photo of Mexican man the sierra norte
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El Punto, Ixtepeji, Oaxaca


9 October 2001



Section 1
This is an interview with the Sra. Maximina Vicente. She was making herself a cup of coffee and from there we started the conversation. The memories of Maximina represent a sigh of nostalgia for the past difficulties of those who spoke Zapotec in school [and were punished for this] and a breath of hope for those who now would like to recover that which she believes is almost lost, their language. The Zapotec words, like fragments of memory, emerge to demonstrate their significance.

Can you give me your full name please?
Maximina Vicente Ramirez.

Your age?
67 years old.

The place where you live?
El Punto.

Your occupation?
I work only in the kitchen, nothing more. Of all the work that I do, I knit, I embroider, I sell food to the children, I sell all that I can, candies and all that.

Well, the subject that we are going to treat is traditional practices and customs; can you tell me more or less how the practices and customs were before?
The practices and customs before were very different from those now, because before it was more arduous for us to go to Oaxaca. We went on foot, we had to go away [for] three days: the day that we left, then one day we stayed in Oaxaca, and the other day we had to come back… almost three days. But soon after that there were cars; first there were only freighters, the ones that used to carry the polvillo (mining residues) from Natividad to Oaxaca, those took us sometimes. And then the timber cutters began, there was the occasional light truck (camioneta) and those vans took us, but the rest [of the time], we mostly walked. Because for example, the men went with their mules and we had to walk from here to there, we used to take four, five mules. And when there were flowers, then we started more or less [to use vehicles]. The first person who had a van here was Ismael, he already transported flowers. For that reason they named the car “El floricultor” (the flower grower).
And that’s how it went, little by little, and they went on building the town… Because when I went to the school, there were few people then, a few children, we were very few, but little by little they became more and more and more and more and more, up until these days…
But it is as I say. Our customs are more or less dying out. Because at that time, we did not have anything to sell, there were no other things then; we had to work in the field. But now, the field… like you, hardly anybody works in the field; we buy everything. Everything is different now. For that reason it is almost as they say: our practices and customs are vanishing, very little is left. But [it is] as we say, no? If we make more effort we can do it again. For example, the language (Zapotec), it is no longer in use, because it was lost totally. It was lost because all the young people here no longer know it. Well they hear it, they listen to it, but they no longer understand it, that’s how it is.
Section 2
Did you go to school? When did you go to school? Did your classmates speak the language?
Yes, they spoke it. There were many children who spoke the language. For example, the men from Las Animas, who are already grandparents, they spoke the language a lot. Then a man [called] Camerino Hernandez - he was very small when he started school, seven years old – well, he spoke pure Zapotec. We understood him, but did not know how to speak it; up until now we understand it but we do not know how to speak it.

Why don’t they speak it?
Mainly because when our parents spoke it, they did not tell us to speak it, because in the school they didn’t want us to speak it, because of the teacher who was there, who was called Jovita Ramirez Perez. When Camerino went to the school, he spoke it. He spoke the language very well, because his grandfather and his father did not teach him to speak Castellano (Spanish), but the child spoke pure Zapotec, and the teacher removed him from the class and she told him: “Look, do not speak that, because the children, mmm... the children… I do not understand you” she said to him, “and your classmates do not understand you either. No, you can not speak the language.” And she turned him out, poor Camerino, because he spoke in [that] language. And then he went away and he spoke Spanish too, but when he went out he spoke the language to her, and she removed him from the class, they did not allow him back. But now it is totally lost, nobody speaks it. We sometimes make the attempt to speak, but we can only speak it very slowly because we do not know all the words.

What year did you start school?
I started school in 1947, [and stayed] for three years; in ‘49 I left school. I only did first, second and third [grade], that was all I studied.

Because that is how it was. There was nothing else, there were no more grades then; there was nothing more than first, second and third. And since we were just a few [children], there was just one teacher.

