The Purveyor of Hospitality

September 1999

Eric attempts to pay back the simple and quiet hospitality of the village people that he has long accepted with graciousnes, and learns that it's not that simple...

The Purveyor of Hospitality. We'd finally set a date, the three Zapotec potters from San Marcos and I, to go touring. I'd been inviting them for quite some time to a day on the town; drive from their village into Oaxaca city, see a couple of museums with pre-Columbian pottery and then head out to my warehouse to see the newer stuff (no difference except the vintage) from all over the state. They'd been quite enthusiastic about the offer, having never been to the Oaxaca museums (though I doubt they'd ever bothered trying). Particularly they were excited or at least curious about seeing my warehouse, and house which is next door to it. They'd never been to a foreigner's house, or really to anyone's house outside of the villages. And a ride in my big brown van with its soft suspension and dark windows and U.S.A. license plates would also be a treat. No one in San Marcos owned such a ridiculous vehicle.

I arrived with the big brown van around 10:00 am. Macrina and Alberta met me at the gate. In San Marcos the potters always welcome me at the gate. Then they escort me across the courtyard, past the oxen, turkeys and sleeping dogs to the table where I am kindly commanded to sit and rest. If it is morning I will be offered a little "coffee", which is actually hot chocolate, with sweet bread. If it is in the afternoon it will be a large soda. As is expected, I always accept, and old mama Chona will go running out to the corner store with change in her apron and bring me back a cold soda She will arrive sweating and with sparkling eyes to offer it to me. This little gesture is never failing. Not just in San Marcos, but in any village or household where one might find themselves visiting. A seat in the shade and something nice to drink are always offered. In San Marcos this is done so well that it seems to me an art form. It isn't that they have an elaborate ceremony with special cups and lacey napkins with which to serve you your Sprite. None of that at all. Rather you will be served with the bottle as your glass after the dust is wiped off with the tail of an apron. The art is in the intent and sincerity of the act. "You are welcome here, drink this as a token of our welcome to you." It is done without fail. Not just to me, who as a tall foreigner is a somewhat distinguished guest, but to everyone. Should there be no money to buy soda and only one tortilla in the whole house, you will be given that tortilla. It will be given gracefully, so that you never realize it is the last tortilla, and with nothing but generosity.

As you drink Alberta or Macrina will come in and keep you company. There will be small talk and a bit of silence before whatever the purpose of the visit is attended to. Today I arrived at 10:00 AM , breakfast time in southern Mexico. This is seldom an accident of timing on my behalf for it is no secret that fresh hot tortillas and beans from a clay pot are one of my elemental reasons for living so far from my birthplace. Today, however, I was expected for breakfast. As I was going to be taking them around all day it was only proper that they feed me first. To not allow this would have been rude on my part.

The menu was barbecued, thin sliced beef, hot beans, steaming tortillas, fresh Jalapeņo salsa, chocolate and sweet bread. I make it a point not to be rude. One of the main reasons I'd decided to invite the three San Marcos potters out for a day on the town was that I wanted a way to repay some of their hospitality. I often visit them on some pretext or another. I'm either ordering pottery, picking up pottery or talking about logistics for upcoming workshops with them. In all that commotion I've been treated to many chocolates, sodas, breakfasts and lunches at their house. And each time, as I leave they run out with a bag of tortillas made in the house that morning and send me home with them. It is impossible to visit San Marcos without being overwhelmed by relaxed, warm hospitality.

I felt it was time to offer something back. My plan was to take them to a couple museums to take a look at their roots, great collections of ancient Mexican pottery. From there we'd go to my pottery warehouse to show them work made by their regional contemporaries. These women are very curious and always looking for ways to adapt their work to the tastes of te suddenly so quickly changing world. I figured they'd find inspiration somewhere in all that pottery. I also figured to treat them to lunch at some shiny restaurant somewhere along the line.

We got to the first museum around noon, after a long, large breakfast and 45 minutes jouncing down the red rock road out of San Marcos. The ancient pottery there is pretty spectacular. The stuff that shows up in the museums is the best of the best from the times of the great Mesoamerican civilizations. There are all forms of beautiful and terrifying ancient gods depicted in clay. There are intricately adorned funeral urns, clay heads of kings and princes, jugs covered with lizards and birds, canteens in the shapes of squat dogs and peyote cactus. The San Marcos potters come from a village of very functional potters. Forever they have made bean and soup pots, bowls and platters- simple, graceful, smooth pieces.

They got pretty quiet when they saw all the crazy old pottery. Especially old Chona who's really from another time. She doesn't speak Spanish and seldom leaves the village. She kept covering her mouth, pointing at some piece or another and saying, "soos, soos, soos." ( HEY-soos is the Spanish pronunciation of Jesus which, in the right context, is uttered as 'soos' in Zapotec). Once we'd seen all the pots there I took them to another museum spread through a spectacular 16th century Spanish convent. It was full of gold, jade, pottery... and people. Macrina joked that it reminded her of the subway in Mexico city. Old Chona, who'd never seen so many people at one place in her life, except at mass the time the Archbishop came to San Marcos, had a look of semi-controlled terror in her eyes. "Soos, soos, soos."

