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Rufino and Juana









Las Animas, Ixtepeji, Oaxaca


12 November 2001



Rufino’s testimony provides details of one way in which the community uses and depends on natural resources to survive. He has spent most of his working life making molinillos (wooden whisk for making chocolate drink) out of “eagle” wood but this type of tree is becoming scarcer in places that are accessible. The molinillos can also be made from madroño (Arbutus menziesii, native tree/shrub with many uses; Ericaceae family) but the process involved is more laborious.
This activity of [making] the molinillo is this an activity that is done by the whole town of Las Animas?
Section 1
How long have you been doing this work with the molinillos?
Well, I started in 1972.

And how did you learn?
Well, it was because we were worried, because we worked on the molinillo over there… But it wasn’t this way; we worked the molinillo by hand with a knife, carving with a knife and an axe (chisel?), little axes like this, which are very handy for that [work], and simple saws. Then we began to get worried because we saw the [better] produced wood [of the molinollos] from Tolucanillo… We were worried and we asked one of the people who came to sell at Oaxaca market about the possibilities of acquiring a lathe like theirs to work the rounded molinillo… Because there was a lot of madera de águila (“eagle wood”), and nobody was using it – it wasn’t good for any other thing, only for that. And that man wasn’t selfish. He told me, “If you want, come to my town, there I have a lathe, if you want I can sell it to you.” And that’s how that work arrived here. Only here, because I don’t think there is another place where they work like this, in this way.

Are all the people who go to sell in Oaxaca, from here, from Las Animas?
Well, we sell at the market, because we have clients who buy from us, and they sell over there at the market.
Section 2
Then do you have regular clients, who distribute the product in the city of Oaxaca?
We deliver to people, our clients there, and they are the ones who sell it. We only deliver, we don’t sell in the market, with people of the market, clients of the market… But they are the ones who sell over there; they have stores, but we don’t. Only them. We deliver, we only work.

Has it been easy to get clients?
Not so easy, because it is a little hard to get them. It is necessary to be on time with the delivery, the shipment that they order, and we have to deliver it on time, and not fail them and always be there.

Before, what other wood did you use, besides the aile (“eagle wood”)?
Before, we used madrono (Arbutus menziesii, native tree/shrub with many uses; Ericaceae family) wood. They only worked madrono, it was a special wood used to make the molinillo. They did it like that with a knife and an axe. That was the wood we used.

Why don’t you use oak or pine?
Well, pine has a peculiarity that the client doesn’t want because of the resin. Well, they say that it gives a bad taste to the chocolate - because for some time we used that but they didn’t accept it.

Why did you stop working the madrono (Arbutus menziesii, native tree/shrub with many uses; Ericaceae family)?
Because with madrono the process is that it needs to be boiled, it needs to be “cooked”. After the green (unseasoned) molinillo (wooden whisk for making chocolate drink) was finished, we had to put it in a big bowl on the fire, so that it boiled and boiled, until a point when it was really well pressed (?) by the hot water. We got it out, left it outside in the sun, and it wouldn’t crack open. And if it is not done that way, when we throw it in the sun, the molinillo cracks and the work is lost. That is what happens. But with the aile (“eagle wood”) – no. Because with that one it won’t happen. We work it, throw it in the sun and it stays the same.

Did you say there was another wood you used, besides the aile and the madrono?
The jonote (umbrella tree, heliocarpus species), but that one we don’t use for making molinillos, that one is good for spoons.

Only for spoons?
Yes, only for spoons.

Now the aile, where do you get it - where do you bring it from?
Well, now the aile, we are buying it from towns from this side, even I think Macuiltianguis was selling a lot of this wood, but he didn’t bring it here directly. After that there was someone from up here, he went to buy this wood, but I think now he is not buying it. Who knows what happened, but it didn’t work out.
Section 3
Has it been a long time since there was aile here?
It has been. What happens is that we say that there is no longer any in the clearings… in the clearings where it was easy to cut it. But there is some for sure – say about 100 metres below the path there is a lot of wood, but we can’t get to it. To lift it, to carry it, it is difficult. It is not that it is finished, still there is some. What’s happened is that all [the aile] that was next to the clearings is finished.

Have you attempted to plant aile, or is there a programme that gives you support to plant aile, which is what you live from?
Well, I had the idea, if it was possible, to build a tree nursery for that. But then no [it didn’t happen]. I talked to others, but there is no support for that. Working through the commissioner, our communal authorities, we could start such work. No, there hasn’t been anyone who has been directly interested. But I have had the intention, and all the people who work in this could take part in this work. But what we really need are the resources; we don’t have resources.

How does your family participate in the molinillo production?
For example, in my family there are my sons who have already learnt to work, then my wife who sells the product. She goes to the delivery point to find a good price and all that, she is the one who knows, she has her clients and she is in charge here.

