Category Archives: Travel & Tourism

No Plan to Live in Mexico: How I Got Here

The best plan might be NOT to have a plan.

I spent my working life doing goals and objectives, setting annual plans and then evaluating whether I met those targets. They became part of my annual performance review. Yet, the serendipity of how my personal life progressed was never a conscious decision. Sometimes I felt bad about that. I should have had more direction.

But I couldn’t have planned it better. How I came to live in Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca, Mexico, was pure accident.

Many I meet ask, How did you get here? Here’s a condensed answer.

Church of the Precious Blood, Teotitlan del Valle, built on top of Zapotec Temple, archeological ruins

Church of the Precious Blood, Teotitlan del Valle, built atop Zapotec temple ruins

My friend, Annie Burns, moved to Teotitlan from Pittsboro, North Carolina, in the early 2000’s.  She would return to visit with wonderful textiles to show and sell. At the time, there were probably three or four gueros living here. She kept inviting me to visit. Finally, I did, in 2005 with the wasband.

Teotitecas, parade of the canastas

Teotitecas, Parade of the Canastas each year in July

Annie introduced us to Josefina Ruiz Vazquez and her mother-in-law Magdalena. They had both lost husbands to illness that same year, son and father. Josefina and Magda are great cooks. Josefina, mother of three youngsters, was left with no means of support. Annie thought, maybe they could start a B&B. We were the first experiment in hospitality for gringos.

That’s how Las Granadas B& B in Teotitlan del Valle got started. Today, it is a shadow of its former self. Another friend, Roberta Christie, stepped in to make a huge difference by creating the infrastructure to make it happen. But I digress.

Rooftop View of Teotitlan del Valle from Las Granadas

Rooftop View of Teotitlan del Valle from Las Granadas

Years ago in San Francisco, I was a beginning weaver and experimented in natural dyes. My love of textiles informed my adulthood and as I traveled, I collected. During that first visit to Teotitlan del Valle, I thought I had landed in heaven. Teotitlan was filled with talented weavers and stunning textiles.

Federico Chavez Sosa at his loom in Teotitlan del Valle

Federico Chavez Sosa at his loom in Teotitlan del Valle

I was on a quest to find a family that worked only in natural dyes. I did research in advance and knew that while it was not widespread, there were a few working with plant dyes and cochineal. I set out to find them. It wasn’t easy. And, of course, I loved all those bright aniline dye colors, too.

Yet, it was a time when we were talking more about sustainability and consuming what was healthy, organic. Making a commitment to buying an organic textile was important to me and I didn’t want to compromise.

Dye demonstration with cochineal bug, acid and base

Dye demonstration with cochineal bug, acid and base

For the first few days in Teotitlan del Valle, I walked around meeting and talking with weavers in their workshops to learn more. There were many beautiful textiles and I was smitten. But I restrained myself from buying.

Everyone could give me a natural dye demonstration, crushing the cochineal bug in my palm, squeezing lime juice, adding baking soda. I watched the color change from orange to red to pink to purple, depending on proportions and chemistry. I wasn’t certain who was actually using the process to dye the wool.

Eric Chavez Santiago giving dyeing wool with wild marigold

Eric Chavez Santiago dyeing wool with wild marigold

Then, the only Internet connection in town was at the pharmacy across from the church. One day, as we left, we decided to make a right turn instead of our usual left to wander through the rug market.

I hear a voice say in perfect English, “Do you want to see my rugs?” Looking down to manage my steps on the cobblestones, I waved my hand and shook my head, no. The English was too perfect. Too slick, I thought. Then I looked up, saw these magnificent rugs and stepped into the space.

Chavez Family Weavers, portrait by Norma Schafer, 2012

Chavez Family Weavers, portrait by Norma Schafer, 2012

That’s when I met Eric Chavez Santiago and his sister, Janet. Both were university students, selling rugs in the market during Christmas vacation. Janet was huddled in the corner with a book on her lap, studying. I went to their family home and studio to see the complete collection, meet dad Federico Chavez Sosa and mom, Dolores Santiago Arrellenas.

