You’ve either been to the city of Oaxaca and have already hopped on a tour bus or two, or are a first timer and loathe the idea of heading to where throngs of visitors go – even if it means omitting some of the state’s most significant central valley sights. So let’s forget about the rug and black pottery villages with the usual demonstrations; Santo Tomás Jalieza noted for cotton bedspreads, table cloths, table runners and placemats; market days; Monte Albán and Mitla; three of the Aguilar sisters of clay painted figure fame; the churches; ecotourism since close to home you have pine forests, trout ponds, hiking trails and horseback riding; and even the alebrije villages (where wooden pieces are hand-carved and brilliantly painted).
Believe it or not, there is much more to experience, even crafts. Accordingly, consider leaving the state capital and exploring lesser known sights. You’ll need a driver or guide willing to go where you want to go, or a rental car. On the other hand, if you’re a budget traveler with time in your favor, buses and colectivos can get you pretty well everywhere.
Concepción Águilar lives on the outskirts of Ocotlán, before you get to where the other three sisters and their families have workshops. They get the tourism, while Concepción, who arguably produces the finest work of the four, gets relatively few visitors because she is off the beaten track.
San Marcos Tlapazola, one of several villages tucked against the foothills behind Tlacolula, is known for its terra cotta pottery, including bean pots, dishes and bowls, comals, other utilitarian pieces, as well as whimsical figures. Much of the work is low fired, and is produced in a more rudimentary fashion than black pottery – fascinating to watch. A couple of villagers are featured in books on Oaxacan crafts, but there are many others whose work is top notch, with rock bottom prices. Ask for the home of María Aragón Sánchez and Gloria Cruz Sánchez.
Angélica Vásquez is internationally renowned for her striking images with strong feminist themes, all fashioned from clay. She sources her raw material from throughout the state, and the colors her work exhibits result not from synthetic paints, but rather from the character of the clays employed. She is featured in virtually all books on Mexican folk art. She lives in Atzompa, a short distance from Oaxaca. While many others in the town produce the famous green glazed pottery which contains lead, Doña Angélica and family make similar pieces, lead-free.
The ruin at Atzompa is literally a mile up the road from Doña Angélica’s home. It opened to the public only a few short years ago, and thus still gets very little traffic. While not as majestic as Monte Albán, it is extremely impressive as well as expansive, and has good English signage so that a guide is not necessary. The site takes at least an hour to walk through, but the visit is memorable.
San José el Mogote is a small ruin in the Etla valley. There is no signage, it is unattended by officials, and is essentially ignored by tourists. It’s one of the earliest sites occupied by Zapotecs in the central valleys. There is a community museum alongside the church, but you have to inquire as to which townsperson has the key. The ruin visit is made worthwhile by the impressive museum contents; especially the oversized clay face of an old man decorated with red cinnabar pigment and a large greenstone or jade figure.
Santa Ana del Valle is one of the lesser known rug villages, with prices lower than in the more popular Teotitlán del Valle. The latter tends to have the higher end workshops, with some boasting more unique designs and tighter weave; but Santa Ana otherwise has the advantage of much less tourism. It’s about a ten minute drive from Tlacolula.
A right turn just prior to entering Ocotlán takes you to San Antonino Castillo Velasco. It’s noted for high quality blouses and dresses with exquisitely detailed hand-embroidery, crochet, and other stitching methods including minute figures intricately sewn. The quality of stitching is generally of a totally different class than what one encounters in, for example, Santo Tomás Jalieza. The two workshops I visit are Artesanías Viki and Artesanías de San Antonino. At the latter, sometimes five women from different villages have worked on a single blouse. The shop owner selects experts at particular kinds of work. He goes from village to village taking patterned cotton pieces to be worked on by particularly adept women. Back in San Antonino he assembles them with the help of his family.
And So Much More
If you are interested in crafts produced by other quality artists who reside off of the main touring routes, consult one of the Oaxacan folk art books such as Rothstein’s Mexican Folk Art from Oaxacan Artist Families, or better yet if you can get your hands on a copy, the federal government and Banamex supported Grandes Maestros del Arte Popular de Oaxaca. In it you’ll find the usual suspects including some of the foregoing, but also other folk artists at the top of their game who work with, for example, thin hammered sheet metal (the craftspeople in the city suburb of Xochimilco who fashion their work with “hoja de lata”), cotton and silk (of weavers who makes exquisite high end shawls), black clay for museum quality figures (of Magdalena and Carlomagno Pedro Martínez), and more.
The specific stops suggested above can be visited in two or three days, using a well thought out route, a good map of Oaxaca’s central valleys, and perhaps a driver or guide who is accustomed to taking visitors to workshops less frequented by tourists. The totality of this kind of touring experience will endure forever.
Alvin Starkman has been visiting sights in Oaxaca’s central valleys for a quarter century. He operates Mezcal Educational Excursions of Oaxaca. www.mezcaleducationaltours.com