How old are you now?
I am 64 years old.

Before you worked in molinillos what did you do?
I used to make charcoal. Now it is a good business, charcoal, [although] it is heavy work to sell charcoal, then the firewood, and since we have to stay at home, we’ve had to work that way.

Here means being closer, you don’t have to go to the field?
Yes, we don’t have to get wet; it is a misery to be outside. I used to suffer a lot with the charcoal, because at that time, when I used to work the charcoal, the authorities (the Department for the Environment and Natural Resources) were against it. About the transportation, for example - if we wanted to carry it by car, we couldn’t; we had to take the loads of charcoal by mule, and go walking to Oaxaca, imagine that! Walking about 10 hours at night, to arrive at 8 or 9 in the morning in the city to sell the charcoal there. That was too hard. For example we were forced to go out, whether it was raining or not, come on! I suffered a lot. Thank God that I have this work now, I don’t think I could go back to doing what I did before.

How are you doing economically with the molinillos?
Well, a little, a little better. At least we have now… we can eat something. At that time, we didn’t have meat to eat, no! Not bread, nor chocolate, nor chicken broth, nor fruit, there was nothing, because we didn’t have enough. But now, at least we have fruit, bread. The situation has changed a little, but at that time it hadn’t, because it was very hard. We only harvested corn, chilli, beans, tomatoes, and that’s it.

Besides the molinillos, what other activity do you do?
I plant a little corn in the backyard, that’s all. The corn, squash, green beans. Yes, a little bit of each.
Section 4
All for your personal consumption?
Here there is no one who sells corn, who does business like this, with the work in the fields. Well, only for corn, but almost not for the other grains.

You talked about talking to your partners, to see the possibilities of building a nursery, have you proposed that to the asamblea (community parliament)?
No, look here - I have hardly talked to my work partners. I talked to one from the comisariado (the office responsible for community property), I talked to him like this, about what possibilities there were, whether we could reproduce the aile (“eagle wood”). He said it was a good idea, but we need organisation. But up to now I haven’t talked to any of the people I work with. I don’t think I could do it, because I need the comisariado (the community official) to take charge. Only he has the authority to gather all together to see the benefits, the benefits we get - there are more because we know it. But if I try to do that, I don’t think they will listen. Each one lives his own way, and each one does what he wants and is able to. He goes and cuts his wood, he doesn’t mind whether there will be enough to use later or not; the only thing they want is to cut and that’s all. We have already reproduced it; they don’t care about this. There is even a teacher over there, he should think, he is a teacher! But he doesn’t think, he doesn’t say anything.

How much time does it take to grow an aile tree?
About eight years

And from a tree how many molinillos can be obtained?
Well, using it very well… it depends on the size too. If it is a tree like this, there can be like one 100 molinillos.

Do you use everything, even the branches?

In what places did it used to be? Near the rivers?
Only by rivers, only where there is water. So like here - there aren’t any trees; they don’t grow. It is about planting, we have to plant by the riverside, by the creeks where there is water. They need water, to be where there is humidity. This is the only tree species that doesn’t grow. For example, here in this hill it dries out. What it wants is creeks, where there is water, there is where it grows.

Are there enough creeks where you can build a tree nursery?
Yes, if it is about building a nursery, it can be build down here, fencing a piece of land, talking to the commissioner. It can be built… or by making an agreement with the community. Because up here it is very bad with pine. Then there is an agreement between the people to take the water from the community to maintain the plantation. Probably if there is water, only then it can be built; but if not, it can be built by the creeks, the ones over there.
Section 5
What do you think about your work? Do you think this is another way of living that other people from the town should be doing? Or is it enough with the people there are already?
Well, it depends on the person. For example, the one who has enthusiasm for learning to work, he learns to work; the one who doesn’t, he doesn’t care about the work. For example, me and my sons, they learnt; the sons of the people who worked over here, they learnt too. But if we aren’t related, they don’t learn, they don’t work in that… they work in other things. For example, the ones who make the spoons, they are spoon makers only and they don’t make the molinillos; they only make spoons.

Are they specialised?
Exactly, they are specialised.

Before, when you say there was no lathe, did it take long to make the molinillos?
Well, it was something requiring a lot of practice. When I was young, I had a lot of practice; we made up to three dozen. We prepared the wood, we worked all together, and we learnt a lot.

Is there a possibility of exporting the production?
So we have been told. Even the secretary of tourism came to see us, and he told us that if we wanted we could export the production to improve our market. But that is hardly necessary for us, because we have a lot of buyers here in the city.

Why is it that they buy so many? Is it because they get worn out over time?
Well, it is a business, I think it is a business, because we at the production, we make it, from there we don’t know where it goes. I even think it goes to a foreign country, probably it goes there. We comply with making it, and we make the delivery here in the city, who knows where it goes? But they tell us that it goes outside.

