Published February 2002
Each year, in the early Spring, I travel out to Rio Blanco Tonaltepec. Rio Blanco is White River, but it is really only a trickling stream eating away the flesh from the bones of these tired white and red hills scratched dry by pick and plow for the last twenty centuries. This place is on the top of Oaxaca, the high Mixteca, and catches the cold, thin wind. It is a quiet, empty place.
Down by the stream are two or three stone and white adobe houses guarded by the shade of six old ash trees and the disintegrating remains of a large stone church, built in those more pious centuries when the Spaniards carried the word of God on the tips of their swords. Up on the rippled slopes of the surrounding hills little houses are scattered along the trails. White adobe, stone and red tile roofs with a few sheep, donkeys and dogs lingering about. These are the homes of the folks who never left when things got bad a fat handful of centuries ago after the farmers of the Mixtec kingdoms had worked these soils to sterile death.
But these last few houses and the dozen families that they hold don't need soil. They are potters and their crops are made of clay, that most useless of soils. Cracked dry and stonehard most of the time or too damn slick to walk on. In Rio Blanco, history has surrounded the potters with the stuff.
I visit each Spring to let the potters know I'm still alive and to make sure it's mutual. Each year I tell them that I'll be back in a couple of months with the big Red Ford 600 Truck and that they should go ahead and make all the pots they can. "Let's see if we can really fill it this year." I always say. And some years we do. It depends on a dozen little factors like rain, sun, health, motivation, the moods of the clay, etc.
The pottery is beautiful, wild, ancient pottery. Round pots for the kitchen fire, long jugs with pointed ends for fetching water on donkey back, pots with basket-like handles arching over the top that serve as lunch pails for the men going off to work in yonder fields. It is here in Rio Blanco that they boil the bark of those little oak trees that cap the bald hills like toupees, using the tannin rich juice as a stain on their pots. They splatter it across the pot with a rag as it is pulled, very hot, out of the stone kiln. The stain sizzles, bounces, spits and marks the pot with a frenzied brown striping with all the look of abstract, modern art. Except that this was modern about 2,000 years ago.
Two months later I return and fill the truck with this pottery from these potters, and mixed with fine pots from a half dozen other backcactus villages, send it all up to the USA where it gets sold to folks who put it on their shelves and admire it. Of course they have little idea of where it is from, who makes it, the history that it holds or what the pots are used for back in the far south of Mexico. That's ok, you can't know every thing, not even with the internet.
But this isn't the story I'm telling, simply the back drop. One early Spring when I showed up to announce the coming of the Red Truck I found a man busy threshing wheat out by Juana's house. Apparently wheat does well in white, clayey soil, for it is the main crop of the region. Here the tortillas aren't corn, they are wheat. The man was threshing in a large circle, ten feet in diameter with a worn stone floor and a curb of stones around the perimeter. In the middle was a wooden post to which were roped, side by side, four donkeys and a mule. Behind them, chasing the four donkeys and mule round and round the post, and thereby causing them to stomp or thresh the piles of wheat below, was a man in a white straw hat. I recognized him as Juana's husband.
He stopped for a moment when I arrived to shake my hand and welcome me back. He was a bit breathless and somewhat dizzy. After brief formalities he got back to the chase. I stood and watched the event for a bit. This wasn't something I saw too often back home on the range. I noticed that he had the donkeys sorted along the line. Right next to the post was a skinny and feeble old creature who'd certainly been around the block a few times. Each donkey further out from the post was a bit bigger, and the end beast was a sturdy mule. So worked the threshing engine.
Of course the furthest animal out would have to do the most running as it had a bigger circle to run, and therefore would need to be the strongest. I watched a bit longer and then saw Juana's husband pull off his white straw hat and close in behind the second donkey from the outside. The donkey had lifted it's tail and moments later, without losing stride, it let fall steaming, fresh rounds of donkey manure. And there was the hat, like a bowl, to catch them lest they should fall into the wheat and foul the harvest. Juana's husband flung the hot manure from his hat and out of the threshing ring, where it landed with a green plop on the white soil.
He then put his hat back on and continued with his run. Which got me wondering, was he chasing those donkeys to keep them hustling or was he simply the dizzy pooper scooper? I didn't ask though, rather I tipped my hat farewell to him and went off to find Juana. She's the potter after all, and I had to let her know I'd be around in a couple of months.
Lorena's Note: The People's Guide to Mexico Website is publishing a series of stories about Erics adventures in what he describes as the "back-cactus" of Oaxaca. Visit Eric's homepage for his latest tale.
Oaxacan Traditional Arts Workshops and Journeys
Eric Mindling leads journeys and workshops in backcactus Oaxaca among potters, weavers and traditional artists. These trips take us into the depths of old Oaxaca to experience pottery, weaving, hospitality and other arts as they have been practiced for 4,000 years. These are dusty road and crowing rooster trips into the fabulous yonder with eight participants and two guides who will take you off the map.
For more information visit www.manos-de-oaxaca.com (look forWorkshops and Journeys) or write to Eric Mindling at <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Apto Postal 1452 Oaxaca, Oax. cp 68000 Mexico
phone 011 52 (954) 7-4534 fax 011 52 (952) 1-4186
© 2002 by Eric Mindling