The New World Mexican Women of Tecalpulco, Mexico

Reviewed by Rita Pomade

The New World Mexican Women 
is a different kind of book. It provides step-by-step instructions on how to make beautiful earrings, necklaces, bracelets and rings in high quality Mexican silver, pewter, and copper. But it is also a collection of letters and soliloquys. And it is a catalogue for those interested in purchasing, rather than making, jewelry.New World Women is a native women artisan group in Tecalpulco, Guerrero who decided to form a production cooperative. These skilled artisans are the original designers and producers, creating beautiful jewelry. Theirs is a cottage industry with a goal of perpetuating the region’s craft tradition and creating a source of work that can keep their people at home — an alternative to migrating to urban centers or to the U.S. These enterprising women utilize modern means of communication. They communicate through their web page and via romantic novelasserialized on blogs.  They write e-mail, post videos on YouTube, and have published an unusual book: The New World Mexican Women Workbook: How to Make Your Own Traditional Mexican Jewelry

Apart from a craftsperson’s handbook, this is a touching and deeply personal sociological study on loneliness, longing, and sacrifice. The women who have participated in the making of this book have a parent, aunt, uncle or father who has jumped the border in search of opportunity and a better quality of life for themselves and for the families they’ve left behind. Many never return. The families never know who may or may not come back. But they are sustained by hope and the sense of community that this cooperative has forged. If the co-op brings jobs and financial opportunity to the area, perhaps the exiles will return.

The material has been assembled in a way that makes it accessible to anyone. Good-sized photographs with clear instructions accompany each piece of jewelry. What is needed in each kit is clearly labeled with its accompanying photograph. It’s impossible to get lost in placing an order. Yet, within this well defined parameter, there is room for more creative expression. Tools are minimal and some items require no tools. With a round-nosed pliers, cutter pliers, flux, a small head hammer, and a small anvil, anything in the catalogue can be made. For the novice there are excellent photographs identifying these objects.

The metals available are in .925 (sterling) silver, fine pewter, copper, and liquid silver. No nickel, lead, cadmium, or zinc is used. You can order natural stones such as turquoise, jasper, and opal as well as composite stones made from resin and pigments. And of course, all the findings and wire are available, many included in the kits. In accessories there are fine pewter charms, chaquira beads in many hues, stone mosaic beads in a variety of shapes and colors, and much more. For the more adventurous, you can put together your own kits.

These pre-cut pieces and kits are assembled by the Rural Women’s Artisans Cooperative of Tecalpulco. They are women who live in or near Taxco in the state of Guerrero, an area known world-wide for its high quality silver and fine craftsmanship in jewelry making. In recent years, this tradition of fine craftsmanship has been dying out due to artisans being forced to work at unsustainable wages. Don Marcial Chavez Embria, the master original-model maker for William Spratling, the father of the world-famous modern silver jewelry industry of Taxco, has been training these women in order to keep this tradition alive.

The mines from which the silver is taken are located in the area, and mining is done on a small scale. The miners use environmentally responsible technologies and measures are taken to protect their health. Because this is Fair Trade Silver, ordering from the cooperative helps to provide a dignified standard of living for these woman and children, one that may eventually stem the flow of migration to the United States by improving the quality of life at home.

This is the dream of the women in this cooperative. They miss their loved ones terribly. Many of the children have rarely seen their fathers and pray for their safe return. There are letters that are interwoven into this catalogue. They are translated from the original letters that these women have sent to the loved ones in their lives. They are poignant and bring home viscerally the heartbreak that this separation brings.

The New World Mexican Women Workbook can be ordered online. You can learn more about the cooperative on their website — it’s packed with information. Should you not want to make your own jewelry, take the time to order one of the exquisite pieces made by one of the women in the cooperative. In exchange for a beautifully hand-crafted work of art, you will enable a community to move one step closer to the fulfilling of a dream.




Carlos Slim, Master of Mexico’s Digital Future?

Carlos Slim Helu

Mexican magnate Carlos Slim has an ambitious new year’s resolution. He wants to fold two of his major telephone companies — Telmex and Telmex Internacional — into his major international cellphone company, America Movil, in order to cut down on costs. The plan is already rankling analysts and regulatorswhose job is to keep a tycoon of Slim’s caliber somewhat in check. The Mexico City native is known as one of the top-top wealthiest individuals in the world. Right now, his rank at Forbes is third. Often, he is first.

Consolidating those companies won’t be easy for Slim. Already, competitors are gearing up for battle. So Slim, brilliant business strategist that he is, offered the people a festively packaged gift today. Just because.

At a sleek press conference inside his Telmex Institute in Mexico City’s historic downtown, Slim and several of his top corporate deputies announced a $10 billion-peso three-year investment plan to radically update Mexico’s “digital culture.” A separate multi-million-dollar initiative to fund genome research came on Tuesday.

The idea, Slim said, is to make Mexico more competitive in the abstract “human capital” sense with other ascendant economies — such as Brazil — whose successes in innovation have so far eluded his own country. Slim said his Telmex will:

A) Increase access to high-speed Internet across Mexico.

B) Open “digital libraries” where customers could check out laptops.

C) Expand Telmex data centers and “digital scholarships.”

D) Open an accredited Information Technology Institute to train 1,000 new professionals to find real-world solutions for the private sector.

E) Expand wireless Internet services to hundreds of schools, hospitals, bus terminals, airports, and restaurant chains.

Details were otherwise vague, and only time will tell how much of the initiative is actually delivered. So upon taking questions, Slim was pressed by Reuters about the America Movil plan. He said consolidation would not result in bundling of fixed and cellphone lines for Mexican consumers, then quipped: “We are in 18 countries and in 17 of them we have no legal problems.” The reference was to Mexican regulators who aggressively pursue his assets — unequally, some analysts say.

