Handmade Roadwork in Oaxaca

A parade of laborers rebuilt the road from our apartment in Oaxaca to the central zocalo this month – or at least two blocks of it. Like many of the roads here it is paved with stone blocks, and almost entirely by hand they removed the old worn rocks, dug and shaped the new utility accesses and roadway alterations, and laid new mammoth volcanic tiles and bricks.

Reconstruction of Av Alcala, Oaxaca

So many chisels and hammers. Men standing swinging sledgehammers at arm-length chisels; sitting holding onto plastic pipe fashioned into a chisel handle, offset to save their hands from the ringing clanging rhythms returning from the earth on each swing. Men kneeling with smaller tools to plane the rough edges. The sidewalk lines are moving, new bikepath lights and streetlamps and pedestrian benches are set to rise up from the cobble pavement, so although not all the stones are being replaced several neatly shaped swathes are being carted off a stone and fragment at a time. In the parkside nearby where new stones wait for their place, another team of men is shaping and smoothing the characteristically gray-green slabs with neatly criss-crossed chisel strikes until no mark remains.

Reconstruction of Av Alcala, Oaxaca Sidewalk stones Reconstruction of Av Alcala, Oaxaca

So much shoveling, sorting and sifting and lifting. The old stones are carted to the street corners, piled eight feet high wheelbarrow upon wheelbarrow. Later they will pitch these above their heads into waiting dump trucks. The dirt and stone fragments form other mounds, sifted through screens shovelful by shovelful into waste and fill and mortar-bound piles.

Reconstruction of Av Alcala, Oaxaca

The work continues into the nights to avoid the worst heat of the afternoons. Each evening we walk through shifting cordons on makeshift bridges over trenches as the construction progresses, looking up the road every job is taking place, sitting and standing and swinging and sweating. Now the chiseling stops and mortar is mixed, stones are stacked near the leading edge of each effort – the curved curb segments, the smooth sidewalk panes, the rough cubes laid into the street surface in a diagonal grid across the future flow of traffic.

This road seems likely to last another 100 years.

Enjoying Good Beer in Oaxaca

For years ordering a beer in Mexico has for us meant a refreshing light lager, almost always served as a michelada in a cold mug with lime juice or spicy clamato juice as accent in the heat of the afternoon. The narrow variety of brands to accompany the house michelada mix, from pale pilsners to dark vienna lagers, all come reliably from one of two giant conglomerates. (For the record, our favorites are Indio, Pacifico, and Bohemia Oscura.)

But I like small breweries – and especially since starting to brew my own beer a year and a half ago, my appreciation for the details of a brewery and of the breadth of beer styles has grown even deeper. Until this trip, seeking out beer in Mexico was never a focus – a real rarity a few years ago, here craft beer (“cerveza artesanal”) came later than craft liquors and we put our energies into trying good tequila and mezcal. This trip in Oaxaca that all changed as we enjoyed some truly good beer by three local cervecerias (and a few more).

The highlight of these is only a year old, La Santisima Flor de Lupulo (“The Holy Hop”), at the corner of Allende and Porfirio Díaz near Santo Domingo. Run by brewer Jorge and bartender Miguel, this is a tiny brewery that keeps three rotating taps run from 15 gallon batches in corny kegs upstairs.

La Santisima Flor de Lupulo

On two visits we tried five different beers, all excellent examples of their style: a mid-malty APA with piney Simcoe hops, a Mango-Wit (a better combination on my tongue than most orange wheat ales), a fantastically nutty Brown Ale, a bright Cream Ale, and a smoky Porter. Jorge was kind enough to show off the backroom as they were brewing a new batch of the Mango-Wit in their homebrew-esque pumped cooler-and-chest-fridge setup. I wish it were feasible to have a similar business at home in Georgia – La Santisima shares space with a neat bakery/deli next door, and Jorge and Miguel are clearly enjoying themselves.

