I went out to see Aaron Sanchez Sunday morning. He's an old time cane weaver. One of the main things Aaron makes are rodettes, which are rings made of long, intertwined, braided and plaited cane strips. They are about an inch tall and have varying diameters. Their function in the world is to serve as a base for round-bottomed pots. I sell lots of round-bottomed pots, rodettes included, which leads to the occasional visit with old Aaron.
"Procurement in a stateside corporate environment generally means a visit or an email to a lady in a cube somewhere, charge numbers, contracts, P.O. numbers and such. At Manos de Oaxaca in Mexico it's a whole different thing... "
How old? He's been telling me 54 since I've known him. It was a bald faced lie then, so now it's the same but 8 years more so. He's probably more like 74, but with his thin skin sagging off his long, lean frame, and the structure of his skull impolitely obvious through the layers of wrinkles on his face, Aaron looks more like a mummy. Don't get me wrong though. I consider Aaron to be a good-looking man. He is a man of which there are far to few. He's and old-fashioned campesino who has lived and seen a lot in his life. He seems more streetwise than an old peasant should be, and beneath his stubble he's an absolute gentleman. Somehow, even in his crumpled straw hat, worn, alfalfa stained slacks and tattered button-up shirt he looks elegant, in a certain sort of old-world way. He's also got plenty of backbone and I suspect he's stood up for his brothers and seen a scuffle or two. Least that's the way he tells it; "He was coming at me with a knife. I took a steady, slow step back and bent low, picking up a stone about the size of his skull…"
Old Aaron makes fine rodettes, of which he is proud. So proud in fact, that, tight as money may be at Aaron's and Maria's place, he still stopped working with a big buyer because that big buyer wanted him to make crude and rough rodettes. But if he's a good rodette maker, he's a better storyteller.
I've spent many hours buying with Aaron while he sits there plaiting rodettes and weaving tales. In fact, it's only the last 20 minutes or so of any two-hour visit to Aaron's that is ever spent in rodette talk. First there must be other talk and tale telling. As I settle in, without fail Maria runs out to get me a cold beer or soda, and it's not unusual for Maria to serve up some lunch. And if that happens Aaron pulls out the bottle of mescal and does his best to get me under the table. Which never happens because I've always got the hour-long drive back home on my mind. But we share a few shots, and Aaron, being a few years older than me and lean around the edges and in the middle… well I think he feels those shots more clearly than I do, because sometimes the siesta urge will get the better of him as the last of lunch is winding up. But through all of that there will be talk, mostly him doing the talking and me doing the listening.
Sunday morning I tapped on the black metal door with a five-peso coin. This is a standard trick here for it achieves a good, loud smack-ring out of the door, which is important, as most doors, like Aaron and Maria's, open onto a broad courtyard. Folks might be a long ways from being close to the door, so you've got to make it sing.
Aaron is usually the one who answers the door, assuming he's back from cutting alfalfa with his donkey, wagon and a dog that's as old as he is. He always answers the same, "What do you want? Aaron isn't here!" Then he invites me in with the polite and pervasive chide of Oaxaca, "Que Milagro." What a miracle! Which means something like, "Why have you forgotten us for so long. Oh, and it's nice to see you". Today Aaron said, "What a miracle that you're sober". It is a constant theme with him. He likes to think of me as a hopeless drunk. If ever I don't show up when I've said I would, Aaron will ask me how long I was on the bender. If Aaron was ever a hopeless drunk, his face doesn't show it. Except for being somewhat mummified, his skin is clean. No red bulbous nose, more like a little beak, no veins showing through, just lots of sun dried wrinkles. I think he harasses me for being a drunk because he knows I'm straight laced, and quietly, he thinks it's hilarious. Plus he likes to drink mescal and get bleary with me.
I'm offered a seat in the shade of the house and Arron pulls a chair onto the soil under the laurel tree and lights a cigarette. Here we will sit and talk. Often Aaron will be seated on a four-inch tall block of wood, peeling 15-foot lengths of Carrizo cane and plaiting them into rodettes as we chat. He'll finish one, toss it aside, raise his turkey-claw hand to his mouth and have a drag on his cigarette and then start the next rodette.
Maria comes out, sweet and much more civil than Aaron. She greets me with, "Que milagro!" Aaron says to get me a beer. It's 10:30, and I'm straight laced, so I interject for a soda and Maria heads up to the corners store where the village keeps it's cold sodas handy.
There are two big topics that come out in the early talking today. First and most importantly is that Aaron is just getting back into his working swing. It turns out that back in March one of his plow bulls, may it rest in peace, and in the stomachs of many taco eaters, got the urge to give Aaron a toss as if he were a bullfighter with bad timing, "...from here to about where that old door mat is." motioned Aaron. Which was about ten feet as I figured it. "Broke my hand right here." He showed me a still very evident lump is his sinewy wrist. "And it put a hole in my back with its horn too."
I found this occupational hazard quite interesting and spent some time interviewing Aaron for the details. He exhaled long from his cigarette and smoke swirled up around his old straw hat. I've never seen him with a new one.
The other topic, which is probably everyone on Earth's second topic these days, was "that old guy with the beard." Aaron couldn't remember his name so I refreshed him. Bin Laden. He asked me about Bin Laden and that country where they were looking for him and so on. I held forth like a leading expert on the topic, going on about this and about that. Truth is, Aaron probably knows more about it all than I do. He watches the news everyday, while back at home I'm getting my info from news magazines left by our last guests, four months ago. But I've learned that many rural folks here assume that I, being foreign and getting out a lot, know a heck of a lot more about such worldly matters than they do. Often I know very little, but it is usually enough. Though in the course of telling Aaron about it all he kept informing me of what was really happening, at least according T.V. news.