Being a Teotiteco Danzante for Dance of the Feather requires incredible concentration

Being a Teotiteco Danzante for Dance of the Feather requires incredible concentration

I saw the actual wool dyeing and weaving process. Eric explained how difficult the economy was. The market demand had softened since the 90’s when Santa Fe Style sent thousands of Zapotec rugs out of Oaxaca to the American southwest.

Of course, I bought rugs. Eric later told me, many came to visit them, said they would help and were never heard from.

Caracol rug design, communication symbol

Caracol rug design, communication symbol by color master Federico

Then, I went home to North Carolina, gave thought to how I might help this family. I wrote an arts education grant with the Carrboro Arts Center to the NC Arts Council. We got funding to bring Eric and Federico to North Carolina for workshops, expoventas (show and sale) and give a master class at NC State University College of Textiles. I helped get 10 year visas with assist from Congressman David Price‘s staff.

It was never the plan to live here. The idea was to visit once a year … maybe. Living in Oaxaca City was not considered. I fell in love with Teotitlan del Valle, her people and textiles.

The casita where I live in Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca

The casita where I live in Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca

The next year, Federico and Dolores invited us to build a casita on their land. It was a surprise and a gift. Because no foreigners (even people born in other pueblos) can own property in Teotitlan del Valle, we knew that this would be a vacation home that would always be owned by the family. This relationship is based on trust, respect and good will.

Because of this unique arrangement, this is not for everyone. Many immigrants who live in Teotitlan and other usos y costumbres pueblos rent.

But plans have a way of changing and nothing is for certain. The wasband and I had our differences. Our divorce was final in 2014. For now, this is where I live and this is how I got here. I never planned it this way.

Cane bobbins wrapped with red wool dyed cochineal

Cane bobbins wrapped with red wool dyed cochineal

Eric, who thought he might work in a bank after graduation, went on to become the founding director of education at the Museo Textil de Oaxaca, with our coaching help and his innate intelligence. This year, Eric is starting a new entrepreneurial venture at the Alfredo Harp Helu Foundation. Janet is a linguist educator at the Biblioteca Juan de Cordova. Youngest brother, Omar, will finish university in December and wants to take the family business to the next level. Federico and Dolores run Galeria Fe y Lola in Oaxaca City and continue to weave.

Goals? I have no idea what’s next.

Women’s Creative Writing and Yoga Retreat, March 2017

Natural dyes have strong color, as strong as synthetic dyes

With a great dye master, natural dyes have strong color, as strong as commercial dyes

Will you share your story? If you live in Mexico, how did you get here?

 

 

 

Everyday Life in the Campo, Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca, Mexico

Those of us who live here in Mexico probably do much the same things that you do every day. Food shop, clean house, exercise, visit friends, read, write, take naps, volunteer, etc. Most of the immigrants I know are retired and live here either part or full-time. We’re from Canada and the U.S.A. for the most part, but Australians, New Zealanders and South Africans are among us, too.

Oaxaca Red casita color. With Gar Bii Dauu. Local endangered succulent.

Oaxaca Red casita color. With Gar Bii Dauu. Local endangered succulent.

Living in Teotitlan del Valle is different from being a city dweller. This village of indigenous Zapotec people holds to a strong, powerful and ancient culture. Many work at weaving wool rugs. Some are musicians. Others are shopkeepers or run comedors. Some are bakers and butchers. A few sew clothing. Many are farmers. In times when there are fewer tourists, many weavers supplement their income by growing and harvesting food.

Plowing my neighbors corn field, a five-hour project

Plowing my neighbor’s corn field, five plus hours of labor

I live in the campo. Out beyond the hubbub of town, amid the traditional milpas of corn, beans and squash. I’m surrounded on three sides by maize fields. Some are tasseling now. Here, the tradition is to plow the furrows when the corn is waist-high to break the crust and allow rain to penetrate earth. This is living close to the soil. Organic. Honorable.

It’s rainy season. Green stretches for miles. Today I awakened to whistling. Out my window was a young man driving a team of bulls plowing the field next to the casita I live in.

