This article is from the December 2005 - January 2006 The Mexico File newsletter.
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Las Joyas de Mexico

Sebastian Chino Peña

by Lynne Doyle 

Lynne Doyle is a longtime Mexico File subscriber and contributing editor from Maine. The object of the Las Joyas de Mexico feature is to highlight for MF readers some of the lesser-known but most rewarding of Mexico’s geographic, human and artistic treasures. Lynne can be contacted at LinfordD@aol.com. 

This column is supposed to highlight little-known jewels found in Mexico, and while I have not gone in this direction before, Sebastian Chino definitely comes under the heading of a jewel. Also, lest anyone think this is only a short-term crush I’m having, I have known and used Sebastian as a driver for several years now, so he is not just a flash in the pan.  

Several years ago, I took some students from my Mexican Folk Art class at my local university to Oaxaca for the Dia de Los Muertos celebration. Needless to say, we were a very diverse group, having in common only our interest in folk art, and even that encompassed several different levels, from mildly curious to fanatic (that would be me). Also, Oaxaca being what it is, some people were interested in weaving, others in woodcarving, most in pottery, a few in tin work, and one in going to mass in every church in Oaxaca (no mean feat since there are 29 Colonial-era churches still in use in the city, plus all the non-Colonial barrio churches). 

At the time, it did not seem to make sense to use buses or cabs, the way I do by myself or with fewer people, and we had much too much ground to cover for walking, so I contacted a tour company that advertised the use of vans. They sent me Sebastian, who I can honestly say saved my life that first time out. At one end of the spectrum of the group were seasoned travelers, while at the other end were those who had never been out of the state of Maine. Sebastian weathered it all with amazing good humor and managed to get everyone where they wanted to go, even the woman we came to call the “church chick.”  He never lost his temper, was amazingly patient with all of the conflicting orders for various adjustments to the air conditioning, and in spite of everything else he had to do, managed to bring to my attention several new museums and galleries of interest that I had not heard about.  

At the request of one of my students with an interest in weaving (she lives on a farm and raises sheep whose wool she uses for her various projects), Sebastian spent one long afternoon looking for a weaver in Teotilan de Valle willing to sell a large bag of cochineal. This is the bug that lives on cactus that Oaxacan weavers use to achieve the bright red dyes found in those great rugs. We had no luck that first afternoon as cochineal is rare, expensive, and hard to find in any quantity. No one wanted to sell whatever supply they had. That night, after leaving us at our hotel, Sebastian did some kind of magic research that only he seems to be able to do, and the next day he took us straight to a weaver willing to part with a massive quantity of the little critters, although at great expense. As my student was paying for her bag of bugs, Sebastian took me aside and shared with me the fact that carrying this product out of Mexico was highly illegal and advised me to stay far away from this girl when we went through customs.

On that same trip, some of my students expressed an interest in seeing the big Dia de Los Muertos parade held in Etla on November 1st , where the entire town turns out in costume to enact plays depicting the story of Day of the Dead, as well as various episodes in Mexican history. It is a tourist bonanza, and, as such, makes it impossible for attendees to get anywhere near food, drinks or bathrooms. It is so crowded and the crowd is so rowdy that getting separated from your group is almost a given. Somehow Sebastian not only managed to keep everyone relatively close together and find everyone who got lost, but also kept us all laughing in the process, which I still find astounding as more than once, I was more than a little frightened in the heaving crowd and was ready to tear out my hair (along with the hair of some others who shall remain nameless) by the end of the evening.  

When he really won my heart, though, was on the afternoon we all agreed to visit the carvers at Tribus Mixes in the village of Viguera, west of Cd. Oaxaca. Viguera is not a carving town, and Tribus Mixes did not at the time have a sign outside their workshop. Also, as perhaps some of you have noticed, sometimes in Mexico having a street name and house number does not always insure that any of those numbers will have anything to do with any of the other house numbers, especially in Mexican villages. So even though we had an address, it took Sebastian several stops to knock on doors asking directions (a trait even more alien to Mexican men than most others) to find these remarkable carvers. Once we arrived, we stayed a little longer than expected as most everyone was fascinated by the masterful work of the brothers Noe and Naftali Martinez Villanueva – everyone except the “church chick,” who was not happy at the prospect of missing a couple of masses she had planned to attend. I don’t know how he did it, but somehow, after Sebastian had very quietly conferred with Naftali, we were all served a very sweet green drink we were told was some kind of fruit juice from a tree grown in the Villanueva courtyard. Soon the church chick was laughing along with everyone else and remained mellow for the remainder of the afternoon, forgetting all about her intentions regarding mass, and the rest of us were left in peace to make our choices of carvings.  

