The polling place is across the street from me at the Durham School of the Arts. Last night the signs began to proliferate.
At this moment, the wind is blowing strong from the southwest. Atop the flag pole, the Stars and Stripes unfurl, waving and below is the Old North State flag bearing dates that testify to North Carolina’s leadership in America’s 1775 independence movement.
I’m on the top floor of my building and I see this every day. It is part of the landscape and I don’t pay much attention. Today is different.
I voted two weeks ago. If you haven’t, please do so today.
I’m not a flag-waver and yet, I see the flags as symbols of our imperfect union, symbol of the ideals of democracy, symbol of hope, symbol of a country that opens its outstretched arms to refugees in every generation, of acceptance for differences, in the belief that together in our diversity we are stronger.
Whatever your political persuasion, please vote to reunite our country in hope rather supporting the rhetoric of destruction and division. I believe that this rhetoric gives permission to people to act out with AK-47s, pipe bombs, and voter suppression. We can put a stop to this.
I live in North Carolina to vote, to connect with friends, to access excellent university-based medical care if needed. Voting is a responsibility, a right and a privilege. I have a commitment to make this country the best it can be.
Please exercise yours.
Tonight, my friend Karen and I will create our own Downtown Durham Election Night Crawl, starting at the Beyu Caffe jazz and supper club on Main Street, to watch early election night results. Neither of us have a television and we don’t want to be isolated.
The altar is complete. Dia de los Muertos — Day of the Dead– 2018 has passed. The difuntos, spirits of the ancestors, have returned to their resting places content that we have welcomed them back to earth for the day to celebrate their lives. Some of us talk to our parents, ask their advice, admonish them for shortcomings, appreciate the gift of life.
Mexicans know how to honor their generations with this day that is considered more important than any in family and community life.
El Dia de los Muertos is the homecoming of the spirits of the dead all over Mexico, a reunion of the dead and the living. The old ones say that when the spirits come back to the world of the living, their path must be made clear, the roadway must not be slippery with the wet flood of human tears.
The Calavera Painter clay figure above is for sale. $75 USD plus $8 mailing.
I am not attempting to appropriate a culture that I haven’t been born into. I participate and create Dia de los Muertos to learn more about how to accept the transition from life to death and the continuum and cycles of life. It is a devotional practice like meditation and prayer. Finding comfort is essential for the human spirit.
Last night, a few friends gathered here at home in Durham, North Carolina, to pay tribute to those who have gone before us. Mostly parents and grandparents. They brought photographs to place on the altar.
Photographs, a recent phenomenon, help us remember. In Teotitlan del Valle, photos were not placed on altars until the 1960’s. It is said that after two generations, memory of a particular person is lost. Storytelling, recalling favorite foods, jokes, clothes, activities was and is essential to remembering especially in the absence of visual clues.
We sat around in a circle sharing our memories, comparing how we prepare for death and dying here in the USA with Mexico. Of course, this depends on our personal upbringings and spiritual beliefs, and whether there is any ritual associated with remembering those who died.
I could imagine, as we sipped wine, beer and mezcal, ate tamales and enchiladas, and told stories of mothers and fathers and grandparents and siblings, that we could have sat around a family gravesite in Teotitlan del Valle, laughing, bringing up tears and feeling connected — to each other and to those who passed on.
We told stories about the love of music, literature, eating and drinking, a good joke, growing up on humble southern farms, sprawling suburbs, gritty city centers, of immigrant and refugee families, of missing a sibling to reminisce and remember details. Someone said that one never recovers from the loss of a mother, another that her father was the most important support in her life. We were real, talking about function, dysfunction and love.
Next year, 2019, I will be in Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca, with Professor Robin Greene. We will be leading the Day of the Dead Women’s Writing Retreat. A year away and we are half-filled — five spaces open. Will you join us?
The Aztecs, I read, believed that death fed life, that human sacrifice was necessary to feed the earth to make sure there is enough rain, fertile seeds and soil, an abundance of food. Death was not feared but celebrated, honored, even welcomed.
