Category Archives: Creative Writing

Bugs in Mexico: More Than Transportation, Edible Insects

Bugs are ubiquitous here. Most often you see them driving down the cobblestone streets in the historic center of town or along the highway, packed with family members. I’ve seen eight people in a VW bug, five kids in the back seat, the driver behind the wheel, and his wife with a baby on her lap next to him. These bugs have been around a long time. Some are shiny with aluminum wheels. Others are rusted out, spitting smoke, and you wonder whether they have enough oomph left to get moving when the light turns green.

Do you see the escamoles hidden under lettuce and radishes?

But, these are not the bugs I’m talking about here. I want to focus on the edible kind: ants, grasshoppers, worms, beetles, larvae and grubs.

Now, I hear you. Most of you are saying eeewww or ugh. If you are a visitor or expat who does not venture beyond the ken, your utterance might be particularly vocal.

Don’t stop now! 800 words more. Click Here!

Mexico’s Ubiquitous Bugs in Mexico News Daily

by Norma Schafer

Footnote: I had the idea to write about edible insects in Mexico a couple of months ago, but it wasn’t until our 2017 Women’s Creative Writing and Yoga Retreat that I was truly inspired. Where else could I find a group of adventurous women, who come to Oaxaca to write, to join me in the conspiracy of eating culturally foreign food?

I’m “hamming it up” for the camera. Hmmmm, good. Yes, I ate it.

It had also been two months since I contributed a feature to Mexico News Daily and I surmised the publisher thought I had dropped off the map. So the writing retreat became my inspiration for this essay. (I also wrote about other things.)

This is a regular part of Janet’s cuisine, just a bit fancified at Casa Oaxaca.

One thing I’ve learned, you never know what you are capable of (doing or writing) unless you try.

Are you interested in our 2018 Women’s Creative Writing and Yoga Retreat? Send me an email and I’ll put you on the notification list.

Chiapas Notebook: Maya Cemetery at Romerillo

The day is cloudy, overcast. A mist hangs on the hills like a coverlet. It’s late February, still chilly with winter in the Chiapas Highlands. Fuzzy wool cape weather, even in the early afternoon. After our visit to Tenejapa for the Thursday market, we make a stop at Romerillo before returning to San Cristobal de las Casas.

Notice: 2018 Chiapas Textile Study Tour is Full.
I am taking a waiting list. Email me to add your name.

From the road, the Romerillo Maya cemetery, majestic

Romerillo is a tiny hamlet with an impressive cemetery. The stand of turquoise blue Maya crosses carved with ancient symbols are sentries, erect on the crest of the hill. Tethered sheep graze at the base. We get out of the van and walk slowly to enter sacred space.

Pine planks cover the mounds so the dead stay where they belong

We moved in a matter of a few miles from textile sensory overload to quiet meditation. After our guide introduces us to the Maya world of death and life, we each walk silently, separating, alone, stepping across dried pine needles, around the mounds of earth designating grave sites. There are things to think about.

Four ancestors share this grave, each buried at ten-year intervals

One of us gets a call to come home to tend to her mother’s dying. Another suddenly loses a brother-in-law just days before. Most of us quietly mourn a parent, a husband, friend, perhaps a child, a relationship.

The cemetery site is rocky, uneven, steep, protected, festive

It’s months past the Day of the Dead season. There are remnants of marigolds, fresh fruit dried by the sun,  graves covered by wood planks to keep the dead secure in their underworld habitat until the next uncovering.

People drink fizzy Coca Cola at ceremonies. Burping is the voice of gods.

The mounded burial ground: scattered pine needles, dried pine boughs tied to the Maya crosses, toppled flower pots, an empty coke bottle, a tossed aside cigarette butt, an overturned flask once filled with pox (pronounced posh), a fresh grave.

(Mary Randall reminds me that the Romerillo hill was featured in the indie film, El Norte, a testimony to the Maya struggle for independent identity.)

Toppled urns of dried flowers. All disintegrates (except plastic).

How do I know of this recent burial? From the lingering aroma of copal incense, scattered green pine needles, flowers still too fragrant in their urns.

