Category Archives: Oaxaca Mexico art and culture

Levine Museum of the New South Features Oaxaca Cultural Navigator Photo

The Levine Museum of the New South opens NUEVOlution! Latinos and the New South on Friday, September 25, 2015, in Charlotte, North Carolina. It can be seen until October 30, 2016. After that, the interactive, bilingual exhibition will travel throughout the United States starting with the Birmingham (AL) Civil Rights Institute and the Atlanta (GA) History Center.  I hope you have a chance to see it.

Oliver Merino, who is coordinating the exhibition, contacted me last year to ask if the museum could include one of my photographs of Oaxaca Day of the Dead practices in the exhibition. Of course, I said, YES! There is nothing I could be more satisfied with than to contribute to the dialog about human rights, personal respect and dignity, and cultural appreciation for every human being in the world, and especially for Latinos in America.

(Note: the photo below is not the one used for the exhibition.) If you would like to volunteer or know more, please contact Oliver.


Latino communities throughout Mexico and the United States are getting ready for the end of October celebration that honors deceased loved ones. The practice is celebratory and filled with magical ritual.  So different from how we mourn and remember in the USA.

In Oaxaca, things are gearing up!

Photography Workshop in Chiapas, January 2016.



Teotitlan del Valle Weaver Recognized by Smithsonian Institution National Museum of the American Indian

Norma’s Note: Weaver Porfirio Gutierrez called to tell me about his recognition from the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.  He asked if I would share the news. Congratulations to Porfirio and to all the outstanding weavers of Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca, Mexico — many of whom deserve recognition and are unsung cultural heroes. I’m happy to share this with you.


My name is Porfirio Gutiérrez and I am a weaver from Teotitlán del Valle. We follow your blog and refer many friends who want to learn more about Oaxaca. I am writing because I thought you might find my recent award from the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) to be newsworthy. Once a year candidates for their Artist Leadership Program are selected. I am proud to announce that I have been chosen for 2016. Below is more information about how I became a participant and what this means to our village.

Porfirio on loom #1

Like many people in our village, my family has descended from generations of Zapotec weavers going back as far as anyone can remember. As you know, Teotitlán has been known for its fine weaving since pre-Columbian times. In spite of our long-standing reputation for fine work, the economic downturn and other factors have hurt our livelihood and threaten the existence of our traditional art.

Dying Indigo

In our town, other components of our Zapotec legacy are about to vanish forever. My parents speak Zapoteco, my siblings and I speak Zapoteco and Spanish, but our children speak mostly Spanish. The same pattern is true with our art; my parents spin, dye and weave. My siblings and I have these skills to some degree, but most of us have had to find outside work in other fields to sustain our families.

The youth in our village may never know the all of arts of their ancestors unless they are shown by the remaining masters who are still practicing our ancient techniques. In an effort to sustain our Zapotec art of weaving, I proposed to the NMAI to bring together experts with a group of interested people in our village for a workshop on traditional plant and cochineal dyes.


We are very fortunate that the NMAI wants to support our efforts and is going to help us with a 4-day training program. During this workshop students will see where dye plants grow in the wild, learn how to make them into dyes, and explore color combinations. NMAI will come to Teotitlán to oversee the program and make professional video that will be posted on their website.

The Smithsonian’s NMAI Artist Leadership Program is truly an important step towards sustaining Zapotec culture and our traditional art form. Their video will give a glimpse into life in Oaxaca. Please visit our website for more information.

Chromatica at MACO Oaxaca: New Sounds, Ancient Textures

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Inside the courtyard at MACO, once a conqueror’s palace

Chromatica, a multi-media art exhibition created by Guggenheim award-winning Mexican artist Tania Candiani, opened last weekend in Oaxaca at the Museo Arte de Contemporaneo de Oaxaca (MACO).  The exhibition takes a new approach to sight and sound.

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Chromatics is about how we communicate through music and color. It can be considered the interdisciplinary intersection between technology and art. Candiani explores the differences and similarities between language systems, sound and the logics of technology through her work.

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This is interpretive, intuitive and not always “in your face” evident through the various experiences of this exhibition that stimulates and questions the visual and auditory senses. The result is to create an emotional experience that could be somewhat uncomfortable.

