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Resourcefulness and Ingenuity in Clay Pot Mezcal Distillation

By Alvin Starkman, M.A., J.D.

When I read about the Year of the Ox, it reminded me of the resourcefulness and ingenuity of the hardworking Oaxacans who make mezcal. Why? Because not only is a team of oxen used to plow the earth, but the team is sometimes employed to transport agave hearts (piñas) from field to traditional family-operated distillery (palenque), or to crush them after baking. There’s no need to buy a horse or mule when you already have animals capable of doing multiple tasks. And their waste makes excellent fertilizer.

The start-up costs of building a clay pot (olla de barro) palenque in Oaxaca involve relatively little monetary outlay. However, the ongoing upkeep expenses have the potential to be out of reach for many distillers (palenqueros) of modest means … but for their ingenuity, resourcefulness, and sustainable practices.

Most clay pots used in Oaxacan mezcal production are produced in the town of Santa María Atzompa. They are made with locally sourced clay, water, and fire, and thus their cost is relatively modest, perhaps 800 pesos for the two receptacles required to make one still.

The housing that encases the bottom clay pot is made from clay and/or adobe bricks and mud, and nothing more. The adobe is made by mixing sand, mud, bovine and/or equine manure, and waste agave fiber (bagazo) discarded after distillation. Bagazo is often also used as compost or mulch, and when dampened, is typically employed in the baking process to insulate the piñas from the hot rocks.

Firewood goes at the bottom of the baking pit. Not straight logs the lumberjack sells at a premium to lumber yards, but rather seconds that the distillery is happy to acquire at a discount. Once the bake has been completed, where there once was firewood there is now charcoal. It is used a fertilizer to grow more agave (or other crops), or by the family for cooking and for sale.

Even the discarded agave leaves (pencas), once dried, have an important use as fuel. Entire Oaxacan communities live off them to cook tortillas, grill meats, make hot chocolate, and more.

Clay distillation pots last from roughly a couple of weeks to a year and a half, after which time they must be replaced. The bottom pot, as opposed to the upper clay cylinder, presents the more significant problem.

Once it cracks, the housing must be disassembled, the pot removed, a new one inserted, and the encasement re-built. The life of that bottom olla is extended by using a wooden tree branch shaped like a fork, its prongs joined with rope or wire, and not a metal pitch fork, to remove the bagazo.

Still, through cracking, clay pots are inevitably rendered unusable for their primary purpose. When that happens the fermented liquid or the subsequent single distillate can seep out and be lost. The damaged and discarded pots are frequently used as planters, but that bottom pot can still be used in the fermentation process. Most baked crushed agave is fermented in wood slat vats, but some palenqueros ferment in clay pots partially embedded in the ground. After a damaged pot has been removed from the still, it can be repaired with cement and used for fermenting; a broken olla de barro gets new life.

For clay-pot distillation to work, a continuous flow of cold water is required. It often arrives along a makeshift wooden trough, falling into the small conical condenser through a length of giant river reed (carrizo). Carrizo is an invasive wild plant, but it has multiple uses, including in the olla de barro distillation process. Carrizo is also sometimes employed to guide the water out of the condenser, and the distillate out of the still into a holding receptacle. Yet another use for the reed is as a bellows to stoke the flame under the clay pot during distillation. Some palenqueros purchase waste from a lumberyard de-barking process as fuel for their stills. The bark always includes some attached wood.

Long ago palenqeros used clay condensers in the distillation process. When metal became available, they switched. Originally, they used simple laminated metal, and some still do, although more recently stainless steel or copper have appeared. Some palenqueros have even adapted old aluminum construction worker hardhats. The shape is about the same, and with a little work they are almost as efficient as the others. When I visited a distillery in the town of Sola de Vega in 2012, the palenquero was still using hard hats as condensers!

Steam rises, hits the condenser, then the drops of liquid must fall onto something which then guides the liquid to the exterior of the cylinder, through the carrizo, down into the container. That something is typically a hand-hewn wooden spoon, or a small length of penca. The condenser is sealed to the upper cylinder, which is sealed in turn to the lower olla de barro, not with glue, but rather a paste that forms naturally on top of the fermentation vessel.

When the still is not in use, many palenqueros prefer keeping the opening underneath, into which firewood is placed to produce flame, closed off. Some state they don’t want young children playing hide-and-seek in the sooty and sometimes still hot orifice. Others don’t want their chickens laying eggs inside. A palenquero friend in Santa Catarina Minas keeps the opening closed using old metal discs from a plow.

