Saturday, February 26, 2011


It has been sort of quiet since Felipe Calderon came through town. For fireworks of a friendlier nature, back in December, Francisco Toledo and a number of other artists put on a concert and a pyrotechnics display. There’s really not much story just pictures. Mostly it followed the fireworks show formula but there were two unusual parts, some mechanical turtles shooting out of a large flaming cylinder and the flight of some luminaries or unmanned hot air balloons. It's really amazing that they could get away with the luminaries as dry as things are in the winter. It probably hadn't rained in over two months prior to letting the balloons fly and it hasn't rained for two more months since. I hope that by placing a couple of pictures here that will tempt you to visit my Picasa web album.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Jardin Etnobotánico

Oaxaca is not only the Mexican state with the most ethnic groups and where the most indigenous languages are spoken; it is also the state where there are the most species of plants and animals. Many of these plants have provided aesthetic and intellectual stimulation to the people of Oaxaca for over twelve thousand years, and served as food, fuel, fiber, medicines, flavorings and colorings. The Jardin Etnobotanico celebrates the state of Oaxaca’s exceptional botanical diversity. Blessed with a geologic complexity that includes deserts and cloud forests, beaches and temperate woodlands, Oaxaca is one of the richest ecosystems in the world, boasting, for example, more species of cycads, and agaves and varieties of chili peppers and maize than anywhere else on earth.

The Garden is part of the Santo Domingo Cultural Center, which occupies the former convent built in the 16th and 17th century by the Dominican friars. The site of the Garden was part of the old convent garden. This space served as a military garrison from the mid-nineteenth century until 1994. In colonial times it had uses related to convent life, as seen in the remains restored the interior of the Garden: Irrigation and drainage canals, ponds, lime kilns, laundry facilities, a kiln and a paved road for the wagons that supplied food and fuel. Making used of the convent’s 16th century courtyard, the artist Francesco Toledo, fellow painter Luis Zarate and ethno biologist Alexandro de Avila, sought to build not just a decorative garden but one that would tell the story of the relationship between the people and the plants of Oaxaca. Emphasis has been placed on indigenous plants, both past and present, for medical, household, food and religious purposes.

Started in 1998 the Jardin Etnobotánico has been planted in plant varieties originating from different climatic regions of the state of Oaxaca. It covers almost 6 acres with over 7,000 collected specimens of 965 different species (11% of the flora of the state). The garden is organized in different climatic zones, most importantly into wet and dry zones. You may visit via guided tours in Spanish or English. English language tours are at 11 AM on Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday, last for two hours, and provide an excellent overview of both the flora of Oaxaca and its traditional uses. The cost of 100 pesos will be the best spent in you visit to Oaxaca.

The following provides a short list of some of the main features of the garden.
• A sculpture, created by Toledo out of a massive piece of Montezuma cypress clad in mica greets visitors at the courtyard’s entry. Red-dyed water drips over the cypress block, representing the importance of the cochineal.
• Francisco Toledo and Luis Zárate, artists from Oaxaca, helped in the design of the garden. The "Court of Huaje" and source "La Sangre de Mitla" are the work of Maestro Toledo. The source "Cuanana Mirror" and the sculptures that change the level and direction of water along the canals are the work of Zárate. The Garden also has wood and stone works of artists Jorge Dubon, Jose Villalobos and Jorge Yazpik.
• Newer archaeological remains, those found in the courtyard – irrigation canals, pools, the lime kilns where mortar was prepared during the construction of Santo Domingo, laundry basins used by the novices, a pottery kiln – contribute to the garden’s cultural importance and understanding of the everyday life of Dominicans in the seventeenth century.
• A garden of cycads, plants that evolved over 230 million years ago during the Jurassic age of dinosaurs, was donated by Conzatti Casiano. Oaxaca has more than 20 species of cycads, most of them endemic.
• A section of the garden is devoted to species found at Guilá Naquitz, a small cave located near Mitla in the Valley of Oaxaca. It was known to have been occupied by hunters and gatherers between 8000 and 6500 BC. Archaeologists found the remains of plants used for thousands of years, including acorn, pinyon, cactus fruits, and evidence of cultivated bottle gourds and squash and beans, and the oldest remains of corn reported to date - at 10,000 years old, these are the earliest remains of agriculture known so far in the Americas.
• The garden has a library open to the public specializing in natural sciences and environmental conservation ethno biology, open from 9:00 to 19:00 hours Monday to Friday and from 9:00 to 13:00 on Saturdays.
• Perhaps the plant that attracts the most attention of visitors to the garden is a large barrel cactus weighing over 5 tons and several centuries old.
• The garden has the largest rainwater collection system in the State of Oaxaca, with a capacity of 1,300,000 liters. Rainwater stored in the tank feeds the irrigation system, canals and ornamental ponds, and the cultural center.

