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The Birth of Traditions Mexico


a black and white photo of a person

Eric and grandma Chona engage in one of their mystery conversations while Chona polishes a clay bowl. Chona only spoke Zapotec. Eric only didn’t. That never stopped her from chatting with Eric. Her words were all heart. Victorina Mateo looks on. San Marcos Tlapazola, Oaxaca. Photo: Joshua Sage


Editor’s note: This post is one of a short series to be written honoring the beautiful journey that was Traditions Mexico with the intention of giving it the dignified farewell that it deserves. An ode to an era, a sort of eulogy, though no one has died. But none the less a worthy enterprise is being laid to rest and it’s memory is something worth singing over. 

The Birth of Traditions Mexico

“You… are our tour guide?!” she asked.

She looked perplexed, uncertain, and suddenly not particularly optimistic about what she’d gotten herself into. 

And maybe with good reason. I’d never guided a tour before. I’d never organized a tour before. And at 28 years of age,  I was about half the age of all the people who’d signed up for the tour. Out front was my “tour van”, which was my somewhat worn work van that I’d bolted used van seats into. We were in the midst of our first meeting in the lobby of the hotel I’d chosen for the tour. My favorite kind of place, a locally owned budget hotel with some nice character, but zero frills.

And I hadn’t planned for my little group an easy tour of museums, pretty plazas, old churches and archaeological sites with afternoons free for strolling quaint shops. Nope.  I was about to take them down a long dirt road  to spend a week in a village of indigenous potters digging clay, sitting on the floor to form our vessels using corn cobs and scraps of leather, eating local food and breathing smoke.

 But I was at least taking them to a place used to accommodating tourists, right?   Well…

When I’d first gone to that village 7 years earlier I asked the old timer who’d invited me out to visit if many foreigners came to visit this village? “Oh yes!” He responded.  I felt instantly deflated. There I was with my straw hat, leather huarache sandals on my feet and daydreams in my eyes. My day dreams were about getting into an ancient world of Mexico that I could sense was out there, but hadn’t yet seen. I wanted to find my way to places where old ways of living were still alive, thick with knowing and sun warmed silence. I wanted to find places where there were no souvenir stands, no cultural re-enactments, no stories about what was here once, a thousand years ago. I wanted to find my way to the ancient, living now and meet people who still understood a certain kind of timelessness in their blood. 

rain over the Oaxaca valley and mountains

The clouds break open in the central valley of Oaxaca. San Marcos Tlapazola is nestled in the folds of these mountains.

That’s the kind of day dream I that guided my feet in my early 20’s.  And, after having ridden an old bus out of touristy Oaxaca city to a small regional town, then finding my way to the place where the bus to the village departed and learning it was a pick up truck with two metal benches in it and a driver with one eye and then bouncing down a dirt road for a half an hour to a quiet village seated on the foothills of a sharp mountain,  I’d thought I’d found my way to a place that held that promise. 

The old timer, whose name was Francisco, continued. “Yeah, we get lots of foreigners,” he gazed out the door into the sunny courtyard as his mind chased up a memory,  “In 1985 there was a couple who came to visit…what were their names now… oh yes, we called her Maria and his name was Lucas. They stayed for about six months, something about wanting to learn about our language or customs.  And then in 1987 a man came to visit named…” Francisco went on like this until he’d named and described every foreigner who’d ever been to the village in his memory.  There had been six. This was when I understood that “lots” of foreigners was a very relative amount.  I was number seven. I knew then and there that I’d found the place I was looking for.  

That village was San Marcos Tlapazola and that was the day that I met a young potter about my same age named Macrina Mateo and her aunt Alberta.  They had never had a foreigner, much less a very tall, blond, male foreigner, come into their house and watch them make pots and ask them odd questions like;  where do you get your clay?Who taught you how to do this? What is this piece for? Such things were just common knowledge, no one ever had to ask, so just how did you answer? 

They were shy.  And so was I, because I’d never been in a room with women who carried a certain kind of timelessness in their blood as they made pots seated on palm mats using methods passed down by their ancestors for hundreds of generations. I was stunned. I had no idea such a thing even still existed in the world. What does one say, what does one do when faced with something so dignified, significant and sacred? 

“What does one say, what does one do when faced with something so dignified, significant and sacred?” 

If you are someone like me you ask them where they got their clay as a meager expression of an unfathomable curiosity while inside you know, you simply know, that this place will figure in your life significantly. 

On that particular day I was a college student in the middle of a semester in Oaxaca, Mexico, studying Spanish and, well, existence. I was two years away from graduating, studying art with a particular fascination in pottery and Spanish. It was during that very fated semester in Oaxaca that my draw towards pottery and Spanish began to make all the sense in the world.

