Maria Cruz Sanchez is one of several women of Zapotec descent sitting on the pavement Sundays at the Tlacolula market. She’s marketing her terra cotta or red clay pottery, both utilitarian and decorative pieces. The alfareras as they’re known, hail from San Marcos Tlapazola, a village of about 2,500 residents, tucked away at the foothills of the Sierra Madres del Sur in the southern Mexico state of Oaxaca. Over the past 15 or so years the imagery of many of Maria’s pieces has changed, reflective of her ability to capitalize on the global mezcal boom. Mezcal of course is the Mexican agave distillate most of which is produced in Oaxaca.
Most women from the village sell their red clay ceramics primarily on Sundays in Tlacolula, a 45 minute drive from the state capital. However frequently their barro rojo as it’s typically known, can be found in other marketplaces and craft stores throughout the state. Sale items include comals and other vessels used for cooking over either open flame or propane fueled stovetops, an assortment of pitchers, vases, pots, serving plates and related dinnerware. However Maria has been much more innovative than most, especially since the beginnings of what can be termed mezcal tourism in Oaxaca.
Since the second decade of this century, visitors have been flocking to Oaxaca, their numbers increasing every year. They arrive for one or more of the following reasons, each related to the spirit:
- To learn about mezcal through visiting small, quaint family owned and operated distilleries known as palenques.
- To advance their own export brand projects by meeting with a series of palenqueros and sampling their mezcals with a view to selecting one or more with whom to work.
- To visit particular palenques which produce their favorite brands of the distillate familiar to them from back home.
- To advance their careers as photographers planning to exhibit, and as film production companies interested in documenting the processes involved in making mezcal. Their motivation is to capture stages of production including harvesting agave, baking it in an in-ground oven over firewood and rocks, crushing the sweet cooked succulent by hand or with the aid of a beast of burden, fermenting in wooden vats, and finally distilling in ancestral clay pots or the more traditional copper alembics.
It was actually Maria’s daughter who back in 2005 at the tender age of eight started her mom on a trajectory. Lucy made a little copita, or drinking cup, with an agave formed into the clay on one side, and a face on the other. She made a few of them, and while with Maria on a Sunday in Tlacolula, in short order they sold out. And so the two of them decided to make more copitas, and then more, and more. They were being bought up by mezcal aficionados who were both international tourists and locals, and brand owners wanting to give them out for promotion. In due course retailers began buying them in quantity for sale in their shops in downtown Oaxaca and in other Mexican cities. Today they are being exported to the US, in lots of 100.
But that was just the beginning. Maria lives in the same household as her sister-in-law Gloria Cruz Sánchez. The two talented women, both extremely humble yet welcoming, continue to fashion other pieces, both for home use, and decorative figures representative of what their ancestors produced eons ago with imagery important to their then pre-Hispanic belief systems. Gloria crafts mainly utilitarian pottery as she has all her adult life, while Maria has been the one who has expanded the range of pieces relative to mezcal.
Today Maria’s work consists of continuing to produce those little clay copitas, and much more, every piece fashioned entirely by hand and without the use of a wheel:
- Slender exquisitely shaped one liter bottles which can be used either to hold the agave distillate, or to decorate a mantle or bar, once again with agave formed into the clay.
- A different small vessel for drinking mezcal, this one in the shape of a half gourd locally known as a jicarita, the traditional shape used for drinking virtually all liquids prior to the arrival of the Spanish in the 16th century. She also produces a small clay platter which holds three clay jicaritas, for those interested in serving flights of mezcal.
- Flower pots of different sizes, once again with agave imagery, for home use when planting the succulent both indoors and outside.
- The classic chango mezcalero, a bottle in the shape of a monkey used for promoting mezcal, the form dating to the 1930s.
- Wall light sconces.
Maria is regularly thinking of different images which she can market to aficionados of mezcal. She can produce pieces illustrative of different species of agave, with or without the flower stalk or quiote rising from the center of the succulent. Simply for the asking she can create plaques and other forms representative of different stages of agave distillate production. A traditional artist in her own right, time permitting Maria also makes oil on canvas paintings sometimes with the succulent either incorporated into, or being the primary focus of those works.
A day for Maria and Gloria is grueling by Western standards. The financial rewards are extremely modest. But they are truly talented artisans who continue to carry on a tradition dating back literally millennia, still using by and large the same tools of the trade and means of production as their forebears.
The women, both now in their 50s, venture out of town alone on foot, or occasionally with María’s brother in his pickup. The hard dry mud they must mine is found a mile or so beyond the fields of this agricultural community. Digging it out from close to the base of the mountain is the first step in producing their fine pottery.
At 7 am on a Friday morning after breakfast, the three of us head out in my pick-up, armed with a shovel, three empty grain sacks, a sturdy vinyl market bag, and a five foot long heavy iron crow or barreta.
María begins excavating, loosening up the clay. Then Gloria shovels it into one of the bags. After a while they switch jobs, and of course I chip in. Once the three sacks are filled, we head to a different location a few hundred yards away, where the women do the same work as before, but this time it’s for collecting a much smaller amount of a different class of clay that will be used as paint to create the characteristic terra cotta color.
Back at the homestead, after snacking on sandwiches of crusty rolls filled with fresh cheese and salsa, washed down with mezcal, the women pick stones and roots from the clay before it is left to soak in water.