I noted earlier the modest start-up costs for establishing a palenque for olla de barro distillation, and touched on the cost of the clay pots. The additional installations in clay (as well as copper) operations are almost free of out-of-pocket costs aside from labor: the baking pit in the ground, the ability to crush by hand using a wooden mallet and nothing more, and fermenting in an animal hide, a wood-lined hole in the ground or directly in a bedrock cavity.

The innate creativity of the palenquero distilling in clay is remarkable. And while we must admire his resourcefulness, it’s crucial that we not begrudge him for making technological advancements with a view to making life just a little easier, as his economic lot in life improves. Should not the romanticism we seek in rural Oaxaca sometimes take a back seat? The palenquero will retain most of his sustainable practices and continue to be resourceful, but surely deserves a break.

Alvin Starkman operates Mezcal Educational Excursions of Oaxaca (www.mezcaleducationaltours.com).

Oaxaca and Air Quality: Protocols, Accords and Agreements

By Alvin Starkman, M.A., J.D.

The state of Oaxaca has traditionally been one of Mexico’s top ranked in terms of air quality. That’s because we have virtually no industry except for tourism and agriculture. However, that’s no excuse for our government’s doing relatively little to combat climate change. This is particularly problematic given that, first, the country as a whole has been priding itself on its efforts since 2005, if not earlier, to combat climate change, and second, Oaxaca is being increasingly subjected to the negative impact of environmental change every year.

In early 2005, the Latin American & Iberian Institute at the University of New Mexico published an article entitled “Mexico Strongly Endorses Kyoto Environmental Accord.” Vicente Fox, president at the time, was quoted as saying that Mexico was among the early signatories of the 1997 Kyoto Protocol on climate change, contrasting his country with the US, which did not endorse the accord.

Jump to the 2015 Paris Agreement on Climate Change Mitigation, supported by upwards of 200 countries, including (at the time) the US. Mexico was one of the first nations to ratify the agreement. Despite the US having begun formal withdrawal proceedings late last year, Mexico has remained steadfast. In fact, shortly after the US announced its intention to leave, Mexico issued a press release on June 1, 2017, reaffirming its support for and commitment to the agreement. Mexico had been one of the main leaders in the negotiation process, which had taken five years to conclude.

Mexico then went even further. In April 2018, the senate approved harmonizing the agreement’s global goals with the country’s own national legal framework (General Law on Climate Change); 84 votes in favor, 0 against, with one abstention.

That was at the federal level. Turning to Oaxaca, the state is one of the most vulnerable in all of Mexico due to its complex orography, or mountainous topography, having the greatest diversity of climatic zones in the country. Perhaps most importantly, its geographical location is in the narrowest part of the nation; it’s heavily influenced by both the Pacific ocean and the Gulf of Mexico as well as two cyclone forming areas, the Gulf of Tehuantepec and the Caribbean Sea.

Residents of Oaxaca have been experiencing the effects of climate change continuously over the past three decades, at a minimum. Some of the impacts I have been witnessing include:

· Our hot season begins earlier than traditionally has been the case.
· Our rainy season is much less predictable than before, with farmers never knowing when to plant and if their crops will grow to their potential, the result being lost revenue. When the rains do arrive, they can be monsoon-like, destroying those very crops, and wreaking havoc in the state capital. Our antiquated drainage system was not built to withstand the new flow pattern.
· Our municipal water delivery system is much less predictable than before, residents never knowing when the water will arrive and to what level their home and business cisterns will be filled. Much more often than even a decade ago, we see water trucks wending the streets delivering up to 20,000 liters at a time to hotels, restaurants, other retainers, and homes.
· Wells run dry, necessitating excavating deeper or people scrambling to find alternative sources of water.

Academia has recognized the gravity of the situation. The state funded university, Universidad Autónoma Benito Juárez de Oaxaca (UABJO), has instituted a Master’s program in climate change. In 2017, Environmental Science: An Indian Journal, published an article on using Oaxaca’s State Program for Climate Change (Programa Estatal de Cambio Climática) as a planning tool, defining policies to mitigate emissions of greenhouse gases and suggesting adaptations for those in high risk areas.

But throwing pesos at the problem and instituting policies at the federal level, self-lauding all the while, means nothing without enforcement at the local level. True enough, some Oaxacan city residents actively participate in recycling programs, most no longer burn their garbage, and there are nearby villages in which green trash bins are strategically placed no more than 20 yards apart. However, all the protocols, accords and agreements do little without enforcement, except perhaps enabling the government to boast about being a world leader in the fight.

