Monthly Archives: August 2013

Oaxaca Filigree Gold and Silver, Antique Jewelry, Pawn Shops and Prayer for Rain

Gold filigree earrings are a favorite of traditional indigenous women in villages throughout Oaxaca, Mexico.  Mexican gold filigree jewelry, usually 10k or 12k, is gifted at life cycle events and is an important part of engagement and marriage traditions.  Antique pieces are usually more costly because of the workmanship.

Antique 10k gold filigree earrings, Oaxaca, Mexico

Antique 10k gold filigree earrings, Oaxaca, Mexico

Filigrana, the art of working gold threads or coils into intricate designs, was brought to Mexico by the Spanish after the conquest.  The Spanish learned the technique from the Moors.  Master goldsmiths taught local craftsmen and the skill became a family trade handed down through the generations. Today, there are a few master craftsmen working in gold, but because of the cost many visitors to Oaxaca choose filigree worked in sterling silver.

New silver filigree earrings by Mario Perez

New silver filigree earrings by Mario Perez

One such filigree craftsman is Mario Perez, who shares a shop with famed woodcarver Jacobo Angeles on Macedonio Alcala.  Step inside to see how silver becomes bows from which dangle gemstones and colored glass, curlicues, birds, flowers and angels.  The designs are intricate and beautifully executed. Mario makes earrings, pendants, rings, and complete necklaces.

Be careful — cuidado — if you are shopping price, beware that there are knock-offs that are imported from China.  Yes, indeedy.

One of my favorite places to explore and window shop is the Casa de Empeño Monte Piedad.  This is a bonafide government owned/regulated pawn shop located at the corner of Macedonio Alcala and Morelos, and one of the biggest.  Doors close between 2:00 pm and 3:00 pm.  At the corner is the Caja, the payment center.  Walk two doors down on Morelos (toward Garcia Virgil) to see the display of goodies for sale — some upwards of $10,000 USD.

Small antique 10k gold and pearl filigree earrings, Oaxaca, pawn shop

Small antique 10k gold and pearl filigree earrings, Oaxaca, pawn shop

Everything is priced by weight.  If you are lucky, you might find an antique pair of gold filigrana earrings (like I did the other day) for well under $80 USD.  One of the pearls was missing but all the parts worked beautifully.  I walked to a small family operated jewelry shop a few blocks away from the Zocalo, asked if they did repairs, and twenty minutes later my earrings were fixed — better than new!.  Materials and labor: $8 USD.

The pawn shops are filled with merchandise now.  I don’t know why.  Maybe more people are out of work, or what grandmother liked the granddaughters don’t, or the Guelaguetza tourist season was underwhelming and families need cash.  There are other priorities besides jewelry.  Many Casa de Empeños are located throughout the city, especially near in the 20 de Noviembre market. Keep your eyes open. You may not need to buy retail if you admire the old artistry.

P.S. This is the rainy season and it is dry, dry, dry.  No rain for weeks.  The corn is yellowing and some fields are dead.  Today, my next door neighbor irrigated his field.  How?  Water from a well or flowing from the mountain reservoir. The water gushed down trenches dug yesterday.  This coming season will likely bring scarcity and high prices for maize.  When food costs soar, people will sell what is not essential.   Abundance in the pawn shops. Join me in the prayer for rain.  It is painful to watch the fields shriveling and giving up their promise of food.

Earrings, a Pendant, Dreams Realized: Sterling Silver Jewelry Workshop

Beryl Simon from Boston, Massachusetts, signed up with us to take a sterling silver jewelry making workshop before she visited Oaxaca.  She wrote:  I love working with silver! I have a passion for jewelry making and design, and would like to expand my skills. I also love the work created in this workshop that I see on-line.  I invited Beryl to write about her experience.