In person, even upon a podium, Slim seems like a no-nonsense sort of businessman, astute but not uptight, even-minded but not close-minded. Another analogy came to me as I watched him: “Like the sort of guy you wouldn’t mind having a beer with.”

Then again, they used to say the same thing about George W. Bush.

Attempting to merely fathom the reaches of this man’s wealth is disconcerting, especially in Mexico, where so many millions of people are so poor. Besides his dominance in the telecommunications market across Latin America, Slim has his hands deep in global retail, real estate, banking, air travel, and media.

Freakier still is his attitude on the matter. Slim oncebristled at reporters, “I think it’s perverse to believe that there shouldn’t be strong companies in poor countries.” For more on that, last year’s lengthy New Yorker profile on Slim is helpfully summarized here.

On Wednesday, Slim spoke grandly about the “end” of “agricultural economies” and the need for economies of “ideas,” the end of “monolithic power” and the need to embrace a new age of “competition and globalization.” Slim indeed pumps millions every year into infrastructure, development, and philanthropy. But it’s evident that in every move he makes, the goal is not about positive publicity, being a good citizen, or even being a good Mexican.

Step by step, the expansion and care of Carlos Slim’s empire is about little else than … Carlos Slim’s bottom line.


* Image above via Wikipedia.



Mexico – Culture

Ancient Mexico and Central America were home to some of the earliest and most advanced civilizations in the western hemisphere. 

This region is known historically as Mesoamerica, a term that refers to the geographic area and cultural traditions of the pre-Columbian civilizations of Mexico, Belize, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua. Maya civilization flourished in southern Mexico and Central America between AD 250 and 900, a time known as the Classic period. 

The Maya built large religious centers that included ball courts, homes, and temples, and developed a method of hieroglyphic notation. Chronology among the Maya was determined by an elaborate calendar system. Although highly complex, this calendar was the most accurate known to humans until the introduction of the Gregorian calendar in the 16th century.

The Root of Mexican Culture

About AD 900, the Maya centers were mysteriously abandoned, and some Maya migrated to the Yucatán Peninsula. During the Postclassic period, from 900 to the arrival of the Spanish in the 16th century, Maya civilization was centered in the Yucatán. A migration or invasion from central Mexico strongly influenced Maya culture and art styles during this period. Chichén Itzá and Mayapán were prominent cities. 

The Toltecs rose to power in the 10th century AD and are the first people in Mesoamerica to leave a relatively complete history. Their capital of Tula, whose ruins are located near the town of Tula de Allende 75 km (47 mi) north of Mexico City, extended its political influence over much of central Mexico. Other groups paid them tribute. The Nahuatl-speaking Toltecs established colonies along their northern frontier, protecting the region against hostile groups and greatly expanding the amount of land given over to agriculture. In the 12th century droughts in the north central region weakened the Toltec hold on the region. Desperate and starving people from the north surged southward, eventually overwhelming the Toltecs and forcing them to abandon Tula. Toltec survivors migrated south to the Valley of Mexico, where they joined with other peoples. 

Not all Native American groups reached the complex levels of culture achieved by those of southern and central Mexico. In general, as one moved northward the indigenous peoples tended to be more tribal and nomadic, with exceptions such as the Pueblo in what is now the southwestern United States. Native Americans in northern Mesoamerica, typically warlike and nomadic, could not be easily conquered and resisted intruders until well into the 19th century in some areas. 

Throughout most of Mexico’s history, beginning with the colonial period, education was the task of the Catholic Church. After independence, Mexicans were concerned about the church imposing its values and beliefs on the population and started a public educational system. Mexico has improved its literacy rate through public education programs, but rapid population growth has made it more difficult to reduce the absolute number of Mexicans who cannot read or write. 

Mexican culture is a fascinating blend of Native American traditions and Spanish colonial influences. Long before the Spaniards arrived in the 16th century, the indigenous civilizations of Mexico had developed arts such as ceramics, music, poetry, sculpture, and weaving. After the conquest, the intricate designs and bright colors of many Native American arts were often mixed with European techniques and religious themes to create a hybrid and uniquely Mexican artistic style. Numerous churches constructed during the colonial era reflect the blending of Spanish architectural designs with the handiwork of Native American workers who built and decorated the buildings. Many of Mexico’s most popular modern crafts-such as textiles, pottery, and furniture making-borrow designs and techniques from Native American culture. Mexican painting and music have also been shaped by this heritage. 

Mexico has produced numerous writers, essayists, and poets of international renown, including Octavio Paz, who in 1990 became the first Mexican to receive the Nobel Prize in literature. Carlos Fuentes is another Mexican writer whose fiction is widely read in Europe and the United States. He often writes about social issues in contemporary Mexico, but his best-known work deals with the decades that followed the Mexican Revolution. 

Mexican arts, with the exception of folk arts, generally followed European patterns during the colonial period and the 19th century. The Mexican Revolution was instrumental in fostering a new sense of nationalism and experimentation

Mexican popular music, in the form of ballads and sidewalk performances, has contributed significantly to popular music in the United States. Examples include "La Bamba," a Mexican folk song that was recorded in a rock-and-roll style by American singer Ritchie Valens in 1959, and the work of the Tijuana Brass in the 1960s and 1970s.



Mamey fruit: Mexico’s sweet winter treat

Mamey on display in a Mexican market

Mamey fruit

The two little girls were standing at the side of the winding mountain road, surrounded by plastic buckets of something whose shape we could barely distinguish in the fading daylight. Trying to get to the next town before darkness set in, we nevertheless stopped to ask what they were selling. "Mamey" was the answer, as they pointed to the large, oval objects in the buckets, looking more like small footballs than fruit.