Here in Oaxaca, our verificación program dictates that one must have vehicle emissions tested twice yearly. In some first world jurisdictions, you cannot renew your license plate without proof that your car has passed. In these countries, without a new plate or renewal sticker, the police pull you over. In Oaxaca, on the other hand, you renew your plate (if so inclined), and part of the fee covers the emissions test. Once your car passes, you get a sticker. But only late-model vehicles seem to appear at the testing facilities, given that owners of older cars know they won’t pas, and that state enforcement is effectively non-existent.

Rent a car. Tell the rental agent you will be driving out of Oaxaca state. Then, and only then, will you get a vehicle that has been tested and has the sticker. While other states do enforce, everyone knows that Oaxaca does not, though there is a law on the books. With my own car I have been stopped outside of Oaxaca when I have not had the sticker, but never in my home state.

Just look at the black smoke spewing out of some city of Oaxaca transit buses. Does government really care, or does it all simply enable Oaxaca to appear in the federal government’s good books?

There are issues with emissions control programs. They have been scrapped in some first world jurisdictions due to equity concerns, test accuracy and their questionable impact on air quality. Regardless, the point is that without enforcement, rules and regulations mean nothing, and are just window dressing.

Let’s assume there was enforcement. Yes, it would be unfair to car owners of modest means to be compelled to pay the same amount as the wealthy for emissions testing. However, banning their clunkers from the road would likely result in greater use of public transit, meaning bus companies would have more revenue to upgrade vehicles and it would be easier for government to enforce laws against public transit culprits. Commuter parking lots and mass transit are still rare in Oaxaca, though dedicated bus lanes have arrived. With a bit of enforcement, the city would be a better place in which to live, and to visit.

Alvin Starkman operates Mezcal Educational Excursions of Oaxaca (www.mezcaleducationaltours.com).

¡HEY COMPADRE!

By Alvin Starkman M.A., J.D.

It doesn’t matter whether you live in Oaxaca or vacation here on a regular basis. Whether it’s Puerto Escondido, Huatulco, the state capital or elsewhere, if you’ve at all begun to integrate into the local community, eventually you’ll be asked to be a padrino or madrina (godparent) to an ahijado or ahijada (godchild). So you’d better familiarize yourself with compadrazgo, or co-godparenthood. Even if you’ve never been asked, it’s important to learn about compadres, the cornerstone of compadrazgo. You’ll hear the word spoken frequently. Compadres are different from friends, by a long stretch.

Compadrazgo is a web of mutual rights and obligations of monumental importance throughout Mexico (and elsewhere), both in urban centers and rural communities. It permeates virtually all socio-economic strata. It’s more important in Oaxaca than in many other states, in part because of both economics and the strength of interpersonal relationships. One chooses who will be his or her lifetime compadres.

If someone is asked to be a padrino of a child upon baptism, it creates a new bond between two families, solidified by the creation of compadres. The parents and grandparents of the child become compadres to the padrinos. While family members are frequently asked to be padrinos, often friends, neighbors and business acquaintances are selected, as a means of strengthening existing ties. Academic writings, confirmed in my personal experiences here in Oaxaca over the past quarter century, suggest that while as a godparent you have lifelong obligations to your godchild, which may never be called upon, it’s the ties between compadres that can come into play on a regular basis.

Let’s examine occasions aside from baptism when you might find yourself asked to be a godparent, obligations which may fall upon you, and finally how your new status as a compadre manifests itself and keeps on ticking. Why you and not someone else? To understand we must look at the pool of prospective choices from which you may be selected. My perspective may appear cynical, but, using a functionalism model, is fact based and proven.

Godparents are selected for both religious and secular rites of passage, for godchildren ranging from infant to adult. In Oaxaca the most common events where custom dictates godparents be chosen are marriages, school graduations, a girl’s 15th-birthday celebrations (fiesta de quince años), confirmations, first communions and baptisms. Sometimes but not always, there may be a financial commitment involved, where for example as padrinos of a wedding or quiñce anos, a couple may be asked or simply volunteer to contribute to the cost of the affair. But don’t worry, financial obligations may be shared amongst several godparents.

A case in point involved my wife and me. When asked to be godparents at the wedding of the son of then mere acquaintances, our mouths dropped, whereupon after a pregnant pause the request was concluded with “of the rings.” This meant that we were responsible for buying the wedding bands, whereas another couple was being honored with being the primary padrinos of the newlyweds. In fact you can be asked to be godparents of (for purchasing) the cake, liquor, flowers, party favors, and the list goes on, often depending upon the financial ability of the people throwing the function. In the case of individuals with resources, they typically simply want to bestow a special honor to an existing relationship.

