Friday, October 28, 2011

Lining up for Cheese: The Delights of Shopping outside the Supermarket

By Kim Groves

I had my orange market bag tucked under my arm, and a few 10 peso coins jingling ready in my hand. I think I was flicking idly through a newspaper that someone had left on the counter. A woman of about 40 years sidled up beside me and raised her eyebrows to me in question. I thought the question was “Are you in line?” and so I nodded a polite “Yes” with my eyes. She took a few quick steps and cut in front of me. At first I was annoyed— I think it was an old default response that flared up—but then I sighed, I actually smiled, and I settled back to waiting. After all, I was new to lining up for cheese, and this woman had years on me, I had to respect that. 


I learn a lot about people and local rhythms from hanging about in markets. Everyone knows that I am loyal to the organic market at Xochimilco, but I do have another faithful here in Oaxaca, the Sánchez Pascuas. Walk 7 blocks north of the Zócolo on Porfirio Diaz and when you run into a beautiful big laurel tree, you will have found this little market that was founded in 1972. Let me take you for a tour… 

Near the top entrance there is the mother and daughter duo who sell wonderful fruit and vegetables. Every time it is: “What can I get you, guerita?” I grin; everyone knows that the mother gives cheaper prices. Sometimes she will really indulge me by slipping in a new sort of fruit that she knows I’ve never tasted. I like lingering in the aisle. I love that sometimes the most challenging part of my morning is to pick the perfect rock melon (or as the Americans say “cantaloupe”) (by the way, this word makes me think of an animal with antlers).


Keep walking; there is a grinding noise coming from the left. Colourful fruit is flying in and out of blenders at a dizzying rate. I love this juice place. Who knew that throwing spinach in with pineapple and oranges would turn out to be so delicious? It is called Popeye, that combination, just so you know what to order.


What a treat, we have arrived early enough for tamales. They usually sell out by about 8:30 in the morning. Mole Negro, steaming hot; I burn my tongue. Tamales are perfect paired with atole de maiz; like a warm hug as you drink it down. It is served from an amazing terracotta jar that seems to hold the heat of some distant fire.

The women who sell tortillas set themselves up together in the lower walkway, and they call to us now. They are competing for business, but all seem to get along as if they were family. I love the way the warm pressed corn steams up the plastic bag that they give me. Across from the tortillas are the avocados. How delightful that the women categorises’ them by their ripeness - “eat today” and “eat tomorrow”. 

Are you hungry? I’ve been going to the comedores here since the first week I arrived in Oaxaca. You are guaranteed to find a nourishing plate of rice and beans, a spicy chile relleno, or a giant Tlayuda to suit your mood. It’s a constant in my life, a comfort, just like home cooking. 

There is the husband and wife team with the best melon flavoured water. They have a pet bird who sings out to me from its cage as I eat. It’s a lovebird, and sometimes the man talks and croons to it. I wonder if it’s the bird or the man who always insists on playing The Beatles on the stereo.

“Where are you from?” asked one of my companions at the big communal dining table one afternoon. He laughed with a tone of surprise at my answer; “I thought all people from Australia were fat”. That was definitely a new one. I’ve got the kangaroos, the sharks, and even the rugby, but the being fat? That had me pretty much choking on my entomatadas with delight.

As I leave by the back entrance the old woman who calls me Reina is busy stirring a great pot of soup. The woman, who once warned me to be careful with my things as a suspicious looking man passed me, is back at her spot with her herbs spread all about her like a great luscious lawn…

I dreaded grocery shopping, back at home. The supermarkets always made me anxious and tired. I tried to get in and out of them as quickly as possible. Here in Oaxaca, I hardly step foot in such places. Instead I have found little havens like the Sánchez Pascuas market where I go not just toshop, but to be. Go on, spend a morning or two there, build it into your routine, and you will see that shopping, even lining up for cheese, can be an absolute delight.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

A Fusion of Past and Present

By Lindsey Shilleh

Telling people back home that I was moving to Mexico, usually led to glares, suggesting that I must be nuts for moving there, of all places! Of course, this is a reflection of how the US views Mexico nowadays. A perception dictated by the "War on Drugs", and the narcotrafficking that is present in the North of Mexico, and the stigma this has placed on all of Mexico. 

Take away the few vacation hot-spots that line the Mexican coast, and are largely isolated from Mexican culture, and much of Mexico is left unexplored. How sad to think that so many will miss out on the rich culture, delicious food, and incredible biodiversity that Mexico really has to offer travelers.

My first days in Oaxaca quickly reminded me of why I was always interested in coming to Oaxaca: this is a city of great juxtaposition; a city that somehow manages to keep one foot in the past, and one foot in the present.

Intriguing is this notion of holding onto one’s history without actively resisting the inevitable change of tomorrow. I’ve visited places that manage maintain the their culture.  Take Amizmiz, a small city in the foothills of the High Atlas Mountains of Morocco; the stillness of the city transports you backwards in time. Modern cities are plentiful, of course; but finding a delicate balance between the history of the past and the change of tomorrow is no easy feat.