We had started out from Veracruz in the late afternoon and were driving through the tropical highlands toward the Sierra of Puebla. We had chosen a secondary road to see more of the countryside, and were about to discover a new and intriguing flavor. We now know that the month of February, when we made that drive twenty-something years ago, is the beginning of mamey season, and we would soon see piles of them in our local market.

Eager for something new to try, we bought a bucket of four or five pieces of fruit, which one of the girls emptied into a plastic bag. Once settled in a hotel room for the night, we peeled away the mamey’s rough, brown skin and cut into the orangey red pulp. The delicate, distinctive flavor was difficult to describe, but both my husband and I tried. Sweet potato, pumpkin, peach and even cherry flavors were some of the comparisons we made, but none of them were satisfactory. The taste of mamey, hard as it is to pin down, is a wintertime pleasure in Mexico.

Mamey, or Pouteria sapota, is native to tropical areas of Mexico and Central America. It is in the same botanical family, sapotaceae, as the zapote, another popular winter fruit. In fact, it is often called mamey zapote or zapote colorado.(It should not be confused with the Mammea americana, a fruit indigenous to Chiapas and Guatemala, also known as an "Antilles apricot," smaller, rounder, with a darker skin and less sweet taste.)

A typical mamey can weigh anything from a quarter to more than a half pound, with a large, lustrous black pit, or hueso, accounting for about ten percent of its weight. The skin of the pit peels away to reveal a yellow kernel underneath, the fruit’s seed, which can easily be split in half lengthwise and carries a faint aroma of almonds.

The olfactory connection to almonds is due to the presence of cyanide, common in several kinds of fruit pits, although any toxicity is removed by boiling. In the region where we first encountered those roadside mameys, the pit is called pixtli and is boiled with herbs, smoked over a wood fire, and used to flavor mole. A fascinating description of how the pixtli is treated for use as an ingredient inenchiladas de pixtli is given by Diana Kennedy in My Mexico. (According to Mexican folk medicine, the grated pit also cures thinning hair, causing it to grow thick and curly, and the ashes of a roasted mamey pit heal sores.)

The mamey pit was used by the Aztecs in making chocolate drinks and is used today in Oaxaca in making tejate, the foamy cacao drink served at markets and fairs. This ancient beverage has not changed much since pre-Hispanic times, except that today it is sweet instead of chile flavored.

Aside from this intriguing culinary use of the pit, it is the flesh of the mamey that is used most frequently in Mexican kitchens. Its flavor and consistency (not too juicy, with an almost buttery texture) blend well with milk. When in season, mamey is a popular choice for licuados and ice cream. It also makes a delicious mousse and is a good choice for using in cake, cupcake, and muffin batter.

Mamey is a good choice nutritionally, with significant amounts of vitamins C, A and B6, and is a good source of iron, riboflavin, magnesium and copper.

When shopping for mameys, look for fruit that is firm or only slightly soft. Vendors will usually nick the fruit near the stem end to expose its color, which should be orange red and not green. Often the vendors will cut the fruit into a tulip shape to display its interior flesh. Mamey should be stored at room temperature, but if the fruit is softening before it will be used, it can be kept in the refrigerator for up to three days.

Mamey is usually available in Mexican markets during late winter and early spring. It is cultivated in Mexico, Central America, the Caribbean islands and Florida. Outside those areas, mamey pulp can often be found frozen in Hispanic markets. To use it, simply thaw and follow recipe directions using the same quantity called for in the recipe.

Do not cook with the mamey pits sold in bags at the medicinal herb stalls in the markets. These have not been boiled and cured, and are meant to be grated and added to shampoo. The cured pits used in cooking are sliced and strung together into collares ("necklaces") and sold in the markets in the Sierra of Puebla.

Slice mamey and eat it alone or in fruit salads, or try one of the following recipes for milkshakes and desserts. I always try to find a savory use for fruit, and the mamey sauce recipe below works with pork in the same way that guava and apricot do. Any way you use it, mamey brings a sweet taste of the tropics to winter menus.



La China Poblana

By Mark D. Lacy

La China Poblana has a special place in the hearts of Mexican people who revere Puebla, ranking just below Mexico’s freedom and above delicious food as a symbol of Puebla’s proud history. Puebla is know to the world as the city where Mexico defeated the French on May 5, 1862 to eventually win its second independence. For Mexican people, Puebla is known as a great place to enjoy delicious varieties of mole poblano (sauces made with chocolate and spices usually poured over chicken) and chiles enogada, (poblano peppers that are covered with red and white sauces to resemble the flag of Mexico).

But for people all over Mexico and audiences throughout the world, the tradition of La China Poblana is seen on the brightly embroidered ballet folklorico dress style from Puebla, thought to be Chinese in its influence.

La China Poblana, an Asian woman who lived in Puebla, came to Mexico in 1620 as a servant and left her mark on the traditions of the Spanish colonial region with her clothing.

The girl who came to Mexico in the early seventeenth century was probably sold into servitude by traders in the port of Acapulco. She is believed to have been captured by South Seas pirates when she was nine. Evidence indicates she was named Mirrha and came from India, through Spanish controlled ports in the Philippines.

Mirrha (La China Poblana) is believed to have been bought by Miguel de Sosa, who baptized the eleven-year-old "Chinese girl" and gave her the Christian name Catarina de San Juan. After Sosa and his wife died, Catarina married Domingo Suárez, the Chinese servant of a local priest, adding to the legend that she was Chinese.

The dress style now known as China Poblana, a white blouse and colorful embroidered red and green shirt, has evolved to include the national symbols of Mexico – an eagle clutching a snake, and prickly pair cactus. A woman who wears the dress usually braids her hair on two sides, tied with red, white and green ribbons.