Aaron was very pissed at that bearded cabron and his cronies. He is very patriotic, for the U.S. I mean Aaron has spent his whole life here, but I think his best times were the long months spent up north, working in the fields and wandering the migrant camps of the U.S.
Which was the third topic and is always the main and last topic, except for that final little smatter of talk about business. It is when we get to talking about the migrant days that Aaron gets to shining with his story telling. On many a visit, as a segue between tales, Aaron will say, in his poetic way, "anduve como perro sin dueno," I roamed like a stray dog." I can see him glowing in his memories of those stray dog days.
Somehow we got to talking about deer, how many of them are up there in El Norte. Here in Oaxaca there is scarce little wildlife to be seen and seeing a deer is a very rare thing. We also commented on how controlled hunting them is up in Los United. I said you couldn't even pick up a fresh road kill without getting in trouble, which reminded Aaron of a time in Texas.
They were shacked up by the road and one night a truck sped by and killed a deer right there in front of them. Aaron and company did what any rural person would do with a fresh kill. Two of them skinned it, one went out to scrounge firewood and the others dug a pit to bake it in the way goat and turkey are often cooked here in Mexico. They built the fire, heated the pit and at about 2AM put the deer in. By 8 AM, just in time for breakfast, the meat was ready and they feasted. Around then the boss showed up and wanted to know what the hell was going in. They explained and invited him to venison, which he partook in, and then made sure that they threw the hide in the bottom of the hole, buried it and covered the hole completely. The boss knew the trouble that could come to you if you looked like you were poaching and he let them know.
"For awhile I was working up in the hills above Lon Beesh in California" Aaron went on. "There we'd see the deer come by every morning, single file. They'd walk right by us, weren't even afraid." He showed me how the deer went by, bouncing his fingers in front of him and looked at me for an explanation of this strange behavior."
"Yeah we used to have deer like that in our back yard," I said, "they'd eat our plants. Probably no one hunted them up there, and with people all over, they weren't afraid."
Aaron leaned forward a bit with something important to say, "There was this guy up there who had a pistol. I told him one day to lend it to me and I'd show him how to have a good dinner. But he wagged his finger at me and said, no senor, you can't shoot these deer here."
He relaxed back into his rickety chair and went on remembering.
"That guy was a Mexican, or used to be, who lived up there. He used to work for the American police and when he retired they gave him a piece of land up there or something. Anyway, he lived up there. First time we met him was one afternoon when he came riding down to the field where we were working on his horse. He says to us, anyone like a beer? We look at each other 'cause we can't figure where he'd be hiding beer. But I say, why not? And we go over there. Then he pulled out of this little saddle bag a few beers in cans like this." Aaron made a measure with his fingers of something that looked about as tall as a squished beer can. " We thought those little beers were pretty funny, but tried not to show it because he was being polite, even if they were little lady's beers."
" Well we went ahead and drank down those little beers…" Aaron paused and looked up at the sky for a moment, "I tell you I don't know what kind of beer it was, because after one of those little things we were already starting to get tipsy. He drank down two in the time we downed one. And he must have had something special in that saddle bag of his 'cause those beers came out ice cold, ice still on them."
Old Aaron shifted in the chair and re-wrapped his legs. He had a way of entwining his long legs that looked something like two snakes in love.
"He was a good guy, that Mexican, smart. But he had a son, about 20, who wasn't so bright. He'd come and go with three burros, bringing down loads of firewood to sell for those house heating stoves they use up there. I asked him what he sold a load for. $3 says the kid."
"That's not much money for all that work." I said
A disdainful looked crossed Aaron's face.
"Nah, But he'd go up three times a day. Those poor old donkeys were really worn. Sometimes he'd stop and talk to us there in the field. And then one of those donkeys would always just sit right down."
"You mean load and all?" I asked, trying to show that I had some country smarts. It would be a strange thing to see a loaded donkey sit down and was probably a sign or poor donkeymanship.
"Yeah, load and all. That guy said that donkey was just that way. Always sitting down whenever you stopped. Work a donkey that hard, of course it's going to sit. Probably shorted them on feed too."
"He'd ask us to help him get the donkey back on his feet when he headed on, so we'd go over there and lift that burro back up. Worked hard, those donkeys."
Aaron flicked his spent cigarette and pulled another one from his shirt pocket, telling Maria to bring me a beer. I was still working on my soda and showed the bottle by way of saying no thanks. Maria knew better anyway.
Aaron went on. "One time one of the guys said to the kid, 'bring a couple chiles tomorrow'. The kid asked why and the guy said, 'next time your burro won't get up, walk around there behind him and lift his tail." Aaron did a brief tail-lifting pantomime with his hand. "Then you shove that chile in the burros ass and you'll see how he gets up all by himself and gets a-moving." He finished the pantomime energetically.
Grinning, I imagined how the scene would play out.
"Problem with that trick," I added, parading my thin rural savvy again, " is that the kid would never be able to catch that burro, what with the fire in hole and all."
"Those country paisanos I was working with up there in the fields," answered Aaron, "they know a thing or two about living in the sticks and making burros get up and go and what not. The guy said to the kid, 'if it's looking to you like you aren't going to be able to catch that donkey, why then bend on over yourself and stick that other chile in your own ass.'"
He took a draw on his cigarette, silent and poker faced, no doubt enjoying the effect the tale was having on his visitor.
And so go the tales at Aaron's. There seems to be no end to them, especially because Aaron tells some of them over again from year to year. But I don't mind. I like a good story just as much the second time.
When my internal clock starts ringing loud enough telling me I've got other duties to be attending to I bring on the last topic. We pull out the bundles of rodettes, take a minute to talk about prices and then load them into the van, at which point I bid my farewells. They both tell me to come back soon. And Aaron says I shouldn't be driving drunk.
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