Torn between wanting to show them some of the great pots there and realizing that their eyes were glazing over I dragged them through the best exhibits. Finally we escaped the crush and headed to the more familiar surroundings of the countryside and out to my place. In my work as a back country pottery buyer I spend a lot of time visiting potters. In so doing over the years and with a great deal of practice I've become extremely adept and gracious at receiving hospitality. I know when to say yes or no to an offer. I'm quite comfortable sitting in the shade and making small talk. I eat anything put before me, no matter how apparent it might be that the dish will reap havoc with me for a week. I always ask for seconds no matter how full I am if I can see it will make my hostess proud of her cooking.

As I pulled into my house with a van load of San Marcos potters I realized quite suddenly that this was the first time I'd received guests from a village at my house. Suddenly I was the host, the purveyor of hospitality. I stepped down from the van and opened the door for them. "Welcome" I said in a deep baritone, sweeping my arm to present my estate to them. Up until that point my craft was spotless. Then, in trying to decide which would be more appropriate, offering them a seat in the shade and bringing out a cool drink or taking them over to the warehouse and to tour the pottery I got jammed. We stood for a moment while I grinded my mind in fast forward and reverse trying to see how such a situation would be handled by any of my easy hosts out in the villages. All I got was static.

"Let's go see the warehouse!"

I finally managed, feeling suddenly quite feeble, and went marching off toward it. They caught up with me.

"These pots are from Coyotepec and these are from Tavehua and these are from Atzompa and these ones here come from Tonaltepec and are stained with oak bark and these ones..."

I felt like a 12 year old showing off his baseball card collection to Babe Ruth.

"... and these ones come from the Sierra Mixe, come on let's go sit down in the shade and have a soda!"

I marched over to the porch. They caught up with me and we went inside. I got them seated on the couch, all in a line. Three San Marcos potters sat upright there, each with two long black braids woven through with red or yellow satin ribbons, shimmering flowered dresses, embroidered aprons edged with lace, red sashes and black shawls over their shoulders. Their presence seemed to me far to enormous for my silly little room. They sat stiffly. I've never seen a couch in a village, not once. Wooden benches and straight back chairs are the rule. It was apparent they weren't quite sure of what to do with a couch.

"Want a drink?" I offered.

I had a big bottle of Sprite I'd bought in anticipation of the visit. I found that all the big glasses were dirty and was forced to serve in squat, stingy little glasses I found in the back of the cupboard. Still in show and tell mode I flipped open the TV cabinet and fumbled through my pottery videos. These women have never seen pottery made by anyone but themselves. This would be a fine chance to show them something else. I settled on the Maria Martinez video. I figured they'd be able to find many interesting parallels in it. Also I really enjoy the video. Maria's spirit and that of these women share the same grounded peacefulness. But once it started rolling it occurred to me that this was so similar it might have been as much fun to watch as if they'd stayed home and worked before a mirror. I cursed under my breath, I should have shown them a video on firing an electric kiln or using a kick wheel. That would have been exotic and bizarre. Then I thought that it would have been better not to start the TV at all. When had I ever visited anyone in a village and sat and watched TV. I should have been chatting with them. But they sat and watched attentively.

As Maria burnished a pot I noticed that it was 3 o'clock. Lunch time in Oaxaca! Somehow I'd forgotten all about it in the museum wrestling and drive out here. The last thing I wanted to do was to feed them in my house. I just couldn't do it. These women have fed me time and time again with tortillas made from their corn harvest. These were served with hot beans, also from their harvest and cooked in pottery they'd made. There was no way I would subject them to factory made tortillas and canned beans sitting in my poor kitchen. I knew they'd be hungry and passed around some of yesterday's wholewheat banana bread to enjoy with their Sprite. I figured I'd buy them lunch on the way back out to the San Marcos.

We left around four. They wouldn't let me stop and buy them lunch. They said old Chona was too tired. Truth was we all were after the excretions of a day on the town. Old Chona kept nodding off in the back. But on the way they had me stop at the market and they ran through to make some purchases. Chona and I stayed in the car talking. I speak five words of Zapotec, she speaks five words of Spanish. It was small talk. Then we got back to their house.

Once through the gate they escorted me to the table and had me sit and rest for a moment. Suddenly I felt wonderfully relaxed. The static in my head, which had been clearing bit by bit as we drove out here, was all gone. Alberta came in and gave me a shot of fiery mescal. She and Old Chona sat by the door in those straight backed chairs, looking quite comfortable. And I felt quite comfortable too. We talked about the day as I worked on my mescal. Someone brought in a soda too. Then Macrina came in with a big bag full of home grown tortillas, and in among them where two large slices of that wonderful barbecued beef. She'd just bought it in the market and put it over the coals once we got home. Alberta went out and came back with the same gift, except that her beef wasn't cooked, there having been no time. She told me how to cook it at home. Old Chona handed me a pot she'd made and said thank you in broken Spanish. With that, farewells were said. I thanked them profusely for everything, they simply thanked me. Then I got in the van and drove off into the dusk, steering erratically with one hand and tearing into the tortillas and hot, barbecued beef with the other.


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