Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Mezcal & My Favorite Mexican Photos

 Back in 2008, when Michael Covino and the Niche Hospitality Group opened Mezcal Restaurant on Shrewsbury Street in Worcester, Mike commissioned me to  print, mat and frame nearly 40 photos of the Mezcal-making process—photos I took on a trip to Oaxaca.

In the town of Mitla  I photographed many family-owned Mezcal “fabricas”. Mezcal is made from the heart of the Agave cactus–called a piña because of its resemblance to a pineapple. I got great photos, all related to the Mezcal-making process, but I convinced Mike to let me frame as well some non-Mezcal portraits of people I had encountered in Mexico.  He hung six of my portraits of women in the ladies’ room and six hombres in the men’s.  These “bathroom” portraits proved to be so popular that people kept stealing them, which I took as a compliment.

Mezcal Restaurant in Worcester turned out to be a huge success.  It was voted best Mexican Restaurant in the city. Every time I drove by, I saw people waiting to get in.

Last spring Mike asked me to print out a new set of photos for a new Mezcal Restaurant that the Niche group was opening in Leominster, MA.  It’s just now officially open, and my favorite portraits of Mexican men and women are again in the restrooms.  I hope they don’t get stolen!  But if they do, I’ll just re-print them and take it as a compliment.  Here’s the story behind the dozen photos:
1. Guelaguetza Girls. These lovely young women were practicing for the ceremony called Guelaguetza that takes place in Oaxaca during late July.  Originally meant to worship the corn god, it was celebrated by the indigenous people long before the Spanish came.  The trajes (costumes) these women are wearing and their lace headpieces are so stunning! No wonder Frieda Kahlo adopted the fashion for herself.

2. Fiesta tot. This adorable child was photographed some years ago at a Candelaria Festival on the Isthmus of Tehuantepec.  The Zapotec Indians of the Isthmus have their own language and traditions, and it’s a strong matriarchal society—the women rule.

3. At the Candelaria Festival, most of the dancers were women dancing with each other. (The men mainly watched from the sidelines)  But this young couple was the focus of all eyes, because they were so beautiful and so clearly in love.  I hope by now they’re married and bringing their own fiesta tots to the Candelaria festival.

4. The Tortilla Lady.  She’s cooking (with helpers) in her courtyard in preparation for the Candelaria feast.  She is one of the many local cooks I was introduced to by Susana Trilling in the course of one of Susana’s culinary tours.  Those tours are always full of adventure and  take you far, far off the beaten track, because Susana knows the culinary secrets of Mexico better than anyone.  Info about  her tours is at www.SeasonsOfMyHeart.com.

5. Candelaria Parade.  These beauties were tossing favors, just as people do in New Orleans during Mardi Gras. Candelaria happens on Feb. 2 (same as Groundhog Day).  Because it’s 40 days after Christmas, it marks the day when the Virgin Mary took Jesus to be presented at the temple.  In Mexico, every family buys a new outfit for the Christ Child doll on the family’s home altar and takes him to church to be blessed.

6. You’ve seen this urchin on my blog before--cheerfully carrying her little brother on her back.  When I was walking around San Cristobal, Chiapas, Mexico in 2009, also on one of Susana’s culinary tours (this one was “Chiapas & Chocolate & Tabasco”), I encountered this girl and lots of her friends, all selling cheap jewelry. The first day I ran into her, she was unencumbered by her sibling, but she was always smiling. Of course I bought some of her bracelets.

7. This blind musician was also someone I encountered on the streets of San Cristobal.  It’s a wrenching portrait.  For some reason, almost all the photos I’ve taken of old men in Mexico bring tears to my eyes.  I think because they make me think of my father, who died about 25 years ago.

8. This old man, holding his bottle of beer and staring thoughtfully into space, was at a Day of the Dead celebration, which is usually a rollicking event in this village outside of Oaxaca, with bands playing and people dancing.  But I suspect he’s pensive because he’s remembering friends who have passed away.

9. This man who entered the church in Tlacalula, immediately knelt down and continued to pray for a long time.  I suspect he’d come a long way on this pilgrimage.

10.  The Red Devil.  He’s one of many devils that delighted in harassing us at Carnival time in the village of San Martine Telcajete.  I was there while taking a class in collage, shadow box & photography with photographer Mari Seder.  Every year the class visits the Carnival celebrations in this small town, which include a hilarious mock wedding featuring trans-dressers and much mischief. (See more about Mari’s  classes at www.artworkshopsinoaxaca.com. )

11. This photograph was taken at the ancient ruins of El Tajin on another one of Susana’s culinary tours—“Veracruz & Vanilla”. At the Spring Equinox, the indigenous people come to the ruined pyramids of El Tajin, everyone dressed in white, to absorb the power of the sun god and to  have  a cuerandero (healer)  perform a cleansing ceremony.  At night there were native dancers and children handing out clay images of the gods and the next day everyone came back to see the Vanilla Queen, the Voladores (flying dancers) with their dangerous rituals, and of course, to be cleansed.

12. The young man above is happy because he’s off to the Candelaria parade which is followed by the fiesta.  As I recall, the price of admission was a case of beer.  The Mexicans of the state of Oaxaca, like the  customers at the old and new Mezcal Restaurants, know how to have a good time.

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