My son was here for a week and returned to Southern California yesterday morning. He arrive three days after my return from Michoacan. What did we do? By choice, not much. We took walks in the campo with the dogs. He came to my Artful Aprons of San Miguel del Valle talk, another sold-out event at the Oaxaca Lending Library.
We hung out. Talked. Shared memories and regrets, philosophy and politics, hopes. We checked in with each other. We read and took naps on the terrace hammocks. One night, I lit a fire in the chiminea and a log jumped out onto the grass. He was the firefighter. I was contrite.
It’s been unseasonably hot here. Almost 90 degrees Fahrenheit. We moved slowly. We went mezcal tasting with Emmy Hernandez at Gracias a Dios in Santiago Matatlan, with a stop first to visit Arturo Hernandez in Mitla to buy a scarf for his girlfriend. A fact that gives me joy.
I grilled BBQ ribs. We ate out. We cooked in. We shared meals with our host family and friends. We are blessed to have each other. He gives me advice, which I appreciate. I am tender with mine. He doesn’t need much advice, either. Mostly, we call it feedback. Time together went quickly.
Tomorrow I leave for a full textile study tour in Chiapas, gone for 11 days. I’m not quite ready to leave the quiet of my casita in Teotitlan del Valle. And, my regret is there has been so little time this winter to have time with my friends here, many of whom are seasonal. They are getting ready to go back north and after Chiapas, I return to North Carolina for a while.
I promise myself that next year will be different. That I will slow down and do less, have time to take classes, learn to embroider or crochet or make something I haven’t before. But, most importantly, to have more time to be with friends — here in Oaxaca and in Mexico, and various part of the USA. And, to be with my California family.
So, I’m rethinking the number of study tours I will offer in 2020, where they will be, when they will be, how long they will be. I’ll keep you posted.
Meanwhile, Susie and Bruce arrive this afternoon to move into the casita to care for the dogs while I’m in Chiapas. My suitcase is almost packed.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
During the conquest, throughout Mexico, priests from the Dominican, Franciscan and Augustinian orders, integrated Catholic rites with indigenous practices. This is called syncretism.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Why We Left, Expat Anthology: Norma’s Personal Essay
Norma contributes personal essay, How Oaxaca Became Home
Norma Contributes Two Chapters!
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Norma Schafer and Oaxaca Cultural Navigator LLC has offered programs in Mexico since 2006. We have over 30 years of university program development experience. See my resume.
Study Tours + Study Abroad are personally curated and introduce you to Mexico's greatest artisans. They are off-the-beaten path, internationally recognized. We give you access to where people live and work. Yes, it is safe and secure to travel. Groups are limited in size for the most personal experience.
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Dye Master Dolores Santiago Arrellanas with son Omar Chavez Santiago, weaver and dyer, Fey y Lola Rugs, Teotitlan del Valle