With the Mexico Adventure Complete…What’s Next?!

 My time in Mexico was nothing short of miraculous and special.  I learned and grew so much through the great number of both exceptional and ordinary experiences that I had.  My journey was a reality because of the ridiculous amount of support that I was provided.  I am grateful for having the opportunity because through it I gained a deep confidence in my expanding love and insights into the intersection between the kitchen, community, and learning.  I am inspired by this union because it is important to the health and life of every community.

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A holy combination of flavour

By the end of my short 10 month journey in Mexico, I knew that I could travel all around the world and I would find places that food, community and learning come together.  I could continue to explore these ideas by dropping in other peoples communities – but I felt driven to return to the land that I feels roots in and tied to, and offer my learning back. I know that I am not going to find the same relationship to food here in the Great Lakes Region as I did in Mexico, but I do know that there are people everywhere working very hard to create community spaces and projects that respond to food security and health and wellness needs, and often in creative and pioneering ways.  So I have faith that with my deep love and curiosity for the really cool ways that people organize, there are folks that I can collaborate with here. I returned from my journey motivated to participate in the movement that uses food to make awesome spaces that creatively facilitate learning, break the isolation of our imposed social organization, and make the world I want to live in.

I see giving back as the way to honour the lessons and love that were poured into me from so many folks while I tagged along to family functions, sat and met many market Señoras, and enjoyed spontaneous gifts – like the surprise small town wedding that I got invited to.  I feel the responsibility to share it all back out, so that all those great people in Mexico that invested their time and energy inviting me into their spaces, did so for a purpose greater than it just being a cool experience that I had. 

My next journey to Mexico will include some deep investigations into the magic of Mexico’s artisanal cheese industry

I have learned through my foundational experiences of participating in community spaces, that the success of a community project is connected to how much it really is a collective experience, something that wells up and springs from the expression and dreams of a community.  Horizontal and rooted in relationship, successful projects are not something that an expert (self-appointed or otherwise) flies in and imposes, or does, or creates for other people.  If you want to do good work – live it, don’t do it, especially to other people.

I am inspired by the possibility of how we can build health and healthy community through focusing on ways that we feed each other, eat together, and learn from each other.  I know that we can flourish when we connect with the land, cultivate our sustenance, and decolonize our diets.  Decolonizing is something that many of us are working to do in many aspects of our lives, and food is a foundational part of that work. When I refer to decolonizing I understand this concept to refer to the work of extracting our lives and those of our communities, from being designed by colonial and capitalist values.  Values that organize us so that we are each meeting our needs for life in repetitively isolated ways.

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There is some really cool reflective pieces out there considering the role of the market as it is organized for example in Mexico in promoting community relationships and the consumption of healthy (unprocessed) food that is predominantly local and seasonl

My interest in community food justice and food freedom is also formed by my interest in alternatives to education. I understand education as a socially constructed institution, and in a similar way to the organization of our systems for food production, I am interested in exploring critiques of the traditional colonial and capitalist systems of education and visions of what is possible.  The challenge is to design our lives and the possibilities in our communities that bring us into collaboration and harmony. I like to do that through education and food.

I think that doing good work necessitates us doing our our personal work, but real change – revolution- must be collectively driven. Social transformation and peace will not be realized by the altered circumstances of individuals.  I am not interested in finding an oasis, I’m interested in the ocean. 

I have very few answers but I have a lot of inspiration and a lot of questions.  The dedication that I feel is a result of nourishing my unique soul and viewpoint, and the faith that I have that learning and creating the world we want to live in can be the actual contribution that we make.  My journey was my way of further exploring the ways that we can learn in community.  I think that we can ask experts rather than professionals to support us, and learn through hands on engagement.  That is what I sought to do.  Learning because we are curious is one place to start, but so much more is possible if the values that govern the world we want to live in, inform the methods and organization of our daily life – and that includes what and how we learn. 

So what’s next…well a whole lot of interesting things!  Stay tuned.

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Cheers!

