Zapotec Potters Visit the Land of the Hopi - Part I

Spring 2000

A tale from Arizona in which two Zapotec potters, having made the long trip north from Oaxaca, find themselves eating bacon, biscuits and gravy in the house of a Hopi potter below First Mesa on the Hopi reservation up in Arizona. It was near about the most exotic food these two potters had ever swallowed.

One of them, never before having strayed far from her home village back in Oaxaca, was hoping this was as exotic as it was going to get. The other had traveled some back home in Mexico and was familiar and comfortable with trying bizarre foods. Hamburgers with pickles and ketchup were yet to come. A great deal had gone into getting these two potters up here in the first place. The U.S. isn't to keen on inviting low income Mexicans across the border. Oaxacan potters qualify for that income bracket. But with proof of all expenses paid by a generous folk art importer from Jerome, Arizona and a formal letter of invitation from the Museum of Northern Arizona, U.S. Customs saw fit to issue these young masters visas.

Zapotec potters visit the Grand Canyon

I came along as the mouth, turning Spanish into English and visa versa. I also made a stab at translating America, biscuits and gravy, into something that made sense to Oaxacan potters. This was a bit more complicated. But out there on the Hopi reservation, beyond breakfast, I didn't have to work so hard. What they saw made sense; houses made out of recognizable materials like stone and earth, people size houses (The sheet rock castles that we'd been seeing, homes for two, had been hard to explain- I don't have them figured either) folks out planting corn, and potters talking about how they dig their clay, where they get their gourds, and what kind of scrap metal works well for scraping (Spam cans for Hopi, barrel rings for Zapotec). The polite Zapotec women, with their long braids and embroidered aprons thanked our good hostess for the food. Dishes were cleared, the table pushed aside and the linoleum kitchen floor became the workroom. Clay came out, (San Marcos, Oaxaca special blend- one part fine creek sand, one part red field clay) gourd ribs, worn corn cobs and pieces of barrel rings were pulled from tattered plastic bags and the Zapotecs seated themselves on the floor and went to work doing what they do best.

While we were munching biscuits word had got around that the Oaxacan potters were going to make some pots, so there were a few folks there to see the work. Folding chairs and upturned buckets. The potters went to work. The Hopi women took bits of the clay and felt it between their fingers, commenting back and forth in quiet Hopi.

Of all the villages in Oaxaca where I've seen pots being made San Marcos, where these two potters were from, has to be my favorite. Back in the early days of hanging out there I'd get thrills up my spine like a kid going to Disney Land watching these women work. I found what they did utterly amazing. For the silence and focus in that room as the Zapotecs began to from their pots I'd say the Hopi women felt the same. Difference is they know the business a lot better than I ever have. I think they appreciated what was going on pretty profoundly.

Of course the Hopis know how to make pots too. Amazingly beautiful pots wonderfully, finely painted. But they do it differently, slowly, pinch by finicky pinch. A grape fruit size Hopi pot can take four hours to give form too. The Zapotec potters had each finished a basketball size pot in about 15 minutes. As usual, the pots were thin and symmetrical. They went on to their next pot. The Hopis were wide-eyed. They'd seen pots made fast, plenty of wheels around. But they'd never seen pots made fast the native way, with a gourd and a stone and two good hands.

And the Zapotec women had some wide-eyeing to do as well. Down in Oaxaca nobody does any fancy painting the way these women do. They did, but that was about 600 years ago. And then there was the detail about price. Just about everything in America costs more than in Oaxaca. But there was a lot of fast Zapotec going back and forth between the women when they found out that that grapefruit size pot would retail for $1,000. Back home those basket ball size pots they made would fetch 100 pesos on a good day. About eleven dollars.

It was obvious after the meeting of masters that there were some trade secrets that needed to be shared. The Oaxacan women liked the pretty painting, but had no idea were to begin. The good news is that there is a rich legacy behind them to feed on and plenty of pigments in the hillsides if one knows where to look. The Hopi women would be happy to teach. And the Oaxacans wouldn't mind if a little Hopi price magic rubbed off as well. And for the Hopis, they had something they wanted to learn as well. It was like (the husband said) "I think I'm gonna marry a Oaxacan woman. He was seeing that a basketball in 15 minutes was better than a four hour grapefruit. In the works now, creative plans to fund an international exchange: Zapotec a week in Hopi and then the other way around.

I'm hoping I'll be along for the ride. I'd be happy to be there to explain breakfast to a couple Hopi potters down in San Marcos. chocolate, steaming beans with salsa and avocado and corn tortillas still warm from the comal.


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