October 1997

Bus Ride to San Marcos

Many of these tales blaze with the intensity of first experiences. In this one, Eric relives the first visit to the Zapotec pottery village of San Marcos Tlapazola...

Deep in the solidly Zapotec east valley of Oaxaca, far removed from the last trace of asphalt, is the pottery village of San Marcos Tlapazola. Virtually unknown even to the Oaxacans themselves, and non-existent to the passing tourist, it exists hidden in time, beyond the vision of the city, holding on shakily into the 21st century. The Spaniards with their kilns and glazes never came to this village, nor have the tourists with their fancy whims. San Marcos pottery has stayed true to its origins and calling, simply functional, simply graceful. Hold water, cook beans. To its purpose, it is perfection.

I first learned of San Marcos eight years ago through a Coyotepec potter. He pointed me in the right direction and I found it from there. I started by going to the Sunday market in Tlacolula which serves as a hub to all the Zapotec villages in the east valley. I wandered the market until I met an old man, Francisco Cruz, selling a dozen smooth red pots. It was San Marcos pottery and I began to talk with him, swapping Los United States stories for San Marcos pottery stories. I was hoping to somehow get invited out to the village. Showing up in an off the beaten track village as a total stranger can be awkward and uncomfortable. Showing up as someone's guest gives you a face, and people have a better idea what to make of you. Throw in a common interest in pottery and you'll be lucky to get out of the village in a week, and by then you'll be 20 pounds heavier, somebodies god parent and committed to marriage. In Oaxaca, getting such an invitation requires very little doing, folks are wonderfully generous and hospitable. After five minutes of tale swapping with Francisco, I was invited to visit his family in San Marcos. "Will I be able to meet potters?" I asked him. "My wife, my four daughters, my mother and aunts and sisters in-law, my cousins and neighbors, they are all potters..."

I went out the following Wednesday. Blessed be Mexico, for there is public transportation going everywhere. San Marcos is no exception, but that doesn't mean it's easy. The bus out to Tlacolula was no problem. From there the San Marcos "bus" departs "every hour or so, with any luck," I was told. And so it was. I spent a long while following the progress of the shadows as they eased across the street.

The "bus" did finally come. It turned out to be a Nissan pickup truck with tall wood sides built onto the back with a couple of benches. There was a tarp rolled to one side to pull over in case of rain. I climbed into the back with a few men and a group of round women in bright blouses gathered with red sashes and two wide, colorful ribbons braided into their long dark hair. They all eye balled me and passed around some giggling comments, mysterious gringo jokes, in a language unknown to me, but surely Zapotec.. We got going and they became distracted in hanging on and keeping their tomatoes in their baskets. I pulled my hat down tighter against the wind and got busy watching the world go by.

On the Road to San Marcos in the Oaxaca Valley
The ride out to San Marcos seemed to me like a National Geographic show. The truck, with all of us sticking out the back, followed a dirt road climbing the easy rise along the foot of a steep and jutting, pointy, green mountain. We wound past field after field rowed with enormous bluegreen agave cactus and lines of bright young corn. These were all vividly set off against deep red soil freshly tilled by teams of muscled oxen, prodded on by dark men in white hats. To the left we suddenly passed a large wooden cart pulled by two oxen and loaded with a half dozen red ribboned and white hatted country folk, slowly, surely, peacefully getting to wherever they were going. The rickety Nissan seemed a rocket ship as we dusted by. To the right, lost in an overgrown field, rose the melting ruins of a fallen hacienda. With its collapsed arches and dark windows it seemed to still have the air of the revolution around it. And ahead, on the base of that jutting mountain lay three villages, each a gathering of trees and jumbled roofs with a pair of whitewashed stone steeples rising from the old colonial churches in the town's center.

Two more turns, a dip through a dry arroyo and we climbed into the middle village, San Marcos Tlapazola. From my vantage in the back of the truck I could peer over the red brick house walls into the courtyards. There I saw oxen and goats, pomagranites and squash, red ribbons, white hats, and everywhere, pots. Smooth, red, round pots. My eyes watered at the sight.


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