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Maria OlivaresMaria Olivares

Maria Olivares: Lessons in Clay

Maria Olivares steps off the bus onto the dusty road. As the bus pulls away, she surveys the handful of claptrap buildings that make up the tiny Mexican Indian village of Tlacolula. It's not quite noon, but already the sun feels hot. A rivulet of sweat runs down Olivares' back as she shifts her heavy backpack. She scans the street anxiously. The driver said to look for a market where she would find a camioneta to take her to the village of San Macros Tlapazola. She's not sure what a camioneta looks like.

“¿Por favor, donde esta el mercado? ¿Camioneta?" she asks as several women in colorful dresses pass her. They glance shyly at her, giggle and then begin chattering in their native Zapotec, a language Olivares doesn't understand. Although the black hair and dark complexion of her half-Mexican heritage blends in here, Olivares' Western clothing stands out. Men, women and children stare openly as she makes her way down the narrow lane. "Dondé esta el mercado? ¿Camioneta por favor?"

She walks for several blocks, her backpack feeling heavier by the minute. Did she get off at the wrong stop, she wonders? Maybe the man on the internet who promised to set up a pottery internship for her with a native potter has given her the wrong directions. How long before the bus from Oaxaca comes back this way?

Olivares stops in a sliver of shade, slides off her backpack and squats against a concrete building. She feels like crying. A brown woman in a fuchsia-colored dress and blue apron strides across the dirt road and approaches her. "Camioneta," the woman says, pointing down the street.

Olivares scrambles to her feet. "Si, si camioneta para San Marcos," she replies, nodding vigoriously. Olivares follows the woman past a tiny market into an even narrower alleyway where the woman points to a battered white Nissan pick-up with a green awning covering the back. “¿Camioneta?" Olivares asks. The woman nods and smiles broadly, showing a large gap where two upper teeth should be.

Several women in long dresses and skirts and men in jeans and straw cowboy hats mingle in and around the pick-up. Olivares can see two hard wooden benches have been bolted to the sides of the pick-up's bed. "San Marcos?" she asks the group shyly. She clambers into the truck. "What the heck am I doing?" she mumbles

An hour later, when the back of the truck is packed with a dozen or so passengers, they begin bouncing down the dusty track. The women stare and point at Olivares. Finally, one of them asks her in Spanish, "Why are you going to San Marcos?" Olivares tells them she's going to see Macrina, a local potter, to learn how to make pottery using traditional Mexican Indian techniques. Her revelation is followed by excited whispering in Zapotec.

Twenty bone-wrenching minutes later, the camioneta pulls into San Marcos Tlapazola and Olivares piles out with the others. She looks down the village's street, but she can't see any houses, just concrete walls surrounding family compounds. She has no idea which one belongs to Macrina's family. A fellow passenger leads her to an iron gate and Olivares knocks.

The woman who answers the door is in her 40s, short and stocky, dressed in a shiny blue dress that's covered with a long apron decorated with hand-stitched birds and flowers. Her long jet black hair is pulled into a thick braid that's woven with a wide red ribbon. This is Alberta, Macrina's aunt. At first, Alberta thinks Olivares is there to buy pottery. Once she makes it clear that she's Maria Olivares, the ceramics student from the United States, Alberta welcomes her warmly. "Dios mio, we were sure you weren't coming," says the woman. She explains that Macrina is in Oaxaca selling pottery and should return in a few hours.

Olivares stashes her backpack in a corner and follows Alberta across a dirt courtyard into a bare concrete room. It feels cool inside. The walls of the eight-foot square space that serves as Alberta's pottery studio are painted robin's egg blue. There is no furniture except for a small, black and white T.V. mounted near the ceiling in one corner blaring a tela novella, a Mexican soap opera. In the center of the room's concrete floor a woven reed mat holds Alberta's pottery-making tools - a dried corn cob, shards of gourds, strips of leather and pieces of metal - and a pile of yellowish clay. Alberta removes her shoes and kneels on a thin foam pad, inviting Olivares to do the same.

With skill honed since childhood, Alberta pulls off a lump of clay and quickly kneads out the air bubbles and mixes in sand, which she explains makes the clay stronger. Working quickly, she shows Olivares how to make small vases or ollas. She forms the clay into a cone and then uses her fingers to hollow it out. Using the dried corn cob, she pulls the clay up against her hands, forming the sides of the small vessel. She adds pieces of wet clay to make the pot taller. Once the pot is the size and shape she wants, she puts it onto a piece of gourd and places the gourd onto a hollowed-out stone pedestal that acts like a turntable. She again adds pieces of wet clay, pulling the sides up with the corn cob. Finally, she uses a piece of wet leather to swipe the edge of the pot, smoothing it. Alberta smiles and proudly holds up the vessel. In less than 10 minutes, she's produced a beautifully formed pot that rivals those made on a pottery wheel. "Can you do this?" she asks.

For the next several hours, Olivares labors over small lumps of clay, trying to perfect her use of the crude pottery tools. A studio art major at Willamette University, Olivares is accustomed to making pottery with more sophisticated tools. Alberta makes forming tall pots look easy. Olivares struggles to build small vessels.

The air cools as the afternoon shadows lengthen. There's a flurry of activity in the courtyard as Macrina finally returns from Oaxaca. When Alberta introduces Olivares, Macrina squeals, "Que milagro (what a miracle)!"

Within a few minutes, Macrina and Olivares agree that the young student will stay with the family during her two-week internship. She will use part of her $2,500 Carson Undergraduate Research Grant to pay Macrina for room and board and for pottery lessons.