To view more pictures visit Jardin Etnobotánico.

The Garden in figures:
• Total area of the Garden: 2.32 hectares
• Area planted to date: 2.10 hectares
• Total material collected to date: 7.330
• Total species: 915 representing 474 genera and 140 botanical families
• Total will plant species: about 1.300
• Over 100 Communities have provided plants, stone and earth to the Garden

Contact information:
Ethnobotanical Garden of Oaxaca
Reforma s / n corner Constitution, AP 367. Centro, Oaxaca, Oax.
Oaxaca de Juárez
Oaxaca Mexico 68000

Telephone Number: (951) 516 53 25 516 79 15 & 51 6 90 17

Institution Email Address:

Monday, February 21, 2011

San Bartolo Coyotepec

Oaxaca has a wealth of folk art: telar de cintura (backstrap weaving), pottery, alebrijes (wood carvings), tin work, rugs, jewelry, ceramic figurines, embroidery, totomoxtle (corn husk figures), leather work, and more. The Museo Estatal de Arte Popular de Oaxaca (State Museum of Popular Art) in San Bartolo Coyotepec is filled with fine examples of each. On the main floor the museum displays pieces from its permanent collection. On the second floor the museum displays special exhibits which recently has been “Tres Colores — Indigo, Cochineal y Caracol” an exhibition of telar de cintura from throughout the state of Oaxaca curated by Remigio Mestas from his personal collection. Remigio works with only the most talented weavers and has a gallery on Macedonio Alcala in Oaxaca. The colors refer to the natural dyes of blue, red and purple indigenous to the region.

San Bartolo Coyotepec is also home to the famous barro negro pottery. You can visit talleres y tiendas (workshops and stores) where you can see the whole process and buy more than you can lug home. A traditional craft of the Zapotecs and Mixtecs, examples of barro negro pottery have been found at a number of archeological sites, fashioned mostly into utilitarian items. Originally the pottery was matte and grayish and very sturdy. In the 1950s, Doña Rosa Real discovered that she could change the color and sheen by polishing the clay with a quartz stone and firing at a slightly lower temperature. After firing, the piece emerges a shiny black instead of a dull gray. Barro negro pottery is not glazed, its color is due to the properties of the clay. Traditionally modern potters’ tools are not used, the clay is molded on plates balanced on rocks to that can be spun by hand. Large pieces, such as cantaros are fashioned from the bottom up adding clay as the piece grows. After they are shaped, drying can take up to three weeks in a well-insulated room to protect them from sudden changes in temperature. Pieces intended to be shiny black when finished are polished when the piece is almost dry. The surface of the piece is lightly moistened and then rubbed with a curved quartz stone. This compacts the surface of the clay and creates the metallic sheen and dark color during firing. This is also when decorative accents such as clay flowers or small handles are added. The pieces are then fired in underground pits or above ground kilns, using wood fires that heat the objects to between 700 and 800 °C. When they emerge, the polished pieces are a shiny black and the unpolished ones have a grey matte finish.

