Earl Fish and Graciela Angeles. Mezcal de Los Angeles, Ocotlan

Earl Fish and Graciela Angeles. Mezcal de Los Angeles, Ocotlan

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Is Mezcal in Crisis?

By Earl “Popeye” Fish
All photos by Alan (el Jaguar) Goodin

The most concise answer to that question is “That depends…”

In my short acquaintance, the lady has surely been growing up. What kind of woman will she be, or rather, is she becoming? There is still a bit of mystery for she is a débutante, barely come of age (even though she is pushing 500).  As a mezcaloco my love affair is as a lover of a fine art that has the potential to be swamped in a sea of greed and destroyed.

I started out on a normal trip to visit some palenques, this time in the company of a photographer/writer and, ironically, a retiree from the California Department of Corrections, all in one, Alan Goodin. He is also, coincidentally, the editor and publisher of Jaguar Speaks http://www.morknme6.wordpress.com. I decided to start out with one of my favorite and more accessible valleys south of Oaxaca that wanders east from Ocotlan to Santa Catarina Minas and on to San Dionisio Ocotepec. I know lots of people there and as always, there is much more to be discovered.
First stop, Pancho Garcia.1. This guy makes some of the best pechuga I have had. I also kind of like the ornery old cuss that he is. The first time I met him, his daughter let me in the house and the old man came in from the other room.
“You Pancho Garcia?” I asked. “No, he’s dead,” the old man replied. “Who are you then?” “His ghost,” he smiled.
So Alan and I went first to the house. When there was no reply, we went a couple of blocks down the road to the palenque. From way in the back, behind the fermenting barrels, we got a reply to our hollering at the unlocked gate. I saw his sombrero and I started in as Pancho came out to meet us halfway. I could see right away that he was in one of his surely moods. “No pictures,” he said, as Alan raised the camera. “Que pasa, Maestro? We have come for some of your famous pechuga.”
“No hay, don’t have,” he replied. “There is no maguey.” And I remembered the cautionary note I had been given a couple months earlier by Erik Hernandez, one of the very knowledgeable producers. He produces for Ilegal and holds the Number One in registration numbers. He told me that all of the magueyes were being bought up by buyers from Jalisco and the price had quadrupled.
I asked Pancho, “But what about your exporter, he can’t help you?”
“We haven’t worked together for two years.”
“But, Maestro…”
“What! You don’t believe me?” Whoops! By the tone of his voice, Pancho was in one of his moods and there is no mollifying them. Time to leave!
Alan and I moved up the road a few hundred meters and found a new palenque that I hadn’t been to before. It was small and very traditional with clay stills. No horse, just a wooden ball bat to crush the cooked agave for fermenting. There was a young man and his mother who were very accommodating as they showed us around. We were taking production methods back 400 years. It almost made me forget Pancho—almost.

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After lunch we proceeded to San Dionisio Ocotepec where some very good friends make Wahaka brand mezcal, which has been moving out into the US markets with good reception. As oftentimes happens, when I come unannounced, they were between production processes and there was not much action there.

We moved on to Matatlan (not far from Mitla), “The World’s Capital of Mezcal,” to complete our journey. Here we passed through Don Tacho’s place where they make Real Matlatl, another brand which is making very good progress in the U.S. with the help of Charles Collins, a crazy Irishman who has been exporting and distributing for the family. They were in the process of loading up the oven with some piňas of the espadin agave. There was no apparent shortage here, but then Don Tacho grows his own agave.

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A good time was had as we watched and “helped,” load the horno. A few days in the oven (pit filled with red hot rocks) and it would be moved to the fermenting vats. Lastly, on the way out of Matalan, we passed through the new palenque that produces for La Niňa del Mezcal, the lady and the place where we held one of the first meetings of the mezcalocos.

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It was here also that we made the first mezcal float. I think I broke the glass half-way through. Just as a ritual by the way. As we passed through Armando Hernandez was busy getting ready for the opening of his new restaurant on Easter Week. He also is busy making mezcal for the Niña and his brand Mal de Amor. A very nice end to a good day…
But, the crisis still loomed in the back of my mind. What about Pancho? What would happen to him, and were there more little guys that were going to be affected by the illegal action of the tequila giants? I was damned sure going to do little investigating with my friends in the mezcal world.
1The name has been changed to protect the guilty. Don’t want to piss off my man.

The Crisis

Then I read a full page article in Imparcial, one of the local newspapers.1
The header is that the tequileros are coming down to loot the agave used to make mezcal. It’s Ilegal! they’re shouting. Almost none of the agave from Oaxaca is the Blue Agave used to make tequila. The article pointed out that 79% of mezcal in Mexico2 comes from Oaxaca and of the 109 cases of adulteration detected only 12 were in Oaxaca. The article stresses that it will be the little producer, the small palenquero, who will be hurt… Pancho.

