The here and now... and what and why

Complacency is a trap. At least that’s what I was thinking when I up and left the comfort of a Yankee prep school gig, where I taught music, amongst other things, for 28 years. There was also that life long career as a composer, musician and artist.

First, it was a year in St. Thomas, USVI, working as a reporter and shooting photography and then, a year in San Agustin Etla, Oaxaca, Mexico.
Time passed.
More time passed and a year back in the Athens of America followed by a hasty return to Oaxaca where it is all happening.
A couple of years in San Sebastian Etla and now, just down the road in San Pablo Etla. Life is good.

Click on an image to see it larger.
For additional photography please visit my flickr page.
You can find my music on Jango (World & latin - Worldbeat) and at iTunes and most online stores.
¡Soy consciente de todas las tradiciones del Internet!
If you are coming to Oaxaca, please contact me for tours or advice.

Santo Domingo

Santo Domingo
The view from Corazon del Pueblo

The hereafter re me

My photo
Oaxaca, Oaxaca, Mexico
Musician, photographer, videographer, reporter, ex-officio teacher, now attempting to be a world traveler

Friday, August 31, 2007

La Union Tejalapam

The artesanos of Oaxaca have been greatly affected by the political and economic problems. The area is renown for its rich and diverse art culture. As I mentioned earlier many of these villages prospered during the last thirty years as Oaxacan folk art was discovered by the rest of the world. I watched bridges, municipal centers, and schools being built using artistic income. People still worked in the campo or the fields,but they also capitalized on ever-widening fame and interest. It was not unusual to see Japanese or German television crews interviewing the artesanos in their homes. Large tour buses regularly came to the villages.

That ended when people stopped coming to Oaxaca. The disruptions, protests, marches, barricades and ultimately, the violence and death were international news and tourism fell off 95 percent.Money stopped coming in. Money or the lack of money is always one of the major influences in how people think.

If you had a business, a restaurant, hotel or tour service, how long could you hang on if you had no income?

And if you were an artesano who no longer had visitors, customers, what would you do?

You might stop making as much or as many. You might stop altogether.

The three main pueblos for woodcarving are San Martin Tilcajete, Arrazola and La Union Tejalapam and the plan for the next few weeks is to make directories of all the artesanos in each village. Normally, it is like everywhere, it is who you know and how you get there that makes all the difference. Everyone has their favorite or a family connection. So each taxista will take you to their guy. They get a commission, too.

If I took you to the carving villages, I would take you to my favorites and I even have gotten commissions in the past, always a carving slipped to me as a gift as i was leaving. Of course, I take people to my people because I love them and their work. They are magical artists and I have been learning from them for years.

So the directories will have ALL the artesanos, not just favorites, listed with an address, phone number (if one exists) and a photo of the artist.

It is more complicated than it might appear. The nature of the carving business has changed. The work sometimes comes through sub-contractors. Someone supplies blancos or unpainted white figures, then someone else paints them and then finally, someone else signs it. I have seen it many times and always try to know who carved the piece and who painted it. I request certain carvers and can spot their work instantly. I am particularly careful about who paints it. Someone like Maria Jimenez of San Martin is recognized as one of the best. There are others who are equally talented. And it runs in families

The directories will include individuals or families who do all or most of the work.

Yesterday it was La Union, which is about an hour west from San Agustin. La Union is set on a series of hillocks with no real town center. I drove there at mid morning and got an eyeful of the color of southern rural Mexico. The countryside is lush and green with corn and various crops. It has been a great rainy season. I don't remember seeing things this lush before. As I drove through several villages and across a fertile valley into the hills, there were horse drawn carts and teams of oxen with yokes and plows.

A slightly different commute to work experience from Boston or St. Thomas.

The directories cannot be created without cooperation from the pueblos and the artesanos themselves. I know that it is key for me to have someone from the village to help and to introduce me. With my partner, Abigail Mejia, who lives in La Union, we drove, backtracked, or walked to every artesano in the pueblo. We hiked through arroyos and crossed creeks from house to house at different times in the day. Some of the houses were way of the beaten track with no phone or electricity in sight.