You may be asked to make a speech, give a blessing, dance with the bride/groom or quinceañera, almost always being an active participant depending on circumstances. If you’re not Catholic and don’t take communion or kneel, let your soon-to-be compadres know, even if it appears there won’t be a religious component to the proceedings. There will likely be a priest involved. For example, on occasion one finds padrinos chosen within the context of the opening of a new business. As part of the ribbon-cutting ceremony, the man-of-the-cloth may be in attendance to give and direct blessings. Personally, as a Jew, I don’t object to having a little holy water splashed on me by the padre…as long as it’s as a result of inadvertence.

Padrinos are almost always selected from people of the same or a higher socio-economic class. For example, a factory worker may select the supervisor of her department to be her daughter’s padrino at a baptism, but the supervisor would rarely select a worker. A maker of handicrafts in a small Oaxacan village may ask a wealthy patron or shop-owner from Mexico City to be godmother to her daughter and future son-in-law at their wedding, but the opposite would likely be out of the question. And you may be similarly asked, by a Mexican friend/neighbor, a perhaps perceived equal, but for different reasons. Functions regarding the foregoing three examples? Bonds of friendship are acknowledged and strengthened for future utility; a patron-customer relationship is affirmed with comfort in now knowing that it will continue ad infinitum; and there will be the perception that a boss won’t fire a compadre.

Your status as a compadre begins immediately, and you may never again be referred to by your name, but rather compadre. You’ll experience the metamorphosis of your status, and will be treated differently. Otherwise an extranjero, or foreigner, you may feel as though you’ve come of age in your new hometown. Compadres give and receive more invitations to events. Favors may be asked of you more readily, and of a different type. There’s an expectation of compliance, if not the most careful consideration: borrowing your truck, lending money, housing a relative temporarily, providing counsel in trying times. By the end of our first year of permanent residency in Oaxaca, all the foregoing requests had been made of us. But remember, requests for assistance can go the other way as well, so keep that in mind.

In Western society the number of kinship ties you have is relatively finite, and usually beyond your control. In contrast, with compadrazgo, for as many life stages and changes as may arise, one’s immediate family has the opportunity to extend non-relative or “fictive” kinship ties through deliberate selection. One is able to build and nurture through mutual requests and compliance innumerable economic and social alliances.

Here in Mexico no one ever utters the adage “You can pick your friends but not your family.” The strategies and decision-making processes involved in determining who would make appropriate compadres for a family, and why, are absolutely fascinating. I’ve touched upon only some of the dynamics. The internet and traditional anthropological literature are exhaustive, and should be consulted by those interested in or thrust into the system.

A permanent resident of Oaxaca, Alvin Starkman operates Mezcal Educational Excursions of Oaxaca (www.mezcaleducationaltours.com).

Octopus: Intelligent and Agile, But Also Tasty and Nutritional

By Alvin Starkman, M.A., J.D.

Octopus (pulpo) is a boon for the economy of Mexico. The country is the third largest producer worldwide, with most of the boneless invertebrate mollusk shipped to Spain, Japan and Italy. While there are about 300 species of octopus, most of the Mexican fisheries harvest only two types; Maya (red) and Vulgaris (patón). Almost all (±95%) the nation’s octopi (plural is also octopuses and octopodes) comes from three states – Baja California, Campeche and Yucatán, the latter boasting over 65% of the nation’s production. It’s no wonder that pulpo is such a popular menu item throughout the country.

Inhabiting every ocean, the octopus is really quite a fascinating sea creature, so much so that I occasionally question whether or not I should allow it to continue to be my go-to restaurant dish in high-end eateries. But my taste buds typically trump all.

Octopi are the most intelligent of all invertebrates. Some scientists believe they actually have individual personalities. We know for certain that they are predominantly solitary animals, with uncanny problem solving and survival mechanisms that would make Darwin proud, yet their lifespan is no more than five years, and at times as short as six months.

Octopuses have been known to play with toys, unscrew lids, solve puzzles, interact with human caretakers, display different temperaments including opinions about people, build dens out of rocks for inhabiting, and even place a rock on the entranceway once safely at home to preclude entry by predators (e.g., depending on the particular oceanic region, they include seals, eels, halibut, other fish and even larger octopodes).

