Category Archives: Teotitlan del Valle

The Funeral of Arnulfo Mendoza

In the Oaxaca village of Teotitlan del Valle, there are hundreds of excellent weavers.  Few have gained the international recognition of Arnulfo Mendozo, owner of La Mano Magica gallery, and renown for his tapestry weaving skills and talent as a painter.  Arnulfo died from a sudden heart attack a few days ago, leaving behind a young wife and child.  He was fifty-nine.

imagenThe church is resplendent, filled with lilies, lit with massive beeswax candles adorned with wax birds and roses. On every dark wood pew, rubbed to a polish from years of use, are four or five people shoulder to shoulder, rising, kneeling, sitting, praying, singing. I steady myself. Hold the smooth wood of the seat back in front of me, feel the wood resonate and penetrate me as if it was Arnulfo speaking.  I am glad I do not have my camera.  Today, the space is sacred.

The hundred or so pews are filled with family and friends, distant relations, collectors from Puebla, Mexico City, Oaxaca, the U.S.A., and Canada, onlookers, paparazzi. Some straggle in just before the mass ends. Before me are red pony tails, black braids woven with dark blue ribbon, lowered heads covered in shawls with their intricately woven fringes swaying in rhythm to the a capella ring of bells.  The priest performs mass, sends Arnulfo’s spirit soaring.  For a moment, I go with him and then come back to here, now.  This prayer is for Suzie, too, as tears come. The man I sit with, another fine weaver I know, embraces me. The mass ends. We reach out and hold each person around us, moving from one to another in benediction.

Four men each carry a stanchion topped with a circle of encrusted white roses four feet in diameter.  As they leave the church altar, twelve pallbearers, six on each side, follow shouldering the ornate mahogany-colored wood casket decorated with etched copper where Arnulfo rests. Behind them are four more men bearing another four stanchions of rose circles.  Family members spill into the aisle with lit candles, armloads of fresh flowers, heads downcast.  I see that the village grandmothers carry flowers, too.

We assemble in the church courtyard.  I hug Arnulfo’s cousins and nieces, offer murmurs of condolence, and join the procession through the village streets to the cemetery.  The band is out front.  The tubas, clarinets, trombones, saxophones, drums alternate between dirge and dance.  I walk slowly, lagging, matching steps with Magdalena, half my height now, who buried a husband and son years before during the same year. Every several blocks, we stop, pray, give the pallbearers rest.  The sky darkens heavy with clouds on this late Sunday afternoon in southern Mexico.

Across from the cemetery entrance is the woman who usually sells snacks at the health clinic.  The ice cream vendor scoops, fills cones with burnt vanilla, angel kisses, hot pink nopal fruit. A woman silently offers bottled water for sale.  Inside, fresh flowers fill almost every urn. The grandmothers peel away from the procession as it enters sacred space and scatter to family graves. They begin to sweep away the leaves and debris, remove dried flowers and replace them with the fresh bundles they carry. The pallbearers stop under an ancient tree where the earth is soft and ready.  Copal incense wafts smoky and pungent.  If you get too close you will begin to cry.

The band forms a circle under the permanent awning.  There is a press of people around the gravesite. I hang back to leave space for the family. An ex-pat moves away from the edge of the grave, approaches me, asks me why they dig up the bones of Arnulfo’s father to place Arnulfo there. I explain about the ten-year cycle of using the same family plot, then ask how she knows Arnulfo.  “Oh, I read about it.  I took a group to the Tlacolula Market today and we decided to stop here, too.” she says.  “It’s time I find them and go.”

Someone is in the tree beside Arnulfo’s grave, taking photos, high above the rest of us, another ex-pat I recognize but don’t know.  He is hovering at the perfect vantage point, wears white. The band plays a waltz.  The ex-pat lowers himself from the tree, passes inches from me with no eye-contact, takes a few more steps, then pivots as the father-in-law of the deceased moves past me going in the other direction toward the grave.  They criss-cross in front of me. The father-in-law is from another country across the Pacific Ocean. They are both now steps away.  The ex-pat stops the older man, asks, “What will happen to all the things in the gallery?”  I say, “That’s not a question for today.” The father-in-law’s face scrunches up, his brows almost touch, he stares, then shrugs, doesn’t answer, turns, continues on. The man in white, says, You interrupted me, that was rude. He didn’t understand you, I say. I did, he says. That’s perfect, I say. He moves to another side of the cemetery, takes photos of people huddled on tombstones.