Rene's Volkswagen van. Can you guess it's vintage?

Rene’s Volkswagen van. Can you guess it’s vintage?

I grew up in Los Angeles. Miles of freeways. Concrete. Tiny lots separated by six-foot block walls. School yards paved with asphalt. I remember scraped knees and elbows. The hum of car engines passing. We were all jammed together, a jam of humanity. Even more now. Gridlock. I think I’ve become a country girl.

The crop was planted in July. There wasn’t much rain in June and farmers worried about another year of drought. In my absence over the last five weeks, seems that weather has played catch up and everything is growing.

Two teams of bulls on two days, one white, the other black. Take a rest.

Two teams of bulls on two days, one white, the other black. Take a rest.

The young man plowing the field rents out his services. His two bulls are tethered with a hand-hewn yoke that supports a wood plow. He guides the curved stick deep into the earth with one hand to keep the furrow straight. In the other, he holds a switch that gently prods the animals to keep on the straight and narrow. Farm machinery cannot do this job well enough.

A perfect day for plowing the fields.

A perfect day for plowing the fields. From my living room window.

This is his second day at it. Both days, he started at eight in the morning, ended around two o-clock in the afternoon, just before lunch. People work hard here. Five plus hours plowing the field with no break in the heat of the day. The monotony of walking back and forth. The patience of walking back and forth.

Oaxaca Women’s Creative Writing and Yoga Retreat, March 2017

My friend, plumber and handy-man extraordinaire René asks me if I know what the greca (Greek key) symbol means that is woven on village rugs.  It’s the step-fret carved into the Mitla temple walls, I answer.

Grecas, Mitla archeological site

Grecas, Mitla archeological site, post-classical Monte Alban

Yes, and more, he says. The ancient Zapotecs believe the two interlocking hands that form the pre-Hispanic greca represent the serpent deity duality and the life-giving connection between earth and sky, water and fire.  

The transformation. Beige to red. Another symbol.

Rene executing the transformation. Beige to red. Symbol of change.

We are eating lunch and the thunder is rolling in. The sky darkens. Earth gives off the aroma of on-coming rain.  The just plowed field next door will soon drink its fill. René packs up his painting supplies. Paint does not do well with humidity.

Handwoven indigo rug with greca design

Handwoven indigo rug with greca design, Teotitlan del Valle

The exterior walls of the casita I live in are getting a makeover. The wasband liked beige. I’m in the mood for Oaxaca Red.

From rooftop terrace, a 360 degree view of Tlacolula valley

From rooftop terrace, a 360 degree view of Tlacolula valley

The Latino Comics Expo @Museum of Latin American Art, Long Beach, California

After hiking the wetlands trails of Bolsa Chica (little purse) Ecological Reserve in Huntington Beach along the Pacific Ocean, my son decided we should take in some local culture at the Museum of Latin American Art (MOLAA) in nearby Long Beach. What’s there? The Latino Comics Expo to celebrate it’s 5th anniversary at MOLAA, age 20.

Lucha Libre is a popular Latino comic book subject

Lucha Libre is a popular Latino comic book subject

The Expo was created by Javier Hernandez and Ricardo Padilla. They started it at the San Francisco Cartoon Art Museum in 2011. This is their second time at MOLAA. They mounted the first expo there in 2013.

As a lover of Oaxaca graphic arts, it’s not a stretch for me to consider that comics are a natural extension of the great Mexican tradition of illustrator Jose Guadelupe Posada. In fact, there are Posada illustrations on exhibit at this museum, too.

Jose Guadalupe Posada original illustration

Jose Guadalupe Posada original illustration, a poke at the bourgeoisie

After all, Posada is Diego Rivera’s hero and he features him prominently, and fondly, in the mural Dream on a Sunday Afternoon in the Alameda Park (Mexico City). Muralists Jose Clemente Orozco and David Alfaro Siquieros  form the second and third legs of the Mexican Muralist Movement stool. They used caricature, too, as prominent artistic expression in their work.