There is something magical and unique about Oaxaca. With 16 different indigenous groups, deep-rooted traditions and culture abounds wherever you turn; yet, Oaxaca is still very actively a part of our globalized, connected, forward-thinking world. There is balance here. That balance hangs in the air like thick fog that on any given day hurtles you back in time 2000 years and then forward again to present day.

I love how I can visit the Rufino Tamayo Musuem of Pre-Columbian Art to marvel in awe of Mexico’s major ancient civilizations only to then find my way to the Museum of Contemporary Art of Oaxaca and catch the newest minimalist exhibit. As I wander the city streets and chat with the people, I can feel it; amidst the energy in the air, there is something that signals a natural fusion of past and present, and a refusal to let bygones be bygones.

 As I sit drinking café in the Zocalo, on a Sunday afternoon, I sit back and listen to the Oaxacan State band play or simply cross the square and launch myself into the modern political day with the never ceasing array of political demonstrations on display. The diversity of Oaxaca is at its finest in the many markets that scatter the city streets, where the pulse of the city is effervescent and there is no shortage of vibrant stimulation.


A couple Sundays back, I ventured out to Tlacolula, a nearby Zapotec village, which hosts the oldest and according to some, largest market in Central America. I was immediately submerged in the markets frenzied movement, where there is nothing you can't find as the stalls of the bustling market overflow with crafts, goods and basic necessities. Roosters for sale, next to a collection of old cell phone chargers; Pirated DVD’s alongside Tejate, a traditional Oaxacan drink. Women from the same village dress alike, in traditionally embroidered outfits and with hair of a particular style. All the while, Converse sneakers and cheesy bedazzled t-shirts are sold directly behind a stall selling freshly shelled cacao.


“Market and religion. These alone bring men, unarmed, together since time began. . . . to buy, to sell, to barter, to exchange. to exchange, above all things, human contact”. In Mornings in Mexico, D.H. Lawrence captures Oaxacan culture without even knowing it.  The markets are a place of excitement, bubbling over with exchanges- both material and the intangible.  


Old and new converge here in Oaxaca; and the people continue to merge the tradition and ideals of their past, with the technological progress and global interconnectedness of the future. Everything is rooted in tradition, and all that is new seems to be a variation of the past.  Family heirlooms, rich in sentimentality are passed down from generation to generation. Artisanal techniques from that of mezcal to the fine-tuned skill of making traditional Mexican instruments by hand, longstanding recipes, “disenos de la casa” (designs of the house) are all symbols of pride and identity. Here in Oaxaca, that generational history is ever-present. Here people’s refusal to let the past dissolve, has formed a collective memory that lingers and persists so that even to the traveler or outsider, Oaxaca makes herself known. 


Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Bendita Entre Todas las Mujeres: Living and Belonging in Xochimilco, Oaxaca.

By Kim Groves

I hardly notice the firecrackers anymore. This week, however, in my neighborhood of Xochimilco, they really stepped it up a few notches. If you know to listen out for it, the first warning you get is a faint whiz as the projectile is released from the churchyard, then BANG! You better not have been walking quietly from the kitchen with a cup of hot chocolate balanced on a plate of toast, because you might now be wearing the whole thing. The vibration of the explosion is so intense that all the car alarms in the street go off at once. This, in turn, sets every dog within a 3 kilometre radius barking.

This particular day, I decided to give up on my snack and go out into the noise to see what was happening. At the end of my street I literally stood stunned. I was seeing an apparition; the Virgin Mary was there above me. She looked just as I had expected her to look like; young, intangible, and slightly bored.

There was a woman of maybe 18 years standing on a platform on the back of a great big truck. I was absolutely fascinated by her. I made my way through the thickening crowd to stand beside the float. I stared at her without reserve. I just couldn’t help myself. Perhaps nervously, she pulled at the blue silk dress and rearranged baby Jesus in her arms. Her crown was literally twinkling. There were electric lit candles sprinkled all about her feet. A forest of lilies, Mary’s favourite, trembled in their vases as if they too were feeling the cool of the night air. She looked so perfect. I kept spinning around to check if my own amazement was reflected in the faces of those around me. I struggled to gather my thoughts. I resolved to follow her to learn more.


We were walking through the streets behind her. My neighbors were hanging from their doorways and windows as she passed. I waved to a few, some fell into step with the group. A little boy brushed past me. He was all dark brown eyes; his tiny face obscured by his father’s big woollen scarf that had been wrapped maybe six times around him. He and his family held cellophane lanterns on tall sticks.

They were the shape of stars. I had never seen anything more beautiful. That was until we came to the corner and the traffic was casually diverted so we could pause where we stood to quietly recite the Hail Marys and pray together.

I love the way the people of the neighbourhood have gathered to celebrate and be together this week; the week of the Virgin del Rosario, the Virgin of Xochimilco’s church. There are parties every night at the houses of the Mayordomos; those respected members of the community that have been entrusted with keeping the images of the Virgins in their houses during the festival. Arcade type stalls have popped up overnight in the cobbled streets, and the smell of cooking hot cakes keeps me hungry all night. At this very moment, there is actually a full brass band playing in the front room of the house next door.