800 TAMALES A WEEK!

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Standing at attention, these tamales were waiting to be steamed

If you have never had a tamale before you might not know that they are literally one of the tastiest, economical, and healthy breakfast, lunch, or late night snacks that is out there.  One of the things that I love about Mexico is that the “fast food” is in the hands of the community.  Easily obtained from markets stalls, roadside stands, folks that ride mopeds honking through neighbourhoods much like an ice-cream truck, on buses, and of course in every grandmothers kitchen. Tamales are Mexico’s answer to the munchies – though always homemade and created from pure and nutritious ingredients.

Tamales are fragrant and varied, sometimes wrapping the homeny dough in corn husks and while other varieties are wrapped in plantain leaves.  The paste like dough is called masa, and is made from a variety of corn that is dried and ground for the tamale. Some tamales hold sweetened masa and others hold a saucy centre.  Tamales sauces can, for example, be a mole or a green or red sauce with meat…the possibilities and varieties of flavour are really actually endless.

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Tamales with mole sauce in the centre and wrapped in plantain leaves

The family with whom I traveled to the country side in the previous post, live in Oaxaca City, and like many hardworking folks they have multiple ways of cobbling together a living, which for them includes their very own tamale business.  Every week this family dedicates Thursday evening to Saturday morning making 800 tamales that they go and sell every Saturday afternoon and Sunday.  From a simple cement building attached to their home this family begins the process of soaking, cooking, and preparing the corn masa that makes the base for the tamales every Thursday evening at about 5pm.  Earlier that day, the fillings for the 8 different varieties that they produce have already been started so that they are cooled and ready to use when the assembly begins.  At 2am (yes – 2am) this family meets and begins making these tiny packages of love, a job that continues through until early evening.  Like a well oiled machine, each member of this tamale team has a special job, with the expertise of the entire enterprise resting on the matriarch of the home. 

What I learned…tamales are all about technique, and controlling a mountain of variables including how warm the masa is when spreading it on the leaves or husks; real tamales are made from scratch – the spices are dry roasted before being ground and added, the dry corn is soaked and cooked and milled immediately before use – in short there are no short cuts and the difference is felt and tasted; I learned to imagine a world in which grabbing a quick bite could be another way to engage in the traditions of the community and support the survival of its members.  There is no reason that we need to hand over the solutions for the very basic of human needs of sustenance to large for profit corporations.  There are as many models as there is imagination for how we can meet our needs for food, whether it is a quick bite or a formal meal, and in the process of satiating hunger, support the economic livelihoods of the members of a community, eat healthy traditional food, and live low to the ground and in harmony with the land. 

I don’t have any recipes to offer this week.  If you want to learn how to make a tamale I recommend going to Mexico, and if you have never tried one and your not in Mexico I recommend going to the local flea market or just the part of town that there are latin stores and asking around.  You will be hard pressed to find someone making the masa from scratch instead of the maseca version that requires on to add water to a pre-made mix, but start there!

The Tamale Making Process 

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Tamales are all about the corn. It is from this variety, known as hominy that the masa is made
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First the dried hominy is soaked in water (much like dried beans are). Then it is cleaned through rinsing and straining it several times.
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Lime is added to the cooking corn so that our bodies can digest it. It was this small detail (or lack of knowledge of it) that killed so many of the earlier colonizers.
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After it is finished cooking the hominy corn is ground. In addition to a small amount of salt, pig lard is added to the masa to bring lightness and flavour to it.
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All 7 of the different sauces that filled the tamales was made from scratch. The bean filling was made rich and velvety from cooking with avocado leaves among other spices.
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The chiles and jalapeño sauce being prepared in a traditional clay cooking pot, the cazuela
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The masa is spread lightly on the pre-soaked corn husks   
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The saucy fillings are added, and the tamale is folded up, ready to be steamed
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My favourite…the chicken mole tamale
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800 tamales is a lot of tamales
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The assembly line of tamale love
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Tamales are cooked by steaming them…seriously healthy good stuff here folks

CASA OLINKA: AN OSIS IN PUEBLA CITY

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Casa Olinka features plants in every possible combination of repurposed materials that you could imagine.