Some Mexican people attribute the style to the indigenous people of the region, believing they wore a dress style that resembled a Chinese dress, while most others believe the style developed from the "Chinese girl" who was a servant in Puebla. They say it is widely known and handed down through local tradition that the people admired the girl, La China Poblana, for her generosity and exotic beauty, and they honored her by wearing her dress style.

Catarina de San Juan (1609-1688) is believed buried at he Templo de la Compañia. The Museo Casa del Alfeñique exhibits China Poblana costumes and a local restaurant is named Las Chinas de Puebla. There is also a monument to La China Poblana at the intersection of Boulevard Heroes del 5 de Mayo and Avenida Defensores de La Republica.


The rich wood carving tradition in Oaxaca, Mexico

Alvin Starkman  M.A., LL.B. 
Try searching the Americas to find creators of folk art with more form, symbolism and importance to the development and sustenance of their culture, than those of indigenous ancestry in Oaxaca (wa–HAW–ka), one of the southernmost Mexican states.

Many so-called experts in folk art have mistakenly written that the origins of Oaxaca’s wood carving tradition date back fifty or sixty years, to a small number of carvers residing in one of the central valleys of Oaxaca, a few miles from the state capital of the same name.  The error has consistently been equating the recent commercialization of the art-form with its origins, and ignoring its pre-Hispanic roots and subsequent development.

wood1Jacobo Ángeles lives with his wife María and two children in San Martín Tilcajete, one of three main native Zapotec villages, where most residents earn a living from carving and painting colorful figures, often generically referred to as alebrijes.  The others are Arrazola and La Unión Tejalapan.

At age 12 Jacobo began learning to carve from his father.  Later on he was mentored by village elders.  “Over the past few decades our craft has without a doubt changed dramatically,” Jacobo explains, “with the use of more synthetic paints, a tremendous increase in the range of figures being carved, and with domestic and international demand for our carvings growing exponentially and affecting how and what we produce.  But remember, my ancestors were carving animals right here in this region before the Spanish arrived in the 1500’s.  And we were using only natural paint colors which we derived from fruits and vegetables, plants and tree bark, clay, and even insects.  In my family we still use what we find around us to make paint for our figures, and our wood of choice continues to be the branches of the copal tree.”

San Martín Tilcajete is located about a 40 minute drive from the city of Oaxaca, along a highway leading to the state’s Pacific resort towns, including one of the oldest ports, Puerto Escondido.  Puerto Escondido was a hub for the export of coffee and other cash crops during colonial times, but is now a popular beach destination for Mexican and international vacationers alike.  Many travelers combine their sun and sand vacation with a visit to Oaxaca, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, searching out unique pieces of folk art including dance masks, pottery and clay figures, rugs and tapestries, and antiques from the colonial period forward.  And of course there are the pre-Hispanic ruins, galleries, impressive Dominican churches, museums, and renowned Oaxacan cuisine.

“My ancestors used a 20-day calendar,” Jacobo continues, “and each day was represented by a different creature.  So every Zapotec person had an animal with whom he had a connection, and each animal had certain characteristics which carried over to the individual.  For example, the jaguar represents power and ultimate strength, the frog is characterized by honesty and openness, the coyote watchful observation, the turtle always a troublemaker prone to breaking the rules, the eagle technical and strategic power, and so on.  My people used to carve figures of just these 20 animals.  They started out as small whittlings for good luck that people would keep in a revered niche in the home, or wear around the neck as amulets.  They also carved larger figures for their children to use as toys.”

After much probing, an almost forgotten story emerges of the use of decoys of wood and other materials.   Jacobo reveals:  “My people used a variety of methods to attract different kinds of game, but for hunting birds of prey, rabbits, and deer, yes they at times used decoys.  A painted wooden snake would be placed on the ground in an area where ants had trampled the grasses so the snake decoy would easily be seen by eagles.  To hunt rabbit, my ancestors would attach a rabbit tail to one end of a straw hat, and at the other end another tail with a face painted on it.  For deer, a crude wooden deer torso with real antlers would be placed in the tall brush.  So carving was historically important to our people for not only totemic and related reasons, but it was directly related to our subsistence.  All the written records from the period of the conquest, and not just local legend, confirm the importance of woodcarving.”

“But look at what we now carve.  While in my family we still use natural paints, and still carve our totems, we’ve transformed a simple yet important and symbolic tradition into something very different.  In our villages we now carve many more than those 20 animals because of collector demand.  More importantly, we’re able to make our heritage better understood and appreciated by the world.  In our own workshop, our painting depicts designs and representations of our culture … friezes from the ancient ruin at Mitla, symbols representing waves, mountains and fertility, the totems, and other metaphors for our culture, past and present.”

Indeed the world has taken notice.   Jacobo’s work is prominently displayed in The Smithsonian Institute, Chicago’s National Museum of Mexican Art, and elsewhere throughout the continent and further abroad, in museums, art colleges and galleries.  Jacobo regularly traverses the U.S. promoting Oaxacan folk art and his Zapotec heritage, teaching in a diversity of educational venues ranging from junior schools to university departments of fine art, and as honored speaker at art exhibition openings.


A visit to the Ángeles workshop, accessed by a heavily pot-holed narrow dirt road towards one end of the village, affords an opportunity to learn about this extraordinary skill-set, from Jacobo, Maria — an excellent painter in her own right — and some two dozen other members of their family who produce some of the finest quality carvings found anywhere on the continent.

The men do most of the carving, while women do most of the painting, but the tasks are definitely not exclusively based on gender lines. Carving is done with non – mechanical hand-tools such as machetes, chisels and knives.  The only time a more sophisticated tool is used is when a chain saw is employed to cut off a branch and level a base for a proposed figure.

