Of Rain and Corn

August 1997

A long drought breaks, and El Grande is made to understand that rain is more than a nuisance...

Waiting for rain in the Valley of Oaxaca

The rain came back this afternoon. Out of the east, a dark sky full of water. The shepherds on the hill hid under their little squares of plastic or took shelter on the lee side of large cattle. The drops turned to vapor as they hit the hot dry earth, disappeared into the crisp brown leaves of the field corn. It has been forty nine days since the last drop of water fell from the sky into this valley.

The Oaxacans, corn farmers, subsistence farmers, people who eat no meal that is not centered around corn, who's dreams are permeated with corn, planted their corn in late May, as they do every year, with the onset of the summer rains. In July, with corn waist high and ready to flower, the last drop fell that would fall for six weeks. For the couple weeks or of this unwelcome blue sky, thirsty eyes read the horizon, there still being hope that the heavens would return with their generosity. After that, with the healthy green leaves fading and curling in, the tips yellowing, the dust swirling in the afternoon wind, there was no longer need to watch the skies. The harvest was lost. The stalks would be salvaged for feed, and maybe a planting of late season pinto or garbanzo would help hold things together through the long dry season.

Potters in Pueblo Cuquila, in the Mixtec Highlands

The rural potters, like everyone living under the whims of nature, watch the sky like hawks trying to read it's mood, predict it's will. A rain mid-firing can mean the loss of a seven day's hard work. Generally the potters here close shop during the rainy season and go to work in the fields. Wet soil, wet wood, mist, vapor, tremendous afternoon thundershowers take too heavy a toll on the fragile pots to make potting worthwhile. Clay and pots from October to May. Mud and corn the rest of the year.

In spite of their hawk eyes, I bet this afternoon's shower caught them unawares. And I bet they didn't mind a bit, for potters are farmers too, and this rain, which is continuing into the night, gives the vital hope that a harvest of some sort can still be made this year.

Visiting in San Marcos

A few Augusts back I was out in San Marcos, an ancient village of valley Zapotec potters who make smooth and round, burnished, red pots and the essential comal, upon which tortillas are cooked. I was buying pots to fill a truck with old Catalina and her clan. Daughters and daughters in law, sisters and cousins and nephews. There were perhaps a dozen women gathered in Catalina's yard, together with the goats and turkeys and pigs and one tall gringo. As it usually is when I go to buy pots, after the haggling is done, there is chatting, laughter, food sharing, and story telling. That afternoon I was entertaining the group with hopped-up tales of my follies that rainy season, of getting stuck on muddy roads, being chased by oncoming showers or caught in the open and soaked through.

As we were working the clouds were rapidly building along the ridges above. Worried that I was again going to get hit by a big shower and that all the pots and packing cardboard would get wet, I summed up my story telling with a bold, foolish statement. "Damned rain!".

There was a sudden silence among the women, an enormous still and almost silent utterances of "madre mia!", "ai, senor!" and some bit of Zapotec that I couldn't understand. And just as quickly, recovery. The chit chatting resumed as if nothing had ever been said, for the Oaxacans are nothing if not hospitable and accommodating. But old Catalina, with her broken spanish, the matriarch of this clan, said to me very seriously, "rain makes the corn grow. Rain is a blessing from Nuestro Senor".

Of course I was immediately aware of the depth of my verbal blunder, even as the words left my mouth. But the words left. How could I explain to Catalina that where I come from it never rains in the clean, wide, flourescent rows of the fields where I take harvest. Not only that, but it doesn't matter if it's June or January, there are always green veggies and red apples.

I only have it by theory that rain and food are united. I have not lived with the need to watch the skies every day for sign of water. I have not had to follow the rhythms of the seasons nor worry the hot blue sky. I have never lived the glory of the feasting at harvest, the juicy sweetness of fruit that you can only get and eat during four weeks of the year, the good pleasure of eating your own hard earned reward.

Or at least I hadn't, but I'm not in Oaxaca for the good weather, though God knows I watch these days, for it tells me things about the lives of my friends, these farmers and potters. I'm here because these potters and farmers know a whole lot about things of which I know squat. I'm listening, I'm learning.

And it's ok, they know we gringos have our tricks, but in general are fairly foolish. Such an understanding helps me enormously amongst these good people.


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