Earl turns Investigative Reporter.

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The Imparcial article plus the memory of Pancho prods me into looking farther. I tried to talk to people I know in the trade.
My “interviews”, such as they were, consisted of bullshit between friends.3
One of the earlier bullshit sessions was with the Prof. I’d met Alberto a few years earlier, a short time after I’d read his book about mezcal4. He is a dedicated professor of agronomy at the Technological Institute and I mean a pro at the technical side of mezcal and proud to be a Mezcaloco. I wish I had a picture of this guy. What a face. I first spoke with him on the telephone. Yup! He’d heard. He was about to write something about that himself. “It is a cyclical thing.” he tells me. “They have been doing this every several years.” This is, of course, is a rough translation, but I think he might have used the word pendejos (assholes) somewhere in this conversation. I might be mistaken. That is a very unprofessor-like word to be throwing around.
Later, over a cup of coffee, the Prof offers to talk to a friend out in Santa Catarina about getting some agave for Pancho.
But mainly the crisis is a cyclical thing perpetrated every few years by the tequila people.
So, with a bit less enthusiasm and conviction, I keep asking around. I spoke with Leon Langel, at the Mezcaleria Los Amantes but he was at work and we did little more than trade bullshit. “Sure it’s __________, but some of the people growing the agave are making some dough this year. Here, have a shot.”
I move on that same night and talk with Sandra Ortiz Brena and Ulises Torrentera from In Situ.
In the process, Alan and I go out on another tour day. Poor Alan, sitting and smiling, had to sit, drink mezcal, and wait while I interviewed5 Graciela Angeles for an hour or so.

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Probably more like so. Anyway, Graciela is one of my earlier attractions to the industry. For several reasons: she makes a very good if pricey hand-made joven mezcal called Real Minero http://www.realminero.com.mx. Along with that she is smart and very attractive. Along with that she is pretty. In brief, her summary: the price of agave has a small part to do with the price of the product, and yes, the tequileros have been thieving for years, and Pancho is just a rasty old fart. This is a newspaper. When you got some news… I toasted that. Course I toast damned near everything Graciela says.
Earl "Popeye" Fish

Earl “Popeye” Fish

1Yes, unlike US cities, there are several. One might say many. And very different from one another
2Read, the world
3Tho some may not even want to be identified as friends. 🙂
4Oaxaca, Tierra de Agave y mezcal, Alberto Sanchez Lopez
5Read “Shmoozed”
Glossary for the Uninitiated
Palenque: In Oaxaca, a distillery. A palenquero is the head of the distillery.
The process of making mezcal:
The agave: Get it at its best. Just as it starts to flower and before all that good sugar heads upstairs. This can vary between 6 and more than 25 years depending a lot on the type of agave. There are more than a dozen types used to make mezcal, although 95% is made from the type espadin. How many types of agave is another storey altogether. There is a very good explanation on the web by the “Phd of Mezcal.” For those interested in mezcal, this is a very interesting blog site and this person does in fact have a Phd whereas I am a high school dropout.
Cut and cook: When the agave is ripe take it out, cut it up into reasonable sized chunks and put it in the oven, commonly called El Horno. The oven can be a hole in the ground lined with rocks and filled with burning coals which can vary a lot in size. I can also be a steam oven, sometimes used to conserve wood.
Grind it up: This can be done in many ways. The most common is with a horse drawn millstone wheel. Less formal is to put it into a concrete hole and beat it with a club. Some use machines of varying sizes.
Ferment: With a couple of exceptions the cooked fibers are put into a wooden fermenting vat. Those exceptions ferment only the juice in order to increase volume and reduce fermenting time.
Distill: Most stills are fashioned from copper. There are basically two other materials used in constructing a still: barro (an earthen clay pot) or stainless steel. Normally there are two distillations. There are exceptions like pechuga where fruit is added and for the third distillation a chicken breast is hung so the steam passes by to reduce the sweetness.
Aged: A practice not used so often with mezcal as it is with tequila. There are three types: not aged is called joven, less than year reposado, more than a year añejo. Aging is done less with wild agaves than the more common espadin. Unlike tequila, mezcal can be made from many types of agave or maguey and many of the subtle differences in taste can be lost in the aging process.



