San Martin Tlapazola

July 17, 2016

The Guelaguetza [Gay-la-gét-sa] is beginning! The word derives from a Zapoteco term meaning ‘cooperation’ and in recent years it has come to mean Oaxaca’s annual folklore and artisanry festival. Since Oaxaca’s eight regions (the coast, the canyons, the Mixteca, Tuxtepec, the southern mountains, the northern mountains, the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, and the central valleys) are as different from one another as are northern New England, Florida, and Arizona, so too are their cuisines, their folk crafts, their regional costumes, their music, and their dances. The Guelaguetza is linked to the Virgen del Carmen whose feast day is July 16, so it always occurs in mid July. And the major dance festival is held on the slopes of Mount Fortín, that dominates the city on the north. Whew!

But in the central valleys every little village and town holds its own festival. And if craftspeople in the town happen to make a special something, the Guelaguetza season provides an opportunity to attract folks to town and hawk the local wares.

Like yesterday, for example, the tiny village of San Marcos Tlapazola, which is barely bigger than our Santa Cruz Etla and a good deal more isolated, up in the Sierra Madre Occidental mountains about 40 km southwest of Oaxaca city, held its First Annual Red Pottery Festival. Though they’ve been making pottery forever—probably from long before the Spaniards showed up—this year is their first attempt at bringing in tourists to buy it.

Their pottery is simple, but beautifully proportioned and elegant. Mostly they make tableware: pitchers, bowls, serving platters, c

omales (clay griddles for baking tortillas), and cups. Also a few cute animal figures for the tourists who pour into the Sunday markets at nearby Tlacolula, where some of the Tlapazola stuff is sold.


Linda and I decided to take the day off and go see. On the web (Thanks, Google maps!) we figured out about where the town was, threaded our way through Oaxaca city without mishap or blockade, and headed south. There were no signs along the highway pointing to Tlapazola, so, a kilometer or two past where we thought the road should have diverged, we pulled into a Mescal factory parking lot and asked.

“You go back a bit, and turn left under the second pedestrian bridge crossing the highway.”

We did, and the road went straight for a while thorough farmland dotted with corn and maguey fields. Two lane, potholed, but basically OK. The first town we came to, Guelavia [Gay-lá-vya], has more tope speed bumps in it than we have ever found anywhere. A hundred meters, tope! Another hundred meters, tope! Another hundred meters, tope! Well, you get the –kabump!!—picture. Strangely, there seemed to be no cars. No obvious side roads lead out of Guelavia, so we followed the paving toward the mountains. Still pretty good, but holier, and now the fields on both sides were dotted with people plowing: yoked oxen straining to pull the wooden plows through the stony soil, a farmer in a straw hat pushing down on the cutting bit of the plow. Every half kilometer or rose a tree, and sitting under it three or four women in full Zapoteca dress—voluminous skirt over petticoats, a red or green blouse embroidered with flower designs, a cotton print apron covering both, a rebozo (shawl) draped around their shoulders or holding their babies firmly against their backs. They were all laying out for the plowmen their almuerzo, their elevenses, the hearty lunch between a sparse breakfast and the day’s other hearty meal after the fieldwork is done. Between Guelavia and the next village we must have seen a dozen ox teams. And no tractors.

The next town, nestled up against the mountains, turned out not to be San Marcos Tlapazola. We asked two teenage boys for directions, figuring that they probably spoke Spanish in addition to these villages’ main language, Zapoteco.

“This is Magdalena Teitipac. Go back to the highway the way you came; turn right to Tlacolula, and ask there for the road to Tlapazola.”

“But that’s three-and-a-half sides of a rectangle. Isn’t there a cut-across.”

“There is, but it’s terracería, dirt, and kind of rough.”

“Can our car handle it?”

“Yeah, no problem, sure. Go back toward the highway, and when you get to the first house in Teitipac, the terracería heads off to the right. Just follow it and it will intersect the Tlapazola road. A few kilometers.”

We find it where they said. The terracería is narrow but smooth. Shortly past the first turn it becomes narrower and rough, but still passible. There are tire tracks, but after a while it occurs to us that they are not quite parallel to each other. Meaning motorcycles. Still . . . We manage another kilometer or so until the road divides: the branch going toward Tlapazola plummets straight down to a rocky ford in an arroyo, and the other cuts back toward Guelavia. Which seems wiser. In Guelavia we ask. And get good directions to another cut-across. Also terracería, but wider, and planed smooth. Straight to Tlapazola.


About half way—another dozen yoked oxen plowing on either side of the road—we pass the terracería coming up from the rocky ford. Well, we might have made it. A few minutes later we jounce into Tlapazola and point ourselves at the church.

We can hear music

. It’s coming from the town’s small plaza, that turns out to have all the elements common to village plazas: on one side, the church. On the other, the Municipio, or town hall. On another, the market. A covered area for assemblies, basketball for the teenagers, preschool recess, the once-a-week itinerant markets. A few benches for old the old folks to sit and gossip. We park. There are another six or seven cars parked along the town’s paved street, the first cars we’ve seen since turning off the main highway. Next to the parked cars the walls are grafitti-ed with instructions how to protect against mosquitos that carry dengue, zica, and chicungunya, and warnings against the social damage caused by drugs and alcohol.


Tables have been set up in a large square. They are piled high with red pot

tery, and behind each pile a woman in full village regalia (aka, everyday clothes). The potters and plowers and woodcutters are mostly men; 100% of the embroiders and seamstresses and marketing staff are women. Inside the square a group is dancing to music played from a sound system set out next to the Municipio. Outside the square are stands selling hot snacks and flavored ices: lemon, mango, burnt milk, guayava, mamey, and bubblegum. From the market, wisps of smoke that announce bubbling cauldrons of pork barbacoa and grilling chorizo sausage, slabs of flank steak, and onions.


For the next hour we watch groups of dancers. We walk around the inside of the square l\examining at the pottery, discussing the merits of this or that piece with the saleswomen, yearning to buy it all but agonizing over the fact that we don’t need very much and have few places to put things. Eventually we pick out two bowls for serving rice or beans or salads to multitudes, and a plate with perforations in a nice design for setting out fruit. Oh, and a little comal to cover the large bowl to keep the contents hot.

370 pesos, about $14.


When we tire, we go into the market, pick out onions and bits of raw meat, take them over to the brazier (anafre) to have them cooked, ask the tortilla woman to make us two large tortillas, borrow a plastic plate, and go back out into the square to eat our lunch. At our table are two young women who have just graduated from secondary school its a telesecundaria, which means that most lectures are via TV—. We chat for a half hour while we all munch on the goodies. They explain that the folk dancers have been trained by the Misiones Culturales, sent by the government, that offers classes after school three times a week. By the time we and the young women have finished chatting, another half dozen parties of tourists—Mexicans, mostly, but a couple of obvious foreigners— have found their way to town. Probably by the Tlacolula road.


Then, our stomachs full, the back of our car full of pottery, and my camera full of photos, we head back to Santa Cruz, via Tlacolula. That road is 80% paved.


Almost every day for the next two weeks there will be festivals like these in the villages of the central valleys. We don’t think we’ll have strength (or room on our shelves) for all of them, and we did not buy tickets for the extravaganza in the amphitheater on Fortín, but maybe one or two villages . . .


David & Linda