Feathered Plumage: Rebozos in Ahuiran, Michoacan

Grand Master of Mexican Folk Art Cecelia Bautista Caballero is recognized for her outstanding creativity and innovation. About 30 years ago she developed a weaving technique to re-introduce the feathered plumage of Purepecha royalty into the rebozos (shawls) she makes on the back-strap loom.

Our Michoacan study tour leads us to a humble home on a side street off the central plaza in the tiny village of San Mateo Ahuiran on the Purepecha Plateau. We want to meet, embrace and support this amazing, talented woman. We want to know her daughters who carry on the tradition.

Three thousand threads of fine cotton make up the warp of this back-strap loom. It can take two or three months to weave the cloth, then another two months to hand-knot the elaborate fringes called the punta.

Angeles Rodriguez Bautista, Cecelia’s daughter, demonstrates back-strap loom weaving

We want to explore a region whose DNA is thought to originate from Siberia, when the Bering Straits were a land bridge that brought people to the shores of North America.

Cecelia Bautista Caballero with Norma Schafer in Ahuiran

Cecelia Bautista Caballero is a living treasure. She enters the dimly lit room with a broad smile to welcome us. She is radiant. The light follows her. A rebozo is slung over her shoulder like a backpack. It bulges like a sack of avocados. She drops it’s weight onto a small, wood table and unwraps the folds to reveal a treasure trove of rebozos she has personally woven.

Donna, Linda, Winn modeling feather rebozos, with Angeles

Despite suffering a stroke that leaves its mark on the right side of her face, Cecelia is still productive. Weaving is her life’s work, her self-expression, her passion. With pride, she tells us how she created the feathered trim in the tradition of her ancestors, using turkey, rooster and bird feathers that are either natural or dyed with local plant tints.

Cecelia’s niece Bertha Estrada Huipe, with Carolyn who bought Bertha’s rebozo

One reason we gravitate to visiting small villages is for the satisfaction of meeting the maker and buying directly from them. We know their prices are fair and just. We know that what we buy will help them feed their families and reinvest in materials. There is something special in this exchange, more than a transaction of money for product. It is filled with appreciation and love.

Even more than this, the journey feels like a pilgrimage to pay personal homage to talented people. Sometimes this journey takes hours or days. We are like explorers, uncovering the past and investing in the future.

We traveled to Ahuiran from Uruapan, designated a Pueblo Magico for its outstanding national park Caputitzio, known for stunning waterfalls. This was our base for two nights as we explored the area after leaving the Monarch Butterfly sanctuaries.

This brought us closer to the indigenous town of Paracho, where we watched luthiers make guitars, violins, mandolins, and other string instruments. The main street is lined with craftsmen fulfilling special orders for musicians around the world.

Fragile, Glorious Monarch Butterflies in Michoacan, Mexico

We are in sacred space. Coming to Mineral de Angangueo is like making a pilgrimage. Here in the winter home of the Monarch Butterfly — Mariposa Monarca — these glorious insects hang in colonies like giant grape clusters, suspended from the branches of majestic Douglas fir trees. We are at 10,000 feet altitude. The height is dizzying. The spectacle even more so. A million wings beating that together sound like raindrops.

At the El Rosario Monarch Butterfly Reserve

I hear the heartbeat of Mother Nature. I hear the natural cycle of life. I feel the will to live. I see small, fragile, glorious golden insects that travel up to 3,000 miles to this sanctuary. This is a cycle repeated over thousands of years. From Canada to the United States to Mexico and back again.

This is a survival mission that depends on habitat and escape from natural predators. We are witness to life. It reminds me to be vigilant about conserving our resources. We are at the edge. Perhaps past it.

The orange you see are hundreds of butterfly wings.

Fear of Monarch Butterfly extinction because of milkweed extermination from insecticides. Yet, the population this year increased 144%. Why? It is a mystery. The Michoacan colonies were not discovered until the 1970’s, relatively recently.

Monarch butterflies drinking from a creek, Michoacan, Mexico

This is the year of the butterfly in Mexico. A local trail guide says there are between 900,000 and 120 million here. It is warm. Sunny. Perfect. The future is unpredictable.

