Category Archives: Cultural Commentary

A Day in Oaxaca Villages with Envia Foundation

Yes, I went on a tour! Envia Foundation offers half-day excursions out to villages where their borrowers live and work. I say borrowers because Envia’s primary goal is to offer microfinancinginterest-free loans — to women entrepreneurs who want to start or expand a small business. Responsible tourism is part of that.

San Miguel del Valle weaver and Envia tour-goer with a tree-of-life tapete

We visit borrowers to see the improvements they have been able to make with Envia’s financial help and to hear their personal stories about how funds and educational support programs have made a difference.

San Miguel del Valle’s Bordado Mary with her magnificent aprons

To qualify for an Envia loan, you must form a group of at least three women and promise to make weekly repayments of at least 20 pesos and on time. Each woman is committed to each other to make this happen. The first loan is for 1,500 pesos, which translates now to about $80 USD. Once this is repaid, the women can qualify for the next level loan. The largest loan is 7,500 pesos, or about $400 USD.

La Alma de la Casa! Our lunch stop in San Miguel del Valle

Envia lends to women because data show they will keep the funds in the family and they are more accountable for repayment.  There is a 99.8% repayment rate. In Mexico, the cost to borrow money (interest rates) ranges from 75% and 200%. People are never able to get out of debt if they follow this path.

My tlayuda. More than I could ever eat. Delicious organic corn.

The women present a simple budget to Envia to apply. For most, Spanish is their second language. They speak Zapotec. They don’t need to speak Spanish, though, to receive a loan. They must attend a basic business education course before the funds are given. About 10% of the borrowers have completed middle school (8th grade), and 60% have completed elementary school to the second grade. The loan gives them a leg up to buy materials and supply such as yarn if they are weavers, thread or a sewing machine if they are embroiderers, a stove if they run a small diner (comedor).

Winn and me trying on aprons. Of course, we bought one!

We might think these needs are simple. To many, a small loan can make a big difference.

Young girls start wearing aprons early — part of their identity

We started the day at Envia headquarters at Instituto Cultural Oaxaca, boarded a van and headed out to San Miguel del Valle, a village in the hills above Tlacolula de Matamoros on the way to the Sierra Norte. Here they are known for both their elaborate embroidery and weaving.

Through the screen door at the comedor, San Miguel del Valle

We first had a fantastic homemade lunch at Comedor Teresa. She calls herself the Alma de la Casa, the Soul of the House. We had a choice of chicken or vegetarian dishes: chile relleno, tlayuda or tacos dorados. All delicious.

Weaver sisters in San Miguel del Valle, and husband who also weaves

We then walked to the house of a 25-year-old embroiderer who makes elaborate aprons that must pair with a matching or contrasting under-dress. She gave us a demonstration and we were in awe of her handiwork. She does not sell at the Tlacolula Market. All her customers come to her house.

We next walked uphill to a house near the church, then climbed down a steep stairway to the courtyard of weavers Petronia and Minerva, who now buy their own dyed wool instead of being supplied with a piecework order from a big house in Teotitlan. This gives them more independence, a bit more profit, and saves materials and travel costs. Every little bit helps.

Array of colorful beeswax candles, handmade, some with natural dyes

We arrived in Teotitlan del Valle in late afternoon to visit the house of Sofia and her sister Sara who make traditional beeswax candles, some dyed with natural plant materials and cochineal. Just stunning work.

Sofia starting a candle, 365 layers of wax

Candles dyed with indigo and cochineal, artful to hang

In the same courtyard, we meet family member Ludivina Vasquez Gutierrez who dyes wool with natural plants and cochineal. Her husband is the weaver. They do the entire process by hand, carding, spinning and weaving the Churro wool they buy from the Mixteca region of Oaxaca. We were taken with the quality and very reasonable prices. Perhaps only a dozen weavers work in natural dyes here, though most can give tourists a dye demonstration using cochineal.

A stack of beautiful rugs, all made with natural dyes, Teotitlan del Valle

The tour, which began at 1 p.m. returned the group to Oaxaca after 7 p.m. The cost is 850 pesos which includes transportation and lunch.

Hand-carding wool to spin. Two days labor to fill a basket.

Being a tourist on this tour can’t be beat!

Thanks to Jacki and Ida for being the best tour leaders and translators of language and culture.

Bordado Mary makes embroidered bags, too.

 

 

 

Video: Chinas Oaxaqueñas at the El Tule Guelaguetza 2018

The “alternative” Guelaguetza in Santa Maria del Tule started with the crowd-pleasing favorite, the Chinas Oaxaqueñas. I don’t know how the tradition of the name originated. Can anyone out there offer an answer?

Chinas Oaxaqueñas at El Tule Guelaguetza 2018˜

Perhaps it is simply Oaxaca’s version of the Chinas Poblanas of Puebla. Their beaded blouses had origins in the Philippines and were likely imported on Spanish trade galleons coming from Asia to Mexico. Women from the Philippines came to Mexico in this fashion, too.

