Eventually, the indegenous Zapotec settled in and around the Valley of Oaxaca, including the area of Teotitlan del Valle (Earth of the Gods), about 30 minutes east of Oaxaca de Juarez. The Zapotec perfected a method of rug weaving, incorporating natural dyes and tribal and nature motifs in their work. With the Spanish invasion in the 16th century, Dominican friars were sent to the villages in the Valley of Oaxaca to encourage arts and culture. With the introduction of modern looms from Spain, the Zapotec weavers now had the means to make and sell their colorfully patterned pieces more quickly.
In 1960, the town began a slow ascent to “modernize” and today there are just over 5,000 residents – most are Zapotec rug weavers and make their living this way. A steady flow of American cultural tourism and international wholesale buyers have kept business brisk, though the weavers make scant profit on their rugs, runners and tapestries due to the time-intensive process of weaving on a loom. In fact, it’s recommended that you DON’T haggle on price with these artisans, contrary to the expectation of negotiation for other goods throughout Mexico.
Carina Santiago and Pedro Montaño. Keeping Traditions Alive.
The tradition of gathering, preparing for and cooking Zapotec cuisine is part of the mix that is Oaxacan gastronomy and still practiced in Teotitlan del Valle. I met cocinera (chef) Carina Santiago Bautista in October 2013 while reporting from the Foro Mundial Gastronomia Mexicana (World Forum on Mexican Gastronomy) in Acapulco. Her invitation to the event was auspicious, as one of the main goals of the Forum was to promote the cuisine of Michoacan and Oaxaca as “intangible” UNESCO heritage assets.
El Gringo arranged to meet with Carina at her restaurant and gallery, Tierra Antigua in Teotitlan del Valle, for lunch and a chat during our family’s trip to Oaxaca over the holidays. When we arrived via taxi on the appointed Sunday at noon, we were greeted warmly by Carina, her husband Pedro Montaño, son Diego, and daughters Diana and Alicia (both, as their mother, dressed in beautiful, intricately-embroidered huipiles).
We were seated at a table on the restaurant’s sunny, welcoming patio and enjoyed cervezas, Mezcals de la Casa and a fantastic lunch of perfectly prepared Coloradito and Negro Moles for El Gringo and his Señorita, and a lemonade and dense rolled chicken tacos for our five-year old.
After serving the last of Sunday’s lunch customers, Carina took off her apron and sat down with El Gringo to discuss the history of her town, her family’s tradition of weaving and cooking, and the future of these traditional touchstones in her village.
Carina began, “My husband, Pedro, was spinning wool for his father’s rugs at age 7. And his father had learned from his father before him. At age 10, Pedro started weaving larger pieces and now he is considered a master weaver here in town.” As testament, Tierra Antigua’s gallery walls are adorned with a rich, textural, brightly-colored palette of Zapotec rugs created both by Pedro and his son Diego, who has learned from his father and is coming into his own as a weaver.
“Each Teotitlan family has different patterns and colors,” Diego explained to me. The motifs woven by the Montaño family primarily consist of mountains, rings and the Grecca patterns used by the Zapotec in Mitla and various spots around town. “My grandfather taught me the Grecca stair step pattern, like the ones you see on Zapotec ruins and our rugs. The first step is birth, the second is youth, the third is wisdom, coming of age. The final step, which turns down, is death, or what we believe in as heaven.”
Tierra Antigua was founded by Carina and Pedro originally as a gallery for their Zapotec masterpieces. The restaurant was opened just five years back, upon urging from Carina’s family and friends to share her delicious traditional Zapotec meals with the town and visiting tourists. Incorporating both an outdoor Zapotec kitchen (complete with molcajete, comal and metate) and inside “modern” kitchen, the restaurant’s menu includes traditional foods such as moles, tamales and empanadas. And Carina makes her special Atole (traditional indigenous corn and chocolate drink) every Sunday morning.
Carina reflected on the cooking traditions in her family. “When I was young, the gringos began to come to Teotitlan to see the rugs. They were looking for something to eat, so my grandmother began to cook for them. She would start in the market to get corn, squash, garbanzo beans, chickpeas and pumpkin. She started with just a table, selling corn tortillas.” Carina still makes those corn tortillas. They are bright yellow, soft, warm and the BEST El Gringo has ever had!
Her mother-in-law also had a large influence on Carina’s cooking, as she explained to me, “In Teotitlan, new wives and husbands live with their in-laws so the mother-in-law can show them how to cook. I married at sixteen and my mother-in-law taught me the flavors of our family.” Like the rugs, the food here is also steeped in slight yet significant specialization.
Additionally, each town in the Valley of Oaxaca also has a subtle range of regional differences. Only Teotitlan has Zapotec moles made with trigo (breadcrumbs), chlles chicostles and different natural herbs like oregano and tomillo (another type of oregano). For tamales, only Teotitlan uses mole amarillo inside the masa and wraps them in green corn leaves (banana leaves are typical in Oaxaca).
As the World Shrinks. The Future of Teotitlan Traditions?
Carina’s son Diego’s next move is to the university to study marketing so he can help grow his family’s business. As he drove us into town to tour the excellent community museum (or Balaa Xtee Guech Gulal in Zapotec), he told us that young men he knows are no longer interested in weaving and there is a fear that these traditions may be lost.
Both of Carina’s daughters are in secondary school, love to cook, and help around the restaurant (Alicia, the youngest, was our friendly and capable waitress). Diana, Carina’s oldest daughter, wants to study to become a doctor. But she also wants to be able to cook traditional meals for her husband and children in the future.
As I took the sisters’ photo picking corn from the cob in the restaurant, I asked what they were watching on the monitor on the table, to which they both replied, “Top Chef.” As the world shrinks, will tradition follow? Or will global media and tourism add the needed visibility to keep them supported and striving? Regardless, Teotitlan del Valle remains a top producer of unique crafts and cuisine, and a must-stop on any Valley of Oaxaca travel itinerary.
Your Gringo in Mexico,
Carina Santiago and Tierra Antigua are now offering shopping, cooking and dining classes. Tierra Antigua will pick up attendees in Oaxaca de Juarez and bring them to Teotitlan del Valle to shop for ingredients at the local market. Attendees then cook with Carina in her traditional Zapotec kitchen and dine with her warm and welcoming family. Transportation back to Oaxaca, same day, is provided. For more information, contact Tierra Antigua at (from US) 001-52-951-16-66-160, email firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit their Facebook page at www.facebook.com/TierraAntigua. Tierra Antigua is located at Av. Juarez No. 175, Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca.