As a translator, I always love those click-bait-y articles about words other languages have that we don’t have in English, and I even buy books of them, and I have to hold back using specific words I know in other languages when they would fit perfectly in conversation, filling a conceptual space that English can’t fill, for fear of sounding like a pretentious asshole. Like, what do I say when I want to tell my friend that I appreciate and recognize the hard work they put into their day, even though it had nothing to do with me, when I can’t say oktsukaresamadeshita? “I appreciate and recognize the reasons you are tired?” “…Um, thanks I guess.”
In Japan it makes sense to have a word for this: in collective society, it’s commonly understand that anyone’s efforts better the whole community and everyone encourages each other accordingly. We called it out to our coworkers at the end of the day, greeted our friends with it at the bar. In individualistic society, we only thank people for things that benefit us personally (which looks weird and self-centred after living in Japan). It can sound creepy to try and express non-Anglo concepts in English because we’re somewhat set in how we communicate and relate to each other’s lives in the Anglosphere, but in our own way. We have so many feelings people don’t commonly discuss because we haven’t collectively given them a name. Anyway, I digress, but for a reason. One word I feel like we need is that feeling of seeing something really beautiful and sad at the same time, like urban decay, something that makes you feel bad but still glad you saw it. The beautysads? Although a very present feeling for me in Mexico, I felt it extra hard in Atzompa. Check it out yourself and then you can message me and we can think of a better word for it.
On one of our last days in Oaxaca City, we took another taxi ride to this small town on the Ruta Mágica de las Artesanías: Santa María Atzompa. Atzompa is famous for green glazed clay and has been passing the craft from generation to generation for about 1,300 years. Atzompa is northwest of Oaxaca city, in the opposite direction of the other artisanal craft destinations on the ruta mágica. We took a bus for about eight pesos from near the Central de Abastos Oaxaca south of downtown, that had Santa María Atzompa written in marker across the windscreen.
As the creaky bus rumbled into town, we passed small clay workshops dotted between the colourful walls of the homes and comedores, unsure if there would be a definitive town centre where we should get off. Soon enough the bus stopped outside the official Mercado de Artisanias.
Inside were aisles of wooden shelving with clay goods for sale from various local artists, along with their names and addresses so that visitors can go to their actual workshops.
The main source of income for 90% of Atzompa’s inhabitants is making crafts, but the crafts sell for so little they’re practically free. El Chango guessed they used moulds to churn out large numbers of products and keep costs down, and we wanted to see the process for ourself. We decided to pick a workshop to visit, and chose the workshop of a Señora Enriquez whose name was posted above the most carefully crafted pig bowls the market had to offer.
Walking through the town, it didn’t appear that the craft market was booming. Men leaned idly against the walls of small shops and gangs of dogs padded past. I was, like I frequently am in small Mexican pueblos, the only woman outside.
We arrived at a metal gated group of homes and knocked. An old, tanned woman opened the door inwards, seeming surprised but pleased to have visitors. She was barefoot and wore a red and green floral apron with a flowing handmade skirt underneath, and her grey hair was tied back in a traditional long braid.
El Chango explained that we saw her address at the market and wanted to see more of her work. She said that she didn’t have much work to show us at the moment but that we were free to look around. She ushered us into the yard which was closed in on three sides by the family’s homes.
She explained that had already brought all her completed items to the market to sell. She showed us a few remaining items in various states of preparation on shelves between the buildings: brown clay pieces sitting out to dry for what would be about a week, an ornate glazed wreath with individuals flowers meticulously attached by wire, religious forms decorated with gleaming green flowers. Opened mouthed in amazement, we turned each item over, examining the carved details in our hands as she warmly explained how much more work each item had left.
On the flip side of this beautiful art was the realization that this woman did all this labour by hand and alone. En Chango was wrong about there being moulds; each mug, bowl and decoration is hand formed, fired, and glazed with great care over a long timeline, many cracking from the heat and ending up discarded.
Señora Enriquez explained that the local artisans cooperatively run the pottery market, taking turns selling the goods. They’ll make a new collection of items, bring it to the market, and then swap shifts with the people there, who in turn go home and make their own collections to bring back and sell.
Although we wanted to continue hanging out with this friendly artist and her not-so-friendly dogs, we left for the bus, and Señora Enriquez wished us blessings and urged us to come back anytime. We agreed that we would.
At this point we realized almost all the artisans we saw were older women. As we looked around, it became apparent the town’s women work long hours at this family craft they have mastered in return for small change, while also doing the cooking and cleaning, and the men mostly wander around outside until their meals are ready. Every time I am exasperated with my job, I can think about how easy I have it (at least El Chango knows how to cook).
Something unexpected about Atzompa is the feminist art painted onto the walls of the main street, something I haven’t seen much anywhere else in Mexico.
We left unable to believe that we had almost skipped this town full of beautiful art while generally feeling bad for the people creating it. We talked about how cool it would be to set up a non-profit that sell these carefully crafted pieces in other countries to help these artisans make a better living. I later found out it used to be a thing until the 90s when everyone found out the green glaze was made with lead monoxide and interest died out. In the 90s, lead-free glaze was introduced, but the international market for the town’s pottery never recovered. Doing research now, it doesn’t appear that all artisans use lead-free glaze, many preferring to stick to tradition. *slowly puts down green clay coffee mug* Next time I go back later this year, I’ll ask about that.