Tuesday, March 27, 2012

The first daughter in Oaxaca

Oaxaca has been much in the news this week, both for the shaking of the earth and the earth-shaking news that President Obama's oldest daughter Malia was visiting.
Long before these momentous events, Santo Tomas Jalieza, just south of the city of Oaxaca was famous for its cotton sashes, belts, purses, and tabletop runners -- all woven on traditional Mesoamerican backstrap looms.

Girls, even as young as President Obama's younger daughter, Sasha, already master the craft.  Backstrap looms have no frame or structure.  One end is tied to a tree or pole and the other tied around the weaver's waist.  Seated on the ground, the weaver moves closer and closer to the other end of the loom as she works her weaving.  At first glance designs appear to be geometric. A closer look reveals a variety of discernable insects, flowers, turkeys, birds, deer, fish, and vases.

Families sell their cotton weavings in the town's market on the south side of the plaza.  Women of Santo Tomas produce and sell their products as individuals or family-based units, but they cooperate as a community.  Customers make selections based on quality, design, or even the captivating personality of the vendor.  Prices are the same at every stall in the market.

Even the playing field with regard to one’s location within the market is leveled. In public markets is it best to be at the entry?  Or, is it better to be farther into the market?  As a customer do you buy at the first stall?  Or, do you go further into the market making your purchase after seeing various vendors?  Perhaps marketing specialists know the answer.   Recognizing there are better locations than others, women of Santo Tomas Jalieza hold an annual raffle of the designated spots under the market's roof -- that's all there is, a roof; no walls.

Friday is the best sales day in Santo Tomas -- that's market day in Ocotlan.   Santo Tomas is two kilometers off the road between Oaxaca and Ocotlan.  A stop in Santo Tomas is included in most of Oaxaca's day tours to Ocotlan's market.

Other days of the week clientele is so sparse that rather than spending the day attending stalls at an empty market, the women of Santo Tomas have developed a method to be alerted when customers arrive.  A brass bell hangs from a horizontal beam near the market.  Tour guides and group leaders know to ring the bell insistently; within ten minutes a market is set up.

A number of years ago I arrived with a group and noticed a Japanese camera crew near the market -- filled with empty display racks and no vendors.  I suspected they didn't know about the bell.  I got out of my van and rang the bell; sure enough within minutes women arrived carrying bundles of cotton sashes, belts, and purses.  They draped them over the racks The market was open, ready for business!

Several months later I received word from Masaki Kimura, a Japanese friend and artist, telling me he would be returning to Cuernavaca.  He had studied Spanish at Cemanahuac  and exhibited his work while here.  His letter said he’d planned to go to Spain that year but a television program had prompted him to change his mind and return to Mexico.  On arrival he played a recording of a Japanese television quiz show.  Two teams were shown a video clip of a strange event.  Winning the prize required accurately explaining what was happening.  Neither team came up with the right answer for why the gringo stepped out of a van to ring a bell in a small Mexican town.  After both teams gave up, the video showed women of Santo Tomas rushing to set up their market stalls.

Santo Tomas Jalieza's signature cotton weavings are also sold in the city of Oaxaca's craft stores, and by vendors in its zocalo.  Sales have been very slow for the last couple of years.  The U.S. State Department's Travel Advisory is scaring away their customers.  Few school and university programs from the USA are traveling to Mexico.   I'm hoping that the silver lining of last week's earthquakes will be an objective view in future advisories.  As a result of the earthquake the White House released word that Malia Obama was unscathed and enjoying her trip to Oaxaca as a member of Sidwell Friends School's annual service-learning project.

Some will say the Secret Service detail accompanying Malia would also provide security for the entire group.  However there was no certainty her parents would allow her to participate in her school's trip to Mexico. It was scheduled with or without Malia. 
It is heartwarming to know a member of the first family in the USA will report home the wonders of Mexico, the warmth of its people, the needs they have.  She will tell her story of participation in a program meant to alleviate some of those needs -- needs most of us who read The News know from first-hand experience.
I wonder about the ethics of those who write the State Department advisories being the same people who benefit from substantial so-called "hazardous duty" salary bonuses. 

I hope the Secret Service detail did not sanitize Malia's trip to the point of not allowing her to acquire sashes, belts, purses from Santo Tomas Jalieza.  Every reader who’s enjoyed coffee, or comida, in a restaurant facing the zocalo in Oaxaca has been similarly enticed.  For years I’ve worn a treasured belt decorated with a sash from Santo Tomas.

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