barn owl asleep on a high beam
the buttercups and the crickets
undiscovered springs in the earth
coyote, the mischief-maker
life hidden in an old stone wall
now wonder and wander away
henceforth and so forever more
for thus i carve you a mystery
drifting with the sadness of life
sorrows of the long unnumbered
a puzzle of these planet things

the simple longing and dying
of sweet life-forms so innocent
of creatures that you and i love
a dozen wildcats that leave us
a thousand insects that taunt us
whispering breezes of summer
and groundhog holes by the garden
the deep greenness of the forest
oh, such primeval forms of joy

the rocky creek tumbling so steep
next to the overgrown orchard
and moss by the water so sweet
a praying mantis in the grass
the geese circling over the pond
the green frogs and the long black snakes
yellow jackets and honey bees
may apples along the old lane
near the civilization tree
a possum clings to a sapling
its eyes seem so strange in the night
and right by our pond at the dam
a hidden crevasse in the roots
of a leaning ancient birch tree
where we used to hide our treasures
of bluebells and four-leaf clovers
a lifetime of high adventures
playing in that bright little creek
contentment in the pure coldness
salamanders between our toes
the orioles and bluebirds
wild turkeys by the old harp tree
and the indian arrowhead
that we found in a cow pasture
the sagging wooden barnyard fence
the outhouse and low chicken coop
and high above the waterfalls
the ruins of a limestone kiln

wide fence rows and old cattle paths
the cattails near springs by the swamp
where two spotted fawns thrilled us all
a block of salt always under
the bent-over mulberry tree
for white-tailed deer by the dozens
half-tamed skunk near hole at the shed
the old corncrib and the hayloft
cherry trees in youthful white dress
hummingbirds over the violets
dancing with an airy frenzy
and the graveyard by the old church
carefully hiding our lost friends

a kitten peeks around the porch
where bats hide under the rafters
as wooden shingles tumble down
and straight across the rough high lawn
where the monarch butterflies float
a platform in the apple tree
where we slept through a starlit night
and beyond the thousands of trees
way off so far in the distance
the faintest long-haunted murmur
of a sleepy county village
that life-forms would be brave and true
that love of the woods should prevail
these are the yearnings of the earth

the wildest joys of a midnight
solitary walk to the cave
as a fierce hunting bobcat screams
in the gloom and upsetting fog
what remote ancestor of ours
once howled in that dark narrow hole
what near-human form raged at death
where the huge boulders of the cliff
carve strange depressions in the soil
we respect our mystical hills f
or we are lovers of the woods
we’ll never betray the green earth

the soft winds of april beckon
and animals are on the prowl
a weasel chases a rabbit
down lilac lane into the swamp
while over toward hexenkopf rock
a most lonely passing black bear
is sleeping on a side-long hill
the birthday trail along the ridge
and down below in the hollow
a meadow-tuft where two brooks meet
with a rock jumble guarding all
and the snake trail that we once made
whenever we’d climb the old hill
then a hundred hilltops we’d see
thickets of wineberry bushes
the apple trees, pear, peach, and quince
may leaves, one thousand shades of green
the skunk cabbage and trout lilies
wild strawberry picking in spring
oh the love of these smiling hills
soft music of the woods and streams
the serene mood of our landscape
and the wildness lingering on
the chipmunks would play at our feet
as we’d swing on sturdy grapevines
turtles laid eggs on the south slope
gray squirrels dined in the cornfields
the tree frogs would chirp in april
and field mice that lived on our porch
the maple trees, willows, and beech
old sycamores and the poplars
for that endless green sea of trees
once stretched to the ends of the earth
blossoms and branches of whitman
the ghoul-haunted woodlands of poe
deep deep woods of raggedy ann

at twilight in the upper field
on a flat rock i once waited
for whatever would come to pass
a red-tailed hawk signaled from high
a movement close by in the earth
and a fox walked straight up to me
as our eyes met in the dim light
a mist floated up from the woods
and thoughts of the fox echoed ’round
nearby on branches crows gathered
oak trees leaned over to listen
could the green live on in the end
would the forest come back again
in my heart i felt that it could
then dream now with few vexations
for the light is fading away

that room in the unpainted barn
bantam chickens perched in a row
by day a raccoon slept near there
a dusty white horse lives below
that old collie dog’s still barking
right under the first walnut tree
how we love the charms of these woods
we’ll never forget our sweet hills
at night-time i stroll down the lane
and wonder then how i’m so poor
my one shirt is torn at the sleeves
really have nothing to read now
but moonlight on tulip tree leaves
the farmers have all gone away
and the dogwoods fill in the fields
with cedars as their companions.

frank parmer snider


Jean Foss

Jean Foss

The house Jean Foss grew up in was filled with color and design—Persian rugs on the floors, intricately patterned tiles in the bathrooms, paintings on the walls, the carved furniture dressed in embroidered table clothes, and woven runners, footstools with needlepoint designs, chairs adorned with colorful handmade pillars. Her parents both came from immigrant families – from Holland and Norway, and much of the design and color came from things that had been in the family for many years.

Everywhere Jean traveled with her family; her parents exposed her (and her two siblings) to art and architecture. Jean’s mother, herself an artist and scholar of art history, narrated the details of all that the family saw, often staying up late on the nights before giving a family tour, to read about and refresh her memory about the site. Throughout Jean’s upbringing, the Fosses took their children to many museums and art galleries in Europe and the United States. As a child, she was particularly taken by Russian folk paintings and by primitives of all kinds. Later, as an adult, she became fascinated with Latin American folk art, which contains similar elements.

