Category Archives: mesoamerica

Two great meals in the Oaxaca area

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Yesterday, as part of our “Arts and Crafts Week” here at the NEH Summer Institute on Mesoamerican Culture, we went to the town of Teotitlan del Valle.  There, Lynn Stevens, a distinguished professor of Anthropology and Ethnic Studies who lived and studied the weavers in Teotitlan.  She even learned how to speak Zapotec while she lived there!  Just for our visit, the family she lived with gathered and made a big lunch for us at their compound.

One of the things we did while we were there was to go out into the milpa, the cornfield.  There, corn (maize), beans and squash are grown at the same time (I had thought they were rotated by season or year).   The corn provides a stalk for the beans to climb on, and the squash is planted between the rows to keep the ground covered and the weeds out.  While we were out there, one of the men pulled up a weed and told me to taste it.  He said that this weed was going to be a part of the soup we were going to eat shortly.

Here is a milpa

We went back to the compound, where we were given a demonstration of dying wool using natural colorings.  Then, we sat down to long tables and prepared to eat.  It is a tradition to toast the meal with mezcal shots, and we also had agua de jamaica (hibiscus flower drink) to drink.  As promised, the soup was served to us first.

I found out later that the herb used in the soup was called chepil (or chipil) and it was very good.  Here is the info on it from a website on Mexican culinary herbs:

Chepil or chipil crotalaria longirostrata:  An important ingredient in Oaxacan cooking, probably because of its drought resistance, the tiny leaves are tucked into the famous tamales de chepil and their green bean-like flavor adds a delicious touch to white rice.

The sopa de chepil was served with squash blossom quesadillas made with freshly made tortillas.  The soup itself seemed to be a broth (chicken?) with chilis and corn masa.  There was cut up squash and chepil leaves in the soup as well.  I thought it was great.

chepil in the wild

Following the soup was chicken in mole negro, accompanied by white rice.  The mole sauce was great and I ate all of mine.  Dessert was a strange regional dish called nicuatole.  It’s basically, in the words of a colleague, “corn jello”.  I had a version at one of the local restaurants that had a very smoky taste, but apparently this is not usual.  The nicuatole served in Teotitlan del Valle was made from blue corn and had a thin layer of red dye on the top (the dye came from cochineal beetles – the same red dye used to color the wool for the rugs.)

The next day, we had a very interesting talk on corn by Marietta Bernstorff of the MAMAZ (Mujeres Artistas y el Maíz) Collective.  She had gotten together a group of women artists who have made art related to corn and its importance in the cycle of life.  There is a wide variety of artwork in their shows, including photography, collage, installations and multi-media works.  They are very concerned in protecting the traditional varieties of corn indigenous to Mexico.

Nicuatole, or "corn jello"

Then, we went to Itanoní, a restaurant in Oaxaca City that specializes in native corn from the Oaxaca area.  We had a tasting menu that consisted of: quesadillas made with blue or white corn, memelas with beans and queso fresco, and chalupas.  Next time I go, I will need to try their agua fresca made with lime juice and mint (or the one with lime juice and parsley…).

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Lord Eight Deer Jaguar Claw

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Just before I left for Oaxaca, I started collecting Zapotec (and other Oaxacan) myths and legends.  I just happened to come across this book called The Legend of Lord Eight Deer: An Epic of Ancient Mexico by Dr. John M. D. Pohl.  I ordered a second-hand copy on Amazon.com and received it a while before I left for Mexico.

The story is based on Dr. Pohl’s interpretation of the Codex Nuttall, and on his research in the Oaxaca area.  Apparently, Lord Eight Deer was an important historical figure of the area’s past.  Here is a brief description:

“The Codex Nuttall is made of deerhide, pieced together to make one continuous strip over 40 feet long and roughly 6-1/2 inches high, then folded fan-wise into 10 inch sections to form a compact, 98 page “book”. Both sides were coated with fine lime plaster and 88 of the pages were painted with the vivid little scenes and date glyphs in bright colors.