How many students were there?
We were 28 or 30, I believe. I do not remember very well how many we were, but we were not too many, because there was just one teacher. Then that teacher taught us from 9 to 12 and later we returned to school after 3 in the afternoon, and we left at 5. And so everyday we had classes. And then, at that time, the teachers gave classes from January to December. And now it is not like before, because they only give classes from September to July. But then, at that time, they gave classes all year, which was from January to December.
Section 3
From Monday to Saturday? Or did you rest on Saturday and Sunday?
Saturday and Sunday we rested, but there were almost no interruptions like now, because now there is too much interruption, because of the strikes. And the teachers taught in another way, because we learned the multiplication tables well, and addition, everything, subtraction, all of that… And when we had to do some sums, subtractions or multiplications, it was all done in the head only. No, we did not have to use other things.

When did you start, how did you bring water here?
Water? Well, at that time it was very difficult to get water, and my late husband, he carried water using animals, beasts… Water for washing, for that, my late husband brought the water in tambos (?) from a well that we called El Militar. And then they also brought water from another well, at the Bautistas, which was near here, because we did not have drinking water until 1960… It was then that the water arrived, up to there, the place we call Encinar Grande, and from there, the next year, it arrived here at the agencia (community office), and from there we began to have water. Year by year the water came closer and closer.

And how did they bring the water?
By tube, and then they began to lay pipes… It is as I say, every year since it arrived at El Encino, it has got here by pipe, even to the agencia. From the agencia, they began to install, to install more and more pipes, until it arrived at Las Animas.

Where did they take that water from?
From a place they call El Cerro de Raton, I think; the water comes from there. There was a spring there and they brought the water from there and put it here. The water that came from there, it was put in the petenera (a place for storing water), that is where the water storage is. And only the old men put it there, those older men then… they were, for example, grandfather Faustino Perez, grandfather Francisco Vicente Perez… And then that man, Señor Inocencio Bautista, Bartolo Bautista, the father of Ismael Bautista, the late Mateo Gómez, the late Rafael Juárez… only the grandfathers did all that, so that we had water. But before that, we suffered a lot to get water, because we had to carry it in pitchers, had to carry pitchers from wells to [the store?] where the water was closer.

What were the customs at the different festivities before?
Well, the custom of [having] fiestas, for example in December, well they held them here since we didn’t have our church. The one that is most celebrated, for example, is New Year. They used to celebrate. People met; all the ciudadanos (citizens) joined in. The women went to make food, and all met and received the new agente (elected community head). And then there was the celebration of the first of January. And after January the next one was in April, for Holy Week. But as I say, there was still no church, there wasn’t that… We used to go to Ixtepeji then. There, as always, the celebration of Holy Week is held. After Holy Week, there was April 30th, because back then they did not yet have that children’s fiesta; it wasn’t done then as it is now. After that, in May, on 10 May there was a very lovely festival, because it brought together all the mothers in the family, from the oldest grandmother to the youngest mother. They got together at the school, and there they made a meal for all the mothers. Sometimes there was venison, sometimes there was… what do I know? Let’s see what they prepared, but they had to prepare something, they sang the mañanitas (traditional songs), they sang everything, and it was lovely. So, because everyone was celebrating, all the people. There was no music [on a large scale], there was no group; there was nothing more than two or three men – one played the guitar, one played the trumpet – [and] there was a mandolin, I think. And with that people danced all night – until dawn.
Section 4
Who prepared that food?
Well, the wives of those who were serving as agentes or their assistants, and they lived together there. They did everything together. There was nobody who made food [on her own] , thinking in terms of one thing, one life, one individual. It was all of them together. They simply helped each other to make food for the mothers.

And the venison you mentioned earlier? Was it not forbidden to kill deer?
No, of course not, as there were a lot of them then - and all the people, everyone, we ate venison almost all the time; we ate squirrel, rabbit, we ate all the animals from the field wild animals.