 

This is one of those projects that is just plain old inspiring and fun!  Located close to the local autonomous university of Puebla, Casa Olinka is a house converted to oasis, and is carving out a space for learning and community building.  Casa Olinka is filled with teeming gardens and projects in process, and is born from creativity and a commitment to living low to the ground, even in a big city.  By cultivating a space that prioritizes the use of repurposed materials (for example the vertical gardens are built from repurposed wooden skids), utilizes water catchment systems, and has a focus on cultivating culinary plants, they hope to lead by example and create a space for their community to meet, learn together, and implement changes that work towards protecting the environment.  The space offers workshops that share the skills being learned and put to use in this project; it features a Vegetarian kitchen that of course incorporates the gifts of their gardens as well as local and seasonal produce (and when in Mexico this happens to be varied yet always bountiful); and a gallery that hosts photographs from one of the proprietors as well as art from visiting artists – and has hopes to further build events and opportunities. And who is behind this project?  None other than the powerful mom and son duo of Alfredo (Alfo) and Señora Luz María Juarez.

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Vertical herb gardens made from a repurposed skid.
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With a focus on edible plants there are some real gems in this garden.

I was very fortunate to be invited to visit the project and to attend a great variety of workshops ans events during my stay in Puebla.  Visiting a project like this is the inspirational juice that makes life….well… hopeful, fun, and rich.

For more information or to connect with them yourself visit their Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/casa.olinka?fref=ts

One of my visits included a spectacular and simple meal, featuring stuffed portabello mushrooms, rice, and a salad that was dressed in a perfect melody of  tangy and fresh, bringing balance and light to the whole experience.  The real secret to what brought the meal to the next level though was the amazing people I shared it with and the hot sauce.  I’ve decided that these two ingredients are the secret to why everything tastes better in Mexico.

STUFFED PORTABELLO MUSHROOMS

First, start with making Salsa Mexican.

  • 6   roma tomatoes toasted/charred
  • 4  garlic cloves toasted/charred
  • 1  onion toasted/charred
  • 1/2 bunches cilantro
  • 25 ml lime juice

Process

  1. Charr the tomatoes, garlic, onion
  2. Use a blender to liquify all the ingredients.  Your goal is to leave texture and not turn it into soup. Add a little honey if it needs a little sweet.

Next, assemble the stuffed mushrooms….

  1. Clean and remove the stem from the mushrooms.  Grill them slightly.
  2. Fill them with the salsa.  Cook for 15 minutes in an oven at 350 F until the mushrooms are fully cooked
  3. Top with Oaxacan cheese or mozzarella if you can’t locate the good stuff (or really any cheese of your liking) and return to oven until it is melted. Turn on your broiler if you want to melt it quick and perhaps even brown it a little.

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THE HOTTEST MOST AMAZING SALSA DE CHILE ARBOL 

Chile arbol is really hot and has the possibility of really deep flavour.

  • 1 cup of peanuts no salt and untoasted.
  • 1 cup of chile arbol with the stems removed.
  • 3/4 cup olive oil (or more if you like)
  • salt to taste

Process

  1. Put peanuts in a dry frying pan and toast. 
  2. Wrap chiles in tinfoil and toast on a flat top, bbq, or in a cast iron fry pan (make sure heat is low to control the rate of toasting.  Turn once to toast both sides.  They are done when they are browning NOT black, and when you open the tinfoil and the fumes make you chock with their fiery heat. 
  3. Grind together in a molcajete or in a food processor if you don’t have/can’t work the molcajete….but with salsa’s it is traditionally known, and true that a salsa from the molcajete tastes better, always.
  4. Once ground in a chunky textured paste, stir in the olive oil and salt to taste (about a teaspoon)

 

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The meal!
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Spiral herb gardens are just one of the wonders that you can expect to greet you at Casa Olinka.