The book is very well-written, and actually helped me to understand some of my high falutin’ readings on the codices.  When I bought it, I planned on taking it with me in my suitcase, but my husband scanned it and made PDF’s for me.  It was a really good idea, but…

The first night that we all met as colleagues, the NEH Mesoamerican Studies people threw us this fabulous party at the Casa de la Cultura here in Oaxaca.  There was food, and mezcal, and honored guests… including Dr. Pohl.  Of course, after he was introduced, and they had finished talking, I made a beeline to speak to him.  I told him how much I enjoyed his book and he said, “Oh, if you have your copy with you, I could sign it for you!”

Um, er, well…

I explained to him about the scanning (purely to save space – I DO own a copy of the book) and we had a little chuckle about it.  Since then, of course, we have been honored with his presence at a talk last Monday on Mixtec Codices.  He happens to be here with a group of his students and accompanied our group on tours of Coixtlahuaca and the ruins nearby.

A Spanish version of the Lord 8 Deer story

I have also bought this book: Ocho Venado, Garra de Jaguar, héroe de varios códices by Krystyna Magdalena Libura – It is in Spanish, but has great illustrations and descriptions. I plan on buying a copy of the Codex Nuttall, which Dr. Pohl told us that he used as a “guidebook and map” of the Mixtec Valley of Oaxaca.

I know that I have spoken a lot about Lord Eight Deer, but have not given much information about him.  I have really enjoyed, however, testing my knowledge of the calendar naming system of the Aztecs – so that I can at least read some of the names.  Dr. Pohl, Dr. Spores, and Dr. Wood have also given us some basic instructions on reading the codices, as well.

Mezcal and Mitlan, Part Two

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After having a tour of the mezcal making area, me and my new friend, Gabriel went to a covered hut where a woman was making corn tortillas.  He asked the nice lady to make a fresh tortilla for me, and I got to eat it after adding a bit of salt.  Then, it was time to taste mezcal.

It’s so strange, the variety of flavors that mezcal comes in.  I tasted some coco(nut) and strawberry.  Then, when we sat down to lunch, the waiters came around, offering MORE tastes of mezcal.  I had ordered beef tongue in a sauce, and it was okay.  The tongue, however, was a little sinewy, which doesn’t have to happen.  I did buy a small bottle of mezcal for our friends in Atlixco, as a hostess gift.


After lunch, we set off for Mitla, which is a ruin with a church built right on top of it, and a town all around the ruins.  It began to rain a little as we were touring, but it was not too bad.  I was fascinated by the intricate patterns formed by the limestone (?) bricks in the friezes at the top of the walls.  My favorite one was inside one of the rooms in the back part of the site.  I am still working on recreating that on graph paper.

This represents lightning...

After we left Mitla, I was really tired.  I think a lot of us were.  But, we took a little side trip to Tule, where they have an enormous tree.  It was truly magnificent, and I did go and look at it, but I didn’t take pictures.  You see, my husband took the camera with him after we parted ways at Monte Alban.  Tule also has a beautiful square, and I got to see it again when I went after some strays who took a wrong turn getting back to the bus.

Monte Alban and Mezcal, tour day part one

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Yesterday (Tuesday) was a field trip day.  The NEH fellows met at the corner of Constitucion and Reforma and boarded a large University bus with a very stoic bus driver with sideburns.  We made our way around the top of the valley to the archaeological zone of Monte Alban.  I had been there once before with my husband and father (in 2003), but this was a little different.

For one thing, we were accompanied by the foremost expert on Mixtec culture and history, Dr. Ronald Spores.  He would periodically stand up on the bus and point out places in the distance, usually covered by urban sprawl, that were Zapotec or Mixtec sites.  He maintains that the indigenous peoples of Oaxaca state never “died”, but are alive and well up until the present.

We got down at the entrance to Monte Alban, where we were met by family members who came on a separate bus.  My husband and nephew were there – my husband taking pictures, of course.  My nephew, who is into geocaching, was volunteered by me to operate a GPS donated to the Virtual Oaxaca Project.  The idea was to map the exact locations of the major buildings at the site so that it can be recreated in a virtual world, probably on Second Life.

To that end, I walked around with a notebook and pen, and each time Robert (my nephew) plotted the coordinates of a major temple or the ball court, or anything major, I wrote down the name of the place and its coordinates (latitude and longitude).  It ended up being quicker to just do the last digit, the “seconds” because the degrees and the minutes did not change.

