one side and cafés and restaurants on the other three. Restaurants belonging to expensive hotels are up on fenced landings. They are empty. The others are at sidewalk level, accessible to vendors. Musicians play in front of these restaurants and take turns moving down the line, after requesting donations. One plays marimba; another is the altiplano guitar and flute; there is a mandolin. I loved my daily americano and newspaper here.

This is a large public area where activities and users shift frequently. There must be management overseeing it, as transitions are pretty smooth! One day, perhaps October 30, a truck discharged men who dug trenches around each section of the Zócalo, then thrust in pots of marigolds (the flower for the Days of the Dead), creating instant gardens. Just as suddenly, by November 13, they were gone.

The Carrera Panamerica is a car race of old automobiles covering a large area of Mexico. It started in Veracruz, with one automobile driver and one motorcyclist killed within hours. The first night was in Oaxaca. The Zócalo was full of people who had come to admire the cars and get photos with the drivers.

Folk dance competition: groups came from around the region to participate in a competition on a stage set up in the Zócalo, with hundreds of observers. The Danza del Diablo is riveting! Although I have some trouble making a parallel between the organization of these dances, the costumes etc. and anything we practice in Canada, I suppose that if I think of powwows or ethnic performances (e.g. Ukrainian) or (as an Australian reminded me) Maritimers, it’s not that different. People devote significant time and resources to working with members of their communities in representation of their culture and history. Am I just incapable of seeing my own society’s practices as exotic?

In the Zócalo one night, a large brass-and-percussion orchestra was playing classical music. They were men – not so young – wearing guayaberas. A loud comparsa band marched behind them, and they paid no attention. I get all choked up with people playing music together that way. They were quite good.



There are loads of political protest and mobilization in this country. I first encountered it at the Museo de las Culturas de Oaxaca. Employees of INAH (Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia) are asking for the removal of their director, who is building interpretive centers atop archeological ruins.

The Odontology Faculty of the Universidad Autónoma Benito Juárez de Oaxaca has bought newspaper space requesting those seeking to chair the faculty next year to behave – or suffer professional consequences.

Triqui people of San Juan Copala are occupying the front of the State Gov’t offices, with lots of banners. They are a displaced indigenous community. It’s an issue that’s been going on long enough there’s a book about it, and the grave of the founder of their movement is prominent in the Oaxaca cemetery.

Teachers are frequently in the streets, especially given their severe oppression in the uprising of Todos Santos in 2006. There were deaths. Recently, normal school students were violently expelled by police from a school they’d occupied in Michoacán. It is now said that police actually set fire to vehicles for which students were blamed. A large protest involving teachers, social organizations and indigenous organizations took place on November 16, as Governor Cué was delivering his report.

Small communities are governed by agentes municipals and their committee. In Santa María Ixcotel, the Asamblea General removed the agente and his committee (executive) from office, for not having achieved anything since their July 20 election.

Taxi drivers in Juchitán took over two patrol cars and set them on fire, and sequestered the vehicle of the transit overseer. They pulled him out, drove it somewhere else and set it alight. Nineteen cabdrivers were arrested. They also removed furniture from the Traffic Delegation office and burned it, and blocked the highway to Veracruz and Chiapas. The complaint is that motorcycle taxis have been invading their routes, and the Traffic Delegation isn’t stopping them.

After a time of walking behind a woman in a beautiful, long huipil, I complimented her on it. It’s old, from the Isthmus; you seldom find this kind of work, now. She’s a schoolteacher, isn’t too fond of the current gov’t, and hopes for better w/ PRI. The teacher’s union is corrupt, defending those who don’t deserve it.


It is said that Oaxaca is among the poorest states, and with a relatively large indigenous population. Only some 35% of Mexicans have completed their educación media superior (high school). Unemployment has increased, so employment in the informal sector has as well. The World Bank says 50-62% of the Mexican workforce is informal, neither paying taxes nor receiving social benefits. It feels as if the proportion of the population working in retail is just huge. There are hundreds of stalls in permanent markets, more in weekly ones, and more still walking the streets. Scores of people offer me wooden bookmarks and cocktail forks when I’m having my coffee. It seems that everyone is engaged in selling small amounts of goods at least occasionally, to make ends meet or earn a bit of extra cash. When larger numbers of people are gathered, food stands suddenly pop up. An advantage to those selling any kind of food is that they get to eat.

As Luis said, goods come into the market overnight, are sold to wholesalers who sell to retailers who sell to the street vendors who sell to pedestrians. The price goes up each step of the way. I think a whole lot of people make a little money, rather than a few corporations making a lot of money. Everyone buys in small quantities. It’s very different from our retail model, with the fewest possible employees in the largest possible retail stores selling as much as possible at once. A cab driver told me Walmart may be fine for some things, but he’d never go there to eat.

People who do jobs for which there is no salary, only tips, are said to be working as volunteers. This includes garbage collectors, gas station attendants and the people who bag groceries in stores. The elderly often have this job. I’m not sure about restaurant servers.

One radio discussion on work addiction stated that the normal workday in Mexico is 12 hours long. Incredible.

Religion certainly stimulates a great deal of economic activity (“the religion industry?”). Consider the flowers, candles, bands, costumes, religious icons. . .

Sundays are surprisingly quiet. It’s really only stores and restaurants catering to tourists that are open, so streets are pretty empty. Museums charge Mexicans no entry fee on Sundays, so are often busy, but most close on Mondays.

There is now some mobilization in support of labor migrants. It would appear that in the past the attitude has been that they’re on their own as they cross the northern border. The instituto Oaxaqueño de Atención al Migrante helps migrants who return for a visit to help get medical attention, get documents, convince them they don’t have to leave. www.migrantesoaxaca.bog.mex There is huge dependency on the remittances of the migrants. 40,000 indigenous men have left Guerrero in search of work over the last year or so. The state is beginning a program to assist and protect migrant laborers. Police are to ensure transportation is secure; a medical group is available to help.

Gael García did Los invisibles, a series of documentaries on undocumented migrants. Looks great!

La Bestia – book or documentary – Museo de Memoria y Tolerancia. Pedro Ultreras.

OAXACA MARKETS (lots of photos!)

It is said that “Zapoteca” comes from “Zaa” (people) and “pochteca” – the Nahuatl word for merchant. It is also said that women dominate the markets, with men helping. I should probably have tested that generalization! There are lots of both, and I’m not even sure I could identify gender specialization.

Mercado Sánchez Pascuas is up the hill, away from downtown Oaxaca. It’s small, occupying a portion of a city block, but it’s got the juice bar where I found the most delicious unsweetened yogurt! Great for a visitor to Mexico. It’s also where I first saw chicken with yellow skin, some say a result of feeding them marigolds (which also makes yolks yellow). Chickens look appetizing and tasty, even before cooking. Like all markets, it has a super eating area, where customers share large tables to order from a series of dishes that everyone but the tourist is familiar with. It’s a wonderfully flavorful and inexpensive way to eat.

Mercado Benito Juárez is a block south of the Zócalo. I particularly like it for salted peanuts with dried chili! Photos here are a little out of focus, but good

Across the Street, south of Benito Juárez, is Mercado 20 de Noviembre with delicious diners! As elsewhere, older women working the kitchens have been in the business for decades. The meat section, at the south end of that, has fascinating cuts!

The Sunday tianguis at Tlacolula is sometimes called a “mercado indígena”, meaning that people from many communities come as buyers and sellers (or both) wearing the clothing and speaking languages of their communities. Their products are from the same source!  website put it nicely; it sells everything from “frutas, legumbres, bebidas indígenas como el “tejate” y el exquisito mescal, alimentos como el mole, la barbacoa, en fin, loza, herramientas, flores, ganado, etc.” (Fruit, vegetables, indigenous beverages like tejate and exquisite mescal, foods like mole, goat, dishware, tools, flowers, livestock, etc.) There are ceramics, miniature rug hooks for a needle-punch embroidery, lots of copal, and that’s just the unusual stuff. I had goat meat consommé with a couple of tortillas, chocolate con agua, and mescal “on the house.” (Google Tlacolula tianguis and view “images.”)

A tianguis is an outdoor market, or one held under tarpaulins – not in an everyday market building. There is a tianguis in Oaxaca City at El Llano on Thursdays, with many booths and food outlets. One of my favorite items was fabric stamped with embroidery patterns – hard to come by in Canada! The Zaachila tianguis has loads of produce with everything beautifully displayed, clothing, pots and pans, flowers, leather work, and tons of food. I stopped to ask one woman about her corn. She had both yellow and white corn. She allowed a photo, accepted no money, and gave me a few kernels to take home. Another woman sold a special kind of wood, burned for medicinal purposes. I got a picture, but don’t remember the name.

The Mercado (or Central) de Abastos is the largest in Oaxaca, and this website covers it pretty well:    The place is huge! It’s almost a regular grid, but not quite, and does have different levels and sections – though, for the most part, the sections are not specialized by type of merchandise. It was fun walking back and forth and up and down, rather like walking a cemetery – keep going in a relatively regular grid fashion, side-tripping when something looks interesting. I kept oriented and never felt unsafe, though later I heard tourists are warned never to go there, and pickpockets are common. I asked permission before taking any photos, and was happy to find copal (incense) and aprons. (These are real aprons, worn by market woman and all others involved in serious work!) Flower arrangements are beautiful. I was there once again with the Días de Muertos tour, when many specialized items are found.


Oaxaca’s Iglesia Santo Domingo de Guzmán was the first I visited. It is spectacular. There is gold leaf all over (or at least signs ask one not to rub against the gold) and images of people crawling all over the ceiling. (This video is pretty good:  In front of the church are cactus gardens – relatively large expanses of the same type of cactus, so making beautiful patterns. Next to this church, in the “Ex-convento dominicano” are the Museo de las Culturas de Oaxaca and the Jardín Etnobotánico de Oaxaca. There are many “ex-conventos” or one-time missions of the Dominicans, consisting of large, beautifully-proportioned buildings which, in addition to churches and chapels, once housed religious personnel. Some of the materials used in their construction was taken from pre-hispanic structures; it is likely that all the labor was indigenous, and is of incredible scale. Aside from the churches, the structures no longer belong to the Dominican order and have been put to a number of public purposes – e.g. as museums.

The Catedral is Nuestra Señora de la Asunción. When I arrived, activities at the Catedral were building up to the October 23 observance of El Señor del Rayo – Lord of Lightning, an image sent by the King of Spain in the 16th Century. (A lightning bolt caused a fire, but the image was undamaged.) A principal Zapotec deity is Cocijo, or Pitao Cosijo, dios de los relámpagos y de la lluvia, god of lightning and rain. The “Señor del Rayo” fits right in. In the chapel of the image, there was constantly a line-up of people waiting to pay respects to it, and many brought flowers. There seemed to be cathedral services taking place all day long, attended by groups of schoolchildren and others. (I walked in frequently, to see what was happening and what was changing.)

