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Women potters of San Marcos Tlapazola, Oaxaca

an article by Alvin Starkman of Casa Machaya
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Every Sunday Gloria awakens at 3 am, and begins preparing tejate, a frothy, tasty corn and cacao based drink, which she will offer for sale in the Tlacolula market. A couple of hours later her sister-in-law María and Maria's daughter Luci follow suit, but in preparation for their own day of vending pre-Hispanic-style figures and masks, comals, and an assortment of other fired clay bowls, cups, plates and containers. Sundays, the women laugh, is their day of rest, when they don't have to worry about scrounging for firewood, tending fields, lugging raw material for kneading into clay --- the lifeblood of their economic existence --- and in the case of María, looking after preparing breakfast for Luci and her older brother and getting them off to school.

The family of four lives in a modest yet fair sized dirt-floor compound in San Marcos Tlapazola, a Zapotec village about an hour outside of Oaxaca. Nearby Tlacolula is known by tourists and native Oaxacans alike for the pageantry of its Sunday marketplace, its bakeries' wonderful chocolate-filled buns, the church, proximity to fields of agave and mezcal factories, and products offered for sale by the women of San Marcos.

Gloria, María and Luci are 40, 38 and 12 years old respectively. While in the market, their traditional dress, consisting of brightly colored and embroidered taffeta dresses and head-dresses, easily sets them and others from nearby villages apart from the rest. Luci confesses that she also likes wearing regular clothing.

In her lifetime, only once has Gloria been to Oaxaca. The mere thought of venturing into the big city intimidates her.

Clumps of hard earth are soaked. On a concrete floor in an almost barren dark room, María kneads the then softened mud with water and a bit of sand, while kneeling and working her magic, until a buttery smooth clay is ready to be fashioned into a vase. With her hands raised to just about head level, she molds a cone, pounds out the inside to create a funnel, then places it on a small hard piece of plastic atop a flat stone, with a bit of sand as a buffer. The sand enables her to spin the form into a sphere. She uses rolls of clay to build up it up. A piece of corn cob is used to make the outside surface even, and another piece of plastic to cast the inside. A small round segment of hardened gourd assists in producing the desired, final exterior shape. A strip of soft leather facilitates the creation of a smooth finish. Then onto the next one.

Gloria is sitting a few feet away, beginning to burnish a small bowl she has removed from under a cloth covering several others. She's using one of two almost golf ball sized highly polished river stones given to her by her grandmother. She has already coated the series of bowls with a mixture of a different, much redder clay, and water, so as to create a terra cotta colored paint tone. Once hard and dry, all that Gloria and María have produced over the course of days, is ready for baking.

Some alfareros in the town of Atzompa use above-ground brick and cement ovens. Others in San Bartolo Coyotepec and Ocotlán use below-ground brick-lined pits. Manuel Reyes in Yanhuitlán constructed his own twin kilns out of clay brick, lengths of re-enforced steel, and mud. But the women of San Marcos, each and every time they want to bake their clay pieces, build a makeshift enclosure at ground level, made variously of discarded bed spring, pieces of rusted through wheel barrow, bent bicycle tire rim, old sections of otherwise unusable laminated metal, and broken pieces of pottery which have not survived a prior firing.

A cousin sometimes comes by in a truck to sell Gloria and María a load of twigs, branches and rotted out logs, for anywhere between 400 and 1200 pesos, depending on the load size. Sometimes he brings by dried agave leaves, stock, and pieces from the heart or piña which have for some reason not been harvested for mezcal production. The women themselves often gather up similar pieces of potential fuel while in the course of walking the hills outside of their village, and tie them up to both sides of their mule before heading back home.

A day of baking can usually proceed smoothly if there is no rain, and any earlier precipitation has not left the wood wet; if it's not too windy; and of course if there is a sufficient supply of burnable product on hand, and not too much of the scrap metal has been rendered unusable through the beginning stages of decomposition / disintegration.

Typically, María is in charge of process, while Luci assists, and Gloria divides her time between doing other household chores such as cooking tortillas and being called upon when María tires or has been affected by the intense heat, or a stage in production is time-sensitive.

Gloria, Luci and María at Luci's public school graduation party
All the pottery to be baked is assembled outside, in close proximity to the area where the "oven" will be built: a series of rustic clay pots --- an order for a client who makes and sells piñatas; three comals which were not sufficiently fired on a previous occasion; numerous clay figures of different sizes and forms, for the Tlacolula tourist trade; and an assortment of functional pots, bowls and plates, as well as a few small spoons and tiny colanders.

A circular base approximately two meters in diameter is created, using preferably bed spring placed atop a couple of staggered layers of brick, since such a foundation provides for aeration. Broken pots, old metal receptacles, roofing tile, and whatever else is close at hand creates a confining perimeter. Small twigs and pieces of agave heart are placed underneath. María cuts agave leaves with a machete. With the aid of an extremely heavy, meter-and-a-half long crow bar known as a barreta, Gloria pitches in by splitting log pieces and lengths of dried agave stock. María and Luci build a flammable base atop the spring. With gingerly proficiency, María both directs and assists in placement of the pieces. From her years of experience she knows how to best achieve even firing and avoid breakage.

More of each class of burnable, as well as dried tumbleweed, is carefully placed on top of the clay pieces. Hot ash from making tortillas is shoveled into crevices to facilitate incineration, while a couple of matches set to a few special added twigs, a natural kindling, assures a quick light. A fairly strong wind fuels an initially fledgling fire, and within seconds the blaze is raging and smoke is billowing. More branches and died agave parts are tossed on, with the upmost care since multi-directional wind tunnels have been created. Gloria must fully cover her head to ensure that spark does not ignite her hair. Each takes a turn extricating herself from the swirling, seemingly out-of-control flames. Finally, sheets of rusted metal are strategically placed alongside, and atop, to control the entry of air being drawn to the inner portions of the enclosure.

The morning's work completed, flames are left to dissipate, while Gloria, María and Luci sit, have a drink of fresh fruit juice, and rest. After about 45 minutes baking will have been completed. The area will be left to cool, while Gloria and María return to their simple work room, add a bit of water to their drying clay, and begin kneading before once again beginning production of another diverse lot. Later in the day the oven will be disassembled, pottery removed with hopefully a minimal amount of breakage, ash dusted off. The women of San Marcos Tlapazola will then wrap and box their merchandise in preparation for their next trip to market.

Most Sundays María can be found sitting on the ground with Luci, with an array of rustic clay figures and masks, as well as a selection of traditional Zapotec cooking and serving utensils displayed in front of them, on one side of an outside aisle in the Tlacolula marketplace. Gloria will be directly across from them, pouring cups of tejate to thirsty passersby.

Alvin Starkman has a Masters in anthropology and a law degree. Now a resident of Oaxaca, Alvin writes, tours travelers to the sights --- including excursions to visit San Marcos Tlapazola --- and owns Casa Machaya Oaxaca Bed & Breakfast, a unique Oaxaca bed and breakfast experience providing Oaxaca accommodations which combine the comfort and service of Oaxaca hotels with the personal touch of quaint country inn style lodging.

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