In her artist bio, Jean writes, “Mexico is a country charged with color and sound, both in its natural world and its culture. From my first trip to Mexico, in 1997, I was drawn to the vibrancy and spirit of the people and to the colorful culture here.”

In 2001, she completed a B.S. in fine arts, at the University of Oregon, after which she started looking into MFA programs in Mexico, as an excuse to follow her dream of returning to Mexico, after falling in love with it on her first trip. Her advisor suggested that since she didn’t want to teach, it would make more sense to skip the MFA program and just to move to Mexico to paint. Jean asked many friends and acquaintances who were familiar with Mexico, where a good place to live and paint would be, and they unanimously recommended Oaxaca. She moved here in July of 2001.

Before studying art at U of O, Jean studied art and creative writing at the University of Iowa (in Iowa City). After moving to Oaxaca, she took a print-making class from el Maestro Shinshaburo Takeda (a professor at the School of Art at UABJO, The University of Benito Juarez, Oaxaca) at Bellas Artes, in Oaxaca.

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From the start, she felt at home in this culture of strong ties to family, akin to the culture with which she grew up. In fact, Jean felt so at home upon moving here, that she said she “felt like she had been born in the wrong country.” She was also immediately taken with the layering of ancient and modern traditions in everyday life and the blending and clashing of pre-Columbian and post-conquistador elements of the culture. All of these things became the central themes of her work, which Jean refers to as “Stylized Realism.” She paints with acrylics, either on wood or on locally hand-made paper.

Some of Jean's finds while walking the hills of Oaxaca

Some of Jean’s finds while walking the hills of Oaxaca

When asked to talk a little about her technique, she began by talking about her early experiences, here in Oaxaca. “As soon as I arrived, I began exploring the valley of Oaxaca on foot, walking or taking public transportation out to small towns and the surrounding foothills. While soaking up all the visual beauty and ambience of my new home, I began to find prehispanic art– mainly broken clay pots with designs carved into them– but also quite a few clay heads– animals, humans, deities. Oaxaca is such a magical place–and I wanted to try to incorporate some of that into my work.”

“I started off by painting some of the clay heads, but with modern bodies and personalities attached to them. From there, I went on to paint people in scenes from the villages I passed through, with very faceted — almost mask-like faces, influenced by painting the prehispanic heads. I’ve always used a wide pallet of bright colors–often associated with Latin American art– even before moving here and painting Mexico. I also have always liked to experiment with styles, all of which are grounded in strong black outlines. I like to paint from a mix of photos, my memories, and my imagination. My work varies from quite realistic to cartoon-like.

From 1997 to 2000, I worked with potter/painter, John Fleenor, painting pottery with a whole world of weird cartoons. Recently, a number of collectors of that work (sold as Beast Ware, by Flying Hippo Pottery), have suggested I do paintings in my old cartoon style. I’ve recently started playing around with something akin to cartooning again, in a series of work which is largely about gastronomical traditions here. I’ll include some of that new work in my up-coming show in June.”

In her artist statement, Jean writes, “Here in my adopted country, surrounded by color and light, I try to capture the vibrancy of the land and the vitality of its ancient culture, which bring me daily happiness.”
She describes herself as being a slow and meditative person, by nature, and, by the same token, not a fast painter “I’d say I’m a painstakingly slow perfectionist,” she elaborated. She says that she was therefore very happy to learn about Giclée prints (pronounced zhee-clay) a relatively new process for art reproduction, which allows her to offer beautiful and accurate reproductions of her work at accessible prices. Jean stressed that the quality of Giclée printers varies greatly, but that the small art press she uses (Sterling Graphics in Springfield, Oregon) makes extremely accurate archival-quality reproductions, almost indistinguishable from originals.

Jean says, “I hope, through my paintings, I can convey some of the beauty and flavor of Mexico to other parts of the world. I also hope that, locally, my work reflects the beauty in everyday life here, elements of which are often overlooked, as people strive to replace traditions with more modern conveniences or styles. I greatly appreciate all of the encouragement and feedback I have been given, both here in Oaxaca and in the U.S.”

Up until about a year ago, Jean was concentrating most of her shows in Oregon, but decided she would be better off trying to take advantage of being in a large tourist town, which directly relates to the theme of her work. She had a solo show at El Museo del Palacio (The Museum of the Palace of the Governor), from July to October of 2012, and will have another solo show in June, at Hotel CasAntica, in Oaxaca’s historic Center. She will also have another solo show in the fall, in a relatively new gallery in la Colonia Reforma of this city, called Atelier et Galérie D’Audiffred (owned by long-time Mexico City resident/artist Fernando Audiffred).

