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Canku Ota

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(Many Paths)

An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America


September 6, 2003 - Issue 95


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A Journey to Culican: Quinto Encuentro Yoreme Sinaloa

by Kimberly R. Stevenot
credits: Basket Elsie McLaughlin (Yurok)
Basket Elsie McLaughlin (YurokHow many Basket weavers and family members can you fit into a 1960 Volkswagon van?

We began our journey early on the morning of May 26th all arriving for departure from Sacramento International airport. Passports, birth certificates, photo ID’s, baskets and materials in hand. Destination: Culiacan, Mexico. Purpose: To take part in the multi-cultural indigenous peoples cultural festival a.k.a. Quinto Encuentro: Yoreme Sinaloa.

We were invited to participate through the California Arts Council and the Mexico/Sinaloa Arts Council (Sinaloa is a state in Mexico). This would be the first time that traditional California basket weavers would participate. The Smithsonian would also be present to document the event, which with luck CIBA would share in the recognition. This being the fifth year of the festival, it has grown in size and participation among vendors, demonstrators and the general public of Culiacan and surrounding areas. The festival this year focused on traditional dance. Festival coordinators wanted to include other forms of art to feel out the climate for future festivals.

Which brought five of CIBA’s members together to bravely travel to foreign soils to share our art. (I say bravely because of the heightened security of the country when we began our journey). Weavers Jennifer Bates, Tina Johnston, Susan Campbell, Eva Salazar and myself made this journey. (I have to admit, I was coerced by my sister and husband to accompany her, and I’m glad they twisted my arm). Susan’s daughter, Mylah also joined us, as did Charlie, Jennifer’s husband and Eva’s husband JB and their beautiful children. Mylah flew with us, the remainder of the group drove down from San Diego. Eva has family in Mexico they wanted to visit and JB wanted to go shopping. Which left us without any translators until our arrival in Culiacan. The only one among those of us flying who knew any Spanish was Tina Johnston, she passed one year of college Spanish with soaring grades. She didn’t let on to this fact until we arrived in Culiacan. I think she was amused at our attempts to communicate with the nationals.

After a few minor difficulties with proper papers and documentation* we were finally checked in and we were off to board our flight. Our first destination was a two hour stop over in Phoenix. Being that I was a late addition to the group my ticketing was a bit more complicated than the others. When we arrived in Phoenix I had to collect my luggage, collect my e-ticket at the AeroMexico ticket counter and go through security to our connecting flight to Hermosillo. Easier said than done, after going out in the sweltering Arizona heat, a mere 110, to catch the shuttle to Terminal 1- Delta/AeroMexico, from Terminal 3- American West, only to be sent back to Terminal 1, AeroMexico, we were all totally exhausted. The exhausting trek was worth the effort in the long run of things. When I was checking in I requested adjoining seats for our group, at this time we found that Mylah had a small problem with her documents. The wonderful ticket agent at AeroMexico accommodated us and cleared Mylah through Immigration in Mexico. We only had to find Pedro at Immigration when we arrived in Hermosillo. Poor Mylah thought for sure she was going to be sent home.

Our two hour layover in Hermosillo was cut short to about an hour after going through Customs and Immigration and waiting in line with the dozen others looking for Pedro. One hour seems like forever when you are the foreigners. It is even a longer time when you haven’t eaten anything but airline peanuts and juice since leaving Sacramento. If any of you know me, you know I don’t go anywhere unless I’m well supplied, the trick was getting the goods from the right luggage. During our remaining hour we shared crackers, peanut butter, from a tube no less, cheese sticks and bottled water. Seems we all had apprehensions about drinking local water. This would hold us until we arrived at our hotel and hopefully some real food. As my dear friend Denise Davis always says,
“You’ve got to keep those baskets fed!”

(*Note: If you plan on doing any traveling abroad or below the states any time soon you might want to talk to any one of these travelers for the details of our foray).