Clustered colonies of butterflies, dark shadows against a pure blue sky

On the first day into butterfly territory, our group of ten women participating with me on our Michoacan Folk Art and Butterfly Study Tour enter the sanctuary at El Rosario. It is the largest and most easily accessible of those in the region. Our amazing, knowledgeable Patzcuaro guide, Jaime Hernandez Balderas of Animecha Tours, leads the way.

We ride horseback into remote Sierra Chincua Monarch Butterfly Reserve
The Gang of Five Butterfly Navigators to Sierra Chincua: Cindy, Donna, Susan, Susie, Norma

On the second day, five of us (plus Jaime) continue on to Sierra Chincua, a smaller, more remote site, accessible only by horseback and foot. I hadn’t been on a horse since I rode in Griffith Park, Los Angeles, as a young teen. The adventure of butterfly discovery was heightened by the experience of riding down dusty, rocky slopes to where only few go.

Fallen Monarchs at trailside, taken by birds and mice

We wear masks to protect us from the dusty trail that leads down into the reserve where the butterfly colonies roost. The colonies can move. Huge, living organisms of beating wings in the tree-tops from January through March each year.

Deep into the Douglas Fir forest, a sacred sanctuary

Basic facts about Monarch Butterflies

Sierra Chincua is deep in the forest. Trees become a cathedral with sunlight filtering through fir needles. Here it is quieter. People are more reverential. The viewing site is small, room enough for perhaps twenty people. We look down the hillside and are at eye level with the clusters of the colonies. They look like large black sacks against the blue sky backdrop. I see distant volcanic mountains. Breathe deeply. Take it in. Want it to stay with me. This meditation on the extraordinary.

I pull out my binoculars and focus skyward. In the shadows of the clusters I see the veins of thousands, wings pulsing, undulating. I look to the light and see the miraculous orange wings. A wind comes up and the wings pulse in rapid succession. The trees move to bring in more sun. Insects take flight. It looks like a shimmering sea of gold.

I’d say this is a bucket list experience.

Me and Winn on horseback, preparing to ride to to the colonies

There is no telling what the future will bring for these creatures as global warming encroaches, as pollution impacts our environment, as chemicals destroy habitat.

We meet a local Angangueo woman along the trail who safeguards the path

The indigenous people of the region say that the butterflies are the souls of our loved ones. One of our travelers says that if you don’t believe in God, you will now. Regardless of religion or belief system, being here is transcendent, resplendent, reverent. It is a sanctuary where the spiritual envelops us. Each moment here offers hope for survival and continuity.

Donna emerges from photographing a butterfly

I want to recommend that you read Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver, and that you read about the Monarch Butterfly migration from Mexico to the USA, then to Canada and back again.

Tamale Day, Candlemas and Masks in Patzcuaro, Michoacan

February 2, or Candlemas, is celebrated throughout the Catholic world as the end of the Christmas season. It marks the 40 days after the birth of Jesus, when Mary goes to the Temple in Jerusalem to purify herself.

In Hebrew tradition, this is the mikveh ritual bath. In Catholicism, it has become embedded in the cyclical annual calendar that marks the story of the birth, death and resurrection of Jesus.

Who could resist this one? Reminds me of papier-mache masks in Venice, Italy

In the mask-making village of Tocuaro, just outside Patzcuaro along the lake, master wood-carvers make masks depicting the devil. The masks become part of an elaborate costume for Candlemas re-enactment in the church courtyard on February 2, starting at 5 p.m.

Elaborate, wood carved mask with embellishment

The re-enactment is like a play that depicts the forces of good and evil. The hero Michael Arcangel fights and slays Lucifer, represented by three devils, forever banishing them from earth to the underworld. The masks and costumes are elaborate and scary, especially for children.

Getting his mask fitted

During the conquest, throughout Mexico, priests from the Dominican, Franciscan and Augustinian orders, integrated Catholic rites with indigenous practices. This is called syncretism.

Mask-maker Maestro Felipe Horta, Tucuaro
This guy is scary — elaborate costume with horned mask

Candlemas marks the end of winter and the beginning of the planting season when days begin to lengthen and the earth warms for plowing. In ancient times, this was signaled by the alignment of the stars of Orion.

A whirling Lucifer with eagle wings spread
Lucifer and the shepherds

With the conquest, the agricultural cycle aligns with the Christian calendar and the beginning of Lent. Spiritual forces of light prevail and overcome darkness, allowing the “light of Jesus” to enter the world.

