Category Archives: Books & Resources

Cultural Dialogs: Dance of the Feather in Teotitlan del Valle

On Wednesday night this week, the San Pablo Academic and Cultural Center hosted the first in a series of community dialogs about indigenous life in Oaxaca.   The restored chapel was filled to standing room only with Teotitecos and friends who came to hear a panel discussion introducing the new book, La Danza de la Pluma en Teotitlån del Valle written by Jorge Hernandez-Diaz, a cultural anthropologist at the state Benito Juarez Autonomous University of Oaxaca.

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In addition to Professor Hernandez-Diaz, panelists included Uriel Santiago, one of the 2007-2009 group of dancers who made a promise and commitment to God, their church, community and culture by learning and performing this ancient tradition for a period of three years.   Uriel first welcomed guests in Zapotec then moved into Spanish.  Years ago Uriel explained to me that the Dance of the Feather is not a folkloric event designed to entertain people.  It is a serious expression of Zapotec identity and cultural continuity.  We made a documentary film about his experience in 2008 which you can see on YouTube.

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The book, published in Spanish by the Oaxaca Secretary of Culture and Arts, with support from the Alfredo Harp Helu Foundation and the Office of the Governor of Oaxaca, offers three possible explanations about the origins of the dance, how it is interpreted in Teotitlan del Valle, other Oaxaca villages where the dance is an integral part of annual celebration, the rituals and traditions associated with the dance, and how the dance is organized and who can participate, plus lots more.  The professor explains in his book that the dance is expressed with variations in many Mexican states, too.

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Each year in Teotitlan del Valle beginning in early July and lasting for about a week, the Dance of the Feather is performed in the church courtyard.  Every three years the group changes and is organized/trained by a different leader.  The 2007-2009 maestro was Don Antonio Ruiz.  The book recognizes all the members of this particular group by name and the role they danced–Moctezuma, the indigenous kings who succumbed to the conquest, and Malinche/Doña Marina.

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Some of the group members are cousins.  Since the time of the dance, many of them have married and had children.  They have become doctors, educators and skilled weavers.  They remain close, committed to each other and their community, treasuring the time they devoted to transmitting their cultural heritage and ensuring continuity.

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The Day Carlos Fuentes Died: Courage to Speak Up

The Los Angeles Times pays tribute to the life of Mexican writer Carlos Fuentes who died Tuesday, March 15, 2013 at the age of 83.  Fuentes was a prolific writer who crafted over 30 novels and non-fiction works.  He was an outspoken and frequent critic of Mexican politics and government.  As the story goes, he told Mexican President Felipe Calderon that the war on drugs would not end until the U.S. acknowledged its part in illicit drug trafficking.

The generation of rebellious, educated Mexican intellectuals who command respect worldwide for their authority, integrity, and pointed commentary are aging.  Fuentes was part of the Latin American 1960′s and 1970′s “El Boom” of literary giants including Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Jorge Mario Pedro Vargas Llosa who  poked at the failures of social and political idealism and action through their writings.

A 1987 NPR “Fresh Air” Conversation with Carlos Fuentes 

“He wrote of a post-revolutionary Mexico, where the revolutionaries had become business entrepreneurs and bourgeoisie,” said Homero Aridjis, a prominent Mexican poet and writer who knew Fuentes for decades. “Styling himself after Dickens and Balzac, he wrote novels that formed a kind of ‘Mexican Comedy,’ a deep portrait of Mexican society, economy and politics.”

Fuentes last column for  the Mexico City paper, Reforma, appeared on Tuesday, the day he died. In this, he posited why the three candidates for President were taking petty jibes at each other instead of focusing on important issues.

Who is there to step in and carry-on in the great tradition of the Mexican reformists?

Fuentes passing is a reminder about the importance of speaking  out for justice and to pay due respect to the great talent that Mexico contributes to the world of art, culture and literature.

Fellow blogger Shannon Pixley Sheppard includes a list of Carlos Fuentes’ works below and writes:

It was the California connection that allowed for my introduction to the writings of Fuentes.  The acquaintance came through The Old Gringo, a fictionalized story of  the disappearance in Mexico, during the Mexican Revolution, of real life writer and US Civil War veteran, Ambrose Bierce.  Following the Civil War, Bierce wound up in California, where he was a contributor to the literary journal, The Argonaut, founded and edited by one of my relatives, about whom, Bierce wrote a typically acerbic epitaph:  Here lies Frank Pixley — as usual.  So, in my ongoing attempt to unravel some of the mysteries surrounding living and being in Mexico, reading the The Old Gringo was a no-brainer. As The Guardian’s obituary of Carlos Fuentes concludes,

Throughout his life, wherever he lived, Mexico was the centre of Fuentes’s artistic preoccupations. In his late 70s, he provided a typically graphic description of the attraction he felt for his own land: “It’s a very enigmatic country, and that’s a good thing because it keeps us alert, makes us constantly try to decipher the enigma of Mexico, the mystery of Mexico, to understand a country that is very, very baroque, very complicated and full of surprises.”

