Alvin Starkman

Every summer during the rainy season in the Sierra Norte of Oaxaca, southern Mexico, both tourists and Oaxacan residents alike gather for a weekend of food, hiking, discovery and related activities with an emphasis on ecotourism. Their common goal is to hunt for, celebrate and learn more about wild mushrooms (hongos silvestres) in a magical setting – the pristine, ecologically protected forests of tall conifers, brilliant wildflowers and majestic agave in and around the town of Cuahimoloyas.
The 11th annual Feria Regional de Hongos Silvestres (regional wild mushroom fair) was held August 6th & 7th, 2011, in San Antonio Cuajimoloyas. The festival, organized by the municipality with support from a Oaxacan ecotourism agency and mycological groups, has always had four interrelated foci within the context of attaining its broad objective – ensuring the highest level of enjoyment and satisfaction for all participants:
Food: Activity from dawn to dusk indulges in every shape, size and color of edible hongo silvestre, prepared using a multitude of cooking techniques, focused upon discovering new recipes centering on how to best incorporate a variety of distinct wild and cultivated mushrooms into Mexican cuisine with an emphasis on Oaxacan culinary tradition – hongos in traditional moles, empanadas and quesadillas–foil wrapped with other succulent fresh ingredients, herbs and spices; stir fried with potatoes and chorizo; marinated as a preserve.

· Scientific Inquiry: Brief seminars by local and invited experts, mycologists teaching cultivation, identify and distinguish edible, poisonous, and of course hallucinogenic mushrooms of the species imbibed by both Alice and the followers of Mexico’s famed María Sabina. Fact, lore, and artistic representations of hongos silvestres dating to pre – Hispanic times are explored.

· Ecotourism: Participants can also take part in hiking through the cloud forests of Oaxaca’s Sierra Norte with a guide trained in identifying scores of different varieties of mushroom, the object being to gather the broadest diversity and rarest specimens; staying overnight in log cabins, each equipped with hot water, comfy beds and a firewood fueled hearth can also be experienced.
Financial Support for the Local Economy: The event is organized so that reasonably priced weekend and day passes guarantee healthy attendance and thus a significant economic boon for the municipality as well as a Sunday marketplace providing villagers with an opportunity to sell their local handicrafts, organic produce, prepared foods and freshly cooked full meals of which mushrooms naturally steal the spotlight across the board.

The weekend exalted the mushroom to a Mexican foodstuff worthy of celebrity status, while at the same time supported Oaxaca’s growing Sierra Norte ecotourism industry. Pomp and ceremony combined with uncharacteristic (for Oaxaca) organization.

Participants arrived in Cuahimoloyas from Oaxaca by bus (two hours) and car (one hour) Saturday morning. The center of activity was the municipal offices and large courtyard for registration and ticket purchase, in the case of those who had not already done so in Oaxaca.

Groups of ten visitors plus a guide headed out for the mushroom hunt. Those with greater stamina elected the most arduous trek. That involved more hiking and climbing than walking to outlying areas with a greater abundance and variety of hongos. Wild mushrooms ranging from pinhead to almost watermelon size were sought out and gingerly picked from under and alongside beds of pine needles, fallen tree branches, agave leaves and cow dung.

By late afternoon the groups of hunters, each with their wicker baskets bountifully filled with mushrooms, gathered back at a makeshift outdoor mess hall, the scene reminiscent of that in a western movie with ranchers returning to camp at the end of a cattle drive. First, a well-earned comida of choice mushroom dishes as well as more typical Oaxacan fixins such as refried beans, grilled meats, steamed tamales and of course tortillas and tlayudas took place.
Each team then displayed the fruits of its labor on long picnic benches, some arranging their mushrooms according to species, others electing a more artistic arrangement. The toadstool judges tallied the numbers. The winning team had collected 254 different types of wild mushroom. Another team took away the prize for best hongo silvestre. While a spectacular specimen of renowned red, white flecked Amanita muscaria competed, there were no second or third places of honor. Its picker nevertheless paraded it around the compound with motherly pride.

Drivers caravanned each mushroom enthusiast in open backed diesel trucks back to the starting area where once again everyone was divided up: those who would be returning to Oaxaca and overnighters heading for cabins. Some cabins were in Cuahimoloyas a short walk away, while others were in nearby villages such as La Nevería and Benito Juárez or out in the woods further removed from the Sierra Norte towns.
For those staying on, dusk had arrived, so the evening was spent first getting settled, with warming fireplace ablaze, then relaxing in the cabins recounting the day; some quietly partied with snacks and wine, beer or mezcal, others turning in early.

Arriving back at fair headquarters next morning, stalls were being set up with produce and crafts as well as eateries for a mushroom breakfast. Sunday morning was reminiscent of a typical weekend day at a rural Canadian or American farmers’ market. The afternoon consisted of a series of optional seminars lead by the mycologists. Interspersed between the seminars participants indulged in snacking, examining the large indoor display of recently retrieved then labeled regional mushrooms, and all this was followed by more food – another full comida highlighted by mushroom dishes.

Most of those who had come from Oaxaca for only the final day’s activities had arrived by noon, in time for lunch. The comida was once again self serve, everyone seated along large tables extending the length of a nondescript building, chatting with friends as well as with strangers. After all, hiking and hunting for hongos silvestres in Oaxaca’s Sierra Norte, indulging in down home Mexican food as never experienced before, and supporting regional ecotourism were more than sufficient a tie to bind.

Day Two concluded with a traditional Oaxacan Guelaguetza with all its glory, pageantry and giving. Some visitors stayed to its conclusion and continued sampling foods, buying mushrooms and chatting; others, mostly those who had already seen many a Guelaguetza, left mid – performance to return home to Oaxaca; while many supporters of Oaxaca’s ecotourism industry, mainly tourists, stayed in Cuahimoloyas for a day or two longer – more hiking and hunting, mushroom indulging and soaking up Oaxaca’s Sierra Norte. It’s hard to bid farewell to a weekend of exceptional Oaxacan food, entertainment and hospitality, especially after experiencing its Feria Regional de Hongos Silvestres.

As a consequence of the innovative thinking of Kurt Schwitters, Pablo Picasso, Marcel Duchamp, Robert Rauschenberg and others, the 20th century bore witness to the concept of found object as visual art becoming a mainstream European and American medium of artistic expression. In the southern Mexico state of Oaxaca, itself known for quality, cutting edge art, found object has received attention over the past 20 years. Take for example the masterful works of Damien Flores, the collages produced by Rodolfo Morales during the final years of his life, and young Mixteco artist Manuel Reyes’ use of archaeological pieces as well as local sands and soils as aids in expressing the strong sense of indigeneity he seeks to impart through his art.

Oaxaca’s 16 native cultures, the diversity of its landscapes and climatic regions, and its rich human history beginning with pre-Hispanic times, continuing through the era of the Conquest, to ongoing 21st century human struggles, provide a diverse, ultra – rich proving ground. Within it, visiting and resident artists, tourists with a bent towards antiques and collectibles, and both expat and native born Oaxacans who are inclined to think out-of-the-box, can readily encounter found objects to incorporate into their aesthetic lives.

Contemporary Manifestations of Found Object as Visual Art

A found object within the context of visual art may be defined as the artistic use of an object, man – made or otherwise, which has not been created for a predominantly artistic purpose. It can be a toaster, a shoe, a car part, a beaded jacket, a newspaper, a simple tool or a farm implement, a leaf or stone, a wrestler’s mask, a clump of clay, or a Coke bottle – empty or full. One can designate three broad categories of found objecst which are then transformed into the realm of art:

An object encountered by chance or sought out by design, for the purpose of using it essentially “as found,” to enhance the aesthetic environment of a home, an office, a store or other workplace environment, or a landscape. Of course it can be a featured artwork in an exposition (i.e. Duchamp’s seminal display of a ceramic urinal in 1917) which eventually finds its way into one of the three foregoing contextual environments or as a permanent gallery exhibit.

An object or objects encountered by chance or sought out by design and incorporated into a traditional piece of art such as an oil or watercolor for the purpose of enhancing its overall aesthetics, or the imagery its author seeks to impart, or both (i.e. Manuel Reyes’ use of potsherds). Objects are usually sought out by design for the purpose of employing them to create a specific art form, which may or may not include a utilitarian function (i.e. rusted horse shoes made into a wine rack or polished old metal car parts fashioned into a twirling ballerina).

Found Objects in Oaxaca for the Expat Resident and Tourist Alike

Artists resident in Oaxaca should have no difficulty advancing the breadth and quality of their works within the realm of the last two categories noted above. They already have a trained eye and a mind yearning to continually grow in different directions with a view to keeping the art fresh, both on a personal level and for their benefit of public consumption. It’s the availability of the broadest selection of Oaxacan material culture, objects which can be used “as found,” which should attract the attention of non – artist expat residents and tourists alike. The case can be made within the following parameters:

1. Middle and upper classes have an eye for a different and often broader continuum of objects which they deem aesthetically pleasing, than working and lower classes.
2. There is a much larger per capita middle and upper class in the United States and Canada, than in Oaxaca, of which a significant segment of the former is inclined to visit Oaxaca.
3. It’s relatively difficult for members of those same two classes in Oaxaca, having grown up surrounded by and conditioned to ignore much of their day – to – day material culture (indigenous or otherwise), to appreciate its aesthetic value; they are accordingly less interested in its acquisition.
4. Based on the foregoing, relative to the American and Canadian phenomenon over the past 50+ years, found objects in Oaxaca have only to a minor extent become deemed collectibles.

The Transformation from Found Object to Collectible

When an object becomes a collectible, its acquisition price tends to increase exponentially. The first time an American saw a discarded or stored away pine foundry form, he probably picked it up for free or at a nominal charge (perhaps its value as firewood). After he took it home and then cleaned and oiled it and put it on the wall in his den, he began using the found object as art; a piece of wood used to fabricate industrial metal, now adorning an upscale contemporary household.

Foundry forms became collectibles, offered for sale in antique stores and interior design galleries. Much in the same vein, old working wooden duck decoys have been transformed from utilitarian hunting paraphernalia into thousand dollar (and indeed much more) adornments of fireplace mantels; and wooden tongue and groove Canadian Butter and Southern Comfort boxes initially used to transport product from manufacturer to market have become aesthetically pleasing receptacles to store kindling for those fireplaces.

These days one rarely picks up a foundry form, a decoy or an old wooden advertising box “for a song” because each has been transformed into a class of collectible. In Canada and the United States, and it is suggested throughout most of the Western World, a solitary found object as visual art is virtually non – existent outside of the context of being offered for sale as art, folk art or otherwise for interior design purposes. On the other hand, objects found for the purpose of either incorporating them into a traditional art form (newspaper comic clippings, potsherds, shoe laces) or fabricating a piece of art using only that class
of object (the car part ballerina), will be easily encountered for generations to come, bought outright based on non – aesthetic value, scrounged on the street, or found in a junk yard and purchased by the pound.

Found Objects in Oaxaca Still in Abundance for Aficionados of Art & Aesthetics

Insofar as Oaxaca remains a developing state, with a middle / upper class contingent as previously described (small, generally unconditioned to appreciate a certain level of aesthetics), its realm of collectibles has not reached the level one encounters in the Western World or even within the Mexico City environs. This provides interesting buying opportunities for visitors to Oaxaca.

