It’s time to turn my attention to the annual celebration of Dia de los Muertos — Day of the Dead — when memories return to the people we love who have dropped their bodies and whose souls rest in peace.
In this PBS Series, Borders, this story of Latinos celebrating Day of the Dead in Los Angeles warms my heart and helps bridge cultural understanding.
Thanks to my friend Carol Lynne Estes for sharing this with me so I can share it with you.
On October 28, I’ll participate with friends in a Raleigh, NC, Day of the Dead 5K Race to raise funds for the Brentwood Boys and Girls Club of Raleigh. I plan to wear my Day of the Dead T-Shirt acquired years ago from deceased artist Arnulfo Mendoza at La Mano Magica in Oaxaca. His family always gathers graveside in Teotitlan del Valle to celebrate his life.
Then, later that night, a celebration with my friend Barbara S. and her husband.
I’m thinking about where to build my altar at home in Durham, a tradition to celebrate the life and memory of my parents, Dorothy Schafitz and Ben Beerstein. I’m thinking of a candlelit and flower-strewn path of marigold petals leading to a fall harvest table laden with oranges, flowers and mezcal.
I find Day of the Dead to be a soothing, multi-cultural approach to honoring memory with traditional Mexican fiesta style. It fits well into my world view of attending to the spiritual part of being human, a hankering for mysticism in a concrete jungle, and remembering ancestors, giving thanks to them for the life they created in us.
Dia de los Muertos Altar, San Pablo Villa de Mitla
Soon, I’ll investigate my local Mexican markets and convenience stores where I might be able to find some of the necessities for altar making and not succumb to the Halloween frenzy.
First, a special call-out to Porfirio Gutierrez and his family for all they do to promote the use of natural dyes in the making of their hand-woven tapestries. His sister Juana is a master dyer and his brother-in-law Antonio innovates on design and materials. Congratulations on this feature story!
I was honored to be interviewed a couple of months ago by New York Times Science reporter Erica Goode to offer source information about the natural dye world in Teotitlan del Valle.
Of course, I emphasized that in addition to Porfirio’s family, there are about a dozen other families or family groups who are dedicated to preserving the natural dye culture. This includes my host family, Galeria Fe y Lola, Federico Chavez Sosa and Dolores Santiago Arrellanas. This takes time, commitment and an investment of more expensive materials.
Mezcaleros Hilario and Emmanuel loading agave espadin piñas
Only in Oaxaca do you wake up to find a guy cutting down agave cactus for mezcal in your front yard, Kalisa Wells told me yesterday morning. Kalisa is house-sitting for me in Teotitlan del Valle while I’m sojourning in Durham, North Carolina.
First, cut off the sharp, spiny leaves
Kalisa is really there to puppy sit until Luz and Sombra come of age, ready to adopt out. It should be soon. Then, she’ll be taking care of Mamacita and Tia until I get back.
Kalisa Wells took all these photos! Thank you!
There has been espadin agave on the land where I live among the maize fields ever since I can remember. When I first arrived, twelve years ago, these were tiny immature plants. Omar, youngest Chavez Santiago family son, tells me these agave were planted seventeen years ago! Now, some are sending up reproductive shoots, topped with baby agaves. Bees swarm and give up agave honey. After a few months, the mother plant dies. Topples over. The dead stalk can be used for fire wood or home construction.
Farmers want to harvest the agave when it is ripe and before it sends up the stalk, when the sugar energy is concentrated in the piña, perfect for making mezcal.
When Teotitlan del Valle mezcalero Hilario and his son Emmanuel showed up to cut and dig out the piña, Kalisa took photos and a video to send to me. She keeps me informed about life around the casita. Don Federico supervised. It’s his land, his agave, and this is his cash crop.
Niss Gubaa Dau mezcal brand, Teotitlan del Valle
Seems Kalisa has been buying local mezcal from them for a while. They make the distilled brew in their patio, behind the molina (mill) across from the church and market.
Almost ready to dig out. See the video for how they do it.
