Tag Archives: anthropology

2017 Day of the Dead Study Tour, Small Village Rituals and Traditions

The small villages in the Tlacolula Valley outside of Oaxaca, Mexico, are rich in culture and tradition. Perhaps nothing is more sacred here than the Day of the Dead celebrations. This ancient pre-Hispanic ritual to honor ancestors is thousands of years old, as are the indigenous Mexican people who observe it.

Offerings on the altar. Favorite foods, beverages.

Out here in the countryside, observances are elemental. They rarely feature glitzy parades, masquerades, endless firecrackers and Ranchera music that now defines the experience of city celebrations. That’s not to say, don’t celebrate Dia de los Muertos in Oaxaca City. It is to say, give yourself the added experience of participating in a more contemplative introduction to Oaxaca village practices beyond the city.

Teotitlan del Valle, Dia de los Muertos

Day of the Dead Study Tour: 5 days, November 1-5, 2017

I’m inviting you to come along with me to personally explore the small towns off the Panamerican Highway, where we will meet local families, join them in meals, pay tribute at their altars, welcome the spirits of the dead (difuntos) back to earth, accompany them to the cemeteries where difuntos return to their resting places. We sit with them at the graveside to ease their return.

Sand paintings, part of the tradition, Muertos

Here, off the beaten path, you will gain a deeper understanding and appreciation for the meaning of Day of the Dead in Oaxaca, Mexico.

For several years now, I’ve thought about bringing a group together to discuss the cultural rituals of life and death, differences and similarities. How do we integrate and observe death, dying, grief, mourning and the celebration of life in our own traditions?

La Catrina, making a mockery of death

How do we understand the practices here in Mexico? What can we learn from this mystical and spiritual culture? What are our shared and divergent experiences? On reflection, how will this Day of the Dead study tour alter our own feelings about death and loss?

So, this will be a small group experience of no more than 10 people. We want to have a very low impact in homes and cemeteries where we visit. You are invited to bring your journals, notebooks, cameras, iPhones, sketchpads, or anything else you need to document this personal experience.

Dia de los Muertos Altar, San Pablo Villa de Mitla

I will invite resource experts to accompany us on our journey to help guide the conversation, and give you historical and cultural perspectives.

There will be some pre-workshop readings that I will send to you to prepare for the trip and the conversations we will have along the way.

Itinerary, Day of the Dead Study Tour: Rituals and Traditions

  • Wednesday, November 1: Visit San Pablo Villa de Mitla and San Juan Guelavia (Arrive to Teotitlan del Valle on your own by 9:00 a.m. We will designate a meeting place.)
  • Thursday, November 2: Visit a local market, then Tlacochuaya de Morelos and Teotitlan del Valle
  • Friday, November 3: Meet the artisans who bake bread, make beeswax candles, prepare tamales
  • Saturday, November 4: Participate in a cooking class that features ritual foods with a mezcal tasting
  • November 5: Depart on your own to Oaxaca any time after breakfast

What the Study Tour Includes:

  • 4 nights lodging in Teotitlan del Valle at a local guesthouse, starting November 1
  • 4 breakfasts
  • 4 lunches
  • 4 dinners
  • Cooking class and mezcal tasting
  • All daily transportation from Teotitlan del Valle to the villages
  • Bread and chocolate to present at family altars
  • Honoraria to village hosts, artisans, invited speakers and resource experts
  • Packet of materials to prepare you for the study tour (via email)

Cost: $1,195. per person for double occupancy, shared room and bath. $1,495. per person single occupancy, private room and bath.

At the Mitla cemetery, Arturo Hernandez decorates his mother’s grave

The study tour does not include airfare to Mexico, round-trip taxi from Oaxaca city to Teotitlan del Valle, some meals as noted in the itinerary, admission to museums and archeological sites, alcoholic beverages, snacks, travel insurance, optional transportation and incidentals.

How to Register? Send me an email. 

Reservations and Cancellations: A 50% deposit will reserve your space. The final payment for the balance due shall be made on or before 45 days before the study tour begins. We accept PayPal for payment only. We will send you an invoice for your deposit to reserve when you tell us by email that you are ready to register.

If cancellation is necessary, please notify us in writing by email. After the 45-day cut-off date, no refunds are possible. However, we will make every effort to fill your reserved space or you may send a substitute. If you cancel before the 45-day deadline, we will refund 50% of your deposit.