Jean’s studio is in the rural village of San Andres Huayapam, where she lives with her husband Chucho and daughter Xochitl. Chucho makes all of Jean’s frames and is an artist himself, specializing in paper mache sculptures and wood-cutting. Jean’s art can be seen on her website at http://www.jeanfoss.com.
For more information, or to arrange a studio visit, you can contact Jean Foss at jeanmfoss@yahoo.com and follow her on Facebook: Jean Foss’s Facebook page.

Jean Foss--Photo by Alan Goodin

William White Gallery, Eugene, Oregon (solo show)
Mayor’s Art Show (juried), Eugene, Oregon
Mayor’s Art Show, Springfield, Oregon
Opus 5, Eugene, Oregon (solo show)
Centro Latino Americano, Eugene, OR
Oregon Census Bureau, Eugene, Oregon
Island Park Art Gallery, Willamalane Recreational Center, Springfield, Oregon (invitational, with one other artist)
Espresso Roma, Eugene, Oregon (solo show)
Café Soriah, Eugene, Oregon (solo show)
Springfield Library Invitational, Springfield, Oregon
Emerald Art Center Art Gallery, Springfield, Oregon
Mills Gallery, University of Oregon, Eugene, Oregon (invitational)
Museo De Ferrocarril, Immigrant Day’s Invitational, Oaxaca
Las Truchas Gallery, Eureka California
Galeria de Design y Diseño, Oaxaca
Nueva Babel, Oaxaca (solo show)
Taller Rufino Tamayo, Oaxaca
Galeria La Zancada, Oaxaca
Hotel Camino Real, Oaxaca
Museo Del Palacio Oaxaca (solo show 2012, collective exhibit 2013)


Hotel Casantica, Av. Morelos, 601, Historic Center, Oaxaca (Solo show opening June 22nd, 2013)
Atelier et Galérie D’Audiffred Emilio Carranza #123 Col. Reforma, 68050 Oaxaca, Oaxaca
(Opening date not yet set, but planned for fall 2013)


Photo by Eva Lepiz
Thibaut Surugue, an accomplished pianist, is now 26 years old and lives in Oaxaca. His schooling, accomplishments, and how he came to Oaxaca is his story.

Thibaut was born in France and lived most of his life, from the age of 4 to 17, in Dordogne, the southern part of France. He began playing the piano when he was 5 ½ years old. His parents were always music lovers but had no piano. Thibaut’s passion led him to seek out his neighbors’ keyboard. Thibaut would venture over to their house and practice. Early on his parents realized the seriousness of Thibaut’s playing and within a few years had bought a piano for their home.

In Dordogne, he began taking lessons. He enjoyed Ragtime, boogie and all that jazz as well as Classical Music. When he was 12, his parents applied to the “Conservatoire of Limoges”, named after the town, where he became a serious and impassioned student of classical piano. His brother, Thomas, also interested in playing the piano, often became his partner and on occasion they would play duets.

When he was 17, he had developed his proficiency to the point where he auditioned (performed student recitals) and with his initial public acclaim, he moved to Paris for 7 years to continue his studies, including Physical Science at the Rene Descartes school for one year. His science studies took away from his music and he dropped out of the Descartes science study program.
Thibaut Surugue3

As his musical proficiency increased he was asked to perform in public. After spending one year in the Hochschule für Musik und Theater of Leipzig as a Foreign Exchange student, he returned to Paris where he earned his Bachelor in Musicology from La Sorbonne and Bachelor in Music Performance from the Pôle Supérieur Paris Boulogne-Billancourt.Thibaut Surugue

Then, during his first year in the Royal Conservatory of Brussels as a Graduate student, Thibaut knew about a French couple living in Oaxaca who taught piano. They were looking for someone to replace them for their students. Thibaut had been interested in Latin America and wanted to study and learn Spanish. He applied for the position and was accepted. He, along with a friend, another musician, arrived in Oaxaca in August 2011. Here, he plays, teaches piano, has conducted choir, and performs recitials. A young man with extraordinary talent, skill and passion lives amongst us. Another one of the many reasons to love and live in Oaxaca.


The referee always smiles

January 16th 378AD

We must be careful with our words, for all of them
Have been in other mouths, and over time well chewed.
The ancient Maya engraved substantial words in stone:
Their abbreviated stories lie in those stones condemned
To modest revelations of their complex lives, yet these glyphs
Tell us much about ourselves, and how we stand-alone
In the shadows of their ancient, compelling myths
Revealing our own story, through history accrued.

While the tall glyph laden Stelae stones abbreviate
They also, in their own unique and agile way, delineate
The history and changes each ruler sometimes brought
To his reign, often showing an increasing cruelty of thought,
A libretto trumpeting the eventual end of temporal things
Thus causing their Stelae to become our own historians.