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My recent trip to Oaxaca with my husband was wonderful in every way, but the high point for me was a three-day lost wax sterling silver jewelry workshop with Brigitte Huet and Ivan Campant. My dream was to work hands-on and one-on-one with master craftsmen amidst the color and charm of this beautiful city. And I took away not only the memories and new skills, but also a rather-professional-looking sterling silver pendant and set of earrings that I will treasure forever.

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On Friday morning, Day One of the workshop, I started out by taxi from our city center B&B to their home studio in a nearby residential area.  In my enthusiasm, I arrived a bit early (sorry Brigitte!), but was welcomed with a cup of tea and an introduction to two aging, friendly and adorable dogs.  Then we got to work.

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Lost-wax carving is an ancient and venerable tradition. Brigitte and Ivan showed me techniques that combine both ancient and modern techniques.  It was fascinating. During the first day, I learned to carve a traditional design using simple tools.  I must confess that I have no talent for carving wax! But somehow, Brigitte, with her patience and clear instruction, helped make it work for me. The difficulty of the wax carving process and doing it well made me appreciate even more the talent required to craft one of Brigitte and Ivan’s gorgeous creations.

After a focused morning, we took a break for a delicious lunch, which we bought from a local street vendor.  Brigitte made a tasty agua fresca (fresh fruit and water) drink and the dogs entertained us with some very cute tricks. And then, back to work. casting md 5.melting silver md

Day Two, Saturday, was devoted to casting the silver using a hand-sling and a charcoal fire.  I also learned to use a more modern motorized centrifuge.  I doubt there are many places in the world where students can learn this traditional method. Slinging molten silver is exciting but rather scary, and I was glad that Ivan had me practice this skill using water, while he slung the real piece. It was magic plunging the mold into water and pulling out the completed silver “tree.”

When I saw the sterling pendant I created, I was amazed. (I should mention that the cost of the silver is part of the workshop fee, making this a remarkable value.)  Heating the mold for casting takes hours, and during the down time, Brigitte guided me through carving a second wax piece based on my own design. Someday, I hope to finish and cast this piece as well.

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I spent Day Three, Sunday, with master silversmith Ricardo. As a student silversmith, this was a particularly important time for me. Under Ricardo’s guidance I worked entirely hands-on, from melting and recycling silver into sheet and wire, through to a finished and professional-looking pair of traditional-style earrings. In the process I honed my existing skills and learned many new ones, raising my level from beginning silversmith to intermediate level. I doubt that I could have had one-on-one experience like this anywhere else in the world.

What I learned:

  • Melting and pouring silver into forms.
  • Pressing sheet and pulling wire.
  • Learning the correct way to use a saw. I no longer have fear of making complex forms.
  • Practicing techniques for piercing with drill and burr.
  • Creating texture with dapping and stamping.
  • Soldering.
  • Polishing, polishing, polishing.
  • Making simple granulation and filigree. Because I had some experience, Ricardo guided me through this process.

The result:   Beautiful earrings that I love, and skills that I can use forever. Thank you, Brigitte, Ivan and Ricardo, for this wonderful adventure!

Interested in taking this workshop? Email us!

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Oaxaca Matria Therapeutic Art Garden: Cultural Center for Music and More

Matria Jardin Arterapeutico is the manifestation of artist Maurico Cervantes’ imagination.  With the help of many, many others plus foundation funding, a decayed, roofless 17th century colonial building in Oaxaca’s historic center has become a cultural mecca.  It is at once a moveable art installation, organic garden, educational teaching center, music and arts venue, and inspiration for innovation — a fine example of what to do with aging space with great bones.

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Despite a late Sunday afternoon rainstorm (much needed, I might say), Matria hosts Sandmann and The Voodoo Cat, a three-person cabaret-style ensemble for our listening pleasure.  Tucked inside the only area with shelter from the sky, Kati Sandmann (vocals, guitar), Dabeat Morales (percussion), and Ricardo Chavez (guitar) perform as if the 40 of us is a sold-out audience of hundreds at Carnegie Hall.

