In a tiny village in the Oaxaca highlands in southwestern Mexico, Macrina Mateo Martinez tells her story as she deftly shapes red clay from the nearby El Picacho mountain.
There's no potter's wheel or kiln, just swift, precise movements of her fingers. With barely a glance at the clay, she quickly forms a simple but elegant pot to be fired in an open pit with the same technique that her Zapotec forebears have used for 3,500 years.
Her ancestors once bartered the pots for food. Not so long ago, Mateo Martinez's father carried pots on his back or on a donkey to be sold.
Mateo Martinez's extended family of about 20 live and work in her compound in San Marcos Tlapazola, where she has created pottery that has made her well-known. Most of the women in her family wear long, lace-topped dresses that look like something from the Old West. Many of the older folks speak only Zapotec.
The City of Oaxaca may be renowned as one of Mexico's cultural capitals and an alluring foodie destination, but much of the region's cultural story is found in places such as Mateo Martinez's simple compound at the end of a dirt-and-gravel road. Almost without exception, they are family stories of weaving, dyeing, carving, pottery, embroidery, and clay figure-making, of styles and techniques handed down over centuries, of villages that have prospered around a single craft, of families who have lived modest, unhurried lives working together to make distinctive pieces, one at a time.
For shoppers, the pieces are too good to pass up, especially with the favorable U.S. exchange rate. I bought one of Mateo Martinez's red-clay pots - just like the one she made while demonstrating her craft to us - for about $17.
Oaxaca city is a fine base for this adventure. About 300 miles south of Mexico City, its 5,000-foot elevation moderates the heat. With about 250,000 people, Oaxaca has a lively fine-dining scene, an abundance of lodging, and a walkable central core filled with colonial architecture, tree-lined squares, and interesting shops and cafes. This is where to sample the martini-like drink known as a mescalini (made with the increasingly popular Mexican liquor mescal) or to try tasty roasted chapulines (grasshoppers) with guacamole at a rooftop bar.
When you want to see the local artisans at work, head to the Zapotec villages of Oaxaca's central valleys. (Tia Stephanie Tours can take you inside the workshops of local artisans - www.tiastephanietours.com.)
In Teotitlan del Valle, we visited weaver Mariano Sosa Martinez, who creates magnificent pieces both modern and filled with Zapotec iconography. Sosa Martinez's dyes are all natural, made from plants he cultivates with a solar-powered water pump. Entering his showroom and workspace on a side street a few blocks from the village center, you're struck by the brilliant colors and ancient designs of the pieces adorning the walls. Sosa Martinez is welcoming and eager to explain the process.
Upstairs in the dyeing room, prickly pear cacti hang on a rack, large tin pots sit atop open flames, and natural wool fibers hang in loops. The brilliant reds in his pieces come from cochineal insects that feed on the cactus. Yellows come from marigold flowers, and blue from the indigo plant. Those three base colors produce a rainbow of shades. Watching him dye the wool was mesmerizing, especially with indigo. The deep-blue shade emerges only after oxygen is added to the process, so the fibers were green when Sosa Martinez first lifted them from the pot. After a few minutes in the air, the color turned blue, deepening the longer it was exposed to oxygen.
Another day, we visited Irma Garcia Blanco at her home and workshop in Atzompa, near one of the Zapotec ruins just outside Oaxaca city. She demonstrated how she creates the embellished clay figures of women in the style pioneered by her mother, Teodora Blanco, whose work Nelson Rockefeller collected.
It was interesting to compare her unpainted pieces with those made by the also well-known Aguilar sisters in Ocotlan de Morelos. We visited the shop of Josefina Aguilar to see her brightly painted figurines, some carrying flowers in their arms or fruit atop their heads.
In Arrazola, the Jimenez family demonstrated how they make alebrijes, the surrealistic animals carved from the wood of the local copal tree, then painted in fantastical colors. The alebrijes are not ancient, dating perhaps to the 1950s, but the wood-carving tradition goes back to the indigenous Zapotecs.
At each of the workshops we visited, no one pressured us to buy. But it was almost impossible not to make a purchase. These are not your typical trinkets. Handmade with tradition and care, this folk art speaks volumes about the people who create it and their ancestors.
The artisans' stories stuck with me, none more so than Macrina Mateo Martinez's. This 46-year-old unmarried woman is something of an outcast in her town, gossiped about as indecent because of her travels to exhibit her work in places such as Guadalajara and cities in the United States.
"I was the first woman to travel outside the village," she said through an interpreter.
When we finally say goodbye, Mateo Martinez strikes a pose outside the fuchsia-and-beige entry to her family compound. Posing is not something she has always been able to do. But over the years, as her pottery has taken her to distant places, she has learned to become comfortable in front of the camera lens.
And she's just fine with that.