At the 40-day mark, Mary brings baby Jesus to the Temple for the priestly blessing, bringing candles for the altar. Hence the name Candlemas. The term Pastorela refers to procession of shepherds who accompany her. This officially marks the end of the Christmas season and the beginning of the next cycle, the Easter season.

We learn all this through our Patzcuaro guide Jaime Hernandez Balderas as our Michoacan Folk Art Study Tour participants enjoyed an afternoon with famed mask-maker Felipe Horta and his family before going to the Pastorela at the church.

Why is February 2 called Tamale Day in Mexico?

In Europe, bread is the offering. In Mexico, it is corn. Let’s go back to Christmas and January 6, Three Kings Day or Epiphany. Every family celebrates by eating a piece of Rosca de Reyes. Hidden inside is a baked-in plastic figure of baby Jesus. Whomever gets the little doll is blessed with providing tamales for the entire family on Candlemas. Sometimes, this requires feeding several hundred people. So, now, we can find eight or ten figures baked inside the large round loaf to spread the expense.

Rosca de Reyes, Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca
Elaborate eagle and serpent cape worn by a Lucifer

Afro-Mexicans on Oaxaca’s Costa Chica, Museum of Afro-Mestizo Culture

Mexico is a true melting pot. Her people are a fusion of ethnicities, races, and cultures originating from Asia, Europe, and Africa mingling with America’s First Peoples. The Spanish brought slaves from the Philippines and China, while Portuguese traders imported forced labor from Africa to work Mexico’s sugar cane fields and cattle ranches when indigenous people couldn’t survive disease.

Mexican President Vicente Guerrero, Afro-Mexican roots and abolitionist

A very important, and heretofore unacknowledged part of Mexican history, is the slave experience in Mexico and the development of communities on the Oaxaca-Guerrero coast formed by people who escaped from the Veracruz cane fields. The Museo de las Culturas Afromestizas — the Afro-Mestizo Museum — in Cuajiniculapa, Guerrero, just across the Oaxaca border, gives voice to those who helped shape Mexican identity and honors their historic role.

Read here to learn more about Afro-Mexicans.

Spanish-speaking museum guide explains mural significance
Africans built thatch-roofed houses, a reminder of home

Our Oaxaca Coast Textile Study Tour group stops here on our five-hour return trip to Puerto Escondido from Ometepec. Knowing all of Oaxaca and her roots is important to us. We learn about and understand the contributions of Afro-Mexicans to Mexico’s music, dance, dress, and cuisine.

Read New Yorker magazine essay about Afro-Mexican life on the Costa Chica.

Slaves escaped to Oaxaca-Guerrero coast from Veracruz, introduced Devil Dance

Please send me an email if you are interested in traveling here in 2020. I will only offer this study tour if there are 6 people making a $500 reservation deposit to guarantee we will hold the trip. Likely dates are January 10-20, 2020.

Close up of Oaxaca’s famous Danza de Los Diablos Devil Dance, a Guelaguetza favorite

Meaning of the Danza de los Diablos.

Portuguese slave ship, tragedy of human bondage

Read Culture Trip article about Afro-Mexican origins and pride.

We also see through the dioramas and explanation from our museum guide that institutionalized slavery has left its mark on Mexico just as it has in the United States. The colonizers, be they British or Spanish, used forced human labor to advance their economic and social agendas. Hundreds of years later, isolation, poverty, lack of education and health care, has left its mark, making this region among the most impoverished in Mexico.

Enslaved blacks in American South sought freedom in Mexico, perhaps a reason for the Mexican-American War?

The marimba, an African import along with slavery

There is a movement to give Afro-Mexicans the federal recognition and support they deserve that will help improve quality of life and economic opportunity.

I stepped up onto the hollow wood box to learn the dance of the region. I’m writing from Morelia, Michoacan, left my Costa Chica notebook at home, and will add the name of our thoughtful guide later.

African slaves employed in Mexico’s sugar cane field, silver mines, cattle ranches
In storage, the Son Jorocho musical style with stringed instrument brought from Africa

A must-read is Afro-Mexicans Exist, So We Must Stop Referring to Mexico as a Mestizo Nation by Shanna Collins. This offers important insight into how embedded African roots are in Mexican life and culture. Her argument is that the term Mestizo completely ignores how the role of slaves influenced modern Mexico.