In the late afternoon, there was usually a calenda, a procession consisting of a brass band, leading the group of dancing sponsors and their supporters, and at least a couple of monos de calenda – giant dancing figures of paper maché. Women were often dressed in the formal dress of huipil and enredo (wrapped skirt), carrying baskets of flowers or candies on their heads. The sweets were thrown into the crowd when they reached the cathedral, just before entering the church. I was quite amazed to hear a brass band in church!

Calenda procession 2012, Oaxaca –way more foreigners involved than I ever saw, perhaps as it’s for a wedding.

Making monos de calenda

Monos de calenda dancing, with musicians

The cathedral is arranged with the altar in the middle, and a fenced aisle between it and the large choir / band area on the main floor. People can thus walk all the way around the periphery of the church without passing between the altar and the congregation. This might be less distracting to celebrant and worshippers, without excluding visitors and tourists. Florists set up a huge canopy outside the cathedral, where they spent three entire days elaborating enormous flower arrangements, largely of lilies. They built towers of flowers that lined the pillars inside the cathedral, floor to ceiling. The aroma and the appearance were astounding. I was told the flowers were donated by a grateful parishioner.

On the evening of October 21, the mass was in full swing, and it was beautiful. The church was fully decorated in all those flowers; the image of the Señor del Rayo had been moved from its chapel to the altar in the center of the church, the pews were full and it was standing room only. There were women teaching their small children to make the sign of the cross, and many came wearing traditional dress. I now see this is also ceremonial dress. (“Typical” dress.) After the mass and communion, there was one last visitation to the icon. I was delighted to have a chance to talk to the priest, a youngish fellow who looks indigenous himself. I saw him conduct services for two days straight, and wanted to tell him how wonderful it is that he is in a cathedral that obviously means so much to the people that there are constantly new activities, new groups moving in and out. . . He agreed that it’s great work.

Then the calenda procession lined up outside. First were a bunch of monos de calenda – those are the huge dancing figures. There were two floats, one carrying a man in a red satin skirt tied to a cross, playing Christ (He looked Euro.), and a young woman playing Mary Magdalene (who did not). On a separate float was the Virgin Mary representative. She was followed by another pair of monos, and then a score of women in ceremonial dress, with illuminated flower arrangements on their heads.

I was surprised, given the number of people in the church and those in the courtyard outside, that not that many actually accompanied the procession.

Late at night on the 23rd, I was sent back to the Catedral to see the fireworks. A brass band played for each of about twelve young men who ran (or danced) the bulls – or angels, or turkeys – with fireworks spewing. The apparatus actually consists of a wooden frame and cover, under which the runner is somewhat protected. The bull leapt and spun around, as a bull with firecrackers on it would! So did the turkeys. The angels danced gracefully. Each “runner” is sponsored by a mayordomía, and the fireworks are put together by “unos maestros que saben mucho” (masters who know a lot). Each set of fireworks had loud bangs, very loud whistles, and spinners on each side. A sweet young man struck up a conversation with me in English. We tried to stick to English except for some topics. He is studying renewable energy in university, and has run the bulls; your arms get burned, but mescal is your friend! He was enthusiastic on both accounts.

The Castillo of fireworks was a very tall (60’?), very light scaffold that spent most of the day lying down. It had three levels of four wheels each; first one went off, spinning, whistling and banging, then the one above it, and the next above that – and then a shower of white light fell from the top of the Cathedral, absolutely terrifying the pigeons. There were also big Roman candles. (I’m glad I didn’t try photography. Youtube is very disappointing!) It left lots of mess to be swept up – and by this morning, by golly, it had been. Many people entered the church immediately afterwards.

By the evening of the 24th, the image had been returned to its own chapel, mass was said, and the cathedral was dark.

Churches are somewhat overwhelming in their diversity and variety, and my take on them is idiosyncratic. I loved the brown-on-cream designs on the walls of Templo San Felipe Neri, reminiscent of a barista’s artistry. I remember the Basílica de Nuestra Señora de la Soledad (patroness of Oaxaca) because of beautiful night-time illumination of the Basílica, the Plaza de la Danza outside, the Escuela de Bellas Artes opposite, the nevados stands nearby (Oaxacan shave-ice!), and the youth “hanging out” in the whole area (as they do in all public spaces. Something about young couples necking in a churchyard appeals to me.).

Culiápam (or “Culiapan”) has ruins of another 16th Century Dominican convent (mission). It used stones from pre-hispanic structures, and required an enormous amount of labor. The guide pointed out watchtowers at each of the four corners, needed for defense against attack by local residents and to control the corvée labor force. Many human remains in unmarked graves have been found in the courtyard around the church, again reminiscent of San Gabriel, California and Hawaii. (This came as a surprise to Mexicans on the tour.)

San Jerónimo Tlacochahuaya’s colonial church is elaborately painted in the baroque style and has a wonderful organ w/ faces painted on the pipes.There are many historical pipe organs in Oaxaca!( Instituto de Órganos Históricos de Oaxaca) I attended an organ concert at the Basílica.

Every last grave at the Panteón San Miguel (cemetery) is unique. All are concrete structures, other than one or two. All are Catholic and Hispanic, and I don’t think I saw anything older than 1960 on my first visit. It’s hard to believe that, although no two were identical, they had no connection to the local environment, to indigenous culture, to any language other than Spanish – nothing! I’m betting those in villages would be very different. There was the grave of a Communist who founded one indigenous organization. Most were white, some pastel, a couple bright blue or pink, a few black. No green – which is the color used in Maya cemeteries. There were some very nice trees and birds – haven’t seen many of them before. Some bright yellow warbler types, but not familiar; a hummingbird. Some great butterflies, too, including a very large orange one and a very large black one. One cemetery worker asked what I was doing, and I said I was just admiring. The creativity is something else. I can only imagine what it will be like over the next couple of weeks. Some graves have orange and black Hallowe’en decorations!

I returned for a second visit because I’d read that there’s a corridor with niches where the competition for tapetes (sand or sawdust paintings, in this case) and altares would be held. Turns out I missed an important part of the cemetery on my last visit. It’s the oldest, with some tombs from the mid-1800s. The nichos are on the four walls around this large section, and most of them are empty. I loved the area; I saw the most different kinds of birds I’ve seen since I came, a beautiful red one, and a woodpecker.


The site at Mitla is particularly attractive. The buildings are decorated w/ grecas, geometric mosaics or carvings, repeated symmetrical patterns. It’s not too huge, so easy to picture and get around. Maybe I also feel comfortable because the structures aren’t too high, so I’m not afraid to climb them! It’s also surrounded by contemporary residences, so feels part of contemporary life – not that locals are involved except as the occasional guide or vendor outside.

From a few questions I’ve asked about weaving, I was able to identify some of the patterns used in mosaics, e.g. the four steps or stages of life, the coiled snail for eternity, the mountains etc. These patterns are used repeatedly in carpets! (I bought a circular crocheted bag from a man who claimed to have made it, though I doubt that! It was an unusual design, colors, material and shape. I now see that the pattern on it has the same source.) Wikipedia says there is no repetition anywhere on the site. The knowledge of geometry, design, engineering, and measurement are amazing. I climbed down into a tomb – which I could identify as a tomb, although empty, because the walls are carved as above.


The main distinguishing feature of Mitla is the intricate mosaic fretwork and geometric designs that profusely adorn the walls of both the Church and Columns groups. The geometric patterns called grecas in Spanish seen on some of the stone walls and door frames are made from thousands of cut, polished stones that are fitted together without mortar. The pieces were set against a stucco background painted red. The stones are held in place by the weight of the stones that surround them. Walls, friezes and tombs are decorated with mosaic fretwork. In some cases, such as in lintels, these stone “tiles” are embedded directly into the stone beam. The elaborate mosaics are considered to be a type of “Baroque” design as the designs are elaborate and intricate and in some cases cover entire walls. None of the fretwork designs are repeated exactly anywhere in the complex. The fretwork here is unique in all of Mesoamerica.

Mitla. (2012, July 15). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 03:49, October 19, 2012, from

Google images for Mitla are really good.

There are archeological sites to be excavated all over, but not enough money to do it. Sometimes, the residents and the archeologists argue. Archeologists tell people they have to move because they’re invading a site, and the people ask who are the invaders; they’ve always lived at Mitla, which appears never to have been abandoned completely. The Spanish did a fair amount of destruction to use the building materials themselves (e.g. for building churches). Apparently local people did not, although most sites had been “abandoned” before the colonizers arrived. Although local people are hired to work in excavation, as guards, etc., there are many stories about how they are dismissed when tombs or treasures are found.

There was a museum in Mitla, but it’s been closed for years. Some items were removed. INAH, the Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia, took the best to Santo Domingo (the Museo de Culturas de Oaxaca.) and never returned them. That’s the common pattern: INAH takes the sites, claiming they’re of archaeological value, takes the artifacts, and nothing is left for local people. None of museum entrance fees go to the communities. People won’t turn anything over to them any more. A couple of fellows Armando knows worked for an INAH excavation at Yagul. When jade objects were found, they were dismissed, so INAH personnel could excavate them alone – and dispose of them where?

Monte Albán is within sight of Oaxaca, and not more than 30 minutes away. It’s a great, grassy hilltop plain surrounded by structures. Some of the site has been restored, some has not. Buildings are not at all decorated as in Mitla though the dimensions, alternating verticals and slopes etc., are pleasing. That may have to do with the angles, placement and orientation; it’s carefully calculated to make use of the cycles of the sun and of Venus. (The latter is, I think 540 days or so. Does that have any practical purpose?) Some openings are calculated for sun ray penetration not on solstice or equinox, but on days important to the agricultural cycle, e.g. May 8.

Monte Albán. (2012, November 20). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 18:24, November 20, 2012, from

Sitting in the shadows of the buildings and scarce trees were men in straw cowboy hats (the local normal head covering) with souvenirs for sale. When we moved onto the grassy plain, they all stood up and converged on us. The guide used them to show us the types of artifacts recovered there. There were some large panels – portraits of temple caretakers w/ deformities: dwarves, hunchbacks, etc. The guide said it’s due to inbreeding. As usual, I doubt it that explanation. It seems likely occupations like this were reserved for people who would have difficulty performing other tasks.

Although I liked the buildings etc., I particularly enjoyed finding tiny wildflowers.

The archeological site in the town of Zaachila is a couple of blocks up the hill from the tianguis, and thirty meters above the church (which looks very much like it’s built on pre-existing platforms). The flat top of one mound has been excavated and restored. There are other mounds on the site, some higher and some down a slope, which haven’t been excavated yet. I walked downhill and stooped to gather and photograph a collection of sherds. An unusual sign advertises photographs of the treasures found in the burials in the excavated mound. Apparently, the first time archeologists wanted to excavate the tombs, Zapotecs ran them off. INAH came back with armed guards, and took the gold and jade treasures off to Mexico City – hence the photographic exhibit.