Do you sell at a wholesale price, different from that if you sold it to them separately?
Yes. For example, if we sell one piece, we sell it more expensively than if we sell it to wholesale. It is more convenient, the only thing is that to sell, for example, 100 molinillos, this way - one by one - when will we finish? We don’t see the money. Of course, the person who sells that way, that’s what he is doing, every day. Who knows how many he sells every day? But he sells them. A person who sells 10 molinillos, how much is he making? Well, they know for how much they sell them.

Have you ever made any spoons?
No. I did before, before I worked the molinillo. I did before I worked with the lathe, but since I am dedicated to this I quit making spoons and I dedicated myself to the molinillo.

Your complete name what is it?
My name is Rufino Vicente Vicente, my wife is Juana Gomez Marquez, the boy is Aaron Vicente Gomez.
Section 6
(Interviewer now questions his wife Juana)
Señora, to you, how is the marketing of the molinillo? Is it hard for you to sell or is it easy? Or do you have to spend a lot of time in Oaxaca to get clients?
No, since the clients are now already there. In some seasons the market is very good, but there are seasons when it goes down a lot; then we have to put in more effort to sell what I have. And there are days when, yes, it takes me all day on Saturday. Sometimes I finish, but sometimes I don’t finish with the merchandise and I have to go on. That’s how it is, but it is seasonal.

Which are the best seasons?
Well the best season is the one from August to October. Only those three months are good; we sell the most then. But there are hard seasons, this is almost always in May, June… Yes, May and June, those are the most difficult months to sell.

Why do you think it is better from August to October?
Well, because I think it is the time for, for example, the fiestas they participate in to celebrate the dead. That is what makes the most difference to the market; but is from August to October only.

Since when have you participated in the sale of the molinillos?
Yes, since always; since my husband started to work. We started to work the two of us, so we have been working like this.

So that’s good, a family business.
Yes, in truth, that’s right; already our sons are learning, and also the daughters-in-law are getting a hold of it.

How many sons do you have?
We have seven sons. There are three men who are getting the benefits now, because one doesn’t. He didn’t want to learn, because he looked for another job, and now he works in another way.

The three of them work with you?
Yes, the three, we work with three, but there is another boy up there.

Does he work by himself?
Yes, this one too works by himself because he is married. We are only living with the one who is single, and he is the one with us; the other two work by themselves.

Then has the molinillo given you enough for the whole family?
Yes, thank God it has given us enough. It has been a good little work.

I don’t know if you would like to tell me something, such as what could you do to improve the molinillo work in this particular case?
Well the necessities we have, is for example, up until now it seems like… but there are some other necessities, we need to increase our business even more. Because until now there only is “What I could do, what I could build”. But it has not advanced. We need somebody who can give us some advice; to see how the lathes are, if they need more space, more power, I don’t know. But we need somebody to tell us this is the way you should do it, that way the wood is better used. Because now, for example, we use maybe half the tree, the other half is lost. Now what we need is somebody to come with an idea or knowledge of how to use all of the wood… maybe to install a disc or something. The only thing that happens is that while the wood is not opened up, if we put it in the saw, and because the saw doesn’t see the grain of the tree, it cuts the tree as it is. If it is not right, the saw passes through, the thread comes in the way and it won’t pass through the lathe because it is crossed; it has to be straight.
Section 7
Then, only trying to see how the mould (template?) is put in place?
Exactly, in which way the mould (template?) gets put in place. For example, the piece comes at 40, then it gets cut the way the thread is, so we don’t have trouble with the lathe. Because if the tree is with the thread crossed, the blades won’t pass, the wood gets into pieces, it is not good. Then for that we need to think a lot, to get the best out of it. I tell you, now because of the chainsaw, we can use more than they did before. Before we cut only the wood for the molinillo and by the other side another head came out; but we didn’t know how to use it from the side. Now we cut it, and with the chainsaw we cut it by the side and two heads come out, and we can use a little more. But we couldn’t before because we threw away one molinillo, we threw it at each slice, and it was a lot of waste. And that’s because I didn’t find the idea of how to do it. That’s why I say that probably half is wasted.

Then how do you buy the wood?
By the piece.

Is it still economic to buy the wood for working and then sell it?
After we pay the cost of the wood, it gives us something.

If you had the trees here available?
That could be even better, then it is not buying it – it is only going for it, going to cut it. Because for example, here in our land, here in our town, we go to cut a tree, then we don’t have to buy it, it is for the community. We went before, but now we can’t go anymore because there is no more left; not by the side of the path. But then it wasn’t at any cost to us.

Aren’t you organised, all the people who work in the molinillo?
No, each one works at home and each one does his work; and each one respects the others. Since there isn’t an organisation, let’s say to make an agreement, to think how to do it, to buy the wood together… No, each one buys its own.