From barro negro many different objects are made including whistles, flutes, bells, masks, lamps, animal figures, pots with most being decorative and not for storage of food or water. One exception is the use of cantaros from San Bartolo Coyotepec to age and store mezcal at many distilleries. These large jars are not polished and retain the ancient gray matte, which allows them to be resistant to liquid. Cantaros are also used as musical instruments, struck like a bell producing a crystalline sound. A famous barro negro object is chango mezcalero or mescal monkey which holds between 700 ml and 1 liter of mescal with a cork or corncob stopper. It is not polished and either left grayish with detailed etchings or painted in bright colors.

You can reach San Bartolo Coyotepec via second class bus or colectivo. You can reach the museum website here. It’s in Spanish but there are links to an extensive photo gallery under the link Colecciones. Norma Hawthorne’s website ‘Oaxaca Cultural Navigator’ has more information including a youtube video on the “Tres Colores — Indigo, Cochineal y Caracol” exhibit. I have about 30 more photos in a picasa web album here.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Flamenco Guitar

For Valentine’s Day a very fine flamenco guitarist David Jenkins played during dinner at the restaurant Los Danzantes. David lives on the coast of Oaxaca in Puerto Angel and plays in the city of Oaxaca frequently. Sorry but this blog doesn’t have a soundtrack, yet. This started out to be sort of a Valentine Card but Los Danzantes is fairly dark at night not conducive to photography. So to cover Señor Jenkins we go to plan B. Last year David did a concert with a singer, Kat, at the Museo del los Pintores Oaxaquenos. That night the concert was special so to celebrate a few friends headed over to Mason Olivo, a Spanish restaurant a few blocks away. Most everything in Oaxaca is just a few blocks away, or a few more. After much wine and an impromptu second concert, which made everyone at Mason Olivo’s happy, Señor Olivo pulled the plug on the party at around 2 AM. All in all it was an evening with more light and more photo opportunities. After the big splash of color in the Ocotlán post you can see that I’m trying the opposite this time. I hope you enjoy the photos. There are a few more here. If you live in Oaxaca and want to get in touch with David Jenkins, he has a website. In fact if you go there you can have a soundtrack from him while you go through the photos. I hope all of you had a happy Valentine’s Day.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Ocotlán and Rudolfo Morales

The head of Morales rests in his mother's hands on the upper left.  His head also appears in the upper right viewing his end and return to his mother.

Rodolfo Morales was a Mexican surrealist painter often referred to as the Chagall of Mexico. His work has been described as surrealistic, dream-like, fertile and heavily based in folklore often depicting indigenous people, especially women set amongst rural buildings, churches, and town squares. Rudolfo Morales, Rufino Tamayo and Francisco Toledo made Oaxaca a centre for contemporary art.

A daytrip to Ocotlán can take in quite a few different stops. In Ocotlán itself there is enough for making the trip. Start with the Templo de Santo Domingo restored under the direction of Rudolfo Morales. Go on to the ex-convent which houses a museum devoted to Morales and other local artists including the Aguilar sisters. As you head to the market stop in the government buildings for murals by Morales. Market day is Friday but there is a permanent market which holds some surprises. After the market it’s a short walk to the home of Morales which is open and houses the Morales foundation. Further along on the road to Oaxaca are the workshops of Aguilar sisters who make ceramic figurines. If that isn’t enough between Oaxaca and Ocotlán stop at the town of San Martin Tilcajete which specializes in alebrijes (carved wood figures) or San Tomas Jalieza which specializes in backstrap weaving. Closer to Oaxaca is the town of San Bartolo Coyotepec where you’ll find the famous black pottery. San Bartolo Coyotepec is also home to the Museo Arte Popular de Oaxaca which has a broad range of folk art of the highest quality as well as temporary shows. It’s not possible to do all of this in a day and do anything justice. This post will focus solely on Ocotlán and mostly on Morales.

