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San Bartolo Coyotepec is a town and municipality located in the center of the Mexican state of Oaxaca. It is in the Centro District of the Valles Centrales region about fifteen km south of the capital of Oaxaca.

The town is best known for its Barro negro pottery - black clay pottery. For hundreds of years pottery has been made here with a gray matte finish, but in the 1950s a technique was devised to give the pieces a shiny black finished without painting. This has made the pottery far more popular and collectable. The town is home to the Museo Estatal de Arte Popular de Oaxaca (State Museum of Popular Art of Oaxaca) which was opened here in 2004, with a large portion of its collection consisting of barro negro pottery. There is also a barro negro mural on the recently- opened Baseball Academy.
The area was the settled homeland of the ancient Mesoamerican Zapotec civilization going back at least 2500 years, with the oldest archeological finds being in the Valley of Oaxaca. Its Zapotec language name is Zaapeche, place of many jaguars (Panthera onca). Many Archaeological sites in Oaxaca are nearby, including the Monte Albán with UNESCO World Heritage Site ranking and importance.
San Bartolo is a Zapotec community, which has been a making pottery for about 2,000 years. The clay of this area produces a distinctive color, which for most of San Bartolo’s history was a Grey matte. This clay has been used to produce utilitarian objects such as jars, dishes and other storage containers.
The techniques for making the pottery have changed little during these centuries, with plates serving as potters’ wheels and design remaining traditional. One change has been the replacement of underground pits by kilns for firing the pieces. However, the most important innovation has been a polishing method devised by ceramic artist and potter Doña Rosa in the 1950s. Doña Rosa discovered that by polishing the nearly-dry clay before firing, the gray color turned to a shiny black. This has made the pottery far more popular and many pieces are produced now for decorative purposes rather than utilitarian. Since then, the aesthetic qualities of "barro negro" (black clay) pottery has become further appreciated due to the work of artisan-sculpture Carlomagno Pedro Martinez, who has displayed his barro negro work nationally and internationally.
The end of the Pre-Columbian era arrived with Spanish conquest and occupation of the Zapotec peoples region in 1521. It was first renamed 'San Jacinto Leóntepec,' It then changed again to 'San Bartolomé Coyotepec,' by Bartolomé Sanchez, a soldier of Hernán Cortés awarded a local
Encomienda. The first church was built in 1532. From its Spanish foundation was one of the larger settlements with three neighborhoods. This settlement was laid out by the same architect that designed the city of Oaxaca. Vicente Guerrero passed through here after he was taken prisoner, and Porfirio Díaz hid here during the French Intervention in Mexico.
For almost all of the town’s history, the color of the local pottery was a dull dark gray, until Doña Rosa Real discovered a way to create a shiny black finish t create barro negro pottery. The innovation made the pottery more popular and famous, with Nelson Rockefeller having a collection of her pieces. Doña Rosa died in 1980, but the tradition of making the barro negro pottery is being carried on by Doña Rosa’s daughter and grandchildren who stage demonstrations for tourists. The workshop is still in the family home, where shelves and shelves of shiny black pieces for sale line the inner courtyard. Despite being the origin of black polished clay, the pieces at the Doña Rosa Workshop are less expensive than in other parts of Mexico.
Two pottery pieces which are indicative of San Bartolo are the traditional Cantaro, a large jar which can be used for liquid storage or as a musical instrument and the "chango mezcalero" or mezcal monkey. This is a clay container in the shape of a monkey to hold mezcal, Oaxaca main distilled spirit, which has become a collectable folk art item. The container can be painted in bright colors or left in its gray color with detailed etching. The small opening at the top is plugged by a stopper of cork or corncob. These bottles are sized to hold about 700 to 1000 milliliters of liquid and were originally meant to serve as decorative containers in bars.

Two families claim to have originated this clay bottle. The first is that of Doña Rosa. The family believes that Doña Rosa’s husband, Juventino Nieto, invented the design at the request of cantina operators from the city of Oaxaca. Other animal forms were also designed as created as well, but the monkey one gained notoriety. The other family to lay claim to the mezcal monkey is that of Marcelo Simón Galan, now deceased. This family claims that he used to travel with his grey pottery pieces, which included water bottles and jars. Like the Doña Rosa family, this family claims the design was created upon request, with Marcelo doing the potting and others the painting. One of Marcelo’s mezcal monkeys is on display at the state crafts museum.
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See also in Oaxaca

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May 2008

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