 

MAKING FRIENDS AT THE MARKET

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In making my plan to spend time n Mexico learning technique, flavour, tradition, and the intersection of community, learning, and justice in the kitchen, I hoped that I would spend time meeting Señoras in the marketplace with the intention to learn from them.  In all reality I just spent a lot of time in markets, and did my best to make friends.  My time with these women who were experts in all areas of my interest, were the moments that brought some of my richest learning and hilarity.

At the outer edges of a small local market in Puebla, I met Señora Edith.  A beautiful woman that rounded in at about 4 feet tall, wore a toothless grin that always managed to come off as mischievous, and with whom I often sat down beside and waited while she enjoyed one of her many daily naps. She indulged me in entire afternoons sharing her life history and secrets of the kitchen. Señora Edith, at her small market stand filled with overripe fruit and vegetables, offered me a lifetimes worth of advice – some of which pertained to the kitchen.  She also sold the most amazing sweet and fiery hot accompaniment for – well anything that calls for such a dressing, but my favourite occasion is plain roasted meat, or using my altered version, spreading it on a cracker topped with cheese. The mild fresh cheeses of Mexico made the most beautiful and smooth combination for my palate. It is no joke that on Saturday afternoons Poblano folks traveled from near and far to this tiny market for her magic chile love.

SEÑORA EDITH’S SWEET FIERY LOVE

  • 15 dried chipotle or modita chiles.  They should have a smokey smell and be of the dark variety.
  • 2.5 – 3 cups olive oil (the oil should land a good inch above all the ingredients once inside the pot)
  • 2 heads of garlic, cloves peeled and rough ends chopped off.
  • 1 cup of brown sugar or more to taste.  Remember sweet and fiery is the point.

Process

  1. Remove the stems from the chiles (you can take the seeds out as well if you want to tone it down a notch).
  2. Put the olive oil in a smallish pot and add the chilies and the skin and ends removed garlic cloves.
  3. Turn on low and let warm for an hour (chiles and garlic should be good and soft.
  4. Add sugar until disolves
  5. Salt to taste
  6. Señor Edith sold it as is, but I like to blend and strain it through a fine sieve so that it has the consistency of jam.

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Adobo

Dried chile heaven at the Cinco de Mayo market in Puebla. Chiles are the foundation of many dishes including the adobo
Dried chile heaven at the Cinco de Mayo market in Puebla. Chiles are the foundation of many dishes including the adobo.

By the time I got to my dear friends home in Puebla, I was ready to start cooking.  So we threw a party.  What better way to get feedback on your creations?  It was also a wonderful opportunity to hear the stories of food, family, and community that every person formed from this culture seems to hold.  And this was my excuse to explore the Adobo and the markets.

An Adobo is one of the fundamental types of sauces in Mexican cuisine.  It varies greatly in flavour, colour, and thickness, but the basic structure of the dish is made up of dried chiles (a combination or selection of Guajillo, Ancho, Pasilla), tomatoes, spices, and vinegar.  In this sauce the meat (or tofu/beans/lentils if you prefer) is marinated and then cooked long and slow.  Traditionally, adobos are cooked in a cazuela, which is a clay pot said to improve the flavour as it retains sazón over the years.  Pork and chicken are the most common meats to find in this dish.  It is common to serve the dish with finely chopped onions and lime and accompany it with rice, beans (refried or whole) and of course tortillas. 

When making an adobo you want to keep a few things in mind…  

1. The flavour before and after cooking the adobo changes a lot!  The bitterness of the chiles will transform into a deep flavour that is cut by the vinegar and the warmth of the meat cooked in the sauce.  

2. Use meat with bones on it.  Incase you didn’t know, these have huge amounts of flavour and nutrition to add to your dish.  Also use real pig lard if you can; real flavour, real nutrition.  Watch for my coming rant on why we should be eating more pig lard and less processed oil and ugh margarine. 

3. Add your final salting at the end….cause otherwise, ouch the reduction of the sauce can leave you with a super salty dish.