Except when a special order is received, the woodworkers in the family are given artistic license to carve whatever figure they wish.  A piece of tree trunk will “speak” to one of these specialists, and be the inspiration for creating a particular animal: the shape, thickness, and bends and twists in the piece come alive.  After the bark is removed, a detailed outline is drawn, defining the image with greater clarity and detail.  The sculpting in earnest then begins.

“From the female copal tree we are able to make figures out of one piece of wood, often very large and intricate.  This wood is soft and easy to work with.  The male tree is harder, and branches tend to be smaller and somewhat delicate, so we use it to make animals which we assemble in the process.”

The carving alone takes up to a month, at times longer.  The figure is then left to dry for up to 10 months, depending on its overall size and thickness.  Because of the properties of copal, and Oaxaca’s semi-tropical climate, the wood is susceptible to termite infestation.  Accordingly, during the drying process the piece is soaked in a gasoline / insecticide mixture for several hours.  As an added assurance, it’s then placed in an oven, just in case eggs have evaded extermination.  “All of our pieces are guaranteed to never have a termite [powder post beetle] problem,” Jacobo assures.

Since the figures are fashioned while the wood is green and more easily workable, the wood separates while drying. “There are a couple of members of my family whose main job is to fill the cracks before the painting begins.”  For this remedial work they use wood shims as well as a sawdust-glue mixture.  But even these slivers of wood and the sawdust have been cured.  “We’re proud of our work, and never want to have any problems with any of our buyers, whether someone is spending $20 or $2,000.”

In almost all cases in the Ángeles workshop, one person carves and another paints.  Once a figure has left the hands of the carver, all proprietary rights are released, and another member of the family is entrusted with the painting.  Nephew Magdaleno explains:  “Occasionally one of my cousins will come up to me and say ‘what do you think about these colors or this kind of design concept for this coyote,’ and I’ll give my feedback, but it doesn’t happen very often, and I’m invariably pleased with the result.  For me it’s the form that’s most important, and for whoever’s painting, it’s the imagery it captures.”

One cannot help but gasp at the sculpting genius which goes into each piece:  A starving dog scratching fleas, a bear with its paw in a honey pot, a snake constricting a wincing jaguar, a winged horse on its hinds, a woman with long braided locks and the body of an armadillo, or a deer, life-size by Mexican standards.  There’s something particularly arresting about each creation: the ever-so-flowing and realistic movement, a fanciful stance, or a familiar pose striking a chord with our popular characterization.  However the painting is anything but familiar.  No color goes untested and the intricacy of and variation in design is remarkable.

Theories abound regarding the beginning of the modern-day manifestation of the tradition.  Some say that because hallucinogenic mushrooms are native to this part of Mexico, drug induced revelations caused the imaginations of some to wander, ultimately becoming expressed in their carvings.  The better explanation is that knowledge of colorful, large, papier maché alebrijes or dragon-like forms which originated in the State of Mexico, eventually filtered down to Oaxaca, and were the inspiration for the fathers of contemporary painted wooden carvings.  “You know, it’s not accurate to refer to what we create as alebrijes, because to the older generation of Mexicans, and to true folk art collectors, alebrijes were developed near D.F. (Distrito Federal, or Mexico City, the nation’s capital), and what we do is completely different.”

Jacobo demonstrates how his ancestors created natural paints, historically utilized for dying clothing, paintingwood3 buildings, and ceremonially as face and body decoration used for rites of passage, fiestas, prayer and other important occasions.  Today their primary use, at least in Jacobo’s family, is for painting the carvings.  He explains with the assistance of his machete and a tree trunk how he cuts away the reddish inside part of the bark of the male copal, allows it to dry, then toasts and grinds it:  “This is a primary base that we use, which allows us to create a range of colors, tones and shades. Just watch.”

Using his hands as palettes, Jacobo begins by placing a small amount of the powdered bark in one hand, squeezes juice from a lime, creating a brown, which he then places on an unpainted wooden owl.  “Yes the owl is also one of our sacred creatures, the great healer, quiet and humble.”  He reveals:  “Now over time, and in the sun, this color will change or fade and be absorbed into the wood.  So what our ancestors learned to do was take the dried sap from the copal tree and heat it up with honey.  The resulting liquid is then mixed with the paint, changing the color a little; see, it becomes a deep orange … but most importantly it acts as a mordent making the color permanent, and a little shiny.” He adds powdered limestone, and the color changes to black.  With the addition of baking soda and more lime juice it becomes a deep yellow, and with more chemical it miraculously becomes magenta.  A new base is then started, with crushed pomegranate seeds.  Magically the pulverized pink is transformed into green with the addition of limestone powder. Mixed with the magenta, it becomes navy blue. With the addition of zinc it becomes grey, and with more zinc, white.  Blue from the añil tree, indigo, is altered with the addition of bicarbonate, zinc, lime juice or the powdered lime mineral.  Corn mold, a black gooey culinary delicacy known as huitlacoche, when fermented and then powdered, yields ochre.  The red of the dried and then crushed minute insect, the cochineal, which feeds off its host nopal cactus, becomes orange with the addition of the juice of any of a number of acidic fruits.

The demonstration terminates with Jacobo asking, “what´s your favorite animal,” following which he finger paints a rabbit from the rainbow of colors on his palms, as only Alice could have imagined.


With approximately 150 families now producing painted wooden figures in these and a couple of other smaller villages, the questions left unanswered remain:  What facilitated and drove more carvers to adopt the papier maché style of using brilliant color combinations, and how can everyone in these villages make a living from this solitary art-form?

