While every area of Mexico has its charms, one of the few places I never tire of returning is the Central Valleys area of Oaxaca, in the center of the state. With a dry, comfortable to warm climate, it is home to the state capital (also called Oaxaca).
Oaxaca is known for its prominent indigenous cultures. Even in the city proper it is not too difficult to find people in traditional dress. The city has been a popular tourist destination for a long time for its food, architecture and culture, but fortunately this tourism does not seem to have overwhelmed the local ambiance of the place, at least not to the extent as other destinations such as Acapulco, Tulum and even San Cristobal de las Casas.
Oaxaca is one of Mexico’s main producers of handcrafts, one of the main attractions to the Central Valleys. These handcrafts are important to the state economy, providing employment to many in poor, rural towns, but perhaps more importantly, providing a draw for tourists.
Relatively few tourists venture outside the city of Oaxaca, with the exceptions of excursions to archeological sites and the Hierve el Agua “petrified” waterfall. Most who buy handcrafts, do so on the streets or in one of various galleries in the city center or if they are a little more adventurous, a handcrafts market just southwest of the city center. But the vast majority are bought from resellers, not from the artisans themselves. This is a problem because profit margins on handcrafts are thin and too often, artisans sell at very low prices to middlemen.
To bring more tourists out into more areas where handcrafts are actually produced in the Central Valleys, the state government has established a “Magical Route of Handcrafts” (Ruta Mágica de las Artessanías) connecting the largest of the towns associated with various crafts, generally located to the west and south of the city. The towns on this list include Santa Maria Atzompa, San Bartolo Coyotepec, San Martín Tilcajete, Santo Tomás Jalieza, San Antonino Castillo Velasco and Ocotlán de Morelos. It is not an exhaustive list (notably absent is Teotitlán del Valle), to be sure, but visits to these towns do give some sense of what is made here and the environment of their creators.
Three of the towns are noted for their pottery: Santa Maria Atzompa, San Bartolo Coyotepec and Ocotlán de Morelos, each with a distintive style. Originally, Atzompa was known only for utilitarian pottery with a forest-green glaze, which can be still easily found. In the mid 2oth century, some potters such as Dolores Porras and Teodora Blanco began to experiment with the making of decorative figures, both natural clay and painted in multiple colors. There are several families involved in this kind of work now is distinguished by the use of a technique called pastillaje, (where very small pieces of clay are rolled and balled to apply to a figure’s surface for a raised decorative effect. Other attractions of the town include a recently-discovered Mesoamerican ball court, a pottery market and a community museum.
L: Etched barro negro vase at the Doña Rosa workshop, R: Hall inside MEAPO
San Bartolo Coyotepec is home to the very well-known pottery style called “barro negro” (lit. black clay). The shiny black color is due both to the properties of the local clay and how it is worked. Originally, fired pieces were gray until potter Doña Rosa discovered that by burnishing the surface of pieces before firing led to the shiny black. Her work became famous enough that several famous people visited her workshop during her lifetime, including former president Jimmy Carter. Today, the most notable artisan here is Carlomagno Pedro Martinez, who is also the director of the state handcrafts museum (MEAPO), located just off the town square.
The last pottery town is Ocotlán de Morelos, one of the largest communities south of the city of Oaxaca, about 35 km south. It is on the route principally due to the work of the Aguilar family. The family is named after four sisters who are responsible for popularizing the work started by their mother Isaura Alcantara Diaz, who began making human figurines of various sizes depicting life in their area of rural Oaxaca. Each sister and the generations after them have modified the work to create their own styles, but they are still focused on depicting the popular culture of the region. They are the main handcraft draw of the town, with workshop on or near Morelos Street, near the Hotel Real. Another reason to visit the town is its market, just off the main square. It has an area dedicated to prepared food, every bit as good (if not better) than that of the 20 de noviembre market in Oaxaca City, minus all the vendors selling tourist trinkets.
Santo Tomás Jalieza and San Antonino Castillo Velasco are dedicated to textiles. Both are on the highway that leads to Ocotlán de Morelos and worth a stop along the way. Jalieza specializes in the weaving of cotton on backstrap looms, making everything from belts, to rebozos to tablecloths and curtains. The town is not touristy but there is a handcrafts market on the main plaza along with a number of shops in the buildings just off of it. San Antonino is noted for its embroidered blouses and dresses. The best known is a very complicated stitch appropriately called “hazme si puedes” (Make me if you can). The town has a colonial-era church and a local dish called empanadas amarillas, but unfortunately, it has not yet set up a market or an easy way for the casual visitor to see or buy local work. However, since it is right next to Ocotlán de Morelos, it’s worth a look-see in case you get lucky.
San Martin Tilcajete is noted for a very unusual handcraft. The valleys here used to be forested and the carving of animals and toys was a longtime tradition. A recent twist on carving has evolved with the making of alebrijes. Here the term refers to recognizable animals painted in bright colors and with intricate designs. The name and the designs are based off of a similar craft done in Mexico City, credited to Pedro Linares. The creatures are carved from copal, a soft wood and are usually small, from thumbnail to about that of a hand. However a number of artisans in Tilcajete also make very large pieces, and sometimes from other types of wood. Unfortuately, the demand for the figures has meant a depletion of copal trees, with cutting and use now strictly regulated. There have also been reforestation efforts. Tilcajete is a small town with a small church, but the plaza usually has several or more artisans selling their wares. A number of notable artisans, such as Zeny Fuentes have shops here as well. The Angeles family workshop is an exception, but worth the trek not only because of the quality of the work, but they welcome tourists with demonstrations in Spanish and English.