Goods landed at Acapulco and shipped overland to Veracruz, with a cross-roads stop at Puebla. It is said that the mantilla and rebozo/shawl with hand-knotted fringes had its origins in Asia, too. Spanish women loved this look then. We love it now.

Video: Danza de los Diablos, African Roots in Mexico, El Tule Guelaguetza 2018

Danza de los Diablos is connected with the Afro-Mestizo history of Oaxaca’s Costa Chica, the Pacific coast region between Puerto Escondido and Acapulco, Guerrero. Now referred to as Mexico’s Third Root, people of African descent are an integral part of what it means to be Mexican, more than only the mix of Europeans and AmerIndians. With the conquest of Mexico, Spanish brought African slaves here in the 16th century to work sugar cane fields, mines and agriculture. Most were men and married indigenous women. Race and class was far more permeable in Mexico than in the United States.

Only recently have academics and cultural anthropologists begun to uncover and investigate the importance of African roots in Mexican culture.

Dressed as the devil with mask, horns and horsehair, African roots

The dance and its music, with its stomping and whirling, are said to symbolize the breaking from the repression of slave owners and the church. The woman in the dance represents the mixing of races. She carries a white doll. Traditionally, the dance is performed on November 1 during Day of the Dead.

White mask, dark skin, white baby, symbol of Afro-Mestizo roots

Oaxaca Costa Chica Textile Study Tour, January 11-21, 2019–Spaces Open

Behind the mask, a beautiful countenance

Today, the dance is a testimony to Oaxaca’s rich diversity and deepening respect for her roots.

One of the pleasures I have from writing this blog is the research I do to investigate the culture and history of Oaxaca and Mexico. When I was at the Costa Chica in the last two years, I became more aware of African slave roots as as I talked with cultural anthropologists and locals.

A First Person Commentary

About Afro-Mexicans

Much more has been written about the African experience on the Caribbean coast of Mexico, at the port of Veracruz and south. The Son Jarocho music of Mexico, Cuba and the Caribbean are rooted in Africa, as is the donkey jawbone and drum percussion instruments. There is still a lot to learn.

 

The Other Guelaguetza in Santa Maria del Tule: Affordable and Accessible

Access to the BIG Guelaguetza under the big top on the Cerro del Fortin of Oaxaca, Mexico, is limited to those who can a) afford to buy a ticket at 1,121 pesos and 908 pesos each plus Ticketmaster fees, and b) those who can stand in line overnight for the limited number of upper deck seats offered for free. It’s a sell-out crowd to 11,000 people every year.

Delegation from Santa Maria Tlahuitoltepec give tepache drink gift to crowd

For the past several years, villages around Oaxaca have been offering what I call mini-Guelaguetzas, alternative, smaller versions of the extravaganza that are playing to local audiences who can afford a more modest ticket price. The venues are small, intimate and you can see everything. This makes the experience affordable and accessible.

Las Chinas Oaxaqueñas alway delight the audience

This year, friends and I decided to go to Santa Maria del Tule, famous for the giant 3,000-year old cedar tree. They were hosting their first year Guelaguetza with one performance on the Mondays that the big event took place on the Cerro del Fortin.  We went on July 30, the second Monday, and it was just perfect. We even got a parking space on-site next to the stadium.

Cat and mouse courting game played out in dance by Ejutla de Crespo troupe

I bought tickets for 200 pesos each in advance at the municipal building in Santa Maria del Tule. One could also buy them online for a small service fee.

Group from Oaxaca Central Valleys danced with live turkeys

Every seat in the Monumental del Tule, the town’s 3,500 seat outdoor stadium, offered a great view of the circular stage. This is an open-air amphi-theatre, so there is no protection from the weather.

Gifts, usually fresh fruit, were tossed from the stage. We snagged a pomegranate.

Ojala! The 4 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. performance was held between thunderstorms but there was no escaping the rain which came in droplets and downpours. No one seemed to mind because it’s been so dry here. It hasn’t rained in a month. We knew the farmers needed this for their crops.

La Danza de la Piña Papoalapan and Tlahui women huddled under rain clouds

So, we either covered ourselves in plastic sheeting or pulled out parkas and umbrellas. The show must go on. And it did!

Gosh, that rain really poured but we didn’t budge

So many visitors to and many foreign residents of Oaxaca think that the meaning of Guelaguetza is this performance event, plus all the activities that are held concurrently:  the Mole Festival, the Feria de Mezcal, the promenade of artisan vendors on the walking street Macedonio Alcala, and the spectacular calendas or parades.