The hilltop archeological site at Atzompa only opened to visitors on October 18. It has beautiful structures and spectacular views down three valleys which converge below. Little flowers, birds (including humming) and butterflies abound. In the obsession to establish hierarchy and centrality, this is said to be a satellite of Monte Albán. Of the classical period, it was of course inhabited by “nobility” – which is probably true. After all, there’s a whole lot of valley and hillside, and only a little mountaintop. Symmetry is always a consideration, as is orientation to cardinal directions. (In this case, unlike the Prairies, it seems not to mean four directions but literal cardinal directions.) There are several ballcourts, and a tomb was recently found. (See  and

As in Yagul, Atzompa excavators say they were sent home the day a tomb was uncovered.

The Americans on the tour attempted to confirm that the first excavations there were done with funding from the U.S. – colleges or the National Geographic or something. (What would anyone do without their help?) They felt further excavation was urgent, and couldn’t money be found somewhere to fund it? Surely university students could be recruited to dig it up! It doesn’t occur to them that the research is being done and the Mexicans are managing it just fine. In the case of Atzompa, there has been a good deal of negotiation for permission to pass through the village (likely ensuring some business will stop there), and locals have been hired as excavators. They’re also caretakers; they were on top of each and every mound, keeping an eye on us. I talked to one young guy who had the most beautiful white-toothed grin. At the time, I’d just read the placard speculating that the social organization of pottery-making, by families, is much the same now as it has been for centuries. I think that’s so fascinating, because it’s the way to keep families relevant as production and social units.

The Museo de las Culturas de Oaxaca is spectacular, both for its displays and for the building itself The architecture, proportion, design and color create many gorgeous views. Exhibits are thought- provoking, both in artifacts and accompanying text. Like Toledo’s other project at CaSA, this area includes a carefully designed water storage system, collecting rainwater from the Museo and storing it underground to irrigate the Jardín Etnobotánico during the dry months. (The Dominicans had a similar system.)

The Museo de Arte Prehispánico Rufino Tamayo is mostly ceramic. From pre-classic to classic what I could see was refinement in the detail of fingers and such. In both, the sculpting of clay was fantastic, with plenty of humor and revealing much of their thinking. It’s mostly women who are subjects in pre-classic art; plenty of breasts, and almost no penises. The post-classic moves away from people, is more religious or mythical and less fun. It’s another a colonial building. I forgot to check the washrooms there, but at all other public museums I’ve visited, they’ve been very modern, with frosted glass doors and walls – quite lovely, especially given the kinds of light there tend to be.

The Centro de Artes in San Agustín Etla is not an ex-Dominican monastery, but a one-time textile factory. There is one round building whose history I can’t identify; it encloses a gorgeous exhibit of black pottery. One leaves that and crosses a yard that includes infinity pools, filled to the brim. On the top level is a huge room that was the factory; floors are of wide wooden planks. There is an exhibit of pottery from all over Oaxaca, not intended to be old but representative. Downstairs are large B&W photographs of salt-making through evaporation and by shovel. Nasty work, but so important. I took lots of photos of all these areas. (The only place photos aren’t allowed is of Francisco Toledo’s work in the gift shop. These days, he’s slicing X-Ray film into extremely fine images, often insects, strung together like a paper-doll chain.)

The whole thing is at the top of a very tranquil valley, green and full of big trees. A number of the big houses (mansions!) have rooms for rent; I think they belong to expats. The church next to CaSA is plain, with some very sad martyrs. The views are beautiful. Walking down the hill, I stopped to eat at a nice comedor admiring the planters made of water jugs, turned upside down, cut in half, with the lid sometimes open for drainage.



For centuries, community specialization has stimulated and been stimulated by trade, and has expanded to provide employment and income in the global economy. Community specialization is also significant component of ethnic identity.

Both Mexicans and North Americans are engaged in innovating, reviving and sustaining methods and materials, some on the brink of being lost. Sara Gorman and her husband Mark Hornaday ( ) are among them, buying in Oaxaca and selling in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Remigio, one of their colleagues, has been encouraging the revival of rare textile techniques in villages for over twenty years. He travels the world to find materials such as cotton, silk, and dyes. One of his clerks told me stories of the various fabrics: this one is Triqui because it’s done in horizontal strips, though when they do it for themselves, it’s red or sometimes white; that one is not accidentally losing its dye, but is intentionally made to bleed when folded wet. What comes out is the soul of the object being dyed.

Wood carvings of copal are brightly painted in elaborate abstract designs – cats, dragons, deer, rabbits, and many more. They are generally called “alebrijes”, a term I’m told is more appropriately limited to fantastic, imaginary creatures. (Copal is the tree from which resin is harvested to burn as incense. Its branches grow in convoluted shapes that can be shaped into animated carvings.) San Antonio Arrazola has a number of alebrije workshops, where groups of young men carve the copal and young women paint the figures. Great hand-eye coordination!

Alebrije. (2012, November 10). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 18:58, November 20, 2012, from

In Coyoacán, a man set up on the street with his woven wire sculptures, so complex they look like alebrijes. I took pictures rather than buying pieces. Huichol beadwork is similar – in colors, in fantastical designs.

In Mitla, people weave cotton in pastel colors. or Table cloths and bedspreads look so fresh!

San Bartolo Coyotepec is known for barro negro. Of course, the clay itself isn’t black; it’s the severely oxygen-reduced burning atmosphere in the kiln. The reason it (and other pottery) isn’t always waterproof is because it isn’t fired long or hot enough. We were shown the technique by Jorge, grandson of Rosa Real, the woman who introduced both the firing and polishing techniques, using rounded and polished pieces of quartz. Jorge took a big hunk of clay, obviously ready to work, looking about as stiff as bread dough, in his hands. He shaped a sphere and then pounded his fist into it, making it surround his fist to the wrist. Then he placed it on a hand-powered wheel he’d made. With a lump of clay, he anchored one wide, shallow bowl on the table up-side down, and placed another bowl on it right-side up. Thus he could spin the upper bowl by moving his fingers along, gradually pulling the clay up into a cylinder shape, narrowing it, adding on more loose cylinders to make the neck, quickly indenting the spout, polishing with a lump of quartz, decorating w/ incisions, etc. Normally it takes up to a month to make a set of pieces; they sit and dry between addition of new parts. The black pottery process was popularized after plastics came in to displace waterproof ceramics; then they turned to the soft, quickly-fired decorative pieces.

Carlomagno Pedro Martínez, of San Bartolo Coyotepec, makes the wonderful black pottery Muertos sculptures. His theme is death, e.g. a skeleton sprawled on the ground, under a black blanket faintly impressed with moons and skulls and more death symbols. Another grouping is a wake, including the body of the coffin and a number of elderly “aunts” who are mourners. showcases the work of his siblings and parents as well. When our tour groupI visited, he was in Canada, and going on to Cuba. Hs wife tended to us. They have kids of 11 and 13, and she was going on a school trip with them to Veracruz.

The Museo de Arte Popular Oaxaca in San Bartolo also displayed some of Carlomagno’s work, as well as that of other artisans.

Our Academic Tour visited “Luis Blanco, son of Teresa Blanco” in Atzompa. We walked up some steps and into a large hall in a house. It had two very large tables set, and a lot of people! Plus the altar to his mother, Teresa, who died in 1980. She introduced a new style of pottery, which includes “pastillaje” – appliqué of lighter (or darker) colored clay onto the other color (both shades of reddish-beige), delicate figures. People seemed rather delighted and excited to have us pass through the room, through the courtyard, to the studio-workshop. Luis and his wife, María Rojas, got out some black clay and instantly began making a flower for each member of the group. Of course, we then bought others. (I bought a devil-angel.) One member of the large family group – an older man who seemed slightly inebriated – served us a mescal. It was so nice!

As we drove away, I asked whether it was certain his name was Blanco, as it was unlikely to be the same as his mother’s. A member of our group said it’s a matriarchal society, so no surprise; I said Mexican law was unlikely to agree with that. I’m sure I sounded like a know-it-all. Still, on googling, I find him (his photo) labeled “Luis García Blanco.” He’s signed the raw clay flower “Luis Blanco,” capitalizing on his mother’s name, I suppose. Then again, Carlomagno’s family is labeled “Martínez” – his mother’s surname – although it’s apparent his and his siblings’ surnames are “Pedro Martínez.” Maybe what’s happened in each case is that foreigners assume the last name in the list is the surname, when it’s actually the second-to-last, the father’s surname.

Gabriel and Manuel (of Academic Tours) had arranged to have us visit a different potter, Angélica Delfina Vásquez Cruz (though I found her work at Mano Mágica in Oaxaca labeled as Angélica “Delfino” Vásquez). She’s no artisan; she’s an artist. She carried a baby in a sling around her body – 21 days old. She seemed a little beyond having infants; it’s a grandchild. She’s an intense, skinny, muscular woman, born in 1958. Her figures are gorgeous. I asked her about her mermaids, and what a story. Her grandmother told her of the origins of the mermaid. She was a young girl who committed 3 faults. The first I didn’t understand. The second was that she insisted on bathing at midday during Semana Santa, which was not allowed. Then she had sex with her lover. As punishment, god stuck her legs together (I’d never thought of mermaids that way!) and threw her in the ocean. Someone took pity on her and gave her a guitar, so she could express her grief. There were calls sent out for help, but the priest said it was too late to save her. However, there would be some mercy: she’d be allowed onto land one day a year, on June 24, St. John.

One could feel the mermaid is a victim because of the severe punishment she’s suffering, but Angélica sees her as brave, a heroine, courageous, rebellious, determined, doing what she wants despite knowing the likely consequences. That takes guts! “I’m a woman and I have the feelings of a woman,” says Angélica. Her art is done with passion. Her father sculpts people, and when asked why this feature or that, he can’t explain; it’s because it was pretty or just occurred to him. Angélica knows what each feature means to her. Her most recent is one she didn’t explain to me – a woman’s chest and belly are torn open, with beings (children?) ripping out of them. She said it was very personal. I didn’t press, but later wondered if it might be about breast cancer.

The colors and designs on some woven wool tapetes (carpets)  of some remind me of our old Turkish rugs. The traditional designs are geometrical. Some look quite Navajo and southwestern, even in the use of naturally colored (or blended) wool. There is pride in the use of natural pigments. Modern designs are inspired by or copy Miró or Escher, or may include turtles and fish. Teotitlán del Valle is especially associated with this work. (Google tapetes Teotitlán del Valle and see images.)

