photo of Mexican man the sierra norte
Mexico glossary










El Punto, Ixtepeji, Oaxaca


10 October 2001



Section 1
Today is Wednesday, October 10th, 2001, 5 pm. I went to Señor Silvestre Gomez Marquez’s ponds, 15 minutes from El Punto, where he was feeding his fish. Señor Silvestre is a 72 year old artisan, farmer and fish farmer. He is from the community of El Punto, where I asked him for a chat about his life related to natural resources.

Can you give me your name please?
Silvestre Gomez Marquez.

Your age?
72 years old.


The place where you live?
Las Animas Ixtepeji.

The theme we are going to explore is natural resources and we are going to talk about your life.
Fine. I was born in 1929, in the place where I live now. There I grew up, and my father was called Mateo Gomez, my mother Carlota Marquez Acevedo. When I was seven, they sent me for a year to the school in Ixtepeji. From there - when Lazaro Cardenas (former President of the Republic) came to see the Sierra Norte, he promised to build a school here in El Punto - and from there I left the school of Ixtepeji and I came to attend the school in El Punto. A few days after Cardenas’ visit a teacher arrived, Jovita Martinez Perez. This teacher came to give us lessons, but there was no school, there was no place where she could teach us. They rented a little empty house, which was next to the track (camino). And in order to be able to teach us, she drew letters on the floor because there was no blackboard.
In this poor way the school began with about seven children – this is how we began. And a few days later, they moved us to another private house, and there she taught us to read and write. But thanks to the good fortune of the El Punto citizens, they were able to organise themselves - but only with a lot of work, because there were many who were against the school - and with a lot of self-sacrifice they built a little school of tejamanil (rough pine, usually used for shingles). At that time they used tejamanil to make the roofs of the houses, it was a school made of tejamanil.
At that time there was no drinking water, only jagueyes (ditches or springs from which cattle usually drink); and when we were going to school, we drank from those jagueyes. There was a place with a little well they called Agua Blanca (White Water), and the teacher told us to bring a little jar, to bring water from that well, and in that way we could store our water at school. They brought a clay jar and from there we served the water. Time passed. Seeing the needs of the school, the citizens of the community went to bring water by means of canoitas (small irrigation channels made from reed or wood) from a place called Palo Hueco (literally “Hollow Pole”) [where there is a waterfall]. From there they could bring the water close to the school. It couldn’t reach the school itself, because they just used canoitas, so there wasn’t enough water pressure… So little by little El Punto became bigger, and even the people who [earlier] couldn’t see the need for the school calmed down. So they didn’t, how can I put it?... they were not against the school any more; they sent their children to the school, and we began to be more children [there]. The teacher who taught us first, she taught us up until the third year; up to that year we could study.
Time passed and I left the school, and went home to work. My father was a farmer, he worked the land, he made wooden spoons, and I learned to do that for a long time. Time passed. After that he made charcoal, and he taught me how to make charcoal. I can also make charcoal. And the years have gone by and I have come to this age, with God’s power, things have been this way. After that I got married, I had children, I had seven children, four boys and three girls, whom I supported through my work of making spoons. Time passed and later I gave up making spoons; I worked only in the field, taking care of some cows, some bulls, and that way I was able to live up to this age. A few years ago they taught us a [new type of] work – fish farming – and this is what I’ve been doing until now. Of course I can’t live off this, but anyway it is work that I put effort into, as well as love, because there can be losses too. But we managed to do it – we learnt to do the job. We learnt the management of the fish in the ponds, which we have until now. We have had the luck to learn, I can say a lot of luck, because up to now we haven’t had any losses. We know how to feed them from when they are small until they are fully grown and can be sold.
Section 2
What tree did you use for making the spoons?
A tree called palo de águila (literally, “eagle stick”, from Alnus jorullensis, Alnus acuminata tree species).

Can you tell me how you did it?
The process is to cut up a tree, make pieces the size of the spoon; then we split the wood, and later with an axe (chisel?) make it into the right shape. We have to have a good knife, some burbias (gouges or burins – tools used for woodworking) as they are called, to work it. It is all manual work we don’t use machines, there is nothing [like that]. It’s only physical force, but I like this work a lot because I can make a living from it.

Can you only use that tree for the craft, or is there another tree you can use?
For spoons that is the special one. I used to make molinillos (wooden whisks for making chocolate drink) from madrono (Arbutus menziesii, native tree/shrub with many uses; Ericaceae family) wood, from bits of madrono, but the wood of this tree is a little harder than the águila. But I also made the molinillo by hand; I never used machines.
Section 3
Which trees did you use to make the charcoal?
Here we have three kinds of tree: yellow oak, the type of oak we call dark oak, and white oak, which has thin leaves. Those three trees are the ones used to make charcoal. And to prepare the wood we use only an axe, because as I tell you, I never had the chance to have machines – let’s say chainsaws - which are used now. I made all the cuts to make charcoal with only an axe.

