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A Mexico first for me: yesterday, in order to get from Tlacolula (home of a huge Sunday market) to the small town of San Marcos Tlapazola, we and our friend Jacki took one of the ubiquitous tarp-covered trucks that are a cheaper alternative to taxis. I’ve ridden in Mexican taxis, colectivos, buses, moto-taxis, and–an experience our daughter remembers as one of the highlights of our six months in Oaxaca, and possibly her life–the back of a friend’s pickup truck. These transports are small pickup trucks with a bench running along each side. The rear is slats, which, like the uncovered last couple of feet, allow a view of the countryside one has just passed.
 
The ride was fun. The route to Tlapazola was dusty, and other women covered their mouths and noses with their rebozos, the also-ubiquitous long woven scarves that are used to shield one’s head from the sun or rain, hold babies, carry groceries, keep warm, and who knows what else. I have a beautiful one, but it’s wool and I left it at home on this warm day–foolish gringa! I commented to Indigo, “Otro de los muchos usos de rebozos” (another of the many uses of rebozos). I don’t know how much Spanish the woman closest to us spoke, because she was speaking Zapotec to her friend and Joy noticed later that some of the women in Tlapazola knew little or no Spanish, but she saw us covering our faces with our hands, and offered the end of her rebozo to both of us.
Tlapazola was having a feria de barro rojo, a fair to promote the red-clay pottery that is its particular art form; during the Guelaguetza most of the villages near Oaxaca hold an event like this. The woman with the rebozo had a table, and I bought a little skunk that she’d made, loving its snout and the curve of its tail. A troupe of small children–they couldn’t have been more than 7 or 8, some younger–performed the Danza de las Plumas. Usually it is done by grown men, with huge feathered headdresses; the boys had smaller ones, but wow. (Girls also have a small part in this dance, but don’t apparently get to wear the headdresses or play the clowns who harass the other dancers.) Unfortunately, I can’t upload any of my photos or videos until I get back to the US, but here’s one on YouTube.

They did at least a dozen dances, standing patiently in between dances while a man told the story being acted out by the dance (and explained, every single time, that the group was from a cultural center at Teotitlan del Valle). I loved hearing the story, which was about Moctezuma and the “malos presagios” (bad omens) being told him by his advisers, as unknown people and monstrous beasts arrived on the shore. Lacking the perseverance of the children, I finally got so hungry I had to go get tamales from the food section, and missed the end of the story. I am sure it did not end well for Moctezuma. But it was very cool to hear this story of conquest, colonialization, and the culture that has withstood them, the first time I’ve heard the context for these dances.                                                                     
On the way back to Tlacolula, it was raining, which solved the dust problem. The bumpy road often adds false steps to a pedometer’s reading. This one didn’t add more than a few hundred, but my Fitbit seems to think they were all taken on stairs. It reports that I climbed 43 flights.

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The Virgin of Guadalupe, matron saint of Mexico, had her feast day last week. We were eating in a restaurant known for the view from its rooftop, and heard a parade coming. It was already dark, but I got this picture of swirling skirts in the street below.

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At the time, our main course had not yet been served. We received it and ate it; walked over to the ice cream shop up the street; strolled with our nieves (ices, literally “snows”) to El Llano, the main park in the center of town, where there was a traveling amusement park; walked around, went on a couple of rides and watched a couple more (the mechanical bulls with real steam coming out of their nostrils being a high point); and, as we were leaving, saw the same parade pass by the park. The participants had been going for at least two hours. They looked a bit less peppy now, but they were still marching, playing, and dancing.

We leave tomorrow. I’m going to miss this city so much.

A random assortment of scenes around the city.


I love the Mexican architectural style that puts an open patio at the center of a building. Our daughter takes violin lessons in this one:
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There’s a lot of political graffiti around the city. My favorite is probably “La religión es el opio del pueblo” (“Religion is the opium of the people”), because the way it’s written one can easily read “opio” as “apio,” which would render Marx’s opinion “Religion is the celery of the people.” Only a powerful taboo against spray-painting a church has kept me from sneaking up to it in the dead of night and turning the “o” definitively into an “a.”

Most graffiti isn’t on churches, but unfortunately some is. I must admit the impact of this particular, powerful and somewhat disturbing graphic is magnified by the fact that it’s painted on a Catholic church building:

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Translation: “I abort obligatory motherhood.” I would love to ask the artist which forces, in their view, are most responsible for forcing women into motherhood: social pressure? coerced sex? lack of other options? lack of contraception? Contraception is widely used, Mexican Catholics having as little regard as U.S. Catholics for the church’s opinions on this point, but it’s used much less in rural areas, where the birth rate is double that of urban women. Abortion is illegal in most of Mexico, even if one’s life is at risk. So it’s not easy to avoid motherhood without embracing celibacy. Clearly, this Lucha Libre fighter is having none of it.