Sara introduced me to Bii Daūū, the weaving cooperative of 3-4 weavers (See in Teotitlán del Valle. (There are many!) The weavers we visited were Mariano Sosa Martínez and his wife, Rafaela. They are a couple in the mid-40s who speak Zapotec to each other all the time. He speaks English as well. They have a daughter in her 20s, who has moved out with her boyfriend, and a son, Carlos, 18. He’s doing his own weaving. Rafaela does the bookkeeping and sales; she also weaves and dyes and cooks and cleans. Mariano weaves and deals most with foreigners. Rafa’s father lives about 10 blocks away. Her mother died six months ago. Mariano’s parents passed on longer ago, his father when he was 6. Each comes from a family of 8 siblings. Mariano has a cargo w/ the village – to do with resource conservation, medio ambiente (environment).

Their two-storey house is on a paved street in Teotitlán. A large double-cab pickup truck is parked outside. On the ground floor is a large show room, family quarters (TV etc.), a bathroom, a big kitchen. Customers walk through the kitchen to get to the stairs leading to the second storey, where there are a chicken coop and raw materials for wool dying: nopal leaves with cochineal bugs growing on them, samples of the plant used to make yellow, indigo (fermented leaves of a plant that, when ready to use, look like blocks of coal), pomegranate leaves and shells (they make brown). (From the second storey, there is a beautiful view of mountains and other rooftops where skeins of dyed wool are drying in the breeze.)

In the explanation of the dye process, cochineal (cochinilla) gets the most attention. Collect the mother cochineal, place in a mesh bag, attach to a nopal leaf (already cut off the plant and hanging on a line). The females’ eggs pass through the mesh onto the nopal leaf, and the larvae distribute themselves all over the leaf and grow for 3 months. Before then, they have to be harvested, the cochineal ground. Wool comes from Mexico (state, I assume), already carded and spun. It’s boiled in water with potassium alum (a dye fixer or mordant, I learn from Wikipedia. It also stops bleeding – e.g. is used on styptic pencils after shaving.). With the combination of the red, yellow and blue, orange and green are made. All natural, all organic.

Academic Tours took us to Teotitlán del Valle to still another weaver’s: Father and Son’s. Bulmaro Pérez Mendoza is a master weaver, and gave a great lecture on natural dyes. (See Friends of Oaxacan Folk Art Like Mariano, he seemed to know a lot about chemistry, the ph necessary to achieve various colors (e.g. through the addition of lemon juice, lime, baking soda, cream of tartar). In his demonstration, he used a piece of paper to apply the various dye-stuffs, then making additions of base or acid. (Mariano added temperature and repeated bathings to his talk.) I rather like Wikipedia’s description of the village:

Teotitlán del Valle. (2012, June 29). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 20:42, November 2, 2012, from

Here, as at Bii Daüü, the wife was also present, dealt in the money, and engaged in all stages of carpet production as well as running the household. I think the men do the travelling, and women do the rest! Oaxacan artists have often been abroad for lectures and workshops at museums and folk art conferences.

Erasto (Tito) Ruiz sells his woven tapetes at El Nahual in Oaxaca City . My eyes came to a rest first on a wonderful piece of the sun over the mountains w/ a diamond in the center. Erasto says, living in Teotitlán, waking in the morning to see the sun rising behind the mountains (a view I’ve seen), he imagined a diamond floating in mid-air. He obtained the silk in the Sierra, dyed it and wove it. “Diamond” is loosely understood; it’s a 4-sided shape depicting the cardinal directions (as he put it), with much more complex grecas inside. He finds that he is increasingly going away from the geometrical – or, rather, the symmetrical. (Some would call it “ojos de dios” – gods’ eyes.) Another piece in blues has a diamond in the center and grecas in the top left corner, disappearing to the bottom and right. One of his best is “El aire” – or at least it was produced for an exhibit with that theme.×724.jpg It’s the usual tidy geometric image, disintegrating or being blown apart by the wind. Tito said he remembered an experience harvesting maize with his father, the wind coming up, seeing his neighbor blown over, the air full of feathers coming from town.

He spoke of having been to Santa Fe and Vancouver (Museum of Anthropology).  He came back from successful experiences and sales all charged up, and bought bunches of material to keep weaving and creating. He loves doing careful, fine work. His mother spins for him; his wife does the macramé finishing. There’s a beautiful small one for M$600 I’d love. The silk is his most beautiful. He also does some cotton, but still, mostly wool. His children are beginning to weave. Tito began with his father, then an uncle and later another weaver, learning from them while working for them; their names went on his work, so when he lost his job there, no one knew his name.

I think he said there are about 17 weaving families in Teotitlán. There is serious competition between them, and lots of jealousy. They’ll claim not to know each other and criticize each other, e.g. calling his too expensive. His response is that his work is more expensive, because he uses natural dyes. Others are less expensive because their yarn is coarser and they use aniline dyes. He sells some of the latter, too, identifying them as what they are. Some of the families actually do very little weaving; they farm it out to weavers in Santa Ana del Valle, and take them the materials and designs.


OAXACA DÍAS DE MUERTOS – FIESTAS DE LOS FIELES DIFUNTOS (Days of the Dead and the faithful deceased)

Comparsa de muertos

The quality of this one isn’t great, but the costumes are!

Día de Muertos en Oaxaca

A documentary w/out words tracing pre-and post-hispanic practices: Ofrenda del Día de Muertos México – Zaragoza 2011

BBC documentary – Día de Muertos en Oaxaca – captures what newcomers to celebration feel

Dia de Muertos 2012 en Oaxaca

Haley, Shawn D. and Fukuda, Curt (2004). The Day of the Dead: when two worlds meet in Oaxaca. Berghahn Books. This is a really interesting book. Retrieved from

I’m not trying to give an account of all that goes on for the celebration of “Fieles Difuntos” (Faithful Deceased). Briefly, the first 24 hours – approximately mid-afternoon on October 31 to mid-afternoon November 1 – is thought to be the time when the spirits of children and infants return. The next 24 hours are to visit with adults who’ve gone ahead. Muertos observances differ according to cemetery and community. There are two basic locations for the observances: in cemeteries, where many people spend the night in the company of family and friends, and in their homes, where altars are arranged. Tombs are mostly decorated with flowers, candles and copal. On altars, there is a good deal of food.

Muertos celebrations picked up in earnest on October 26. A portion of Alcalá (the tourist pedestrian street) were tarped and for a day protected tapetes and altares made by students of the UABJO (Universidad Autónoma Benito Juárez de Oaxaca) and younger students as well. (Google “tapetes de muertos” and “altares de muertos” for images.) They were cool, but nothing political or sacreligious. Some students were made up with face paint, into skeletons, so I started taking photos.

The comparsas began, too. These are brass and drum bands that tour the streets with groups of supporters in costume who dance in conga lines, etc. Lots of people carry babies. Many people, including lots of kids, were in skeleton make-up. Costumes are often exceptionally elaborate and inventive. One set was made with trash and recycled (or repurposed) materials: a bride’s veil of newspaper strips, another of Styrofoam plates with a Styrofoam cup umbrella, another woman’s dress of beer bottle lids, another of cheezie bags. Comparsas also play a role in bidding farewell to visiting spirits for another year. We attended the comparsas at San Pedro Etla, where brass bands and their supporters, in costume, noisily dance through the streets, sending the spirits of the dead back to the other side. In some cemeteries (e.g. San Miguel) were mariachi bands, marimbas, duos of guitar and voice. Their rhythm was slow, but musical, as they played for families.

Flower cultivation is huge for the Muertos celebration. San Antonino Castillo celebrates the Day of the Dead later than elsewhere because they are so busy with flower deliveries and sales on Nov. 1 and 2. Marigold is cempasúchitl; given its náhuatl name, I realized it’s a local domesticate, though I’ve long associated it with India. Must mean the Iberians moved that around as well! Borla – scarlet cockscomb – is another really important flower for altars. Eight-foot long sugar cane is bent to make the arch – the frame – for altars. In preparation for  Muertos, campesinos come to town with their wares to sell. It’s a huge investment; they sleep in the street for days, and desperately need sales. Manufacturing, processing, travel all are geared to it.

Pan de muertos is also essential. It’s a tender, sweet bread made with a lot of eggs, including the yolks (thus often called “pan de yema”), some butter, some anise. I watched a guy cracking hundreds of eggs into a bucket! A decoration with a face painted on it is stuck into the loaf, which is shaped rather like a swaddled infant. A special flavor comes from the clay wood-burning oven in which it is baked, a paddle being used to shovel in the loaves. A documentary of 2 x 9 minutes:

Centro de Estudios y Desarrollo de las Lenguas Indígenas de Oaxaca (CEDELIO)Elaboración del pan de yema. Retrieved November 2, 2012 from

Our group went first, on October 31, to the Panteón San Sebastián at Santa Cruz Xoxocotlán. (Villagers were expelled from their land at Monte Albán in 1917 when it opened up to archeology.)  In it is the collapsing 17th Century Chapel. Graves are crowded all over, in every direction, some more permanent and some less so. Guide Gabriel gave us some flowers and veladora (tea) candles to place on untended graves. Like others, we drank mescal from shot glasses. There was a great deal of quiet strolling, lots of photography. A tapete competition was outside – sawdust paintings.

We went from there to the newer panteón (Mictlancihuatl), with much larger, more substantial tombs. At the entrance, a huge symphony orchestra played to a large, rapt, seated audience. It was the philharmonic youth orchestra of Veracruz. There were more candles, more flowers – including calla lilies, glads and roses – and more mud, caused by the light rain. Plenty of kids were in costume or masks, approaching us with “Hallowe’en!” I don’t think we gringos were comfortable giving out money as the kids requested, and were unhappy we didn’t have the appropriate (to us) candy!

Santa María Atzompa is another small town near Oaxaca. Judging from the panteón, it is much poorer and more indigenous than Xoxo. According to Wikipedia, people in Atzompa live off of maize cultivation and ceramic production, which is done through family organization.

Santa María Atzompa. (2012, September 23). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 01:07, November 22, 2012, from

Built on a hillside, the burial ground is entirely different from the others. Almost all graves are dirt mounds, with some space in between. We were there at about midnight, and a lot of people were just arriving, carrying enormous loads of marigolds or borla. Also huge candles – these were a meter long, not like the veladoras at other cemeteries. They brought blankets and small chairs on which to sit by the graves during the night-long vigil. Most adult women wore rebozos, covering their heads, as it was quite damp and chilly. There were kids sleeping on sheets of cardboard between graves. People were gathered in family groups, having a great time chatting and laughing. There was much visiting back and forth; it felt as if they were as familiar with the location of each other’s gravesites as they would be with their homes. The community moves from the village streets into the cemetery. I asked one older woman if I could take her photo; she laughed at me and said, “Sure, for $500!” Gabriel said I shouldn’t ask; just take it. I can’t do that. I’d thought since she seemed happy, she might be interested in a chat w/ a foreigner but, not surprisingly, we were just intruders to her and to everyone else.