Of the products you mentioned, the molinillo (wooden whisk for making chocolate drink) and charcoal, is that all you did or did you do other types of handicraft?
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.

Where did you sell your products?
In Oaxaca. I took all that I made to Oaxaca, and by animal, because at that time we didn’t have transportation, did we? There weren’t any trucks. I had to carry my work to Oaxaca by mule. And the trip took me one and a half days, two days, to go to Oaxaca and to come back home.

And as a farmer, what crops do you plant?
Until now I’ve been planting corn and beans; but for this I have to prepare the soil, to cultivate and do what is called preparing the soil. The rain comes and it’s then that I go and plant the seed. And I have to clear the land, take out the shrubs and do another clearing - the second clearing, it’s called – and then the plant starts growing until it reaches maturity and the time to harvest arrives - the time to take up the corn and to harvest the beans. When God wants, he gives, and in that way I have lived. Doing a little bit of everything… I can’t say I have been able to make a living just from each thing I mentioned on its own, so I do a little of everything - but in this way I have lived until now.

And the corn and beans, when do you plant them?
The corn I plant in May or in April, according to the rainy season. The same with the beans, because it is a type of bean that comes together with the corn; not the thin type of bean. It is corn that I plant together with it, and it is a bean that I plant together with the corn, and it is harvested after six months; six months from planting I can get a new harvest.

The thin bean that you mentioned, what is that?
It is a bean called matiado, it is a little bean that is planted alone. Sometimes it is sown in groups, or sometimes it is covered. That is the thin bean. But here in this climate, the thin bean it not good, it is better in hot soil, hotter than here; because here, sometimes it gives something, sometimes not. It is very risky, that’s why I almost never plant it.
Section 4
Where do you get your wood to do your handicraft?
From the community forest of Ixtepeji, because since I am an Ixtepeji comunero (registered community member), I am also a ciudadano (citizen); I have the right to get the wood; and to do that I have to get a permit from the comisariado de bienes comunales (office responsible for community property), to cut the trees and to be able to work.

Have you done your [community] servicio (cargo position), or what community do you belong to?
I was born Ixtepejiano (a citizen of Ixtepeji), but I belong to the agencia (community office) of El Punto; there I have served the municipality and the community where I lived. There I have all the rights of a comunero and a ciudadano, and that’s why I am happy, because I have served my town with loyalty.

At what age did you begin being a comunero?
I was sixteen years old when I began to be a comunero.

At what age did you begin being a ciudadano?
I began to be a ciudadano when I was twenty- two years old.

Have you served El Punto?

What cargo (unpaid community position) position have you held?
I began as a policeman, then I moved on to be treasurer; they gave me the post of agente (elected community head), I was the representative for water supplies, and I have served in all the positions they have given me. I have done it with loyalty.

What are the obligations of a comunero (registered community member)?
The duties of a comunero are to comply with the orders from the comisariado (community official). For example, to respect the rules there are, because we are subject to the orders of the comisariado concerning the forest or whatever it may be.

And of a ciudadano (citizen)?
They are almost the same, because a ciudadano has to honour the obligations he has as a ciudadano; to serve the town in everything that the civil authority can call him to do. And he has to be ready for those calls, calls to do tequios (obligatory, unpaid community work). To cooperate, he has to comply with all the obligations of a ciudadano; and so we have rights that accompany being ciudadanos and comuneros.