Masked hombre from the Costa Chica reveals himself

Meaning of Guelaguetza

Guelaguetza is an ancient Zapotec community practice that ensures continuity through mutual support. The giving and receiving of gifts and service is a way to equalize relationships and make sure that everyone is cared for via intertwining relationships. Everyone takes their turn to give and receive. It is part of creating mutual respect. As such, no one goes hungry. There is always corn, bread, chocolate and mezcal to share. There is always help when needed. Sharing is embedded in community as a way of life.

Ferocious with mask, horns and horsehair, African roots in Mexico

Most of the dances are choreographed to depict village life, courting practices and the wedding ceremony. In pre-Hispanic times, these dances were employed to signal commitment and betrothal in the community before there were churches and Catholic priests to do European rituals.

Man carries the baule, wedding chest, while others bring wedding gifts

Each region has different customs. There are 16 different language groups in Oaxaca and many dialect variations. People marry who can understand each other linguistically.

Tehuanas from the Isthmus of Tehuantepec display heavily embroidered traje

In the Mixtec region, the language is Mixteco. In the Mixe region, that’s what they speak. In the mountains between Oaxaca and the coast, some speak Chatino. The Zapotecs of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec have very few words in common with the Zapotecs of the Central Valleys of Oaxaca.

Tehuanas weather the storm. By this time, they are soaking wet, as are we.

True Confession: We couldn’t tough it out to stay for the Danza de la Piña. The show producers removed the pineapples from the stage. It was 7:30 p.m. and we had arrived at 3:30 p.m. Time to eat. Off we went to Restaurant La Superior where we had a fine supper of tasajo (grilled beef) and barbacoa (goat).

Tomorrow, I’ll post videos.

 

 

 

Lila Downs Concert Is Mini-Guelaguetza Extravaganza

How could each Lila Downs Concert be better then those that came before? The Best Ever is what I heard people say who have gone to many in the past. I don’t know, but Lila Downs knows how to dazzle a crowd.

Grammy Award Winner Lila Downs

The Guelaguetza Stadium on the Cerro Fortin in Oaxaca city was full on Friday night, July 27. We got there early to be sure to beat the crowds and that gave us a chance to settle into our seats and audience oggle.

Our diverse group from Israel, South Africa, Italy, Mexico and USA

Love this tapete — handwoven sarape

I was lucky enough to be invited to join a group of friends at the last moment. They had an extra ticket and offered it to me. Thank you, Patrice and Neal! Seems that to snag a primo seat means standing in line all night and someone they know did that for them. I was happy to pay the premium.

Lila loves wearing indigenous dress (traje) from the Isthmus of Tehuantepec!

Beribboned and twirling figures with  hand-woven hats

I had some serious doubts about whether my shout out for tickets would yield results. I was not successful finding online tickets via Ticketmaster. Nothing materialized and I gave up … until a few days before!

Whirling dervish cowboy dancer devils

We were in the third row, far left of center, behind the mixing station staff. Not great for photos, but a fabulous spot for listening and watching Lila’s husband Paul Cohen on his badass sax.  Even Lila made her way over on occasion. I did my best to get photos, but the strobes and movement of dancers made the conditions very challenging.

Little girl Flor de Piña dancers

In the row behind me, he sang every word along with her

I think what was fantastic about this concert is that Lila brought us her incredible traditional play list, the oldies but goodies. Everyone around us sang along. AND, the performance was built around the dancing and costuming of the annual Guelaguetza event held on the last two Mondays in July at the same venue.

Tlacolula de Matamoros Delegation

Benito Juarez, iconic Zapotec president of the Republic: respect human rights

With Lila’s singing mastery, great musicians and representative delegations invited from Tlacolula de Matamoros from the Valles Centrales de Oaxaca, Santa Maria Tlahuitoltepec from the Sierra Mixe, Juchitan women from the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, girls from the Papaloapan region of Oaxaca near Veracruz giving us the Pineapple Dance, and groups that are masked, twirling and whirling, the show couldn’t have been better.

La Bandera, the Mexican Flag, iconic and powerful revolutionary image

Lila Downs and Paul Cohen have a strong commitment to social justice issues in Oaxaca and Mexico. Her songs tell the struggle of poverty, lack of education and health care, discrimination, disenfranchisement, pain and tears, hopes and dreams. Together, they have been a powerful voice for human rights.

Lila sings La Llorona and the audience goes crazy

Artist woodcut projected as stage backdrop to band

The dynamic visual backdrop to the stage were photos and video of migrant farm workers, artist woodcuts of peasant life, the work of artisans and craftspeople, marching soldiers with bayonet rifles, heroic President of Independence Benito Juarez, a Zapotec from Oaxaca.

Sax and trumpet with lots of marimba band back up

Saxaphonist Paul Cohen takes a break to enjoy the Flor de Piña dancers

The fun was mixed with the message that we cannot be complacent about politics and world events. Half the seats in the audience were available to adoring fans for free.

The Grand Finale included everyone on stage

Guns at the border — NO