Morales, a native Zapotec born to working class parents in the small town of Ocotlán de Morelos, studied art at the Academy of San Carlos in Mexico City graduating as a drawing teacher and began a 32-year career as an art teacher at Escuela Nacional Preparatoria. In 1975 with Morales approaching 50, he held his first solo exhibition at the Casa de las Campanas Art Gallery in Cuernavaca. Here he came to the attention of Rufino Tamayo who helped Morales make contacts with art critics and galleries around the world, leading to a number of joint and solo exhibitions.
By 1985, Morales had earned enough money to stop teaching and to return to Oaxaca where he dedicated himself to both his art and restoration. Using income from his art he founded the Rodolfo Morales Cultural Foundation devoted to the restoration of buildings in Ocotlán. In all, he funded restoration of fifteen churches including the 16th century Convent of Santo Domingo and a 17th century church in the town of Santa Ana Zegache, as well creating cultural spaces throughout Oaxaca's central valleys.
Morales ensured that the restoration work done was by locals who, by developing skills, were able to later find employment elsewhere. His other notable Foundation work included setting up a computer room for local youths to learn information technology skills, providing materials to aspiring artists, producing of prints to help Frente Común Contra SIDA educate against the spread of AIDS and planting new copal trees not only to enhance the landscape but also to provide wood for the creation of hand-painted animals.

Women and memories appear to be at the heart of his work. Morales once explained, “Mexico would be lost without the steadfast work of women. They bear the burden of day-to-day living and find solutions to those problems to which men simply resign themselves.” Characteristics of his work include rich use of color, exaggerated hands and feet, over-sized faces, women (often brides), puppies, flowers, angels, bicycles, musical instruments and the dreamy floating of figures. While most of his work was oil on canvas he also produced a number of murals, highly decorated wooden furniture, many collages often in a set arranged to tell a story, and pillars which arranged together create a kaleidoscope of image and color as the viewer walks around them.
For more pictures go here. For some of the Morales paintings be sure to use the magnify ikon (upper right) to blow them up. Once full screen you can zoom in with the + ikon (upper left).

Saturday, February 12, 2011


What better way to spend Christmas than to join in on a fiesta, and what better fiesta than one devoted to barbeque or in Mexico barbacoa. For Mexicans barbacoa means a pit cooked lamb or goat. For this barbacoa goat is the choice and the restaurant is La Capilla. La Capilla, located in Zaachila,specializes in barbacoa. How good is La Capilla, it’s been Rick Bayless’ choice at Christmas for 20 years. What does one of the guidebooks say, it’s a large outdoor place catering to bus tours. Who are you going to believe? La Capilla has a large outdoor space with numerous long thatched roof sheds, a kids play area, parrots, monkeys, hammocks, and barbacoa pits. If your thinking southern style barbeque pits, think again. These above ground pits replicate the time honored technique of digging a hole, putting some rocks in the bottom, building a big fire, then when the fire burns down throwing the meat in, covering it then coming back in half a day. It is much trickier than that and La Capilla has it all sorted out. The pit at La Capilla is above ground made of abobe. The ‘hole’ is about 3x6 and around 3 feet deep surrounded by about 4 feet of abobe on all sides. A fire gets built in the pit for some 8 to10 hours reaching 700 to 800 degrees fahrenheit. The goat has been taken apart before going into the pit, a blood pudding made using the stomach as a container, a pot of soup with the ribs seasoned with adobo balanced on top and the head whole. All this then gets covered with avocado leaves, a straw mat, a sheet metal lid, and earth for insulation. Now wait 6 hours. Nice that there’s someone who is willing to do this for you.

This fiesta starts at the end of that last 6 hours. La Capilla has buried a bottle of mescal (or two) in the dirt above the goat so we begin with a toast to the goat. Next comes the uncovering. The restaurant staff take the goat to be divided and plated and we sit down to beer, mescal, memelas (soft tortillas spread with asiento, black beans and queso fresca), and tlayudas (large toasted blue corn tortillas with asiento, black bean, chorizo, tasajo, tomato, and avocado). So what’s this asiento stuff? It’s the stuff from the bottom of the pot when you render lard. Next up is the soup, then the main plate of goat, blood sausage or Morcilla, more beans, and vegetables. Don’t forget to save room for dessert.