Let me tell you that we went to EVERY tomb, edifice, pile of rocks, etc. that there was at Monte Alban.  The only place I did not go was to the top of the South Pyramid.  My nephew, of course, trotted up and down that twice, measuring coordinates at the base of the steps and at the top of the structure.

I stayed at the bottom and tried to sketch a hieroglyph that looked a bit like Donald Duck – I don’t know what was up with the bill… Maybe it was a visor.  While I was sketching that, the husband of a co-participant (David Geer) was sketching me!

Can you tell it's me?

After we left Monte Alban, we were heading for Mitla.  First, we planned on stopping at a restaurant and mezcal distillery for lunch.  Alas, we has an adventurous side-track because the highway was blocked – we think it was some kind of protest.  Our bus driver said he knew a “short cut”. and turned off onto a dirt road.  A one-track dirt road.  With cars going in both directions as they made their way around the blockade.  Did I mention that we were in a tour bus?  He got through just fine, but boy, were we ready for some mezcal tasting when it was done!!!

Rancho Zapata was the name of the restaurant/showroom and it is one of those destination restaurants for families to come to for the weekend.  They bring their kids with them (there’s a playground), have a leisurely lunch on the covered patio, and buy a little mezcal.  The place is operated by Mezcal Benevá, and they also raise race horses there.  There are stables in the back.

The front of the restaurant is decorated with old pictures of Emilio Zapata, and the back room has starting gate and finish line photos of their winning horses.  In the back is also a palenque or press for getting the juice out of the maguey roots.  There are vats with maguey in several states of fermentation, and a big murky tub feeding liquid into the distillers.  From there, the mezcal drips into big plastic tanks to be bottled later, I guess.

Now, the one thing I learned about this whole process is that there are a LOT of flies.  Flies on the growing maguey plants, flies on the pulverized core, flies on the vats of fermenting pulp, and flies over the murky tub.  The one source of comfort is that that stuff is boiled, distilled and stored in a fly-proof tank.  Did you know that some mezcals (not all) have an maguey worm in them?  They should really put a fly in there!

More later!  I have another long day in a bus tomorrow and I’ve got to get to bed.

First Day of Class

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Exterior of Santo Domingo church

Yesterday was my first day of “classes”.  We meet in a beautiful convent (ex-convent?) called the Santo Domingo Cultural Center.  The best thing is that it’s only a couple of blocks from where we are staying.  We have to have ID badges to get in, and our class is being held in the back of the gigantic convent kitchen.  I will have to take pictures of the frescos – at least in our classroom.

First, we have “Homeroom” where we discuss things we’ve seen – this session was more of a “getting to know you” group.  After a break on the terrace overlooking the gardens, we were given an introduction to the different groups of indigenous people who live in the Oaxacan state by Dra. Maria de los Angeles Romero Frizzi, an ethnohistorian and senior researcher with the Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia (INAH).

We walk past the cloisters to get to our classroom.

In the afternoon, we met at the Fundacion Bustamante for a  lecture given by Dr. Michael Swanton, Coordinator of Linguistic Projects at the Biblioteca Francisco Burgoa will speak to us on “Languages and Cultures in Oaxaca.”  It was not easy to find the Fundacion, but we finally got there.  As there were no more chairs, I sat on a table in the back.

In addition to this, my nephew, Robert, was scheduled to land at the airport at 7:00 PM for the third leg of his trip to visit us.  He first flew from New Orleans to Dallas/Ft. Worth, then from there to Mexico City, and finally from D. F. (another name for Mexico City) to Oaxaca.  There were several updates from my husband, but the bottom line was that his flight was 2 hours and 45 minutes late getting in.  To add to the confusion, Mexicana Click, the airline, changed the flight number.  So, although I was fairly certain they were the same flight, you never know…

When he got to the apartment, I made some sopes for him and we fixed up the futon in the living room for him to sleep on.  Even though he must have been beat, he wanted to come along on the trip to Monte Alban in the morning.  Since family members are not allowed on the bus, which is for US NEH scholars, there was an alternative plan.  All of the S. O.’s (Significant Others, so that no one get’s left out) were going to go separately and meet us there.

More about the field trip tomorrow.  Time to go to bed!

House of the Scorpion Loteria, Card #4

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How else do you get a spare heart?

