A Visit to Mama Elena’s World

Some of the best weavings in Mexico come from Santo Tomas Jalieza
Weaving demonstration in Santo Tomas Jalieza, Mexico

The Ocotlán Valley in the Mexican State of Oaxaca, south of the city of Oaxaca, is filled with many interesting tourist sites. Every street corner in downtown Oaxaca has a tour company offering to take you there. Go.

Of particular note, Ocotlán Valley was the inspiration for the popular movie “Coco.” I met the person who was the role model for Mama Elena in the movie working as a cook at one of the most impressive sites in the valley, Jacobo & Maria Angeles, a factory making museum-quality painted wood-carved figures in an indigenous Zapotec style, known as “alebrijes.” They use only natural colors, cured copal wood, and each piece is hand-painted by a skilled artisan, finished, at times with gold or silver leaf, using a process that protects the wood and painting from deterioration. They sell mainly to museums and art collectors. Their success has caused a little tourist village to develop surrounding their workshop.

Getting to Jacobo & Maria Angeles would be difficult for a tourist without a guide, because it is way off the beaten path. Don’t be fooled into confusing the alebrijes here with the many cheap imitations sold in tourist shops, which are machine made and painted with acrylics on cheap wood. For more information, visit jacoboymariaangeles.com.

One alternative place to buy less expensive alebrijes, but still of nice quality (made with copal, but not painted with natural colors) is Alebrijes Autoctonos. Again, a guide is needed to get there.

A special time to visit Ocotlán is during the Friday market, which fills the main plaza of Ocotlán de Morelos, selling everything from foods, wares, souvenirs and even washing machines in a large area surrounding an old church on the plaza. The church is beautiful and serves as a place of respite in a very chaotic, hectic market where the noise level often gets uncomfortable and you can easily get lost in the winding pathways.

In this same town, off a quiet street away from the market, you find the workshop of Angel Aguilar where with five employees, mostly family, he creates seven very high-quality knives each day. It is anything but mass production. Customers from around the world order his nearly indestructible knives, which last 25 years. Although the knives use no chrome, the workshop’s knives use a home-grown process to get the same sheen as chrome using reclaimed metals. The knife handles are also made from reclaimed materials as diverse as animal bones to scrap hardwood. Again, only a guide would know how to reach this place. If you want to go on your own, email angel.cuchilleriaart@hotmail.com in advance. The Aguilars happily give a demonstration about their process that weaves in many cultural values, which is worth a visit to see even if you don’t care about knives.

The Ocotlán artisan site in Santo Tomas Jalieza is the source for some of Mexico’s best traditional woven fabrics. Displayed in a large covered market in the middle of this small town, it’s a great chance to get up close and personal with the artisans who pass down their skills through generations and demonstrate them for onlookers.

A stop in Ocotlán at a “farm” raising cochinilla makes for another unique experience. Cochinilla is a parasite that grows on cactus in certain parts of the world. It doesn’t grow in the U.S. The main producer of this parasite is Peru. The parasite is raised because it is the primary source of the natural color red, used, for example, in Campari and many other products. But here it is raised for use in the local artisan works that rely on natural colors. Again, a guide is needed; you won’t find this farm on your own. For more information visit aztecacolor.com.

Cochinilla is cultivated for its natural red color in many products
Scrapping the cochinilla parasite from a cactus leaf

These are but a few of the many joys of the Ocotlán Valley not to be missed. Happy journeys.

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