Cosmopolitan Calle Chacah: Home to La Crucecita’s Underground Art Scene

Not to mention the film scene, the music scene, the environmental scene . . .

Screen Shot 2015-11-02 at 11.28.43 AMBy Deborah Van Hoewyk

It’s Friday morning, December 12, the Day of the Virgin of Guadelupe. A heavy iron bell at the church of Nuestra Senora clangs once. Silence, then a clamour of clangs, calling people in for services. At Casa Tilcoatle, which houses the Tilcoatle Collective (Colectivo Tilcoatle), a few blocks away at Calle Chacah 410, a different belief is calling, a holistic commitment to art, culture, and education as the means to “provoke reflection on our society and the environment.” (The name comes from the Nahuatl words til “black” and coatl “snake,” and is thought to indicate either the black king snake or the indigo snake, non-venemous native snakes of the Colubrid family.)

Today? A Taller de insumos alternatives, a workshop on making a panel-style solar oven and growing mushrooms. Panel solar ovens are cheap to make, work like a slow cooker, save energy, and keep people from using smoky wood fires inside the house. Mexican mushrooms have a long hallucinogenic history, but the kinds of mushrooms used for food are only recently growing in popularity. The workshop promotes the cultivation of oyster mushrooms (Pleurotus ostreatus, or setas) as not just a food source, but a marketable product to generate supplemental income for small growers.

There are two solar ovens, a commercial kit with a double-bowl arrangement of glass enclosing black steel, and a home-made one (directions supplied) with an oven bag from the supermarket to enclose a black steel pan. There is discussion of how they work, how they compare. Someone goes out and returns with an assortment of vegetables, which everyone joins in chopping and dicing. The vegetables are tossed into the black steel containers, someone adds a few dollops of margarine, and the ovens are set out. There is discussion about the amount of sun. The ovens and dishes are moved across the street into the full sun in an unoccupied yard.

Screen Shot 2015-11-02 at 11.27.56 AMThe actual workshop on growing mushrooms will happen later, but the straw growing medium has to be sterilized, accomplished by filling two large mesh bags with straw, adding a couple of substantial rocks to each, and dropping them into a 55-gallon drum filled with a lime (cal) and water solution. The drum sits on concrete blocks that enclose a scrap-wood fire. The water turns ochre and eventually seethes gently, occasional bubbles breaking the slowly rolling surface.

Casa Tilcoatle, a collective home

In between, people come and go through Casa Tilcoatle. Sitting and talking. Looking at the books on display for borrowing—almost all are in Spanish and they range from academic anthropological studies to small volumes of poetry bound in hand-made paper, from kids’ books to environmental works, including a couple by the philosophical novelist Leonardo da Jandra. On the walls hang paintings, some by collective co-founder Eusebio Villalobos, a well-known local musician. It’s quiet, except for an impromptu, two-song guitar concert by Villalobos, and the rusty clang of the church bells as another hour’s service is called.

There’s a physiotherapy room with a massage table, an art room with projects using corrugated cardboard to make small cupboards, bureaus, and boxes, all painted in creative folk designs. Posters and flyers advertise collective events—art films, short films, documentaries, filmed operas; workshops and classes; music and art events; conferences and meetings on ecology and the environment. Tilcoatle gives classes in danza árabe (belly dancing), yoga, and the practice of physiotherapy as well. According to Jesús López Aguilar, the other co-founder of the collective, the art classes are primarily for kids, for whom there are also English classes taught by Carolina Schwarz, who lives and has her jewelry and craft studio and shop, Maica, next door.

López Aguilar, an accomplished nature photographer, arrived in Huatulco a little over three years ago to head up the information dissemination programs of the National Park (Parque Nacional de Huatulco); since then, he has been organizing mobile cinema events and the Cine Club Verde y Vivo (“green and living”), he worked on the organizing committee for the Organic Market (Huatulco Mercado Organico), as well as the committee for the eco-cultural festival El Hombre y La Madre Tierra (“Man and Mother Earth”) last March. Eusebio Villalobos, originally from Pochutla, is a musician who plays guitar and bass, composes and arranges, and writes lyrics like poetry. Like López Aguilar, Villalobos has a deep commitment to preserving the environment.