Zapotecs practiced ancestor worship and buried their dead in the courtyard of family homes so they would be close and could consult with them regularly. Bones are swept aside every ten years to make room for the next ancestor in the same resting space. This is still common in many villages.
I honor my parents and grandparents by remembering them. Sometimes, I feel they are with me, especially when I am saying or doing something that is exactly as they would have said or done it (or so it feels). I think about my own mortality and try not to be afraid, to accept the natural order of life that is synonymous with death. Will I live on? Yes, in the memories of my family and those I have touched. Is there comfort in that? Perhaps.
Day of the Dead diorama, tin, handmade. For Sale. $85 USD plus $8 mailing. Folds flat.
As we search for meaning, for connection, for intimacy, Day of the Dead gives us pause to examine our own lives and those who came before, those who gave us life, and to ride the tailwinds and not fight the headwinds.
Today is Halloween in El Norte, the northern part of North America aka USA. In southern North America aka Mexico, the celebration is very different. And, the border is more permeable so iconic images of carved pumpkins, witches on broomsticks, and the call of trick or treat are becoming part of the Mexican holiday landscape.
Catholic Halloween (imported to Latin America from Spain) has three components:
It is likely the Spanish moved indigenous ancestor worship celebration and traditions to these dates to coincide with teaching the new religion. In many Oaxaca villages, the celebrations occur on one of these three days. You need to know where and when.
Here in Durham, North Carolina, Day of the Dead or Dia de los Muertos, takes on the flavor of Mexico and is celebrated beyond the barrio. I suspect that many cities and towns with Mexican and Central American immigrants have incorporated the images, if not the practices, of Muertos into Halloween.
My annual celebration is on November 2, All Soul’s Day, which is when Muertos is observed in my Oaxaca home village of Teotitlan del Valle.
I build an altar. Decorate it with cempasuchitl (aromatic marigolds), offerings of food and beverages that my parents loved. My dad gets a beer. My mom gets green tea. There is bread and chocolate — a requirement. No bagels and lox in Durham, so I make do with something else. I light candles. Arrange the sugar skulls. Put their photos on the table. Sit and remember. This is ecumenical.
Paul Cezanne contemplates mortality in this still life
Death in the Mexican culture is synonymous with life. It is a time to celebrate life in all its forms and think about the continuity. Muertos is when the loved ones return to visit. It is a chance to talk to them, to thank them, to honor them and to consider how they gave us life. If we had unresolved issues, we can discuss those with them, too. It is very healthy and healing, like a prayer.
Acid base using fresh lime juice turns the dye bath orange
Most people don’t know that cochineal is the natural dye that colors lipstick, Campari, yogurt, and wine. Anything labeled carminic acid comes from cochineal. When you manipulate the pH, you can change the dye color.
Cochineal dyed silk
When you over-dye with blue, the cloth becomes purple. When you start with wild marigold and over-dye with cochineal, the cloth becomes peach color. The color of the sheep wool will also determine the shades of red.
Cochineal dyed wool
The wool must be washed/cleaned or mordanted first before it is dyed. This takes out the lanolin and makes the wool more receptive to accepting the color. The cochineal mordant bath is clear water with alum, heated to dissolve the natural rock. Wool dyed with cochineal needs mordanting. Wool dyed with indigo does not.
Taking the wool out of the bath that mordants the wool
Once the wool is cleaned, we prepare the cochineal dye bath dissolving the powdered bugs into hot water and stirring.
A red pullover scarf called a quechquemitl coming out of the dye bath
For a deeper color red, the wool must stay in the dye pot for at least an hour. At home in Teotitlan del Valle, Omar and his family will keep the yard they weave rugs with in the dye bath overnight to get the most intense color.
Another view of a dyed wool scarf coming out of the dye bath
Eight women gathered around Wendy’s kitchen to prepare the mordant and dye pots after Omar gave an introduction and orientation to the cochineal and its color properties.
