Wednesday, July 23, 2014

The Ubiquitous Bag of Oaxaca

crafty part 2

photo: Joyce Snyder

It started nearly three decades ago.
My love affair with Oaxaca,Mexico.
Sporadic visits.
Long term commitments.
I taught,

gave birth to my son,
owned a cafe 
and lived there.
From my first visit 

I noticed the ubiquitous shopping bags.
Sold on the streets,

in the mercados.
Various sizes,shapes,colors,textures.
Swinging from the arm,

a bridge between two girls,balanced on a woman’s head.
Vibrant containers for precious cargo:warm tortillas,tamales encased in corn husks,fruits,produce,plucked chickens.

Out of necessity I bought the black and white bag in the Sunday mercado of Tlacolula. 30km outside of the heart of Oaxaca .

I needed something to carry my produce home that day on the bus.
That was over twenty years ago.

The small gold trimmed bag was a gift.

Though meant for little girls,
 it was perfect to hold  essentials for a night out-keys, a tube of lipstick and enough pesos to taxi back home.
I referred to it as my “Oaxacan Chanel bag.”

My son was born.

Life changed.
I moved back to the States.
We always returned to Oaxaca.
A local folk art gallery had seen the bags and asked if I could purchase some  on my next trip.
I asked my (then) sister-in-laws where I could purchase a dozen bags.
And so began the most unusual shopping trip of my life.

You see, in Oaxaca, people in prison must either pay for,earn or have their meals brought in by friends or family.

Some prisoners learn useful crafts.
In Oaxaca City,a city known for weaving,
some prisoners weave these colorful ,heavy plastic bags 
to make money 
to eat 
(and maybe buy cigarettes,soap,other essentials)

My sister-in -laws worked for the government and made the arrangements.
And so, one clear,sunny July day,

we went to the prison.
We lined up outside with the  families.
 Waiting for midday visitation.

I was taken into a curtained room 

with a woman guard.

purse searched,
passport checked.
I was only allowed to bring pesos with me.

We were taken into “the yard.”
Yes, just like an old black and white film.

Separated by a chain link fence.
The prisoners had been told what I was looking for.
They were prepared.
Bags of every shape,size,color 

were pushed against the fence.
It was a feeding frenzy.
My command of Spanish fled,

in terror.
“Let me help you.Which colors do you like and how much do you want to pay?” Lena,my sister-in-law asked.

She negotiated for me.
We left with several dozen bags.
I kept two for myself.

And so these bags are colorful and useful in so many ways.
They carry my belongings.
They carry my memories.

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