Happy Thanksgiving From Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca, Mexico

I woke up early with the wind at my back, ready to get a jump on the Day of Giving Thanks. In Mexico we call it Dia de Accion de Gracias. It is a good day to take a walk and think about all the goodness of life.

An early walk in the campo, Thanksgiving morning

It was close to eight o’clock this morning when I set out to the campo, the wild, unpopulated area of the village, beyond the pale of settlement. The sun was warm on my back. There was a breeze. The day was promising.

The first boundary marker, a stelae from another century

My three dogs were with me, Butch close to my heels, always guarding. Mamacita out in front. Tia running off after birds and rabbits, stopping from time to time to turn around and check my progress.  These are campo dogs, rescue dogs, dogs who have learned to be obedient and stay close.

Butch (foreground), Mama (right) and Tia along the path

This was a day of exploration. I went far beyond where I usually go along the narrow foot path ascending toward the mountain range that is a backdrop to Teotitlan del Valle, part of the Sierra Madre del Sur.  I imagine this to be an ancient trail, the border between our village and the two adjoining us — San Mateo Macuilxochitl and Santiago Ixtaltepec, that the locals call Santiguito.

From the third marker, views toward Tlacochuhuaya

As I made my way along the incline, I was careful not to stumble on loose lava and sedimentary gravel. Rock outcroppings offered natural stepping-stones.

Moonscape-style cactus off the beaten path. Baby Biznaga?

There are three border markers along this route. I had never been to the third. It was glorious out. I figured, Why not?  Life begins at the end of your comfort zone, I reminded myself once again. Let’s figure out where this goes.

A bouquet of lantana by the roadside, growing wild here.

As we reached the third, I could see there was no path up to it, so I made my own switch back path to scale the hill. The dogs followed. A ridge of rock offered me a natural seat from which I could see across the valley to San Jeronimo Tlacochuhuaya, beyond Santiguito. A perfect spot to meditate.

I imagined those who came before me, centuries past, who sat in this very place, keeping a lookout on the landscape below. In the distance, cooking fires curled skyward and a red-shirted farmer grazed his bull in the lush fields.

Downhill was easy, with a stop at the natural spring for quenching thirsty dogs. Then, a brisk walk home on the back road lined with dried corn stalks and wild marigold fields lining the road.

I covered three-and-a-half miles.

On the final stretch home, between marigolds and cornstalks

Today, a group of Estadounidenses will gather at Los Danzantes for a special Thanksgiving meal after a mezcal toast at the home of my friend Shannon. An adjoining table is with NC restauranteurs who are opening a Oaxaca destination at the Durham Food Court, two blocks from my apartment.

Thanksgiving menu at Los Danzantes, not traditional!

Today will be a change-up from years past. I won’t be cooking. Neither will Kalisa! (I hope.) Instead of sliced, roast turkey, stuffing, gravy, mashed potatoes, Jacki’s fabulous cranberry sauce, and an array of pumpkin pies, it will be turkey balls and pumpkin pancake at 7 p.m. Nothing traditional about this year for me!

Nature’s display of color, pure and simple

I’m reminded by my friend Betsy, an Anthony Bourdain afficionado, who said, Travel is the gorgeous feeling of teetering in the unknown.  And, my friend, Madelyn, who says, Take life with the wind at your back, moving forward, rather than fighting the headwinds that always set you back.

Happy Day for Giving Thanks.

A field of yellow next to the casita

The gift of the season, 75 degrees Fahrenheit

 

 

 

 

Documentary Film: Zapotec in Oaxaca, Mexico, Dizhsa Nabani, A Living Language

All ten, five-minute episodes of the documentary film, Dizhasa Nabani/Lengua Viva/Living Language, premiered last night in San Jeronimo Tlacachahuaya. This is an ancient and important village in the Tlacolula Valley, center of the Catholic diocese. The film is in Zapotec, with Spanish and English subtitles. Just wonderful!

Yet, the risk of indigenous Zapotec language loss is powerful here, and in other Zapotec-speaking villages throughout Oaxaca State.

The documentary, produced by Haverford College, Pennsylvania, in collaboration with Moises Garcia Guzman and Dr. Brook Danielle Lillehaugen, professor of linguistics, tells the story about the essential link between language and cultural identity.  It features the farming village of Tlacochahuaya where Moises and his family have lived for generations.