Jorge & crew brewing at La Santisima Flor de Lupulo

Two other breweries in Oaxaca are staying relatively small as well but doing a great job of distributing bottles to many local bars and restaurants: Tierra Blanca (since 2012) and Teufel Cerveceria (since 2011). Tierra’s Ahumada is a distinctly Mexican take on stout, with chile pepper and coffee evenly balanced with the dark base, while their Dorada golden ale is nicely light and hoppy. Teufel’s Chica Mala is probably best described as an imperial red ale, but with plenty of coffee and complexity – I look forward to trying Tierra’s Grana red ale to compare approaches.

Cervezas at La Santisima: Porter, Cream Ale, and Cucapa Chupacabras (Pale Ale), Insurgente Nocturna (Black IPA)Cervezas Tierra Ahumada y Insurgentes La LupulosaCerveza Jabalí Cerveza: Teufel Chica Mala (Red Stout-ish)

As a closing honorable mention, our favorite outside-of-Oaxaca craft beer so far is Insurgentes (from Baja) Nocturna, a Black IPA that is a great blend of bitter porter with a strong hop finish. A happy surprise to find craft beer on such a strong trajectory in Mexico this year!

Diego’s Pyramid of Art: Anahuacalli

The sun is closer here, walking across this dark volcanic square. Rhythmic footsteps set to laughter spill from a dance class in a low building at one corner. We catch our breath and a glug of water on two incongruous wooden deck chairs, a respite under this shade umbrella we swung our way. In front of us rises the modern black towering pyramid that houses Diego Rivera’s pre-Hispanic collection, Anahuacalli.


The climb inside begins in the cool dark; shadowy stone god-animal figures rest on outcroppings from the walls and floor between abstract obsidian objects, mosaics in the ceiling form swirling images in shades of dusk. Even the windows down here appear to be stone, a murky ochre stained glass against the shadows. Following the roughly hewn galleries through low temple doors, passing from one god’s domain to the next, the brightly lit cases multiply, walls filled with organized yet unlabeled stone and pottery artifacts found nameless.

The staircase to the next level reaches up, narrowing sharply at a halfway landing at ceiling height and marching up single-file to more rooms of pottery, figures, characters large and small engaged in every human activity. The narrow windows are brighter, even moreso on the next level as the ceiling murals too grow in colorful enthusiasm. Animals, less god-like, and faces of the old, of caring and of fear. Long galleries down either side open up to the outside greenery originally hidden downslope from the edifice.

Head massage Seated figures Birds and mugs Fear

In the great middle of this pyramid we remove our shoes to join other stockingfooted visitors on a vast satellite image of the city laminated across the floor of this open ballroom and its vestibules, overlaid almost entirely with the black lake of prehistory, and the temples of antiquity outlined as sparse tiny wooden walls we step over gingerly as giants. Vertical windows stretching three stories above us illuminate the room brightly, and above our heads stretch Diego’s sketches for murals to be. Our socks slide noiselessly across the smooth floor to see the immense humanscapes from new perspectives. The unfinished work of this world reflects in the featureless ceiling.

Diego Rivera's sketches

The final course of narrow steps opens to a large stone terrace open to the sky: the mosaic murals are now beneath our feet, and the city is visible in all directions beyond the hilltop’s green preserve. We soak in the sun until we must wind our way back into the rock and seek that shade and water.

Emerging from Anahuacalli pyramid

Xochimilco and Museo Dolores Olmedo

A week ago our morning began with a walk to the nearby light rail trolley stop, on a line that starts from our corner of Coyoacán and terminates further to the southeast at the center of Xochimilco, a bustling market square, colonial churches, and the last remaining section of city canals and island cropland (chinampas). The canals are well known for the brightly colored flat-bottomed boats that launch from near Xochilmilco’s town center, and on weekends they are a jumble of punters with groups of frolickers seated along the covered central tables of the boats plied with food and drink by passing boats.