Olivares is shown to a room similar in size to Alberta's studio. This room, plain and comfortable, contains a small couch and single bed. The bed is covered with thin blankets and no pillow. When Olivares sits on the bed, she's surprised to find plastic still covers the mattress.

The afternoon winds into evening. Children play in the courtyard. The women make pots, while Olivares observes. Occasionally, they stop to wash clothing or toss sticks onto the open fire in the cooking shack. Before the sun sets completely, the men in the family return from the fields, dusty from their efforts to grow corn, beans and pumpkins in the dry earth.

Around nine o'clock, the family gathers around a wooden table for the evening meal - rice, black beans, shredded chicken and homemade tortillas the size of small pizzas. The food fills Olivares' stomach, but is also provides deeper sustenance. Her grandmother talked about preparing these same foods in her native Mexico. Now Olivares is experiencing them firsthand; tasting what her grandmother's life must have been like.

Morning comes early in San Marcos. The sun hasn't risen, yet the women in the family are already busy preparing for the day. Several women sit in a corner shucking dried corn. Another grinds the corn on a matate into masa, a soft dough, for tortillas. Still another forms the large tortillas and bakes them in a flat pan on the open fire. The only sound is the murmur of the women's voices and an occasional rooster.

Olivares has been with the family for several days. She's become accustomed to the slow pace of life here. From dawn to dinnertime every day of the week, the men work the fields and the women do chores - cooking, sewing, washing - and make pottery. The college student doesn't rise with the others at 5 a.m. Instead, she sleeps in until eight or nine and then enjoys a cup of hot chocolate and a piece of sweet bread for breakfast before beginning her lessons.

Pottery making generally begins around 11 o'clock. Each day, Olivares learns something new about traditional Mexican pottery making. Throughout the state of Oaxaca, numerous indigenous villages produce their own distinctive style of pottery. Here in San Marcos, they're known for making functional ware that's uniformly red and smooth without decorative elements. Although sometimes Macrina makes animalitos, little animals, most of the pottery is strictly tradition-bound. They've been making San Marcos style pottery for generations and no one sees the need to change it.

A distinguishing characteristic of San Marcos pottery is the red color. Once the pots are semi-dry, the potters dip them in a slurry of special red clay they dig in the hills surrounding the village. To make the pots smooth, the women rub or burnish them with a smooth stone, sometimes for hours at a time. Macrina shows Olivares a flat stone the size of a small egg. "This is a special stone," she says, fingering the smooth surface. It fits neatly into the palm of her hand. "Not all stones will work on the pots. This was my grandmother's. She gave me this stone."

Macrina holds a large 20-inch pot in one hand and rubs the surface with her burnishing stone. She moves the stone in short strokes, working quickly. As she rubs, the pot begins to take on a smooth sheen.

Olivares uses a stone Alberta has given her to burnish her smaller pots. She rubs back and forth, but instead of achieving a uniformly smooth surface, her pot shows the stone's rub marks. It will take some practice to achieve the San Marcos smoothness.

On days the pots need to dry or when Macrina leaves to sell her wares, Olivares travels back and forth on the camioneta and the bus to Oaxaca City. She spends her days strolling the plazas and visiting museums and galleries. She finds the trips a refreshing break from the sameness of Indian village life.

Back in San Marcos, it's Friday, firing day. About once a week, when it's dry, the women fire their wares. The pots have been warming in the sun since early morning. This prevents them from breaking from thermal shock in the fire. Olivares and the women have laid a fire of sticks and bull dung in the center of the courtyard. Marcina shows Olivares how to neatly stack the pottery, using small shards of fired clay between the pots to ensure each pot is evenly fired. Then they cover the mound of pots with dung, sticks, leaves and old paper bags and light the fire. For the next 45 minutes or so, Olivares, Macrina and Alberta feed the fire with sticks and dung, keeping the flames licking around the pots. Then they let the fire die down, allowing the pots to cool naturally for the next couple of hours. When they finally brush away the ash, the pots, a deep, rich red, shine in the sun.

Olivares' two weeks in San Marcos are nearly up. She's supposed to travel to another pottery village, but she feels ill. She thinks it's just a gastrointestinal upset from unfamiliar food or water, but, later it'll turn out that she's contracted Giardia, a particularly nasty water-borne bug that requires powerful antibiotics to combat it. Within a few days, she'll decide to forego more travel and return home a week earlier than she'd planned.

But today, she fights off the queasy feeling and follows Macrina out into the fields. Normally, the women dig for the ochre-colored clay during December when the fields are fallow and the clay is easy to spot. Olivares, eager to embrace the full experience of making traditional Mexican pottery, has convinced Macrina to show her how to dig the clay. At Alberta's and Macrina's suggestion, Olivares has donned a traditional Zapotec dress - a bright pink, puffy sleeved sateen that's covered with a long apron decorated with vibrant red and green needlepoint flowers.

Using a stick, Macrina pokes at the topsoil, swiping it away until she spots a yellow vein of clay. If this were a normal clay gathering trip, they'd fill a pick-up with the stuff and haul it back to the compound where they store it in a cool, concrete room until it's needed. Today, they dig several pounds, enough for a few pots, and take it home.

As Olivares clutches her bundle of yellow clay and follows Macrina's footsteps along the path, she stops for a moment and gazes across the valley. In that moment, she knows that coming here was exactly what she was meant to do. For the first time, her parents' blaring banda music, her grandmother's molé sauce, her aunt's Mexican gifts - her own Mexican heritage - come into brilliantly clear perspective. She smiles and continues down the hill.