The flight from Hermosillo to Culiacan is about an hours length. Upon our approach to Culiacan we were amazed at the size of the city. Culiacan is one of the oldest cities in Mexico, settled in 1517. It is the capitol of the state of Sinaloa. Sinaloa boasts as Mexico’s beef capital and is also known for the quality produce grown there, among other products. Many of the produce you find in your local markets in California may actually come from this region during California’s off seasons.

Upon our arrival in Culiacan we were soon greeted by our hostess, Lara and our driver, Chano. Both employed by the Arts Council of Sinaloa to accommodate our needs during our visit. Arriving at the hotel we only had to check in with the Yoreme Sinaloa desk, everything was taken care of. We dropped off our luggage in our rooms and met downstairs to eat at the hotel restaurant.

When we walked into the restaurant we soon realized we were the only women present, we wondered if this was culturally acceptable. Lovely Lara, (great resemblance to Selma Hayeck) came to our rescue. She informed us it was okay, they were just businessmen doing business. Mexicans eat their main meal normally between 2 pm and 5 pm in Mexico. Eating a meal this late was not common, but we were starving. Which brought us to our next hurdle, reading the menu. Some items were easily recognized if you passed high school Spanish, others were as foreign as we were. Lara translated the dinner menu and explained the breakfast buffet served in the morning. We ordered and ate the most wonderful Mexican meals for less than $5.00 each. Not one meal resembled what is served in California as Mexican.

The following day was basically a day to adjust to the climate. The temperature was near 98 degrees and the humidity was near 80% if not more. This was going to take some getting used to. This is early springtime in Culiacan, summer months it is much hotter and even more humid. We visited the festival site and were warmly greeted by the festival site director, Roberto Balcazar. We were shown where we would be installing our exhibit and where we would be seated for our demonstrations. Business taken care of, we had other items on our agenda. We needed to find a store for some much needed items forgotten or as in Sue’s case, she needed a foam pad to place on the rock hard mattress at the hotel, Tina needed some cooler clothing. Our driver and hostess take us to, of all places, Walmart! I have to admit this is one of the cleanest, most organized Walmarts I have ever stepped into, imagine that! Visiting the local open marketplace later that afternoon was a whole new experience for all of us. Talk about culture shock. There were rows upon rows of fresh meats and fowl, fresh produce, bakery, spices and fresh fish all under one roof. The whole area took up one city block. Needless to say a few members of the group didn’t get past the entrance. They much preferred to shop in the many shoe, clothing and trinket stores on the outer perimeter of the building.

The third day into our journey we installed our exhibits of baskets and traditional California games. This took a little longer as the information banner installed had very little to say about CIBA and more about the Grindstone dancers who would not be attending. Our California Arts Council coordinator, Lucero Arellano had joined us by this time, her presence and command of the language made everything easier for all of us and a new banner was ordered in no time. When we arrived later that day for the opening ceremonies everything was in it’s place and a new banner with proper introduction of CIBA and the visiting basket weavers was hanging from its frame.

Opening ceremonies of the festival was full of pomp and circumstance, with introductions of dignitaries and visiting officials. All of the performers marched onto the stage as they were introduced. We were individually greeted by a Yoreme (native people of Sinaloa) elder, and an official exchange of gifts was made. We made a combined gift of various traditional California items wrapped in one of the basketry handkerchiefs sold by CIBA. In return CIBA was gifted a staff which was significant in identification to the Yoreme people.

Including our group of California basket weavers other indigenous groups represented were: Mayo-Yoremes of Sinaloa; Seris Y Yaquis of Sonora, Mexico; Raramuris of Chihauhua, Mexico; Huicholes of Nayarit, Mexico; Tohono Odam/Pima of Arizona; Los Decimistas (musical group) of Cuba; Saraguros of Loja Provence, Ecuador; and the Rapa Nui of Easter Island, Chile. The majority were dance groups who traveled to nine different towns throughout Sinaloa during the five days of the festival. I was personally awed by their endurance in this climate as we were finding it difficult to adjust to the high humidity and heat just sitting there weaving. By the second day the organizers took pity on us and installed an oscillating fan in our demonstration area, which helped immensely.