If you want to try this at home Rick Bayless has a book, Fiesta at Rick's and a video featuring barbacoa to start you on your way. For more pictures please check out my Picasa web album.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Las Posadas

So you’ve already looked up posada in google translate and it came up as inn. Bingo! Posadas, held during the nine days before Christmas, recall the journey of Mary and Joseph from Nazareth to Bethlehem where they seek a place to stay to await the birth of Jesus. The 9 days honor the 9 months of Mary’s pregnancy. Pre-Columbian Mexico celebrated the arrival of Huitzilopochtli (god of war) during the winter or Panquetzaliztli, from December 17 to 26, which coincided with the time when Europeans celebrate Christmas. Close enough for folks to switch. Posadas are held by all the churches and most neighborhoods but the big ones are on Christmas Eve.

A posada starts with a procession featuring Mary and Joseph, in Oaxaca played by children, and a group of faithful followers usually with candles. But let’s not get too solemn, the procession includes bands, fireworks, and large paper mache figures. These days Mary and Joseph get to ride on a float (usually a decorated flatbed truck) and angels, shepherds, and wise men come along for the ride. Hey, you wouldn’t want your kid left out either. The posada procession goes from house to house (that’s after a few laps of the zócalo to show off) singing for a place to stay, getting turned down, until at last doors open and they’ve found the party. It is customary to pray the Rosary because the celebration is for the love of Mary and to celebrate that she is about to give birth to Jesus. During the posada children break the piñata. This activity is filled with symbols and analogies. The piñata must have 7 points representing the 7 deadly sins but it must be full of candy representing the grace of God. The act of breaking the piñata can be interpreted more or less as follows: Each of us with blind faith (blindfolded) in support of God (the club) are fighting sin (trying to hit the piñata). We help our brothers and we indicate the way forward (people screaming) and when we will eventually overcome sin (break the piñata) God's grace (the candy) spills over us. The posada ends with a fellowship in which the guests drink and dine, usually a big planned potluck.

Another important custom in Mexico is for families to own an image of the Christ child, a niño Dios. A godparent is chosen for the niño Dios, who is then responsible for hosting various celebrations between Christmas and El Día de la Candelaria, Candlemas. On Christmas eve the niño Dios is placed in the Nativity scene, on January 6th, King's Day, the child is brought presents from the Magi, along with presents for the children. A key tradition of King’s Day is the Rosca de Reyes which is a sweet bread baked in the form of a crown. It's filled with nuts, figs and cherries and decorated with pieces of orange and lime and is served with hot chocolate. There is a small doll baked inside the bread to remember how Jesus had to be hidden from King Herod and his army. The person who finds the doll is responsible for hosting Candlemas Day on February 2nd.

El Día de la Candelaria, like many other Mexican celebrations, represents a fusion of pre-Hispanic traditions and Catholic beliefs. Celebrated on February 2nd, it falls forty days after Christmas, and is celebrated by Catholics as the "Feast of Purification" or as the "Presentation of Christ at the Temple." According to Jewish law it was customary to bring a baby to the temple after that period of time had passed. February also 2nd marks the mid-way point between the winter solstice and spring equinox. This may be a vestige of an old Pagan Tradition, since Feb. 2 has long been thought to be a marker or predictor of the weather to come. Remember that in the US Feb. 2 is celebrated as Groundhog Day, but back to Mexico. El Día de la Candelaria is a follow-up to the festivities of King's Day and Tamales are the food of choice. But this post is about posadas and the pictures are of the processions. I hope you take time to check out the photos.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

La Noche de los Rabanos

Mexico is known for colorful festivals. Oaxaca has one of the most unique in La Noche de Rábanos, celebrated December 23rd in the zócalo for more than a century. Lasting only a few hours viewers find elaborate radish sculptures , totomoxtle (corn husk figures), and flor inmortal (dried flower) figures representing people, animals and fantasy figures, Nativity scenes, scenes of village life, day of the dead, and even the revolutionary hero Zapata. The Spanish brought radishes to Mexico and the tradition of displaying carved radishes may have originated in the Christmas Vigil market held on the 23rd of December. While the actual origins are lost in legend, in 1897 the mayor formalized the event and it has been held ever since. Today radishes are cultivated especially for the event and can grow to 3 kilos and 50 cm in length. These large radishes naturally achieve contorted shapes to which the carvers add their imagination.