Canal boats Tying up

We disembarked the crowded two-car trolley (rides are half the price of the Metro system, and extend beyond its reach) a few stops before this hubbub and climbed the stairs across the tracks and up a short hill to briefly stop outside the former home of anthropologist Isabel Kelly, an engrossing personality from Stephanie’s research. Her private home’s facade is well-maintained and recognizable from the archival photos. The neighborhood becomes even more hilly here, and we followed the curves and dips of the side streets towards the former home of the much more widely known Dolores Olmedo, patron and friend of Diego Rivera.

Isabel Kelly's former home

Now a sprawling grounds and museum of the extensive collection of Rivera and Kahlo works which once filled her personal rooms, the initial impression is of a lush walled hacienda with strutting peacocks everywhere. Once the most flamboyant birds blocking your path are circumnavigated (rotating their arcs of feathers to follow your progress), you see them down each grassy corner, atop the hedges, atop the roofs and steeples. Finally as you approach the extravagant central dwellings and courtyards, you encounter Diego’s favorite breed of hairless dogs playing next to a bronze statue of their own kind (yes, all but one of these dogs is alive).

Peacocks on everything Roof peacock One hairless dog statue

Such a large collection of Rivera’s work forces you to confront the wide range of styles and experiences in his art. From early adult years in France and impressionistic to cubist still life and portraits, realistic to swoopingly abstract nudes, brightly colored bundled sledding children from a later visit to Russia, and the flowing strength in the human shapes of his industrial and historical memorializing murals, here represented by wall-sized paper-and-branch outlines and sketches. Olmedos house crows with an earlier era of wealth, even as Rivera’s art draws you into a folkart, indigenous, and communistic future.

A house full of Rivera So much ivory Oaxacan Tree of Life Celebratory Skeletons

Manifestación, José Clemente Orozco

The remaining walk to Xochimilco Centro is alive with today’s pseudonymous spray-painted murals. On a slow day like this there are taxis waiting two train stops away with placards for the canal boats, hoping to find misplaced tourists. As expected, the market and street stalls boomed and spilled into the hot street, bringing traffic to a snail’s pace as we wove alongside buses and between perfect stacks of oranges and mangoes. The boatdocks hidden down alleyways towards the canals were full of empty boats and quiet, waiting for the weekend.

Skate park art Street art Gecko street art
Street art Revolution or death
Canal boats at rest

Amatista Tostadas Coyoacán

The brightly painted door is open, though the placard reads “cerrado”. A lone waitress wipes the last of six white tables pressed against either blue tile wall.
“Please come back in five minutes.”
We buy tomatoes a few corners away and return. “Closed” still hangs in the window, but she waves us towards a table. The painted front window signs reflect the name and the menu right-way round again in the eye-level mirrors reaching back along both walls.
“The lunch menu, it comes with two tostadas?”
“Only one.”
“That’s fine.”
The waitress reminds us of old friends, strong and tattooed and perhaps as comfortable on the frontier as on this street rumbling with buses. A sweet creamy dressing tempts from the table in anticipation of the salad. Two enameled bowls, layers and spokes of crunch and fruit, greens and citrus, black and white. We find new tastes in each uncovering. Neatly drilled mason jars of playfully inventive agua fresca up through colorful straws. Each table is neatly set with four chairs, a pitcher of dried flowers loosely matched. We are the only diners, the owner comes to greet us, we lie and say we are from Chicago as a pact against blank stares for Atlanta.
“Thank you for opening early for us.”
“Oh we opened on time, but thank you for noticing the sign.”
As she flips it over while sliding the door closed to keep out the summer chill. She returns to the table nearest the open kitchen. A woman enters, leaves, returns; a pair of animated women sit across. The soup is simple and filling, a nod to experimentation hidden in a wave of cumin. Salsa, smoke and vinegar, the heat to follow. The owner asks if we enjoyed the salad, too late I remember,
“I do not have the words.”
Lingering memories of flavor as our tostadas pile higher in preparation, elegantly delicate presentation of basic simple food. A shot of broth and beans accompany the sqaure tortillas to echo the midpoint between soup and sandwich we have mmm’ed halfway through, trading first bites, exchanging plates for the last. All the tables full and humming now. Dessert is sufficiently small and light. As we finish I ask the owner,
“Lemon and what else?”
“Chia, it is a seed.”
“Ah, yes, a small black seed.”