All along, there was a great amount of gringo camera-shoving into people’s faces, into their family groups, at the graves of their family members, trying to capture the magic. It felt pretty intrusive, pretty voyeuristic. However, I think we were in awe at the comfort they felt in the presence of the remains of their family members. It seems a very effective cultural response to the inevitability of death and grief: specify when the dead can return and be remembered. Rather than waste energy in denial and erasing memory, use it to create beauty, color, light, flavor and scent. Bring them back yearly for a limited time and make the most of it; then send them back, let them go. In the days we wandered cemeteries, I did not see tears, though there was a good deal of solemnity and quiet dignity.

Although there are formal masses, church involvement in Días de Muertos is slight. At a church in the Centro Histórico of Mexico City, a document was posted explaining the church’s view of el Día de Todos los Santos. The dead are gone. They may be in heaven, hell or purgatory (which is why we pray for them), but they do not come back. That’s why the church isn’t involved in all the altares etc. – and why that portion of the observances is extra-religious.

The Catrina – the skeleton dressed in fancy women’s clothes – is a playful take on the “señora” española  or mestiza, the lady who is boss of the maid. Her depiction is similar to the Danza del Diablo, mocking the patrón – well, not really. Catrina’s husband is Catrín, and he’s more like the patrón; the Diablo is more like the foreman.

La Calavera Catrina. (2012, November 12). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 18:46, November 20, 2012, from

A musical and modern-dance performance of Catrina was at the Teatro Alcalá. I attended, thinking perhaps it and La Muerte celebrations in general were about overcoming death, but they’re not. They’re about accepting death and the dead as part of our lives. Octavio Paz apparently said, “La muerte es el espejo de vida de los mexicanos.” (Death is the mirror of life for Mexicans.) Some call it “la fiesta de los ancestros” or “de nuestros antepasados” (of our ancestors), cloaking pre-hispanic beliefs and practices in Roman Catholic celebrations.

A bit too far out for the Church is the devotion to the Santa Muerte – Saint Death – which some consider to be the original form of worship, as Aztecs, Zapotecs and Mixtecs honored Mictantecuhtli, lord of the underworld, as well as Mictecacíhuatl, lady of death. This also involves large processions.

Mendoza, Alberto (2012). Con calenda jóvenes oaxaqueños adoran a la “Santa Muerte.” Retrieved November 3, 3012 from

Some say the presence of witches, pumpkins and superheroes for Days of the Dead is evidence of cultural colonization. For others, these Hallowe’en figures just add to the repertoire. Bright orange jack-o’-lanterns would seem to me to be rather appropriate!


Comunalidad – communality – is a theoretical framework describing the logic of indigenous communities developed by indigenous anthropologists Floriberto Díaz Gómez (Mixe) and Jaime Martínez Luna (Zapoteca). I’ve just begun to learn of it through reading

Rendón Monzón, Juan José (2003). La comunalidad: modo de vida en los pueblos indios. Tomo I. Conaculta.

According to Rendón, the appropriate term is not “indigenous,” but rather, “Indian.” The “indigenous,” he says, have been the objects of assimilation, integration, acculturation, or at least scholarship. “Indian,” refers to individuals or peoples who have resisted domination and oppression (p.35).

It has helped me to make sense of the tenacious grip on prehispanic languages, garments, village life, foods, crafts, ceremony, etc. Juana Vásquez says that, in schools, Mexicans still speak of “integration” and of the substandard Spanish spoken by indigenous children. She says, “They don’t understand that we don’t want to speak Spanish well. We want to be able to communicate, but we want to be fluent in our own languages!” Specific crafts and skills associated w/ different towns and communities, their variations on dishes, on rituals, on ways of speaking, are painstakingly maintained, enhanced, and protected, both to have a monopoly claim and to emphasize identity.

Rendón (pp.52-55) has developed a table summarizing the economic, political, productive and symbolic features of this cultural system. Elements fundamental to communal life are the popular assembly (which organizes community life overall); territory (shared productive, sacred and archaeological resources and infrastructure); political power (a system of unpaid cargos – offices and responsibilities); tequio (collective work for the benefit of the whole community); and fiestas (celebrations). Auxiliary elements are legal systems (regulating relationships between people and with nature); education (so youth learn how to behave themselves and how to make a living); language and symbols (especially important to identity); and world vision (belief systems). Elements of importance to family and personal life are technology (crops, livestock, gathering, cooking, crafts, healing); exchange systems (reciprocal and market); division of labor (full and part-time and gender specialization, etc.); ceremonial life; kinship; artistic and intellectual expression; and leisure activities.

The willingness of individuals to contribute their labor and resources for the good of the collective is essential. Those who withdraw from celebrations, who do not contribute to patron saints’ fiestas or send money (at the very least) for community projects, who do not return to take up a cargo when it is their turn risk being expelled, and no longer recognized as community members (p.15). Modern political and economic systems and some religious sects are particularly likely to encourage individualization and distancing.

This analysis helped me realize that the Catholic Church, with all its religious syncretism and beliefs, has become an integral part of the community fabric. It gives the motivation or rationale for the common celebrations, with the sacrifices cargos entail. Sharing these great multisensory experiences (the smell of copal and lilies, the sight of gorgeous flowers, candles and clothing; the sound of organ and song; dancing to the music of the brass bands – better yet, playing in a brass band!; the taste of feast foods) with family and neighbors gives celebrations a hugely binding emotional power. It’s not Church authority that creates this cohesion, but the community’s responsibility for enacting ritual and observance in processions, bringing flowers, etc.

The Danza del Diablo was performed at a a folk dance competition at the Oaxaca Zócalo by men from Santiago de Juxtlahuapa. The dance defines their community and vice versa; it belongs to their pueblo. There were eight to ten dancers, and they wore the most astounding wooden masks. Some had moving eyes, achieved by pulling on a string that comes out at the chin. Their dance is a prancing one, regularly stomping, some swinging of partners, and some cracking of whips. They wore goatskin chaps, strong boots, suit jackets and ties (though I didn’t notice that until I watched the video later), bright scarves around their necks, and kerchiefs tied around their heads. (I didn’t notice gloves on them, but did on the video.)

I was delighted later to find them seated resting in the Alameda de León. Their masks were in a pile, wrapped in their headscarves. Several were adolescents. I asked them who could explain this to me, and they summoned their teacher, Hugo. He told me they’re all from the community, their masks are made for them personally by an artisan. They travelled 4 hours by bus, coming with various family members. People listened in on the conversation, proud of their work and achievement; they’d won the competition. I asked if there were a religious aspect to the dance; there was, as it’s to represent the gods they worshipped when the Spanish arrived.

That may be, but it’s pretty clear the devil is European. His horns are of goat, deer, bull or sheep; he’s got a beard and sharp features; he’s cracking the (boss’s, taskmaster’s, foreman’s) whip, he’s wearing the suit and tie. I looked at one closely, as Hugo asked the dancer to show it to me; it’s one with closing eyes, and those eyes are blue! The dancer said, “Los míos eran azules también, pero se quemaron con el sol!” (“Mine were blue, too, but they got sunburned!”) Danza de los Diablos Santiago Juxtlahuapa. It’s got some interesting discussion by participants.  – Artesano elaborando máscara del Diablo de madera.

When they asked me what Canada was like, all I could say, looking around me at all the people, color, activity and sound, was “Quiet.”

The most touching thing was that when glasses of Coke were passed around, Hugo was served – and so was I. I also received a stack of tortillas with a hunk of delicious chicken on top. I was really touched. I would have liked to have helped financially, but it was not accepted. The refusal came from the women, the mothers, who come along to accompany their boys.

In addition to the Señor del Rayo, October 23 was also the second anniversary of the assassination of Heriberto Pazos Ortiz, leader of the Movimiento Unificador de Lucha Triqui – MULT. When he was killed, the driver of the vehicle he was in and another guard were members of the Agencia Institucional de Investigación, assigned to protect him. (Partido Unidad Popular is an allied organization.) See on his assassination is a great photo album from yesterday.

Thousands wearing traditional dress came to Oaxaca’s Zócalo by bus and on foot. Older people carried rolled-up banners for their communities. I arrived in the afternoon after the main demonstration. The Zócalo was a mess; waiters were sweeping the trash into piles. (This is how streets and sidewalks are kept clean; each home and business sweeps and mops its own section, much as we remove snow!) There were Indians gathered in groups around men giving instructions. One group of about 20 women sped across the plaza, to get somewhere they should have been. (It occurs to me that members of these communities scurry in much the same way Hutterites do in town, rushing away from the transport van and later back.) I followed one group for a while: men led, followed by women in single file, down busy sidewalks. Those people can really move! Many trucks, pick-ups and buses drove by, full of people, taking them back home. Some streets were blocked by vehicles. I don’t photograph these events, as I might be seen as a spy.

The next morning, I had coffee and my newspaper at the Zócalo. Vendors normally take my cheerful and assertive “No, gracias,” and leave, but I noticed a young woman was lingering in front of my table. It was because she was reading my newspaper upside-down; it was the back page of the first section, with photos and commentary of yesterday’s demonstration, especially the Triqui section (to which I think she belonged). I gave her that part!

Sometimes, intercommunity cooperation is in short supply. Almost daily, there are newspaper stories of land disputes between communities that have carried on for decades, even resulting in fights between men of different villages. The pueblos of Santa María Tatastepec and Santiago Tilantango have been in conflict over 3000 hectares of land since 1892. The pueblos of La Sabana, Capalo and Yucuniacoco, all Triquis, signed a peace agreement . They’ve been in conflict over land for 60 years. Santa María Zaniza and Santiago Amoltepec are carrying out cooperative work together after 50 years of boundary disputes. They signed a peace pact. A sign of peace is when the communities collaborate in a joint project, in a tequio.

Comunalidad describes beautifully the organized egalitarian society that has been the social and political ideal for centuries. I do wonder how it jibes with the hierarchical society that placed some people on the hilltops, and how Oaxacans feel about the demise of their rulers, of the temple builders, and about the archeological ruins themselves.The fact that the structures weren’t disassembled even before the Spanish arrived says something. Maybe they were used for ceremonial purposes, hence respected.


The landscape between Oaxaca and México was beautiful – over mountains, high passes on high bridges (like Kicking Horse Pass), pine forests. The city itself is of course crowded with people, buildings and vehicles, but not unpleasant, and with some beautiful areas and lovely buildings.