Who used to hunt those animals?
The authorities, the authorities used to [hunt] two or three deer, and they used to say: “These are the deer for the mothers.” Sometimes they cooked it in a barbecue; sometimes in amarillo (literally, yellow; traditional Oaxacan sauce or stew) or in a broth, but there was always venison. So that happened in the month of May. After that, in June, since most of the people here had orchards of peaches, quinces and apples, we carried all that fruit on animals, on donkeys. We took it to Oaxaca. But at that time, since the fruit was very cheap – because there was a lot of it – it didn’t sell well. And then they would give you 1.5 or 2 pesos for 100 peaches – big melocotón peaches and white peaches, quinces. They were too good to be true! Some were very big, they were amazing. At that time there was a lot of fruit, throughout the month of June. In July the fruit was sold, and then in August it was already gone. Then we went looking [for work]… Because we were out of fruit, we looked for another job.
And in September, then in September, there was the fiesta of September 14th. There was a crucifix in Las Animas, and they called it the Holy Cross. Then that saint came down on September 12th and we had to go in procession with that image to Ixtepeji. All the people at Ixtepeji went up with the band. They had been up since the afternoon of September 11th. People arrived to do the rosary there, and the next morning on September 12th we went in procession to Ixtepeji - and it rained a lot at that time and everything got wet - but we went to leave the image in Ixtepeji. And then on the 12th, 13th,14th and 15th there were fiestas, because they did the 14th September, which they called la salutación (literally, salutation) and then they had the Holy Cross fiesta. And then on the 15th everybody went to their town, to their farms, because we had to do the fiesta over there too, and they would elect La America (beauty queen)… Yes, in 1949 I was La America, it was the third year that we were elected La America, but I almost didn’t succeed [in being chosen as] La America, but then I became the third to be La America in 1949. And so that was the end of September, and then came October.
In October we prepared for the fiesta de muertos (Day of the Dead), and then in October we had to see how to do it (?), so that’s why the men made charcoal. They did that to produce something for the dead. Because at that time we would make gifts and offerings for the dead. We didn’t make just a little bread for the dead, we made pizcadores (baskets used to collect the harvested corn) full of bread. We made corn tortillas (maize-based flat bread) to put on the table and still we had to wait for the bread, and so we kept eggs to make the marquesote (cake made of finely ground rice flour or cornmeal, sugar, and eggs), to make the pan de yema (bread made with egg yolks, Oaxacan speciality) … We made a lot, not as now, we hardly do it any more, but at that time we prepared two or three turkeys, because they had to kill the turkeys, they had to make a lot of food. And all that was placed on the altar. That happened in November; and again in December.
Section 5
Why did you prepare the table, that altar?
Well, according to [the custom of] our ancestors, because they already had that custom from earlier. And so according to them the dead come to receive the smell of the food that they put on the altar, and for that they made a lot of corn tortillas; they made bread, they made chocolate, amarillo (literally, yellow; traditional Oaxacan sauce or stew) with meat, and then the mole (Spanish for molli, the Aztec word for sauce; Oaxaca’s black mole contains small amounts of chocolate); and then all that was put on the altar, corn with squash, fruit, lots of fruit, bananas, apples, oranges. They put the bottles of mezcal (traditional alcoholic drink made from maguey, an aloe-like plant, about 1 metre high) there [for the dead], they put their wine there, their cigarettes, their soft drinks, everything that you could put on your altar. You put it there because that was the custom of our ancestors. Our great-great-grandfathers, our grandfathers – they had that custom. We had to see how they did it, but (and) we had to put all that on the altar. So that’s how it was in November…
And in December All Saints was over. And in December we prepared again for the ending of the year. Then Posadas (Mexican festival that re-enacts Joseph's search for room at the inn)… they celebrated Posadas. They started on December 16th; they started (carried on) until they finished on December 25th. And so with the end of December, the year was complete again, and so on… up until now. But now [these things are] just about done, but so little. They are not done like before.
Section 6
Before, how many inhabitants were there?
In 1960 there were approximately 150 inhabitants only, there were not that many yet, and all that year, now, yes, in that year. Also the ciudadanos (citizens) started to arrange for us have light (electricity), because we didn’t have (electric) light [before]. For light we used petróleo (paraffin oil) or ocote (pine wood) – nothing else. And I don’t remember clearly whether it was in 1970 or 72, when we had it - we had electric light. Since that time we started having it. Little by little people started coming, because we were few then. Now the town is bigger.