Cooking it up in Wendy’s kitchen
He brought hand-woven wool scarves with him from Oaxaca that each participant could work with.
Omar coaching participants as they get ready to immerse their scarves
Fresh lime juice is essential because the acid is the necessary ingredient to alter the color of the dye bath. This is exactly how the family does it at home in Oaxaca — an entirely hand-made process.
Everyone squeezed limes by hand!
You can come to Oaxaca for a natural dye workshop or a tapestry weaving workshop. Contact Norma Schafer, Oaxaca Cultural Navigator LLC. We can fit your schedule.
It was a perfect NC day — our outdoor dye kitchen
Wool wet and waiting for the dye pot
When you bring the cloth out of the pot you want to make sure not to waste the cochineal. It cost over $100 USD per kilo, so you squeeze the liquid out over the dye pot to reuse it.
Squeezing the excess liquid
A study in color variation depending on wool type and dye bath
Hot purple and juicy lime, a great color contrast of wool in bowl
Last month I was invited to contribute a chapter to a book about ex-pat women from the USA who have chosen to make a life in Mexico. Tell your story, the editor said. Write about your experience. What was your reason for leaving our land of the free, home of the brave (my tongue and cheek terminology)?
I dug deep. Went back to the story about how I met the Chavez Santiago family thirteen years ago in Teotitlan del Valle and fell in love: with them, with Oaxaca, with Teotitlan del Valle, with the rug weaving culture, with Zapotec life and values, with the climate, archeology, history, artisanry and art.
Monte Alban, Zapotec archeological site, Oaxaca, Mexico
But, I always did, and still do, consider The United States of America my country, where I am vested and invested in language, culture, and especially social justice and political issues.
And, I am now spending most of the year at home in Teotitlan del Valle, with occasional, short stays at my apartment in Durham, North Carolina.
So, I went deep into that question about how did I get to Mexico, and more importantly, why I make it home, am comfortable and love it there. I will save this for when the book is published and you can read it for yourself.
Glyphs at Monte Alban Museum
(As a consequence, I wrote a blog post about the difference in terms: immigrant and ex-pat.)
By writing about this I realized that it is time to declare my commitment to Mexico by applying for a permanent resident visa. It was about time, I told myself. I have been living permanently in Oaxaca for many years but functioning as a visitor, leaving the country and returning. I wrote the Mexican Consulate in Raleigh, NC, and scheduled an interview to make application.
(I confess, too, that the Supreme Court Justice nomination and hearings helped me make this choice, too.)
My application was approved and within two hours I received the official visa in my passport. I knew I had done the right thing after taking a pulse on why I was grinning ear to ear!
Flags for sale in Tlacolula, a size for everyone.
This means I will have 30 days after returning to Oaxaca to present this credential at the immigration office to get the ultimate, official identity card. Permanent means I no longer have to leave the country at the end of 30, 60 or 180 days. It means I can get a bank account and a credit card and own a car, get discounts and free admissions to museums, bus rides, and what else tangible I do not know. But, the intangible is that I belong in Mexico, too, and that feels good.
While I was at the consulate, I met Cecelia Barros, who heads up cultural affairs for the consulate in North and South Carolina. We talked about ways to bring attention to the talent, creativity, rich history and culture of Mexican people to this part of the USA. Our mutual goal: to overcome and disable the stereotypes and shiboleths that so many hold about Mexico and Mexican immigrants.
Chinas Oaxaqueñas at El Tule Guelaguetza 2018
I invited her to Omar’s presentation at Meredith College, and we are cooking up some ideas together about ways to develop educational programs that would offer greater cross-cultural understanding and appreciation. I’m excited about that.
My experience at the Mexican Consulate was positive and supportive, and did not mirror that of my Mexican friends and family who go to the US Embassy in Mexico City and are treated perfunctorily, with disdain and most often with denial.
Before I leave to return to Mexico on November 8, I will vote.
Gathering in the church patio, Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca
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Why We Left, Expat Anthology: Norma’s Personal Essay
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