The public transit system is cheap (about $0.20 CAD) and efficient, though very crowded during peak periods. It goes everywhere! Subway lines are identified by color and number but, for navigation, all that really matters is the last station in the direction one wishes to go. Memorize (make note of) that! Also, follow “Salida” (exit) only when actually wanting to leave, not change lines! Changing lines costs nothing extra; one could spend all day underground. However, switching to a bus (or between buses) costs another fare. There are no transfers. Vendors hop on and off buses and metro cars selling copies of CDs, chewing gum, or earring backs. They turn on ghetto blasters they carry in backpacks, and recite the songs and artists on this particular CD (sold for M$10). It’s fun to see people singing and tapping along to familiar cumbias.

Personal grooming on the metro is pretty surprising; many layers of mascara, nail polish and eyebrow-plucking. The taxi driver today mimed pulling on socks and shoes while running to the metro, because there just is no time at home to do such things.

Most often, in Mexico, one has the impression that the attitude is, “Too bad you didn’t get here first!” Mexicans stepped ahead of me in line-ups, because I’d left the gap required by Canadian etiquette. (Fortunately, I was seldom in a rush, so could learn.) But even on the crowded metro, where people are rushed, there is evidence of courtesy. Woman carrying babies are given a seat, and women with grey hair may be, too! Getting off a metro when the crowd wants to surge on can be difficult; a man with the build of a wrestler can be a big help, if he chooses to act as a blocker. Much appreciated!

Downtown (the Centro Histórico) at the very least is safe (though I never felt unsafe anywhere). There are many police around, very well-armed and protected, often carrying plastic shields, leg padding, rifles, guns. They’re men and women.

Still, I did “give away” my camera by handing it over to a couple of guys to have it repaired. (The zoom lens was stuck open.) It and they disappeared! However, I had the sense to remove the SD card, and then I bought a better one. Cheaper, too. So there!

The very center (around the hostel) has many gold dealers. Around the corner are tattoo and piercing parlors. My cab driver said this is where he got his piercing – about 2” across the nape of his neck!

On Sunday nights, it is customary to walk one’s purebred dog downtown, allowing people to pet them – for a fee, I overheard. I saw a Saint Bernard, German Shepherd, Great Dane, Afghan and pit bull. I guess it’s a Sunday night tradition.

Hostels and food are inexpensive, especially markets. Pozol at Pozolotli is delicious! Stay away from Sanborne, however. Not only are the cafés expensive, but they charge M$5 at a cash register just to use their restroom. (7/11 coffee at M$10 in one’s own cup is far better. 7/11s in the Centro Histórico of Mexico City are like ABCs in Waikiki.)  Take as much paper as is likely to be needed on the way into any toilet.

Still another snack food: Ramen noodles, for which the vendor keeps a pot of water on the boil. Add lime juice and hot sauce.

Christmas decorations are very common in upscale stores, e.g. Sears and Starbucks. After all, Días de Muertos has passed.

The Zócalo in front of the Catedral is an immense concrete square, a bit like Tiananmen Square in China. Nothing much to it, except a place that will hold a lot of people and has huge flags. Several events took place there, e.g. a Spanish play (free; I missed it over several nights!) and a couple of magic or circus-type shows. One day, scores of chairs were being set up, and no one seemed to know why. It turned out to be a revival, from which preachers screamed via loudspeaker at least until midnight. There was an American preacher in translation. As I left, the ground was being painted to represent a huge map of the city, its waterways (most dry), treed areas (shrinking) and urban sprawl.

One exit from the Zócalo metro station requires going through a rabbit’s warren of bookstores. Around one corner was, of all things, Silver Dog, a band playing 1970s rock-and-roll to an audience of faithful fans who danced and sang along to everything!

Along the side of the Catedral are people dressed in indigenous garb with long hair, shaking rattles and smudging tourists with copal smoke. Some dance with a drum.

On Sunday morning, thousands of motorcycles rode down Avenida de la Reforma through Chapultepec. They were of all shapes and sizes, big hogs, batmobiles, dirt bikes, everything. It was amazing mass mobilization. (In Oaxaca, it’s a large herd of bicycles that take over the streets on Wednesday evenings, and joggers on Sunday morning. Neither group is restricted to the physically fit!)

I think I’m figuring out what’s disconcerting about seeing handicapped people. It’s possible there are proportionately more than I’m used to, but in the absence of private vehicles, they are more often seen in public. I also think they’re more often alone. One would seldom see them in Canada unaccompanied by an able-bodied person, supervised and cared for. In Mexico, they are much more likely to be earning money – e.g. by selling something (candy and CDs on the metro). Today I saw busker with two artificial arms, demonstrating tricks she could do without arms to raise money. Any way  to make a living!

It would be really tough to live here with movement problems. Going through the metro requires walking up and down stairs, and/or a lot of walking between lines. Sidewalks can be terribly uneven, e.g. with driveways and grades and broken cement.

Regina Street has an incredible number of papelerías – stationery stores – and copy shops. There is also an entire warehouse-mercado of stationery stores, hundreds of booths. In some ways, it makes good sense to have kiosks at a market and share utilities and a wall, roof and security rather than separate sites. It also makes good sense to have them scattered in neighborhoods, so people can avoid travel time. It makes less sense to have scores of them on a single street downtown. Why is so much paper being sold? Maybe they use more for projects like papel picado and crepe-paper flowers.

I’ve also realized wearing sockless sandals isn’t popular. Next time I’m in Mexico City: sandals are OK, but toes need to be covered. Going into any sort of upscale store I got the once-over. It stopped at my feet with just a touch of a sniff before returning to my face. No surprise: I’ve often felt that, in the late summer, women with bare toes are at a disadvantage at the meeting table in comparison to men in shoes.

In a courtyard of the Santo Domingo church in México (a pedestrian street now runs through it), there are half-a-dozen old-fashioned printing presses. They still print announcements of baptisms, marriages, etc. In the age of computers, it’s hard to believe something like this is still operating.

Morning deliveries were taking place while I was at a café. Men brought in bag after heavy bag of limes (how could so many be used?), boxes of tomatoes, bags of lettuce and onions. They don’t get any sympathy or respect from the waitresses; when a bag of lettuce slipped onto a customer’s table, the annoyed, scolding response was “Cuidado!” It was amazing how much they could carry.







People here look entirely different from those in Oaxaca, partly due to cool temperature and damp. They wear layers of dark clothes, rather than the relatively light and colorful clothes of Oaxaca. Men of all ages wear the gomina hairstyle, greased back and slicked down with clear comb-marks. However, there are lots of other hairstyles as well, including pony tails and curls.

At Teotihuacán was a large group of girls and their teachers (or other adult women). They spoke Spanish and some English, and were dressed unusually: they all wore skirts below the knees, and they all wore trousers under those – although some of the older women wore leggings. I wonder whether they were Mennonites. No; no headscarves. I didn’t pay enough attention to hair. They were definitely fair.

People working in museums and in tourist booths seldom volunteer a greeting; one has to begin the interaction, and they often say, “What?” Most people on the street are very helpful, when they can be. (Some that aren’t are those who are obviously indigenous. I asked a woman something about her beadwork this evening, and she just ignored me – although this is what she sells. My rule-of-thumb about asking people about what they have to show off does not necessarily work! Or maybe she was deaf, or didn’t speak Spanish.)

Tonight, a young couple staying at the hostel brought me a beer. Israel and Cecilia are here from Monterrey on honeymoon. They were married on Saturday, and will be back at work on Friday. They googled and showed me all the wonders of Monterrey, should I come for a visit. She works for a car rental agency; he repairs cell phones. They did engineering degrees in university. The best thing about Monterrey is the food! Their esquites have cream in them as well as the usual ingredients.

At one restaurant, they got quite annoyed when a couple came in, sat down, she went to the washroom, they looked at the menu and got up and left. Consensus was they’d come in only for the bathroom. I once ate at a modern restaurant with lots of shiny surfaces. It was just fine, with a great big table to spread out my newspaper. All went well until I went to leave and pushed open an emergency door, setting off an alarm. I heard a quick gasp and had time to turn around, smile ruefully, shrug my shoulders, and walk off quickly, hoping armed guards wouldn’t storm the area! Sorry!

I found Café Jekemir, a Middle Eastern coffee shop on the corner of Isabel la Católica and Regina. It offers great coffee and sweets, and interesting looking people. There is a waiting list for those sitting indoors who want to move to the street-side tables. One group out there was a group of Middle-Eastern looking men – the Latin American kind, who have been there for generations.  After a brief Google search, I found:

Antaramián, Carlos (n.d.) La Merced, mercado y refugio: el caso armenio. Retrieved November 12, 2012 from

La Merced neighborhood, where this was located was one that received Armenian refugees.

At Mercado Jamaica, I did speak with an older vendor, a man in his 50s, selling melons. We spoke some English. He had a question for me. There is a bar in his neighborhood w/ a large image of a “buho, lechuza” (owl) on it, and the name of the business is “Hooters.” What does this mean? I explained about the owl’s hoot and the cross-over into boobs, and compared it to naming a bar “Teteras,” (literally, teapots) a play on “tetas” (boobs). (I don’t think he got it.) They’d thought maybe “hooters” had something to do w/ bohemios who stay up all night.

As we spoke, customers approached: an older, wealthy-looking woman, “la señora” coming to market with her maid. He cut slice of honeydew; the maid sampled it. The señora complained of price ($8/kg?), and the maid paid. He placed melon in a plastic bag (with the slice cut out), which went into the maid’s larger shopping bag.

I didn’t know people still marketed like that.

Scratch the surface of a Mexican to ask what they like about their country or region, and the answer always has to do with food.

A street just off the Alameda in Mexico City is very brightly lit because it is lined with stores selling light fixtures – particularly crystal chandeliers! As with many other types of shops (e.g. bathroom fixtures, stationers), they’re clustered together. I was about to take a photo through a window when, looking into one of these stores, I saw a fellow constructing a chandelier. I went in and asked if I could take his photo, and we started conversation. Felipe L. Jiménez is a really calm and peaceful guy. He’s 50, and has been making chandeliers for 28 years. He’s the most senior employee, and now trains others. He showed me some of his designs. The French ambassador commissioned one of his! His chandeliers sell for M$25,000. When I gave him my card, he noted that I teach anthropology. Have I read Carlos Castaneda? The books changed his life, made him think beyond work and home. The U.S. must have much other interesting literature. No one owns the truth. He suggested a reading to me, which is proving hard to come by (Armando Ramìrez, Quinceañera, set in the rough barrio of Tepito). He is self-taught in everything. For a few years he went on weekly trips in this area; met a dancer who was a shaman, and a healer. You can tell with these people; they don’t try to get noticed. They’re just special. (Like he is.)

Very nearby is Chinatown – a street with several Chinese gift shops and restaurants. A young clerk told me, “You should be here in February for New Years! There are more Chinese here than you might think!” (not admitting to Chinese ancestry himself).