Connie and Leonora

Connie joined us for our first week in Mexico City, flying down in the afternoon the day after our own arrival. A bright “I made it!” grin on her face and that of her taxi driver, a common side effect of successfully navigating a new destination without a common language other than smiling and waving.

In the months before our trip, she had become fascinated by the life and art of Leonora Carrington, a surrealist artist who called Mexico City home for most of her adult life. Connie shared with us how much she loved the story of a strong woman artist, the sacrifices she’d made to remain independent and creative, and the range of powerful mythological and indigenous imagery present in Leonora’s work. This excitement infected us too in anticipation of our visit to this magical metropolis, and we quickly made plans to share our time and lodgings in order to experience Leonora’s city with Connie.

A great bronze sculpture by Leonora sits prominently along the Paseo de la Reforma in the center of Mexico City. Originally installed in a fountain of Chapultepec park, it now sits in the pedestrian boulevard at Havre. Apparently Lewis Caroll’s whimsy was a recurring source of inspiration for Leonora, this piece is often referred to as “Cocodrilo” but the full title is “How Doth The Little Crocodile…”. We walked up from the metro stop Insurgentes, sunshine warming the pedestrian mall of Zona Rosa and dappling the Paseo’s wide walkway. As we neared the statue, the roadway was closed and filled with a long line of riot cops stretching to the ongoing protests for the now-nine-months-missing Ayotzinapa 43, beneath a banner declaring “Government and Education should not Assassinate.”. The crocodiles of the statue are frozen above our heads rowing away from this memorial and back towards the Angel and forest of Chapultepec.

Leonora’s former home in Mexico City is a reasonable twenty minute walk from the Paseo, south of the Insurgentes station on the small side street Chihuahua. Nearby a delicious-smelling bakery’s delivery fleet of bicycles were just heading out with baskets. Much of the neighborhood is rebuilt following the ’85 earthquake, but it is possible to imagine Leonora living behind the remaining simple facade here until her death in 2011. After a further walk among the figs and hibiscus flowers of Avenida Amsterdam’s garden-like path, we enjoyed a favorite lunch of tacos al pastor at El Califa and returned home to discuss Leonora’s surrealist influences from alchemy to mythology.

Bakery bicycle delivery
El Califa classic

One of our favorite educational stops here is the National Anthropology Museum, an overwhelmingly massive building featuring indigenous pre-conquest and modern-day artifacts from all regions of Mexico. In 1963 Leonora was commissioned to paint a mural for the Mayan exhibit, and she traveled to the state of Chiapas for inspiration and folklore research, resulting in “The Magical World of the Mayans”. Luck was on our side in finding this complexly surreal mural in the museum as it recently left Mexico for the first time to be exhibited at London’s Tate Liverpool, but it was waiting unmistakably for us on the second floor. The detail and energy of the piece absorbed us for thirty minutes at the end of our anthropological tour, so many strange faces, animals, and mystery blended in her interpretation of heaven, earth, and the underworld.

At the National Anthropology Museum
The Magical World of the Mayans

Two other museum experiences anchored Connie’s visit to the time and place of Leonora’s Mexico City. The Museum of Modern Art, though it did not have any of Leonora’s work on display, presented two fitting exhibits: A large collection of Giséle Freund’s documentary photography featuring Mexican artists, studio spaces, and exhibitions; and an assortment of films about artists featured Remedios Varos and David Alfaro Siqueiros alongside several of their works.

On Connie’s last day with us, we returned to Frida Kahlo’s home and museum (La Casa Azul), a short walk from our apartment. Every time I’ve been inside is so peaceful despite its popularity, it must have been a marvelous place to live and create through the pain; a wonderful light-filled studio and kitchen, and a garden courtyard filled with greenery, running water, and the omnipresent dark volcanic stone of Mexico City.