While octopi are deaf, their other senses are finely honed. Its head (mantle) contains all vital organs including three hearts, one of which pumps the blue blood through the entire body, and the other two through the gills. The suckers on its arms move independently of one another, enabling the mollusk to grip, taste, smell and manipulate. Each arm is therefore akin to an army of brains. The octopus jet-propels itself seemingly backwards head-first through the water, at a speed of up to 25 MPH. This allows it to easily both avoid predators and catch its meal (crabs, shrimp, young small octopi and other mollusks).

While the octopus is an invertebrate, it possesses a hard beak capable of breaking through the shells of its prey. The octopus’ soft body enables it to contort itself so much so that it can hide in between seemingly inaccessible areas of rock crevices, serving it well as both as hunter, ready to pounce, and hunted, out of sight sound and smell.

Octopuses are venomous, though almost none of the species are so much so that they can be fatal to human beings. However, the venom does serve an important purpose. The venom is contained in its ink; when the octopus is avoiding predators or seeking prey, its release of the dark liquid provides a smoke screen and temporarily freezes the predator/prey.

While everything about the octopus is impressive, its ability to camouflage is perhaps its most incredible feature. On the turn of a dime, the mollusk uses its sharp eyes to match the patterns, colors and textures of its surroundings. Given that it is colorblind, this ability is even more mystifying.

For the seafood aficionado, pulpo contains a large amount of protein, is a rich source of vitamins B3 and B12, and is packed with with potassium, iodine, selenium, calcium, sodium and phosphorus.

We tend to relish the opportunity to steam lobster and spice up our lives frying up a plethora of shrimp recipes, but typically omit pulpo from our repertoires that impress house guests. Despite the attributes of octopi noted above, perhaps it’s time to try your hand at a recipe. While pulpo is usually rather expensive in restaurants, it’s much less so if prepared on a grill at home.

RECIPE FOR GRILLED OCTOPUS

For those residing close to the coast, of course it’s advisable to buy your octopus fresh from the fisherman. Do try to get him to clean it because it’s messy and time consuming doing it yourself. Mexican seafood retailers tend to sell them cleaned, frozen and ready to cook. This recipe assumes you are using a cleaned, frozen octopus.

1. Defrost, slowly in the fridge if possible.
2. In a large pot of boiling water, while holding onto the head dunk the body (arms) into the water three times before then fully submerging it and leaving to boil about 40 minutes (theoretically, that makes the tentacles curl up restaurant-style). You can add herbs, spices and/or salt to the water, but it’s not necessary because (a) it’s salty by nature, and (b) seasoning will subsequently be added.
3. Allow to cool for up to a couple of hours.
4. Cut off the arms where they meet the body.
5. Separately cut off the upper portion to close to where it meets the head, and cut into pieces an inch or two in size.
6. Marinate for an hour or so in olive oil, fresh minced garlic, salt, pepper and fresh chopped parsley.
7. Clean and oil the grill (use olive oil), and pre-heat to a high temperature.
8. Turn down the grill to 50% heat and immediately place each piece on it, in the case of the arms for 3 – 4 minutes each side, longer for the upper body portions.
9. Place the nicely grilled pieces on serving dishes, sprinkled with salt, pepper and chopped parsley, then lightly drizzled with olive oil.

Try it this way the first time, then for subsequent preparation experiment with different herbs and spices to taste.

Alvin Starkman operates Mezcal Educational Excursions of Oaxaca
(www.mezcaleducationaltours.com).

Even Guinness Acknowledges Oaxaca’s Famous Tree

By Alvin Starkman, M.A., J.D.

In the town of Santa María del Tule, just seven miles and no more than a 15-minute drive from the city of Oaxaca, stands the tree with the widest girth in the world. Both Guinness World Records and National Geographic acknowledge the stature of this 2,000-year-old Montezuma cypress (Taxodium mucronatum). Attracting more visitors every year than any other tourism site in the entire state, the tree means much more to the residents of the region than simply its record-breaking size. And no, despite the occasional suggestion to the contrary, it’s not the oldest or tallest tree, nor the one with the greatest volume. In Spanish this type of cypress is known as a sabino, in Nahuatl as an ahuehuete, and in Zapotec as yagaguichiciña.

Santa María del Tule derives its name from two sources:

1. Its 18th-century church, dubbed El Templo de Santa María de la Asunción (Temple of the Virgin Mary of the Assumption).
2. Tule, which comes from the Nahuatl word tulle or tullin which means bulrush; the municipality used to be a lake surrounded by marshes including cypress trees, and bulrushes.

Because of the tree’s economic importance to the town and municipality, and indeed for the state of Oaxaca, over the years all levels of government, even the feds, have taken steps to ensure its continued health and more importantly its haughty worldwide status. In fact, Mexico has recognized the tree as part of the country’s heritage (Patrimonio de México).

