This article is from the April 1996 The Mexico File newsletter.
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Green Glazed Ceramic, A Beautiful and Silent Predator

by Ramona Perez 

Much of the intrigue and fascination of Mexico lies in its distinct "otherness" from life in the United States. Those of us who travel and live in this beautiful country treasure its seemingly undying adherence to traditional forms of dress, ritual, food preparation, and daily lifeways. It makes us yearn for a sense of cultural tradition lost long ago with our movement into first the industrial and then the technological revolutions. What is often so missed with this romantization of Mexican life is the awareness of a lack of immediate alternatives that may continue cycles of tradition that harm, and sometimes even kill, the gentle people who live in the non-urbanized areas.

I have been working in a pueblo outside of the city of Oaxaca on and off for the last three years. I moved here almost a year ago to begin the final year of research necessary to complete my project on the re-negotiation of gender and community identity within a craft-based pueblo. It has been one of the most rewarding yet challenging experiences of my life. Though I will always be from ~l otro lado, my acceptance as a true friend and member of the conimunity has allowed me to move beyond the surface discussions and realities of life and into the angers, frustrations, illnesses, and troubles that plague poor, underdeveloped communities. While there are many problems, ranging from lack of adequate water supply to soil depletion and underemployment, the issue that hit me the hardest here was the tragic correlation between their primary source of community identity and economic advantage and the high levels of infant mortality, learning disabilities, antisocial behavior in adolescents, and adult disorientation.

It all started when I was sitting with a group of women preparing chiles for a fiesta that was to take place the following day. Women's work parties last three days as we prepare to feed and entertain several hundred people, usually in honor of a Saint or other important event surrounding the Catholic religion. As can be expected, conversations run the gamut of subjects and rarely does any subject seem to be off limits. On this particular day several women were discussing pains they had been experiencing through the torso and limb, usually on one side. They had all been to a doctor and had tests run. Fach one was told they could find nothing wrong with them. They turned to me for an answer (I have learned that I am expected to know about things from plumbing to health). I couldn't offer them one at that point, but promised to look into it. As a quick fix, I distributed bag-gies of Motrin for the pain.

The preponderance of the affliction sent me to my field notes on each woman and I began to notice some trends in their lives. Each had lost a child under three years old to either convulsions, a fall, or an overall weakness that had plagued the child since birth. Each had husbands or brothers who had become alcoholics after the age of forty when they could no longer Itinction as easily as before. A majority had other children with learning disabilities or somewhat deviant behavior. And all of them produced the beautifull dark green glazed ceramic ware that has become the trademark of the pueblo.

The pueblo has been producing ceramic since the pre-Ilispanic times and was a major contributor to the ceramic found at the nearby Zapotec ruins of Monte Alban. They adopted the use of the dark green ceramic in the early 1900's and became known throughout Mexico for its production. Frida Kahlo is known to have ordered a complete set of the glazed serviceware for twenty from the pueblo. As you tour through Mexico, look inside the kitchens and you are sure to see the beautifull green glazed ceramic cooking pots from Oaxaca. As tourism from the United States picked up in the 1970's the pueblo moved away from its other forms of ceramic production and concentrated on the green glazed ware. The identity of the pueblo began to change from an agriculturally based community whose income was offset by its ceramic production to a tourist-based craft pueblo which sold much of its outlying land to land speculators. Yet the people never wanted to lose their identity as a pueblo, as a people of the land, a people of tradition and family. Re-negotiations of space and social structure began to emerge from the increased flow of Western ideas and commodities as tourism increased and the availability of cash multiplied while subsistence production declined. Families still formed around land ownership but ceramic production became the principal form of social prestige. The ceramic was unique because of its adlierence to pre-Hispanic production techniques and its utilitarian versus aesthetic form. Markets for exportation were opened up to museums, import shops, and Mexican communities in the United States. Then in the late 1980's, it was banned from importation to the United States due to its high level of lead. Some families responded by increasing or changing their production to non-glazed ware. But many did not and relied on the internal and European tourist market for the purchase of the green glazed ware. For these families it had become a source of familial identity, their source of social and economic prestige, their tradition. The issue of lead poisoning was never flilly explained to them; Mexico has no laws, no regulations on lead contamination.

I began to make phone calls to friends in the medical field. The symptoms described by the women and the family histories I had collected showed strong evidence of lead poisoning. I talked with other anthropologists who had done work on the ceramic and discovered that they had known of the problem. I went back to two of the women from the fiesta work party who were officers in the ceramic union. My hypothesis was met with denial and hostility. They assured me no one had ever died from the glaze, that they had been using it for decades. I was stopped in my tracks by the awareness that I was telling them that their only form of identity within the patrimony of Mexico, their source of economic and social power, was maiming if not killing them. It was a battle I could not win. Tradition? Yes, partly, but most of all it was the lack of alternatives. There was no other green glaze that was lead-free and to revert to natural, rod-slip, or painted ware was to place them within the competition of thousands of other pueblos throughout Mexico. The green ware was their own unique form of identity.

I wrestled with the idea of going ahead and puffing together a second research project that would prove the correlation. I found local doctors and laboratories willing to help me with the blood sampling and testing. As word spread that I was looking into this, my position within the community was challenged. I realized that I could not help them by simply proving the glaze was the problem. I had to give them an alternative that would allow them to retain their tradition, their identity, and their economic and social place within their histoiy. I decided to try to re-create a market with the United States that would focus on the other forms of ceramic ware that they had been producing for over five hundred years. This in turn would drive demand away from the problems of lead poisoning.

It is a slow answer, one that will take years before the changes are evident, but it is a start. More importantly, it preserves the tradition, pride, and identity of the people. I have begun the process of finding out how to re-open the export market through appropriate labeling of the lead-based glaze and lead-free ware and by writing marketing pamphlets that advertise the lead-free ware. I am also having other glazes used within the pueblo analyzed for lead content at a laboratory in California. I have written for grants that would offset the costs of the necessary seals, the laboratory costs, and the marketing materials. If all goes well I hope to offer the community the tolls necessary to re-open the export market with the United States and to move toward a tradition and identity that will remain viable for decades to come.