Although in each of the three or four downtown Oaxaca antique stores one does encounter found objects, these particular objets d’art have been transformed into collectibles over the past few decades and in some cases merely years (stone metates or grinding stones, well worn ritual masks, pine votive candle holders, chango mezcalero clay painted mezcal bottles, etc.). However, by getting out of the city and knocking on villagers’ doors and even simply walking along dusty roads, visitors can still stumble upon a treasure trove of found objects which when brought home to be givien proper placement and juxtaposition are easily transformed into visual art.
Of course residents of Oaxaca are not restricted in the size or weight of what they choose to transform, nor by customs and immigration rules. Hence, one might find in their homes, now as art, an old rusted iron plough adorning a well landscaped garden or a pine mule saddle, riddled with tiny holes evidencing a period of insect infestation, now gracing an interior wall of a new home, draped with colored twine and worn leather parts, all as originally found in a farmer’s shed.

Indeed the traveler on a brief visit to Oaxaca can also return home with a bounty of found object art. The big old rusty plough and the well worn wooden saddle are found objects which today complement the aesthetics of this writer’s Oaxacan home.

Opportunities abound to find smaller found objects, manageable for export, to transform into art, simply by exploring villages in the state’s central valleys. Examples? Just keep a keen eye and remember to think out-of-the-box.

Gloria Morales Pérez spent most of her life in Anaheim, California, living what for many Mexican immigrants is the American dream – hard work, resulting in a lifestyle that included going to the show and out for Chinese food on weekends as well as taking the children to Disneyland and spending the occasional evening in a Latin nightclub. But on September 23, 2010, the 25-year-old Zapotec native returned home to the tiny municipality of San Bartolomé Quialana, Tlacolula, in the southern Mexico state of Oaxaca. Gloria shed her blue jeans for customary regional garb of colorful satin dress and brightly embroidered apron, left her two California jobs to spend virtually every waking hour raising her children, and gave up the anonymity of urban living together with the freedom to do as she pleased in favour of tolerating traditional indigenous normative behavior.


The bright, attractive and fully trilingual (English, Spanish and Zapoteco – locally referred to as dialecto) Oaxacan, resides with children Juan age 6 and Daniel age 3 and mother-in-law Mariana in a one bedroom brick and cement house tucked away at the end of a spacious dirt-floored courtyard, part of an extended family compound. Husband Benito owns this particular portion of the homestead. He plans to also leave California, in about three months, to reunite with the rest of his family.


The answer to why Gloria gave it all up and returned to her cultural roots, a daunting transition for most, lies in understanding the circumstances leading to her family’s initial emigration when she was only six years old, examining the role her parents played in determining the twists and turns her life took while living in the US, delving deeper into her California lifestyle, and learning a little about San Bartolomé Quialana.



San Bartolomé Quialana, Tlacolula, Oaxaca

San Bartolomé Quialana (“San Bartolomé”) is a 10 minute drive from the city of Tlacolula de Matamoros, capital of the district of Tlacolula. Tlacolula is noted for its Sunday market, attracting both merchants and buyers from the city of Oaxaca, as well as from towns and villages within Oaxaca’s central valleys and further beyond. Aside from the broad array of goods available for purchase at the market, the tianguis, as it’s commonly termed, attracts tourists and Oaxacans alike because of its color and pageantry, attributable in large part to the large number of Zapotec natives in attendance from villages such as San Bartolomé and nearby San Marcos Tlapazola, noted for production of terra cotta pottery.
Founded in 1422, almost 100 years before the Spanish arrived in Oaxaca, according to 2010 census statistics the village has a population of 2,471. Sixty percent is female and 40 percent is comprised of minors. Eighty-five percent of residents over five years of age speak dialecto, most of whom also speak Spanish. Of those 15 years of age and older, 441 are illiterate. Of youths 6 – 14 years of age, 70 have not attended school despite the fact that the village has five schools, one of which is officially bilingual (Spanish-Zapoteco). Half the population has not completed public school. The closest high school is in Tlacolula.


There are 524 households in San Bartolomé, 265 of which have dirt floors and 27 of which consist of only a single room. Construction materials are predominantly clay brick, cement and adobe, with laminated sheet metal often used for roofing. Most but not all households have electricity and indoor plumbing. Eight residences have computers, 75 have washing machines and 413 have televisions.


San Bartolomé has a health clinic provided by the Mexican national health care plan (IMSS), although only 27 residents are paid participants in the broader program. The village has a small daily marketplace, Tuesday being its official market day when vendors from a couple of surrounding villages ply their wares. There are six variety stores where one can buy clothing, tacos and other simple, freshly prepared small meals, as well as packaged snacks, beverages and household goods; but residents generally do their shopping in Tlacolula. It costs only 5 pesos (about 45 cents) to there by sharing a moto taxi (tuk-tuk).


There is a small police force serving the municipality’s 50 square kilometres (which includes farm lands surrounding the village proper). The municipal government coexists with indigenous customary law known as “usos y  ostumbres”, not uncommon in towns and villages throughout southern Mexico.


The predominant economic activity of San Bartolomé residents is subsistence farming, although according to statistics less than a quarter of the population is engaged in any remunerative enterprise. Animal husbandry and cultivating herbs, vegetables (mainly corn, beans, squash),agave (or maguey, used in the production of mezcal) and some fruit are the primary activities, supplemented by hunting. There is also some cottage industry with some manufacturing employing sewing and hand- embroidering as well as basketry using a bamboo-like river reed known as carrizo and hemp – like twine known as ixtle, derived from agave leaves. Production of corn-based foodstuffs for sale in Tlacolula such as tortillas, tlayudas, tamales and atole round out the list of some of the most frequently encountered activities. Building trades are also represented (i.e. carpentry, iron works, electrical, and of course bricklaying).




The Morales Pérez Family in San Bartolomé Quialana Prior to Emigration to California

Gloria was born in San Bartolomé on February 21, 1986. She has three siblings. Sister Lidia (age 21) and brother Miguel (age 26) were also born in San Bartolomé, while Miriam (age 17) was born in Anaheim. While in San Bartolomé, their mother Emilia eked out a modest existence by sewing and embroidering, and selling hand-made tortillas. Her father Luis was never really a wage earner in the village. He left at age 14 and returned only periodically, of course long enough to marry Emilia and father the children.


Luis left the family more or less for the final time and moved to Washington state when Gloria was three years old, becoming a documented immigrant during a period of amnesty. He entered into a conjugal relationship with another woman and had a child. But when word filtered back to him that his wife had “been” with another man, he returned to Oaxaca. But in fact, someone had tried to rape Emilia, she defended herself with a knife and the aggressor ended up in the hospital. Luis didn’t learn the truth until arriving back in San Bartolomé. But that was enough for Luis to make a unilateral decision to relocate his family to the US. He selected Anaheim because San Bartolomé villagers before him had tended to migrate to Anaheim or other nearby California cities. This pattern of emigration is extremely common in the state of Oaxaca and other Mexican states, and in fact internationally as is born out in the anthropological literature.


For those first six year of Gloria’s life in San Bartolomé, she grew up in a Zapoteco-only speaking household, and accordingly learned very little Spanish given the more general makeup of San Bartolomé’s socialization and education of a Young Female Oaxaca native in Anaheim,California. The first couple of years for any immigrant transplanted from a foreign culture are difficult, but for Gloria life was particularly arduous. Not only did she not know a word of English, but she lacked Spanish, a working knowledge of which would have put her in good stead for socializing with other Latin Americans, school children in particular. In her case, however, it was family dynamics which played a more significant role than for perhaps most in her position:


“At that time my mother had to work two jobs, so I was responsible for looking after my younger sister and even my older brother. I hardly saw my mother for those first couple of years; and since my father has always been irresponsible and a heavy drinker, he couldn’t be relied upon. My parents were always fighting because my father was unwilling to provide for the family, in large part because of his alcoholism.”
Luis had always found employment in the gardening and landscaping field, but his brushes with the law, which landed him in jail (i.e. impaired driving), and his unwillingness to acknowledge his obligation as a major financial and emotional contributor to the family, resulted in significant challenges for Gloria, her siblings, and of course their mother. Emilia was the rock of the family, often working two jobs, invariably in a hotel housekeeping capacity. But money was still tight for the family: “Occasionally we would get to go to Pizza Hut or Chuck E. Cheese, but in those years we didn’t really have the opportunity to enjoy leisure time; we would never go to the movies, out to the mall, or even for walks.” Gloria enjoyed going to school and learning. She had attainable career aspirations. Her parents, however, played a significant role in determining whether or not Gloria would ever achieve her goals, adversely impacting on the choices available to her and how she would react to their dictates.


Gloria was active in extra-curricular soccer and cross country. But it was her junior army class in Grade 11, JROTC (the US federal government Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps program in high schools) which motivated her the most: “I really wanted to be in the army. I liked everything about it from what I had read and what I was learning in JROTC. In fact I was the sergeant of my troupe. But my parents didn’t want me to join the armed forces because it would have meant moving away. They made it clear to me that they would refuse to sign my enrollment papers. My joining the army would have helped me with my immigration papers.”


[Gloria, her husband, her mother and her Mexican-born siblings are all undocumented immigrants; only her father was “legal.” However, his status was revoked as a result of his criminal record, and he was deported toTijuana. He cleverly managed to use his earlier immigrant papers to return to California in January, 2011.]


Immediately after her parents had made their decision regarding the army, Gloria’s grades dropped, and she promptly became pregnant by her boyfriend Benito. Because her pregnancy was high risk and she required early hospitalization, Gloria had to drop out of school four months shy of graduating from grade 12. Nevertheless, Gloria did not lose her motivation to achieve a career once her dream of entering the army had been dashed. Of her own initiative she entered the North Orange County Regional Occupational Program (ROP), a career-technical training program, with a view to becoming a medical assistant. She passed the first three-month semester, but was not permitted to continue because of her immigration status.



A Oaxacan Quince Añera Gets Pregnant, Married and is Finally California Dreamin’

Life changed dramatically after Gloria met Benito. They initially became acquainted at her quince años celebration. He was also born in San Bartolomé. In Anaheim he had been living with Gloria’s aunt. Like her father, he was employed in the gardening and landscaping field, but their similarities stopped there. He was kind, supportive, motivated to earn a living, and as Gloria subsequently learned, a caring husband and father.


By the time Gloria and Benito had met, both Gloria’s English and Spanish were excellent, but her Zapoteco had begun to wane. She credits Benito (as well as her mother) with helping her out, as words, phrases and grammatical structures in dialecto got garbled or simply forgotten. Gloria and Benito married in Las Vegas but subsequently had an Ahaheim church wedding. They initially lived with her aunt but moved in with her mother when she was six months pregnant with Juan.