My driver to the bus depot had been accountant, and uses his van as a taxi since quitting to be self-employed. His wife (who was an administrative secretary) runs a papelería out of their house. They have 3 daughters, 2 professionals, the third on her way. Years ago, he had to commute 6 hours per day to work. Because he could only see his daughter awake on Sundays, he took a job closer to home that paid far less. The metro has since been built. It makes a huge difference, but still, “no cabe un alfiler” (not a pin fits) between 7 and 9 a.m.

On the six-hour bus trip to Oaxaca, my companion was a nice physician spouting contradictions. Given his occupation, and because he’s a small, indigenous-looking man from the D.F., I expected more political awareness from him. Medical education in Mexico has long been inexpensive, and in return, doctors have to perform lengthy terms of service in isolated communities. This tends to lead to them being more socially aware – or so I expected.

There are health services or insurance plans for various occupational and social sectors, e.g. government, corporations, the elderly. Others pay their own way. Those who have nothing are covered by the government, which is paying for so much these days – medical, basic food basket, school tuition – that a lot of people can’t be bothered working.

Abortion is legal in the D.F. All kinds of contraceptives are available everywhere. The more popular are implants or patches, some injections, almost no pills. However, women have babies and don’t bother with contraceptives etc. because the gov’t pays for delivery and for raising the child. Fertility rates are dropping, now at just over two. Some schools are closing because of insufficient children; the population pyramid is becoming a rectangle as elders become a larger part of the population.

Some diseases he dealt with in the past have been eliminated by vaccines, e.g. polio, measles, mumps and rubella. There are new ones, like AIDS and diabetes. Malaria and dengue remain. Guillain-Barré is associated w/ influenza immunization.

He likes experimenting w/ hydroculture, organic gardening, composting, vermiculture. He has a pharmacy in his home, and does some consulting when people want a diagnosis. He frequently delivers babies. He & wife have 5 children, youngest 27. All professionals, or almost.


Although I loved the Museo Nacional de Antropología, I was disappointed at the absence of contemporary, urban, mestizo life. That’s what markets are for!

Mercado La Merced is pretty much breathtaking. (Google Mercado La Merced and see images.)

La Merced Market, Mexico City. (2012, July 30). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 04:17, November 13, 2012, from,_Mexico_City&oldid=505004837

On the way in and around are many food stalls w/ tacos and soups and all sorts of delicious things. I did have a great quesadilla con flores de calabaza, and really wished I had guidance and nerve for trying lots of other things. Yesterday a vendor gave me a sample of candied naranja japonesa (mandarin); just wonderful.

Although La Merced is mostly known for its food stalls (it was once the wholesaler for the city), there are also multiple stalls of party favors, gift wrapping, ribbons, garlands, Christmas ornaments, and Xmas chains, confetti-filled eggshells and just a few crepe paper flowers.

Outside the market, around the church of Santo Tomás, are sweets. I walked through that yesterday, but could hardly get through quickly enough. It was thick with bees! A vendor and I agreed they weren’t a danger to humans, as humans are too bitter; they want the sweet. I got a photo on the outskirts, just to remind me.

There are beautiful displays of produce – tomatoes, cucumbers, potatoes, onions, chayotes, avocadoes, corn, oranges, apples, pears, papayas. I asked how they get potatoes so clean; machines do it. There were buckets of jam and something that looked like peanut butter: cajete (caramelized milk and sugar). Almost no produce cost more than $0.75 CAD/kilo. There were stands with bins of spices, chili, mole, herbs, beans, dried corn, raisins, ajonjolí (cranberries) and figs. In some areas, men use large cutting boards to cut the ribs from banana leaves and trim them, making neat bundles. The leaves wrap tamales. In another area, men and women sit on stools scraping the thorns off nopal cactus leaves. (I’ve eaten nopal several times. It reminds me of green beans in color and flavor, but the texture is a bit slimy.) At others, women clean white onions and lmake them into gorgeous bundles. Squash blossoms, ditto.

There were a number of fortune tellers, palm readers, card readers, etc., a lot of people trying to outsmart the present and leap to the future. Men customers were common, as at church. It’s a rough world for men, I’m thinking. There is some sort of odd scheme at the entrance to markets or in plazas, where a man “plays the crowd” and seems to get money from and give money to audience members, perhaps performing some sleight-of-hand, and people are quite fascinated. I haven’t had the nerve.

Another area is of tin ware, cake tins, utensils, stoves, anforas (charcoal burners). The furthest section from the entrance has DVD porn. There were also slot machines where I was refused permission to photograph. I’d say people in retail in Mexico City are understandably cold and distant. I was at the market twice, at mid-morning and later, and both times there were very few customers. Merchants must be pretty desperate, and have little use for visitors who aren’t there to buy anything.

The Mercado Jamaica is much smaller, with several areas for car parking interspersed, both vendors’ and customers’. Pickup trucks come in loaded w/ flowers to wholesale to the many florists and flower arrangers. I can’t imagine the desperate feeling of coming to town and sitting around a truck all day, hoping someone will buy your wares. Almost every florist has something unique, does something a little differently, so they have something to show off. See

The Mercado de Artesanías at the Ciudadela is a typical tourist craft market, w/ a few novelties – colorful macramé belts, elegant bird paintings on bark, great sheet metal masks – but the clerks had no interest in selling to me. As at the camera shop, I felt I was a nuisance. I did buy from the friendly young lady selling net covers to keep flies off food. My favorite place was the Huichol store. There were lots of the figures made of beads in beeswax and jícara (gourd) bowls. The young manager and I exchanged words and phrases in Huichol and English. She told of meanings of symbols: the scorpion stings if you misbehave, the sun, the stars in the sky that protect us. She told a story of the sky falling, of a landslide – not clear to me. She speaks broken Spanish and is studying English. I took a photo of a deer, not of her. It was enchanting. (Google Huichol beadwork, and see images.) (Nihueme Miguel Carrillo Montoya,


In the Iglesia Santo Domingo is the Señor del Rebozo (Lord of the Shawl, a figure of the crucified Christ who received his first rebozo from a dying nun.) There is also an altar to San Martín de Porres. He’s depicted with very dark skin. Who is he? (A mulato y bastard, born in Lima of a Spanish father and black ex-slave mother. He studied to be a surgeon-barber and herbalist. When he became a Dominican, he was not allowed to conduct mass because of his social status. He lived from 1579-1639. (

At the Cathedral briefly, I had to take photos of the ossuary remains of San Vital Mártir, brought here from Italy. Who said only the Aztecs worshipped death?

I’m a bit surprised that, during the day, most individual worshippers are men. This is true for all churches I’ve been in.

Leading up to the Basílica de la Virgen de Guadalupe is a street lined with booths selling food and religious artifacts. An iron fence surrounds the huge, open area with a number of buildings: the old Basilica (which really feels like it’s slipping downhill!), the new and modern Basilica (largely open to the out-of-doors), the Capuchin chapel, and the old Indian church. The new Basilica seemed to have masses going almost all the time, and it was full of people: lots of Mexicans, many Indian-looking, lots of children, many small babies. Israel and Cecilia from Monterrey went there; they’d made a manda (vow) to do so when they were married. The old Basilica was quiet. The Indian chapel had white plastic chairs, and a video was showing. There were images of the Virgin everywhere, and the story of her apparitions to Juan Diego were repeated just as often.

Around the Iglesia de Indios was a lovely little garden, but the most beautiful was the hillside behind – the Cerro del Tepeyac . Water runs down and out the mouths of serpents or jaguars just like those at Teotihuacán. The effort to combine the goddess Tonantzín and the Virgin are relatively explicit. That hillside is groomed lawn, beautiful trees and shrubs, white butterflies clustered on poinsettias, and a large sculpture – the Virgin being worshipped by the bishop, Juan Diego, and many indigenous people, bringing offerings. The water alone is enough to create freshness. I head the most wonderful birdsong at the top of the hill, but it was coming out of loudspeakers on the church! Stairways are daunting for people with limited mobility, but there are many sanitarios.

Altogether, it felt more secular than the Cathedral in Oaxaca. I think by “secular” I mean that it’s all set up for people beforehand; they do nothing to create it themselves. In Oaxaca, they were bringing flowers, brass bands, copal, and clothing. Maybe I mean “manufactured,” but I’m also thinking of “marketed.” David said of the Días de Muertos celebrations that there was nothing that felt contrived; it was people acting out their feelings. This is the opposite.


I am very impressed with the effort and resources Mexicans have put into archeology and museums.

Off the courtyard of Santo Domingo church is the Centro Cultural del México Contemporáneo (CCMC). The México DF museums have much in common with those of Oaxaca. The government obviously put huge resources into these in the 1990s (?), creating gorgeous facilities. They’ve been kept up, and they’re being put to good use.

The CCMC was created by renovating the Dominicans’ cells on both sides of a courtyard, and bridging them with a walkway. The courtyard is under a fabric roof. An altar for Días de Muertos was at the entry, with a good explanation of the necessary elements. On one side were young artists’ mostly 2-dimensional art. On the other was Una vida interna, resin sculptures by Enrique Walbey. They are remarkable nude human figures, of relatively old bodies. What’s amazing about the one that has many figures – probably 100 – March? – is that they’re sexually ambiguous. They have penises and breasts.

The entire first and second floors of the Secretaría de Educación Pública consists of murals by Diego de Rivera. I talked to a woman through the wrought-iron grill to ask if I could take a photo. She invited me in, and spoke of the constant nature of her work, restoring and maintaining the murals. More are in the Palacio Nacional de México I love them because they are such a great depiction of the lives of ordinary people, and he’s so mocking of the rich. He reminds me of Eduardo Galeano, who learned of absurd or quirky events and turned them into history. These are ordinary office buildings; what luck to be there!

The Museo de la Secretaría de Hacienda y Crédito Público, Antiguo Palacio del Arzobispado contains an eclectic art collection made possible by a law that allows art to be given in lieu of income taxes. More of this is in the Palacio Nacional. Remarkable, there, was an exhibit by Colombian Ana Mercedes Hoyos, Oro negro, ca. 1502. It’s about the slave trade. One installation piece is 25 metal 2-dimensional slave ships (in cross section), arranged in the shape of a ship, each modelled on the Brooks.

The Museo de la Medicina Mexicana has several exhibits I wanted to avoid, e.g. on anatomy, foetal development and even botanical medicines. This is also the Antiguo Palacio de la Inquisición. Briefly, it’s a colonial building around two courtyards, as are most others. In an inner courtyard was an exhibit remembering the shooting of students at Tlatelolco in 1968. It consisted of bundles of white shirts and ties which I was just attempting to comprehend when a security guard said, “Está temblando, señora. Tiene que salir.” (It’s shaking, ma’am. You have to leave.) On walls at all the big buildings are evacuation signs – for earthquakes obviously. I’d felt nothing, and the hanging shirts weren’t shifting, so I wasn’t worried. Sirens sounded in the streets, and all of us in the building met in a large courtyard. No concerns, but there was serious damage in Guatemala.