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Old loom as modern sound machine

First is the sound of the traditional two-harness pedal loom used to weave serapes and rugs in Teotitlan del Valle.  At the opening, three Mendoza family weavers stood at looms in the courtyard with microphones recording the sounds of their creativity. They wove fast, slow, in harmony and not.

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Javier and friend from Teotitlan del Valle, with natural colors

We could hear the beating of the treadles, loud, soft, harsh, subtle, the whoosh of the shuttle going through the heddles, the rhythms of wood against wool. The recordings can be heard in one of the exhibition rooms along with an abstract video of the work in progress. For how much longer will we hear this sound?

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Upstairs on the second floor of the museum, we see the historical elements used to prepare the wool.  The dyestuffs: cochineal, indigo and pericone (wild marigold). We see ancient stone grinders where people kneeled to prepare the powder. We see embroidery hoops embellished in red, blue and yellow, telling the story of the colors as recorded in the pre-Hispanic codices.

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Metates, manos de metates and cochineal powder

But there is more than meets the eye:  tone poems of color embroidered onto cloth that tell of the modern experience of traditional color in a changing, mechanized world. What does blue evoke? How does red make us feel? What is the human labor needed to give us these colors that we take for granted and enjoy?

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As the crowd gathered around an ancient loom converted into a sound box, people took turns cranking the take-up roll, traditionally used to wind the cloth as it is woven. In this structure, it turned the wheel to produce sounds. The “thread” was string — as in violin or piano.

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A cochineal painted room of breeding cactus gives us a sense of how many of these bugs are needed to color just one rug or garment. The color intensity penetrates.

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Old hand carders against a backdrop of blue

Questions? Did the exhibition go far enough? Were the exhibits as interesting as they could have been? All the explanations were in Spanish with no English “subtitles,” so the meanings could be harder for some non-bilingual visitors to “get.” Was there a clear path to meaning from one gallery to the next?

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Moving from the preparation of cochineal to indigo, we see the concrete vats replicated to show us how the color of the plant is extracted. There is an excellent video created by Eric Chavez Santiago, education director at the Museo Textil de Oaxaca about the process of preparing indigo. It would have been a great educational video to include in this exhibition — better than the one selected to show.

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Ceramic artists from Santa Maria Atzompa created bellowing birds in the “yellow” room. Push and pull the bellows to hear how sound emanates and enters our bodies for interpretation. Aren’t we all cogs in the wheel?

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Meaning comes from many sources. The exhibition raises questions about how technology impacts and changes people, traditional life, practices and uses. How many are using the metate now to grind the cochineal and indigo, when most have gone over to coffee grinders for ease of labor.

Does this change the outcome of the fiber and color? What about the practice of hand-weaving itself? Will automated looms result in lower prices, yes, and the disappearance of a handmade process, perhaps? Will people only do this for a hobby and not for a business or way of life? What does it mean for the continuation of culture to experience this change? What about the raw materials: The hand-spun wool and natural dyes, what will become of them and the people who make them?

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I presume these are the questions that the artist is asking us to explore in this exhibition. As supporters, appreciators and consumers of art and artisanry, how do we each contribute to the continuation or demise of hand craft?

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The contemporary art museum is located on the Andador — Macedonio Alcala between Murguia and Morelos.

Festivals and Faces: Chiapas Photography Workshop

Book Preview–Milpa: From Seed to Salsa, Oaxaca Food, Recipes, Sustainability

When I visited photographer Judith Cooper Haden in her Santa Fe home recently, she showed me the final proofs for Milpa: From Seed to Salsa, Ancient Ingredients for a Sustainable Future. The book explores the Mesoamerican way of growing, cooking and eating food.


The photography is stunning! Four years in the making, the book is a collaborative visual narrative filled with pictures that touch your heart, delicious recipes you’ll want to cook, and cultural commentary to understand more about how Oaxaca’s original people grow their food and the risks associated with environmental devastation.


The book will be ready for printing, distribution and purchase shortly. It is a combined effort by community development organizer Phil Dahl-Bredine, Jesus Leon Santos, Goldman Environmental Prize winner and director, Center for Integral Small Farmer Development in the Mixteca (CEDICAM), cultural photographer Judith Cooper Haden and chef/teacher/author Susana Trilling.