Grand vistas from 7,000 feet high, ethereal

Life and death blend together in Maya ritual. The mounds bridge the gap between heaven and earth. Fresh pine boughs are the portal to the other world. There is afterlife, often reincarnation depending on status. Memory must be kept, attended to. Here is ancestor worship — generations buried in the same space. The pine needles represent infinity, too numerous to count.

By February, pine boughs have dried crusty brown, stay until next year

The blue and green crosses are symbols, too, portals of entry for contact with the ancestors. Mayans believe the ancestors are guides and give them counsel in their problems when asked. Blue is significant throughout the Maya world.

Inscription at the base of a giant Maya cross

On November 1, Day of the Dead, family members lift off the wood planks. Sit around the grave sites of their loved ones, carry on a conversation. There are elaborate rituals here that bring people closer to the natural world.  The sun, moon, earth, stars are imbued with meaning, embedded in all that exists. Everything has a purpose, is connected.

Our groups hears the explanations, wants to disperse

Some of us sit. Others walk. The tall crosses guard the land. Small crosses guard each grave. Sometimes I see several crosses marking one grave site. I know from my experience in Oaxaca that each identifies one person in this resting place, that ten years must pass before another can be buried in the same space. There is continuity on this path.

Small crosses designate each grave site

Notice: 2018 Chiapas Textile Study Tour is Full.
I am taking a waiting list. Email me to add your name.

 

 

 

Take Heart Day, Dear Valentine, A Parody: Breaking News by Ellen Benson

Ellen Benson, my Oaxaca artist friend who has wintered here for the past umpteen years, wrote these three pieces in the voice of Agent Orange as her way of getting through the political grief and PTSD that many of us experience.  Ellen is  the famed Philadelphia Dumpster Diver Diva and her art also reflects the way she sees the world.

Our Oaxaca hearts stretch out to you around the world

I hope you enjoy this. It is witty and funny. Perfect for a Take Heart Day.  I asked her permission to share it with you. I think we need this.

ONE: Congratulations from Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny

Yesterday Santa Claus called from the North Pole to congratulate me. Yes he is real,  and i’ve known him personally for many, many years. A fantastic, fantastic guy. He promised: no presents going to Mexico!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! To keep those presents here,  Mike Pence has given Santa Air Force One, since I have my own plane,  but all reindeer will keep their jobs!!!!!!!!!!!!!!. The Mexican children will get coal in their stockings which will also help the coal industry make a comeback. A win/win!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Santa will be working directly with Ben Carson to move all low income housing to the border!!! Not just walls but whole housing complexes!!!!!!!!!! I’ve put Jared Kushner in charge, but Santa and 3 mice will administer the “blind trust.” Let’s see if the “failing New York Times “ even reports this!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

I also got a call from the Easter Bunny. Yes he is real, i know his whole huge family. A terrific terrific guy. He called to report that his personal hackers have found that a hamburger joint in D. C. has been putting pot in all its deluxe burgers with fries!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! This hamburger joint is a front for the Clinton Foundation. Jewish columnists Tom Friedman and Paul Krugman have been seen in the vicinity. Information verified by National security Advisor-elect Mike Flynn!!!!!!!! Enough said!!!!!!!!! I’ve not even been sworn in and already Mike is arranging a  landing pad for UFO’s on the White House roof!!!!!!! Good work Mike.

The Tooth Fairy was also on the line but I couldn’t take her call. Yes, she is real. I definitely know her. On her day off from overseeing  her teeth- for -money program, she does hair dye jobs. And she’s the best. The very best. 

Melania and Ivanka are busily planning the inauguration. Unfortunately, due to construction on the White House to make it look more like the Hermitage, the inauguration will be held in New York. Any country where i have business dealings will have the chief executives of its BIGGEST COMPANIES invited to the festivities!!!!!!!!!!! Nothing expected in return!!!! this is how business is done!  Many of these execs are graduates of Trump University —so you can bet they understand the Art of the Deal!!!!! We are just now nailing down the entertainment. Very exclusive. Very in-demand.  It’s top secret classified but I’m the President-elect so i can tell whoever i want. The star attraction at the biggest and best inaugural ball will be the cast of the new musical, “PUTIN”!!!!!! Very hard to get tickets—believe me!!!  