When the baby was 10 months old, the three of them returned to San Bartolomé for an eight week visit In Gloria’s 17 years in Anaheim this was the only time she returned home for a visit. When Juan was a year old, just after the family’s return to Anaheim, Gloria began working as a supermarket cashier. She then quit in favour of taking two jobs, working at a fast food chain and at a gas station as the owner’s assistant. She maintained both jobs for five years, earning about $400 per week, until returning to San Bartolomé with only one brief hiatus in the interim towards the end of her pregnancy with Daniel.
After Daniel’s birth the family moved into their own two bedroom apartment. It was the first time that the children were able to have their own bedroom, with Gloria and Benito having their own private quarters. The family began leading what Gloria terms a middle class lifestyle. They went out and bought themselves a car. They had three steady incomes and did not have to contribute to the living expenses of the rest of her family, particularly burdensome when her father was either not around to help out or was spending a considerable portion of his income on alcohol.


The couple enjoyed going dancing from time to time. They would go out with the kids every weekend, going to the movies and then a restaurant for lunch or dinner, walking around and shopping downtown and even spending a day at Disneyland; Gloria had friends who worked there, and accordingly she would receive free family passes from time to time. There was even disposable income available to buy modern electronics (a laptop and stereo system, for example) and the occasional special toy for Juan.



The Decision to Return to San Bartolomé Quialana, Oaxaca

As much as Calfornia dreamin’ had indeed become a reality, a subtle sense of uneasiness eventually began to weigh upon Gloria’s psyche. Perhaps it had always been there. It wasn’t as if she had made the decision to migrate to the US and then had her dreams crushed. In her case aspirations developed as they do with American-born children, in the school playground, watching TV, learning from teachers, classmates and their families, and even participating in a lifestyle characterized by conspicuous consumption, leisure time and recreation, albeit to a limited extent; yet it was enough to create fantasies, more attainable than through buying lottery tickets.


Gloria’s parents played a major part in stifling the realization of her career potential and thus her ultimate decision to return to San Bartolomé. Gloria opened her own doors to a future, and her parents firmly shut them. They both refused to sign for army enrollment. Her father’s positive immigration status rather than at least easing the ability for Gloria to become documented and proceed with a professional career was revoked as a result of his criminality. While working two jobs was difficult, Gloria’s workplace employment significantly contributed to the ability of the family to live comfortably. “But there [in California] you have to work, work, work to have that lifestyle,” Gloria confesses, “and here [in San Bartolomé] people don’t have to work as much to get by.”


After much discussion, a greater understanding emerges of why Gloria returned, a thought process through which she had apparently not previously gone. As much as Gloria professes to having led a middle class lifestyle, by most accounts it would be considered working class, a difficult working class existence relative to life in San Bartolomé. It bothered Gloria that in California, at least within the context of her employment at the time, “work, work, work” would never lead to home ownership and being able to literally build a future. In San Bartolomé they can improve their own home, with much less effort, and work towards accumulating some of the material goods of a middle class lifestyle. In Anaheim it would always be working to pay the rent and get by, albeit with leisurely Sundays and Disneyland.


That all-pervasive, anti-Mexican racist sentiment, which permeates much of the US, was felt be Gloria and subtly worked on her. Notwithstanding her immediate family’s income, her linguistic skills, and development of her social and employment networks, while living in sunny CA there would always be a lingering sentiment of feeling out of place, removed from one’s roots and ethnicity. How it would have manifested had Gloria ended up proceeding in one or those two career options, one will never know. “Benito didn’t want to go back,” Gloria admits. “When Mexicans like us return home with our American-born children, the children tend to get sick, and as a consequence the family returns to the US,” she explains. “Benito didn’t want to go through all that expense of coming here and then going back.”


In June, 2010, Gloria decided to return to San Bartolomé with their children. What had been in the recesses of her mind promptly came to the fore; she still cannot identify a precipitating event, comment or thought; the time had come.Gloria arrived in Oaxaca on September 23, 2010. Benito plans to follow, in October, 2011. He says he’ll stay for 3 – 4 years. Upon Gloria leaving Anaheim with her children, her parents moved in with Benito. The entire family subsequently moved into a different two bedroom apartment.



Lifestyle of an American Woman & Her American Children in San Bartolomé Quialana, Oaxaca

Gloria awakens to the sound of Juan’s four chickens and dog Frisky howling away in the courtyard, together with the early morning sounds of the street and her neighbors’ chatter and activities. She feeds the children. Their grandmother goes about her business getting her herbs and vegetables ready to take to market in Tlacolula. Gloria, accompanied by Daniel, walks Juan to school. Juan struggles with Spanish. He grew up learning mainly English, with no Zapoteco. Daniel, by contrast, somehow managed to master Spanish, and that remains his most comfortable speaking tongue.


Several extended family members live in and around the compound, and village friends and other family are in close proximity, dropping by throughout the day. Gloria holds court either outside or, when the sun is beating down or it’s raining, in her main indoor living space. It contains a large dining table and chairs, a couple of smaller tables with clothes piled on top, assorted other chairs, a fridge and stove, and a tall contemporary-styled wooden, glass front china cabinet with drawers at the bottom. The adjoining bedroom has two beds, one for Gloria and Juan and the other for Daniel. Their grandmother sleeps in the same room but on the floor, as has been her custom throughout her entire life. Gloria’s brother-in-law bought a bed for his mother, but she wouldn’t use it, because she never has.


When Gloria and the children moved into the house last September, it had a dirt floor. With the assistance of her extended family, she has slowly been making the modest abode more comfortable. It now has a concrete floor. The washroom has been built but is still an outhouse. For showering, the family goes next door to Gloria’s brother-in-law’s home.


From Benito’s weekly income of about $500, he wires $100 to Tlacolula for Gloria to cash; he occasionally sends $150. It’s enough to get by and helped a great deal with the initial improvements to the house. To get the money Gloria must go to Tlacolula every week. Sometimes she goes with the children to the Sunday tianguis to shop; sometimes she goes during the week, if only to pick up her money from the storefront wire service.


Most days Gloria dresses in traditional regional clothing – a brightly embroidered apron over a locally made, long colourful satin dress. “In 17 years of living in Ahaheim,” Gloria asserts, almost boasting,” I wore a dress only twice: once for my quince años and again for my wedding.”


Gloria is often pressured by her mother-in-law to wear only traditional dress, but she now puts on “normal” clothes when she feels like it. But she admits, “I’m now comfortable wearing this kind of clothing, but it took a while. Now I wear what I want and I won’t yield to pressure from anyone in the village.”


San Bartolomé, not unlike other villages in Mexico, or even in small town USA, is a rumor mill. When Gloria has had visitors from California, if there happened to be a male amongst them, the looks, innuendo and suspicion would begin. And even if the group was strictly female, “cavorting” out of the house in the evening was unacceptable. But Gloria has gotten used to it and has found her own inner means of coping. Gloria gets to Oaxaca every 6 – 7 weeks but no more. It’s usually to go shopping with the children in a large American-style supermarket (Soriana) and to the movies. She’s taking the children this Saturday so that Juan can buy a special game from Soriana that his father promised. Benito is wiring an extra 285 pesos, so earmarked.
Benito speaks with Gloria three or four times a day. He has a long distance phone plan for which he pays $60 a month. It enables him to make unlimited calls of unlimited duration to Gloria’s land line. Gloria and Benito also text one another throughout the day.


Monday Gloria begins working ten hours a week at a Tlacolula commercial mezcal factory and retail outlet. The owners value her ability to communicate well in Spanish, Zapoteco, and English. She’s not entirely sure exactly what she’ll be doing, but has been going in from time to time to learn about the functioning of the operation. She has no idea about the pay.



Epilogue: Gloria’s Future in San Bartolomé Quialana, Oaxaca

By most accounts, while living in Anaheim Gloria was a working class American woman of indigenous Mexican decent; fluent in English and working two jobs, she and her husband are raising two American-born children in a single family household. Their lifestyle was not all that different from that of working class urban whites with a bit of ethnic flare.


The dashing of Gloria’s hopes is not that unusual, either, in terms of parental control of decision-making over minor progeny. Her immigration status (to only a minor extent) and the strong sense of Zapotec indigeneity and the allure it apparently continually held for Gloria were, together with that subtle American racism, determinative of Gloria’s life path, at least to date.


On balance, Gloria and her family will return to Anaheim some day. She’s concerned about schooling for her children:


“School here is okay, but in order to attend a good school, you have to go to a private school and that costs a lot. And to go beyond high school, you have to go to Oaxaca [or further abroad], and it’s very expensive. And of course American schools and colleges are better. I want the children to have a good education. Eventually we’ll return to the states, but it’ll be to better the chances for our children to get a quality education and have good careers.


“To get into the US when I was six, we took buses to the border at Tijuana. There were five of us, and I think the coyote charged us $400; but it was stressful and took close to ten tries. But getting back into the US again? No, it’s not an issue; we know we can do it and will do it if we want to; the issues are how long it will take and of course the cost, but for us, the ability to get back to Anaheim will never be a concern.”

Lawyer Kaireddyn (Kai) Orta began fabricating his own, rudimentary tools for making tattoos in 1996, while still in high school here in Oaxaca, Mexico. One day a neighbor saw him carrying a shoe box and asked him what was in it. Kai showed him the adapted motor, needles, ink and other paraphernalia. The neighbor was the recipient of Kai’s first tattoo. Kai then began doing tattoos for his schoolmates.


Kai had been interested in tattoos (tatuajes) and body piercing (perforación) since boyhood. It was natural for him, since his father was a history teacher, constantly recounting stories of rituals of Mexico’s
indigenous populations. There was no shortage of books around the house with images of pre-Hispanic peoples who were accustomed to self-adornment. Kai ate it up.


But throughout Kai’s youth, seeing tattoos in the flesh was a rarity. Aside from in books and occasionally coming across a tattooed person on TV, he would only have an opportunity to actually see real live people
with tattoos and body piercings when he would catch a glimpse of mainly North American and European tourists walking the streets of downtown Oaxaca, a Mecca for international tourism.
The modern tradition of tattoos and body piercings had been established in countries such as Canada, the US, Spain and Britain, long before it arrived in Mexico. Like so many representations of emerging subcultures, it takes upwards of a decade for them to catch on in Mexico, especially in the more isolated and conservative regions of the country, like Oaxaca.


The state of Oaxaca was by and large physically isolated from the northern half of the country, and indeed
the broader world, until the arrival of the pan American highway in the late 1940s. While the odd adventurer would make his way down to Oaxaca between then and the early 1960s, it was the hippie movement later that decade and into the early 1970s which opened up southern Mexico to the concept of North American and European counter-cultures, including tattoos, and then body piercing. However the prevailing sentiment of the Mexican middle classes was that their children should be insulated from foreign youth, and all that its subculture stood for.


Leap forward to the 1990s. Change would begin to emerge in Oaxaca. Tattoos, body piercings and other non-traditional forms of self-expression had begun to be perceived as mainstream throughout the Western World. The silver screen and magazines promoting its pierced and tattooed stars had become commonplace. Oaxaca had to take notice. And that included its older generation, which was then forced to recognize if not accept that the ritualized behavior of their grandchildren (and to a much lesser extent their children) could no longer be equated with something devious, dirty and wrong, simply as a consequence of changing their physical appearance through piercing and painting their bodies, permanently. Many in the Oaxacan youth culture were becoming critical thinkers through higher education, therefore, better able to make informed decisions, stand up for themselves, and celebrate themselves.