4. Processing the dried chiles is the bedrock talent of this dish.  If you burn them…start over.

5. There are two basic preparation methods.  The first includes browning the meat and then marinating it.  The second is to cook the meat in a stock which will be incorporated into the sauce.  I have included a recipe using each method below.  Each of these recipes also features different flavour profiles.  The first is my own take after much experimentation and feedback.  The second is inspired by a cookbook and altered by my own taste

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IMG_0252Guajillo, Ancho, Pasilla Chile Adobo

  • 18 guajillo chiles (the thiner ones have less heat kick to them)
  • 5 ancho chiles
  • 3 Pasilla chiles
  • 1 medium head of roasted garlic
  • 12 roasted roma tomatoes
  • 2 Tbsp of dried oregano
  • 2 tsp powdered cumin
  • 1/2 tsp dried thyme
  • 5 laurel leaves
  • 12 fresh avocado tree leaves or more if they are dried
  • 1 Tbsp of white vinegar
  • 1 Tbsp salt
  • meat with bone: pig or chicken is best.  This quantity of sauce is enough for 10 meat portions.
  • Pig lard or oil.

Method

1. Process the chiles.  This is an important process to understand how to do many dishes in Mexican cuisine.  It is an art, but we all can start somewhere. 

Step A. Remove all the seeds and veins, and any of the stem.  You only want the leathery beauty of the chile itself.  I have found using scissors for this very useful.

Step B. Heat a small bit of oil of choice in a fry pan.  Use an oil that won’t carry a flavour…grapeseed is always my personal choice because it is flavourless and is happy at high temperatures (doesn’t turn carcinogenic like some others). Heat the pan to medium high heat.

Step C. At the same time have a pot of soft boiling water ready.

Step D. A few at a time, fry the chiles.  Use tongs and turn and remove, putting in the pot of water.  Be very careful not to burn them.  You are aiming to cook them about 10 seconds or less.  You only want to release the flavour, golden them…but it is so easy to burn them, and if this happens start again.

Step E. Cook the chiles in the water a few minutes to soften. Reserve the liquid

2. Roast the tomatoes and garlic.  If you have a gas stove just roast the tomatoes over direct flame and the garlic in a dry pan.  If not you can do it in the oven (cover the tomatoes and garlic in a touch of oil).  Don’t worry about peeling…your going to liquify and strain them anyways. 

3. Toast the avocado and laurel leaves in a dry pan, about 15 seconds each side.

4. Liquify everything together.  Add liquid that the chiles were cooked in as needed.  You want a sauce that is liquid but not watery.  It will cook down with time

5. Brown the meat on high heat quickly.  Add to adobo and marinate. 

6.  Remove meat.  Heat a few tablespoons of pig lard in your pot on medium heat.  Add the sauce.  Cook, stirring constantly for 5 minutes.

7. Add the meat.  Turn the heat to low…as low as possible.  Cover so a little bit of steam can leave, check on it from time to time and stir.  Add more liquid as necessary, but in the end the sauce should be thick.

8. Cook for several hours.  The meat should be at the point of falling apart soft.  Add the final salt adjustment.

Adobo in the style number 2.  It tastes far better then my photo might indicate.
Adobo in the style number 2. It tastes far better then my photo might indicate.

Pork Adobo

Ingredients

  • 2 kg of pork with bone
  • 1 white onion cut in 4
  • 1 garlic head split up
  • 4 liters of water
  • 3 tsp salt
  • 16 guajillo chiles
  • 4 ancho chiles
  • 4 roma tomatoes
  • 1/2 white onion
  • 15 garlic cloves pealed
  • 2 tsp of cumin seed
  • 1 tsp dried oregano
  • 1/2 tsp black pepper seed
  • 4 cloves seed
  • 3 Tbsp pig fat
  • 1/2 cup white wine
  • 1 Tbsp white vinegar

Method

1. In a large pot add the meat, onion, garlic, water, salt and bring to a soft boil to make a stock.  Continue to cook until the meat is soft (an hour or so).