Maya date: ‘twelve kin, four unials and one tun after the seventeenth katun, b’aktun nine.”(1)

Translation: 16 January 378 AD

On that date Stela 31 in Tikal (pronounced: Tea-ca`l) reads:

“Smoking-Frog demolished and threw down the buildings of Uaxactun
(pronounced: Wha-sha`ck-ton)

(and) Great-Jaguar-Paw, the high king of Tikal, let blood from his genitals to sanctify the victory of his warriors.”

The death of Great-Jaguar-Paw is not engraved upon that stone
Nor, that next year Curl-Snout, his son, sits upon the Tikal throne.
Smoking-Frog, Curl-Snout’s uncle actually rules both cities,
As perhaps an imported, other stelae are uncertain, chieftain.
In other words, Smoking-Frog may not have been Jaguar-Paw’s brother.
Such mysteries reflect the punctured stories the Stelae sing.
But that is history and here we’re concerned with poetry, and other
Moments that were then and which constitute the mysterious ring
Of these people of Mesoamerica and their city-state
In the year of our Lord, three hundred and seventy eight.

There had been advance warning.
The tun was but a quarter gone when, in lieu of taxes,
Painted faces, chests and arms began to appear.
A tightening of leather straps around the axes.
Strong were the new made flexible shields,
And newly sharpened stone blades bound upon the spear.
Rites of preparation, purification and sacrifices
Started in the evenings and went right through the morning.
Both sides swelled in their xenophobic pride.
None thinking specifically about the historic ride
They would be taking to their battlefields away:
Uaxactun versus Tikal would be the billing were it held today.
On one side Great-Jaguar-Paw

Against him the spirited Uaxactun –
All warriors on both sides poised for action
In anticipation of greater satisfaction, no one yields
None were willing to withdraw

Uaxactun’s Chief had three wives.
His principal wife had two children,
an infant and a four year old. (2)
The second wife just pregnant.
The most recent wife, no children.

The Chief was a brave man, respectful of the customs, strong
But like many brave intelligent men, his name is lost.
History and poetry alike does that to people.
Very few losers, mostly only winners have names.
Even though he played by the rules of the existing games,
And though standing out within the frames of history, like a steeple
We do not know who he was, only that he was crossed by his people.
Perhaps he wouldn’t want us to know his name or what he did wrong.

They stood like troops of chimpanzees, beating chests,
Shouting insults, waving weapons, cursing, screaming.
Two lines of battle, alike in most respects,
Separated by a savannah of waist high saw grass weaving
Tikal came from the south across a marsh and claimed
A battlefield that would be on the firm ground of the plain
To the east there was a matted jungle forest and to the north
Some ten kilometers the stone templed city of Uaxactun
They could read each other’s eyes.
One by one they dashed in – mild excursions – then retreated
Testing, testing increasing tempo, tempo of the gods
Thumping drums of sacrificial skins.
Great thundering war drums of hollowed logs.
Long wooden horns squeal for victory of pierced foreskins.
Conch horns wail. The warriors sucking in their breath
Eventually tensions exceed the ability to withstand immobility.
The Maya engage each other in ritualistic death.

Select your enemy carefully, one you sensed exposed alone
And was weaker and you clubbed him, sliced him, took
Some blood: made him prisoner careful not to sever
Any arteries left him face down, a prisoner for you.
You bind him that he not escape in the heat of battle; then go look
For another enemy in the dusty battle zoo.
In the end, each side exhausted, took their prisoners, and went home.

Over the almost ten b’acktuns, or so,
This regulated and ceremonial warfare had evolved,
There may have been occasional ransoms –
A repatriated noble for four slaves, or so,
To be either sacrificed or used as labor.
Generally the prisoners were brought to the victor’s home city and, Eventually, sacrificed to the gods from whom all blessings,
Even then as now, flow.
Thus the cities of Tikal and Uaxactun bloomed in mutual suspicion and Ever increasingly virulent wars.

On this day in question, January 16 the planets were aligned
With Venus low in the sky and Jupiter ascending*
Both sides knew the time.
The harvest had been collected.
The rains were long since ended.
The weather, the coolest it would be.
It was time to fight.

In the rainy season – a long trip up the coast (it may have taken years)
Into the land of the Olmec and over mountains, searching for a prize
Smoking-Frog goes to Teotihuacán – now Mexico City – and buys
500 spear-throwers and 1,500 obsidian tipped throwing-spears
Bribing assorted chieftains, allaying assorted fears.

How they are shipped, brought down to Tikal no one knows.
It’s possible they came by trading canoe as far as modern Merida
Then overland to Tikal, by burro or slaves of the Maya
But with what currency did he pay, can you suppose?

With slaves? What did Tikal have that Teotihuacán did not?
Henequen, from which you can make both cloth and a Hashish pot?
Shades of the Mexican cartel – 1600 plus years ago. A prologue?
(Is this why he was called Smoking-Frog?)
Quetzal feathers, chocolate and greenstone jadeite might have been the price for the obsidian spear points and atlatls.