In Frida Kahlo's Blue Courtyard

Films for Latin American History Courses

Each year, I teach several Latin American History Courses. These include Colonial Latin America, Modern Latin America, Modern Mexico, US-Latin American Relations, Health and Society in Latin America, and Latin American Revolutions.

In each of these classes, my students respond really well to the films and documentaries we watch. I enjoy helping them connect the historical events we discuss in class with real and fictionalized accounts of everyday life in Latin America, and also to see (usually for the first time) the many environments that make up the cities and villages of the region.

Guided by my constant search for new films to use, and a desire to develop a future course on Latin American History through Film, I’ve decided to start my own Latin American Film Club to make my way through a collection of new-to-me cinema. I compiled my list based on recommendations from colleagues, and welcome any additional suggestions you might have.

I won’t post a review of each one here, but I will give my (brief) thoughts on my twitter account as I go along. Follow me at @steph_opp

For consideration:

A Place Called Chiapas


Amores Perros

And Starring Pancho Villa as Himself

Black Orpheus

Blame it on Fidel

Bolivar Soy Yo

Bus 174


Carmen Miranda: Bananas Is My Business


City of God


Cooking Up Dreams

El Infierno

El Silencio de Neto

Entre Nos

Eva Peron

Fidel: A Conversation

Fidel: The Untold Story

Four Days in September

Gringo in Mananaland

How Tasty Was My Little Frenchman

La Ciénaga

Let’s Go with Pancho Villa

Looking for Fidel


Memories of Underdevelopment

Men with Guns


Our Lady of the Assassins

Pictures from a Revolution

Presumed Guilty

Que Viva Mexico

Rosario Tijeras

Saludos Amigos/Three Caballeros

Strawberry and Chocolate

The Blonds

The Devil’s Miner

The Last Supper

The Official Story

The Other Conquest

The Revolution Will Not Be Televised

The Student

The Take

The Year My Parents Went on Vacation

Vidas Secas

Walt and El Grupo


Currently use:

Aguirre, Wrath of God


El Compadre Mendoza

Even the Rain


Herod’s Law

Innocent Voices

Journey to Bananaland

Like Water for Chocolate


Sin Nombre

South of the Border

The Hugo Chavez Show (Frontline)

The Motorcycle Diaries

The Sixth Sun

The Storm that Swept Mexico


An autumn walk

Along the creek

The rain came early this morning, leaving space for a mild dry partly cloudy afternoon. After spending much of the day reading, we headed out for a walk. Our trees have left about half their leaves in our yard so far – or rather, half the trees have lost most of their leaves, and the other half are saving them for sometime less convenient in the winter. Neighbors have waist-high leaf piles bordering the road, or are holding out for one big rake.

Creek trail fall colors

Our house is between two brushy creeks on the west side of town, and a handful of powerline easements criss-cross on their way to the power substation to the east. As we walked along the unexplored loops and cul-de-sacs near but new to us, I eyed what I’d hoped to find: an access path towards one of the creeks without a house or private property no trespassing sign.

Quiet, only the most occasional glimpse of a roof or a sewer pipe crossing the creek, and wonderful woods smells and fall colors. A surprising splash of wild hidden within town, and a crisp but comfortable day for discovering it.

We eased back through a field along a powerline and back to the road, continuing our walk into dusk until our looping traipsing returned us home.

Creek trail fall colors

Getaway to Savannah

For our anniversary this year, Luke and I drove the easy 2.5 hours east to the Georgia coast. After lovely stays in Charleston and New Orleans, we were excited to explore Savannah…the third point in the triangle of southern colonial cities. I booked a room at the Catherine Ward House Inn based on the recommendation of The Southerly, a beautiful photo blog that serves as a permanent source of inspiration. We were not disappointed.

Catherine Ward House Inn

Catherine Ward House Inn

The Inn is adjacent to Forsyth Park, making it the perfect central location for exploring the city on foot. The weather was sunny and warm, and it was lovely to take our time meandering up and down the grids and small squares that connect the area.

