Las Cuevitas, Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca, Mexico

They call it “the little caves.”  The road there curves through the village from the church, up the narrow cobblestone paved streets, crosses over a bridge, then becomes dirt at the outskirts of town.  If you closed your eyes, you could be in medieval Europe, but you are in southern Mexico and it is January 2.  No buses operate today.  The shops are closed.  Families are readying for the late afternoon pilgrimage to the caves to build their dreams from small stones and rocks scattered on the hillsides. Everyone goes together and participates, from infants to ancients.

Flags at Las Cuevitas

Today, I am sitting in my North Carolina living room for the first time in years that I have not been in Teotitlan for Las Cuevitas.  It is a family tradition we share with Federico and Dolores.  In homage to this, I write again about what it means to have family ritual, dreams and aspirations. I imagine I am there and today I will build my dreams in symbolic unity with my friends.

Line-up for Las Cuevitas

The road is packed with cars, trucks, vans, taxis, and tuk-tuks.  The walkers are in single file hugging the space between tall courtyard walls and street.  They can walk faster than we can ride, but the ritual is also in the getting-there.  Our small sedan holds seven people all adult-sized, three in front, four in back.  We are on top of each other.  Ahead of and behind us, the truck-beds are outfitted with chairs and benches to make the ride more comfortable for the older folks.  We park and walk to get in line to first make our prayers and offerings at the Cave of the Virgin.

Sparklers After Dark, Las Cuevitas, Teotitlan del Valle

This pre-Hispanic Zapotec worship site is simple and sacred.  The cave is a small grotto beside a creek.  Spanish Catholicism is overlaid atop ancient cultural practices with traditional religious symbols of the Virgin of Guadalupe and wood-carved crosses.  Yet, there is something more spiritual here than meets the eye.  As our line moves slowly toward the grotto, I scan the hillside as the sun begins to set.  The bonfires begin to glow in the dusk and children are playing with sparklers.  When we reach the shrine, we each add an offering of pesos to others along with an unspoken prayer for the new year.   The grotto is filled with coins, larger denomination peso paper bills, and dollars.  The pilgrimage attracts returning family members who live in the U.S., too.

Building Dreams, Las Cuevitas, Teotitlan del Valle

As we exit, we pass by the small chapel built into the hillside where the village band plays traditional Zapotec tunes and the food vendors have set-up tented  stalls.  The aroma of fresh tamales, churros, sweet buns, and tacos fill the air.  The pop of firecrackers add a perfect exclamation point.  Couples and families emerge from the chapel; women’s heads are covered with traditional Tenancingo ikat scarves.  The sun fades behind the hills and chill overtakes us.  The elders cover their shoulders with churro wool woven on local looms.  The youngsters bundle up in parkas and vests.

Lila Downs at Las Cuevitas, 2010, Wearing a Handwoven Poncho by Erasto "Tito" Mendoza

We climb the rocky hillside, picking our way carefully between the outcroppings and stone rubble of tumbled dreams from years past to find a spot to settle and build this year’s dream.  Around us, families huddle and build:  a house under construction needs a new roof; the unfinished third bedroom needs stucco and paint; the burro that died last summer needs replacement; grandfather’s land would be a perfect place for a new house.  The small rocks, sticks, moss and dried grasses become grand palaces with thatched roofs, corrals, cars and animals.  If you don’t build the dream here you won’t achieve it!

Building a new house

At this moment, there is a fire roaring in our North Carolina wood stove.  When sun sets in Teotitlan the fires will roar, the firecrackers will spark, and the sky will be lit with a million twinkling stars.  Extended families will visit, embrace their children, share food and a sip of mescal, and life will begin anew as the cycle of celebration and ritual continues.  On January 6 during the Day of the Three Kings, the Christmas season will close and families will gather again.

Traditional New Year Sugar Cookie, Las Cuevitas, Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca

Today, Stephen and I will go into the fields of our farm and gather stones to construct our dreams and make our wishes.

Prospero ano neuvo a todos.  May good health and contentment guide your path.

Our contribution to Las Cuevitas from Pittsboro del Valle

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4 Responses to Las Cuevitas, Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca, Mexico

  1. Hi Norma: Where does one go to purchase a poncho like the one Lila Downs is wearing.? Thank you, Susanne

    • Gad, girl. You will need a BIG budget for that poncho! At least a couple of thousand dollars. Go visit El Nahual Gallery on Av. Cinco de Mayo around the corner from Templo Santo Domingo. It is owned by Alejandrina and her husband Erasto “Tito” Mendoza. Tito wove the poncho that Lila is wearing. They have many beautiful things in their gallery. It is right next door to Galeria Fe y Lola, operated by Eric’s family and managed by his sister Janet. Say hello to all.

  2. Saludos Norma,

    The arrival of your post was serendipitous as I just returned from Teotitlan and las cuevitas. I’ve been teaching in Oaxaca for this past semester and ironically, my return flight was canceled yesterday which allowed me to join my colleague and his daughter as guests of the Mendoza family for the pilgrimage and the bolas del fuego. Your description captures the evening and your photo of Lila Downs last year is stunning. Incidentally, I believe I saw her yesterday in the crowd, although not wearing Erasto’s gorgeous poncho!

    best,
    Michael James

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