In Mexico City abundant obsidian from the volcanic mountains, four hundred workshops in which the arrowheads and atlatl spear heads were made.
No one knows who made the trade. Probably no one ever will.
But throwing-spears, generally used only for hunting, will soon instill
Fear and destruction far greater than the Maya truncheons

Fermented in the mind of Smoking-Frog a dream
Had come without permission from the gods of the underworld.
A nightmare on a sour stomach, for none had thought the thought before
A muddied hatred of the enemy merging with the heat and difficulty of Taking them one by one.
Voiced in the Maya tongue to brother Jaguar-Paw.
The planning of six tuns is done.
This will be a different war.

The battle starts. The two forces move towards each other,
The axes scream. The grass is pounded down and visibility increases.
The space between the two rippling battle lines decreases
Smoking-Frog stands by his brother, directing a planned and slow retreat.
The forces of Uaxactun sense victory, many captives, especially sweet
Sacrifices for their gods. The gods will not bless them for long.
Uaxactun’s gods are the very same gods worshiped by Tikal.
Then as now, all religions, throughout the world, sing the self-same song.
Brother prophets, Jesus, Mohammed, Buddha and Luther –
Their worshipped God identical to the other.
Uaxactun’s warriors come prancing in, like the swarm of Ghengis Khan.
They eye the retreating Tikals, sizing up each man.

At the iconic moment known only to Smoking-Frog,
He flashes a mirrored signal to his right where, at the jungle’s edge Surrounding the meadow are gathered in the shadows
Five hundred Tikal warriors.

These march into the fray, like Christian soldiers,
Into the huddled hordes of Uaxactun, set up for the slaughter.
They hurl their obsidian tipped hunting spears.
Their razor sharp lightweight arrowheads shaped like tears
Their jaguar hunting arrows. Their animal hunting arrows.
Were the fight today the order would have been “fire at will.”
And then together, not alone, not each man selecting his opponent,
But in teams with one man grabbing at the headdress attempting to extend The neck pulling hair with another using his jade tipped spear, they kill.
They slash, they butcher, and the blood shines resplendent in the afternoon sun.
It glazes the swale with a marsh like slick of the Uaxactun life force.
It is a pigeon shoot.
It is fish in a barrel.
It is indiscriminate.
It was a massacre.

There is no precedent for slaughtering warriors.
Ritual sacrifice, of course.
Slaughter, no.
Man einfach nicht tun
Ten b’aktuns of ceremony flown
All precedence blown
A poetic moment of fame
Enhanced by screams of pain.

The distance between Tikal and Uaxactun is some twenty kilometers.
The battle takes place half distant.

It does not take Smoking-Frog long to march with his rape prone warriors into Uaxactun
Declare his conquest, bringing with him a few
Bound and bleeding warriors.

The people cannot imagine, in their wildest fears, what has happened, what will happen. Astonishment and grief.

Grief is what separates us from what arrows are made for.

The remaining Uaxactun warriors are either dead or held by the Tikal warriors on the battlefield, then escorted to Tikal where they will be sacrificed.

The following year Uaxactun’s nameless Chief is ritualistically beheaded
At the end of a ritualistic pelota game.
The ceremony is of such importance
He is beheaded on the temple steps rather than on the ball court itself.
The year’s grace gives him plenty of time to think.

So that the Chief’s lineage would be snuffed out, the Tikals build,
In a sacred square in Uaxactun, a funeral temple.

At the dedication, the Chief’s two sons and their mother are thrown into the foundations.
They drop about thirty feet onto stones.
Following them the terrified still pregnant wife.
She, too, is dispatched to the underworld. (2)

The five bodies were uncovered in 1950.
Unusual, most graves of this era are solitary.
An early foretaste of Dachau, or merely a reminder that
Human instinct to kill is of long standing?

It is thought the third wife was taken by Smoking-Frog to be his own Thus binding the dynastic wounds inflicted upon their neighbors
By the Tikal.

The Tikal impose this new poetic vision of war upon their neighbors,
As horrifying to them then as the eventual and inevitable atomic
bombs that will some day descend upon us.

Imagine you’re a professional boxer scheduled to fight
For a world championship.
In the pre-fight ceremony under the stadium you pray, and ceremoniously, After bandaging your hands, your second ties on your boxing gloves.
When you climb into the ring, your opponent comes in without any gloves.
He has in his unencumbered hands, a loaded snub-nosed .38-caliber pistol,
And the referee is smiling.

On May 1, 562 AD “Lord Water,” the rapacious King of Caracol,
Tikal’s rival city from the East
Mastering the same Tlaloc-Venus “ax-war” action that had defeated Uaxactun two centuries earlier, produces another iconic moment:
Another intellectual breakthrough that overrides tradition.

Who goes to war in the hot month of May without the proper alignment of the planets? Who?
Who starts a war when your enemy’s warriors are in their fields planting? Who?

