The Zapotec Ruin at Mitla, with a Federally Licensed Guide
with his family, in our home
Arreortua Jimenez has been a federally licensed tour guide
working at the Mitla archaeological zone in Oaxaca, since
1997. Being able to guide tourists in English, French, Italian,
and of course in Spanish, is quite a feat for anyone, let
alone a Zapotec native who grew up in the village of Capulalpam
de Mendez (now designated a pueblo magico or magical
village by the government of Mexico). One would be hard-pressed
to find any other guide who works at Mitla on virtually a
daily basis, with Gilbertos credentials university
educated in linguistics, and lifetime student of archaeology.
Overview of the Zapotec Ruin of Mitla, Oaxaca
Mitla dates back about 1,000 years, perhaps less, and is thus
one of the more recent ruins within the context of Oaxacan
archaeology. However it was restored relatively early, at
the beginning of the 20th century while Mexico was under the
rule of Porfirio Diaz.
Mitla is the second most popular archaeological site in the
state of Oaxaca, after Monte Alban. Its a 50 minute
drive from the capital, along the popular Sunday route to
el Tule, Tlacochahuaya, the Tlacolula market, and various
other archaeological sites such as Dainzu, Lambityeco and
Yagul. Its also the take-off point for visiting the
Xaaga pictographs, the mezcal factories of San Lorenzo Albarradas
and San Jose del Rio, Hierve el Agua, and the Mixe District.
The main Mitla attractions include:
precision angles of the limestone walls and massive lintels,
and upwards of 100,000 small cut mosaic stones hand-formed
using rudimentary tools;
dry construction whereby the limestone pieces were fit into
clay, rather than affixed with mortar;
quality of some of the remaining painted glyphs;
church, constructed by the Dominicans in the 16th century,
on top of a Zapotec temple, using stones dismantled from
Zapotec buildings by the Spanish conquistadores.
Mitla Tour Guide: Family Background, Experience & Education,
Gilberto is 47 years old, married and has two children age
13 and seven months. His wife is employed in an administrative
capacity by the federal government.
Gilbertos family lives in a modest brick home in a working
class neighbourhood in Oaxacas east end, making for
an easy drive to Mitla. Im in the process of constructing
a rental building on land I own near El Tecnologico [a university],
for students and tourists, sort of a hostel, Gilberto
revealed one evening while visiting me with his wife, children
and nephew. Im not in a rush. Right now were
doing fine, and I know that with what weve already accomplished
our family will be well-provided for down the road.
At age six, Gilberto moved to Oaxaca from Capulalpam with
his parents and siblings. A year later his father died. His
mother died when he was 17, after which his older sister assumed
Gilberto doesnt attribute his parents influence
as the greatest determinant of his career path: I was
always interested in learning about foreign cultures and world
archaeology, from as young as I can remember, eager to look
at any books I could find; I suppose that interest lead to
wanting to learn different languages.
Gilberto studied languages for four years; hence, his proficiency
in English, Italian and French. A career in tourism was a
natural. In 1991 he began working at a travel agency, and
continued in that vocation for close to three years.
After Gilberto decided to become a licensed guide, rather
than take a formal course he self-taught, enabling him to
work while studying. After passing the exams and being certified
as a federally licensed tour guide, he began working throughout
the state in different capacities.
Gilberto eventually decided to work exclusively at Mitla:
Id already been a student of pre history,
and Im Zapotec, so deciding to work at Mitla was easy;
and of course not having to compete with several other guides
with linguistic proficiency like I would have had to do at
Monte Alban, made Mitla a logical choice.
Gilberto always has the economic well-being of his wife and
children as the primary focus in his life. Since hes
licensed to work as a guide anywhere in Mexico, when the opportunity
to guide a group of tourists to perhaps Monte Alban or Yagul,
or further abroad, Gilberto seizes the opportunity. But Mitla
is his bailiwick.
Work as a Federally Authorized Guide at Mitla, Oaxaca
Gilberto works with anywhere from a single tourist with a
keen interest in Oaxacan archaeology, to a large tour bus
group. But its when hes engaged by a couple, family
or small group that his breadth of knowledge emerges. He invests
the time to field a diversity of questions and provide detailed
answers, drawing on his knowledge of not only Zapotec, Mixtec
and other Oaxacan cultures, but also his ability to illustrate
contrasts with ancient Egyptian, Mayan and Inca civilizations,
as well as those in other parts of Mexico.
When studying for my exams, I also had to learn about
other world civilizations. However what I was required to
study was a fraction of my current knowledge base. I keep
up to date with scientific knowledge, and like to mull things
over. What we think we know about pre Hispanic cultures
is not entirely based on archaeological data; a lot is interpretation.
Its important to distinguish fact from conjecture. Im
always careful to do so when explaining Mitla.
Gilberto also keeps current with archaeological developments
by regularly attending conferences sponsored by the department
of tourism. When less than two years ago new archaeological
finds near the Yagul site were reported, it was important
for him to learn as much as possible through reading and seminars.
That new data helped to confirm what until then we could
only say was conjecture. For example, we had hypothesized
that the Zapotecs used ixtle [twine made from agave
leaves] to lift the multi-ton palace lintels into place, but
actually discovering 800 1,000 year old ixtle close
to Mitla elevated that knowledge into the category of extreme
probability, if not certainty.
Gilberto is easily engaged into discussion regarding his views
on the relationship between Zapotec ethnicity and Catholicism.
While there are pockets of Oaxacans which maintain a
strong cultural identity, I think Im different from
most, he confesses. Sure I have a cross and image
of The Virgin in my home, but being at Mitla day in and day
out, inevitably considering my ancestors, puts Catholicism
is a different light for me. Just ask Gilberto his thoughts
about the construction of the first Catholic church at Mitla,
right on top of a Zapotec pyramid.
Gilbertos fees for a guided tour of Mitla vary depending
on the number of people. Its well worth the investment,
making all the difference in your understanding of what youre
seeing, regardless of whether or not you have a guidebook
Machaya Oaxaca Bed & Breakfast ( http://www.oaxacadream.com
Starkman has been a fixture in Oaxaca since 1991, when he
first began visiting the city on a frequent basis. Now a permanent
resident of Oaxaca along with his wife Arlene, the two operate
Casa Machaya Oaxaca Bed & Breakfast (http://www.oaxacadream.com
), a quaint bed and breakfast just outside of downtown Oaxaca.
Alvin is the Oaxaca destination expert for a major international
travel website, writes about cultural traditions in Oaxaca,
consults to documentary production companies filming in Oaxaca,
and assists in arranging small group culinary tours of Oaxaca
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