Alvin Starkman M.A., J.D.

María is one of several women of the Zapotec ethnolinguistic group encountered every Sunday at the Tlacolula market, sitting on the pavement selling terra cotta pottery. The alfareras as they’re known, hail from San Marcos Tlapazola, a village of about 2,000 residents, tucked away at the foothills of the Sierra Madres del Sur. Although they sell their red clay ceramics primarily in Tlacolula, located in Oaxaca’s central valleys a 40 minute drive from the state capital, frequently their barro rojo can be found in other marketplaces and craft stores throughout the state – comals and vessels for cooking over either open flame or propane fueled stovetops; an assortment of pitchers and vases in addition to serving plates and related dinnerware; cups and bottles for drinking mezcal adorned with an agave on one side and a face on the other as well as the famed chango mezcalero; as well as purely decorative folk art including humanesque figures and masks. María also sells wholesale to American and Canadian entrepreneurs.

The daily routine of María is grueling. The financial rewards for her and the most humble and personable of her fellow villagers are extremely modest. But these are true craftswomen, carrying on a tradition dating back hundreds if not thousands of years, still using predominantly the same tools of the trade and means of production as their forebears.

María and her sister-in-law Gloria both work with clay. They usually venture out alone on foot to gather their raw material. The hard, dry mud they 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 exquisite pottery.

At 7 am on a Friday morning after breakfast, the three of us head out in my truck, armed with a shovel, three empty grain sacks (costales), a sturdy vinyl market bag, and a five foot long heavy iron crow bar (barreta).

María begins excavating, loosening the clay. Then Gloria shovels it into one of the costales. After a while they switch jobs. I chip in. After 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 terra cotta color.

Back at home, 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 leaving it to soak in water.

On a concrete floor in an almost barren dark room María kneads an earlier batch of softened clay already having been put throughout a wood-framed fine metal grate to extract any remaining impurities. While kneeling she adds a little water and sand to create the preferred 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 hide 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 to make the outside surface even, and another piece of leather to cast the inside. A small round segment of hardened gourd is used to produce the final exterior shape. A strip of softer hide facilitates the creation of a smooth finish. Then onto the next one.

Gloria is sitting a few feet away, beginning to burnish a small bowl she has removed from under a cloth covering several others. She’s using one of two almost golf ball sized highly polished river stones given to her by her grandmother. She has already coated the series of bowls with a mixture of a different, much redder clay, and water, so as to create a reddish colored paint tone. Once hard and dry, all that Gloria and María have produced over the course of days, is ready for baking.

Some alfareros 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. But many women in Tlapazola, every time they want to bake 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 firing. These two women are now in the modern era having built a small above-ground adobe kiln a year ago.

A cousin sometimes comes by in a truck to sell Gloria and María a load of twigs, dried agave leaves and flower stalks, branches and rotted out logs. The women themselves often gather similar pieces of potential fuel while in the course of walking the fields outside of their village, and fasten them to both sides of their mule before returning home.

A day of baking can usually proceed smoothly: if there is no rain; if it has been sunny out to heat up the pieces before baking so they don’t crack in the oven; as long as any earlier precipitation has not left the wood wet; if it’s not too windy; if there is a sufficient supply of burnable product on hand; and if not too much of the scrap metal has been rendered unusable through the beginning stages of disintegration.

Typically María is in charge of process. 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 a stage in production is time-sensitive.

All the pottery to be baked is arranged outside, in close proximity to the area where the oven will be built (or to the new adobe kiln depending on the number and size of pieces to be baked): a series of rustic clay pots — an order for a client who makes and sells piñatas; three comals which were not sufficiently fired on a previous occasion; numerous clay figures of different sizes and forms for the Tlacolula tourist trade; and an assortment of functional pots, bowls and plates as well as a few small spoons and tiny colanders.

Today the bake takes place on the above-ground open area. A circular base approximately two meters in diameter is created, using preferably 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 dried agave heart are placed underneath. María cuts agave leaves with a machete. With the aid of the barreta, Gloria pitches in by splitting logs and lengths of dried agave stock. María builds a flammable base atop the spring. With gingerly proficiency, María 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 of each class of burnable, as well as dried tumbleweed, is carefully placed on top of the clay pieces. Hot ash from making tortillas is shoveled into crevices to facilitate incineration, while a couple of matches set to a few special added twigs, a natural kindling known as ocote, assures 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 parts are tossed on, with the upmost 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 almost done, 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 minimal breakage, ash dusted off. The women of San Marcos Tlapazola will then wrap and box their merchandise in preparation for their next trip to market.

Most Sundays María can be found sitting on the ground with an array of rustic clay figures and masks, as well as a selection of traditional Zapotec cooking and serving utensils displayed in front of them, on one side of an outside aisle in the Tlacolula marketplace. Gloria will be directly across from them, pouring cups of the pre-Hispanic drink tejate to thirsty passersby.

By special appointment, Alvin Starkman can take clients to visit María and Gloria in the course of one of his Mezcal Educational Excursions of Oaxaca (www.mezcaleducationaltours.com).

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