Marigold flowers, the difuntos follow the scent

Is Mexico’s Day of the Dead Like Halloween? Muertos Photos in Black and White.

Day of the Dead altar honoring our Dad, 2015. Selenium filter ala Ansel Adams

Day of the Dead altar honoring our Dad, American Federation of Teachers strike for fair wages, 1960’s, Los Angeles. Selenium filter a la Ansel Adams.

We just finished a week of publishing a Day of the Dead Photography Challenge over at the Facebook site I manage, Mexico Travel Photography. You might want to jump over there to take a look at some amazing shots of this spiritual celebration of life and death. Consider joining and participating if you are not already a member.

Preparing the grave with flowers, fruit, nuts and prayers.

Preparing the grave with flowers, fruit, nuts and prayers. Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca.

What everyone loves about Mexico is her vibrant color. Everywhere. Dia de Los Muertos is a celebration of life and death. There is nothing more vibrant than the flowers that adorn altars and grave sites, market life and costumes.

But, this post takes a turn to Black and White Photography.

Four crosses mark this family plot where generations of people are buried 10 years apart.

4 crosses on family plot where generations can be buried 10 years apart. Copper filter.

A friend asked me today, what is Muertos? Is it like Halloween?  My answer is definitely NO … and SORT OF.

Cloth imprinted with Day of the Dead theme for decorating.

Cloth imprinted with Day of the Dead theme for decorating.

Here is my short-version explanation: When the Spanish came to Mexico in 1521, they co-opted an indigenous ancestor worship tradition (Day of the Dead) and overlaid it with All Saints and All Souls Day observations. All Saints’ Day begins with All Hallows Eve, or Halloween with deep Catholic religious and spiritual tradition.

At Amate Books on Alcala, a selection of titles on Muertos.

At Amate Books on Alcala, a selection of titles on Muertos, Oaxaca city.

All Souls’ Day commemorates the faithfully departed and is most closely linked to the death and resurrection of Christ.

Skulls in the market. All altars have some form of them.

Skulls in the market. Most altars have some form of them.

The Spanish were very smart conquerors. Rather than obliterating the religious practices of indigenous people, they integrated observances to make conversion much more palatable. It is possible that Muertos was celebrated during another time of year. As with most other rituals, it moved to coincide with a Catholic feast day.

Sitting in mourning and reflection. Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca, Mexico.

Sitting in mourning and reflection. Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca, Mexico.

Before the Spanish conquest, Dia de Los Muertos had no link to Halloween. In recent years the US images of pumpkins, witches on broomsticks, black cats and gauzy synthetic cobwebs have migrated across the border as Mexicans born in the USA visit their family in cities and villages throughout the country. We see this blending of commercialism and ancient tradition throughout Oaxaca.

Calavera sculpture, cutting stone, San Pablo Cultural Center, 2015

Calavera (skeleton) sculpture, chiseling stone, San Pablo Cultural Center, 2015

I’m editing my photos first using Lightroom, a Photoshop editing tool. Then, I convert these photos to SilverEfex, a free black and white software editing tool now owned by Google. It’s easy to download. You can choose filters, film type and manipulate the histogram if you wish. I’m having fun with it and wanted to share what I’ve done with you.

Flowers in the form of a cross, covering a fresh gravesite. Teotitlan del Valle.

Flowers in the form of a cross, covering a gravesite. Teotitlan del Valle. Intentional?

In case you are interested it takes me from 2 to 4 hours to make a blog post. This includes selecting and editing the photos and then writing the text (or vice versa!) Thank you for reading and following.

Nature science journal confirms indigenous Oaxacans descend from Asia

The roads to the Americas: ancient Native american migration patterns

nature: the international weekly journal of science, in its August 16, 2012 issue, published new findings that the Americas was populated in at least three distinct waves from Siberia across the Bering Straits beginning 15,000 years ago.  Genetic testing has confirmed this.

According to the article: 

The settlement of the Americas occurred at least 15,000 years ago by means of the Beringia land bridge that existed between Asia and America during the ice ages. Key questions about how many migrations were involved and subsequent dispersal patterns within the Americas remain unresolved. This new survey of genetic variation in Native American and Siberian populations shows that Native Americans descend from at least three waves of migration from Asia. After the initial peopling of the continent there was a southward expansion along the coast, with sequential population splits and little gene flow after divergence, particularly in South America.

