This article is from the October 1999 The Mexico File
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A Visit With Paula
frequent contributor to The
Mexico File, Maryanne Wilson is a Manhattanite who spends as much time as she can
exploring the special people and places of Mexico. She reads Mexican
literature and loves mariachi music. She contributed an article on Frida Kahlo
which appeared in the May 1999 issue, as well as an article on why she chooses
Mexico in the June 1999 issue.
a mist-shrouded mountaintop outside the city of Oaxaca you’ll find the tiny
Indian hamlet of Santa Catarina Ixtepeji Ixtlan. The drive up there offers
quite spectacular views – but it is a harrowing, ear-popping experience.
Upon leaving Oaxaca, you start up a mountain road that’s constantly twisting
and turning as it climbs skyward. There are a few miradors en route,
and it’s impossible to resist stopping at each one to enjoy the vista –
the valley of Oaxaca below, the clouds hovering just above, and majestic
mountains rising up in every direction. As you continue to ascend, the clouds
are suddenly beneath you, and the air becomes cooler and moister. It is all
quite breathtakingly beautiful and awe inspiring.
hard to tell, really, when you’ve arrived in Santa Catarina. There’s not
much there – just a few small roughly built adobe brick houses sprinkled
about, modest cornfields, an old church, and some chickens clucking and
scratching the ground as they scatter about. When our car made its way up the
dirt road towards Paula’s house, several unseen dogs barked at the
friend Jodi, who lives in Oaxaca, and I went there to visit a friend of hers.
Paula has lived in Santa Catarina all of her life. She, her husband, and their
two sons (ages 14 and 22) live in a hand-made two-room adobe. There is no
running water, electricity or sanitary facilities. The family dog lives
outside in a doghouse, which is a small version of the Paula’s adobe.
Cactus, maguey plants, and bougainvillea surround both houses.
greeted us warming, and invited us into the home of which she is obviously
proud.The first room serves a dual purpose. It is here that Paula stores and
prepares the corn from which she makes tortillas. There are two quite large
bins filled to the brim with freshly shucked corn. Paula is the local tortilla
maker. People come from villages and hamlets all over the mountain to buy
their daily supply of this timeless staple.
room also serves as the family’s bedroom. At night, a homemade cloth is
drawn across the room to serve as a divider between Paula and her husband and
their two sons. The bottom surface, which is strewn with rocks and pebbles
embedded in the earthen floor, tilts downward. Each night family members
spread their mats for sleeping.
wood and tin ceiling is slightly vaulted, and contains a multitude of plastic
shopping bags hanging therefrom. These bags contain all of the family’s
personal belongings, which must be kept off the floor to prevent infestation
by vermin. Each room is dark and smoky, and has but one small glass-less
window. But what dramatic views.
other room is the kitchen, which contains all of her cooking utensils,
including the metate she uses for grinding corn. A comal, on
which Paula cooks her tortillas, rests on a large tree trunk on the floor. I
was unable to figure out which came first – the house or the tree trunk. The
actual cooking area is a rustic, fire-blackened hearth, also of adobe brick,
on which sits a huge black cauldron for cooking the family’s daily measure
of beans. This room also contains a long, rough-hewn table and four wobbly
chairs. The three of us sat around the table and chatted for a bit.
told us all about a quinceañera celebration, which had been held
recently for one of the local girls. She showed us photographs of all the
children dressed up in their Sunday best, and of a richly caparisoned mariachi
band that had played for them. It must have been a marvelous day for all!
on Paula’s exceedingly modest table, in a battered old milk bottle, was a
cluster of beautiful flowers, including ivory-colored roses. They gave off a
wonderful fragrance – how those creamy, ivory beauties brightened up this
exceedingly humble home. Paula smiled like a shy young bride as she told us,
with visible pride and delight, that her husband grows ivory roses expressly for
her on his little plot of land. On the way back down the mountain, with the
clouds ascending towards us, I tried to remember the last time someone had grown
roses especially for me.