Zapotec: potter

Fernando Niño Castillo is a grandson of the famous Zapotec woman, Doña Rosa, who saved the black pottery of Oaxaca, called barro negro (black clay).

He lives in the village of Coytepec, just outside the city of Oaxaca. The pottery runs in the family, and in the whole village, for that matter. Everyone here is a potter of ceramics. Originally barro negro pottery was matte and grayish. It was used by the Zapotec nobles in Monte Albán and other kingdoms for 2,000 years or so. In this form, the pottery is very sturdy. In colonial times, it was traditionally used in the village to make large cántaros, tall vessels used for storing and transporting liquids, including mezcal. The Spanish introduced new techniques, for example the use of the potter's wheel and glazing ceramics, when colours and glazes are obtained by the use of oxides of metal and earth.

Turning a pot in the traditional way (without a wheel).

Turning a pot in the traditional way (without a wheel).

Cántaros (storage jars).

Cántaros (storage jars).

In the 1950s, Fernando’s grandmother Doña Rosa discovered that she could change the colour and shine of the pieces by polishing the clay and firing it at a slightly lower temperature. This innovation makes the pieces more fragile, but it has made the pottery far more popular with Mexican folk art collectors. It created new markets and saved the local pottery business. Fernando’s father continued the tradition. Another potter master who made a difference in the village is Carlomagno Pedro Martínez. He makes figures in the barro negro technique (skeletons, characters from festivals), a different take on this clay ‘industry’.

The bust of Doña Rosa in Fernando’s house and workshop.

The bust of Doña Rosa in Fernando’s house and workshop.

I met Fernando in February 2019 when we visited his house, which is open for demonstrations of this unique native technique. Fernando is a Zapotec, although he does not speak the native language, only Spanish. I think it is a pity. Oaxaca state has the largest percentage of indigenous Indians in the Western Hemisphere. They speak 52 dialects of eight distinct languages. It is sad to see some of them slowly dying. Apparently, in Mexico over recent years an estimated 130 languages have died out (of the 287). There are about 400,000 speakers of the Zapotec language left in Oaxaca. The Law of Linguistic Rights declares 68 indigenous languages are included among the official languages of the country (it means official documents are produced in those languages). It may not be so in practice but it is still quite a change from the 20th century, when speaking an indigenous language in a school environment was banned outright. The Mexican Constitution was amended in 2002 to reinforce the nation’s pluricultural nature. However, wherever I travel, I always ask if the local school teaches the children in their native language and this is so in very few places now. It is all up to the parents to keep the language alive.

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