How did you use the paraffin oil and the ocote?
Well, the ocote, we put it in a little log that we called chincullere (piece of pinewood burned to give light, chincu means a little log with three legs, and the llere is the ocote or pine) and then the – what is it called? – the paraffin – we put it in oil lamps. We used oil lamps - brujitas (literally, little witches), as we called the little jars with a little wire - and in there we put the paraffin, and we put a wick in. And we would put two or three there so they gave light to the whole house.
Chincullere means that it was a little log, like a little donkey with three legs, and on top of that we put a round can and on top of the can we put the ocote so that it caught fire, and we could see all around, inside the house. And so the majority of the people made light with paraffin oil, and with the ocote, because we didn’t have electricity yet, and we had to buy our paraffin in Oaxaca. We had to bring it from Oaxaca to here. And those who didn’t use paraffin, they used ocote on its own - and with that we made our light. And at that time, because the people also, most of the people, didn’t go to Oaxaca like [they do] now – now we go to Oaxaca two or three times [a week] - then we went every 8 or 15 days. From there we had to bring our paraffin – [enough] for 15 or 20 days. And for ironing too, because there was no way (electricity) to heat the iron or anything like that; we heated the iron on coal only, on logs only. We heated irons [with charcoal], and with the irons we did our ironing, because there was no electricity, so we had to iron with the charcoal irons. We had to make light with ocote and petróleo. Chincu means a little log with three legs, and the llere is the ocote (pine), llere. Chincullere means the log with the ocote, that’s what the chincullere means.

What kind of festivities have you had up until now, here in the town of El Punto?
It was in 1977 that the fiestas started, that the first posadita (“little” posada, Mexican festival that re-enacts Joseph's search for room at the inn) was done. My late husband and I did the first posadita, because Victor Perez Hernandez brought the pilgrims from Puebla. He arrived and asked me: “What do you think about us doing the posadita?” and I said to him: “If you want we’ll do it. Will you bring the saints and I’ll prepare to do the first posada here?” “Well, all right,” he said. And we agreed: me, Esperanza, and Victor and Sara, and we can say all the family. And we did the posaditas, the first posaditas that were done here. And then we started to do it each year, each year until 1980, when we started to do the real fiesta, because we started to try and get a mayordomo (person responsible for arranging community festivals; cargo - mandatory unpaid community -position) – but instead of a mayordomo we got pro-festejos (festival organisers?). And since then we have been doing the fiestas every year. Each year we change the people who do it, but in every way the whole town cooperates to do the fiesta, and up till now they have continued doing it as it’s always been, with the calenda (street procession) and all that. And it seems that this year it is going to be [even] better because there is going to be a toreo (bullfight), and I don’t know what else. But this year it seems like it will be much better, because the boys who will be doing it are more motivated.
Section 7
Which saint do you venerate?
We venerate the Holy Family, because since we started to build the first little chapel that the late Francisco built and the late Rafael, Señor Mateo and other grandfathers – they wanted to build the first chapel – since then, they said that they wanted it to be for the saints of the Holy Family. And up till now the [Feast of the] Holy Family is the event that is celebrated each year, on the 27th, 28th, and 29th of December, which are the last days of December. It is in the last days of December that the Feast of the Holy Family is celebrated.

And in what way do you work together with your community?
I collaborate over everything. Yes up to now I have been cooperating over everything, because really since I was married, all those years that I was with my late husband, I used always to work with them on April 30th. And then right away I got to be president of the Liga Feminil (Women’s League), and from then on they’ve added on a little of this and that. And we started – they started – to build the chapel, and we started to work. I went to the houses to collect what little they could give to help continue with building the chapel. And now that I am alone – I have been alone for 17 years – I continue cooperating with the whole community, when they call me to help in the kitchen, [preparing food] for the people who will come. And so it’s like that, helping with the community, and then I go. They tell me: “For that day we want you to go and help” and I go.
And then as well as all that, I am in charge of the chapel, because each month I go out as presidenta de la pastoral (church leader). Each month I go – I go to San Juan, I go to other towns to get together with the church leaders. And until this day I have the chapel in my charge. I have been 32 years in the chapel, and I continue because while God gives me life I have to go with my partners to other towns. And now I’ve had two years of giving marriage talks, baptisms, and all that I am in charge of. Then besides that I make my living from what I sell at the school. I pay 300, 325, 350, according to my sales; that way I help at the school. And then on April 30th they sometimes make me godmother, and I go there to help in whatever small way I can. And well, in every way, now I am still [here], thank God. As long as God gives me life I have to continue, because while I am alive I have to collaborate with my town.