Kai is thirty years old. Practicing law wasn’t for him. By the time he had graduated and had a taste of the working world of attorneys (less than a year), he had already become an established tattoo and body piercing artist, with his own studio, albeit quite smaller than his current digs. And besides, most lawyers in Oaxaca do not earn the level of income that provides for a middle class lifestyle, at least by Western standards. Kai’s current storefront on Calle Crespo, in the heart of downtown Oaxaca, consists of:


The reception area with long desk and computer, tropical fish filled aquariums, display cases with mainly jewelry relating to body piercings, wooden African floor sculptures and masks (as well as a few Mexican masks), a bookcase filled with albums containing drawings and photographs of mainly tattoos, and two comfortable sofas where customers can browse through the “catalogues” at their leisure A similarly adorned middle room with supply cases by now of course filled with modern, commercial equipment and supplies, and a small adjoining workroom The back room, with chairs and “operating” table, for attending to tattoos and body piercings.


“Here in Oaxaca we don’t refer to ourselves as ‘artistas,’ Kai explains. “In the United States there’s much greater acceptance of the art form and those who are dedicated to the skill, so in the US and other countries such as Canada it’s acceptable to use the term ‘tattoo artist.’ But in Oaxaca we just refer to ourselves as tatuadores.”
During the course of a 3 ½ hour interview at Kai’s studio, his friends and fellow tatuadores from Mexico City, Daniel (Tuna) Larios and his girlfriend Angélica (Angy) de la Mora, were in the shop working and otherwise serving customers, while for part of the time Kai was out running errands.


Tuna has been a tatuador for 12 years while Angy began doing tattoos only a year ago, when she began living with Tuna. Together they opened up a shop in the nation’s capital. Before then Tuna had been doing tattoos for customers at other studios. He was introduced to the trade from having had his body tattooed. Angy learned the skill from Tuna.
But for Angy learning to be a tatuadora was a natural extension. She already held a degree in fine arts from a university in Chihuahua, and had participated in several collective traditional art exhibits. “But it’s easier to make a living doing tattoos than as an artist,” Angy concedes. As distinct from Angy and Kai, most tatuadores in Mexico do not have advanced training for other career paths options.


Tuna and Angy had come to Oaxaca to participate in the twelfth annual Tattoo Fest, held on August 21 & 22, 2010, a couple of days earlier. Kai is one of three festival organizers, and was on the ground floor of the concept when the first fest was held back in 1998. “Until this year the event was called Expo Tatuaje,” Kai clarifies. “We decided to change the name with a view to attracting more foreigners. But back in the early years we held the exposition so that we could meet to exchange ideas, improve access to modern equipment and supplies, and raise the level of consciousness of the Oaxacan community so that hopefully there would be a greater acceptance of what we were doing. Now the purposes and functions of the event are much broader, since we are well on our way to achieving our earlier goals.”
The success of Oaxaca’s Tattoo Fest 2010 was evident from the crowds (hundreds by all estimates) and sales. Tuna and Angy between them did 11 tattoos over the two-day period. “I’ve been coming to the fair for the past four or five years,” Tuna explains, “but this is the first year I can actually say that it was worth my while, profit-wise, to come to Oaxaca. You know I had to close my shop in Mexico City to come here. I think this show has finally turned a corner.”

This year there were approximately thirty booths, about a dozen of which were dedicated to doing tattoos. In the course of a one-hour visit on Sunday, each and every tatuador was kept busy working – and in many cases there were onlookers in queue awaiting their turn. Many vendors had come from other parts of Mexico to participate. They converged on Oaxaca to not only do tattoos and piercings, but to also sell a broad diversity of related materials including: Tattooing and body piercing equipment, supplies and other paraphernalia CDs, DVDs and posters all with alternative themes (both Bob Marley and Alice Cooper live on in Oaxaca) Body piercing and other personal adornments, wrestling masks, and clothing, custom-painted while-u-wait. The event was much more than a sales opportunity for retailers, however. It provided a chance for those in the business to promote their industry, source state-of-the-art and otherwise imported equipment and supplies, and entertain tattoo and piercing collectors, aficionados, and the curious, all under one roof, the Salón Señorial located across from Oaxaca’s renowned Abastos Market.


As Kai contends, there appears to be three classes of people in Oaxaca, and presumably in other countries, who get tattoos: First, the colecionista who usually ends up filling most parts of his or her body; Second, the aficionado who wants a few tattoos strategically placed on select body parts; and Third the casual individual who desires one or two tattoos for self-expression or to make some kind of statement.


I In the course of the two day celebration of all that is still somewhat considered counter-culture in Oaxaca, there was: Live entertainment including seven predominantly rock and reggae bands, as well as belly dancers and other forms of choreographed performances; an outdoor makeshift restaurant serving beer, soft drinks, and real barbecued hamburgers; Panel discussions and forums with themes including methods for advancing the reputation of this altern ative art form in Oaxaca; discussions of health and safety concerns through the adoption of US-style norms.



Health & Safety Issues a Concern of the Body Piercing & Tattoo Trade in
Oaxaca, Mexico

The tatuadores at Tattoo Fest, and more particularly Kai, Tuna and Angy, made a point of indicating that most in the industry follow US norms for health, safety and hygiene. According to Tuna, the United Kingdom has the strictest, all-encompassing laws relating to tattooing and body piercing, which he views as a good thing. It appears that virtually all tatuadores are sensitive to the clout carried by the authorities, even without specific laws relating to tattooing and body piercing. The threat or perceived threat of incarceration perhaps serves a positive function in the tattoo and body piercing milieu.


Having been trained as a lawyer, Kai has a special appreciation for the implications of not ensuring a clean, safe work environment in his studio, and following health, safety and hygiene procedures established in other jurisdictions, “to the tee:” packaged needles; equipment kept under wrap;
gloves and masks; first aid, fire and related health, hygiene and safety equipment close at hand; a “surgical” workspace segregated from the retail portion of the shop; etc.



The Economics of Tattoos and Body Piercing in Oaxaca

Angy is working at the counter, doing a pencil drawing of a 1950s pin-up – with a twist. A young woman had come into the studio the day before, painting a tattoo on her leg of a vintage pin-up girl, but part of the body to be non-traditional, as in one leg and half the head perhaps with skeletal bone exposed, the rest shapely and feminine; as in a Mexican catrina, as Angy puts it, “but with a bit of flesh on her body.” The customer is due back today at 4 p.m.
Two men in their twenties come in to look at tattoo samples. They sit down and browse through two albums for about 40 minutes, then arrange for one of them to come back the next day for a fairly large black tattoo of the Pumas Mexican soccer team logo. Then two younger girls come in looking for eyebrow rings or other similar adornments, in the 250 – 300 peso range.
Kai’s studio does a brisk business. He charges a minimum fee of 400 pesos for a simple tattoo, a tribal, literally “tribal,” as they’re known, or perhaps a letter. It was the same minimum charge at the Tattoo Fest: “Sure, some tatuadores will do a tattoo for 150 – 200 pesos, but most of us prefer to start with prices where we can take our time to do quality work that the customer will definitively appreciate, and therefore want to come back, show off to friends, and so on. I’ve been doing tattoos long enough, and my quality is such that I should command that kind of price, and the customer is more than satisfied.” Kai and Tuna charge within the same range. They both are happy to work by the job, or per daily session. Kai charges 1,000 – 1,500 pesos per session, which can result in a fairly substantial, detailed, color image. Tuna will do a full back for 10,000 – 15,000 pesos. Each has done large, complex multi-color tattoos for as much as 20,000 pesos. That seems to be the top price in Oaxaca. “We can all use more business, but it’s a skilled trade which we want to elevate in terms of its reputation, so we must all strive to standards, as well as our personal integrity;” Kai asserts.


Customers in their twenties make up the largest age group. Otherwise, occasionally a teen comes in with a parent, perhaps 20% of tattoo-seekers are in their thirties, and a much small percentage comprises an older clientele.



Advice for Americans, Canadians, Europeans and Those from Further Abroad
Wanting a Tattoo in Oaxaca

Tuna admits that in Mexico there are perhaps two high quality tattoo artists per 300 tatuadores, stating that in the US the numbers are very different, two per hundred. It’s difficult to accept his figures, having seen several quality tattoos on the bodies of Oaxacans and having had an opportunity to speak with many Oaxacan tatuadores and evaluate their dedication to the skill and their desire to elevate its reputation through self-improvement. Tuna contends: “If someone wants a tattoo that I know another tatuador can do better, I refer him to a colleague. That builds public confidence. For me, I know that in black, I’m at the top of my game.” The triumvirate of tatuadores is ad idem when it comes to passing along advice for tourists visiting Oaxaca and wanting a tattoo: Don’t rush; spend as long as required with the “tattoo artist,” chatting, looking at his or her designs, and examining the surroundings of the studio Ascertain if the tatuador has a particular specialty or higher level of competency in one area versus another (i.e. color as opposed to black). Address any health, hygiene and safety concerns, since while the ministry of health does have rules and regulations of general application, and spot checks of tattoo studios are conducted, no specific body exists for policing the tattoo industry.

What better way to begin offering children’s cooking classes than with pizza and mango smoothies. The inaugural children’s cooking lesson at Chef Pilar Cabrera’s Casa de los Sabores, imparted the basics of kitchen safety and hygiene, composting and recycling, and nutrition, all within a three-hour session. And at the same time, lead instructor Ninfa Raigosa infused the morning with helpful food preparation tips that even as adults we don’t always learn early enough in our culinary lives. But best of all, it took place within the context of preparing recipes which are fun for children to make — with the dreaded green salad snuck in at the end.

The idea of offering cooking lessons for young boys and girls came to fruition as a result of two phenomena. Firstly, often in the course of fielding inquiries for cooking classes from tourists visiting Oaxaca with their families, Chef Pilar would be asked whether or not children could attend. Of course age has always been a factor, but often requests have had to be rejected so as to ensure that classes proceeded in an orderly fashion without undue disruption, for the benefit of the mainly adult aficionados of Oaxacan cuisine.

Secondly, many Oaxacans are at a loss for what to do with their children once school is out for summer vacation. While certainly activities abound in Oaxaca, relative to what’s available in larger urban centers, they’re limited. Why not offer a two-week cooking course in July? And so this initial class held on May 1, 2010, was intended as a  recursor to initially a summertime cooking course, and then classes during other holiday times throughout the year. For tourists traveling with children, timing should be perfect. And for multiple families traveling together at any time of the year, this could be just what the pediatrician ordered.
Of course Pilar Cabrera’s reputation as a national figure on the Mexican culinary scene has long been established through her “House of Flavors” cooking school and downtown Oaxaca restaurant La Olla and, more recently, through her forays onto the international stage (food festivals in Toronto and San Antonio, with upcoming dates in Austin and Stratford). She hand-picked Ninfa Cecilia Raigosa Paras to head up this new initiative for two reasons. First, Chef Ninfa arrives with a diversity of experience, including educational training (at the Rocatti Centro de Estudios Culinarios) in catering and banquets at various restaurants and in specialty bakeries (i.e. Deli Cupcakes and Dulce Nectar). Second, and perhaps key, is Chef’s Ninfa’s uncanny ability to relate to children using her amiable personality and warm smile – and just like Pilar, she’s bilingual.