It is times like this that I am simultaneously reminded of how much I love living here in Oaxaca, Mexico, and how much I still have to learn about the people that have so kindly welcomed me to live among them. You know I’d love to write more, but there is a party going on here, and I don’t want to keep my neighbors waiting!


Thursday, October 13, 2011

El Serpiente Emplumada

By Kim Groves    


On a recent tour, our participants heard an unforgettable story. It was shared to them by one of En Vía’s women borrowers, as they stood quietly together by an altar in the Church at Teotitlán del Valle. In the presence of burning candles and fresh flowers, she whispered…

Look here, at this shell. The group could hardly notice it beneath the gilded and glowing frames, the faded paintings, and the patient saints. A snake was born from this shell. A snake that grew and grew until it was giant. It now lives below the church, where some say it guards a chamber of gold. On its great head, it has three feathers: one yellow, one white, and one red. Every hundred years it wakes and emerges. They say an old woman from the village was passing the church one evening many years ago, and came face to face with it. She realized that the only way to escape was to pluck one of the snake’s three feathers; and so she plucked the red. She returned home, not knowing, as the snake did, that the yellow feather brought

wealth, the white; health, and the red; death. The next day, the woman passed away. Her family tried to find the feather that she had brought back from the church, but it was gone…

The image of Quetzalcoatl, el Serpiente Emplumada, or Feathered Serpent God, clearly endures in this local legend. It is no wonder, as after all, the church was built on a Zapotec temple where he was once revered. He is at once a snake of the earth, and a bird of the sky. Depicted as both man and God, he molded his people from the bones of death and gave them life, and the knowledge to nourish it.

The legend of the snake beneath the church reflects clearly the ways in which ancient Mesoamerican beliefs have merged and mixed with those of the Catholic tradition. When the Spanish first built the Church of the Precioso Sangre de Cristo (Precious Blood of Christ) on this site, the people were afraid to enter. This fear of the Catholic Church as a new force in the lives of the Zapotec people can still be gleaned from the existence of the altars in the corners of the church yard; built to religiously accommodate those that were not willing to actually set foot inside the church itself.

Today, the church is a central artery of the town. On festival days it is happily hung with colored flags and flowers, and the churchyard filled with dancers. Every day it is meticulously attended by dozens of people belonging to a volunteer committee, and visited by the devout.

Perhaps what remained of the fear of the unknown and/or known oppression that came with imposition of a new religion was transferred to this idea of the giant snake. Perhaps the new authorities attempted to purposefully alienate Quetzalcoatl from his own people by turning him into a monster. Or then again, maybe the story has been whispered so many times, that the details have blurred and the legend has transformed into something just as valid and important as the very first whisper.

I know for certain, there is something beneath the church at Teotitlán; and it is not a monster. What is down there is memories and history; old rocks and deep roots, and echoes of another time when there was a multitude of feathers to choose from.


Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Outgrowing Burdens

By Kim Groves

Every time I visit the women En Via works with I am surprised and delighted by their stories. Every tour I learn something different about their lives; about their pasts, presents and futures, and the way these unique realities affect the ways in which they participate and grow within the program.
Recently, in the patio of Magarita’s grandmother’s house we sat as a group under the loaded fruit trees. She proudly shared with us how her weaving and artisanal projects were going. We heard about her recent sales in the city, and we pored excitedly over some new bag designs. We laughed together as the palms of our hands turned a beautiful yellow with the stain of a natural dye demonstration. We all could see how capable she was, how confident; that part didn’t surprise me, but the next part of her story did...
“Yes, I have a lot of work to do”, she said, “what with my own weaving, and looking after the family, and seeing to the people that come to see El Cristo Grande”. A few of my tour companions looked to me, eyebrows slightly arched with curiosity, for clarification. “It’s a crucifix, a statue of Christ, that is getting bigger over time”, she continued. “He has grown so big he has needed to be moved to several new crosses over the years”. My heart actually leaped, I was so excited to translate this. “It’s been in my family for generations”, she said casually. I was on the edge of my chair leaning towards her to hear more. “It’s been dated as being more than 350 years old. Would you like to see it?”
We were talking excitedly in the courtyard, and as we stepped into what I expected to be another normal room I immediately hushed my voice. It was like a little chapel. It was a little chapel. A great wooden Christ on a crucifix towered in the small space. To my astonishment, he did seem to be literally stretching against the white cloth bands that secured him. There was an older couple at the foot of the altar with candles that I gathered were locals. Another couple (who we later found out had travelled all the way from Mexico City) had their heads bowed in prayer behind them.
I was awed to learn that it is in fact a national site of pilgrimage. Why? Even more than the miracle of a Crucifix changing shape, I believe that people have found hope and faith in the idea of outgrowing one’s confinements and burdens. There is a saying here “es tu cruz y tienes que cargarlo” (It is your cross and you have to carry it).

Personally, I never use it because I do not like the idea of resignation to hardship that it implies. But that said, maybe we all have burdens in life that we struggle to fully shrug off. Yet at the same time, we are growing and changing all the time. We are getting bigger and bigger ourselves, as we gain experiences and achieve in life, and perhaps in comparison, that burden we carry gets smaller and smaller until the point that we outgrow it completely.