Spoiler alert!  If you have not read House of the Scorpion, by Nancy Farmer, yet: this may upset you…  On the other hand, it tells you right on the back of the book in the blurb what is supposed to happen.  I think that the only person who does not know is Matt, the clone.

The Mesoamerican Ballgame: An Interactive Website

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I just spent over an hour at a great website I found.  It is www.ballgame.org and it was the companion website to an exhibit that toured from September 2001 through December 2002.  The exhibit was called The Sport of Life and Death: The Mesoamerican Ball Game.

The website is engaging and well laid out.  The common theme is the ancient ball game played in Mesoamerica for over 3000 years.  There is information on various cultures:  the Olmec, the people of Western Mexico, the city of Teotihuacan, the Maya, the ancient people of Veracruz, the Toltecs, the Huastecs, and the Aztecs.  There are four major parts to the website, including information on the now defunct exhibit.

The first part is called Explore the Mesoamerican World.  When you enter this section there is an interactive timeline that illustrates the rise and fall of several civilizations.  The map is loaded with information on the culture, artwork, ballgames and archeological sites where the ballgame was played. Information can be accessed by clicking on the map, on the time line dates, or on the menu to the left of the map.  The civilizations mentioned above are included and there is also a segment on the Spanish Conquest.

The second part of the site is called Explore the Ball Game.  This section is divided into information about the Ball, the Uniform, the Ball Court and the Game.

The page about the ball has four components: artwork depicting an offering of a rubber ball by a priest (click on it for illustration), a slide show on how the rubber balls were made (from tree to molding), an interactive game that offers interesting facts about rubber and the balls, and a series of first hand accounts written by Europeans who witnessed the game when they came to the New World.

The Uniform page is illustrated with statues and also has a menu to explain each element. The Parade of Players has a wide assortment of clay figures of ball players and spectators that are clearly labeled with arrows.  The Mascots are various animal carvings worn by the players or used to decorate the ball courts – each figure is labeled with interesting pieces of information about the uniform, the players, and animal symbolism. The Locker Room shows more stone replicas of ball player equipment with explanations.  After learning about the parts of the uniform, one can then dress a player for a game.  Watch out – the “hacha” was tricky to place…

The Court page has five interactive parts.  First, there is video panorama of the Mayan ball court at Copan (Honduras).  Click on “Listen to an Aztec Song” and there is a three-part musical rendition of the Matlatzincayotl, which was an ancient song honoring Xochipilli – the patron god of the ball game.  There is an interactive diagram of a ball court with explanations that appear when you move your cursor over parts of the illustration. Finally, there is a gallery of artwork from ball courts, with explanations and symbols clearly pointed out and explained.  In another link to historical art,  there is a cylindrical vase that tells a story.

The Game page has a video clip re-enacting a ball game from the National Geographic Special called “Lost Kingdoms of the Maya”. There are links to click on that ask “Did Women Play?”, “What Happened to the Losers?”, “The First Dream Team” compares ancient sports with those played today, and there is a depiction of the Mayan glyph for ball player.  My favorite link is “Explore this Artwork” which explains how the creation story of Popol Vuh – the Hero Twins is contained within the design on a plate. Be sure to click on the diagram and line drawing to get the full effect.

Experience the Game is a section in two parts: Watch the Game (or Be a Fan) is a narrative interpreting an elaborate clay model of a ball court with players and spectators. You can also click on the links for close ups of the model.  It is interesting, once you get used to the idea that no actual game will be played in the segment.  The final activity: Play the Game (Be a Player) is a great trivia game.  Players who answer correctly win a point for their team.  It can be played more than once – maybe three times before the questions begin repeating themselves.  These questions might also be transcribed for a quiz.

If you click on the Classroom Connections link at the bottom, there are four art projects with instructions: Make a paper face mask, Create a clay effigy vessel, Craft a headdress and costumes from paper, and Mold clay ballgame figures.  In fact, if you click on the different instruction links, there are charts and diagrams that can be printed out – information that I didn’t see anywhere else in the site.  These included a Cosmic Diagram, Story of Popol Vuh, Animal Imagery, a Pronunciation Guide, a Glossary of Terms related to the Mesoamerican Ballgame, and other printables.

This is a very rich website that should be suitable for upper elementary to adult learners (I liked it and learned a lot!).