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Their range goes from blues to folk to swing to rock with a hint of jazz. Kati’s voice sounds like Edith Piaf or Lotte Lenya, extending from alto to alto soprano.  She sings multi-lingual in German, French, Spanish and English. It is at times atonal, dissonant and altogether appealing.  I hear Kurt Weill and Berthold Brecht, Bob Dylan, Jacques Brel, Johnny Cash, Leonard Cohen, and Ray Charles.

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Not too long into the concert the skies opened and out came the umbrellas. The band played on — unflappable.  We stayed, enraptured with the sound, and the rain coming through the porous roof.  At this moment, church bells sound calling people to Sunday evening mass.  The bells blend perfectly with the music. Two standing ovations brought two more songs before the concert ended. When in Oaxaca during the summer, the best advice is to carry a paragua when going out.

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The concert ended.  The skies cleared. I returned to the courtyard, rain reflected on organic food, in mirrors, in the bathtub lily pond encased in an old bed frame.


Lots of ideas here for gardening and imagining and meditating.

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Matria Jardin Arteterapeutico, Murguia #103, between Macedonio Alcala and 5 de Mayo.  Check out their Facebook page for upcoming events.

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Life Transitions Retreat: What are you doing with the rest of your life?

In Oaxaca, Mexico. 3 days, 4 nights — arrive Saturday, March 8 and leave Wednesday, March 12, 2014.

This retreat will help you explore and identify life’s possibilities and choices.  Our two professional workshop facilitators – psychotherapist Susanne Saunders and professor of creative writing Robin Greene – will offer caring guidance and support for imagining the journey that comes next and how to get there.  There will be plenty of time for meaningful reflection, exploring passions and setting personal, achievable goals.

About the Retreat 

Change happens and opens up questions, possibilities, and opportunities for hopes and dreams to become realized.  Change also creates fear of the unknown.  Sometimes change brings euphoria.  Perhaps we move ahead too quickly and we don’t arrive at the destination we had in mind.  Or, the ideas may swirl in our head of all the extraordinary possibilities open to us based on what we know we are capable of achieving … and stay there unfulfilled as time passes.

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The retreat program, held in a lovely, private B&B in the historic 16th century colonial city of Oaxaca, Mexico, is open to anyone facing change or imagining it, including those who are

  • considering retirement
  • contemplating a career change
  • transitioning back to the workforce
  • experiencing divorce, separation or widowhood
  • dealing with an empty nest
  • coping with the needs of elderly parents
  • reinventing life with boomerang kids
  • wanting a more satisfying life and steps to achieve it
  • dreaming of living life larger and more fully

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We will offer structured and unstructured time that will allow you to re-envision and give shape to your journey.  Thoughtful meditation time and reflective writing exercises serve to guide you toward holistic self-understanding, while more structured activities create opportunities for you to integrate the many complex parts of your life that need to come together to create meaningful, positive change.

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In addition, you will have the opportunity to examine the cultural richness of Oaxaca while participating in workshop and independent activities. In fact, we designed this program so that people, unhooked from their usual routines and assumptions at home, gain the necessary distance to understand and re-evaluate them.


Scheduled for early spring—life’s natural season of renewal—you will find yourself in a world of color, texture, smells, and tastes that will help awaken the spirit and give access to the self’s inner purpose.

At the end of our retreat, you will leave Oaxaca with a journal filled with meaningful reflective writing, three plans for a re-imagined future, and a better understanding of yourself and life’s next direction.

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Retreat Program Schedule–Preliminary

Each workshop day includes individual and group exercises, reflective writing, time on your own, meditation sessions, group discussion, and breakfast.  Lunch and dinner are at your own expense, although many meals will be shared as part of the group experience.

