Text and photos by Russell Rodríguez, Apprenticeship Program Manager
February 13, 2013

Language continues to be one of the most wonderful indicators of culture at the same time that it solidifies certain barriers between groups and peoples.  ACTA has recognized this conundrum since its inception, nevertheless, the ACTA staff has always searched ways to connect with non-English traditional artists.  In 2009 ACTA realized a potential to broaden its reach in various sectors and by 2010 the Alliance moved forward to hire a new program manager, who was to fulfill a need for Spanish language bilingualism and, as well, have a background in public and community health.  Nayamín Martínez Cossío was integrated into ACTA as a result of this effort, which proved to be highly productive.  ACTA has since translated various materials such as guidelines, announcements, and internet webpages into Spanish.  Martinez’ efforts have also led ACTA in providing outreach gatherings and other types of meetings in Spanish or with simultaneous interpretation.  The results have been a rise in applicants for core programming from the Spanish-speaking communities throughout California.  Of these applicants, two from the town of Madera, California, were awarded Apprenticeship Program contracts in 2012. One of which focused on Mixtec medicinal practices and the other on the food processes of Mole Oaxaqueño.

Standing at about 5 feet 3 inches, master artist Juana Gomez of Juxtlahuaca, Oaxaca, ascertains a larger than life presence when she speaks of the Mexican indigenous experience in the United States.  She illuminates the trauma, the hardships, and juxtaposes them with the incredible power of cultural knowledge, art, and practice that contributes to the well-being of those that have disconnected from their homelands.  As a community healer, she works with natural ingredients (herbs, flowers, leaves, roots) to formulate remedies for the ailments with which community members deal.  She currently is mentoring her daughter Johanna, passing down the knowledge of the different qualities of plants and herbs with which she works.

She explains that she respects the medical practices of the United States and encourages people to go to the clinics first, before coming to see her for consultation.  When they do come to see her, she begins by telling her clients they must have faith and want to be well.  Working with migrants from Oaxaca and other parts of Mexico and Central America, she explains to them that they have worked so hard and struggled so much to arrive to where they are — that they must have the faith and desire to celebrate their achievements.  Oftentimes working with people who are disconnected from families and community, she offers the service of listening — recognizing that many ailments of her compatriots stem from depression and trauma.  She continuously studies to learn more about the types of plants, flowers and herbs, which are locally available and to learn more about nutrition, which is foundational to a person’s well-being.

For more information on Juana Gomez, see Immigrant Artists, Culture and Community Health: ACTA at Grantmakers in the Arts.

Master artist Guadalupe Herrera of Putla, Oaxaca, is a mayordoma (supervisor) working in agriculture in the San Joaquin Valley, who is developing a steady reputation for her food preparation of Oaxacan Mole.  While she can prepare other food dishes and could most definitely establish a catering service, she commits to Mole — a traditional Mexican sauce that is processed from a variety of fruits, vegetables, herbs, spices, grains, bread, nuts, chocolate, and chiles, all of which are ground by hand (as in the case of Herrera) on a metate (a grinding stone) into a paste.  The paste is then placed in a large cazuela (clay pot) over a fire to be fried and liquefied into a sauce that must be continuously stirred through the process.  Herrera’s apprentice and daughter, Onelva Herrera, confirms the process is both physically hard and complex as she explains the investment when peeling chiles and grinding down the ingredients to create the paste.  Herrera is gaining popularity in the Madera region and has been contracted to provide mole for large gatherings.  However, because of the extensive list of ingredients and process of hand grinding, she must charge accordingly as compared to preparing a dish such as birria (goat stew) or chile verde (green chile and pork stew), in which ingredients are prepared and then stewed, which takes much less physical work and time.  So, it is considered somewhat of a luxury to provide a large gathering of guests a meal of mole, thus positioning the host well within a community.

Gomez and Herrera, two indigenous women, who grew up speaking Mixteco and learned Spanish as a second language, are new to the arts world, yet they represent a long history, culture, and tradition that has migrated with the Oaxaqueños to the counties of Fresno and Madera, and other parts of California where it is conservatively estimated that over 100,000 Mixtecos live today.  Many home arts and traditions such as embroidery, knitting, jewelry making, iron and tin work, not to mention music, dance, and poetry are rich within these communities and ACTA is working hard to locate these master artists in our own backyard, to provide meaningful support so that these cultural practices and expressions do not fade away.