By Alexandra Villegas
Alexandra Villegas is currently in her second year as a MALAS/MPH dual degree student. Her concentrations are in Southwest Studies and Geography. Her research areas include migration, traditional Mexican foodways, US-Mexico border health policies, and cultural retention.
This summer, I had the opportunity to live and study in Oaxaca de Juárez, Oaxaca, from May through July. In the beginning, I participated as a student in the Oaxaca Field Study course led by Dr. Ronda Brulotte and PhD student Javier Astorga. After traveling outside of Oaxaca to visit family and other parts of the country, I returned to Oaxaca to participate in a Foreign Language and Area Studies (FLAS) Mixteco language course held June 16-29th. My goal in participating in this course was to learn more about the Mixteco culture as well as the language. Recognizing that there is a large Mixtec population in my home state of California, and as something with an interest in migration and health, I hope to apply the experiences I gained from learning about the Mixtec culture to approach future career opportunities working with migrant communities in public health with humility and respect.
I visited Oaxaca for the first time in January 2014 for a brief visit of just a few short days with my mom. Reflecting on my experience then and comparing it to the immersive experience I had this summer, I have a deeper appreciation for this state of Mexico and the rich diversity of traditions, foods, craft, languages, and people that make Oaxaca the special place that it is.
Our Oaxaca Field Study course was very engaging and each day was filled with hands-on experiential learning opportunities. In our first day, we visited the pueblo known as Arrazola, which is one of two towns widely known for their craftwork of alebrijes. For anyone who has ever traveled and shopped for artisan goods in Mexico, there is a good chance you have come across alebrijes before. These crafts are carvings of animals and mythical creatures made from copal wood painted with bright vibrant colors in a pointillism style. Two artisans, Cato and Lety, opened their home to us, sharing their family history and their approach to producing alebrijes in their workshop. Cato shared that he decides what animal he carves based on the shape of a given piece of copal wood. It was impressive to see him begin carving a piece and then, in just over the span of one hour, have it begin to take the shape of a jaguar. We had the opportunity to try preparing a section of copal wood on our own, and it was very humbling to realize the skill it takes to handle the wood with a machete so artfully.
Other activities in our trip included a walking tour of chocolate makers in the city, a visit to the Manuel Álvarez Bravo Photography Museum, exploring the ruins of Monte Alban, a culinary class in mole negro in Teotitlán del Valle, and a hands-on workshop on natural wool dyes and tapestries, also in Teotitlán. In our last days of the course, we ventured out into the rural countryside outside of Oaxaca City to visit numerous palenques, tucked into rolling hillsides of magueys. Palenques are the sites of production for mezcal, usually situated on the property of the family who produces mezcal. Mezcal is a distillate made from the maguey, a plant within the agave species family. Our conversations with multiple producers highlighted the challenges that many families face in receiving the certification to be able to competitively promote their mezcal in the growing market of producers and buyers. The irony with mezcal is that, not long ago, it was held in low regard as a spirit only consumed by rural campesinos. In a little under a decade, the spirit has quickly gained popularity across North America and other parts of the world. This spike in demand is influencing more producers to enter the market of cultivation, production, and distribution. Since the maturation of the maguey plant requires at least 8 years before harvest is possible, time will tell how the expansion of production will benefit or impact the many producers involved in the creation of mezcal.
Later in the summer during my return visit to Oaxaca, I had the opportunity to learn about the culture and language of the people from the Mixteca region of the state. Mexico is home to 68 different indigenous cultures, each with their own language. Out of all states in Mexico, Oaxaca has the second highest population of indigenous people, with 16 different, registered, indigenous communities. La Mixteca is divided into three different regions: Mixteca Alta, Mixteca Baja, and Mixteca Costa. Ñuu Savi, the Nahuatl term for Mixteco, describes the language as “People of the rain,” which is descriptive of the geographic region where the majority of Mixteco speakers live. My time spent in Oaxaca was concentrated on learning about la Mixteca Alta.
In my first weekend of my program, my classmate, professor, and I traveled to San Juan Mixtepec, which was an 8-hour drive outside of Oaxaca City. At the time, it was celebrating one of its biggest festivals of the year, Las Fiestas de San Juan Bautista. San Juan Mixtepec, an indigenous community, is one that has been impacted by a lot of out-migration. Walking around the town center, I heard youth speaking in English, adults speaking Spanish with each other, and elderly people speaking Mixteco. I observed more license plates from the United States on automobiles parked around town, than Mexican license plates. Additionally, I had anticipated seeing more traditional foods prepared and served at the fiesta, but was surprised to find that most food vendors were serving American-inspired foods: burritos, pizza, BBQ wings, and cheeseburgers. The traditions of this weekend fiesta involved celebrating the selection of the new Mayordomo, the local political leader for San Juan Mixtepec, through a dance performed in masks to honor the saints of the pueblo, and the beheading of chickens in sacrifice to the pueblo’s namesake. It was fascinating to visit this community during such a significant weekend, because many families that migrate to the United States return to San Juan Mixtepec every year for the celebration.
Outside of studying Mixteco, I also had the opportunity to learn about chocolate production in my spare time. I learned that cacao beans were once used as a form of currency in precolonial times and, today, chocolate is most widely consumed in Oaxaca as a frothy warm beverage. Most chocolate produced in Oaxaca is created with a texture that is coarser than what is typically consumed in the United States. I learned various ways to produce chocolate from bean to bar through the traditional method of roasting the beans on a comal and grinding them on the metate, to innovative practices of using a bike-powered mill to process the toasted cacao beans. Visiting Chocolateria La Auténtica/Cooperativa Autónoma de Convivencia y Aprendizaje de Oaxaca was one highlight of my chocolate explorations. This chocolate cooperative was founded by a young woman who studied nutrition and decided to highlight the chocolate being produced in her community. She now runs the cooperative with her husband and brother-in-law, and in their newly opened brick-and-mortar they offer educational workshops to teach people how to make chocolate and explore questions related to food sovereignty. I enjoyed my experience to the cooperative because not only did I learn about the steps it takes to make a bar of chocolate, but I also learned about different models to bring about nutrition education through chocolate. Mexico is impacted by much of the same chronic diseases as the United States — diabetes, heart disease, and obesity — many of which are influenced by dietary choices and consumption of sweetened beverages. Chocolate, a drink that dates back to Mesoamerican times, is a nutritious alternative to artificially sweetened beverages, and Chocolateria La Auténtica is working to share that knowledge.
These experiences are just a few of many that I had during my cultural immersion and language course in Oaxaca this past summer. I cannot speak more highly of the warmth and generosity of the people, the arts, traditions, food, and vibrancy of this region in Mexico. While I am aware that socioeconomic inequality and violence is a reality for many people in the country and that I visited the country with the privileges of American citizenship and economic privilege, my hopes in sharing my experiences during my time in Oaxaca are to highlight the rich history and beauty of this place in Mexico, and the strength of the Mexican people to celebrate life and culture amidst it all.