On subsequent trips, Sebastian has proven to be resourceful in the extreme, very knowledgeable about every facet of Oaxaca, from artists to ruins to where to find the best chocolate and everything in between, and he is always good-natured and patient. However, I have found his most important characteristic to be the fact that he is the only Mexican man I have ever met who, when asked a question to which he does not know the answer, will actually say, “I don’t know,” although he always follows up with, “but I will find out.” I can’t even remember all the walking around I have done following bogus directions, or all the time I have spent looking for shops or galleries that either do not exist, or exist on the other side of town. (This is perhaps my least favorite thing about Mexico, second only to starving dogs and cats.) And Sebastian has never failed to “find out.” Again, I don’t know his secret – who he talks to, what book he looks in, or even if he just drives around until he finds what he’s looking for. Actually, there is not much he doesn’t know about Oaxaca, but on those rare occasions that he finds himself stumped, he really does not give up until he gets an answer.

I have given his name, email address and telephone numbers to many people traveling to Oaxaca and have never once been told anything other than that he was the best-informed driver in the city. He speaks excellent English, actually answers his emails promptly (usually at night as he works every day), and is a cautious, competent and respectful driver. He also takes on extra duties not normally associated with guides or drivers. This last trip to Oaxaca for Dia de Los Muertos in late October, I originally did not think I would be going, but I gave Sebastian’s name to my friend Marrena Robinson from Texas who was going to shop for her high-end folk art store in Ingram. He responded to her email and they made plans to meet, arranging specific days to visit each of the villages she needed. She knew the products she was looking for but did not have artists’  names or locations and Sebastian was able to supply her with the appropriate information as well as to get her where she was going. Then at the last minute I was able to go along with another friend, and I notified him I would be along on some of these excursions. Marrena and I arrived in Oaxaca on the same day, but for some reason, neither of our hotels was able to take messages that actually reached us, so neither of us was sure where the other was. Sebastian finally was able to reach me at my hotel to tell me Marrena was worried that I was stuck in Puebla. For the rest of the trip he became our conduit and passed messages back and forth. Additionally, on her visit to Irma Blanco in the village of Atzompa, Marrena purchased several massive urns and figures that had to be specially packed for shipping in custom built wooden crates. Since the crates were nothing she was able to carry herself, Sebastian agreed to return to Blanco’s on his own time to get them and take them to a shipper for her.

During one visit to a carver in Arrazola, I became fascinated with the symmetry and miniscule size of the dots the painters were able to achieve on their animals. After much questioning, Sebastian got the information that the painters used the tips of agave leaves to make these dots. A couple of days later, in the village of Ocotlan outside the workshops of the Aguilar sisters, Sebastian spotted a mostly-dead agave plant and asked me if I would like to have some of the leaf points to use myself. I was delighted at the opportunity, so he started right in to break some off for me. Little did we know that even dead agave leaves are almost impossible to sever. Sebastian made inquiries of several people up and down the street until he found someone willing to lend him a small machete and he set about getting me some leaves. I came home with a fist full, he went home with a cut on his thumb, and sure enough, the leaves work like a charm. He was careful to get several different sized leaves for me, so that I can now make any kind of dot I want. (The leaves are also good for painting those very tiny lines found on many different kinds of Mexican art objects.) 

It is possible, now that Sebastian has started his own tour company, that he is willing to take on all these other little tasks unrelated to the normal duties of a driver/guide, or perhaps he just has more control over his own time. But in my experience, he is just a plain nice guy who tries his best to be helpful and has always done the little extras with easy grace and a twinkling smile. He can be reached at Chino Tours, phone number 044-9515081220 or fax 951 56-21405, but the easiest, most reliable way to contact him is by email at Sebastian_Oaxaca@hotmail.com. He has had this same email address for years, so it is unexpected that it will change like so many of them do in Mexico. If you can tell him which artists/ruins/villages you wish to visit, or even if you have just a vague idea of what you would like to experience during your visit, along with the dates you plan to be in Oaxaca, he will help you to arrange your schedule to blend with his. He will even meet your plane or bus. He generally drives air conditioned Suburbans, but in the event of a bigger group, he has access to larger vehicles and buses. He charges $20 an hour, with a reduction in rate if you book him for an entire day, and it is worth mentioning that his rates have not increased in five years. The general consensus among everyone that I have talked to who has used him is that he is worth every cent spent on him, and though I consider myself his biggest fan, I have used enough different drivers in enough different parts of Mexico to objectively agree. Generally, most driver/guides in Mexico – at least the ones I have known – are genial, knowledgeable, and very helpful, but Sebastian is in a class of his own. Try him – you’ll see.

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