They are working hard on all the agave, writes Kalisa. I hear the sound of primitive and very effective tools. I hear the Zapotec language and the smell of fresh cut agave drifting into the casita.
Teotitlan del Valle mezcal brand contact information
Demand for artisanal mezcal has skyrocketed around the world. There are now more than 300 brands. There is worry and big buzz about whether there will be enough agave to satisfy the demand. Every food and beverage writer weighs in on this as they come to Oaxaca to sample the offerings.
What’s left — only the remains of leaves and a piña to be loaded.
Small operations, like those of Hilario and Emmanuel, are still producing home grown, home distilled mezcal for local consumption just as they have been doing for hundreds of years. Fiestas in Teotitlan del Valle are fueled by mezcal. It is de rigueur to bring a bottle as a host gift.
(Here in North Carolina, we call this beverage, moonshine, made the same way in a shiny, copper still.)
Some mezcal facts and tips:
mezcal production has more than doubled since 2011
there are about 30 types of agave cactus used to make mezcal — wild and cultivated
it takes 10-12 years for an espadin cactus to mature
wild agave matures in up to 35 years
wild agave types include bicuixe, madrecuixe, tepeztate
at U.S. customs, declare your mezcal bottles by how much you paid for them, not by their weight (did you know that most of the weight is in the glass bottle)
I see by the photos that the landscape of my front yard has changed, denuded of espadin. The agave in my front yard and along the fence line is no more. Last year, I planted rows of immature espadin plants in anticipation that someday Don Federico might harvest these treasures.
Before the cutting, my garden decor.
I’ve expanded my cactus garden to include tobala, tepeztate and cuixe. It will take them many more years to mature and offer me unlimited high desert beauty. They may certainly outlast my lifetime!
The tipsy glass of liquid gold — Pineapple Lime Mezcalita
Now that I’m back in my Durham, North Carolina, apartment, people are asking, “What happened to the mama dog and her puppies?”
I guess I need to write an update!
Mamacita. She is a tender, loving puppy mommy and becoming very loyal.
I named the mama dog Mamacita, for lack of any other creative moniker coming to mind. I call her Cita for short. She was a street dog. Cast out. That’s what happens to female dogs. They are unwanted because owners don’t want repeated pregnancies. They also don’t want to neuter their dogs — a financial and cultural issue.
Mamacita has a bad left eye with partial blindness. I presume someone chased her away with a rock and she took a hit.
Sombra (left) and Luz (right) growing up.
Mamacita‘s two babies, just a fistful at birth almost five weeks ago, were white and dark brown. I called them Luz and Sombra, light and shadow.
For the first few days after birth, they lived wild on the land behind my house, nestled in the tall grass shaded by a young guaje tree. Then, I cajoled them into a dog house provided by my friend, Merry Foss, who runs a spay and neuter clinic in the village. By the end of the first week, puppies and mama were living protected in my gated patio.
Dear, wonderful Sylvia, who came to my dog care taking rescue, with Luz.
I fattened up bony Mamacita with twice-a-day doses of chicken soup, beef stock, cooked bones and meat. It was like taking care of a sickly child.
Soon, I had to leave because of work commitments. I sent out the word via Facebook and a blog post. The universe provided.
Dog lover Sylvia Johnson Feldman from Connecticut volunteered to come and house sit, mostly to take care of the dogs. She arrived on July 19. I left on July 20. Sylvia will stay until August 17.
Curious puppies roaming the patio. Sylvia got them colorful collars.
In the next week, the pups will get their first inoculations. Sylvia is making an appointment with the veterinarian who comes from neighboring Tlacolula. Cost for the house call and medications is about 250 pesos.
I’m getting updates from Sylvia along with photos showing how the puppies are weaning, lapping pulverized puppy food and milk. Mamacita seems pleased and domesticated, though Sylvia says she bolts the patio through the iron grill work to run during the early morning hours.
Puppy love, a little nipping, a little biting, dog acculturation.