In addition to a large complement of employees, which of course includes security police, the tree employs two full-time arborists to keep it in good spirits. When the botanists became concerned about the likely adverse impact over time of vehicular gasoline and diesel fumes and the sheer weight of all that traffic, the main highway to and from the tree was actually moved a hundred yards or so away. The old road was converted into a pedestrian corridor.

Because of its size and the impact of climate change, a further concern became water shortage. Thus a well was dug, and an underground sprinkler system was installed, extending far out from the trunk so as to guarantee the root system did not shrivel and die of thirst.

This part of the town has about a dozen other large cypress trees, one of which is roughly 1,500 years old and in close proximity to its older sister. About a decade ago one of the trees was struck and damaged by lightning. As a consequence, the authorities decided that the lightning rod at the time was not close enough to most of the trees, and so a new one was erected to better ensure against lightning strikes.

Once its massive girth became acknowledged by pre-Hispanic populations such as the Mixe, Mixtec and Zapotec ethnic groups, the tree was worshipped and in fact became the subject of mythology. Both the town’s baroque church and the municipal offices were constructed right beside the tree, a recognition of its importance at least for indigenous groups, long before the tourism boom.

Tourists only began to flock in earnest in the 1940s with the arrival of the Pan American highway system. With the locals already converging at the tree for ritual, what better way to attempt to have them recognize the importance of modern government and Catholicism than to erect buildings right there, alongside and almost on top of the tree. Even today, when town gatherings are convened, two men stand atop the government offices and blow a conch as a reminder of an imminent meeting.

A gardener’s delight, the grounds are kept immaculate, in large part as a result of the irrigation system. Trees, bushes, flowering shrubs and topiaries abound. The grass puts to shame the greens of the golf course just outside the state capital. With the lovely natural environment in front of the church and tree, the town has become a favorite spot for Oaxacans to celebrate weddings and quinceañera parties (when a young girl turns 15), and it’s a photographer’s dream. And with the site’s increasing popularity for rites of passage festivities, numerous event halls have sprung up within walking distance of the tree and church, one of which is a restored hacienda.

Weekends, especially Sundays, have become customary days for Oaxacans to visit the tree for family outings. Accordingly, a plethora of restaurants, smaller eateries and stalls selling barbacoa and carnitas have become favorite brunch and comida spots for not only locals from Oaxaca, but also national and international tourists. The town marketplace now houses a large craft section where one can pick up all manner of Oaxacan crafts.

Regardless of your interest in visiting Oaxaca, the short drive to Santa María del Tule should be a must for everyone arriving in the city, or for that matter anywhere in the central valley districts. It’s along the highway that takes you to Teotitlán del Valle (rugs), Tlacochahuaya (16th century church with restored 17th century German organ), the Sunday market at Tlacolula, mezcal factories, the ruin at Mitla and Hierve el Agua (bubbling springs).

The Montezuma cypress at Santa María del Tule is still growing, and boasts roughly:

· Age of 2,000 years
· Height of 40 meters
· Weight of 630 tons
· Circumference of 40 meters
· Diameter of 12 meters

Alvin Starkman first visited Santa María del Tule in 1969. A permanent resident of Oaxaca, he operates Mezcal Educational Excursions of Oaxaca (www.mezcaleducationaltours.com).

Parents Rather Than Traditional Courts: Resolving Spousal Disputes in Oaxaca

By Alvin Starkman, M.A., J.D.

Based on an example from a Oaxacan village within the Zapotec culture, a convincing case can be made for utilizing a couple’s mothers and fathers to resolve spousal disputes, rather than western courts. I’ll draw on the literature of social anthropologist Laura Nader, and my experience as a Canadian family law litigator. I want to confront western world ethnocentrism, which suggests that we know better than what “primitive” societies do to resolve disputes.

Let’s begin with how Ontario has tried to resolve allegations of spousal abuse. We’ll then take a look at an “unsophisticated” Zapotec village system, in order to consider the more appropriate method for advancing social and economic goals and values. While one might disagree with my conclusion given the politically charged nature of the topic, keep the thesis in mind.

About two decades ago the provincial government directed that once an allegation of spousal abuse had been made, criminal charges could not be withdrawn, and plea bargains based upon what the couple wanted were out of the question. Criminal trials were to run their course, except if a guilty plea was entered, in which case there would be a range of predictable results, including a criminal record. If the verdict was not guilty, the family could re-unite – until the next incident.