I developed a friendship with that family during my time in Oaxaca, going back to visit several times as we became more comfortable with each other. Their elegant humility, skill, generosity and the mystique that their beautiful otherness held for me won my heart. I tried my hand at making pots with them. They, and most of the women in that village, made pottery. Pots for cooking beans, carrying water, making tortillas, washing corn. It was the ancient trade of the place. Women in San Marcos made pottery. As far as anyone knew, they always had. 

And as far as I know, no man had ever done it. Things weren’t done that way. I should have been out in the fields cultivating corn with the men in wide hats. But as a foreigner you can make a fool out of yourself as often as you can bear it. We don’t know the rules and aren’t expected to,  so there is a kind of silent permission to sit and make pots even if you are a man.   We laughed a lot and my pots looked terrible. 

a woman standing in front of a building

Macrina Mateo Martinez paints a pot with an iron red earthen clay during our Oaxacan Clay workshop a long time ago.  San Marcos Tlapazola, Oaxaca. Photo: Joshua Sage

Two years later I returned to Oaxaca to live, proudly bearing one of the most amazing job titles on earth (at least as far as I was concerned): Oaxacan Pottery Buyer.  How that came to be is a story for another time. But when I got back to Oaxaca, one of my very first stops was at Macrina and Alberta’s house in San Marcos. And this time I was able to reciprocate their generosity. I offered to buy lots of their pottery and ship it to my boss in the states. They did not complain. 

It was in this way I made my living for many years, buying pottery from culturally rich, economically poor, ancestral potters and selling it to economically rich, if perhaps a bit culturally poor, modern Americans and taking a cut in the middle. I kind of thought of myself as a pottery Robin Hood and over the years stumbled my way upon one after another village of potters. Each with its own history and way of making pottery.  

But I was never cut out for commerce. As much as I was thrilled by travelling the dirt roads of Oaxaca enroute to ancient fiefdoms of clay, the buying, packing, paperwork and selling of the pottery did not feed my soul. It also hardly fed my belly. But I was utterly in love with the world I was exploring, the people I was spending time with and this magical ancient world that I was being welcomed into. I felt like something else wanted to happen here. 

It was in this state of mind and heart that I had a conversation with my friend Jeff, who has spent most of his life living outside the ordinary. He listened to me and proffered a very simple idea, “Why not offer a tour or a workshop to share these amazing sounding places you’ve come to know with Americans?”  

I thought it was a ridiculous idea. How would I do something like that? A tour? A workshop? I don’t know the first thing about such enterprises. What would you do with the people? How would you feed them? How would you take them around? How would you even find the customers in the first place? What if they got sick? Or didn’t like these places I love? Or…or…or?? 

“Ideas that are perfect for us stick with us even if we aren’t ready to see them”

Ideas that are perfect for us stick with us even if we aren’t ready to see them. Like an annoying insect that keeps buzzing around your head and no matter how much you flail and bat your hands at it, it won’t go away. I did that for about half a year with Jeff’s idea, both trying to chase it away while at the same time conjuring into imagination what such a trip might look like. 

And that’s how my first ever tour, err, workshop, the Oaxacan Pottery Workshop, came into being. It was 1996 and my idea was to take a small group of people down the dirt road to San Marcos Tlapazola and spend a week with Macrina, Alberta and family. At the side of these masters we’d learn step by step their ancient pottery way. 

Step number one was going to the fields beyond the village and digging the clay.  I absolutely loved this! Unlike the world I was from, where nearly everything was bought, prepared and came from some commercial source, in the old ways of making things, everything comes, for free, from the land around you. I wanted people to see this, to feel it, to live it. And I wanted people to feel the experience of being in a household of women who make pots, working at an easy pace, not concerned with making enough to pay their mortgage for they had none. Rather, concerned that they always had enough time in their day for being… being sisters and mothers and wives and hosts, as well as potters and the one who tends the chickens. 

I could feel what that tour/workshop was about with clearly in my heart, and kinda sorta see it all in my mind. So I built it and they came. Which brings us back to the beginning of our story. 

“Yes,”  I replied with a smile and a little chuckle, hopefully convincing enough to cover my wavering nerves. Fake it till you make it, right? “I’m your guide.” 

How’d it go? Well, the simplest way to describe that first ever workshop of a tour it is by saying there were tears in everyone’s eyes; ours, the potters and the clouds above when it was time to say goodbye with our fresh-made pots in our hands and a taste of a certain kind of timelessness in our blood. 

Tommy Wildcat and woman posing for a picture

Alberta Mateo Sanchez whips up a pot while Eric and a participant look on during one of our first Oaxacan Pottery Workshops. San Marcos Tlapazola, Oaxaca, Mexico.

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