As with other crafts in the central valleys of Oaxaca, their production wasn’t always the primary means of sustenance for the populace.  Traditionally, handicrafts were a hobby or part-time trade, beginning with very few items being sold to the odd passerby, adventurer or traveler.  In the case of rugs from nearby Teotitlán del Valle, there were trade routes that producers followed in order to effect more sales in other regions of the state, and in some cases beyond.  But the primary means of family survival was working the land and small-scale ranching.  And in the case of the carving villages, there never was a broader market, although in San Martín Tilcajete embroidered shirts, blouses and dresses were an extremely well-received craft throughout the 1960’s and into the 80’s.

Dramatic change in production and marketing of wooden carvings had its genesis in the 1940’s.  The pan-American highway cut through the Sierra Madre del Sur mountains, reaching Oaxaca, opening up the region to the north, in particular Mexico City and the border states.  Until then Oaxaca was relatively isolated notwithstanding a rail connection. By the 1950’s and early 60’s Americans and Canadians were prospering from the post-war boom, credit cards had been mailed to virtually everyone, and word spread of a new kind of vacation, in a third world country, Mexico.  Jet air travel facilitated the transformation.  The women’s movement meant more two income families, resulting in more disposable income for traveling.  Mexicana Airlines and Oaxacan travel agents partnered to begin offering tour packages, which further facilitated tourism to the region.

The hippie movement of the 1960’s and early 70’s brought Oaxaca to the forefront of the alternative lifestyle, with throngs of youth and their pop idols traveling to Huautla de Jiménez, then a tiny Oaxacan village, to eat hallucinogenic mushrooms with the now infamous healer María Sabina.  North American youth saw and purchased the first generation of contemporary wood carvings.

By the 1980’s, as a consequence of multiple factors, Oaxacan alebrijes had become well-established as folk art, with the market continuing to grow. The economic implication was that farmers and ranchers were able to spend more time carving and painting, and less time in the countryside and in marketplaces vending their produce and animals.   With a new toll-road opening from Mexico City to Oaxaca in 1995, access to the southern state became even quicker and easier, and safe. In good conscience, travel writers were no longer able to warn tourists about driving the switchbacks, back-road banditos, or cars overheating on secondary roads without service stations.

The future market for the artistry?   While the odd visitor to a Oaxacan coastal resort such as Puerto Escondido, or the more popular Huatulco, does visit the state capital and the workshops of carvers like Jacobo, most do not.  Within the next four years a new highway to the coast will open, cutting road travel time by at least a third.  Even more sun worshipers will visit Oaxaca, and marvel at the art of Jacobo and María Ángeles.

Since opening their family workshop in 1996, without a doubt Jacobo and María have singularly raised the quality bar for other villagers who aspire to mirror their success.  With Oaxacan wood carvings of superior quality now well established on the world stage, and access no longer an impediment, the challenge for others in San Martín Tilcajete will be to achieve the success of the Ángeles family through production of like quality, until now eluding most.

A challenge for all carvers in the region is to ensure a continuous supply of copal to meet demand.  A reforestation project spear-headed about 15 years ago by the late master of contemporary Mexican art, Rodolfo Morales, continues through his Foundation.  The Ángeles family with friends and other villagers spend the last Sunday of each July, in the midst of the rainy season, planting, a part of their sustainable living effort:  ensuring an ongoing supply of raw product, cutting only branches for making figures so that the tree continues to grow, reducing waste by utilizing the slivers and sawdust in repair work and any remaining twigs and branches as firewood for cooking, and using the sap and bark in paint production.  “And you know,” Jacobo reminds, “for generations we’ve been using the hardened sap as incense, mainly at religious cememonies.  There are even knifemakers down the road in Ocotlán, who engrave their hand-forged blades using a special ink made with the sap.  Have you visited the cuchillería of Ángel Aguilar?”

For high end collectors, we can only encourage the success of all efforts aimed at maintaining the growth and development of the Oaxacan woodcarving tradition, since it satisfies and advances our penchant for and obsession with quality hand-fashioned craftsmanship.  For the artisans in the region, aside from the obvious economic importance, it’s part of maintaining their Zapotec heritage and illustrating the richness of the culture to the broader world.

The workshop of Jacobo and María Ángeles is located at Calle Olvido #9, San Martín Tilcajete, Ocotlán, Oaxaca  ( t:   951-524-9047 ;  w:  ;  e: ).

Alvin Starkman together with wife Arlene operates Casa Machaya Oaxaca Bed & Breakfast ( ).  Alvin received his masters in social anthropology in 1978, and his law degree in 1984.  Thereafter he was a litigator in Toronto until taking early retirement.  He and his family were frequent visitors to Oaxaca between 1991 and when they became permanent residents in 2004. Alvin writes about life and cultural traditions in Oaxaca, tours couples, families and small groups to the craft villages, ruins, colonial churches and more off-the-beaten-track destinations in Oaxaca state, and is a special consultant to documentary film production companies.



Aztec culture

Aztec culture was a rich combination of the cultures of the peoples that made up the Aztec empire, including the Mexicas.  Hundreds, even thousands of years of tradition influenced the way people lived in the society.  Let’s take a look at the different social classes and how they lived…

Social classes in Aztec culture

There were two main social classes in Aztec culture.  First the nobility or pilli, then the common people or macehualli.  Each of these was further broken up into groups of people that had quite different lives.

Aztec culture - children

There were also slaves, which were generally well-treated.  Slavery was not hereditary – the children of a slave were free.  There were ways for a slave to gain freedom, such as purchasing it.

Read more about Aztec social classes.

Growing up Aztec

The Mexica people of the Aztec empire had compulsory education for everyone, regardless of gender or class. In the end, people in the Aztec society were generally well educated, though boys received a wider education than girls. 
Girls were taught how to run a home, cook, and care for a family, but they were also taught things like crafts and ways to economically run the home. In this way women had a lot of power in society, though it was behind the scenes.

Note: Mandatory education was historically rare in the rest of the world. Learn more about this and other "Aztec Inventions" here.