This hopeful message is painted a few meters along–“Capitalism and patriarchy will fall together!”:

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That church’s former convent houses the Casa de la Cultura Oaxaqueña (Oaxacan Cultural Center), and the munchkin took art and dance classes there. I sat in this cafe one day to do my Spanish homework while she was in class. This wall says “Life is a work of art”:

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I love this mural on the adjoining wall also:

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If you wish the Christmas machine wouldn’t get cranking so early, take heart: you could live in Oaxaca, where a local supermarket set up this tent-o’-toys in the first few days of September:

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No, it never snows here, but Christmas means snow anyway. The other day I heard Christmas music in the same supermarket. I could tell it was Christmas music even before a recognizable tune came on, which is interesting. The recording with the recognizable tune was a small child singing “Jingle Bells” in Spanish and off-key. I like shopping in the mercados better anyway: collections of stalls, either open-air or gathered under one roof, selling everything from chocolate to cheese to fresh-squeezed juice to stationery.

I have written very little here about the things we’re doing in Oaxaca. In between art, Spanish, and writing projects, there’s lots of time to just be and enjoy this city. I’m going back through our months here to fill in some of the stuff we’ve done.

Only a few weeks after our arrival, we had the terrific experience of getting together with someone we know very well from home. J. is a member of our church, has traveled here with her family before, and if I recall correctly has had a teenager from Oaxaca come stay with her and her family in Palo Alto. In June, she came to Oaxaca on her own and lived with a family here awhile. We asked her for recommendations of places to go that she’d like to see again, and she suggested we meet at the Museum of Philately (MUFI). I’m really glad she did, because I probably would have delayed going there for months, maybe skipped it entirely. I mean, philately? But it’s a lovely museum. The building itself is a treat–like so many buildings in Oaxaca, it’s built around patios and courtyards–and the exhibits were interesting. For example, in connection with the release of a stamp about corn, the museum invited artists to submit pieces about Mexico and corn. Most took the form of a stamp (not actual size, but a good 30 x 60 cm or more, the way the designers of stamps draw their originals) and the themes ranged from transgenic corn, which is an economic and environmental controversy in Mexico, to the corn-husk dolls that are common folk art here.

Then we all went to Café Brújula, also at J’s recommendation, where I drank her hot chocolate and she drank my mocha for quite some time before we realized we’d swapped. I hope the caffeine didn’t keep her up all night. The café is in an indoor shopping center and office building that had an absolutely spectacular arrangement overhead of papel picado, cut paper, for the upcoming Guelaguetza.

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photo by Joy Morgenstern

Spending the day with J. was really special. When I arrived at UUCPA she was three years old; I’ve watched her grow up and into roles like Sunday School teacher and Worship Associate, and to see her negotiating another culture, be shown around by her, and just chat together outside from the context of church and family is like being on a time machine and watching the years whiz by. She’s such an intelligent and independent person–it’s a treat to hang out with her for a while.

And of course, she’s known Mookie since Mookie was a bump in my belly. When I have a long Sunday at church, Mookie often goes over to their house–I call it babysitting and pay J. and her sister, but as far as Mookie’s concerned it’s a playdate at the house with the best climbing tree in the world–and there has never been a time that J. and her family haven’t been in her life. Here the two of them are in the museum courtyard, surrounded by illustrations from children’s books (I never did figure out the stamp connection), and looking uncharacteristically serious.

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photo by Joy Morgenstern

 

Another pastel. One day I opened the door from our kitchen here in Oaxaca, saw this light, and knew I had to try to draw it.

Pastels are tailor-made for one of my challenges, which is to refrain from too much detail and trust that broader strokes, well placed, will convey what is there. I went looking for oil pastels in pencil form (not for this piece, but for another one) and discovered that they do exist but that I’d have to have them shipped to me, which is slow and expensive. Just as well, as they’d be my attempt to do an end run around this limitation of the medium, and thus miss out on its promise as well. (I will buy them when I get home, though. They’re right for some projects.)

I keep thinking this piece isn’t quite done, but I’ve put it on our art wall, a declaration of “done enough.” Call it “patio with orange bucket.”

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Today we went to a huge buffet with accompanying children’s activities: jungle gym, swings, slides, air hockey, and–the highlight for the Munchkin–a real, working, child-powered four-horse merry-go-round. The buffet features over 100 dishes, and three different musical groups take turns entertaining the crowd or serenading a table:  a guitar duo, a mariachi band, and a pop band up on stage.

The decor reflected the imminence of September 16, Mexico’s Día de la Independencia. So did the food: note the green, white and red spaghettis.

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Even the dessert got in on the act. Gelatina is a favorite snack in Oaxaca. I wasn’t tempted, but it went fast.

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There were plenty of desserts to tempt us, though. All three of us had delicious chocolate cake. I was curious what was in this dessert to make the bees love it so much, but didn’t try a slice to find out. Honey, presumably.