And how did you start the fish farming?
I was invited by a girl called Susana. She went to Japan, she had the luck to go to Japan, and from there she brought back this knowledge. And when she arrived she asked me if I wanted to work with her. Not only me, but she invited various people among whom I was the first to be more motivated, and [so I] motivated others who could get together with us, obviously without any commitment [at the beginning], because nobody knew about the job. We didn’t know if it was going to give us good results, and to start the work it was necessary to affirm that if we got good results it was going to be a joy for us, but if it failed we wouldn’t blame anybody, because we had to be aware that we were lacking in knowledge about the job. And several partners and I got together and taught ourselves about the work. We did it on our own, and we worked on the job for 60 days without stopping. I can’t explain how we maintained ourselves but we did it, each person put in his own personal effort. We did it as if it were a tequio. We began the excavation of the ponds, and once we finished them, we had the opportunity of a visit from a girl who worked at ASPRO (Agua y Solidaridad para el Progreso - water and solidarity for progress). This girl came to give us the little advice she could. She told us that in the ponds, in the soil as it was, we could put some stones as a reinforcement for the ponds. In reality, since we didn’t know about the job, we did it all with some doubt and a little enthusiasm, but we had faith in the work, and we began to do it.
This girl, when she saw we had enthusiasm to do the work, she saw the need to look for support from ASPRO, to find help for the covering for the pond. They helped us with a little cement – at least half a ton, she brought – and with this we could fix some stones to do two ponds at that place where we began to build them. But we were lucky, since even with our effort and all… Well, I am lying, we had luck since once the pond was finished they gave us the fingerlings for free; the alevines they called them, and from there we could have little fish.
We put the water in by pipe, while the weather was good. We could begin to get our first harvest that we had been able to “sow”, but since all was provisional, the second harvest went badly for us, and so they gave us the fingerlings again. But when the fish were at market size - I remember it was on 13 October 1996 - we had heavy rain, which filled up our pipes, and they burst and we lost all the fish. It was around 4 tons that we lost; we didn’t know what to do with so much fish meat. One of the partners said that we should throw it in the river, but we didn’t dare do it because we said it was too much to let loose. It was going to contaminate the water of the river. After that we decided to give it to the community of El Punto, so all that meat from the second stock we had, we didn’t get anything from it, because we gave it all away. It was a total loss. But we had had the luck to learn about the management of the fish, and how to feed them. So we didn’t get disheartened by that loss; we continued working.
We looked for another place higher up than where we were at the beginning. [It is] the same river that we have now been working at for five years, and it has given us better results; since in these ponds there is not a strong current like the one that swept through the first ponds because there was no outlet for the water. All the water that comes to the ponds, which are working now, it comes down the hills from the forest. It is a little gentle current that comes from the water sources, and that’s why up until now we are working all right. The only thing is, since we don’t have enough resources, we have only been working with two ponds until now.
Section 5
How many fingerlings do you stock in those two ponds?
Each pond has 4,000 fingerlings.
Section 6
From these 4,000 fingerlings – they will be 8,000 in the two ponds – do you harvest the 8,000 fingerlings?
Yes, the 8,000 fingerlings we get from there; but because of transportation and some kind of disease, or I don’t know what, some of them die. But 90 per cent we can say we have harvested from there. All these fish make about 4 tons of “meat” which we get during a period of eight or nine months. But we have so many expenses with them, because we have to feed them the appropriate food to get them to the right size for the market where they can be sold.

What food do you feed them?
It is a balanced food, almost the same as for the chickens. It helps them grow and fatten. There are three types of food for these animals, to make them grow into adults.

What type of fauna do you know?
Do you mean what kind of animals do I know?

Yes, what kind of animals are there at Ixtepeji?
In the communal forest of Ixtepeji, beginning with the common animals, there are rabbits, squirrels, tlacuaches (Mexican possums), coyotes, zorras (foxes), cacomixtles (small nocturnal animal with distinctive long black-ringed tail, Bassaricus astutus), tuzas (Mexican pocket gopher, Geomys Mexicanus). There are tigrillos (literally, little tigers; ocelots, lynxes). Well, up to now I can’t affirm if there are wolves, but some people told me there were wolves, lions. My late father told me once that down here at the ranch they killed a lion; but I wasn’t yet born when they killed that lion. When I was growing up, a friend from here in El Punto, he told me he killed a lion at a place that is called Cerro de Raton in our forest. And they said that by Tres Cruces (“Three Crosses”) and further on, there were a lot of wolves; that sometimes they wanted to attack people… not men… But now I don’t know if they are alive or not, but there used to be wolves, there used to be lions. But up to now I can’t affirm if they still exist or not; I think they live in the denser (more densely forested) higher mountains.

Are there white-tailed deer?
Yes, there are white-tailed deer. I almost forgot to tell you there are deer; but now they are conserved, and it seems that they are beginning to reproduce. We see them more often, there are white tails here.

Do you have any opinion or suggestion regarding our natural resources?
Well up to now, at my age, I am realising that we have to take care of nature, of the animals as well as the trees. It is true that we live from this, we have lived from this for a long time; but now times are changing. I can say that at my age I don’t have the strength to exploit as I used to exploit before; but I would like there to be an office, a new organisation that could give opportunities to the young people who are growing up now, so that they don’t exploit the trees too much, and so that they think of another way of life, some jobs that don’t exploit …the forest, to look for the other means [of livelihood] that I believe are there. But we need good advisors who can lead us along a good path, so we can stop exploiting nature.