Upon receiving a complaint, the police would haul the alleged abuser off to jail pending bail, or require he leave the home while the victim and children were encouraged to remain. A shove or a push within the context of a heated argument and a precipitous 911 call would set in motion an unstoppable freight train. A criminal complaint made by a vindictive spouse, at times egged on by an overly zealous lawyer, provided a fast and inexpensive interim resolution.

Family court proceedings progressed concurrently, with custody and support orders made. The possibility for reconciliation diminished daily; spouses could not communicate with one another except through lawyers. Old school judges believed that their work was not to foster compromise but to decide between diametrically opposed claims. The parents of the litigants would rally around their own children. Conflict escalated with affidavits containing the nastiest allegations often based on hearsay and half-truths. Even court-mandated mediation was positional and contextualized by the goal of “winning.”

The criminal court result became inconsequential within the broader context of the separation, the precipitating event all but forgotten. Back in family court, the literature suggested to judges that joint custody ought not be ordered except in the rarest circumstances, fathers relegated to alternate weekend surrogates and babysitters. Restraining orders gave one spouse power and leverage over the other. And women became permanently impoverished relative to their former spouses, despite equal division of assets and alimony orders

Let us turn to that indigenous Oaxacan village, where material wealth and intra-village availability of sexual partners were conspicuously absent. There was, however, a complex system of intricate social groups. There were two legal systems able to resolve spousal abuse or abandonment, the wife typically being in the more powerful position of being able to choose. She would decide based on specific strategies, that is, which mechanism to initially pursue, without foreclosing her ability to utilize the other.

In the first instance, the wife could convene a meeting of both sets of parents who could both mediate and arbitrate a resolution. She retained the option of staying in the home or moving in with her parents, before or after enlisting the families’ assistance. Both sets of parents, could make decisions regarding all aspects of the relationship, and the precipitating event in particular. If the familial system failed to bring about a resolution with which the wife agreed, she could appeal to the community court, an annually elected president and judge. It could correct the husband’s behaviour by penalizing him. The court was not foreclosed from considering reconciliation. However, the wife typically only sought out the court to affirm severing the relationship.

Though not precluded from doing so, the husband rarely applied to the community court, except if the return of bride-price money was sought. He would usually apply to the wife’s parents (often with input from his parents) for a resolution. Without reconciliation, he would often search for a new partner in the village, in vain, or leave the community. The wife retained the option of forcing him to appear before the court.

Community court officials resolved most cases if the families were unable to do so. The wife, in appealing to this court, perhaps after the parents had failed to facilitate a resolution, kept all her options open: reconciliation, simply severing the relationship, or severing with penalty.

Both Ontario and Zapotec systems empowered the victims and made the perpetrators pay. Beyond this, the similarities end. I suggest that the Oaxacan village mechanisms serve both individual and societal interests. The Ontario courts did everything possible to inhibit reconciliation and non-confrontational issue resolution. Though mediation was mandatory, by the time it arose positions had become entrenched. Family was used to fuel the flames, in stark contrast to its utility in rural Oaxaca. The Ontario process was slow, even if support and division of property were not issues.

Economics is a valid consideration in both systems. But the approach and how financial matters impact on resolution options are strikingly different. In the Zapotec village, relevant factors for third-party decision-makers dealing with the issue of reconciliation include availability of scarce resources such as food and sexual partners, parents as a support system, and family inheritances. While it is hoped that Ontario family law lawyers always consider such factors when negotiating for clients, the courts, at least through the 20th century, typically did not.

While both the Ontario system and the dual Zapotec options appear to acknowledge the same desires and values for the individual and society, our modern sophisticated western world seems to be floundering. In contrast, this one micro-society, at least, continues to resist changing toward a formal state system in favor of staying focused on the particular situation at hand. Now, using a more relativistic cultural lens, consider your preconceived notions of “primitive” cultures and the concept of employing mothers and fathers to resolve marital disputes. Who best to know the spouses and their interests?

Alvin Starkman runs Mezcal Educational Excursions of Oaxaca (www.mezcaleducationaltours.com).
The foregoing should not be relied upon as constituting legal advice or opinion.

Women and Mezcal: Division of Labour between the Sexes

By Alvin Starkman, M.A., J.D.

It is inaccurate to suggest that mezcal production in Oaxaca is by and large a man’s job or trade and that there are very few palenqueras, that is, artisanal mezcal distillers who are women. The female of the species makes mezcal. Women’s involvement in the process is essentially determined by the same criteria used to understand sex roles in other vocations in rural Oaxaca: strength and stamina, traditional child-rearing, and other household responsibilities.

