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Welcome to Traditions Mexico´s Blog!

We’ve just started our blog and we’re going to be filling it with lots of stories and photos from our tours, experiences shared by our customers and stories from our hosts in the communities.

Profound Oaxaca Tour

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Off the Beaten Path with Traditions Mexico

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By Lauren Alexander on 14/09/207 – Que Pasa Oaxaca – http://www.quepasaoaxaca.com

Traditions Mexico is not your average tour company. Established in 1997, they offer cultural journeys for travelers who want a more immersive and hands-on experience than what may be offered by other tour companies. Their well-experienced guides chaperone travellers through remote villages and sites, journeying deep into the world of Oaxacan art, cuisine, and the lives of its creators.

Our group participated in one of Tradition Mexico’s day trips “Tortilla! Food of the Soul” diving straight to the heart of the tortilla where we witnessed the journey from its humble origins as maíz, to its final presentation in a delicious, savoury meal prepared by local tortilla makers.

The first stop on our adventure was the archeological site of Yagul, perched atop a hill in the Valley of Tlalocula, approximately 1.5 km away from Oaxaca City. The ruins, which served as a city-state for the Zapotec people, were constructed between 500-700 AD and are known to be close to the caves where the first ears of corn were discovered.

One of the first things our guide Antonio pointed out to us was the shards of pottery littering the grounds that were most likely from pots used for cooking, as evidenced by barely detectable burned surfaces on the clay.

While the ruins are not large, as many as eight elite Zapotecan families were said to inhabit the labyrinth-like residential area, otherwise known as “El Palacio de los Seis Patios” (The Palace of Six Patios) at a time.

Not far away from El Palacio lay the ball court, which is the biggest in the Oaxacan Valley and the second largest in Mesoamerica after the court at Chichen Itza. Not only does the altitude of the ruins offer stunning views of the surrounding valley, it also provided the Zapotec with a lookout point for spotting potential invaders.

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Perhaps helped by the fact that we were the only visitors on site at the time, the feeling at Yagul was peaceful and serene. It wasn’t hard to imagine families going about their daily lives, buying and trading goods, and preparing meals to be shared amongst other villagers.

Next, we made our way to San Marcos Tlapazola to meet a collective of women known as Las Mujeres de Barro Rojo, or the Women who Work with Red Clay. As with many of the outlying towns of Oaxaca, San Marcos Tlapazola’s economy is rooted in the production of a craft that is unique to the village, which in this case is items made from clay and glazed a distinctive red color.

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Upon our arrival we were warmly greeted by sisters Dorotea and Macrina who specialize in making pottery from the aforementioned clay that is found locally.

While the women make a variety of goods including gourds for water and animal figures, we had arrived to learn about the comal: the traditional clay cookware upon which tortillas are prepared over an open fire.

The clay used for the pottery is mined from a nearby hill by the women, and is collected in rebozos (shawls), which the women then carry on their backs into town.

The tradition of working with clay has been passed down by women in the family for generations. Even the tools used to mold the clay have been passed down from mother to child, symbolizing the rich tradition of pottery making in the family.

We were surprised to find out that most of the tools used to make the pottery are somewhat commonly found, and perhaps even a bit unconventional. For example, a small piece of basketball is used at the base of the potter’s wheel which allows the women to easily rotate the clay while shaping it. A de-kerneled and dried corn husk is rolled on the surface of the clay to elongate and shape it, and a piece of gourd is used to shape the inside of the pots and form a “belly”.

We sat back and watched as Macrina transformed what was once a large heap of clay into a beautifully finished comal, ready for the fire. The entire process took about ten minutes from start to finish.

The women have ventured long and far to sell their wares, and have even traveled to New York City where Dorotea says the sisters had a successful run. While the sisters’ pottery is internationally in demand, much of it can be found in Oaxaca proper, and of course is available for purchase at the sisters’ locale in San Marcos Tlapazola.

After leaving Las Mujeres de Barro Rojo we began snaking our way through the brick streets of Tlalocula and eventually eventually arriving in a small locale in San Juan Guelaivia.

Here, both yellow and blue corn, or maíz negro, were being ground and formed into a thick masa (dough), by a woman named Celia. As we stood and watched the corn being processed, Celia explained to us that the kernels were previously soaked in limewater, which softens them and makes them easier to grind.

The masa from this batch was to be turned into tortillas that Celia sells to neighborhood regulars and at the local market. On an average day she makes up to 100 tortillas that are either blandas, the softer variety of tortilla, or tlayudas, which are left to cook on the comal for a little bit longer to give them a slight crunch.

Afterwards, we headed to Celia’s house to begin the process of making making our very own tortillas. She began by demonstrating with the press how to flatten the ball of masa to form the perfect tortilla.

Following her example, we began to press our tortillas and then laid them on the comal to begin cooking. After a minute or so Celia whisked the tortillas off the comal and set them aside, as we continued to press tortillas.

Eventually we had made enough, and we enjoyed our novice tortillas with homemade salsa and a few slices of fresh queso.

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Although delicious, the tortillas only served to whet our appetites since we hadn’t eaten since breakfast. To round out the meal, we headed over to the home of Maria Trinidad in Teotitlán del Valle, a village best known for its production of textiles. Maria’s home featured a large loom in the common area outdoors, that was surrounded by traditional rugs, clothing, and other goods the family produced.