You can pre-order this book today!, 505-984-9849 USA

With 289 pages and 267 photographs and bilingual presentation, it explores food issues, presents mouth-watering recipes, and offers stunning documentary photography about how the ancient agricultural knowledge and the wealth of 1,000 year-old seeds and planting practices are being revived in the environmentally devastated Mixtec region of Oaxaca. Through example, the narrative can help us meet the ecological, health and food crises of today.

This is a taste of what is to come.


Judy Haden says, “I had no idea I was initiating a 4-year long odyssey when I asked Phil Dahl-Bredine, a 14-year resident in the Mixteca Alta, if I could somehow help him and the non-profit CEDICAM.  This first discussion over hot chocolate on the Zócalo quickly became the seed of a ‘political cookbook’ that incorporates Phil’s thought-provoking essays on local food and international sustainability issues, heritage seeds and the ill effects of GMO’s, Susana Trilling’s tasty and carefully tested traditional recipes from our Mixtecan cooks/contributors, and my own images.

 _MG_8468_Felicidad in Yucoyocu 75 years_ IMG_0007

“The sepia portraits and the color food shots are, I think, so helpful in really understanding the conditions and the situation in the Mixteca Alta (a short hour north of Oaxaca City). Susana and I traveled to many small towns and villages over two years to interview the members of CEDICAM ( and spend hours with them learning and documenting their delicious recipes, and the planting of the crops. We visited feast days, religions holidays and private homes. Our plates were always full! 


“The book is divided into different sections based on each milpa crop. As Charles C. Mann explained in 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, “A milpa is a field…in which farmers plant a dozen crops at once including maize, avocados, multiple varieties of squash and bean, melon, tomatoes, chilies, sweet potato, jícama, amaranth,and mucana….Milpa crops are nutritionally and environmentally complementary.”


The book has received heart-warming advance endorsements from many people, including Grammy award-winning singer/songwriter Lila Downs, vegetarian chef and author Deborah Madison, agro-economist Miguel Altieri, photographer Phil Borges, Chef Iliana de la Vega, seedsman Steven Scott/Terroir Seeds and food author Peter Rosset. This is very gratifying to the authors after working so long and hard on this project.

Milpa: From Seed to Salsa is an extraordinary book in many ways. It is a hopeful book that shows in careful detail how extremely well the old ways of farming and living in community can not only feed rural populations but also provide them with medicine and fodder for animals.  This is a viable alternative to big agriculture and so-called improvements from elsewhere; this is a fine example.

Milpa is also a remarkable book because, like the community of families that tends the milpa fields, this book is product of cooperation among some very extraordinary people—two activists, a chef, and a photographer, who all found a way to bring to light a story of hope with great wisdom and beauty, with the cooperation of the Mixtec community who live the life this book allows us to witness. I am so grateful for this book. It is a treasure.

~Deborah Madison, Chef, Writer, Teacher, James Beard Award winner.


Judith Cooper Haden with Mixteca women

The book is bilingual (Spanish and English), with 290 pages and 276 images. It is beautifully printed in full color. Regular retail is $40.  Pre-orders through August 31st receive a 10% discount and a signed copy….and the first 25 pre-orders will receive a free 5”x7” brown-toned image from the book.  Shipping is additional. We use USPS Media Rates. Ship date is late September 2015. For orders and additional info, please write to:  

Judith Cooper Haden,

Let the Guelaguetza Begin: Oaxaca Celebrates Indigenous Roots

The Guelaguetza folkloric dance and traje extravaganza in the auditorium that sits atop the Cerro del Fortin in Oaxaca, Mexico is derived from an ancient indigenous custom of mutual exchange and support. The last two Mondays in July festivities draw people from throughout the world. It is one of Oaxaca’s most important tourist attractions.


Cultural, social and political commentary about Guelaguetza

There will be an artisan fair on the Alcala near the Santo Domingo Church throughout the next weeks until August 2, 2015. Be sure to find San Juan Colorado weaver Juana Reyes Garcia who works in natural dyes. She sold out at the Santa Fe International Folk Art Market. She will use those proceeds to put a floor into her children’s bedroom.

I’m still in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and will miss the first Monday on the hill. But I’ll be back in Oaxaca in time to capture the second Monday.  Meanwhile, tonight is a celebration here for the success of ceramic artist Macrina Mateo and cooperative Innovando la Tradicion. I’m certain there will be lots of Oaxaca traje represented here, too.