There is clapping.  Testimonials.  A thunderclap answers.  Human hands clap again. He was so young, I hear someone say. He was so talented, says another. That’s life, says a man I know who stops to greet me as I walk slowly away.

I think of Arnulfo. He looked so young, even at fifty-nine.  Smooth, chestnut skin, a few laugh lines, a shock of slightly receding pitch hair drawn into a ponytail at the nape of his neck, the contentment of fatherhood.  I remember him standing at the gallery doorway on Macedonio Alcala, he waves and smiles, I do the same, stop in, buy artist-imprinted T-shirts for my husband and son. His new wife packages them in tissue with gentleness.

I remember years ago when I first came here, in search of his fine tapestries, the shoulder bag with strands of gold and silver, woven into wool the color of nightfall, wet earth, blood, garnet, magic, climbing the hill to Casa Sagrada to find the kitchen where the family taught the secrets of Zapotec mole negro.

I think of Suzie, thirty-five, still in a coma.  Why did she get into this particular taxi that crashes into a concrete barrier at sixty miles per hour?  Yesterday, Kathryn and I talk about Suzie.  We remember her giddy filled-with-life laugh, how people light up when she enters a room.  Is it all about when our time comes, Kathryn asks?  You mean, is it predetermined, how and when?, I ask.  Yes, she says. No, I say. I think it is random, like when my son was held up at gun-point, averted his eyes, lived. Life happens in a moment. This is life, and to know and accept is all that matters.

After the funeral, I pick up Robin, whose daughter-in-law is scheduled for an emergency cesarean to deliver an early, underweight baby.  The risks are high. The baby is in stress. We drink white wine, wait for news.  The phone rings.  She begins to sob, then says to her husband on the other end, thank you, Grandpa.

Uriel and Rosalia’s Zapotec Wedding, Oaxaca, Mexico

The church wedding is an important part of Zapotec community life. Often, a couple will have a civil marriage ceremony and begin their family as Rosalia and Uriel did three years ago.  Their dream will be to save enough to hold a religious service that recognizes their marriage in the eyes of God.  Their young children are baptized as part of the celebratory mass.  This is common practice.

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As a by-product of the Mexican Revolution and its sweeping reforms, the state eradicated church political power and confiscated lands, so it is the civil ceremony that takes legal precedents.  Yet, the traditional church wedding holds strong emotional appeal for many couples, their parents and extended family.

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Uriel and Rosalia’s wedding began with a twelve o’clock noon mass at the Teotitlan del Valle church and included the baptism of their two young sons, Emilio and Cristian.

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There were about two hundred people attending, a fraction of the six hundred who would later join the fiesta and meal at the home of Uriel’s uncle and aunt, who hosted the event.

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In Zapotec tradition, it is the groom’s family who hosts and pays for everything:  the two large bulls slaughtered to become barbacoa (barbecue) to serve the multitude, the beer and mezcal, the band, the tortillas, fresh flowers, decorations, gifts for guests, ample takeaway containers, and an elaborate, multi-level wedding cake filled with strawberry cream.

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There is not usually a cash outlay for these expenses.  It is part of the elaborate mutual support, bartering, give-and-take system called guelaguetza in Oaxaca’s usos y costumbres pueblos.  Extended family comes together to do what it takes to host.  For example, I give you a pig one year for a baptism.  In six years, when my son gets married, I ask you to return the pig to me.  Maybe it weighs a little more than the one I gave to you.  That’s how it works and the cycle continues.

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Wedding preparations began weeks before.  The women of the family gathered to plan the food and make decorations.  They ordered large yellow corn tortillas handmade in a neighboring village.  

