photo of Mexican man the sierra norte
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introducing the area

traditional skills

 quotes about traditional skills
 key testimonies featuring traditional skills

A number of traditional skills are referred to by narrators from these Sierra Norte communities. Some traditions are on the decline, or have already disappeared, but others are clearly being maintained. The handing down of skills from generation to generation within families is mentioned by several narrators. A number of men describe working with their fathers to make charcoal, for example, and one woman (Mexico 4) said: ".I've been a traditional medicine healer for 36 years. I learnt from my grandmother and began to treat when I became a mother. She learnt from a woman, a grandmother who was from San Miguel Amatlán; who also learnt as a girl."

Environmental change and population pressure seem to have affected some practices. In Tiltepec, a narrator (Mexico 3) describes old fishing techniques: ". our forefathers knew very well how to do things with animals and fish. Yes, what they used to do to catch the fish, was divert a certain part of the river so that a little pool dried and the fish were there; from there they killed them." Now, he says, there is less water and fewer fish; moreover, some people have adopted the incomers' practice of using dynamite.

In the same community, candles were apparently made for the church and, before the arrival of electricity, for wider community use: ".we had to go and buy the wax in Talea by the kilo . you make a circle of twigs and then tie on the candle strings and join them with wire to be able to stand them on the church altar and put tissue-paper bows on the base of some. The person who's doing it takes a day to do 12 dozen candles. there wasn't electric light like there is now." (Mexico 6).

The traditional practice of growing cotton and making clothes has disappeared: "They planted cotton and they weeded it, they took care of it and made their clothes.they made yarn, and they began to weave the fabric. That's what our grandparents did. Everyone was busy with cotton: they made shirts, trousers, skirts, blouses and other things and later they let the cotton [tradition] be lost... Now there's Poplin - [synthetic] fabric" Mexico 10). In contrast, a woman in the same community is a personification of a continuing skill: ".as a traditional doctor I can do cleansings, cure shock, severe stomach problems, knocks, headaches, stomach pain, also nerves, high blood pressure. I collect [the medicinal plants] in my community; I dry them, I process them, and I make ointments, tinctures, cough syrup, soap for dandruff, for hair loss, for cleaning wounds" (Mexico 4).

As well as being aware of the curative properties of plants, people valued their taste and nutritional value. One woman says that this harvesting of wild food has declined: "Nowadays people are eating eggs, meat.canned sardines, all that. The old people say they ate more beans and herbs before.and salsas (sauces) and avocados. That was their food, and mushrooms.... Everything's changing now, people have forgotten about guias (local name for edible leaves of young plants) and mushrooms; now they're eating almost only meat" (Mexico 19).

It seems a number of craft skills were practiced, including different kinds of woodworking. One woman in Ixtlán (Mexico 16) talked of her grandfather's skills at making wooden washboards, irrigation channels of wood or reed, spoons and molinillos - wooden whisks for making the chocolate drink characteristic of Oaxaca. Making the last item is still, it seems, a source of income in these communities. Similarly, local pottery-making continues, she says: ".my grandmother made her clay pots, but these were rustic, simple - there weren't fine plates in those days.She used to have her vessels, her pots, and her jugs, even braseritos (round clay pots used to hold embers and incense) for copal (aromatic resin from the copal tree, used as incense), they were all of clay. There was another woman called Siriaca.and she was the first to make things from clay, big and small pots, lids for the pots, vessels, pots for making the atole de espuma (pre-Hispanic drink made from corn with cap of chocolate froth), and things like that. But they were all simple country-style.The [pottery is] finer now. They make ashtrays and keepsakes.but finer and varnished."