TWO:  Breaking News, A Call From Humpty Dumpty

Mar-A-Lago seems to be sinking so I called in Al Gore just to hear his preposterous statements that people, like the overwhelming landslide number of people who absolutely love me, are the cause of so-called global warming. He thought i would offer him a Cabinet position but he did not give me a huge campaign donation!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! And even after his movie and speaking engagements he is not yet a billionaire or even a multi-millionare and he never even worked for Goldman or Exxon or even the World Wrestling Federation!!!! A loser! Everyone knows there is NO AIR POLLUTION IN THE USA!!!!!!! The Chinese have been manufacturing it cheaply and shipping it over here!!!!! I don’t need a focus group to know why Mar-A-Lago is sinking—my very large, enormous and gigantic brain tells me everything!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!   And it is verified by my National Security Advisor Mike Flynn—The problem is caused by the lost continent of Atlantis rising!!!!!!!!!! Also—he saw a man jumping over the moon—and everyone knows the moon controls the tides!!!!! There will be a big big investigation of this after Jan 20!!!!

My good friend Humpty Dumpty called to warn me that many people want to see me fall!! I’m sick of all the lying media criticizing my Cabinet appointments!!!!!!! They have about as much credibility as Graydon Carter’s failing VANITY FAIR restaurant reviewer in the things he said about the Trump Grill!!!!!!!!!!Terrific terrific restaurant!!! Chris Christie and Jack Sprat love it!!!!!!!!!  I took Mitt Romney there!!!!! People think it was to discuss Secretary of State job. WRONG!! Obviously it was for Mitt to convince me as to why i should endorse his niece for RNC chair over the very very qualified BABAR, who i may still change my mind and endorse!!! And i keep creating jobs! just this week alone, i opened up positions at Goldman Sachs and at Exxon!!

Ben Carson was honest enough to admit that he knows nothing about housing or running a government agency. That’s refreshing! Just the kind of experience I’m looking for! He tells me his decisions will be guided by the invisible hand of the market. Rep. Tom Price will not only repeal Obamacare but will cut out all waste in the Medicaid and Medicare programs. As I’ve said many times, it is a BIG FAT WASTE to cover disabled people!!! We will keep the good parts of Obamacare: lobotomies, breast enhancement and hair transplants will still be covered. 

Full steam ahead on the inauguration!. Kanye West, if he had voted, said he would have voted for me!!!!! We are working in how to blend mental health meltdowns, inflammatory tweets and the Kardashians into a program that THE WHOLE COUNTRY WILL LOVE!!!!!! There will be heavy- duty medication at every banquet table instead of flowers!!!! (Kanye’s idea!  Brilliant!!)The Breitbart event will be giving out free taco bowls and free tickets to the new big hit musical PUTIN!!! which Rex Tillerson and I are backing!!!!!! And of corse, catering by Hardee’s! Kudos to Labor Secretary-elect Andy Puzder for a brilliant idea: food of the little guy! All servers at the inauguration will get free Hardee’s gift certificates in lieu of minimum wage! Can’t wait to see Ivanka’s dress! The president of Taiwan made it herself!!!!

THREE: Breaking News, I would have won the New Hampshire primary

I just want to remind the American public that i would have won in New Hampshire if outside voters had not been bussed in by the thousands, a FACT that is WIDELY KNOWN!!!!!!!!! What you don’t know because the failing New York Times refuses to report it, is that drones also transported hundreds and hundreds of people from Nigeria and Ivory Coast  to polling places in North Carolina and other places EVEN THOUGH THOSE PLACES ARE HARD TO FIND because we had to shut down so many polling places where the blacks might vote!!!! Some of Obama’s Kenyan friends got in too! Somehow they found polling places and i will have the FBI look into it!!!!!! I will have a floating wall built the length of the Atlantic Ocean to prevent such blatant disregard of our borders. As we speak, Mike Flynn is trying to shut down the underground tunnels to the pizza parlor in DC that is now the hub of voter fraud activities!!!!!!!!!!!!!! SAD!!!!!!

