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 ollas, earthenware jars, by 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, an art that is often called “magical” by the relative handful of tourists who visit. Enjoy this other view of Mexico.
I have become less squeamish over the years in Mata Ortíz. Some of the effete culture we live in, with all our food packaged in cellophane, neatly cut and prepared for consumption, has been weaned out of me. All in the name of anthropology, of course.
The first Thanksgiving the Posada de las Ollas was open, I brought down two guests from Phoenix with the promise that they would have a true Thanksgiving feast when we arrived. I consulted with the manager, Lalo Heras, by telephone and emphasized the importance of this meal in American culture. “Obtain a nicely-sized turkey,” I ordered. “I will prepare it.” During the trip from Arizona, I worried. What if he forgot the turkey? What if it was too small? What if he hadn’t started to thaw the bird? Visions of a thankless Thanksgiving danced in my head as I crossed the mountain pass from Sonora to Chihuahua.
When we arrived in Mata, Lalo’s wife Rosa situated the two ladies in their room as I made a mad dash for the refrigerator. I opened the door to find . . . no turkey!
” ¿El pavo?” I asked.
“Venga, Come,” Lalo said, smiling. Curiously, I followed my gerente out the front door, across the street, through the gate and into his corral where he stopped between the woodpile and the laundry line.
“Well?” I inquired.
“There,” Lalo pointed to a corner of the yard where a tom turkey pecked hungrily at the dirt. I felt like an idiot. I had expected to find a plucked, cleaned and thawing bird in the refrigerator, not a meal on the hoof.
“Want to watch me kill it?” Lalo asked mischievously.
Another time, I visited María Gallegos to order a brace of rabbits for dinner the following night. To my horror, the price varied depending on whether or not I wanted them alive, dead but not skinned and cleaned, or fully dressed for the meal. In each case, as I have noted in ” Eating the Guest of Honor,” I thought that I did not want to get personally involved with my dinner.
Once, a friend and I passed by a house where a pig was about to be slaughtered. My friend wanted to watch. I left him there and moved on, trying to close my ears to the terrified protests (of the pig, not my friend).
But, I have evolved, as it were. While riding one day, I saw kids about to kill a rattlesnake with stones. I protested until they pointed out that the viper’s venom killed calves. I watched as they did the reptile in. I have even hunted wild dogs on horseback, after being told they attacked cows, calves and even posed a danger to young children.
My friend, Jesus Velóz (with the beard) makes the world’s best chicharrones.
“It’s all in the temperature of the oil,” he told me one day.
So, it was with no surprise that I finally watched the killing of a pig for some celebration or another. Cows you shoot for barbacoa, pigs you skewer with a thin sharp knife. I didn’t know why the difference before the act, but formulated a theory after the event. (My Mexican friends couldn’t tell me; they just shrugged and said, “That’s the way we do it”).
The evening’s meal was ushered into a corral and surrounded by several men. With much squealing by the pig and grunting by the men they wrestled the beast onto its side. The specialist slid his blade into the jugular vein, severing it. While the porker’s lifeblood poured onto the sand in a widening stain, one of the men ambled over to me.
“Disgusting, eh, Mike,” he said apologetically.
“No, Chago,” I replied. ” Eso es la vida, that’s life .”
They kill cows with bullets, I’ve decided, because it is more difficult and dangerous to wrestle them to the ground, or hold them still to slit their throats. Something about those long sharp horns. For a pig, why waste the bullet?
I ate and enjoyed the dinner that night without a thought for the donor of the meal. Part of my evolution, I guess. Pork is always prepared with a chile colorado sauce. While delicious, it does disguise much of the taste of the pork. I would love to see a whole hog rotating on a spit over a pile of hot coals. Now, that would be sabrosa!
I wonder what the pig would think?