Artist Ramiro Gomez Magazine series, commentary on who does the work

In artist Ramiro Gomez’ Magazine series, he comments on who does the work

The Latino comics tradition of Los Angeles is rooted in these antecedents. Illustrators used and continue to use political parody in their work, just as Posada, Rivera, Orozco and Siquieros did one hundred years ago to poke at their adversaries.

Do you think they use pesticides? Who is harvesting? What is health risk?

Do you think they use pesticides? Who is harvesting? What is health risk?

In the permanent exhibition, Ramiro Gomez, son of Mexican immigrants, reflects his experiences and stories growing up in a working class family. His art (above) focuses on class difference and the people behind a socially constructed representation of luxury. He tears out advertisements from upscale magazines and superimposes domestic workers into the composition.

The Trump High Five, by Raul The Third

The Trump High Five, by Lalo Alcarez

The Latino Comics Expo was a two-day event, August 6 and 7. There were about 50 illustrators there demonstrating their work, selling books, posters, postcards, t-shirts, ball caps and pins. Some works were prints, silkscreen, engravings and hand-illustrated with colored pen.

Lowriders at the Center of the Earth, illustrated by Raul The Third

Lowriders at the Center of the Earth, illustrated by Raul The Third

Lowriders to the Center of the Earth, illustrated by Raul the Third, grabbed my attention. So did the lowrider on the cover, an integral part of my growing-up years in the San Fernando Valley when young Latinos/Chicanos altered their Chevys, Fords and Chryslers. Tuck and roll leather seats. Raked front ends. Flashing lights. Flames. The more elaborate, the better.

Illustrator Raul The Third. Note his version of Melania.

Illustrator Lalo Alcarez. Political & social justice commentary, too. Plus a little pin-up.

The t-shirt Lalo Alcarez (above) wears, Hecho en California, speaks to the strong influences of Latino culture in the second largest city of America.

As I looked around at the posters and books, I thought, this is great art, just like what I’m used to seeing at the Oaxaca printmaking studios of Fernando Sandoval and La Chicharra. I walked away with an autographed book copy of Lowriders.

Hand-colored illustration of the Conquest. With codices footnotes.

Hand-colored illustration of the Conquest. With codices footnotes.

Then, my son tells me, mom, he’s pretty famous. He’s published in L.A. Weekly. What do I know?

Zapotec poet Natalia Toledo, in featured museum video

Zapotec poet Natalia Toledo, in featured museum video

As I turned the corner to go through the regular exhibition, there was a video interview with Oaxaca poet Natalia Toledo talking about the importance of literacy and preserving Zapotec culture. Natalia also designs extraordinary jewelry (available for sale at the Museo Textil de Oaxaca gift shop). Versatile like her father, Francisco Toledo.

Untitled, by Rodolfo Morales, Oaxaca painter

Untitled, by Rodolfo Morales, Oaxaca painter

Show Me Your Papers by Raul The Third

Show Me Your Papers! by illustrator Lalo Alcaraz

Comic book art/illustration defines the culture and sub-culture, makes a political, social commentary and moral observation about the world that can be humorous, biting and truth-telling. What if Native Americans had asked immigrating English, French and Spanish for their papers?

Uncle Sam wants YOU! Who else will clean homes, harvest food?

Uncle Sam wants YOU! Who else will clean homes, harvest food?

After over a wonderful, satisfying month visiting family and friends, I’m back home in quiet, calm Oaxaca. No freeway congestion or the lure of mall shopping, over-priced lunches and dinners, blustering television pundits that I admit had me addicted to the next adrenaline fix. My wi-fi service is now reconnected and it’s raining. What could be better? Now for a bit of sopa de pollo con limon (chicken with lime soup).

Come! It’s safe.

Comic book series, The Hand of Destiny

Comic book series, The Hand of Destiny

 

Que Supresa! Oaxaca in San Diego, California

As I drive south from my son’s home in Huntington Beach, California, on my way to visit Barbara and David, and dear friend Merry Foss in San Diego, I marvel at how the landscape looks like Mexico, how the climate feels like Mexico. Except there is development everywhere, new houses, shopping centers, freeway congestion. Infrastructure.