Forsyth Park Savannah

Forsyth Park, Savannah

Juliette Low

Juliette Low and Stephanie in appropriate Girl Scout green

We were surprised and delighted to learn that the Savannah Jazz Festival was taking place over the weekend, offering free Jazz music in the park from midday to midnight. After sampling a few beers at The Distillery, we made our way to Parker’s Market for gourmet picnic items and headed to the park in time to hear Alon Yavnai with the University of North Florida Jazz Ensemble followed by The Greg Lewis Trio.

UNF Jazz Ensemble at Savannah Jazz Festival

Before the night ended, we decided to check out Perch, the rooftop bar of Local 11ten. Fancy cocktails in the treetops and fantastic people-watching, it was the perfect way to celebrate a great day in Savannah.

The next morning, after a delicious breakfast and pleasant conversations with the other guests at the Inn, we drove over to Bonaventure Cemetery to walk through the trees and tombstones in the vein of John Muir.

Bonaventure Cemetery

Bonaventure Cemetery

Bonaventure Cemetery

Bonaventure Cemetery

We also drove over to Tybee Island to stick our feet in the ocean and enjoy the sunshine and fresh air.

Tybee Island beach

Tybee Island beach

At Tybee Island

At Tybee Island

We sat outside of a local bar and enjoyed margaritas with chips and salsa while daydreaming about kayaking through the nearby marshes. On the way back into town, we stopped at Back in the Day Bakery for what I can honestly say is the best cupcake I’ve ever had. And, like every other great place we visited in town, they had the most beautiful antique chandeliers lighting up the place.

Back in the Day Bakery

Back in the Day Bakery

That night, we took a Savannah Hopper down to the river and enjoyed a celebratory meal at the Olde Pink House. Our driver shared ghost stories with us along the ride and encouraged us to check out the basement bar of the restaurant to experience stepping back in time. Dinner was lovely, crab stuffed grouper for me and halibut with pearl onions and green beans for Luke, and the bar downstairs quaint but crowded. We opted instead to walk the streets of the city and window shop.

Dressed up


We tried to find a place for a nightcap that matched our quiet, romantic mood, but instead ended up in a loud, expensive “jazz” bar filled with bachelorette parties and octogenarians performing covers of all the slow jams by the Eagles. We left after one overpriced drink and made it back to Forsyth Park to enjoy the last act of the Festival, Tom Scott with The Savannah Jazz Orchestra. The Inn was close enough that, even after leaving the park, we could still listen to the music while sitting in rocking chairs on the front porch before climbing into bed.

The weekend was full of great food and drink, fresh air, beautiful surroundings, and heartfelt talks. All the things we love.

*All photo credits: Luke

Grape Island, Boston Harbor

On the return drive from Maine we camped on an island in the Boston Harbor.

The view to Boston

Grape Island is one of the smaller islands accessible by ferry in the Boston Harbor Islands park. At one time a hay farm, the island is low and covered mostly in sumac and fruit trees, with plenty of wildlife, a surprising number of moonflowers along the shoreline, and yes a few grape-covered arbors. The grass-covered paths cut through the 40 acres of the island’s interior reminded us almost of an English garden, so quiet, neat, and full of life.

You must carry in and out everything you need on the island, our one night stay only needed some water and the makings for a cheese and sausage platter dinner. We took the ferry from Hingham, a 10 minute ride and the first stop among the islands from this direction. There are 10 campsites on the island, only 4 were occupied for our stay, and for the most part we seemed to have the island to ourselves. The majority of our time between setup and dark was spent exploring the entire perimeter of the island, enjoying the fine gravel beach and the full transition from low to high tide.

Looking for rocks
Boulders revealed by low tide
The isthmus nearly gone
Sunset is coming

In the evening a thunderstorm rolled by, a refreshing shower on the rocks for a few minutes and beautiful lightning in the distance. After a few minutes it had passed and the sun returned. A rare perfect moment in life.

Rain on a tidepool
Embracing the rain