2. Process the chiles, but add the chiles to the stock for its last 10 minutes to soften.

3. Separate out the meat and chiles and strain the stock.

4. Roast the tomatoes, onion, and garlic. If you have a gas stove just roast the tomatoes over direct flame and the garlic in a dry pan.  If not you can do it in the oven (cover the tomatoes and garlic in a touch of oil).  Don’t worry about peeling…your going to liquify and strain anyways. 

5. Liquify the roasted tomatoes, onion, garlic.  Strain.

6. Separately, liquify the chiles. Add stock as needed.  The sauce should be thick but be strained with encouragement. Strain.

7.  In a dry pan, dry roast the cumin, pepper, and clove.  The idea is that the pan is on a high medium heat, you add the seeds and keep them moving by shaking the pan.  Cook for about 30 seconds and remove from the pan right away.  Turn them into powder in your preferred method. 

8. Add the pig fat to the pot of choice (deep with thick bottom are important features) on medium heat.  Add the liquified and strained chile sauce.  Reduce heat and let bubble for 15 minutes. 

9. Add the tomato sauce, the spices. Cook until reduced a little.

10. Add the meat, wine, vinegar, and 3 cups of the stock.  Put a cover on that lets out a little steam.  Either cook on a low flame for 2.5 hours or in the oven for an hour on low. 

11. Add the final salting at the end.

Día de los Muertos: Food and Mutual Aid

Some of the wall murals in Zaachila.
Some of the wall murals in Zaachila.

Please understand that I am new to Mexico, and this post is really truly just a reflection, made from my inadequate understanding of a celebration with many layers of significance and ritual. I am including a post about it because I was struck by how deeply preparing food and eating communally is woven into the fabric of celebration within the many cultures here in Mexico.  

Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) is a celebration and communion with ones ancestors and loved ones that have left this world.  It seems designed to bring colour and light to the shadows of soul as well as buildings homes and graveyards, in the most artistic and dramatic manner.  Oh, and did I mention that food is at the centre of all this too?!  The smell of sweet breads and mole was everywhere.  Alters constructed both publicly and privately to honour the dead, are adorned with oranges, beer, mezcal, bread encrusted with candy skulls, tamales, and chocolate…oh the chocolate…and flowers.  Mountains of flowers.  There is a soft mix of smells everywhere. This is both a very private celebration within churches, homes, and kitchens, but it is also very public and shared within streets and cemeteries.

A blockade expressing anger for the 43 disappeared students.
A blockade expressing anger for the 43 disappeared students.

Characteristically a joyful acceptance of the cycles of life, this years celebration also included expressions of palpable rage that threw light onto the shadow of the 43 students that disappeared at the hands of state forces in September.   These students were remembered very publicly.  Not declared dead and therefore not to be mourned in the way of the dead, but the pain of their loss brought clearly into the actions of everyone and everything passing.

On the eve of the Day of the Dead I arrived in Oaxaca City, which is renowned for many things including its celebration of this festival. I tagged along with a group of university students, one of whom had invited us to experience and engage in this beautiful celebration on the land of his childhood home.  Now vacant, this house became our communal space of rest, conversation, laughter, and of course cooking. I was honoured to be invited into the public and private spaces of this celebration by people proud to share their culture. 

Wall murals in Zaachila.
Wall murals in Zaachila.

On the Day of the Dead our group travelled to a neighbouring village, Zaachila, known for its veneration of their ancestors through celebration and art.  Annually, the walls of the town are converted into murals…folding into one another, there is no space that isn’t included in the elaborate and magnificent shades of death and mourning depicted on the walls.  There was also a children’s art show, live music, a carnival, a parade, and of course food everywhere.  As we meandered through the streets we stopped at one of the many stations that were serving hot chocolate, tamales and sweet bread.  These stations clearly powered by the community itself, a mix of women and families, young children running to a fro in total jubilation to be of service.  And it is all free.

Eating together at one of the many free food stations.  Everyone eating keeps the dead happy!
Eating together at one of the many free food stations. Everyone eating keeps the dead happy!

One can only imagine the time and energy that goes into preparing the food for such large scale festivals, and as I was to come to understand soon, it is only because of the highly practiced skills of mutual aid amongst community members that any of it is possible.