Saturday, March 8  (Travel Day, Arrive by Evening)

Arrive / Informal Introductions / Welcome & Orientation

Sunday, March 9

Following breakfast we will meet for formal introductions, discuss the reflective writing process, review the pre-workshop exercises you prepared, and go over workshop organization, etiquette, and boundaries.  We will define the Life Board and how we will use it.  Our goal is to offer a caring, supportive and safe space in which you can freely share your hopes and dreams.  We will meditate, engage in a body awareness exercise, and assess personal strengths and values.  This will give each of us an opportunity to Dream Large and identify our unique skills.

After lunch, we will engage in exercises that will help explore beliefs, capabilities, perceived limitations, and then have reflective writing and feedback time.

After dinner there will be time for reflection and writing.  (Meals: Includes breakfast only.)

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Monday, March 10

After breakfast we will explore what brings us each joy, then after lunch we will walk to Oaxaca’s outdoor market for a fun exercise that we anticipate will stimulate your senses and stretch your imagination.   You will then write about this experience and bring meaningful found objects back to add to your Life Board. (Meals: Includes breakfast only.)

Tuesday, March 11

After breakfast, we will write about what it means to dream large, the possibilities that are open to you, and honoring the authentic self.  We will then talk about what has meaning for each of us and what future paths would help manifest this.  After lunch the afternoon will be free for journal writing and to prepare our culminating work. Dinner will include a celebratory toast followed by presentations.

(Meals: Includes breakfast only.)

Wednesday, March 12

Departures—After breakfast, you may choose to return home or stay on to further explore Oaxaca.

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What the Retreat Includes

  • 4 nights lodging in an upscale Oaxaca city bed and breakfast inn
  • 4 breakfasts, delicious and healthfully prepared
  • 24+ hours of guided facilitation by skilled professionals
  • all retreat materials including journal books
  • an experience to awaken your senses and give direction to your future 


Robin Greene is the McLean Endowed Professor of English and Writing, and Director of the Writing Center at Methodist University in Fayetteville, North Carolina. She is also co-founder and senior editor of Longleaf Press, a literary press that publishes contemporary poetry. Greene is the recipient of a NC Arts Council/NEA Fellowship, a university teaching award, and a visiting professorship in Romania. Her work is widely published in literary journals. Greene has led community and conference workshops, has served as a writing consultant, and has taught creative writing for over two decades. She is also a member of the Association for Contemplative Mind in Higher Education and integrates mindfulness practices in her writing classes. In 1999, Greene co-founded Sandhills Dharma, a Buddhist meditation group in Fayetteville, NC. Her books include Real Birth: Women Share their Stories nonfiction), Memories of Light and Lateral Drift (collections of poetry), and Augustus: Narrative of a Slave Woman (novel). Greene holds an M.A. in English from SUNY-Binghamton and an M.F.A. in Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts. See Greene’s website: 

Susanne Saunders is a psychotherapist in private practice in the Chapel Hill, North Carolina, area here she has lived and worked for the past 34 years.  A Licensed Clinical Social Worker, she works with individuals, families, and couples across the life span.  She earned the Master of Social Work degree from The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, is a founding member of Blue Heron Farm Intentional Community, where she actively participates in community growth and development.  Music is an essential part of Susanne’s adult life, and she  performs in and writes original music for a 5-piece band.  She has made many transitions in her life, including growing up in Massachusetts, starting a family in North Carolina, moving from an urban to rural setting, attending graduate school as a young mother and then again as an empty-nester, changing professions, moving a house and rebuilding it, and on and on.  She enjoys listening to people’s stories and supporting them in getting the life they want.

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Lodging/Accommodations and Cost

We will be based at one of Oaxaca’s most lovely, hospitable Bed & Breakfast Inns within walking distance of the Zocalo and historic center of the city.  Vegetarian options are available for meals. 

Cost.  Because we are able to offer you all the benefits of personal attention within a small group setting, we can keep costs lower than comparable programs.    

