Monthly Archives: October 2013

Day of the Dead: Parades and Costume Creativity

In Oaxaca, the Day of the Dead parades are called comparsas.  On the first day of our seasonal photography expedition, color, sound, and the display of unparalleled costume creativity bombard us.


Frank Hunter, whose work was just published in the New York Times, and our instructor for this week, starts the workshop by showing photo examples captured using manual camera setting.

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We begin with simple subjects like the ancient fountain at the Quinta Real Hotel, once a Dominican convent.  Take at least five or six frames of each subject, manipulating the shutter speed one or two stops for each, advises Frank.  Then, you can see what the light will do.

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We are to use manual settings with a fixed f-stop of 8 and ISO of 500, and only manipulate the shutter speed to experiment with how might light to let into the lens.   Today is an exercise in light and what a fast or slower shutter speed will produce.


The idea of moving away from automatic is daunting for most.  So, the idea of using manual and making adjustments based on a greater understanding of how the camera works can be a challenge.

We could practice by shooting landscapes, objects, scenes, and details.  My subject seemed to develop into Maquillaje Mexicano.


As we approach Alcala from our walk through the city, first to Santo Domingo, then to Plaza de la Danza where the teams are building sand sculptures, we hear the hubbub and band personnel tuning instruments.

We come upon a competition among high schools.  They are to use recycled materials in their costumes for the afternoon Day of the Dead parade starting from the Zocalo.    The whole process of make-up artistry fascinates me and I linger to get as much detail as I can.


The staging was magnificent.  The groups moved slowly up the walking avenue, Macedonia Alcala, giving the crowd lots of time to take photos, show due appreciation, and dance to the live music.



There is always love on the street, couples in embrace, stealing kisses and today is no exception, even attired in painted newspaper evening dress.

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The visual frenzy is eye candy, a feast for the senses.  Zapotec and Aztec symbolism is rampant.  Corn goddesses stand straight and mute, careful not to disturb their heavy headdresses, while supplicants dance in circles around them.


Girlfriends take special care to paint each other and apply make-up that will be the most dramatic and daring.

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A revolutionary war hero on stilts cries the Grito as costumed campesinos accompany him.

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Yellow nail polish and chicken livers provide enough imagination to give me a chill and a thrill.

Day of the Dead 2013 Begins in Oaxaca

Visitors and local revelers fill the streets.  Hotels are booked months ahead.  The pre-Hispanic traditions of Day of the Dead — Dia de los Muertos — in Oaxaca are becoming blended once again as people gather for this amazing celebration of life.

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The Spanish combined ancient indigenous practice with Catholic All Saints Day. Now, as migrants return home to Mexico from the United States, the Halloween celebration and symbols from El Norte cross the border going south, and change happens.

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On Sunday, families and young lovers gathered on the Zocalo to play with balloons, eat cotton candy or crunchy glazed red candy apples.

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In late afternoon, we stumbled upon preparations for a mass in honor of the Virgin of the Rosary — Virgen del Rosario — at the famous gilded Santo Domingo Church, complete with village representatives adorned in indigenous dress participating, followed by a glorious fireworks spectacle which we saw from the rooftop terrace at Casa Oaxaca over dinner and mezcalinis.

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On Monday, the comparsa — or children’s parade — assembled on the plaza at Santo Domingo before marching down the Alcala.  

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Street vendors, moms and dads with costumed children, often costumed themselves, and tourists with cameras mulled around.  The band played and Santo Domingo was aglow in the light of late afternoon.  

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Two make-up artists were on hand to decorate the faces of toddlers, youngsters, teens and adults.  The kids sat patiently while large hands tickled their faces with colored pencils, lipstick and lots of powder.

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The walking street that connects Santo Domingo with the Zocalo was a crowd scene.  Fun, colorful, and sometimes I got the impression that the parents wanted to be there more than the children did!  A universal circumstance.

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Of course, food is a highlight here, as is cempasuchitl.  Love the food at Cafe San Pablo.  Well prepared and reasonably priced.  Shall we say goodnight now?

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Building a Dia de los Muertos Altar: Send Us Your Photos

Wherever you are, I invite you to send me your Dia de los Muertos Altar photos. They should be no larger than 150 KB and sent as an email attachment (any larger and they won’t be considered).  One photo per person!  They need to arrive in my inbox by midnight, November 1, 2013.  I will ask our Day of the Dead Photograph Expedition participants to select 10 for publication here!  Meanwhile, here’s the start for my altar!

Casita Altar

For my Virgin of Guadalupe, I have a flying saint sending blessings over the campo.  It is a lithograph by Oaxaca artist Francisco Olivera.  Of course, there is a bottle of mezcal and soon we will add a photo my father who died in 1997.  My sister is bringing it on October 30, just in time.


My friend Lupe went out in front of the casita where I live and cut fresh cempasuchitl for the vase. I added chocolate made by Magdalena, Oaxaca mandarin oranges, and two candles.  Lupe added the little apples that she says taste like strawberries.  There is a field of agave for mezcal next door.


When I’m in Oaxaca tomorrow, I’ll get papel picado cut paper streamers, bread, nuts and copal incense to add.  We will need candles under the table and a palm arch so that the spirits can enter and exit with ease.  There are three levels to every Day of the Dead altar.

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As I get ready for the photography workshop, I went out into the fields near where I live to practice my f-stops in the late afternoon light.  Here are some photos to share with you.