Boys learned other trades, and were also taught fighting skills and leadership skills.

Though children started off with similar education, it was eventually split into two main branches. First the calmecac, which was mainly for children of nobles. These children would be educated as priests, teachers, doctors, and leaders of society. Next came the telpochcalli, where children were taught more about Aztec culture and religion, the trades, and skills particular to gender. It seems that there was some freedom to choose a type of education, and perhaps some children were promoted who showed promise in a specific field. It may also be that vocation was chosen based on the religious "sign" children were born under. Just who could go where is a matter of some debate today.

In their mid-teens, adult life would begin. Girls would marry, or stay in the temple and work. Boys might join the military or begin their trade. Marriages were arranged and again strongly tied to religious belief. Some polygamy was practised, though there was still a "primary" wife.

Adult Aztec culture

The noble class had a variety of vocations open to them.  They would have positions of leadership and influence, as mentioned above.  They would also have some wealth, and unlike the common people they were allowed to enjoy works of art.

The higher level of nobility, usually hereditary to some extent, were the pilli(singular pipiltin).  They would hold high positions in government or in the military.

There were also various classes of common people.  There were farmers, who were very efficient.  There were merchants, who would travel and trade.  These people had a fair amount of freedom to be independent and wear stylish clothes.  There were artisans of various kinds.  Every type of job needed to run a society that you can imagine.

Another occupation of status was to be an athlete.  Aztec culture had its own version of Ulama, a game played in Mesoamerica.  The game was very popular and the players were celebrities.

Aztec life was permeated by religion.  The cycles of the calendar and rituals associated with it to keep nature in balance and appease the gods were a big part of Aztec culture.  For more, see Aztec religion.

Everyday life

Except for the nobility, the people were quite poor, even though great wealth was available in general. The people lived in adobe homes, made of mud bricks. One building was for sleeping and cooking and eating and worship. Another building contained a steam bath. It was believed that the bath was important for good health (a bath is never a bad idea!). Houses of the noble class were bigger, and, as mentioned, were more lavishly decorated. Read more about Aztec homes…

Life was much as it is most places in the world today – relationships, shopping, music, meals, entertainment was all there. There was poetry, dramatic presentations, art and athletics.

A big part of entertainment for the Aztecs was the Aztec ball game. Special occasions drew the spectators, and the players were celebrities.

But in Aztec culture the warrior was glorified for religious reasons. Taking prisoners and sacrificing them to the gods was an increasingly important ritual. Though life was very structured, it seemed close to chaos as the people tried to avoid natural and imagined disaster.

Age and death

As people got older, and more disease arrived, the the religious healer would be called for. Medical science and religious ritual went side by side. When death came, people would be cremated or buried, depending on how they died and the family’s choice.


Aztec food

Aztec food was a rich combination of many foods that we take for granted today.  Not only is much of this rich diet still common in Mexico today, it’s spread around the world.  Here’s a look at some of what the ancient Mexica peoples ate:


Maize (also called corn ormealies) was the staple grain of the Aztec empire. Maize has been domesticated for thousands of years, and it likely first came into common use in Mexico, spreading to the rest of the world from there. Mexico is still one of the world’s top maize growing countries. Corn could be ground into flour and used to make tortillas (a sort of flat bread, sometimes used to wrap a filling to make tacos), tamales and even drinks. Corn has transformed the world perhaps more than any other food. Today it’s used not only in food, including candy and of course feeding the cattle that is eaten, it’s even used in things like sticky tape and making boxes.

How did all this food grow? Find out about Aztec farming here.


Maize - the Aztec food grainAztec food also included beans and squash.  Of course, maize and beans are still a cornerstone of the Mexican diet, a healthy combination especially if you’re not eating a lot of meat.

To add to these three, the Mexicas (people of the Aztec Empire) ate chillies, tomatoes, limes, cashews, potatoes, sweet potatoes, peanuts, and of course chocolate.  The Mexicas domesticated bees for honey, and turkeys for meat and eggs, also dogs and duck.  They hunted and fished as well, and used animals such as deer, rabbits, iguana, fish and shrimp for food.  Even insects, such as grasshoppers and worms were harvested.  These various types of meat made up only a very minor part of the Aztec food that was eaten.

Large amounts of algae were collected from the surface of the Texcoco Lake water.  High in protein, this algae (known as tecuitlatl) was used to make bread and cheese type foods.  This algae is still used in Mexico as a fertilizer.

The Aztecs often cooked food bundled in the Maguey plant leaves.  This dish is called Mixiotes, and it’s still eaten in Mexico today.  Different leaves are used because the Maguey population was suffering.


One of the greatest gifts to the world from Mexico is chocolate. The cocoa bean was highly treasured in the Aztec Empire. In fact, the bean was used as a currency, as well as Aztec food. Or, in this case, drink.

The cocoa beans were used to make a thick chocolate drink, but far different than the hot chocolate we know today. Since they didn’t use sugar, the Mexicas added peppers, corn meal and spices. A similar hot drink is still found in Mexico today with corn, known as atole.

Though Columbus brought cocoa to Europe in the early 1500s, it was mostly ignored. Hernan Cortes was more interested, and substituted sugar and vanilla for the spices. It became a commercial success.

The word chocolate even comes from an Aztec/Mayan word chocolatl.

Chocolate actually may have played a part in the fall of the Aztec empire. The Aztecs believed that the god Quetzalcoatl brought the cocoa beans from the tree of life to give to man. Later, the god was banished. It seems that at first the Mexicas believed that Hernan Cortes, the Spanish conquerer, was their returning god.


Pinatas & Mexican Traditions

Pinatas are often seen as a symbol of Mexican celebrations and fiestas. They are brightly decorated shapes and figures, filled with candy. The pinata provides a fun game for children of all ages. They are a staple at multiple Mexican holidays, and they have a long history both in Mexico and worldwide.