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Men conferred to determine how many tables and chairs, cases of beer, and bottles of mezcal would be required.  Together, they all determined the collective resources needed to mount this significant event.  Then, on the wedding day, they served the hearty festival dish offering greeting of buen provecho to each guest.

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On the wedding day, Uriel’s extended family pitched in to cook and serve:  aunts, uncles, cousins, nieces and nephews.  As guests arrived, more tables and chairs unfolded.  Their arms held extended in greeting, offering gifts, adding their tribute to honor the couple and their families, an ancient practice modernized.

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In addition to bottles of mezcal and cases of beer, guests brought cookware sets, utensils, toys for the boys, dinnerware, drinking glasses. and other household items.  There was even a new washing machine and bedroom closet on display outside the altar room.  Inside was barely passable. The line to greet the newlyweds and family snaked through the courtyard and out onto the sidewalk.  We all waited patiently to offer personal congratulations.

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In the back of the family compound an army of 60 women were on hand to measure out the meat and broth so that everyone would have their portion.  They had been tending the stew pot for days.  Platters of fresh tortillas, lime wedges, shredded cabbage, diced onions, and cilantro were set on each table to add as condiments to the  spicy meat.

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After the meal, the plates were cleared, the tables folded and stacked in a corner, and the chairs arranged in a circle.  Let the dancing begin.  First, the band from Yalalag played as the couple came out, she adorned in traditional dress from her native Zapotec village.

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Then, Teotitecos welcomed their band to play the traditional Jarabe del Valle.  Paco served as master of ceremonies, inviting family members to dance with the couple in honor of their emotional, financial and in-kind support.  Celebrants carry fragrant herbs gathered from nearby mountains.  On the bride’s arm is a basket filled with flowers, bread and chocolate — essential for sustaining life.

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The party continued through the next several days, and I could hear the band and firecrackers each morning and evening.  These celebrations are rooted deeply in a pre-Hispanic past, embedded in memory.  It is a wonderful experience to share.

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International Priests Visit Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca

The firecrackers call in early afternoon to announce that something spectacular was about to happen in the village later that day. It’s filled with surprises here.  My neighbor Ernestina comes over in the morning to offer me 20 fresh, creamy chicken and mole amarillo tamales for 100 pesos.

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Then, later tamales are served for lunch at the guest house where the felt fashion workshop participants assemble.  It is not yet Dia de la Candelaria, when everyone eats tamales. What is going on? I wonder.

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At six-thirty, the young men atop the bell tower ring the church bells. Rosario and Josefina say goodbye.  Where are you going? A la iglesia. To the church, they say.  There’s a fiesta  to welcome 30 visiting priests from Columbia, China, Nueva York (New York), California and India.  I follow the sound of the bells to the church courtyard.

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Nearly the entire village gathers.  I arrive just in time to be offered a fresh, steaming hot tamale, to see the children dressed in Dance of the Feather plumage dancing the re-enactment of the conquest, to hear the band play, and to see banquet tables filled with men who sip hot chocolate and eat tamales, served by traditionally dressed village women.

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I hear that more than a thousand tamales are made that day by the women chosen to the traditional, pre-Hispance Jarabe del Valle dance.  They are part of the church committee that supports the village festivals.

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A master’s of ceremonies talks about cultural exchange, the many Zapotecs from this village who live and work and practice their traditions in towns throughout southern California, and how these priests help people to adapt, acclimate and stay connected to their roots.  The Spanish is sprinkled with a little English to make the visitors more welcome.

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Then, the women, holding branches of fragrant herbs welcome the guests to join them for the Jarabe del Valle.  The men, towering above them, move their feet to the rhythm of the dance and catch on quickly.

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The band played on.

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Basket Weaving Circle in Rug Weaving Village Draws Crowd

Beyond the stream they call the Rio Grande here, the women gather in a circle around the pine-shaded, packed dirt courtyard outside of Ernestina’s house.  They are learning how to weave with another sort of material, not the usual hand-spun wool that is traditional for Teotitlan del Valle, the famed rug weaving village.  They are using brightly colored plastic strips.