In Ixtepeji, a thriving tradition of growing flowers continues. One woman (Mexico 25) describes how her grandparents and parents grew flowers for a living, and now her sister and daughter do. She took it up herself, on her mother's advice, when she was widowed: "My son was five months old when my husband died.My mother said to me, "You'd better go [to La Cumbre], your sister has a lot of flowers there. You cut them and take them to Oaxaca to sell." [I did] and then I said to my mother, "I think I will ask for some land above the road, where I can plant well.". That's how I got a little plot of land. 31 years, that's how long we have worked it.. [I learnt from] my mother.."

quotes about traditional skills

Well, the [grandparents] wore long trousers and a shirt, both of which were made of manta (coarse cotton cloth).they bleached them well and they say they made their own starch. The clothes even made a little noise when one walked because of the way they were prepared with the starch. [and] looked shiny.They had sandals which had leather straps behind and they were well decorated with holes. sandals [were made] from fibres taken from the maguey (agave, aloe-like plant, about 1 metre high).
Soledad, F/62, Ixtlán, Oaxaca, Mexico 16

There was also a time when I used to make carved animals. I made monkeys, I made little animals from wood, carvings of cats, carvings of men. I made footballers, and basketball players. I made little bateitas (bowls) with feet. I made carvings which now I don't know what to call, but in those days they called them alcahuetillos; and I sold these little pieces. And in that way for a long time I did handicraft.
Silvestre, M/72, farmer, El Punto, Ixtepeji, Oaxaca, Mexico 24

[Pottery is] finer now.They make them and put them to dry and after a certain time they are dry enough to bake.they know how to place everything, and it also depends on the time, they say that when there's a lot of wind some break, they crack, but not all of them, most of them come out well because they are fired with pure pine firewood.
Soledad, F/62, Ixtlán, Oaxaca, Mexico 16

[Charcoal production] was the main work of the community, even before the use of the wood.[It is a] very delicate [process], and you have to know how to do it, because if the person doesn't know how then all the wood can be spoiled. If one is not careful to protect what is in the oven. if there is a leak in the terracería (charcoal oven), just to give an example, it may let air in, and the logs can start burning up. It is not good if they are burn too much.not everyone knew how to do that work.
Otilio, M, president of the comisariado [de bienes comunales] of La Cumbre, Ixtepeji, Oaxaca, Mexico 20

The women are the ones who go for the tepejilote (small palm, Chamaedorea tepejilote, with edible fruit that resembles a small corn cob), go to get [wild] mushrooms.guias (edible leaves).You're not going to find tepejilotes in a nice place . You get a little bit of tepejilote for hundreds of cuts and bruises. Tepejilote likes rocky places. The soil is very loose and the ground moves if one just stands up. We take a morralito (small knapsack), we.pick the tepejilote and put it in the morralito as we go along. The roots are just stuck between the rocks [so one has to be careful] that one doesn't uproot the plants.
Victoria, F/32, Tiltepec, Oaxaca, Mexico 19

key testimonies featuring traditional skills

  No.   Name   Sex/Age   Occupation   Location  
Summary Transcript   10    Macedonio   male/58   farmer   Tiltepec, Oaxaca  
Summary Transcript   12    Mario Fernando   male/36   community manager   Yavesía, Oaxaca  
Summary Transcript   13    Mario   male/67   farmer   Tiltepec, Oaxaca  
Summary Transcript   16    Soledad   female/62      Ixtlán, Oaxaca  
Summary Transcript   20    Otilio   male/M   president of the comisariado de bienes comunales   La Cumbre, Ixtepeji, Oaxaca  
Summary Transcript   23    Rufino and Juana   male/female/64/?   artisans   Las Animas, Ixtepeji, Oaxaca  
Summary Transcript   25    Francisca   female/74   flower grower   El Punto, Ixtepeji  
Summary Transcript   28    Modesta   female/66   flower grower   El Punto, Ixtepeji, Oaxaca  
Summary Transcript   3    Cecilio   male/42   farmer   Tiltepec, Oaxaca  
Summary Transcript   4    Elvira   female/50s   health promoter/traditional doctor   Tiltepec, Oaxaca  
Summary Transcript   6    Eusebia   female/M   housewife   Tiltepec, Oaxaca