The Museo Memoria y Tolerancia is another impressive museum, five storeys high (exhibits on the top 3), two years old, very modern, with lots of AV effects – sometime too much, hard to distinguish the threads of talk. There were images, recorded material, slides, headphones, particular locations to stand to hear, etc. The first several rooms were dedicated to the European holocaust; I was concerned that might be all it was about. It then occurred to me that, being a country largely of Catholics, anti-semitism may be common and it may not be a topic as frequently discussed as in Canada. However, they also talked about Gypsy and other victims. While there was a tendency to blame it all on Hitler and then on Germans, it was generalized in the end. Many Jewish Mexicans have contributed. There was a description of scientific racism – the use of calipers and color charts in the attempt to assign race, the calculation of blood quantum. A good deal of the material comes from the Steven Spielberg Film and Video Archive.

Broadening out, it covered the massacre of Armenians, of Rwandans, of Bosnians, of Serbian Ustashi in WWII, of Guatemalans. And then it went into the topic of Tolerance, which I would have preferred to replace with interest, admiration, curiosity, but the sentiment was similar, in the end. There was discussion of stereotypes and of discrimination, extending to discrimination against youth, the old, the poor, the handicapped.

There was a video of a reiteration of the black doll – white doll experiment, in which even dark children prefer the white doll. Nicely done, shocking, painful, some of the kids awkward. A few Mexicans were in the museum, few foreigners (little commentary in English, but some!), and school groups.

I was admitted to the Museo de Arte Popular without paying, as I’m a teacher (some museums insist I must be working in Mexico; others don’t), so I went in though I didn’t expect to stay long. It’s got beautiful stuff from all over Mexico – but my camera ran out of batteries, so I’ll have to return. I’d rather like to buy a poster of the Tree of Life for $15, but where will I hang it? At that price, it doesn’t matter. There were only a couple of foreigners looking around there, in addition to a classful of students being told a fantastic story of alebrijes.

Like the other places I’ve been, Mexico defines itself by indigenous food, dances, clothing and arts. Mestizos participate to a certain extent in the first three of these, but less as artisans. That requires almost life-long training in a family, which is not where or by whom Mestizos are raised.

The Memorial del 68 is located in the Centro Cultural Universitario Tlatelolco of the Universidad Autónoma de México. It commemorates the massacre of student demonstrators in October 1968. The museum includes videotaped oral histories by many people only slightly older than I. I wish I could access the recordings to listen at leisure! Contextualizing student protests was really well done – the U.S. Civil Rights movement, Vietnam war, Paris, African independence, Janis Joplin, Jimmy Hendrix, many other things I’ve forgotten. I can’t say the student demands were very well explained, at least not in photographic or text form – but perhaps in the oral histories. I have the first edition of the book by Elena Poniatowska on La noche trágica. Just have to read it!

During the summer of 1968, students occupied the UNAM campus at Tlatelolco. It culminated in a huge demonstration October 2, 1968, when a helicopter flew in, illuminated the area, and snipers picked off 40-400 people. Hundreds were arrested, some of them kept for years. A handful of leaders went into exile to socialist Chile in 1971, but soon returned, when the government stated their absence was “voluntary.” Shortly after the massacre, the Mexico Olympics were inaugurated, with celebrations for the youth of the world.

There were those who criticized the surrender and dissolution of the student movement, but one woman explained that there was no one to go into a demonstration with, no one to continue the strike. That generation of youth was hugely disillusioned with their country and the army, which took up arms against the people.

The window-walls of the Centro Cultural look over Tlatelolco archeological site and a big church just beyond – built using materials from the site.

The Museo Frida Kahlo is in Coyoacán, a lovely neighborhood that reminds me of parts of Santiago de Chile: Providencia, I think. Arriving there on the metro, my first challenge was to cross the street to a modern shopping center with a Starbucks. It was really helpful to have a cup of coffee there (my usual refuge when I’m trying to orient myself!). The Kahlo was about ten blocks away on cool, tree-lined streets. Everyone there was a foreigner, and the art pieces were familiar. One I’d forgotten was Frida’s ashes, inside an urn shaped like a frog or toad, which is how Diego Rivera spoke of himself. It also is oddly reminiscent of public necking– “sucking face” was never more accurate, and there is a lot of licking and smelling each other, inhaling and consuming each other’s essence. Frida’s ashes inside Rivera makes great sense.

The Museo Nacional de Culturas Populares of Coyoacán ( ) had a large exhibit of expressions of thanks to saints – exvotos, usually thank you notes to god or saints. These were composed and illustrated by artists, not serious, but almost. Comical. (There was long a practice, and may still be, of hiring artists to compose illustrations of favors granted to post at the saint`s shrine. The Church often destroyed them, but a movement began to salvage them. Frida Kahlo did them, too.)  ( ) There was a wall piece consisting of 9 or 12 Huichol beaded pieces, like a patchwork quilt. The other exhibit was photographs of Días de Muertos photographs taken all over the country. They’re all the pictures I didn’t take!

There are several important museums at the Bosque Chapultepec, but the  Museo Nacional de Antropología is the only one I saw. I took lots of notes, because I didn’t have a camera! It’s marvellous. ( is a great site, but I’m not sure it’s in English. See videos, too.) I went on a Sunday, when entry is free for Mexicans, to see lots of people and their use of the Museum. It seems to be set up to be navigated counter-clockwise. The first storey consists of rooms dedicated to the archeology of each of the regions of Mexico. On the second storey above each of these (the part I stuck to) is the ethnology section, a space illustrating the current (or recent) customs and practices. MNA has joined the Google Art Project. Clicking on a number of the artifacts seen there allows the museum view, which might provide access to a lot of the printed material. Although it seems most artifacts there are older, there is access to the ethnographic area, though it’s not always clear.

There were loads of families and school kids with their parents; mothers dictated while their kids took notes. Others were reading the English version of information, for practice.

I frequently heard comments like, “That’s how they do it in Jalisco!” Parents told  their children how it was when they or their parents were raised. Then there was, “When we went to see my grandmother, she said. . . “ It felt like a really valuable service, for people to see other parts of their country and recognize other ways of doing things. (I guess Heritage Park or the Grande Prairie Museum have done much the same.) These displays are of current practices, not just the past. A comment common to all culture areas was that, due to economic problems, men have left in large numbers, seeking money and work. (I’d like more detail on that.) Women’s role in agriculture, marketing and as wage earners has expanded.  Communities continue to function as long as migrants send money, come home for fiestas, return for a period to take on their cargos, etc.

In the notes on Puebla, ethnic diversity was mentioned:  totonaco, mazateco, náhuatl, popoloca, mixteco, otomí and tepehua were there prehistorically. They had frequent disputes over land. Then came the Spanish bringing Africans, who created some of their own communities after escaping. In the 1920s, there was a land reform that brought in peasants from around the country and allotted to them some of the indigenous land. What a mish-mash!

The Mam people of Chiapas use communal organization for organic agricultural production of coffee for export. As I’ve argued before, ethnic organization is mobilized for economic purposes.

Crafts that are now often produced for tourists used to be for “autoconsumo” – domestic or community use. Keep in mind that crafts were vital in inter-community exchange; community specialization was what gave them something to sell, something with which to satisfy their own needs or desires. (I wouldn’t be surprised if these often consisted of luxury goods rather than necessities.) Tourists provide a larger market, and perhaps stimulus for the development of greater care and artistry, in some crafts like weaving. In others, maybe less! It helps counteract low raw materials prices. There is a real contradiction in the agricultural sector, I think, between the ideal of national food self-sufficiency and low prices.

The agricultural cycle begins the Día de la Candelaria (Feb. 2) and concludes the Día de Muertos (Nov. 2). Interesting. 9 months. Días de Muertos is a harvest or thanksgiving feast.

I was amazed by the spectacular Templo Mayor two blocks from my hostel. I knew there was an archeological site and excavation in the center of Mexico City, but I did not know how large it was or – more importantly – how much has been recovered (“liberated”, though that usually refers to reconstruction) and how the work continues. It started in earnest in 1978, and has been growing ever since. The excavation area is huge; the museum is world-class. It just celebrated its 25th anniversary, i.e. since 1987. I took so many photos I’m having to start a whole new photo card! For Tenochtitlán, see

Tenochtitlan. (2012, November 4). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 05:18, November 11, 2012, from

Templo Mayor. (2012, September 8). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 05:19, November 11, 2012, from

The trip to Teotihuacán took about 90 minutes from downtown, including an air conditioned bus trip through the suburbs, seeing housing go way uphill – fascinating.

Walking into and around the site was great. It’s the foundations and lower walls of many buildings and countless rooms, and often stairways leading up to them. On a 4-sided structure, stairs only go up one side. Some still have plaster and paint on them, and sculpted stone finishings. It’s not entirely symmetrical and mirror-like; it was added to many times, and modifications did vary, but the proportions are very pleasing. Although the name it`s given in Spanish is Ciudad de los Dioses, the main north-south street is “Camino de los Muertos”. Why? It ends at the Pyramid of the Moon. I loved the sound effects; the sloped walls on either side funnel downward the sound of voices. It must have been really something when there were big crowds! I also love the huge triangular (Toblerone!) step shapes on the sides, the serpents – working partly for drainage, and partly to hold on fill. Rocks protrude from the relatively smooth sloped sides, somewhat at random; they held onto stucco.

It’s not altogether easy to tell what it was like before reconstruction began. One building had been done “in the old style”, filling in features and pieces where they “should” have been, including roof. Aesthetically, it’s nice to feel the size, brightness, cool temperature and décor of rooms, but just as well it’s not practiced now. Then came the kind of restoration in which plaster was applied and small stones added between the big ones, to make reconstruction identifiable. I was thrilled to have conversations with some of the people working in restoration. One was an archeologist who did her master’s in restoration. She and others are reinforcing edges of crumbling stucco with a lime combination; they’re also removing plant material from between rocks and replacing it with masonry. I talked to some other guys working under a blue tarp, and they invited me in to watch and take pictures. They also warned me against standing in the path of ants, with my sandaled feet. They’re from a nearby town.

Teotihuacan. (2012, October 31). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 05:15, November 11, 2012, from

Xochimilco is where one can still see chinampas, the “floating gardens” of the Aztecs. They’re really artificial islands built up of rich lake silt, contained behind fences of sticks and chicken wire so they don’t erode. It is a method used to intensify agricultural production. Now brightly painted flat-bottomed boats are poled through the water; most carry visitors, some carry musicians and sellers of beer and food. I also found a couple of churches – one with a baptism, one a wedding – and the market, for a bowl of delicious ceviche.




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