Contemporary graphic art interprets African experience in Mexico

The small museum, just off coastal route MEX 200, is a testimony to the history of enslavement and courage. It opens our eyes and hearts, gives us perspective and enriches our travel experience.

Devil Dance woodcut by artist
Museum mural gives life to Afro-Mexican experience

Where Flowers Grow on Cloth: Flor de Xochistlahuaca

The Amusgo people span the states of Oaxaca and Guerrero in the mountain region of the Costa Chica between Puerto Escondido and Acapulco. They are back-strap loom weavers of an extraordinary garment called the huipil. This particular textile is fine gauze cotton, a loose weave, to offer comfort to the hot, humid climate. Even in winter, a light-weight covering is preferred.

Gretchen with her fabulous native green and coyuchi cotton shawl, doll and weavers
Beautiful embroidered bodice of under-slip

Our group of eleven travelers made our way up the coast over a six-day period to explore the textile villages of the region. Xochistlahuaca was our northernmost destination.

Understanding the weaving process, time it takes to make
Left, textile dyed with indigo with native coyuchi and white cotton, right, natural dyes

I have known about this cooperative Flor de Xochistlahuaca for years. They participated in Oaxaca City expoventas at the Museo Textil de Oaxaca, and at the Santa Fe International Folk Art Market. Social entrepreneurs and textile consultants Ana Paula Fuentes and Maddalena Forcella worked with the cooperative, too, to help them develop marketing, promotion and economic development plans.

Wearing glorious textiles, surrounded by glorious textiles

When we arrive, the director Yessie greeted us warmly and introduced us to many of the 39 cooperative members who were there to meet us. They range in age from young adults to aging grandmothers. They are talented spinners and weavers, and their design and color sensibility is unparalleled.

Talking and listening, sharing stories about our lives

What was remarkable about this visit is that we sat opposite each other, face to face, gave self-introductions, and had an opportunity to learn about the role and life of women in the village and our experience as women living in the USA and Canada.

Examples of fine supplementary weft weaving from Flor de Xochistlahuaca

I encourage our travelers to think of ourselves as amateur cultural anthropologist, to ask the people we meet about what they love about their work and home life. They are curious about us and we answer their questions. We are curious about them, the challenges they face, the dreams they have for their children, and what they want to improve quality of life. We are there to learn, listen, understand, share and also support by buying direct from the makers.

A native green cotton shawl on the loom, almost completed
A simple vase with native coyuchi and white cotton on stems

We tell them our ages and where we are from. We share our marital status: widowed, married, divorced, always single. We learn that collectively we are similar. One woman says she never married because she didn’t want a husband directing her life and taking her money.

The dialog exchange at Flor de Xochistlahuaca

Among our group are weavers, dyers, sewers, collectors, teachers, writers, lovers of beautiful cloth. They are culture-keepers who spend days taking care of family, cleaning, cooking, shopping, doing laundry. The cooperative gives them the freedom to weave uninterrupted several days a week and get away from the responsibilities of taking care of others. Women rotate being there. They say it gives them a sense of independence and camaraderie.

Innovating new products: Dolls with traditional cloth
Linda with her purchases and the women who made them

Over lunch at a local comedor we talk about life differences and similarities. Some say it appears that village life is more simple and we dig deeper into what that means. I think it is more basic but it is not more simple. As foreigners living in the frenzy of post-industrial, consumer-based, technology-focused environments, we have a tendency to romanticize what many call a simpler lifestyle. Many of us yearn for that.

Completing the finishing touches — seam embellishments

Women’s lives are complex whether we live in Xochistlahuaca, Guerrero, or Chicago, Illinois. We worry about our children, their education, health care, whether there is enough money for essentials and extras. We work at home or outside the home or both. Maybe we have aging parents who need care or an alcoholic or abusive spouse, or a child with special needs. We have dreams that may never be realized.

As we travel through the textile world of Oaxaca, doors open to us to connect and understand, offering a richer travel experience.

Native white and coyuchi brown cotton on the backstrap loom

Let me know if you would like to travel with us on a January 2020 Oaxaca Coast Textile Study Tour. Send me an email. I will only offer this trip if there are 6 people ready to make a $500 deposit to secure a reservation.

Only another hour to go!
The most delicious pozole ever for lunch
Locally baked bread, Xochistlahuaca
The restaurant owner wearing her daily commercial lace dress, with daughter