We demonstrated daily from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. and returned in the evening at 5 p.m. and demonstrated until 9 p.m.. The morning hours were more for visiting school groups. The students showed enthusiastic interest in our art and games. Each group of students had a spokesperson who could speak some English which helped us in answering their questions. Every student carried a notebook and never missed a note. Their wish to gain in site and knowledge of our art and culture made every minute of enduring the heat of Culiacan worth it. The evening hours brought out the general public whose enthusiasm matched that of the students. It was hard to gage the interest between those weaving and those wanting to learn about California dice, staves and handgame, we always had an audience. Many were amazed at the different basket materials we used and were always intrigued by the intricate twining of Tina’s baskets.

On Saturday we were taken on a field trip to visit one of Sinaloa’s hidden jewels. The Barras de Piaztla in San Ignacio a scenic two hour drive southwest of Culiacan. No one had any idea where we were going, it was only after we were an hour into our journey did we learn we were going to the beach on the Sea of Cortez. Approximately one hour north of Mazatlan. When the bus driver took a sharp right turn off the main highway down a very narrow dirt road we realized that we were going somewhere remote. We were informed enough to know that they were taking us to a petroglyph site, for some reason we envisioned cliffs and rocky hillsides, not a picturesque beach. Driving through tall thickets full of air ferns, iguanas and the most humongous beehive I’ve ever seen we came to a small remote village. There were no visible signs of modern electricity and or plumbing. The walls of the homes were built of intricately woven sticks and then mud was applied to create walls. Villagers were not as curious of us as we were of them and their simple lifestyle. We continued on the road, stopping once to ask a passing vehicle if we were on the right road. Eventually we arrived at our destination, a beautiful white sand stretch of beach that continued to the north for a good two miles and to the south a rocky shoreline as equally impressive with it’s huge black boulders. An arbor had been erected to offer shade and a place to enjoy the wonderful spread of delicacies offered to us for lunch, tamales, fresh cerviche, guacamole and cactus fruit ice cream. The ever present Policio were also there brandishing their huge AK rifles. This was more for our safety as there have been a rash of kidnappings of Americans and other foreigners in Mexico. During our stay in Sinaloa the Policio were present every time we turned around. While they did a little window shopping and roamed downtown this same day Susan and her daughter were followed by armed police until they returned to the hotel.

A Yoreme elder in our group adopted me as one to educate of our new surroundings. He called out to me to follow him down the rocky stretch of beach. He immediately began pointing out rocks, taking a closer look I was amazed to see rock after rock with petroglyphs etched into their smooth faces. Some petroglyphs he translated for me as best he could in his limited English and I in my failing Spanish. We were only half way down this rocky beach when I ran out of film. I captured what I could on film the rest will remain in my memories as something wonderful experienced.

Just prior to our departure that day, an elder from the Tohono Odam group offered a blessing and prayer on the shore of Barra de Piaxtla, it was truly a moving experience shared by all in attendance especially when a group of four Brown Pelicans soared above during this event. Among the seashells I collected I also have the skull of a Jesus fish my mentor gifted me. As he showed it to me he explained how the people of the region are devout followers of the Catholic religion. This fish when it dies comes ashore. The skull of the fish holds in it on one side the picture of God as they know him and on the reverse side is a crucifix of Jesus. One can plainly see these phenomenons without trying to envision it on this skull. The natives consider having and or finding one of these skulls good luck. My mentor must be an extremely lucky man, as he found six of these on this day.

