There is a place in the far south of Mexico where the potters of a thousand years still work . . .
he place is
Oaxaca (wah-HA-ka), a wrinkled land of misted forest mountains and hot cactus valleys. The
potters are Zapotecs, Mixes (ME-hays), Mixtecs (ME-tex), and Triques (TREE-kays). Their
work is the humble creation of a jug for carrying water, a pot for cooking beans, a bowl
for storing corn.
fire, and hands full of knowledge passed from mother to daughter in an unbroken lineage
that fades into the days of another age comes to life the pot. It is formed without a
wheel and shaped with simple tools: a piece of gourd, a strip of leather, and the deep
experience of patient time. It is warmed in the morning sun and fired in an open bonfire.
What emerges from the flame is the creation of simple perfection and grace, the work of
n the waning
days of this century the pottery of Oaxaca is disappearing. Tin, plastic, and aluminum are
impatiently filling the place of clay. Today the potters still work, the pottery lives.
But the question arises, how many more mothers will be able to pass the ways of clay,
fire, and hands down to their daughters?
This is the landscape
of Oaxaca . . .
in the south of Mexico where Middle America begins to crumple and twist into the long land
bridge that ties it with South America, rising from the Pacific where the Southern Sierra
Madre mixes with the clouds, where the centuries have seen empires rise and fall, where
the corn has not ceased to grow in untold thousands of years, lies the state called
Oaxaca. It is a place absent of subtlety, a land where no one piece of ground resembles
another. Quiet coastal beaches disappear into hot thorny lowland scrub which is lost in
pungent foothill jungles that cool into mountain cloud forests. The hard edged mountains
tumble into canyons that spread beyond to a broken arid interior cut by jumbled mountain
ranges and broad valleys of cactus, zapote, stone and dusty arroyos. The land burns under
a persistent sun until the sudden roar of summer rains turns all a wet, brilliant green
and sets the arroyos thundering with torrents of red, earth drenched water.
t is in this disparate land, beside the
rivers and tempered arroyos, grouped in dusky forests and among the ever present cactus,
dotted in the sharp mountains and filling the valleys, where the abundances of nature or
accidents of history have placed them, that the people of Oaxaca live. For well over ten
thousand years the people, like the cactus, stones and clay, have survived in this wild
ive hundred years ago the Spanish conquest turned
the nations of Middle America upside down and placed them on the path of forming modern
day Mexico. The old leaders have been replaced by new ones. The ancient gods have been
renamed. Wires and asphalt have spread across the hills. But quietly living on to the
cadence of the summer rains and the harvest of the corn, shaded by the cactus in the
vastness of a turbulent land are the same people that have awaited the summer rains for
hundreds of generations. These are the people who are the heart and pulse of Oaxaca.
he Oaxacans today are an immense mosaic of peoples,
ancient tribes, nations and races: the Zapotecs and Mixtecs, direct descendants of two of
Meso Americas greatest civilizations, the Ayu'uk, immigrated from Peru six hundred years
ago on a quest to find a holy mountain, the Chontales and Triques, the Huaves,
Chinantecos, Amuzgos, Zoques, Cuicatecos, Tacuates, Chatinos. . .They, more than the
arroyos and forests, the copal and acacia, give Oaxaca its mystique. It is a primordial
presence, the sense that the most basic and fundamentally human energy is close to the
surface, that man and the nature that bore him still live together in the same house.
These are the
people who are the potters of Oaxaca.