  • $995 per person double occupancy with private bath (sleeps 2)
  • $1295 per person single room with private bath (sleeps one)
  • $845 per person if you make your own  housing arrangements and join us for the retreat portion only (you must participate in all group activities, including meals)
  • $125 per person per night, extend your stay at the B&B in Oaxaca city
  • $45 per night per person, extend your stay with lodging in Teotitlan del Valle

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The workshop does NOT include airfare, taxes, tips/gratuities, travel insurance, liquor or alcoholic beverages, lunches, dinners, snacks, and local transportation to and from Oaxaca city. Secure airport taxi and shuttle service is available at Oaxaca airport when you deplane. We reserve the right to alter the program as needed.

Reservations and Cancellations

A 50% deposit based on your selected options is needed to reserve your space. The final payment for the balance due (including any add-ons) shall be paid by January 15, 2014. Payment is by PayPal. We email an itemized invoice to you when you tell us you are ready to register.

We strongly recommend that you take out trip cancellation, baggage, emergency evacuation and medical insurance before you begin your trip, since unforeseen circumstances are possible. 

Workshop Details and Travel Tips.  Before the workshop begins, we will email you a pre-workshop questionnaire, a map, instructions to get to the workshop location from the airport, and a document that includes extensive travel tips and information.

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To get your questions answered and to register, contact:  Since we are in Oaxaca most of the year, we are happy to arrange a Skype conversation with you if you wish, to be arranged by email.

This retreat is produced by Norma Hawthorne, Oaxaca Cultural Navigator LLC. We reserve the right to make itinerary changes as needed. 

Corn and Comida at the Casa del Campo, San Jeronimo Tlacochahuaya, Oaxaca

Angelica Guzman is a farmer entrepreneur.  Not only is she a great cook.  She works the fields to raise crops — garlic, squash, corn, beans — that feed minions. Plus, she houses Mexican students who come to a Tlacochahuaya bilingual university for teacher preparation.

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Tia Sofia with Angelica (r)

Tia Sofia with Angelica (r)

After our morning with her son Moises Garcia Guzman at the Tlacochahuaya church, we walk to the house in the fields where Angelica prepares comida (lunch) for us.  Moises reminds me that water is scarce.  It is summer, the rainy season. The milpas is planted, but there has been little rain.  In some fields, yellowing corn stalks, like flags, wave in the breeze.  Federal permits to dig a well are expensive. The government believes crops are thirstier than people.

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At Angelica’s Casa del Campo there is a well and the corn stalks are young summer green.  The cobs will mature for November harvest to feed people and animals.

Moises explains that the organic corn planted in this valley adapts to weather conditions. The grain may not be as big if there is not much rain, but there will still be a crop.  Not like genetically modified grain which depends on commercial fertilizer and large-scale sophisticated irrigation systems a la Monsanto which the valley farmers resist.

Comida is the biggest meal of the day, usually taken between 2 p.m. and 4 p.m. in the afternoon.  Today, our menu is a traditional Oaxaca repast.

First, the horchata, adorned with walnuts, cubes of cantalope melon, and tuna (the red fruit of the nopal cactus).


Then, a botano (snack) of fresh off-the-comal corn tortillas that we fill with chapulines.  Click on chapulines to see what we are eating!

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Next comes the quesadillas al comal stuffed with squash blossoms and quesillo.

Quesdilla hands

If that wasn’t enough, Angelica brings us platters of grilled tasajo — thin-sliced, seasoned and grilled beef, and beef chorizo.

Beef Chorizo

And, then, the dish from the campo that all Oaxacans love — Sopa de Guias (gee-ahs).   Sopa de Guias, sometimes called squash vine soup, is a vegetable stew of squash, squash blossoms, the tender new green shoots of squash before it fruits, and the squash plant greens, with an ear of corn cooked in the broth.  It is delicious.


It was all I could do to waddle after giving thanks and saying goodbye late in the afternoon.  Eating and visiting in Oaxaca is an all-day affair.