I am sooooo proud of Jack Kingston, Representaive of Georgia for his stand against free lunches for poor children! of course they should sweep cafeteria floors to earn their keep and learn the value of a buck! My little Ivanka had to go all the way to China to check out the floors of the manufacturing sweatshops that make her clothing line !!!!They made her look through fabric swatches for hours before they even gave her an egg roll for lunch!! And when they were kids, Donald Jr. and Eric had to pick up all their candy wrappers from the floor of the limo, right outside the BEST PRIVATE SCHOOL in the U.S., maybe the world!!! —before their private chef would even give them a taste of their grilled salmon with caviar!!!!!!! 

And contrary to what the lying media are saying, the fCalifornia  armers are doing just great!!!!!!!!!!!! Yes, we did have to round up thousands of their best workers and put them on cattle cars back to those swamps they came from!! !! But now, under my new regime, poor school children can be hired after school to work off their subsidized health care!!!! It’s a WIN-WIN!!!!

Can’t wait til Neil Gorsuch is confirmed!! EVERYONE wants him!!!!!!!!! He has told me privately that not only are corporations PEOPLE with rights to free speech, but cars and refrigerators are people too!!!!!! That’s why the new cars  cars  can drive themselves!!!!! Next year, cars and refrigerators get the vote in all red states!!!! And—cheeseburgers, in their role as citizens, are inundating the Republican party with contributions to fund our agenda, whatever it may be!! Even the little guys—Big Mac Jrs.— are getting in on it with small but important contribtions!!! 

Putin requested that nukes be considered people but i’ll let Gorsuch decide—we DO have separation of powers, you know!!!!

No Plan to Live in Mexico: How I Got Here

The best plan might be NOT to have a plan.

I spent my working life doing goals and objectives, setting annual plans and then evaluating whether I met those targets. They became part of my annual performance review. Yet, the serendipity of how my personal life progressed was never a conscious decision. Sometimes I felt bad about that. I should have had more direction.

But I couldn’t have planned it better. How I came to live in Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca, Mexico, was pure accident.

Many I meet ask, How did you get here? Here’s a condensed answer.

Church of the Precious Blood, Teotitlan del Valle, built on top of Zapotec Temple, archeological ruins

Church of the Precious Blood, Teotitlan del Valle, built atop Zapotec temple ruins

My friend, Annie Burns, moved to Teotitlan from Pittsboro, North Carolina, in the early 2000’s.  She would return to visit with wonderful textiles to show and sell. At the time, there were probably three or four gueros living here. She kept inviting me to visit. Finally, I did, in 2005 with the wasband.

Teotitecas, parade of the canastas

Teotitecas, Parade of the Canastas each year in July

Annie introduced us to Josefina Ruiz Vazquez and her mother-in-law Magdalena. They had both lost husbands to illness that same year, son and father. Josefina and Magda are great cooks. Josefina, mother of three youngsters, was left with no means of support. Annie thought, maybe they could start a B&B. We were the first experiment in hospitality for gringos.

That’s how Las Granadas B& B in Teotitlan del Valle got started. Today, it is a shadow of its former self. Another friend, Roberta Christie, stepped in to make a huge difference by creating the infrastructure to make it happen. But I digress.

Rooftop View of Teotitlan del Valle from Las Granadas

Rooftop View of Teotitlan del Valle from Las Granadas

Years ago in San Francisco, I was a beginning weaver and experimented in natural dyes. My love of textiles informed my adulthood and as I traveled, I collected. During that first visit to Teotitlan del Valle, I thought I had landed in heaven. Teotitlan was filled with talented weavers and stunning textiles.

Federico Chavez Sosa at his loom in Teotitlan del Valle

Federico Chavez Sosa at his loom in Teotitlan del Valle

I was on a quest to find a family that worked only in natural dyes. I did research in advance and knew that while it was not widespread, there were a few working with plant dyes and cochineal. I set out to find them. It wasn’t easy. And, of course, I loved all those bright aniline dye colors, too.