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Naturally, people can celebrate their own culture in ways that would be frankly racist if an outsider did it. This leads to some jarring moments, such as seeing this decoration:

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People were also having their pictures taken inside an enormous frame that put a Pancho Villa mustache on them and a black sombrero on their heads. And there was this . . .

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“Cabrones” shows up in my dictionary as “not a nice thing to call someone,” but it’s true that one meaning is “guys.”

So, we tried this and that dish and seconds on the best ones, until I felt like this little guy.

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When it was time to stretch, we walked out on the grounds. Munchkin, of course, had been doing plenty of running and climbing in the indoor playground; now we all needed a break. The grounds are enormous, clearly designed to host weddings and other such events, and also have another playground and a boat for kids to climb on, which Munchkin promptly did. They also had a fountain that reminded me of our trip to Teotihuacan in 2010. The munchkin, then three, had wanted to climb the Pyramid of the Sun. I told her we’d come back when she was older for another chance. Maybe today was it.

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She identified this plant immediately, having learned about it in her summer camp last month. Its name is as lovely as its flowers: Lluvia de estrellas, rain of stars.

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And we went back inside for hours more of sitting (the adults), climbing (Munchkin), and feasting (all of us). We decided to skip dinner tonight.

A couple of weeks ago, Joy went to explore the big Chadraui, one of a supermarket chain around here. A smaller (though by no means small) one is a few blocks from us; the big one is on the other side of town. She came back with marvelous treats, such as real maple syrup and plain Cheerios–we’d only been able to find sweetened ones. The plain ones contain plenty of sugar, too, but something in my parenting sensibilities draws the line at the Honey-Nut variety, and faints dead away at Chocolate Cheerios. Munchkin has been missing her favorite cereal.

Joy described the store to us: “It’s the size of a small moon.” watermelondeathstar3

“That’s no moon,” I quipped nerdily, and so we have called the store the Death Star Chadraui ever since. Today, all three of us went there for the first time. Munchkin was excited. “Are we going to see the Death Star?” she said. At that point I thought we might have gone too far. At this rate, we were going to be in for some serious disappointment when we got there. I was hoping TIE fighters would come spinning out to meet us. “Yeah,” Munchkin said. “All the checkout people ought to be stormtroopers . . . ”

As it turned out, we didn’t see any TIE fighters or stormtroopers, nor was Darth Vader stalking through the dairy section, but we did enjoy ourselves, especially on the moving ramp, a kind of cross between a moving sidewalk and an escalator. The Empire ought to consider installing one of its own. And the store is the size of a small moon. Later, not really thinking about my choice of words, I told Joy that the store was “impressive.” She said, “Most impressive.”

 

(Death Star watermelon by SilverisDead, (c) 2009)

Yesterday, after considerately waiting until 9 or 10 a.m., people in our neighborhood began setting off firecrackers. “Cracker” is not the right word. FireBOOMS. All morning, we had this series of sounds:

Eeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee BOOM AAAAAAH!

Eeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee BOOM AAAAAAH!

Eeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee BOOM AAAAAAH!

Eeeeee as a bomb rose, BOOM as it went off, and then the Munchkin’s scream.

I said, “Is August 28 some kind of holiday we don’t know about?” and Joy said, realistically, “Probably.” There are a lot of holidays here. I’ve speculated many times that I could learn comprehensive Mexican history just by looking up the dates after which streets are named. What did happen on February 6, January 20, etc., that they should be honored in this way?

I haven’t seen a Calle 28 de agosto, so maybe it was a saint’s day? It’s always someone’s saint’s day, in fact many someones’. And sure enough, on the walk home from dinner out with a friend, we saw a parade coming our way. It was clearly religious, so at first we thought, “Funeral,” but at night? It seemed unlikely. The people were singing and carrying cross-topped banners, and one bier of flowers. The holy person portrayed in the banner on the bier looked like any old white European man with a beard, so we wouldn’t have been any wiser, except that another banner read “San Augustin vive para siempre (Saint Augustine lives forever). It turns out that August 28 is the saint day of Augustine of Hippo, a very important person in the history of the church. It’s interesting to note that he was neither white nor European, but a Berber, which means he probably looked a lot like the people who were marching and singing in the parade.

Moving along finishing some pieces. These two little critters have been almost-done for several weeks. The cat is 5″ long, the armadillo 4″, not counting their tails.IMG_7236IMG_7237

Heaven knows we aren’t going to have room in our suitcases even for the things we’ve made and bought, but I think we need to buy more unpainted alebrijes to bring home. We’re already thinking, “Alebrijes-painting party!”–for the munchkin’s next birthday if she wants, sure, but also for grownup friends.

I’ve finished the building phase of two ceramics pieces, both coil built. Eventually they’ll be fired and ready for the next phase.

Vase with roots (approx 10″ high, 4″ at widest point):

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Walls of Oaxaca (approx. 6″ high, 10″ wide):

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