“Lord Water,” that’s who, and he destroys Tikal, (3)
Lord Water, using his brain while the Tikals thought of rain
Laid waste to Tikal as the Tikalese were planting grain
They succumbed to annihilating mayhem,
So, who says the ancient Maya aren’t just like us, replete with guile?
And lest we forget our history, remember the referees always smile.
Yes, remember it is only the referees that smile.

(1) The translation of the date is correct. The facts in this story are assembled from the masterpiece of Mayan history, “A Forest of Kings” by Linda Schele and David Freidel. (1990 William Morrow)

Specifically, Schele describes the battle between Tikal and Uaxactun in chapter 4. (Pages 130-164.) But, Prof. David Stuart, now of the University of Texas in Austin has studied the same Stella and, as sometimes happens in scholarly work, concludes (in a paper delivered at Princeton in 1996 and revised in 1998) the battle never took place “at least not on that date.” He suggests that Smoking Frog actually came from Teotihuacan, becoming a “foreign” king in the Maya lands. He further suggests that because the appropriate stelae are not engraved with the glyph for “war” to denote the battle on January 16, the war did not happen. Far be it from me to intrude upon the professional preserves of the archeologist, but I wonder if the scribes did not use the “war” glyph because “war” was a ritual event with strict rules and, what happened that day was not ritualistic war but something else, for which they had not the vocabulary, nor the glyph to describe it, so devastating was it. But that is history and I am not concerned with the history, only the story. I take poetic license to create my own imaginary vision of what actually happened on that date. Whether Smoking Frog was Jaguar Paw’s brother or his superior from Teotihuacan, something very drastic happened between the Uaxactun and Tikal, and through this story I’m only trying to offer you an insight into the seismic shift in the human understanding of life and death and its meaning that took place in Mesoamerica in or around the year 378 AD and which stays with us today.

As previously stated, the dates are “correct.” In the Mayan calendar – a kin is a day, a unial is a month of twenty days, a tun is a year (of 260 days) and a katun is approximately 20 years. The b’acktun, of 400-year cycles, is often not written; it being assumed one knows within 400 years what one’s writing about. While the Mayan calendar ends on 23 December 2012 and began 13 x 400 years earlier, no current Maya believes the world will end then. The calendar will simply begin repeating itself. The Maya did believe the world has been destroyed and reborn many times – its first birth occurring some 41.3 x 1027 years ago, and the most recent at the start of the current calendar.

*There was no great significance to this particular combination at that time. Later, many of the battles between the city/states of the Maya were scheduled for unique similar astrological combinations, relating to Venus and Jupiter but not, apparently, the Tikal/Uaxactun massacre of 378AD.” Again, as stated in “A Forest of Kings.”

(2) Ibid Footnote #51 page 447

(3) Ibid page 173

Realizations Two

After the thunder rumbled away the lighting and Cocijo, God of Rain, Laughing, said he’d see us tomorrow and perhaps leave a deposit then,
It slowly dawned that we were more powerful than He –
Since we could shower whenever we wanted and to hell with the God of

In the pantheon of deities, Cocijo is rather important especially
In the parched high desert valleys in southern Mexico where we live.
To feel superior to Cocijo is tantalizing but rather risky.

Yet, have we not all fantasized the usual stuff?
Handmaidens, the marble halls, the hordes of people worshipping?
Intellectually, we roam the globe persuaded our own godliness extends
And pervades not just the desert, the globe, but the whole universe?
Nevertheless, with the humility of being number one deity,
Let us then allow our perfection and totalization
Might not be relevant in other universes throughout the totoverse.
That is the downfall. Same as Cocijo’s. Not to be absolutely all powerful; a chink
It slowly, insidiously widens, like a cracked windshield.

A slippery slope replaces the chink for soon, you learn, as you sink
Our realm was somewhat smaller than we’d first assumed.
It is not possible to order even a brief shower to quench the parched corn.
We have to wait for Cocijo after all.



After the thunder chases away the lightning, the rolling ceases and in the distance a squeak
Cojio, the rain god laughing he’ll not visit today, but maybe he’ll come by next week.
The dry heaves of the land, languishing – longing for water, even tears will do,
Life created you, Cocijo, and for that you have promises due.
They too nourish the land.

But what heart has not more to offer than any brain
With only four compartments, all of them wet:
The heart holds more than the dry brain
But the heart, not brain, supplies the rain
Remember Paul Verlaine, remember his knife:
The brain in its pain surrenders to the knife
The brain supplies lightning and thunder, yet
Cojio and the heart – they provide life.

So, Coijo, every year we wait for you as trees wait for the spring
Then so soon you’re here then gone like birds upon their wing
Your voice fades as the skies turn grey, but certainty takes hold
It won’t be long before you’re back: at least that’s what we’ve been sold.
We hope before we’re old.