The bonus for American and Canadian children is that with a mixed class of Mexican and foreign visitors, and bilingual instruction, the kids are bound to learn some basic kitchen and ingredient words in Spanish, if not through direct teaching, then certainly through osmosis.

Chefs Pilar and Ninfa were both at the helm of this frist class, attended by ten children of varying ages. Most parents remained on site at the outset, to take photographs and to obtain first-hand assurance that their children would be comfortable in a class of predominantly unfamiliar faces.

In this type of learning environment the ice must initially be broken. Here it was achieved by asking each child’s name and promoting interaction between the children themselves as well as with Ninfa and Pilar. The ingredients for each recipe were contained in a separate large, round colorful basket. “Who knows why we use yeast?” And then to reassure parents, “when we cut these mangos to make the smoothies, we won’t be using sharp knives; but you should always be extra careful when using knives and never ever raise a knife to head level. Can someone tell me why?”

Recipe sheets are distributed. Chef Ninfa goes through each recipe, pointing to the ingredients in each basket and briefly explaining how they will be used. For the pizza dough segment, the group is divided into two teams, one learning to make the dough from scratch and the other learning about kneading and rolling: “Always mix the dry ingredients first, and use your hands.” And for the benefit of those who had grown up watching their abuelitas making tortillas: “Making pizza dough is similar to making tortillas; if it starts to stick, use more flour.” Hands-on classes tend to work best, especially so for children.

“Okay, anyone want a cookie?” Three times in the course of the lesson, short breaks are encouraged so as to not overload information intake nor run the risk of boredom setting in. “There are plastic bottles of water over here, and a couple of marking pens so each of you can write your name so they don’t get mixed up.” The children are given a choice of making large or medium crusts, by shaping the dough themselves or choosing from the several small forms which are provided: hearts, mushrooms, trees, and squares, triangles, circles. The sauce has been pre-mixed, but the children are encouraged to choose their toppings from selections of veggies, sliced meats, and even fresh basil. “Did you know that a mushroom is actually a fungus?”

“Now let’s all wash our hands again. But let’s not forget to first clean off our work areas well and put the organic waste in this bin and the rest over there. Does your neighborhood have recycling programs?”
“Attention everybody please; now while the pizza is in the oven we’re going to make the mango smoothies. I’m going to teach you how to peel your mangos, safely, by carefully cutting four strips through the skin … just like peeling a banana.” The children are encouraged to use every bit of pulp, right down to the pit.

“Here’s the bowl with the mango cut up, and now we’re going to add some pineapple, some orange juice, a bit of yoghurt …. and who knows about linseed and why we add a little bit to the blender as well?” A brief discussion ensures about omegas and energy.

Smoothies are prepared and poured into plastic cups accompanied by straws and small decorative drink umbrellas. “Taste how sweet it is; and you know, we didn’t put in any sugar. You can make your own smoothies using other kinds of fruit as well, such as watermelon and cantaloupe, and they’ll taste just as fresh, flavorful and sweet, without any added sugar. By the way, there’s a bowl of strawberries over there if anyone wants a little snack.”
The children are then asked to review their printed recipes for the salad. Some had actually put check marks beside the pizza and smoothie ingredients as they were being used. A lesson ensues about the different types of lettuce, its general lack of taste, and hence the reason for using dressing: “We always use oil, vinegar, salt and pepper, and today we’re using balsamic vinegar and olive oil. Has everyone tried this kind of vinegar? Okay then, we’ll each try a bit. It’ll be a bit sweet.”
“Is it soya sauce,” someone asks. “It’s delicious,” another pipes in, while a third emphatically states he doesn’t like it.

“Vinegar and oil have to be mixed together really well. See the oil at the top; now watch.” Plates are passed out, and each child is encouraged to create his own salad by adding pre-cut vegetables and grated cheese to the organic

lettuce. The printed salad recipe sheet concludes with: “Taste, check the seasoning, and serve immediately.”

The pizzas then are removed from the oven and allowed to cool; each child is encouraged to take what he made as well as to sample from the larger pizzas. The group sits around the large rectangular table, indulging in the fruits of their labor, while chatting and joking with their new-found friends.
The summer, 2010, two week course will present participants with an opportunity to learn to prepare menus from different parts of the world, each day represented by the cuisine of a different country. Subsequent series of classes will likely follow suit. Groups interested in single lessons will be able to choose from a selection of international menus, but there will inevitably be restrictions in terms of dishes requiring stove-top preparation, out of an abundance of caution. According to Chef Pilar, “children’s safety must remain the foremost consideration.”

The accolades tell it all: “I had a terrific and very inspiring time in Oaxaca. Your knowledge of the culture and region introduced us to so many interesting people, all willing to share their passion, whether it was for pottery, wood carving, frothy chocolate, the best moles or natural dyes”

Elizabeth Baird, one of the foremost Canadian culinary icons of our time, was a participant in the May, 2010, Oaxaca Culinary Tour. So was prolific cookbook author and columnist Rose Murray, who endorsed a copy of her seminal work, A Taste of Canada, A Culinary Journey, with similar praise: “Thank you for sharing your vast knowledge of Oaxaca with us. We know it through your eyes.”

If the foregoing is any indication of the success of this most recent tour, then the thought of what’s in store for participants in future, similarly organized Oaxaca culinary events, should titillate anyone interested in Mexican gastronomy – chefs and foodies alike.

While numbers were small (May is when most Americans and Canadians are content to stay close to home, stow their winter attire, and begin gardening), organizers provided the 8 – 10 participants in each of the week’s daily activities with all that the tour promised, and more: cooking classes with Pilar Cabrera and Susana Trilling, dining at renowned Oaxacan restaurants Casa Oaxaca, Los Danzantes, La Olla and La Catrina de Alcalá, and what impressed the most, getting out into the villages and learning the secrets of local recipes through hands-on instruction from indigenous natives – in their kitchens and over their open hearths and comals.



Background to the Oaxaca Culinary Tour

Internationally acclaimed native Oaxacan chef Pilar Cabrera Arroyo spent the month of September, 2009, working her magic in Toronto, both as guest chef at several restaurants and invited instructor at a prominent cooking school. It had been arranged through the efforts of Toronto food writer and researcher Mary Luz Mejia of Sizzling ommunications, and several others willing to dedicate their time and effort to ensure a successful month-long event.

Once the framework of the tour had been decided, Chef Pilar was invited by the Government of Mexico to represent Oaxacan cuisine at the Toronto Harbourfront Centre Hot & Spicy Food Festival’s Iron Chef competition (as it turned out, she also agreed to judge the festival’s Emerging Chef event) which took place around the same time as the tour.

In Toronto Chef Pilar met the likes of Elizabeth Baird (who judged the iron chef event and adjudicated alongside Pilar at the emerging chef competition), Chef Vanessa Yeung (who cooked with Pilar at the cooking school and dined with her at one of the private dinner parties), and a host of prominent food writers and critics, as well as chefs (including Chef de Cuisine Jason Bangerter of Auberge du Pommier) – most of whom had no previous exposure to Oaxacan cuisine.

In true Oaxacan fashion Pilar warmly and sincerely invited virtually everyone she met to come visit Oaxaca. But who would have ever thought that tour organizers would immediately begin receiving inquiries from diners at the various venues, chefs, and media personnel about traveling to Oaxaca to gain more in-depth knowledge about Oaxaca’s longstanding reputation for culinary greatness. After all, the tour was intended to merely provide an introduction to Oaxacan cuisine. It succeeded in whetting the appetites of Canadians, for much more.

Those who ultimately participated in the Oaxaca tour included aficionados of Mexican cuisine, food writers, chefs and restauranteurs. Some booked the entire tour well in advance, while others only caught wind of the week’s events after they had planned their Oaxacan vacation, and accordingly were permitted to take part in cooking lessons, day tours and evening dining.



Oaxaca Culinary Tour Showcased a Variety of Food Venues and Other Dimensions of Culture

While a theme tour has its raison d’etre, it should not be overly restrictive in its events so as to blind participants to what else a region has to offer – and in this case the impact of other dimensions of culture upon a people’s cuisine. In Oaxaca there is certainly a broad enough diversity of restaurants, food markets, cooking styles and levels of sophistication, to keep foodies thoroughly enthralled for weeks. But it’s the unique and varied cultures, and the melding of New World and Old World ingredients and cooking methods, to which these tour operators also sought to expose their clients.
For this culinary tour, participants learned as much about availability of and regional variation in meats, cheeses and produce (and their cultural significance), as they did about staples such as moles, tlayudas, chocolate, tamales and mezcal. It was all achieved through imparting an in-depth understanding of traditions, through chatting with and learning from people at all stations of life. At one end of the continuum were the most humble of villagers who welcomed the group into their homes, to make chocolate by pureeing roasted cacao beans, cinnamon and almonds using a primitive grinding stone (metate), and to make tamales by folding corn leaves over masa, mole amarillo and chicken. And at the other end were the European-trained chefs who explained each dish upon its arrival at the table from their modernly equipped kitchens.



Oaxaca Culinary Tour Daily Events

One chef arrived in Oaxaca a day early, enabling her to meet with organizers in an informal setting, learning about and indulging at a Oaxaca culinary institution, Tlayudas on Libres, where locals gather between 9 p.m. and 5 a.m. for their favorite snacks grilled directly on and over charcoal: a folded, oversized tortilla stuffed with melted Oaxacan string cheese (quesillo), bean purée, lettuce, tomato, depending on one’s sensibilities a thin layer of asiento (pork fat); and choice of chorizo (sausage), tasajo (beef) or cecina (pork). For ardent foodies, a
tiny sample of marinated pig’s feet is required. And for the rest, a hot, corn-based drink of atole or champurrado is non-negotiable, especially during the wee hours of the morning.

An American doing his Masters in Nutrition arrived two days early, using the time to explore Oaxaca’s centro histórico (downtown historic center) including its quaint colonial buildings and food and craft markets.

Another participant stayed on a day later, after the rest has departed. A local organizer graciously offered to chauffer her to one of Oaxaca’s rich cultural sights known as the San Agustín Center for The Arts, to see a
modern ceramics exhibit housed in a spectacular lush mountain setting. And then for last minute gift purchases he drove her to Atzompa, a village specializing in traditional Oaxacan green glazed pottery.



Most participants had arrived by Wednesday, late afternoon, in time for Pilar Cabrera’s walking tour of downtown Oaxaca. This enabled group members to gain some perspective on the magic of Oaxaca and to begin planning to how they might want to spend the leisure hours built into the tour.

Dinner was at Oaxacan institution La Olla, Pilar’s own restaurant. The large candlelit table on the roof of the restaurant provided a special view of Oaxaca at night.

[For analysis and critique of the food served at these more upscale establishments, I’ll leave it to the food writers and critics on the tour who are better note-takers and possess greater objectivity and a much more
refined palate than this writer.]