Enough background, now logistics, by mid-afternoon the zócalo bustles as contestants set up displays on tables in booths, end-to-end around three sides of the square. There is a viewing platform at the height of the tables about two meters distant. Booths are lit so viewing goes on between late afternoon and (you guessed it) fireworks. It’s hard to imagine anything happening without fireworks. Short of being there, you can view pictures here or at another website planeta which has loads of other information and pictures on Oaxaca.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Full Mental Jacket

So what can one do in Oaxaca after the sun goes down? If you’re only here for a week or so then hanging out in the Zocalo, walking up and down the Acala, Oaxaca’s main pedestrian through fare, hanging out on a rooftop bar with a view, or listening to a bit of street music may be enough. Stay for a winter and you’ll need more diversions. Oaxaca has several opportunities for movies. There is an art theatre series at the Pocholte cinema, for folks in Seattle think of the Grand Illusion with a Mexican slant. They show a different film every night, mostly in Spanish but they had a Japanese series one month, Japanese with Spanish subtitles, whew. If you watch the various calendars around town other opportunities pop up from time to time. There was a recent showing of the John Lennon biopic ‘Imagine’ at the BS Biblioteca Infantil (children’s library – picture below), in English with Spanish subtitles, much easier. Movies pop up at all sorts of unlikely places like the Andy Goldsworthy flick, ‘Rivers and Tides’ last year at the Museo de la Filatelia (Stamp Museum – picture right). If you don’t know Andy Goldsworthy you should do your homework. A movie is a better way to experience his work than an art book of his naturalistic sculpture. There is an English Language Library in town that occasionally shows films, they also rent videos. Just keep your eyes and ears open. Oh if you want Hollywood there’s a multiplex at a shopping center a bit south of the central historic district. Lots of current shoot ‘um ups in both English and Spanish only a short taxi ride away.

Going to gallery openings is another diversion. Hardly a week goes by without an opening of something somewhere. Sometimes you can combine movies and galleries like at a recent screening of Pink Floyd Live at Pompei. OK the movie sucks but you used to enjoy the music in altered states and it still holds up today with the help of a little mescal. Maybe that’s why the English dialog with English subtitles seemed confusing. The price was right, gratis. The screening was at the Museo Casa de la Ciudad but the movie was put on by Biblioteca Andres Henestrosa which is housed in the museum space so the announcements referred to the library which was a bit confusing as well. A week or two earlier the art exhibit ‘Full Mental Jacket’ by David Velasco Sosa opened in the same spot. You were expecting mention of yet another old flick? Well that was ‘Full Metal Jacket’. From the opening announcement, here is a rough translation, “These days, graphic design has operated on two fronts very different from each other. The first is utilitarian reducing the image to the sale of goods and services. The other is more elusive, it explores media formats and distances itself from the principle of applied arts, namely to build and pass on certain information that has a specific function. The pieces presented by David Velasco at this exhibition feature graphics from the first sense to which he has added the a destabilizing nonsense and a clumsiness of parody which fulfill the "Freudian slip" of the "b-movies making clear what is hidden in the slickness of the classic sales pitch.” (That’s sort of rough and greatly cut down, just be glad you didn’t get the Google Translate version and btw Microsoft Word can’t spell Google.) Somehow the two fit together but Velasco had nothing to say about Pink Floyd. Pictures from the exhibit can be found here. Be warned while some images are simply graphic design and others playful and fun, there are others that bite rather hard.