Carlos Fuentes is not uncontroversial, but you should see for yourself.  If you are not familiar with his writings, you might want to visit your local library and checkout a book or two.  For those in Oaxaca, the Oaxaca Lending Library has the following titles:

Fiction
Adan en Eden
Baroque Concerto
Burnt Water
Cuerpos y Ofrendas
Campaign
Cantar de Ciegos/To Sing of the Blind
Change of Skin
Christopher Unborn
Constancia: y Otras Novelas para Vírgenes
Constancia and Other Stories for Virgins
Crystal Frontier
Diana the Goddess Who Hunts: The Goddess Who Hunts Alone
The Death of Artemio Crus:  A Novel
Destiny and Desire:  A Novel
Diana o la Cazadora Solitaría
Distant Relations
The Eagle’s Throne
Good Conscience
Gringo Viejo
Hydra Head
Muerte de Artemio Cruz
El Naranjo
Old Gringo
The Orange Tree
La Region Mas Transparente
Terra Nostra
Where the Air Is Clear
Years with Laura Diaz Fuentes
Cabeza de la Hidra
Vida Está en Otra Parte

Non Fiction
Aura
The Buried Mirror: Reflections on Spain and the New World
En Esto Creo
Latin America at War with the Past
Mexico:  Una Vision de Altura:  Un Recorrido Aereo de Pasado Al Presente
Myself with Others
This I Believe
Todos los Gatos Son Pardos
The Diary of Frida Kahlo:  An Intimate Self-Portrait
New Time for Mexico

 

Oaxaca Lending Library “On The Rocks” Concert Shakes ‘Em Up

What do expats, snowbirds, Norteños and extranjeros do for fun in Oaxaca [besides learning Spanish]?  The Sunday afternoon concerts hosted by Jane Robison at Casa Colonial are one way to get together, shake-shake-shake to 60′s and 70′s classic rock, drink Margaritas, swill some Victoria, slurp an agua de jamaica and support the good work of the Oaxaca Lending Library.  Admission: 60 pesos.  Contact the Oaxaca Lending Library for schedule!

  

Mick Jagger could learn a few things from Kimberly Reyes [on vocals and percussion].  Her trained voice is clear with great range and she can really move, inspiring the crowd to get up and dance.  And, we did!

On The Rocks organizer Kurt Hackbarth on keyboards is a playwright and author who has a work in production in the city.  He also teaches playwriting in Spanish to local aspiring writers. Electric bassist Bill Stair hails from the U.K., Oaxaqueño Luis Santos is on drums, and electric guitarist is Rafael Gonzålez Lumbreras is from Mexico City.  The band definitely represents the multiculturalism that makes Oaxaca so great.

 

On Saturday mornings the Oaxaca Lending Library is a hub of activity.  Children gather around tables to learn English using hands-on coloring tools, coached by volunteers and parents.  Adults are in dyads to talk back-and-forth in English and Spanish, locals teaching visitors and vice versa.

 

The Library is also an extraordinary resource for jobs, volunteer opportunities, things for sale or wanted to buy.  Workshops, trips and event posters cover the bulletin boards.  A complete library of books, videos and CDs in Spanish and English are available, too.  Along the edge of the room, young mothers hold newborn infants close to them, swaddled tightly.

 

Education is central to the OLL mission and extranjeros seem to enjoy supporting this while having a good time, too.

Resources:

Oaxaca Lending Library, Piño Suarez near Llano Park.

On The Rocks, classic rock band for hire, contact Kurt at (951) 203-2749 or Kimberly at (951) 513-5574.

Casa Colonial, Miguel Negrete #105 at the corner of Division Oriente (extension of Morelos), house with the purple door.  This is a magnificent hacienda on incredible grounds covered with old growth bougainvillea, agave, cactus and shade trees, filled with original Oaxaca art by some of the now deceased folk masters, and a comfy living room with a complete library in English and Spanish.  The Swiss mining engineer who built the adobe hacienda long ago framed the fireplace with mineral rocks. Owner Jane Robison opens the Casa to support community endeavors.