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This is palma plastica (plastic palm) says maestra Norma, who came from San Baltazar Guelavila, to teach. This is the new-age derivative of the traditional palm used for centuries by most villagers in this valley to make petate sleeping mats, food and storage containers.  The craft is slowly disappearing and few Oaxaca weavers now produce this traditional folk art.  See: Decline of a Craft: Basketmaking in San Juan Guelavia, Oaxaca.

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The plastic strips will become handbags, coin purses, and placements that can be sold to tourists in the local morning market.  Another source of much needed income for women to have their own money, whether they are married or not.   This week’s lesson is an experiment in economic development — how to make a small business.  

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Ernestina organized the multigenerational five-day event and invited friends and relatives to participate.  The abuelas — grandmothers — are joined by daughters and granddaughters, nieces and cousins.  There is a baby tended to by a grandmother while mom learns.

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As I walked by Ernestina’s house, I noticed this unusual colorful activity and waved.  She invited me to come in to see what they were doing and asked if I would return with my camera to take photos.  Of course, I did!

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Norma’s town San Baltazar Guelavila, is known for it’s hand-woven baskets and is also an artisanal mescal-producing center.  It is in the mountains beyond Santiago Matatlan off the Carretera Internacional 190, otherwise known as the Panamerican Highway, which runs from Alaska through Oaxaca to the tip of South America.

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An experienced lifelong basket weaver, Norma told me she can weave three to five baskets a day.  She has fast fingers.  The beginners were happy to make even three baskets in five days.  The baskets will sell for between 100 and 150 pesos each.   That’s $7.50 to $12 USD.  The average working wage in Oaxaca is 100 pesos a day, so the women are happy if they can produce and steadily sell one basket a day!

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Ernestina hopes so.  But, of course, that depends on tourists visiting Teotitlan del Valle, and most come via tour buses and not as independent travelers.  They may stop at a pre-determined rug weaving gallery and then go on to San Pablo Villa de Mitla to see the archeological site or continue on to Santiago Matatlan for a mezcal tasting.  They will miss the 9:00-11:00 a.m. daily morning market, which is at the heart of this 6,000 person community.   And, miss the opportunity to buy one of these colorful, handmade totes.

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People here love intense color.  The natural materials are giving way to synthetics because of cost and convenience and personal taste.  Yet, as I pulled up a chair around the circle and sat a while, I was reminded of my own knitting circle back home in North Carolina and the comfort of good friends.  And, the revival of a traditional craft that can make the difference in women’s and children’s lives here.

Oaxaca Clinic Receives Medical Equipment Gift

This week Federico Chavez Sosa and I made a visit to the Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca Centro de Salud (public health clinic) to present a gift of five stethoscopes to the clinic doctors.  The gift is from Dr. Deborah Morris, MD, PA-C, academic coordinator and the Methodist University Physicians Assistant Program in Fayetteville, NC.

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The Centro de Salud hosted two Methodist University physician assistant students, Ben and Megan, in summer 2013 for a one-month externship residency.  They reported that the doctors would benefit from better quality equipment and suggested that the stethoscopes would make an excellent contribution to improved quality of care.

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Of course, they asked the doctors first if they thought they would like to have new stethoscopes after the doctors admired the ones the students brought to use during their externship.

Federico made the presentation to clinic director, Doctora Elizabet, on behalf of the village as he ended his three-year community service commitment as one of three volunteer committee members to lead public health services, including water quality, sanitation, and community health.  This service, called a cargo, is a mutual support practice of Usos y Costumbres indigenous Mexican pueblos.

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We welcome university level nursing and physician assistant students to ask about participating in a summer residency.  Basic Spanish language is necessary.  Openings are available for summer 2014 and scheduling is flexible.  The cost includes lodging, two daily meals, facilitation, and a contribution to the clinic.  Please contact Norma Hawthorne if you are interested.