Pedro Mendoza and Carina Santiago from Teotitlan del Valle, in San Diego, CA

Pedro Mendoza and Carina Santiago from Teotitlan del Valle, in San Diego, CA

When I stop at the Pacific Ocean overlook, everyone around me speaks Spanish and I take up a conversation with a young mother traveling with two daughters from El Paso, Tejas (the J is a soft H. Tay-Hass). Oh, you might think that could be Texas. Sometimes I think we are borrowing the Southwest from Mexico and the day of reckoning will come when most of us will speak Spanish and justice will prevail.

Sisters Consuelo (left) and Violante Ulrich continue the Spratling silver tradition

Sisters Consuelo (left) and Violante Ulrich continue the Spratling silver tradition

At Barbara and David’s house, I expect a small gathering. I know my Teotitlan del Valle friend Merry Foss will be there with exquisite beaded blouses from the State of Puebla Sierra Norte made by a cooperative of indigenous women that Merry started six years ago.

Jacobo Angeles with copal wood carved and painted ram from San Martin Tilcajete, Oaxaca

Jacobo Angeles with copal wood carved and painted ram, San Martin Tilcajete

I know that friends Violante and Consuelo Ulrich who continue the William Spratling silver jewelry making tradition in Taxco will be here. (I take study tour goers to meet them in Taxco during the February Textile and Folk Art Study Tour to Tenancingo de Degollado. Spaces open.)

Then, I turn the corner. Que Supresa! Que Milagro! I  see part of my extended family from Teotitlan del Valle and Oaxaca.

Shopping for Oaxaca embroidered blouses

Shopping for Oaxaca embroidered blouses

I had no idea that Pedro Mendoza and his wife Carina Santiago and their son Diego would also be there with their terrific handmade rugs. Carina runs Tierra Antigua Restaurant and Pedro is a weaver/exporter.

Or, that friend Jacobo Angeles drove a truck up from Oaxaca filled with alebrijes made by him and family members in San Martin Tilcajete, in Oaxaca’s Ocotlan valley.

Ortega's Folk Art, Tonala, Jalisco, Mexico

Ortega’s Folk Art, Tonala, Jalisco, Mexico

And, then there are ceramics from Mata Ortiz, and hand-carved whimsical wood figures by Gerardo Ortega Lopez from Tonala, Jalisco.

If you can get to San Diego this weekend, there’s a great Expoventa (show and sale) at Bazaar del Mundo, where you can meet all these artisans and buy directly from them.

Mata Ortiz pottery from Chihuahua, Mexico

Mata Ortiz pottery from Chihuahua, Mexico

Both Pedro and Jacobo tell me that tourism has dropped substantially in Oaxaca in the last month our of fear about the clashes between the federal government and the striking teachers. While Oaxaca’s economy depends on tourism, the teachers have legitimate grievances that need to be addressed. It’s complicated!

Hand-beaded blouses from Puebla, Merry Foss artisan cooperative

Hand-beaded blouses from Puebla, Merry Foss artisan cooperative

Some artisans who have visas and have come to the U.S. to do business for years, are able to cross the border and try to make up for what is lost in the local economy. Instead of talking about building walls, United States leaders need to talk about building bridges.

Mexican doll collection, home of David and Barbara

Mexican doll collection, home of David and Barbara

In the meantime, it takes people like David and Barbara, Robin and Linda, and members of Los Amigos del Arte Popular de Mexico who keep the folk art traditions of Mexico in the forefront, who host artisans for private sales, who promote that Mexico has a rich artistic and cultural heritage that remains vibrant only through support and understanding.

Oaxaca clay nativity scene, private collection

Oaxaca clay nativity scene, private collection

If you personally or an organization you are involved with would like to host an artisan visit to the United States, please contact me. I can facilitate. This means a lot to people to keep their family traditions alive and income flowing.

Pacific Ocean overlook, sunny Southern California day

Pacific Ocean overlook, sunny Southern California day

I’m returning to Oaxaca next week. I’ve been traveling for over a month. This is a great interlude to visit with family and friends. I seem to be happy wherever I am these days! I hope you are contented, too.