 

The New York Times 36 Hours: Oaxaca, Mexico Back-story

Freda Moon, travel writer for The New York Times, contacted me on July 29, 2011 to say she was working on a feature about Oaxaca.  Travel information about the city hadn’t been updated at the NY Times since 2007 and Freda thought it was about time.  Her editor agreed!  Freda was leaving for Oaxaca the next week, found this website/blog during her research, liked our in depth coverage, and asked me to offer suggestions for new favorite places on the city scene.

During her time in Oaxaca, Freda discovered spots I hadn’t even heard about (including those mescal venues that become lively long after my bedtime).  At my suggestion, she connected with Brown University linguistic anthropologist Liza Bakewell, author of Madre: Perilous Journey with a Spanish Noun and they talked about city life.

Now, it’s nearly impossible, as many of the commenters to the article have said, to cover all that is wonderful in Oaxaca and village environs in 36 hours.  The two Puertos on the coast (Escondido, Angel), Juchitan, the Sierra Mixteca (and more) all offer unique and extraordinary experiences.  Three weeks would be more like it.  Or even 36 weeks!  Freda could not have included everything in her short article — either all my suggestions or those made by others!

So in a series of posts to come, I’m going to share with you what I shared with Freda Moon, starting with my favorite restaurants.

Disfruta!  Enjoy!

And, if you love Oaxaca, please share The New York Times 36 Hours: Oaxaca, Mexico on your Facebook page and via email.  The indigenous people and artisans of Oaxaca will love and appreciate you for it!  They depend upon tourism for their major source of income.

Oaxaca Safety: It’s also important to read the COMMENTS section on Freda’s article to hear first hand about how Oaxaca is SAFE and inviting — heard from visitors who have come back here many times and those of us who live here.

Cows, Pigs, Calaveras: Carved Wood Figures of Placido Santiago Cruz

This week I was in Oaxaca city for two days visiting with silversmiths Brigitte Huet and Ivan Campant!  I went with them to present their work at Susanna Trilling’s Seasons of My Heart Cooking School in San Lorenzo Cacaotepec.  This mecca of the culinary arts is located about 40 minutes from the city in the lush countryside where farmers continue to plow their fields with wood plows harnessed to hefty oxen.  (This is also the same village where Irma Paula Garcia Blanco from Atzompa gets her black clay.)

Here I met Placido Santiago Cruz who was also invited to show his work to the class participants.  It is a blessing to independent local artists and artisans to be able to do this because there are limited opportunities to meet a group of visitors who may be interested in collecting their work.

Señor Santiago Cruz is one of the earliest and original folk artists from the village of La Union Tejalapam. There is joy, color and humor in his copal wood figures that capture the essential commentary of pueblo life.  His style is indicative of alebrijes as they were first carved, much different from the highly stylized and ornamental figures of most carvers today.  His repertoire includes barnyard animals such as cows, pigs, horses and goats, as well as Nativity scenes, and the Virgin of Guadalupe praying over a fallen angel. Señor Santiago Cruz does the carving and his wife, Señora Alfonsa Cruz López, finishes each piece by sanding it smooth and then painting it. This is a team effort between husband and wife that is typical in small, independent carving families in this village as well as in Arrazola and San Martin Tilcajete.

Señor Santiago Cruz has carved for 40 years.  He began carving at the side of an older brother who taught him how to work with the machete, knife, and the copal wood that had been softened in water to make it more malleable.  Over the years, he has gained recognition as one of the outstanding carvers of the region.   His work is featured in Arden Rothstein’s bible, Oaxaca Folk Art. He is in collected by Henry Wegeman and Rosa Blum, owners of Amate Books on Macedonio Alcala, and his work is offered for sale in El Nahual Gallery on Av. 5 de Mayo in Oaxaca City.

Prices are incredibly reasonable for these lovely pieces that are quintessentially Oaxaca. Owls are 100 pesos. The small animal heads, perfect for wall adornment, are 150 pesos. Animal musicians are 200 pesos. The Virgin of Guadalupe is 350 pesos as is the Calavera (whimsical skeleton) with pineapple head-dress. The entire nativity scene is 2,000 pesos and it includes 10 pieces. As of this writing, the exchange rate is about 13.5 pesos to the dollar.  Great folk art is still a bargain in Oaxaca!

If you want to ride out to La Union to visit el maestro (about a 50 minute taxi ride from the city), call ahead and make an appointment. Connecting with the artist directly is an extraordinary experience.  And the artisans here depend upon selling their carved wood figures as their primary source of cash income, since La Union is not a farming community. Placido Santiago Cruz, La Union Tejalapam, Etla, Oaxaca, cellular 044 951 106 0983.