This weekend the Casa had the special privilege of visiting Zautla, Puebla, the home-base of the cooperative Tozepan Pankizaske. They are from a community in the Sierra Norte of the state of Puebla, although the majority of the producers live in Contla, a community just outside of Zautla. The cooperative has its roots in the Center for Rural Development Studies, CESDER (shown below). The center provides administrative, educational and financial support for various projects in the region, and helped to found the cooperative. We happened to be visiting during a workshop on Defense of Land and Human Rights, which many local campesinos were participating in as a response to recent struggles against foreign mining companies. Zautla itself is currently facing a struggle against the extractive industries. The participants of the workshop were mostly campesina women, many of whom were indigenous, and who shared their testimonies of exploitation and deception on the part of mining companies. One woman told the story of her community, which rests on a mountain with precious rocks. A mining company came and promised development and employment, and so the community agree to let them in. Years later, the community had still received no direct benefits from the mining company but the land was destroyed. The woman said, “our grandmothers cried, saying there was no reason to take those things from the land. The land belongs as it is and there was no reason to let them take it away from us.” It was an unexpected and moving experience to listen to these stories while taking in the fresh mountain air and understanding to what extent their livelihoods depend on their connection with a land that is not contaminated. Learning about the struggles for economic self-sufficiency in the region in this way- with a community organizing together for justice-was powerful and the setting made it that much more so. In the meeting some of the women worked on their handmade textiles, others shook their heads in sadness and many others still had not lost hope. I had also not to this point visited a community in Mexico which such strong ties to indigenous culture. Many people in Zautla that we met over the weekend spoke Nahuatl, and the philosophy and spirituality surrounding the cooperative also has distinct indigenous influences. (Tozepan Pankizaske means “Together We Will Grow” in Nahuatl). After visiting CESDER, we got an introduction and description of Tozepan Pankizaske and all of the producers that form its cooperative.
On Saturday, we went around to various communities visiting the people that make the marmalade, chiles, honey and recycled paper that we sell in the Casa through our point of sale. One of the highlights of the whole experience was to better understand how the cooperative works, what types of perspectives and experiences the people who make the products have, and above all to put a human face and story to the products we sell in the Casa.
The first woman we visited, Magdalena, has her chipotle canning micro-business on the road going out from Zautla toward Contla. It’s along a gorgeous stretch of road that winds between mountain and canyon. The corn and agave plants dominate the landscape with waves of yellow and specks of green.
When the bus let us off in front of her house, we’d never have imagined that it was the place from which all of our salsas and chiles comes from. It’s a modest concrete house with a stove, a table and many stacked boxes of canning supplies. In the time when Magdalena is not preparing canned chipotles and salsas, she works in the fields. She only prepares chipotles when she has to prepare an order with Pankizaske. With her other time, she works the land, and takes care of her children and her house. The chipotles workshop was infused with the smell of roasting chile. It was warm with the spiciness, a little haven of warmth from the brisk wind outside. Magdalena shared with us that when she first started working with the chiles she would get burned from the spiciness of the plant. Now she’s gotten used to it her hands are strong and used to it. As we sat listening to her story of how she got into canning chipotles and how she makes them, she brought out a bucket of tamales and said, “Eat.” We hobbled out of the door when it came time to go because we were so stuffed with homemade green and red chile tamales.
The next stop was the recycled paper and bakery workshop, combined in the house of a mother and son-in-law duo. Climbing up the road to their house, we were awestruck by the beauty of the valley and the sound of animals all around us. Arturo laughed and made fun of us (himself included), city-slickers that stopped to look at every moving and/or green object as if we’d never seen a cricket or heard the sound of a bird chirping in all of our lives. On the way, we bumped into a campesino and his wife who gave us a mini lesson in Nahuatl. They were intrigued to meet three travelers on the road to Contla (surely convinced we were lost), and especially one that looked like someone “he knew from television” (me) and who could speak English. It was 10 minutes into his animated introduction that we realized the jug of clear liquid he was carrying was in fact pulque, an alochol extracted from the agave plant, and he was in fact no quite sober. Still, he had all of us laughing. Once we learned “good afternoon” and “goodbye” in Nahuatl phrase, we continued along our way on the road toward Contla.
The second home we visited was equally as humble as the first, with a small garage space for drying paper, a small bakery, and a little room for packaging. The producer was really friendly and we tried to express to him how sincerely we live off of his cookies while in the reception. He gave us a little tour and we bought a hefty bag of his delicious baked goods and we were off to visit the woman that dehydrates dried herbs and spices such as mint, epazote, oregano, thyme and cilantro. There we saw her little grinder and dehydrator and were in a bit of a rush to make it to the thrill-seeking part of the trip: The visit to the beehives that make our honey!
I have to preface this part with the fact that I am no way comfortable around bees. I’ve never been stung, and for that reason am paranoid that I harbor an unknown deadly allergy. In considering where I want to settle and live the rest of my life, I have at times briefly contemplated cooler climates for the lack of these bothersome but-wholly-necessary-for- all-things-ecological creatures. But I put these fears aside and put on the bee suit. I must say I felt pretty okay in there. Also we had three factors in our favor for not getting stung in the process of extracting the honey. One was temperature–it was cool and cloudy, making the bees lazier and less active. We used a special device to blow smoke into their boxes before trying to take the honey, making them disoriented and less aggressive. Finally, we had the beekeeper suits, by far the #1 contributor to the fact we were able to enjoy (and survive) the visit. The colonies are up on a hill in another part of the hills outside of Zautla, in a tiny community with about 10 families.
Last but not least, we got to visit Don Willy, the producer of the marmalade the Casa serves at breakfast, and which the volunteers eat every day of the week. Like the other micro-businesses, the marmalade is made in a house, by a family operation, though this time we only had the chance to meet Willy and his daughter. He also makes fruit and herb based wines, which we had the chance to try–delicioso! Of the challenges Don Willy spoke of to his business were the seasonal limitations of producing marmalade and finding local markets for his products. Mangos and plums, for example, are of the most popular marmalade flavors, but they are only available for a few months of the year. Also, because of the artesenal quality of their “all-natural” product, it is more expensive that other brands available in the area. He also said there is less appreciation for such a product, and little money to pay the difference of what a larger brand can sell marmalade for.
Most of the producers in some moment mentioned the difficulty of working in a cooperative. There is at times internal strife, competition, and the difficulty of marketing and making an earning from ones labor-intensive work. When it comes down to it, these people are in fact running small businesses out of their homes, on top of other work, responsibilities, and with many financial limitations. At the same time they are making a great effort to produce environmentally conscious, natural products at an incredibly fair price. I will never taste our breakfast the same way after having met the people that put so many hours of their work, and so many sacrifices into trying to eke out a meager living. Hopefully it won’t be long before we will be back, or before we can invite some of the members of the cooperative to an event in the Casa! Thank you Pankizaske for an unforgettable weekend!