Before eating, we gathered on the floor around a metate, which is a stone tool traditionally used to grind corn and other grains. It was clear we were going to have to work for our food, so we observed Maria closely as she ground the corn into fine powder so we’d be able to repeat the process.

After working up a sweat over the metate it was finally time to eat. Maria offered us a mezcal for a job well done and we gathered around the table to enjoy a lovely caldo de pollo that had been cooking for us long before our arrival.

It was a wonderful way to round out our journey, and it provided me with an opportunity to reflect on the generosity of all the women we had visited that day.

The trip was a success not only because it was well guided, but also because of the personal relationships the company has developed with each of the hosts. We were welcomed like family every step of the way, creating an experience that simply could not be found anywhere else.

For more information on tours from Traditions Mexico, click here.

  • Lauren Alexander was a guest of Traditions Mexico.

Silk Production in San Pedro Cajonos

From the Capitol city of Oaxaca, we travel up a beautiful forest road to arrive at the Martinez family home in San Pedro Cajonos. San Pedro is one of three villages that make up the trilogy of the Oaxaca silk route, in the municipality of San Francisco Cajonos.  Recently, the weavers in this area have revived the production and promotion of the ancient technique of silk cultivation. The elaborate process involves growing the silkworms, as well as the spinning, weaving, and dyeing of garments made with this precious material. In the central courtyard of the house, we find a colorful clothesline with fabrics in natural tones: red, indigo, pink and yellow, which give us peek at the texiles the artisans produce. Beautiful shawls with elaborate fringe, scarves, blouses, and huipiles with gradations of color, are all created with natural dyes.

Moisés Martínez, an artisan, who specializes in silk production and natural dyes welcomes us.  Walking through his workshop, he carefully explains every step of the silk cultivation and textile production. This trip is an incredible opportunity for you to personally experience the rich cultural traditions of Oaxaca, Mexico through experienced guides of  Traditions México. (Http://traditionsmexico.com)

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Silkworm Cultivation

It all begins with the thousands of eggs that the female silk moth deposits almost immediately after being fertilized by the male. Moises jokes saying that it is the fastest act of love of all the species on the planet because it happens just barely after the moths have left the cocoons.

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There are two types of silk worms: the criollos (wild or “native”) and the “improved.”  The latter are not bred here from the local silk moths but are purchased from a distributor. While both types of silk moth produce white silk after processing, the cocoons formed by native silk larvae have a deep yellow color, while the cocoon of the “improved” larvae are white. There are also subtle differences in texture. The silk from the native worm is slightly irregular and the silk from the “improved” worm is somewhat smoother.

After the larvae hatch, the main work is to keep them well fed with mulberry leaves. Over the course of  20 days, the hungry worms eat and grow, sometimes eating as much as 90 kilos of leaves a day.  The Martinez family maintains their own grove of mulberry trees a few miles from their home to provide enough leaves for the hungry works. Keeping the grove healthy and abundant is also part of the silk production process.

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After three weeks, the worms stop eating and their color changes to a transparent green. This color change is the sign that they are ready to form their cocoons of silk. Moises and his family spread out the cocoons on oak boards and wait for the worms to do their work.

Yarn and Fabric

The first step in making the yarn, is to boil the hard cocoons which softens them to a small mass of fibers. It is also during this boiling and washing that the cocoons from the native wild silk worms lose their yellow color and become white.

In some parts of the world, the boiling process is done when the worm is still alive inside the cocoon, killing the worm.  But the Martinez family prefers to wait for the moth to mature and naturally abandon the cocoon.  Not only is this kinder to the worms, but it is important for the family to allow the moths to mature and generate new eggs for the next crop.

Spinning into yarn is done manually with drop-spindle or with a spinning wheel.  It is only after these long processes that the skeins of silk yarn are formed and ready to weave.

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Almost all members of the Martinez family weave on a traditional backstrap loom, a weaving technique used in Central America for thousands of years.

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After about a week for the weaving process, the women create elaborate knotted fringe on many of the rebozos, scarves and some of the blouses. Moises recently invented a wooden tool that helps with this work.

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Natural Dyes

After the weaving and knotting, the pieces are ready to be dyed with natural dyes. Moises and his brother Joseph, especially like to experiment with dyeing techniques such as ikat or shibori. They are continuously participating in textile innovation workshops. They enjoy trying new things and are aware that it will allow them to reach a specialized market for their products.

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Moises has already made the dye pots to demonstrate the process for us since some of these concentrates take days or weeks to prepare. With only a handful of dyestuffs: pericón (wild chamomile), palo de Brazil (Brazilwood), indigo (indigo) and cochinilla (cochineal) the expert dyers in the family will show us how they achieve hundreds of shades.

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The challenge for the Martinez family and all the silk producers in the Cajonos region is, undoubtedly, to find the right markets for the sale of their products. At first glance the prices of the products may seem high.  But after witnessing the elaborate process of the cultivation of the worms to the fine finishing of the colorful woven textile and you know experience, time and care it takes, know that the pieces are priceless.

For more information about our day tours to San Pedro Cajonos, contact Traditions México at: connect@traditionsmexico.com

  • Article and photographs by Claudia Muñoz. Translation by Carolyn Kallenborn.