As soon as puppies are fully weaned, we will spay her. This will likely happen during Kalisa Wells’ watch. She arrives on August 16 to take over for Sylvia.
Both Luz and Sombra have both been spoken for, again via Facebook. Luz will go to a family of alebrijes makers in San Martin Tilcajete. Sombra will go to the sister of a friend who lives in Oaxaca, and will eventually return with her to Washington State. We will send them on their way at about 10 weeks old.
I’ve read it is so important to keep mama and puppies together for at least 10-12 weeks so they have a chance to model behavior. So many are adopted out too early.
An early photo of Luz, under one week old.
I will keep Mamacita if she chooses to stay. With my travel schedule, I’ll have to figure out how to keep her and feed her when I’m not in Oaxaca. All suggestions welcome!
Sombra and Luz are spoken for, will go to good homes. So happy about this.
I’d like to urge you to DONATE to the spay/neuter clinic that Merry Foss operates in Teotitlan del Valle. This is tax-deductible and goes a long way to support dogs and cats, especially the females. With this attention, we can help the animals avoid pregnancy and cut, maybe even end, the proliferation of street dogs, a tragedy throughout all of Mexico.
Spay/neuter costs about $25 USD per animal
Feeding a foster dog costs about $100 USD a bag for 2 months
Flea and parasite treatment costs about $20 USD per animal
Puppy vaccinations cost $20 per animal
No cost for care giving and providing a permanent or foster home!
For me, I took this dog in because of her helplessness, because she is a female, I identified. She has no voice, and there were these two tiny babies depending on her. She could not nurse and hunt for food and water. Not ever having been a dog owner, I learned to give care and compassion to an animal living paw-to-mouth.
Thanks to many of you who have already made a contribution to Merry’s clinic. Thanks in advance to those of you who will.
FYI: Merry has gotten support from Teotitlan del Valle El Presidente Panteleon Ruiz to hold the spay/neuter clinic at his house! This is a major milestone for the village, recognizing the need to control animal reproduction.
Who are these clowns? What purpose do they have in the Conquest of Mexico story? The clowns are an ever-present, necessary part of the Dance of the Feather — Danza de la Pluma — story that recreates the Moctezuma-Cortez clash that we know as The Conquest of Mexico.
The distracting Clown, with La Malinche in background.
Deep in conversation, the chair dance, on July 8, 2017
Little is written about these clowns. However, I have the good fortune of knowing Moises Garcia Guzman de Contreras who lives in San Jeronimo Tlacochuaya, just up the road from me.
Moises is very knowledgeable about Zapotec history. At dinner yesterday, he told me the musical score to the dance probably written in the late 19th or early 20th century, when the oompahpah German music became popular in Mexico. Others attribute it to the French.
Giving water to a thirsty Danzante
The dance is likely rooted in pre-Hispanic ritual and practice, incorporated into village feast days to celebrate the church throughout the Valles Centrales de Oaxaca (Central Valleys) after the Conquest.
Quenching thirst is only one Clown task. Keeping the dance area clean is another.
He also explained the symbology of what the Clowns represent in the story:
“Since the dance represents the Conquest, these clowns or “CAMPOS” represent the sorcerers Aztecs used to spy on the Spanish troops. These sorcerers developed the “Nahual” art, so while they were spying they were able to turn themselves into eagles, coyotes or snakes, and Spanish troops could not see that they were being spied upon. Because of that, their masks are not well-defined. They could pretty much represent any animal. Their function in the Dance now is to entertain, steal kisses, clear the area, help dancers etc.”
The pair of clowns, with the chair dance.
There is a prescribed sequence to the days of the Dance. Each day features a different path of the story line, until the last day, when the conquest is brought to conclusion.
Mindful of Los Danzantes’ needs, a practical task
In the end, as the story goes, Mexico thrives because of her strength in syncretism — the blending of two roots, indigenous and Spanish, the union of Cortes with La Malinche, producing a son named Martin, which defines the beginning of the modern state.
Omnipresent, and critical to the Dance of the Feather
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