The morning began with a visit to the Tlapanochestli research station, museum and teaching facility devoted to understanding cochineal (cochinilla), the tiny insect which has played an integral part in the history of Oaxaca because of its unique quality; when dried and crushed yields a strong red dye, which with the addition of lime juice and or baking soda changes to tones of orange, pink and purple. Of particular interest for tour participants was its application as a natural colorant for restaurant foods. While sampling a refreshing gelatin / water / sugar
based dessert colored with cochineal, our foodies had an opportunity to see familiar grocery store products dyed with the insect (Campari, Danon Yoghurt, Campbell and Knorr soups, make-up and lipstick) and briefly
discussed the sensitive issue of adequacy of ingredient labeling.

Then off to San Bartolo Coyotepec in the comfy 18-seater van equipped with bucket seats and A/C. Don Valente Nieto, son of the famed ceramicist Doña Rosa, provided an upbeat, informative and entertaining demonstration of the methods used by his parents and his family members today, in fashioning the well-known folk art form known as barro negro (black pottery). Tour members can now rightly claim that they saw the same demo that Don Valente provided to Jimmy Carter and Nelson Rockefeller, who’s photos alongside Doña Rosa and Don Valente grace the showroom walls.

The humble abode and workshop of Armando Lozano, sculptor and master jeweler of hand-made bronze necklaces, earrings and bracelets, provided the first opportunity for the group to see how most Oaxacans live, and eke out a modest existence. The contrast between the quality workmanship of the family, and its lifestyle, was remarkable, overshadowed only by the welcoming nature of the Maestro’s daughter-in-law who offered the jewelry for sale.

The final two touring stops of the day were directly devoted to food and drink. Lunch was at the unique roadside eatery, Caldo de Piedra, where chef César prepared a tomato and herb based broth which he then poured into a large half gourd for each diner. To each he then added one’s choice of either fresh red snapper, a healthy complement of jumbo shrimp, or a combination of the two. Red hot rocks from an open flame were then placed
in each gourd, and individual meals were thusly cooked, the rocks causing the broth to boil and fish to poach. Only large, hand-made tortillas from the comal and quesadillas amply filled with mushrooms and squash blossoms were needed to compliment the meal, of course along with large pitchers of freshly squeezed orange juice spiked with soda water (naranjadas).

Oaxaca is known for its mezcal (mescal), so what better way to have an introduction to the spirit than to head to Matatlán, World Capital of Mezcal, and learn from a producer with from a five generation pedigree of palenqueros (mezcal producers). Enrique Jiménez welcomed the tour into his parents’ traditional family compound where all witnessed the quaint and primitive production methods, and then imbibed several varieties of mezcal with chasers of lime and orange wedges, and sal de gusano (the salt, chile and ground up gusano worm mixture), together with quesillo and ricotta-like queso. Then to the family’s brand new state-of-the-art
facility where Enrique explained his new method of mezcal production. The process dramatically improves quality control while retaining the richest qualities of mezcal produced the traditional way – only smoother.

Dinner at La Catrina de Alcalá provided a nice contrast to earlier events and tastings in the day, with classy Chef Juan Carlos on hand to introduce each dish. Tour participants were so taken with the selection that
towards the end of the evening when asked if they wanted to move on to dessert, or perhaps try a venison dish, almost in unison each opted for the latter.



Cooking classes by Pilar Cabrera are always highly enjoyable and educational, beginning with a visit to Mercado de La Merced for buying fresh produce, through the cooking phase, and finally indulging in the
fruits of one’s labor. The entirely of the class has been described elsewhere by me, so no more will be noted.

Each tour participant thereafter had a free afternoon to explore more of downtown, rest, and then dine at a recommended restaurant.
Saturday After a relatively relaxing Friday it was back on the road for another day of touring. At the handmade knife and cutlery workshop of Apolinar Aguilar, the group watched the master work his wonders, heating recycled metals with the aid of a primitive yet effective stone and clay oven, then forging with only a mallet striking the red-hot metal over an anvil, and finally the all-so-critical tempering stage.

Knife blades are polished to a brilliant shine without lacquer or nickel. Purchasers on this day had an opportunity to have inscriptions engraved on the blades of knives they purchased. In anticipation of the culinary tour, Apolinar had prepared a selection of paring knives, a turkey carving set, a cake cutting ensemble, and bread knives. In addition to the more traditional Bowie hunting knives, swords and machetes, he also had on hand more unusual collector pieces such as knives with deer antler handles and letter openers with blade undulations of the Indonesian genre.

In the tiny village of San Antonino participants were provided with an opportunity to select from the finest imaginable hand-embroidered blouses and dresses – cotton, silk, and blends.

Lunch was in the rustic homestead of the Navarro family, the sisters and mother known for weaving fine cotton textiles on the back strap loom, and brother Gerardo for his watercolors. But the main reason for stopping in
Santo Tomás Jalieza was to dine with the family in their Eden-like surroundings, and witness their preparation of tasajo on a small hibachi-style grill, and all the steps required to make sopa de guias, a broth made of all the parts of the zucchini plant, and a small piece of corn for added starch. The welcoming nature and all-round hospitality of the family was as impressive as their simple yet immaculately kept rural home and grounds.

The tour day concluded with a visit to the workshop of Jacobo Angeles, master carver and painter of alebrijes, for a demonstration (the particulars and details of which are once again available online as part of a lengthy dissertation about woodcarving in Oaxaca). However what tourists to the region never get to experience, and what Jacobo had arranged for the group, was a lesson in making aguas frescas of limón and jamaica (hibiscus flower), and the pre-Hispanic drink tejate, known as the “drink-of-the-gods.”

After a late afternoon rest back at Las Bugambilias Bed & Breakfast, the group welcomed the leisurely evening walk to Casa Oaxaca, purportedly the best high end restaurant in Oaxaca. Unfortunately on this night chef/owner Alejandro Ruíz was somewhat preoccupied entertaining a group of visiting chefs from diverse Latin American cities, so in this writer’s opinion the experience was somewhat disappointing. Word has it that for
the next culinary tour the organizers might pass on Casa Oaxaca unless an acknowledgement of the shortcomings and an assurance of better next time are both forthcoming. Each and every participant in a culinary tour of Oaxaca should expect and receive nothing but the best, of course subject to unforeseen circumstances.

Sunday The penultimate day of the Oaxaca Culinary Tour provided the broadest diversity of experiences imaginable. The group began at the rug making village of Teotitlán del Valle, but not merely for a weaving and dying demonstration. Rocio Mendoza, one of the daughters-in-law of Casa Santiago owners Don Porfirio and Doña Gloria, with her unwavering warmth and comforting smile welcomed the tour group into the extended family household for a lesson in the traditional methods of making both hot chocolate and tamales de amarillo, the ritual dish served at certain town fiestas.
Both the women and men of the household were present to answer questions and help out. Tour group members to a number were made to feel more welcomed than one could think possible. Each had a chance to take over the task of grinding toasted cacao beans into a hot velvety paste. Matriarch Gloria gave a hands-on lesson on all the steps required to prepare her special tamales, assisting each participant in learning how to place and fold ingredients into a corn leaf, and then ever so carefully stack the batch of tamales into a steaming hot clay container (tamalero) heated over firewood. Once all was cooked, and after a traditional “salud” over small glasses of mezcal, each indulged in the fruits of his or her labor members of the Santiago family: hot chocolate with sweet rolls on the side for dipping, and a plateful of piping hot tangy tamales de amarillo. Goodbyes were particularly difficult after the establishment of relationships based upon a commonality of purpose – the mentoring and learning about culinary traditions in Teotitlán del Valle.
Two hours in the Sunday Tlacolula market is pretty well required when a group of food enthusiasts is involved; especially when organizers have special relationships with vendors so as to enable tourists to ask questions and take photographs at will. What Pilar did not cover in her Oaxaca market tour leading up to her class, the organizers ensured was explained in detail in the course of the visit to Tlacolula. Traditional market drinks of chilacayota and pulque were sampled. Members purchased decorative gourds, wooden spoons, embroidered aprons and colorful table coverings, and of course chiles to take back home. The aroma of chicken grilling on open flames and steaming caldrons of barbequed mutton and goat teased. The pageantry of Zapotec women in their native village dress going about their business buying, selling and trading, impressed all. And the ability of group members to have all their questions answered, sample foodstuffs and drinks without trepidation, take their fill of photos, and wander freely while soaking it all up, provided one of many trip highlights.

The quaint open-air eatery known as El Tigre was a stark contrast to the earlier market scene, but just as welcome, in the nature of a well deserved respite. Each member of the group was able to question comedor
owner Sara about salsa preparation, the disinfecting of fresh produce, and cooking techniques and challenges where every menu item is prepared fresh, over a flame on the grill or comal. Once again, a review of El Tigre is
available online. The eatery was selected so as to advance one of the organizers’ goals of ensuring as diverse a culinary experience as possible.
The tour day concluded with a visit to the picturesque mountain setting known as Hierve el Agua. The site consists of mineral deposit “water falls,” and bubbling calcium and magnesium-rich springs feeding two pools
of water suitable for a safe, refreshing swim. Most took the opportunity to cool off – and perhaps reap the benefit of the legendary curative properties of the water – while others were content to sit in the shade, chat about the day’s events, and of course take photos.

After the filling breakfast at Las Bugambilias, then hot chocolate with sweet rolls and tamales at Casa Santiago, followed by drink samplings in Tlacolula, and lunch at El Tigre, botanas (appetizer plates) and drinks
were the order of the evening, at Los Danzantes, without any doubt the Oaxaca restaurant with the best ambiance by a long shot.



No visit to Oaxaca, be it for a culinary tour or otherwise, would be complete without a guided tour of the most important and magestic pre-Hispanic ruin in all of the State of Oaxaca, the 2,000-year-old Zapotec site known as Monte Albán. After a brief sit-down and opportunity to quench the thirst, tour participants were shuttled to Susana Trilling’s cooking school to make mole chichilo. Once again, Ms. Trilling’s class has been noted elsewhere by the writer.

Group members were welcomed to conclude their visit to Oaxaca by gathering at an event hall that evening to view a folkloric celebration of Oaxaca’s diversity of dance and music traditions known as the Guelaguetza. But to a number each decided to pass on the idea after such a full itinerary. Instead, they welcomed the chance to finish the tour in a much more casual and relaxed setting, over drinks and conversation at the hillside home of
one of the tour organizers, sitting on the open terrace and reliving the week’s events with the fond memories.



Future Culinary Tours in Oaxaca

Culinary vacations in Oaxaca have been done before, and will no doubt continue into the distant future. This tour format, however, was unique for its diversity of experiences and the care taken by organizers to ensure that the expectations of all participants – seasoned chefs, media personnel specializing in the culinary arts and gastronomy, and aficionados of Mexican cuisine – were met, or better yet exceeded.

If the current spate of commentaries regarding the success of the tour and level of participant satisfaction is an accurate gauge, then no doubt there will be future tours, perhaps on a bi-annual basis, with each succeeding Oaxaca Culinary Tour improving on the performance of the previous.

Information on future culinary tours in Oaxaca can be obtained by contacting Mary Luz Mejia of Sizzling Communications, or this writer.

