Water and culture shock in Mata Ortiz, Mexico

articles Living, Working, Retiring

Michael Allan Williams

Juan Mata Ortíz is a small village of potters, farmers and cowboys in Northern Chihuahua. About 30 years ago, an unschooled artistic genius, Juan Quezada, taught himself how to make earthenware jars in a method used hundreds of years ago by the prehistoric inhabitants. Now, his works are known worldwide and over 300 men, women and children in the village of less than 2000 make decorative wares. Much of the polychrome and blackware is feather light and exquisitely painted.

Many of the potters are also cowboys and farmers. These stories serve to document the art and the people in this unassuming pueblo, which is often called “magical” by the relative handful of tourists who visit. Enjoy this other view of Mexico — Michael Williams.


It’s good stuff. We can drink it, wash with it, swim in it, toss it on our grass and flowers. I feel positively grungy in the morning if I can’t shave with it. H 20 is a good thing.

I spent the first 40 years of my life in the Great Pacific Northwest – Vancouver, British Columbia, to be specific. There, we had a tendency to take water for granted. Our picture window faced Burrard Inlet, the salty entrance to that pristine city. Even when I looked out our back windows into the yard, I saw water. It seemed to always be falling from the sky, quenching the lawn, forming rivulets through the garden, soaking the dog who later needed toweling off.

Moses wandered the Sinai Desert for 40 days and 40 nights. In Vancouver, one late winter/early spring, Vancouverites wandered the streets for over 50 gray days of almost continuous rain. I was a teacher there at the time. When the sun finally chiseled a hole in the clouds, I was reminded of a Ray Bradbury story about rain and I allowed my kids to run outside for a glimpse of blue. They all staggered back in the door blinded by the light.

In Mata Ortíz, we don’t take water for granted. With little mechanized irrigation it is literally the staff of life for the fields of corn, beans, alfalfa and wheat. For drinking, we pump the sweet liquid from several artesian wells. The adage of, “Don’t drink the water” does not apply to us. I take “bottled water” from my tap back to the United States. And it’s cheap. For $10 NP (about $1.25 US) a month, we can drink, bath, douse the plants, shave – and make ice cubes for the evening’s rum and Coke.

At least we could, until the Water Guy got fed up trying to collect ten overdue bills last summer. Seems these families (all but one are among the elite in the village) had dragged their collective feet on water payments for over two years. The ten peso tab had mushroomed to 240 pesos – more, in some cases.

The solution was simple. Water Guy shut off the supply for the whole town. Stopped the pump, just like that. Much easier than going around and locking the taps on the streets in front of the ten malcriados. Besides, where is one to get ten padlocks? So, without warning, the whole town lacked potable water. (The fields still received their scant daily ration from the meager offerings of the river.) Coverings were removed from the shallow wells many villagers have in their yards, and this served for washing. But for drinking and ice cubes? Better drive 27 miles for the bottled stuff, or only drink beer.

Substituting Tecate for Ron Palmas and Coke was a minor inconvenience. My little inn had eight guests arriving in three days and I anticipated showers sin agua. Naturally, the days were getting hotter by the hour. I imagined aromas wafting around our dining room table that had nothing to do with cooking.

My friends, Dora and her 21-year old daughter Sulema, are very public-spirited. They took it upon themselves to obtain the list of delinquents, and then the two women visited each one, imploring them to pay up. Not a bite.

“Dora,” I said one morning over coffee made with well water nuked forever in her small microwave, “this is a culture shock for me. On the Other Side (as they refer to the US) this could never happen. The whole town would be up in arms. Why don’t the men just go to each home and demand the people pay up?”

A shrug of shoulders. “The men don’t want to get involved.”

“So, what will happen?”

“Quien sabe? Who knows?”

Days pass. Sticky and stickier days. The river is beginning to look inviting, but I decide I might emerge dirtier than when I dipped. After all, there are several smaller villages upstream.

The morning our guests were to arrive I was talking to Dora again. Still no one had paid, but she had some good news. “In two more days they are going to turn the water back on, even if the families haven’t paid.”

“But, Dora,” I reasoned, “if these guys know the water will be turned on soon they aren’t going to pay. Why not just turn the water on today?”

“Quien sabe?” Another shrug.

While I was sitting in her kitchen, confused and carefully sipping more atomic coffee, our guests from Arizona arrived at the inn. Our cook, Marta, tore off her apron, donned her superhero cape and marched up the hill. A little later, I returned home and my heart sunk as I saw the cars in our small parking lot. The tourists were here! What would I say to them — “The good news is we have lots of bottled water and beer; the bad news is you don’t want to sit near each other for two days.”

Marta, now back, bustled across the courtyard from the kitchen to intercept me at the gate. “We have water!” she announced proudly.

“What happened, Marta, I thought we had to wait two more days?”

“Well, when the guests arrived I went to the Water Guy. I said we had Gringos at the Posada and we had no water. He said, ‘That’s embarrassing,’ and went and turned it on.”

I ran to the kitchen. Sure enough, we had a gusher. I drained a cup. Better than Evian.

Wiping my mouth and looking at the still beaming Marta, I thought, Her solution was simple. Why didn’t I think of it?

Published or Updated on: January 1, 1997 by Michael Allan Williams © 1997


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