On a concrete floor in an almost barren dark room, María kneads an earlier batch of softened clay which has already been put through a wood-framed fine metal grate to extract any remaining impurities. While kneeling, she adds a little water and sand to create a buttery consistency. She then begins to work her magic, transforming in excess of two pounds of clay into a vase. Her hands raised to head level, she pounds out the middle of the clump, creating a conical funnel, then places it on a small hard piece of plastic atop a flat stone, with a bit of sand as a buffer. The sand enables her to spin the form into a sphere. She uses rolls of clay to build up it up. A piece of corn cob is used extend and smoothen the outside surface, making it even, and another piece of plastic is used to cast the inside. A small segment of hardened gourd assists in producing the desired, final exterior shape. She nimbly forms an agave on one side. A strip of soft leather facilitates the creation of a smooth finish. Then onto the next one.
Gloria is sitting a few feet away, beginning to burnish a series of small jicaritas she has removed from under a cloth. She’s employing a small polished river stone given to her by her grandmother. She has already coated each item with a mixture of a different, much redder clay, and water, so as to create that terra cotta tone. Once hard and dry, all that Gloria and María have produced over the course of days is ready for firing.
Some alfareras in the town of Atzompa use above-ground brick and cement ovens. Others in San Bartolo Coyotepec and Ocotlán use below-ground brick-lined pits. Manuel Reyes in Yanhuitlán constructed his own twin kilns out of clay brick, lengths of re-enforced steel, and mud. Alfareras in some of these towns even share the use of sophisticated modern kilns fueled by propane.
But these two women of San Marcos Tlapazola, each and every time they want to fire their clay pieces, build a makeshift enclosure at ground level, made variously of discarded bed spring, pieces of rusted through wheel barrow, bent bicycle tire rim, old sections of otherwise unusable laminated metal, and broken pieces of pottery which have not survived a prior bake. Maria laments that they should build a more energy efficient clay brick oven. I bought them 1,000 red clay bricks, but they haven’t gotten around to constructing it.
A cousin sometimes comes by in a truck to sell Gloria and María a load of twigs, branches and rotted out logs, for anywhere between 500 and 1200 pesos, depending on the load size. Sometimes he brings by dried agave leaves or pencas, and lengths of quiote, as well as pieces from the heart or piña of agave which have for some reason not been harvested for mezcal production. The women themselves often gather up similar pieces of makeshift fuel while in the course of walking the hills outside their village, and tie them up to both sides of their mule before heading back home.
A day of firing can usually proceed smoothly. That is as long as the prerequisites have been met:
- It’s not raining.
- The fuel has not been dampened by precipitation over the past couple of days.
- It’s been sunny out, since before firing each piece should have been left outside for at least a few hours to warm up a little; if not, the likelihood of cracking while during the bake increase substantially.
- There’s enough burnable material stockpiled.
- Not too much of the scrap metal has been rendered unusable through the beginnings of disintegration/decomposition.
María is usually in charge of process, while Gloria divides her time between doing other household chores such as cooking tortillas, and being called upon when María tires or has been affected by the intense heat, or when a stage in production is time-sensitive.
All the pottery to be baked is assembled in close proximity to the area where the open air firing will take place, the pieces consisting of:
· A series of rustic clay pots which will be sold to someone who makes piñatas.
· Three comals which were not sufficiently fired during an earlier bake.
· About two dozen mezcal copitas.
· A few pre-Hispanic looking classic folk art figures.
· A selection of functional pots, bowls, spoons and small colanders.
A circular base a couple of yards in diameter is created, using bed spring placed atop a couple of staggered layers of brick, since such a foundation provides for aeration. Broken pots, old metal receptacles, roofing tile, and whatever else is close at hand creates a confining perimeter. Small twigs and pieces of agave heart are placed underneath. María cuts agave leaves with a machete. With the aid of the long crow bar known as a barreta,Gloria pitches in by splitting log pieces and lengths of quiote. María builds a flammable base atop the spring. With gingerly proficiency she both directs and assists in placement of the pieces. From her years of experience she knows how to best achieve even firing and avoid breakage.
More dried agave parts, small pieces of any scrap wood available, twigs, as well as dried tumbleweed, are carefully placed on top of the clay pieces. Hot ash from making tortillas is shoveled into crevices to facilitate incineration. A couple of matches are then set to a few pieces of sap laden wood known as octote, a natural kindling, to assure a quick light. A fairly strong wind fuels an initially fledgling fire, and within seconds the blaze is raging and smoke is billowing. More branches and dried agave are tossed on, with the utmost care since multi-directional wind tunnels have been created. Gloria must fully cover her head to ensure that spark does not ignite her hair. Each takes a turn extricating herself from the swirling, seemingly out-of-control flames. Finally, sheets of rusted metal are strategically placed alongside and atop, to control the entry of air being drawn to the inner portions of the enclosure.
The morning’s work completed, flames are left to dissipate, while Gloria and María sit, have a drink of fresh fruit juice, and rest. After about 45 minutes baking will have been completed. The area will be left to cool, while Gloria and María return to their simple work room, add a bit of water to their drying clay, and begin kneading before once again beginning production of another diverse lot. Later in the day the oven will be disassembled, pottery removed with hopefully a minimal amount of breakage, the ash dusted off. The women will then wrap and box their merchandise in preparation for their next trip to market.
Most Sundays María can be encountered sitting on the ground in Tlacolula with her mezcal copitas and other related pieces with agave imagery, an array of rustic clay figures and the occasional mask. And of course she always has a selection of traditional Zapotec cooking and serving pieces which provide sales when tourism is down. But it’s now the pottery with mezcal and agave motifs which are of key importance to the family, for so long as visitors to Oaxaca continue to make that pilgrimage to learn, buy, begin business ventures and to document. But for now, in the face of our COVID-19 pandemic, with no tourism at all, and even the Sunday Tlacolula market locked down, they pray that some folks will somehow find them through the Mexican crafts or agave distillate grapevine, and place orders for shipping.