Yet, it was a time when we were talking more about sustainability and consuming what was healthy, organic. Making a commitment to buying an organic textile was important to me and I didn’t want to compromise.

Dye demonstration with cochineal bug, acid and base

Dye demonstration with cochineal bug, acid and base

For the first few days in Teotitlan del Valle, I walked around meeting and talking with weavers in their workshops to learn more. There were many beautiful textiles and I was smitten. But I restrained myself from buying.

Everyone could give me a natural dye demonstration, crushing the cochineal bug in my palm, squeezing lime juice, adding baking soda. I watched the color change from orange to red to pink to purple, depending on proportions and chemistry. I wasn’t certain who was actually using the process to dye the wool.

Eric Chavez Santiago giving dyeing wool with wild marigold

Eric Chavez Santiago dyeing wool with wild marigold

Then, the only Internet connection in town was at the pharmacy across from the church. One day, as we left, we decided to make a right turn instead of our usual left to wander through the rug market.

I hear a voice say in perfect English, “Do you want to see my rugs?” Looking down to manage my steps on the cobblestones, I waved my hand and shook my head, no. The English was too perfect. Too slick, I thought. Then I looked up, saw these magnificent rugs and stepped into the space.

Chavez Family Weavers, portrait by Norma Schafer, 2012

Chavez Family Weavers, portrait by Norma Schafer, 2012

That’s when I met Eric Chavez Santiago and his sister, Janet. Both were university students, selling rugs in the market during Christmas vacation. Janet was huddled in the corner with a book on her lap, studying. I went to their family home and studio to see the complete collection, meet dad Federico Chavez Sosa and mom, Dolores Santiago Arrellenas.

Being a Teotiteco Danzante for Dance of the Feather requires incredible concentration

Being a Teotiteco Danzante for Dance of the Feather requires incredible concentration

I saw the actual wool dyeing and weaving process. Eric explained how difficult the economy was. The market demand had softened since the 90’s when Santa Fe Style sent thousands of Zapotec rugs out of Oaxaca to the American southwest.

Of course, I bought rugs. Eric later told me, many came to visit them, said they would help and were never heard from.

Caracol rug design, communication symbol

Caracol rug design, communication symbol by color master Federico

Then, I went home to North Carolina, gave thought to how I might help this family. I wrote an arts education grant with the Carrboro Arts Center to the NC Arts Council. We got funding to bring Eric and Federico to North Carolina for workshops, expoventas (show and sale) and give a master class at NC State University College of Textiles. I helped get 10 year visas with assist from Congressman David Price‘s staff.

It was never the plan to live here. The idea was to visit once a year … maybe. Living in Oaxaca City was not considered. I fell in love with Teotitlan del Valle, her people and textiles.

The casita where I live in Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca

The casita where I live in Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca

The next year, Federico and Dolores invited us to build a casita on their land. It was a surprise and a gift. Because no foreigners (even people born in other pueblos) can own property in Teotitlan del Valle, we knew that this would be a vacation home that would always be owned by the family. This relationship is based on trust, respect and good will.

Because of this unique arrangement, this is not for everyone. Many immigrants who live in Teotitlan and other usos y costumbres pueblos rent.

But plans have a way of changing and nothing is for certain. The wasband and I had our differences. Our divorce was final in 2014. For now, this is where I live and this is how I got here. I never planned it this way.

Cane bobbins wrapped with red wool dyed cochineal

Cane bobbins wrapped with red wool dyed cochineal

Eric, who thought he might work in a bank after graduation, went on to become the founding director of education at the Museo Textil de Oaxaca, with our coaching help and his innate intelligence. This year, Eric is starting a new entrepreneurial venture at the Alfredo Harp Helu Foundation. Janet is a linguist educator at the Biblioteca Juan de Cordova. Youngest brother, Omar, will finish university in December and wants to take the family business to the next level. Federico and Dolores run Galeria Fe y Lola in Oaxaca City and continue to weave.

Goals? I have no idea what’s next.

Women’s Creative Writing and Yoga Retreat, March 2017

Natural dyes have strong color, as strong as synthetic dyes

With a great dye master, natural dyes have strong color, as strong as commercial dyes

Will you share your story? If you live in Mexico, how did you get here?