It was during the blessing that I was separated from the rest of our group. While finding my way back to our ailing bus, (the air conditioning belt broke), I came across a large patch of sedge grass. Had the soil been more accommodating I might have been moved to dig some up and check out the roots. This little bit of information I eagerly shared with my mentor as I had found something I had knowledge of that I could share with him. Alas he found something new to share with me, his knowledge of the plants that surrounded us. When the bus stopped to pick up the belt to fix the air conditioning, my friend saw that I was not feeling well from the heat. He exited the bus and came back with a pod from a wild tamarind tree. He suggested that I suck on a seed to refresh myself, he also showed me an herb to place on my head under my hat which would relieve me of the headache from the heat. I can’t put into words how wonderful it is to experience sharing knowledge and learning about native cultures
in a foreign environment with another native.

That evening after our demonstrations we asked our driver to take us to his favorite restaurant for dinner. He brought us to the oldest Asada house in Culiacan. There we shared a sumptuous meal of carne asada, beans, homemade corn tortillas, guacamole and salsa fresca. By this time I had become addicted to Horchata, a cinnamon rice water drink, which is nothing like that served in the states. We drank it by the pitchers full as it is more refreshing than any soda, this thoroughly amused Chano. After dinner Chano wanted to show us his city, this man is very proud of this city and will go out of his way to share it’s sites and history. We drove up a hill that overlooks the city. There on the top was the Basillica de Guadelupe, a modern Basillica overlooking a colonial city. It was a beautiful site to see even in the late evening hours.

The next day was Sunday, our last full day in this city of friendly people and beautiful sites. We made our journey to the festival grounds only to find very few visitors and decided to make an early departure. There were still a few sites to be seen and items yet to be found. Our first destination was the hardware marketplace, there you can find everything from trinkets to tack, galvanized buckets to mochahetes. A Mochahete is the Mexican equivalent to our mortar and pestle. They are smaller and more mobile and a great tool in the modern kitchen. After making our purchases Chano drove us to the chosen local seafood restaurant for lunch. I’ve never gotten so many shrimp on one plate for less than $10 in my life. I’m certainly going to miss the culinary treats found on this visit.

After lunch Chano said he wanted to share one place with us that most tourists don’t visit. It was the shrine to the patron saint of drug smugglers and common people of Sinaloa, Jesus Malverde. Sinaloans make treks to visit this site and make offerings of all sorts and ask for protection and guidance for their business dealings. Even though we found a patron saint for the drug cartel a little amusing this was a very reverenced site for believers. The profits made at this shrine go to the poor of Sinaloa as Jesus Malverde was known as the Robinhood of Sinaloa. He stole from the riches of the drug cartel to give to the poor.

We returned to the festival that evening to watch the closing ceremonies. We were not scheduled to demonstrate, but I brought along the games and some items I had brought to sell. While we sat in our demonstration station, Jennifer and Susan started playing dice and staves with the people stopping by to watch Tina work on her miniature basket she was trying to finish. Almost as soon as the games came out we had a large crowd surrounding our tables wanting to learn more about the games. I’m suspecting that next year when we return someone is going to have figured out how to make these same games with the native materials available in Mexico. They were a big attraction and everyone loves games of chance.

During the festival there were vendors from most all the participating groups. There were a myriad of items to purchase, and at bargain prices if compared to similar items sold in the states. In Mexico people are used to the native people selling their goods cheaply, they were not open to the prices that we had on our items for sale. I can’t count the times that I was asked why I didn’t drop the prices for sale in Mexico. Tina and Eva also found themselves trying to hold tight to their asking price on their baskets. It was interesting watching the reactions of the people when we wouldn’t budge. I imagine it was much like the tourists buying baskets from the weavers in Yosemite eighty years ago. They wanted quality art at bargain prices. It shows how much we have become aware of ourselves, our cultural arts and the public that wants a piece of it.

Our journey was full of memorable experiences and people. Which brings me back to my question: How many Basket weavers and family members can you fit into a 1960 Volkswagon van? Would you believe we managed five weavers, eight family members, and the driver Chano. It was an experience that my companions and I wouldn’t mind doing all over again.

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