Just outside of Oaxaca City, there survives a pottery town made up of 5,781 inhabitants who, despite their extreme poverty, still fight to sustain an activity inherited from centuries ago: the Oaxaca green pottery.
A scarce 9 kilometers to the northwest of Oaxaca City, located between plain and mountain, rests the colorful town of Santa María Atzompa with its rustic church with two towers, the square and the kiosk, the school, the half-built municipal palace, its humble houses of adobe and sheet, and its new market of handicrafts, pride of the community.
The black and abundant smoke from the ovens are at their thickest on Fridays while they are firing up jars, pots, comales, plates, cups and casseroles to be sold in the Oaxaca markets the next day.
Among the people of Atzompa, it is already a tradition, almost a rite that can not be broken, “do not work on Sunday, nobody makes a jug or turns on their ovens. That day the mud is not worked … just because not.”
However, on Saturday they want to sell the Oaxaca green pottery, and they are very busy, either from street vendors, occupying some place on the outskirts of the immense city market of Central de Abastos or in the south of town. They offer their crafts to anyone who comes to buy or just browse and admire up close the most original of their pieces: the green glaze.
The stalls, improvised with sheets of cardboard, asbestos and plastic patches, on an earthen floor, are out of tune with the beauty of the pottery that is exhibited on them. Two hundred potters, approximately, occupy a place in this Oaxacan plaza where they work this one day to make the week’s income to feed the family.
Fortunately, now they also have a handicraft market within their locality. This receives from Monday to Sunday a growing number of domestic and foreign tourists who admired the special green pottery art, acquire some pieces thus benefiting the economy of the town.
These craftsmen, who have spent hours and hours under a penetrating sun, kneading, creating step by step useful and beautiful objects and stoking the fire of the oven, survive with the sale of their green pottery and the little corn planted in a land not very apt for its cultivation. It is precisely this imperious need for subsistence that compels them, with no other alternative, to give in to bargaining and to squander what so much work meant for them.
The first task is to bring the pottery from the mines of San Lorenzo Cacautepec, located 4 kilometers from the town of Atzompa. Helped by a donkey that carries five or six buckets of this material, the artisans walk the path little by little through the footsteps of their grandparents, their own and by which their grandchildren will also walk.
Once at home, the men’s job is to break the mud tiles with a stick until they become a uniform mass, and then they add water so that the whole family, even its smallest members, begin the work the molding. By then, some of the women have already prepared breakfast, usually based on homemade tortillas, chili, beans and coffee, which may be the strongest food of the day.
The characteristic green color of this Oaxaca green pottery is achieved through the clay: powder that becomes a liquid substance when combined with water, to then impregnate it to the pieces one by one. This technique was taught by the cleric Alonso Figueroa in the 16th century, and it has been done from generation to generation with the same love with which it was received by the old settlers.
After their first firing of the Oaxaca green pottery, they still have the natural color of a whitish clay, and could perfectly withstand the daily grind of any kitchen. For this reason, a small percentage of the pieces are sold preserving their natural color, although at a very low price. However, in most cases this metallic green glaze is, in addition to a tradition, a necessity for the acceptance of buyers.
“The clay is very expensive, but if we do not throw it into the mud, people do not buy it; they like green “: Sara Juarez said innocently, without noticing that it is precisely this finish that turns her craftsmanship into a very unique work.
It has been almost 500 years that the art of working with green pottery began in this area: art that proudly belongs to Oaxaca, Mexico.