Pond sunset, end to a perfect San Diego day

Pond sunset, end to a perfect San Diego day

 

New Mexico Dry. After the Santa Fe Folk Art Market.

By Tuesday after the Santa Fe International Folk Art Market ended, most friends returned home or continued with travels. Market weekend was HOT, over 100 degrees fahrenheit with no rain, unusual for July when afternoon thunderstorms usually cool things off, they say. There’s no air conditioning here, my local friends remind me. Adobe, shade and water are the natural coolants.

Taos Pueblo, New MexicoThe high New Mexico desert is beautiful, austere, the color of salmon, sand, sage and terra-cotta. Only the cloudless blue sky, jagged mountains and cottonwood banking the rivers give relief to the landscape.

Beautiful pottery comes from this region

Beautiful pottery comes from this region

It is big country with expansive mesas and tumbleweed. Still the wild west with scattered oases.

Cemetery, Taos Pueblo, with adobe chapel

Cemetery, Taos Pueblo, with adobe chapel

I drive an hour and a half north across Native American pueblo land — Santa Clara, Tesuque, Pojoaque, San Ildefonso — climbing up through a mountain pass along the Rio Grande River Gorge to Taos to visit friends.

Native American Tiwa people live in the pueblo

Native American Tiwa people live in the pueblo

Beneath the mountain, under a cloudless sky, I see dust dancing in the distance, a funnel cloud likeness of Kokopelli blowing his flute.

Jerome Church, Taos Pueblo with Blue Altar

St. Jerome Church, Taos Pueblo with brilliant blue altar (no photos inside)

Despite the heat, it is easy to love it here, the mix of silver, turquoise, coral, casinos, fry bread, corn, indigenous pride and creativity, ripe nectarines and peaches — prolific local bounty. This is more than an enclave for opera and art aficionados.

Colors of New Mexico

Colors of New Mexico

The Taos Pueblo looks much like it did forty years ago when I first visited and felt drawn by the region’s history and her native peoples.

Taos Pueblo as it was

Taos Pueblo as it was

There are a few more tourist shops, but the pueblo is otherwise untouched except by bus loads of visitors who come in early morning to avoid the sun.

Tributary of the Rio Grande runs through the Taos Pueblo

Tributary of the Rio Grande runs through the Taos Pueblo

It’s not difficult to make the comparison between Mexico and New Mexico both visually and culturally. Spanish is a primary language here, and roots go deep into colonizer oppression and conversion (read about the 1680 Pueblo Revolt).

Three foot adobe walls, wood beams called vegas to hold up cedar ceilings

Three foot adobe walls, wood beams called vegas to hold up cedar ceilings

From history, we know that political boundaries do not define the origins of people (think Maya people of Chiapas, Mexico and Guatemala).

Handwoven blanket. The Spanish brought sheep and looms to New Mexico, too

Hand-woven blanket. The Spanish brought sheep and looms to New Mexico, too

Descendants of Mexican landholders subsumed into U.S. territory in 1853 with the Gadsden Purchase populate Nuevo Mexico.

Tiwa people of Taos Pueblo are known for drum-making

Tiwa people of Taos Pueblo are known for drum-making

Taos Pueblo is a UNESCO World Heritage site

Taos Pueblo is a UNESCO World Heritage site

Many of my New Mexico friends are equally at home in Oaxaca, and it is easy to see why.

Stockade fence, adobe wall, unresistable texture

Stockade fence, adobe wall, irresistible texture

Just like Oaxaca, I love the colors and textures here, the traditions of the native people, their art and creativity. The synergy between these two places is strong and as I drive through the country, I have this feeling of peace and deep history.

Hand-hewn logs provide sun shelter

Hand-hewn logs provide filtered shelter from the sun

At this moment, I’m in Huntington Beach, California, with my son Jacob. The ocean breezes bring chill to the air, even though days are warm. It’s great to be back in the land of my growing up and connect with family for more than a few days.

Turquoise doors, Taos Pueblo

Turquoise doors, Taos Pueblo