 

 

 

Everyday Life in the Campo, Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca, Mexico

Those of us who live here in Mexico probably do much the same things that you do every day. Food shop, clean house, exercise, visit friends, read, write, take naps, volunteer, etc. Most of the immigrants I know are retired and live here either part or full-time. We’re from Canada and the U.S.A. for the most part, but Australians, New Zealanders and South Africans are among us, too.

Oaxaca Red casita color. With Gar Bii Dauu. Local endangered succulent.

Oaxaca Red casita color. With Gar Bii Dauu. Local endangered succulent.

Living in Teotitlan del Valle is different from being a city dweller. This village of indigenous Zapotec people holds to a strong, powerful and ancient culture. Many work at weaving wool rugs. Some are musicians. Others are shopkeepers or run comedors. Some are bakers and butchers. A few sew clothing. Many are farmers. In times when there are fewer tourists, many weavers supplement their income by growing and harvesting food.

Plowing my neighbors corn field, a five-hour project

Plowing my neighbor’s corn field, five plus hours of labor

I live in the campo. Out beyond the hubbub of town, amid the traditional milpas of corn, beans and squash. I’m surrounded on three sides by maize fields. Some are tasseling now. Here, the tradition is to plow the furrows when the corn is waist-high to break the crust and allow rain to penetrate earth. This is living close to the soil. Organic. Honorable.

It’s rainy season. Green stretches for miles. Today I awakened to whistling. Out my window was a young man driving a team of bulls plowing the field next to the casita I live in.

Rene's Volkswagen van. Can you guess it's vintage?

Rene’s Volkswagen van. Can you guess it’s vintage?

I grew up in Los Angeles. Miles of freeways. Concrete. Tiny lots separated by six-foot block walls. School yards paved with asphalt. I remember scraped knees and elbows. The hum of car engines passing. We were all jammed together, a jam of humanity. Even more now. Gridlock. I think I’ve become a country girl.

The crop was planted in July. There wasn’t much rain in June and farmers worried about another year of drought. In my absence over the last five weeks, seems that weather has played catch up and everything is growing.

Two teams of bulls on two days, one white, the other black. Take a rest.

Two teams of bulls on two days, one white, the other black. Take a rest.

The young man plowing the field rents out his services. His two bulls are tethered with a hand-hewn yoke that supports a wood plow. He guides the curved stick deep into the earth with one hand to keep the furrow straight. In the other, he holds a switch that gently prods the animals to keep on the straight and narrow. Farm machinery cannot do this job well enough.

A perfect day for plowing the fields.

A perfect day for plowing the fields. From my living room window.

This is his second day at it. Both days, he started at eight in the morning, ended around two o-clock in the afternoon, just before lunch. People work hard here. Five plus hours plowing the field with no break in the heat of the day. The monotony of walking back and forth. The patience of walking back and forth.

Oaxaca Women’s Creative Writing and Yoga Retreat, March 2017

My friend, plumber and handy-man extraordinaire René asks me if I know what the greca (Greek key) symbol means that is woven on village rugs.  It’s the step-fret carved into the Mitla temple walls, I answer.

Grecas, Mitla archeological site

Grecas, Mitla archeological site, post-classical Monte Alban

Yes, and more, he says. The ancient Zapotecs believe the two interlocking hands that form the pre-Hispanic greca represent the serpent deity duality and the life-giving connection between earth and sky, water and fire.  

The transformation. Beige to red. Another symbol.

Rene executing the transformation. Beige to red. Symbol of change.

We are eating lunch and the thunder is rolling in. The sky darkens. Earth gives off the aroma of on-coming rain.  The just plowed field next door will soon drink its fill. René packs up his painting supplies. Paint does not do well with humidity.

Handwoven indigo rug with greca design

Handwoven indigo rug with greca design, Teotitlan del Valle

The exterior walls of the casita I live in are getting a makeover. The wasband liked beige. I’m in the mood for Oaxaca Red.

From rooftop terrace, a 360 degree view of Tlacolula valley

From rooftop terrace, a 360 degree view of Tlacolula valley