Abby did most of the talking and explained what we were trying to do. Everyone was very gracious and we ended a long day with all or most of the information we needed to put the directory together. We have photos of all the artesanos except one or two, who weren't home. We will get them next week.

The pictures speak to what a rare day it was. It was fascinating to visit all of these people in their homes, an insightful experience, a privilege .

The directory for La Union should be done shortly.
Next, San Martin Tilcajete.

photos l to r
Octavio Santiago Lopez, Rodrigo Cruz Almogabar and family,
Francisco Santiago Cruz, Avelino Perez Muños,
Maximino Santiago Lopez and Yolanda, Martin Santiago Cruz,
Calixto Santiago Lopez, Alberto Perez Muños,
Placido Santiago Cruz, and a future artesano.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

And go shopping instead

After a morning of organizing photos and working in the garden, I packed up the car and headed into the city to work on the office/store. I am working off of lists these days just to get organized and make sure I cover everything. My Spanish is not that good and I have to do homework before every venture out just so I know some of the right words. I planned to stop at Office Depot and pick up printer inks, paper and office supplies. Oaxaca has a strip of typical modern stores on the south side of the city on the way to the airport. There one will find Sears, KFC, Sam's Club, Mercedes Benz, Cineopolis (multi-screen complex) and many of the familiar international names.

It is a controversial section of the city. Global corporations always make someone mad. So people complain about the presence of these franchises, but the bottom line is that Oaxacans want just what you and I want. At least the city did not allow McDonald's to build in the zocalo. They kept most everything well away from the city center.
This has been a particularly rainy "rainy" season and the land is lush and green. I am getting comfortable with the topes here and am able to take in the sights a bit better. This is mighty beautiful country. I came off the country road from San Agustin Etla on to the Pan-American Highway, which is four lane highway, albeit funky in spots. It is a divided highway. All of a sudden I saw lots of cars coming towards me, headed north in the southbound lanes. Panic? After driving in Boston? No big deal! Just do a three point turn and hope the folks who were behind you are doing the same. The road was blockaded. This is a tried and true action in Oaxaca, just shut down the roads or streets. Last year, at the height of the problems, there were thousands of barricades, some every block or so. This was a protest by the cab drivers, los taxistas. They wanted the government to do something about all the "pirate"drivers. Taxis are everywhere and are one of the main methods of transit even from the outlying villages. One can jump into "collective" taxis with five or six other people and get anywhere cheaply. Of course, with so many people in them and traveling quickly on less than perfect roads, there are a fair number of accidents. Some people joke that it is like playing Russian Roulette or worse, suicidal. So the taxistas shut down the city. It was an effective shut down. No doubt the locals knew alternative ways to get there, but I was not about to drive into the mountains to find the back way. Not with all the crazy driving that was taking place. Most of the time I am lucky to get where I am supposed to get. The next time they barricade the road and there will definitely be a next time, I will try it. For all I know it will be mañana. So what's a boy to do when he can't go to work? Go shopping, of course. Which I did. I still can't get over how fresh and cheap the food is here. I went to a supermarket which had everything from refrigerator and tires to fresh hot tortillas and fruit and produce to die for. I filled up my cart with everything on one of my lists. When you fill your shopping cart, how much does it cost you. In Boston it was twice as much as here and St. Thomas was three or four times. After loading up with fresh watermelon, avocados, mangos, cheese I headed back to San Agustin to continue working in the garden. I have been planting like crazy. It is a gardener's dream. Gardenias thrive here!

My good friend Paul Wann, with whom I taught and created many wonderful artistic productions wrote me just this morning, "I am relieved that you are gardening. You seem, when improvising on 88 (the piano) or digging the good earth, most alive."
"I've got a good mind to give up living, and go shopping instead"

Monday, August 27, 2007

All politics is local

The hyper-political situation in Oaxaca has been in the news for the last couple of years, but really the problems go much further back. Mexico had 70 years of one party rule and that lead to obvious problems and reactions.

This blog is not meant to be political. No reason for me to get kicked out of the country immediately. As an artist, composer, teacher and general loudmouth, I have a knack for alienating folks, but I am learning to keep my mouth shut. As the Mexicans say, "En boca cerrada no entran moscas," roughly translated, "Flies don't enter a closed mouth."