Carolina Schwarz is an Argentinian who has been in Huatulco for almost 20 years; she came to know López Aguilar and Villalobos through the movie nights they put on in the square in La Crucecita, and helped Tilcoatle get established and located in the house on Chacah. She’s an enthusiastic fan of Calle Chacah, where people from Italy, Russia, Mexico, the U.S., South America (there’s another Argentinian artist) have created a lively, creative neighborhood. In addition to her own designs, Schwarz promotes Mexican handicrafts through her shop, with an emphasis on traditional crafts and archaeological motifs; currently she has items from Guerrero and Chiapas in addition to Oaxaca.

The work of Colectivo Tilcoatle

Anyone is welcome to participate in Tilcoatle workshops or attend their events. The collective rarely charges admission, but donations are always welcome. On the weekend following the solar oven/edible mushroom workshop, the collective partnered with Ayün Fen, a natural foods group from Oaxaca, to host a Taller de alimentación viva (a workshop on raw and living food, a recent development in vegan eating in the U.S.). This particular workshop carried a $400 mxn charge for each day, or $700 mxn for both days.

The best survey of Tilcoatle’s interests and work is a quick scroll through its Facebook page (always up to date—just search on “Colectivo Tilcoatle”). In six weeks, they hosted, sponsored, or promoted, among other things, the Mercado Alternative Atesanal in Mazunte; a concert in La Crucecita by Los Musicos del Bremen Ndzab, who play “ska en zapoteco”; the film version of Donizetti’s Lucía de Lamermoor from the Metropolitan Opera; a concert of contemporary Zapotec “trova,” a ballad form, by Tlalok Guerrero from Juchitán; “Immersion,” a multi-disciplinary (film, music, dance) performance troupe; and a talk on “Animals of the Lightning: Notes for an Ethnozoology of the Zapotecs,” by Damían González Pérez, an anthropologist from UNAM whose studies rituals derived from cosmology:

As the afternoon draws to a close, the workshop on growing mushrooms really gets underway. The two workshops (the solar ovens are still “slow-cooker-ing” across the street) have been designed by a Mexico City nonprofit, Tlayolohtli Conservation and Use of Natural Resources (Tlayolohtli Conservación y Aprovechamiento de los recursos Naturales, A.C.).

Biologist Carolina Albor Martinez oversees the final preparation of the “substrate” for growing mushrooms—sterilize a long plastic table, lever the mesh bag with the treated straw out of the hot drum, and shake it out onto the table. Then another infusion of cal is scattered over the top and is “kneaded” into the straw by folding and rolling. By now, everyone has taken a heavy-duty, clear plastic bag and knotted it at the bottom; a few have to be redone because people touched the inside of the bag—the mushrooms won’t grow if you’ve contaminated the substrate or the bag.

Fill the bottom of the bag with several inches of steaming straw and scatter on the mushroom seed; cover with more straw, more seed, more straw, until the bag is a flattened oval about 10 inches thick. Press out as much air as possible and seal up. Eventually, you will cut small slashes around the bag, put it in another, longer clear plastic sack cut into ribbons, hang it up and wait for the mushrooms to emerge.

Calle Chacah is quiet as the disappearing sun glazes the buildings a rosy coral, but voices are still coming from Casa Tilcoatle. A collective is intrinsically an alternative political choice; unlike a cooperative, a time-honored form of labor organization in Mexico, it isn’t necessarily about economic benefit to the group. But in choosing to use the arts and education as the terms of communication about society and the environment, Colectivo Tilcoatle offers even the most casual visitor rich insights into Mexico’s soul, the possibilities of Mexico possibilities beyond the marble-tiled terraces of Huatulco’s resorts.

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