Alvin Starkman received his Masters in Social Anthropology in 1978. After teaching for a few years he attended Osgoode Hall Law School, thereafter embarking upon a successful career as a litigator until 2004. Alvin now
resides with his wife Arlene in Oaxaca, Mexico, where he writes, leads small group tours to the villages, markets, ruins and other sights, is a consultant to documentary film companies, and operates Casa Machaya Oaxaca Bed & Breakfast, providing the comfort and service of lodging in a Oaxaca hotel, with the personal touch of a small country inn.

When the Cole-Gardner family recently vacationed in Oaxaca, Mexico, they brought along several basketballs, soccer balls and baseball gloves, to donate to indigenous children without ready access to such sports paraphernalia. They’d read this writer’s article about the opportunity to help Oaxacans in need, by filling an empty suitcase earmarked for packing Oaxacan handicrafts, with used clothing or anything else available for donating. They also brought 668 hearing aid batteries to donate to CORAL, Centro Oaxaqueño de Rehabilitación de Audición y Lenguaje, A.C., a non-profit organization providing assistance to the deaf and hearing impaired and their families in Oaxaca.

CORAL, the Oaxacan Center for the Rehabilitation of Hearing and Speech, is a vibrant NGO relying on donations from predominantly private and local corporate foundations, to assist mainly young, hearing impaired children whose families are of extremely modest means. The four-pronged enterprise consists of an audiology clinic, hearing and speech therapy center, early detection hearing loss program, and a social work component. One would be hard-pressed to find a more commendable aid organization, in preparation for a visit to Oaxaca and wanting to contribute clothing, cash, or of course hearing aids and components.

History of CORAL, Oaxacan Center for the Rehabilitation of Hearing and Speech

In 1988, an Oregon couple, Drs. Richard Carroll and Nancy Press, began investigating the problems besetting poor, rural Oaxacans. They spent months at a time away from their medical practice in the US, visiting indigenous and mestizo communities. They identified a major impediment to progress in the pueblos: deafness and hearing loss in a number of children, not being treated when hearing impairment began, or ever.

While there was perhaps only one audiologist in the entire State of Oaxaca when the doctors began, over the course of the ensuring decade they nevertheless managed to assemble a team of professionals to assist in what became their passion: to identify the hearing impaired, and provide aid – any kind of aid they could muster through their own resources, and in due course charitable contributions of others.

In 1999, CORAL rented premises in Oaxaca, enabling it to continue the work of Drs. Carroll and Press in a more formalized fashion. It thereafter began associating directly with a registered American charity with related goals, Child-Aid. In 2008, CORAL purchased its current premises so as to better enable it to advance its goal of identifying those Oaxacans who are deaf or hard-of-hearing as well as assessing their needs and those of their families and act.

Work of CORAL as a Charity in Oaxaca, to Assist the Deaf and Hearing Impaired

The virtually non-existent component of audiologists in Oaxaca in the 1980s, has grown to at least six, two of whom work at CORAL on a part-time basis. Its hearing impaired facilities now employ eight specialists trained to assist the hard-at-hearing and deaf, and one volunteer. The total complement working at CORAL is 15 individuals. Its director, Oaxacan Saul Fuentes Olivares, is a career NGO organizer and employee. Its coordinator of promotion and fundraising, Megan Glore, is an American, curiously with a Masters’ in ethnobotany from the University of Kent in Canterbury, England. They, like the rest, are dedicated to ameliorating the problem of hearing impairment among young children in Oaxaca which would otherwise go unnoticed, and untreated.

The CORAL audiology clinic is designed for testing and diagnosis, repairs and maintenance to hearing aids and hearing-related accessories, and ongoing support. Individuals of all ages have access to the clinic.
The therapy center currently has 35 children enrolled. Parental attendance is a prerequisite. The program consists of morning group sessions and afternoon individualized treatment. Attendance is optimally required four days per week, and 10 is the maximum number children per hearing and speech specialist. With such numbers it should come as no surprise that there is a waiting list.

The early detection program is designed to identify and treat children in infancy, by sending staff out into the field, as well as training doctors to recognize and screen for hearing loss behaviors. A major component of this work is to assist parents in identifying normal childhood development and what to do if they suspect a hearing problem.

Analysis begins as early as two days after birth, with therapy commencing as early as six months old. While therapy generally continues for about two years, there are children who have been treated through the clinic for profound hearing loss for up to nine years, using different therapeutic

Through the social work component of CORAL, staff travels throughout the City of Oaxaca and into rural communities to identify and serve deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals. Once in the home, staff educates on the use of aids, troubleshoots problems, provides resources, and monitors.

Why CORAL Needs Charitable Donations to Help Oaxacans with Hearing-Impairment – Mainly Children of Families of Extremely Modest Means

Every family which participates in CORAL hearing impairment programs make a financial contribution. But such donations are token or extremely modest. For example, CORAL currently has three designated categories of families whose members receive assistance for hearing loss:

· Families with monthly income of less than 1,000 pesos (about $80 USD)
· Families with monthly income of between 1,000 and 5,500 pesos
· Families with monthly income of over 5,500 pesos.

The clinic assists the hearing impaired in mainly the first two categories. The cost to patients in the third category is lower than the prices for products and services charged elsewhere in Oaxaca. Currently each and every one of the 35 children being treated at the therapy center comes from a family earning less than 1,000 pesos monthly. Consider the donations that such households can possibly make!

While for the past five years CORAL has applied to the Government of Mexico for assistance and has in fact received financial aid, the lion’s share of resources comes from individual donors and a number of Mexican corporate foundations. The total revenue received from all sources for running the 2009 programs was about 1.8 million pesos, or under $150,000 USD – to pay 15 employees; utility costs; maintenance and taxes on the CORAL facilities; for all equipment (including hearing aid batteries which last only 15 – 20 days); and for two vehicles.

Plans to Enhance the Work of CORAL for Deaf and Hearing Impaired in Oaxaca

CORAL is currently working on several projects it’s confident will bear fruit within the next several months, enabling it to better identify and treat deaf and hearing impaired children in Oaxaca:

Designating a fourth category of monthly family income is in the works, designed to increase contributions from the “wealthy.” With all 35 children in the school coming from families with monthly incomes of less than 1,000 pesos, revenue from CORAL program participants to date has been negligible; February, 2010, marks the beginning of an in-home training program for parents in the outlying indigenous communities. Since many deaf and hearing impaired children reside more than a three-hour bus ride from the CORAL offices and are therefore precluded from attending regular weekly classes, this new program will bring CORAL’s resources into the pueblos by educating parents – for all intents and purposes making them therapists of their own children. Naturally, ongoing professional monitoring will continue. A plan is underfoot whereby if all goes as anticipated, a particular Mexican corporation will be donating a fully-equipped vehicle to serve as a mobile clinic, enabling the work of CORAL professionals in the villages to proceed more efficiently; · Through the auspices of Child-Aid, CORAL is a registered charity in the US. One is therefore able to deduct charitable donations against US income. As a consequence of an agreement between Mexico and the US, American donors are entitled to receive tax deductible receipts by donating directly to CORAL. Now, a new arm to the program is in the planning stages, making contributions even more attractive to generous and caring Americans. With the institution of a child sponsorship program, contributors will have a one-on-one relationship with a particular infant or youth, and be able to monitor a child’s progress and note their contributions at work. The program would be akin to Foster Parents Plan.

What Vacationers Can Do for Deaf and Hearing Impaired Children in Oaxaca:

While cash charitable donations constitute the most obvious and easiest means of contributing to the work done by CORAL for the deaf and hearing impaired of Oaxaca, there are other ways of providing aid and assistance:

· The hearing aid batteries brought to Oaxaca by the Cole-Gardner family were actually donated by the Oregon Lion’s Sight and Hearing Foundation. Like organizations in one’s hometown can be tapped. Those with connections to product manufacturers should be able to approach those companies for similar aid; · Many medical and dental supplies are accessible through dental equipment and pharmaceutical representatives, doctors, nurses, hygienists, and other staff in related fields. The beauty of items such as tooth brushes, dental floss, band-aids, and hearing aid batteries is that they are light, take up very little suitcase room, and do not need special packing to prevent breakage; · Donations of used clothing are invaluable. If a family in Oaxaca with a child in treatment does not have to purchase clothes, it therefore has more resources to contribute to the child’s therapy as well as to other necessities of life simply not accessible to those “living on the edge.”

Given that the therapy center serves a dual function of school, small educational toys and games as well as sports equipment are helpful; · Visitors to Oaxaca are at times considering a longer-term stay, as part of a sabbatical or when considering more permanent residency in the city. Those with specific training or experience in a field related to teaching, therapy or medical treatment for the deaf and hearing impaired, can provide much-needed volunteer services. Similarly, those with technical skills related to hearing aid components and other tools and equipment used in assessment and treatment can offer support. Finally, the assistance of a graphic designer, artist and / or computer programmer would be useful to CORAL in achieving its goals.

Contact CORAL: Help The Deaf and Hearing Impaired Children of Oaxaca

Contact the staff of CORAL through its website (, for more information about CORAL and helping the deaf and hearing impaired in Oaxaca through charitable contributions; or this writer to have your used clothing and other items picked up from your hotel or bed & breakfast.

Alvin Starkman has a Masters in anthropology and law degree from Osgoode Hall Law School. Now a resident of Oaxaca, Alvin writes, takes tours to the sights, is a consultant to documentary film companies, 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.

Charitable Donations for a Visit to Oaxaca, Mexico: CORAL Non-Profit Oaxacan Rehabilitation Center for Hearing Impaired, Needs Aid

Casa Machaya Oaxaca Bed & Breakfast
Alvin & Arlene Starkman
Sierra Nevada 164
Col. Loma Linda
Oaxaca, Oaxaca 68024
cel: 0449515057793
casa: (52) (951) 1328203
skype: titosarah

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Arroyo Guacamaya is one of the closest ecotourism sites to the City of Oaxaca, accessible by private vehicle in about an hour, or public transportation. La Guacamaya has most if not all of the features and attractions of the more distant ecotourism locales in the Sierra Norte of Oaxaca, including mountain biking, nature trails for hiking and climbing, streams and waterfalls, lodging, children’s facilities, and a restaurant featuring fresh fish from the local trout farm – all within a
community-managed forest promoting sustainable logging operations.

The village of La Guacamaya, while in the District of Ixtlán, is only a 45 minute car ride from Villa Etla, and thus just over an hour from the City of Oaxaca. Accordingly, while there are a number of reasonably priced overnight cabins at Arroyo Guacamaya, as a day trip from Oaxaca one can
easily enjoy a great deal of what the region has to offer.

There are a number of options for getting to Arroyo Guacamaya ecotourism

· Hire a tour guide, driver or taxi, although this option is best for just a day trip since one might end up paying for the driver’s down time if an overnight is preferred.
· Rent a car from one of the several vehicle rental facilities located both at the airport and in downtown Oaxaca.
· Seek out a Oaxaca ecotourism company, although this option might entail unnecessary expense, though an attractive option for those without at least a little facility with the Spanish language.
· From downtown Oaxaca near the Abastos Market, take the bus known as the autobus comunitario de Teococuilco de Marcos Pérez, located at Calle Heriberto Jara #118, Col. Libertad.