    History of Pinatas

  1. According to Mexconnect, the history of pinatas actually starts in China. The Chinese used a primitive version of the current pinata to welcome in the New Year. They would fill it with seed for the new year’s harvest instead of treats. This Chinese tradition spread into Europe where many countries started using pinatas to welcome in the start of Lent. The first Sunday of Lent became known as "Pinata Sunday." 

    When the tradition of "Pinata Sunday" came to Spain, they made it into a celebration, which they called the the "Dance of the Pinata." When Spanish Missionaries settled in current day Mexico, they saw that the native people had a similar tradition of breaking a decorated clay pot to offer gifts to the god of war. So the missionaries used pinatas to try to attract the natives to religious ceremonies. 

    The missionaries created a pinata they called a "cantero." It was beautifully decorated and said to represent Satan who would disguise himself to attract humans. The "cantero" had seven decorated points with streamers attached to each point to represent the seven deadly sins.

    As time went on, the pinatas were no longer used during religious ceremonies and lost their religious meaning. Now they are a game used primarily to celebrate birthdays and festivals and Las Posadas, which are processions to bring in the Christmas season.

  2. Las Posadas

  3. Las Posadas are nightly celebrations to bring in the Christmas season. They start on December 16th and run through December 24th. Each night the celebration is at a different person’s house. All the guests line up outside the house holding candles and sing traditional songs while a young girl and boy dressed as Mary and Joseph process into the home. The rest of the night, the guests celebrate by breaking pinatas, singing Christmas carols and eating. 

    Las Posadas was created by Catholic missionaries who tried to combine Catholic celebrations with celebrations of the native people living in the region to attract them to Catholicism. The end result were these new ways to celebrate religious holidays, which are now considered traditional Mexican celebrations.

  4. Birthday Parties

  5. A typical child’s birthday party in Mexico isn’t just a child-themed party. It involves friends and family. There is always plenty of food, drink and music. The pinata is an important part of the activities. The birthday child gets to go first and try to break the pinata while an adult will pull the rope the pinata hangs from to raise and lower the pinata while the child is swinging. This way all the kids get a chance to try to break the pinata before it is actually broken open. 

    The pinata is a mainstay at birthday parties until the child reaches the age of maturity, which is typically the child’s fifteenth birthday according to Mexconnect.

  6. Pinatas

  7. Traditionally, pinatas were made by decorating clay pots. However, according to Rivergirl, most of the pinatas she saw while living in Mexico were made out of paper mache or layers of cardboard. Pinatas are also now made using paper mache over inflated balloons. 

    Although the traditional pinata with seven points, which started out to represent the seven deadly sins, is still commonly found at Mexican fiestas, pinatas can now be found in all shapes and sizes. They are often very elaborate and colorful.

  8. Breaking the pinata

  9. During celebrations, pinatas are hung from a tree branch. The participants take turns being blindfolded. They are then spun around and have to try to hit the pinata by swinging a stick. When the pinata is hit hard enough, it will break open and the candy inside will spill to the ground.


Traditional Mexican Food

With all the fast food imitations, people outside of Mexico may forget what real traditional Mexican food is!  But the reality is, Mexico has a rich culinary tradition – much of it coming out of hundreds or eventhousands of years of history.

Our interest here is connecting what was eaten in the Prehispanic world of the Aztec empire and what is eaten daily in Mexico even now.

The basics

Chili peppers

You can get a good overview of the food the Aztec peoples at here.  Many of the staples of the Aztec diet are still familiar in Mexico today – maize (corn), beans, avacados, squash, chillies, and tomatoes.  The tomatoes used today are a different variety than were eaten before the arrival of the Europeans.  The nopal cactus was and is used for food, in many dishes.

We all know that chilli peppers play a big part in traditional Mexican food.  These and salt were so important to the peoples of central Mexico that special religious fasts involved avoiding them.

Many of the meats eaten today were an addition from the Spanish.  Today, much traditional Mexican food is prepared the same way, but with different meats.

Common in the days of the empire were turkey and dogs.  At times hunters would also provide deer, rabbit, duck, and other birds.  From the sea came axolotl, a type of salamander, and acocil, a crayfish.  Acocil tacos are still eaten in Mexican restaurants.

From the world of bugs, grasshoppers and the maguey worm are two creatures that were probably eaten by the Aztec peoples and are still eaten today.

Recipies for acocil tacos and other authentic Prehispanic food can be found in Cocina Prehispanica Mexicana (Prehispanic Mexican Kitchen) by Heriberto Garcia Rivas.

To drink

The alcoholic beverage octli or pulque was and is made from the maguey plant.  This was an important plant in the days of the Aztecs, but it’s use is rarer today because of conservation concerns.

The Aztecs made corn drinks, and today in Mexico we drink atole which has the same ingredient.  Chocolate was, of course, introduced to Europe by Mexico.  A bitter drink known as xocolatl was popular among the upper class, and the Spanish introduced sugar which led to the sweet chocolate atole and spiced hot chocolate popular today.

Preparing the food


The Mexican staple, the tortilla, is still prepared much the same way as it was traditionally.  Maize, and lime, cooked on a stone slab.  Tamales, a type of corn cake sometimes accompanied by tomato, also survived.  But the favourite dishes evolved as new foods were introduced from Spain…

European additions

Some key additions to traditional Mexican food were chicken, beef and pork, cheese, garlic and onions, and rice. These are mixed in with the typical Aztec cuisine. For example, the cheese quesadilla (cheese + tortilla), chapulines (grasshoppers + garlic and lemon juice).

Some cooking styles changed too – for example, the above ground oven was introduced in more recent Mexican history.