Palenqueros (using the more generic term for male and female producers of the spirit) typically do not read books or watch YouTube videos to learn how to make the iconic Mexican spirit. They learn from their fathers, their uncles and their grandfathers, just as their relatives before them, over generations. Young girls, just as young boys, begin learning the trade virtually from infancy; watching, helping, and fantasizing their futures as palenqueros while in the course of interacting with their friends and siblings. I frequently witness this acquisition of knowledge.

Customarily women raise families, dating to the hunter and gatherer division of labor in humankind. Mothers remained close to home with the children, gathering fruits, nuts, berries, etc., and preparing meals, while their male partners were off on extended hunting expeditions, requiring that they be fleet of foot, and at times requiring more physical fortitude than women can muster.

With mezcal production, often the fields of agave under cultivation are far from home, and if wild maguey is sought, the palenquero is frequently required to walk a couple of hours into the hills before encountering his bounty. The same holds true for sourcing firewood to fuel ovens and stills. Furthermore, lifting the piñas (heart of the succulent used in production) can require more strength than women exhibit. Although the palenquero will sometimes cut the pinas into smaller pieces while still in the field, whether whole or halved they can weigh hundreds of pounds and must be lifted into trucks or onto donkeys or mules.

Once back at the palenque (the artisanal mezcal distillery), which often adjoins the homestead, women’s work making mezcal begins in earnest, although still subject to their priority obligation of preparing meals and tending to the children. Women are often an integral part of the baking, crushing, fermenting and distilling processes, working alongside and even directing men.

Back at the palenque, the task of cutting the agave into appropriately sized pieces for baking usually falls to men, once again for reasons relating to stamina and strength. Splitting logs and loading the oven with large, heavy tree trunks is typically men’s work as well. But when it comes to filling the oven with stones, wet bagazo (waste fiber from distillation), piñas, tarpaulins and earth, women participate as equals to men.

Even in the face of whatever remnants persist of the perceived macho mexicano, once the rocks in the oven have been sufficiently heated, it is important to second as many helpers both male and female to get the work of filling and sealing the oven so it is airtight.

Women as well as men remove the piñas from the oven once the carbohydrates have been converted to sugars, or caramelized. Later on, in preparation for a subsequent bake, once again individuals of both sexes empty the chamber. The women are the daughters, daughters-in-law, mothers, partners, nieces and granddaughters. I regularly see them all participating. They are as much a part of the process as their male counterparts, including being charged with decision-making.

When crushing the baked agave is done by hand, then yes, almost exclusively it is men who attend to this most arduous task. But the remaining tasks are often shared equally: working the horse; determining when the pieces of maguey have been sufficiently pulverized; loading the receptacles for fermenting, whether they be wooden slat tanks, in-ground lined pits, bovine skins, or something else; and distilling. Women can decide upon the optimum ABV (alcohol by volume) and how to achieve the best possible flavor.

But let’s assume that the palenquera is also charged with typical household chores. including family meal preparation and raising the children, including attending to their health, education and general welfare. She cannot, of course, be reasonably expected to look after all this, as well as partner with her husband in directing and attending to all of the tasks required in mezcal production. However upon hearing the shout or receiving the phone call from her male partner, cousin, son or father, she’s there, as needed.

In addition, she is the one remaining at home in charge of sales. She typically also prepares comida for the men, and in fact it is customary, when the home is not alongside the palenque, for women to bring food and drink for those (men) who are at some stage of producing the spirit.

Economic necessity on occasion dictates that a woman, to almost the complete exclusion of men, might become a palenquera. She plants, tends, cuts and harvests maguey; splits logs’ and crushes by hand. In one case a husband/palenquero died suddenly in a car accident, leaving his wife and four young children. She became a palenquera in the traditional sense, doing everything previously done by her late husband, in addition to raising the children.

In another case a single mother’s two children left home for the US in their late teens, leaving her and her mother as the householders. She had learned mezcal production from her grandfather. Currently she has a reputation for being one of the very few palenqueras who does it all, producing one of the finest mezcals in Oaxaca. She directs her underlings, that is, male cousins and neighbors, as to how to produce mezcal based on her exacting recipe. The foregoing are two exceptions to the tradition of both men and women working together, cooperatively with members of their families and communities.

A shift in paradigm is both warranted and strongly suggested when it comes to our perception of the industry being mainly within the purview of men. Women deserve to have their proper and important place acknowledged in the world of Oaxacan mezcal production.

Alvin Starkman operates Mezcal Educational Excursions of Oaxaca (www.mezcaleducationaltours.com).