Far be it from me to understand the many levels of political actions and discussions. After living in Boston, where politics is a contact sport and a way of life and then in St.Thomas which has its own complex issues and influences, it appears that "all politics are local" as former Speaker of the House and Massachusetts icon, Tip O'Neill said.

The problems in Oaxaca have been well documented. They continue today and are followed in many parts of the world. The last year and a half have wrought death and economic disaster for the state, which is now the poorest in Mexico. The governor is reviled by many and the divisions in the population are just as firmly entrenched here as the Reds and Blues are in the states. The sides are drawn and no one is about to give an inch.

I sat and listened to two women argue the facts. One was an established artist and the other was a local character of some notoriety. One argued the left and the other the right. They spoke of the poverty, corruption, education, economic and social ramifications that have made Oaxaca a cauldron of political unrest. After listening to both sides, which was much like listening to those loyal to Bush and those decidedly not, I asked what they thought the solutions were. They could agree on nothing. And there it ended. The artist said that she thought the world was a very divided place these days with not much agreement to go around.

Oaxaca is on the cutting edge of global conflicts. Workers earn so little that it no wonder that thousands have headed to El Norte. The state mandated daily wage is $4.50 USD a day. This area is rich in indigenous peoples with long histories. It is still dealing with the results of the Conquistadors and colonialism. Mexico is rich in oil, natural resources and tourist attractions. And it is a large country. It is like visiting Bangor, Maine and thinking one understands Denver or Tallahassee or New York. Mexico is big and Oaxaca is just one small part of it, but it is worth visiting and understanding because it has many of the problems that many of us will be forced to confront in the coming years.

So I will stay away from the politics for the time being. One of my focuses this year will be how the political and economic problems have affected the indigenous artesanos in the outlying villages. These rural agricultural villages had developed economies based on art, whether it be wood-carving, weaving, textiles or ceramics. These sorts of places are rare in the world. Can you think of places in the US where art builds roads, schools and feeds the family. I am sure they exist, but here, I watched it happen and now I am curious how things will proceed now that the economy has crashed. Make no mistake about it, there are plenty of tourists here and it is the same magical place it has always been. It is just that there is something major under the surface.

As I said, there are no obvious solutions, only complex issues and even more complex problems.

Oaxaca is an artistic city. There is much political graffiti. The city government paints it over and it appears somewhere else. It is creative stuff.

The first month

After exactly a month in Oaxaca, I am finally getting settled. The house I am staying in is in San Agustin Etla, which is about 15 k. north of the city. It is a small village that receives more rain then many of the pueblos and consequently, it is very green and lush. It is also in direct line from many of the springs in the mountains which should prove to be very beneficial when the dry season arrives in the coming months.

As in setting up a residence in any new location there is always lots of work and lots to learn.
Even though I have been coming to the area for years, there is a huge difference in being driven and driving oneself. For one, there are topes (speedbumps) everywhere and they are often quite serious. They are called "el policía durmiente," "the sleeping policeman," and they certainly work in terms of slowing drivers down. Of course in certain pueblos there is a tope every 50 meters and they are often unmarked. Nothing more disconcerting and amusing to be innocently approaching one at a high rate of speed with a carload of people and everyone screaming, "Tope!"

Topes aside, the plan is to experience Oaxaca as fully as possible for the next ten months and see where it goes from there. I do have a folk art store in the city. It is still known as Corazon del Pueblo, which was one of the best folk art stores for many years and run by Rosa Blume in whose house I am staying. The store is upstairs from Amate Books, which is owned by Rosa and her husband, Henry Wangeman. It is a great bookstore, a real Oaxacan fixture. Thus far in Corazon I have very few pieces, but things are starting to trickle in. Antonio Ruiz, a fine weaver from Teotitlan del Valle, the Zapotec weaving village, brought in thirty beautiful rugs. The plan is to run the place as an artesano collective of sorts with people from the villages brings in pieces to sell. Not many people are visiting the pueblos and it is a chance for the artist to have more people se and purchase the art and crafts for which Oaxaca is so famous.

So in the coming days, the store will be set up. I have portraits of most of the artists that I will frame and hang. Let's see where is goes from here.