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Bringing Morocco to Mexico: Tagine Oaxaca-Style Mole Recipe

One of Morocco’s delights is tagine clay pot cooking.  This heavy clay platter with conical top is perfect for one-dish meal preparation.  I packed my tagine securely with bubble-wrap in Marrakech, seasoned it in North Carolina, repacked it, and have been cooking with it since arriving in Oaxaca this week. Tagine-2 Tagine

Oaxaca-Morocco Fusion Food:  Now, instead of Moroccan spices, I have adapted the traditional seasonings and substituted mole. Sacreligious for purists, perhaps.  But innovative for me and making the most of where you live!  Take your pick: mole negro, mole coloradito, mole manchemanteles, mole amarillo, mole verde, etc.  Whichever you choose — Ummm, good. Tagine-6 There Plus, there are huge health benefits from cooking with a tagine.  You use very little oil and water.  Meats and vegetables are pressure cooked on low heat, simmering in their own juices, and the flavors are intense.  The ratio of vegetables to meat is high. This recipe is also gluten-free!  Eliminate the meat and it’s a perfect vegetarian meal. Tagine-3-2 Ingredients:

  • 1/4 – 1/3 c. olive oil
  • 1 large onion, julienned
  • 6-8 cloves of garlic, peeled
  • 1/2 cup fresh peas or dried garbanzo beans
  • 2-3 medium potatoes cut into 2″ pieces
  • 2 large carrots, cut into 1 ” slices
  • 2 zucchini squash or 1 medium choyote squash
  • 3 T. mole paste
  • 1/3 c. water
  • salt to taste
  • Optional:  1 chicken thigh and 1 chicken drumstick
  • Optional:  1 T. diced candied kumquats or ginger
  • Optional:  2 T. chopped cilantro


  1. Coat clay platter with olive oil.
  2. Spread onion and garlic evenly on bottom.
  3. Add vegetables in a pyramid, densest ones first:  peas (or garbanzo), potatoes, carrots, squash.  I’m in Mexico, so I added nopal cactus.  You can try green beans or yellow squash.
  4. Arrange chicken so that the pyramid is secure.
  5. Top with the candied fruit and/or cilantro if you wish.
  6. Mix the mole paste with water.
  7. Drizzle the mole liquid evenly over the pyramid of meat and vegetables.
  8. Add cover.

Now, this is important!  Use a heat diffuser on the stove top gas burner.  (Use oven or a specially designed diffuser if you have electric burners.)  Put tagine on the diffuser and turn burner to low.  I’m using an 8-1/2″ cast iron Nordicware diffuser that I brought from the U.S. If you are cooking meat, cook for at least 2 hours.  If you are cooking vegetables, this should be done cooking in about 1 hour.  Check periodically to see that there is enough liquid.  If too much liquid, then spoon it out. Turn burner off.  Let tagine cool at room temperature for about 30 minutes before serving. If you are cooking in an oven, put the tagine in a cold oven, turn heat to 325 degrees, and cook as if you are making a stew.

Turn oven off.  Leave tagine in oven until it cools somewhat. Tagine-7 Tagine-2-3 Sudden temperature changes will cause a tagine to crack.  Keep it oiled with olive oil when not in use.

Hint:  it’s apple season now in Oaxaca, and apples and raisins and pears and prunes would also be great additions.  What about almonds, dates and dried apricots? Whatever you love and whatever is in season will work as long as you use the density and pyramid formula!

Tagine-5And, then there is El Morocco Restaurant in Oaxaca, highly rated by Trip Advisor.  In Colonial Reforma, Reforma 905, tel: 01 951 513 6804 I haven’t been there yet, but want to try it!  Thanks to Mary for directing me there!

Mexico City Art History Tour: Looking for Diego Rivera

Join us for 4 nights and 5 days, February 20-24, to explore some of Diego Rivera‘s stunning Mexico City murals.  We will be joined by an art historian who specializes in Rivera’s murals to guide us through these incredible buildings:


Plus, we will shop for outstanding folk art, and eat to our hearts’ content at historic and contemporary restaurants!

The trip includes:

  • 4 nights lodging at a highly rated, historic center hotel
  • 4 breakfasts
  • gala welcome dinner
  • museum entry fees
  • guided discussions by a Rivera art historian
  • visits to folk art galleries
  • introduction to Norma’s favorite restaurants (meals not included)
  • transportation that is part of the itinerary

Preliminary Itinerary

  • Thursday, February 20 — travel day, arrive and check into our hotel, gala welcome dinner
  • Friday, February 21 — art historian guided visit to SEP, afternoon gallery visits
  • Saturday, February 22 — art historian guided visit to Palacio Nacional, folk art gallery and market visits
  • Sunday, February 23 — art historian guided visit to Palacio Bellas Artes and Museo Mural de Diego Rivera
  • Monday, February 24 — depart

Be ready to WALK and then, walk some more!  Don’t forget to bring an extra suitcase.

Cost:  $595 per person double occupancy.  $795 per person single occupancy.

What the trip doesn’t include:

  • lunches, dinners, snacks, alcoholic beverages
  • transportation to/from Mexico City
  • trip insurance
  • tips for hotels, meals and other services

Cost:  $595 per person double occupancy.  $795 per person single occupancy. Minimum: 4 people to offer program.  Maximum: 6 people.


Reservations and Cancellations

A 50% deposit will guarantee your spot.  The final payment for the balance is due by January 20, 2014.  Payment shall be made by PayPal.  We will be happy to send you an itemized invoice.

Please understand that we make lodging and other arrangements months in advance of the program.  Deposits or payments in full are often required by our hosts.  If cancellation is necessary, please tell us in writing by email.   After January 20, no refunds are possible.  However, we will make every possible effort to fill your reserved space or you may send a substitute.  If you cancel on or before January 20, we will refund 50% of your deposit.  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.

To register, email us at  If you have questions, we can arrange a Skype call. We accept payment with PayPal only. Thank you.

This workshop is produced by Norma Hawthorne, Oaxaca Cultural Navigator LLC.  We reserve the right to adjust the itinerary and substitute leaders without notice.