This article is from the October 1999 The Mexico File newsletter.
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A Visit With Paula

by Maryanne Wilson

A 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.

On 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.

It’s 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 unexpected invasion. 

My 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.

Paula 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.

This 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.

The 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.

Paula’s 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.

Paula 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!

There 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.

©1999 Maryanne Wilson