I met Moises many years ago in West Los Angeles. We found each other through Facebook. He was living there and working as a Spanish-language customer service translator with Verizon.  His mom was in Tlacochahuaya growing garlic on the family farm, while his dad was repatriating after working in L.A., too. We became friends.

Moises, me and his wife Lois

When Moises moved back to Oaxaca he started teaching Zapotec to young people and hosting Brook’s university students who were studying linguistics.

Both Moises and Brook hosted the showing of the documentary last night at the Tlacochahuaya cultural center. Townspeople, leaders and Haverford students were there. I brought my young charge, 14- year old Lupita, who had never been to this village, though it is only ten minutes from Teotitlan del Valle.

The Zapotec dialect spoken in Tlacochahuaya is different than that spoken in Teotitlan del Valle. This is a common theme among Zapotec villages. Though they are in close proximity, they have remained isolated from each other, resulting in enough language variation that results in minimal mutual understanding.

My friend Janet Chavez Santiago, who also works with Brook, tells me that many villages have incorporated more Spanish words into the Zapotec language and the original words are lost.  As an oral language, Brook, Janet and others have worked together to create a standardized written transliteration and an oral dictionary that is online.

There are sixteen different indigenous languages spoken in the State of Oaxaca, and within each of those language groups there are variations that are significant enough that few are able to understand each other.

I think the key take-away questions for me are: Does language define us? How do we define ourselves? Is language preservation necessary for cultural identity?  And, then to ask the ultimate questions: Who am I? Where do I belong? These are the great existential questions of life, continuity and community.

Well worth your time, each five-minute segment takes you into a Zapotec village to meet the people, hear the language spoken, and understand traditional life and the challenges of contemporary cultural pressures.
Episode 5: Dizhsa Nabani–Tlacolula Market
Episode 6: Dizhsa Nabani–The Musician
Episode 7: Dizhsa Nabani–Dance of the Conquest
Episode 8: Dizhsa Nabani–Chocolate
Episode 9: Dizhsa Nabani–Gabriela’s Workshop
Episode 10: Dizhsa Nabani–Zapotec People

The Virgin of Guadalupe Photo Essay: From Primitive to Painterly

The Franz Mayer Museum in Mexico City is featuring a special exhibition about the Virgin of Guadalupe.  The images include primitive figures in carved wood, elaborate paintings and wood carvings from church altars, woven and embroidered textiles, and contemporary 2016 photographs by Federico Gama taken at the Basilica de Guadalupe in Mexico City.

Why am I so taken with this exhibition? Certainly not from a religious point-of-view, but from one interested in the cultural expression of this great nation. The Virgin of Guadalupe is Mexico’s own, personal patron saint.

To me, she is a woman of strength and valor, able to transform and uplift a nation. She is Mother Earth, fertility and blessing. Her figure transcends and tricks the Spanish overlord. She is disguised as and more than the Virgin Mary. Her roots are indigenous. She belongs to the people.

I am also taken with the various artistic expressions of her figure, how she is depicted: from facial expressions, use of color and shadows on the folds of her gown, the portrayal of the angel at her feet, from simple to elaborate. It seems that everyone had their own version of the Virgin of Guadalupe vision.

As my friend, artist Lena Bartula says, In Guad We Trust. 

Virgin of Guadalupe Exvoto

I hope you enjoy this visual expression of Mexican life.

Stone church carving

Ceramic plate from Patzcuaro

A Federico Gama portrait

Even the Virgin wants us to drink Pepsi

Close up of the angel, 18th century

A book engraving

One artist’s version with apparitions and flowers

Another version with a different cloak and coloring

Note the more elaborate Mexican flag on the angel’s wings

A polychrome figure, perhaps from Oaxaca

A Federico Gama portrait at the Basilica de Guadalupe

Inlaid oyster shell portrait

Exvoto, giving thanks to the Virgin for a car purchase

Embroidered textile, huipil

Ceramic and alpaca metal from Guadalajara

A primitive painting, every bit as meaningful

Formalized altar construction

 

 

Party Aside, Say No To Hate and Please VOTE Today

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.

Where will you be?

Dia de los Muertos, Day of the Dead: Talking With the Ancestors

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.

-Salvatore Scalora, Flowers and Sugar Skulls for the Spirits of the Dead,                   Home Altars of Mexico, 1997

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.

Do you observe Day of the Dead? Where? How?