La Guacamaya is 31 kilometers from the City of Oaxaca, at approximately 9,000 feet above sea level. One leaves Oaxaca driving north towards Mexico City along Federal Highway 190, and continues along the “libre” or free highway, keeping to the right rather than going on the toll road

About a minute’s drive beyond the Pemex gas station at the entrance to Villa Etla, there’s a clearly marked blue sign indicating “Arroyo Guacamaya Ecoturismo, 13 kilometers,” with an arrow indicating a right turn off the highway.

After leaving the main highway, and until arriving at Arroyo Guacamaya, one does not make any additional turns. It’s therefore an easy drive and extremely difficult to get lost. The road begins as a four-lane paved secondary highway, then narrows to two lanes, and finally, for the rest of the drive one is on a dirt road, often dusty depending on the time of year.

You quickly pass through the villages of San Miguel Etla and then San Gabriel Etla, each with a quaint old stone church located on the right side of the road. The terrain is rolling hills, with mixed semi-tropical vegetation. The pavement ends shortly thereafter, and the balance of the drive is a gradual climb along a dirt road with numerous easy-to-navigate switchbacks. The roadway is not particularly conducive to motion sickness, so one need not be concerned in this regard. Ascending, the vegetation changes from agave, cactus and mixed brush, to scrub oak and coniferous forest of predominantly pine. Note the brilliant yellow and occasional red bromeliads growing on the trees.

Arrival at Arroyo Guacamaya, Sierra Norte, Oaxaca

About 45 minutes after having left the main highway changes in vegetation are witnessed, elevation with corresponding ear popping is experienced, and a cooler temperature is felt as one finally arrives. A blue sign directing visitors to the cabins and restaurant is clearly visible with arrows pointing to the left down a smaller roadway. To the right the road continues on for a couple of kilometers to the hillside village of La Guacamaya.
Aside from ecotourism and sustainable logging operations, villagers dedicate themselves to predominantly agricultural enterprises. For about half of the year the main products harvested and taken to market (i.e. the nearby Wednesday Etla market) are fava beans and potatoes, and for the remainder of the year fresh flowers (in particular zucenas which have strong cultural significance to natives of the region), berros (similar to watercress), and ocote (wood used as kindling).

Facilities at Arroyo Guacamaya, Oaxaca Ecotourism Site

As of early 2010, the ecotourism site consists of five brick and adobe cabins each with lighting, a working fireplace, washroom with hot water, and beds. Electricity is provided by solar panels. Beds consist of bunk beds and double beds. Four of the cabins house up to four people, and one up to a family of six. A restaurant consisting of a large dining room with kitchen, able to accommodate up to about 50 diners can also be found here. There are children’s swings and Jungle-Gym style climbing apparatus and an adobe temazcal, scheduled for completion later in the year.

The dining hall, in addition to serving aluminum-wrapped grilled or fried fresh trout, serves standard Oaxacan fare such as meats and quesadillas.
Sides include salad, spaghetti with vegetables and mushrooms, beans and tortillas. The fish broth is equally as fresh and delectable as the appetizers and main course offerings. Beverages include water, soft
drinks, beer and mezcal.

Ecotourism Activities at Arroyo Guacamaya, Ixtlán, Oaxaca

Adán is a conscientious bilingual guide and resource person, up on
ecotourism matters and anxious to provide advice and interesting
information. Consider spending at least one afternoon with him, partaking
in the various activities.
The pursuits one can enjoy include :
Climbing through forests up to the mountain peaks of Siempreviva and La Porillo, from which exquisite panoramic vistas of the valleys and numerous hamlets flecking the mountainsides can be appreciated.
Mountain biking.
Walking through the village.
Learning more about local economic activities and obstacles to the continued sustainability of the community through ecotourism.
Visiting the trout farm, its pools fed by fast-flowing waters from an alpine spring.
Hiking to nearby streams and waterfalls, over soft, thick beds of dried pine needles.
Taking note of and photographing interesting mountain plants suchas sedum and echeveria.

As noted, the temazcal should be completed in the year 2010. Tourists to the village will have an opportunity to partake in the ancient healing custom of temazcal – sweat facilitated through the use of steam combined with medicinal herbs – cleansing the body and soul. Some have described
the ritual as being akin to the Iroquois sweat lodge.

For children, while the foregoing activities are both safe and educational, Arroyo Guacamaya holds the additional attraction of wooden teeter totters and climbing apparatus, located steps from the restaurant, cabañas and temazcal.
Compared to other Oaxacan ecotourism sites, La Guacamaya is a relatively new ecotourism site in the Ixtlán district of Oaxaca. It stands alongside Cuajimoloyas, La Nevería, Benito Juárez, Llano Grande, Ixtlán de Juárez, and other similar yet longer-established village ecotourism sites, and boasts similar attractions. While still developing and therefore perhaps deficient in some activities such as horseback riding, the relative lack of tourist numbers in and of itself constitutes part of its allure. And of course, there’s the proximity to the City of Oaxaca, a significant bonus for most.
Contact Information for Arroyo Guacamaya Ecotourism Site, Ixtlán, Oaxaca
Arrangements for visiting Arroyo Guacamaya in the Sierra Norte of Oaxaca can be made through one’s hotel or bed & breakfast, or by calling direct: (951) 521-8127.

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All Pilar Cabrera really wanted was to do a little promotion for Oaxaca, and make a few Canadian dollars during one of the slowest months of the year for tourism. But by the end of Chef Pilar’s four-week September visit to Toronto, she had set both local and national media on fire – so much so that coverage of her trip resulted in every restaurant in which she was scheduled to cook being sold out; she had to turn down last minute requests to work her culinary magic at additional private dinner parties and cooking schools.

The stellar reviews throughout the trip kept chatter alive; Sheryl Kirby of described her cena at Frida, a highly praised Mexican restaurant, as “one of the best meals of my life,” then continued to note “the sheer brilliance of Cabrera’s 30-ingredient authentic Oaxacan mole.” Like many Oaxacan women, Pilar learned to cook from her mother and grandmother. But when the time came to think in earnest of her future, her path diverged from that of others. While living in Mexico City she earned a degree in food sciences and nutrition, and thereafter worked in research and development for food giant Herdez, McCormick. She then returned to Oaxaca to open Restaurante La Olla, and Casa de los Sabores Cooking School.

Pilar has been featured in publications such as Bon Appetit and The New York Times, and lauded by the likes of acclaimed restauranteur Rick Bayless who regularly brings his staff to Oaxaca where they take her classes. Over the years she had been offered and then rejected opportunities to teach and cook outside of Mexico. It was not until Spring, 2009, at the encouragement of this writer, and with the invaluable media and culinary industry contacts of Toronto food researcher and writer Mary Luz Mejia of Sizzling Communications, that the Toronto tour became a reality.
A planned two week tour rapidly turned into three, as eateries and a prominent cooking school expressed immediate interest. The trip was extended to four weeks when Adriana Becerra – Serrano, Community Affairs Liaison at the Consulado General de México learned of Pilar’s trip and asked her to represent Mexico at the Toronto Harbourfront Centre International Hot & Spicy Food Festival – Pilar was a judge at the Emerging Chefs competition and was pitted against Louisiana in the Iron Chef main event.

Throughout September, the diversity of plates Pilar prepared was matched only by the broad range of restaurants and teaching venues in which she plied her trade – as honored guest chef and as instructor. At the high end was Frank, the 120-seat dining room of the Art Gallery of Ontario, with a menu which included tiger shrimp al mezcal skewered with mango, fresh Ontario sweet corn bisque garnished with pomegranate, and chicken breast stuffed with mushrooms and poblano chile atop a bed of tomatillo salsa.

Pilar’s opportunity to showcase Oaxacan botanas came near the end of the trip at Torito Tapas Bar where a packed house munched on tostaditas with habanera-marinated red snapper and with octopus a la hierba santa, red mole tacos, mushroom and epazote quesadillas, bacon and cheese memelitas, with pastel de tres leches at the finish.
Pilar spent two days at Nella Cucina Culinary School. Managing Director Joanne Lusted lauded Pilar and Ms. Mejia for somehow managing to sell out sessions totaling 80 students, where prominent Canadian chefs had failed to attract such numbers. And at The Chef’s House, the restaurant and hands-on teaching facility of The Institute of Culinary Arts at George Brown College, Pilar taught both chefs and students, ultimately providing totally enthralled foodies with the likes of potato and chorizo molotitos, sopa Tehuana, pescado Istmeño, flan de vainilla with seasonal berry coulis, and café de olla.
Media activity began prior to Pilar’s arrival, with a flurry of blog activity. Then the day after her arrival she was live on National TV, showcasing five dishes she had prepared that morning, as well as Herencia del Mezcalero mezcal. In a Toronto Events column of the Toronto Sun newspaper, Pilar’s tour was noted ahead of President Bill Clinton’s much-touted talk to Torontonians. September 11th she was in the test kitchen of The Toronto Star preparing moles – verde and amarillo.
“I was nervous about being able to source the ingredients I would need, in Toronto, especially for dishes like verde,” Pilar admits. “I knew the newspaper would not publish a recipe unless all ingredients could be purchased locally. I was amazed at how many of our herbs, chiles and other foodstuffs are found in Kensington Market.” And so was The Star; on the 16th it ran almost a full page about Pilar in its Entertainment & Living section. While the photograph of George Clooney promoting the Toronto International Film Festival was a bit larger than that of Pilar, Jennifer Bain, The Star’s food editor, was allotted much more space to write about our own Oaxacan star.
Other media coverage included articles in magazines such as City Bites (distributed with The Globe and Mail), and a wonderful little piece about Pilar’s take on huitlacoche, aired nationwide on Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s Here and Now.

All told, Pilar judged, competed, cooked and instructed 11 full days and evenings, in addition to at least an equal number preparing – sourcing ingredients and meeting with administrators and chefs.
The epic journey did allow a few days for visits to several museums; Niagara Falls, Niagara-on-the-Lake and tastings at wineries; a cottage on Lake Simcoe for relaxation; and even Casino Rama (“not for me, but it was interesting to see Las Vegas – style gambling”). And there was an opportunity to sample ethnic eateries including Thai, Sechwan, Ethiopian, Indian, Jewish and Greek; as well as indulge at restaurants ranging from the finest of French (Auberge du Pommier) to neighborhood jazz and wings bistros.
“The warmth with which I was welcomed into the kitchens of other chefs to ask and learn and the appreciation shown for the little I was able to impart to Torontonians about Oaxaca, was truly remarkable. There is so much the people of Toronto and Oaxaca can learn from each other, relating to gastronomy and other aspects of culture and tourism.”

Indeed. The tour has ignited interest in future tours by Pilar as well as other Oaxacans. With the continued support of the Mexican Consulate in Canada, and the willingness of the Mexico and Toronto Tourism boards to jump on the bandwagon, perhaps the State of Oaxaca will see the benefit in providing more support and encouragement for its own to travel abroad, for the benefit of all Oaxacans.