Norma’s note: Indigenous peoples of Oaxaca, like the Zapotecs, Mixes and Mixtecs, are also Native Americans.  It’s fascinating to look at ancient stone carvings and paintings at Mexico’s archeological sites and see the resemblance to Asian origins.  The indigenous peoples of Oaxaca were physically isolated and have been able to maintain their native languages and traditions over the centuries, although that is changing in recent years as more people migrate away from their communities in search of jobs and more economic security.  For more about the peopling of the Americas, you can order a full nature article.  Recommended reading: 1491 by Charles Mann.

And, there are 2 spaces left in our 2012 Oaxaca Day of the Dead Photo Expedition.  We will visit the Zapotec archeological site of Monte Alban where you can see the stone carvings for yourself!

Bonampak Archeological Site: Mayan Treasure in the Chiapas Jungle

Bonampak is at the farthest reaches of Chiapas near the Usumacinta River in the Selva Lacandon — a rainforest jungle that is almost three hours from Palenque.  It’s one of those magical places that I have dreamed of visiting but never imagined I might get to.  To get as far as Palenque and not go another three hours to Bonampak would have been a mistake.

At the Palenque archeological museum and gift shop I bought Arqueologia Mexicana magazine, Vol. X, Number 55, that features the most recent reconstruction of the Bonampak murals.  Since not all the paintings are clear and have degraded over time, archeological artists have attempted to reconstruct them using accurate colors and now infrared drawings.  The magazine discusses (in English and Spanish) past interpretations, controversies and the most current reconstruction that uses the natural plant and mineral pigmentation.

Bonampak was part of the Yaxchilan alliance and was a smaller Mayan center.  However, the discovery of the murals in the 1940’s overshadowed its more magnificent neighbor which I will write about in my next post.

  

 

It takes a special effort to get there and plenty of patience.  The tour vans leave Palenque at 6 a.m. and you don’t return until 7:30 p.m.  It’s a long day, but definitely rewarding.  I took more than 80 photographs at Bonampak and can only show you a few of them here.  Plus, there is lots of information online about the political, social and cultural history of place if you are interested in reading more.

 

 

As I mentioned in the previous post, I’d recommend staying at a lodge either at Yaxchilan or Bonampak so you have two days to enjoy these two extraordinary sites. One day is too rushed since day tours give only two hours at Yaxchilan and one hour at Bonampak. I told them we didn’t need an hour for lunch or 45 minutes for breakfast!

  

 

Selva Lacandon Territory: A Chance Meeting

My journey into the Lacandon jungle along the Usumacinta River that is the boundary between Mexico and Guatemala began simply with a top-of-the-list visit to Na Bolom (Jaguar House) in San Cristobal de las Casas.  Here I was fascinated by Gertrude (Trudi) Duby-Blom’s descriptive black and white photos shot in the mid-1950’s of Lacondon people.  Na Bolom is dedicated to the Lacandones, who retreated deep into the rainforest to preserve their ancient practices in the face of the Spanish conquest.

The Selva Lacandon, a dense jungle rainforest, is where you will find Yaxchilan and Bonampak — two glorious and significant Mayan archeological sites.  To get there isn’t easy.  It’s three hours southeast of Palenque by van.  Palenque is five hours north of San Cristobal de las Casas IF you take a direct bus and don’t sign up for the tourist trip that stops at Agua Azul and Cascada del Misol-Ha along the way (extending the trip to eight hours one-way).  But I digress.

The day before I was set to leave for Palenque, Fay and I were on Real Guadalupe pedestrian avenue window-shopping.  I noticed an indigenous man and woman in the doorway of one of the shops who looked familiar, as if I had seen them somewhere before.  I asked the shopkeeper which indigenous group they belonged to and she said Lacandones.  I stepped into the shop and approached them with a “buenos dias.”

Carmela Chan Ak In and Cayhum Yuk Masha introduced themselves and told me that they lived in the jungle and had been friends with Trudi Blom.  I asked if I could take their photos and he agreed.  They requested and I agreed to send email copies to their nephew who has correo electronico.  As I set my lens, I realized that they may be the same people who were the primary subjects of the photos I had seen at Na Bolom and in the published books — taken at least 40 years ago. Our conversation ended with an invitation to me to visit their village.

Just yesterday, as I exited Bonampak, I met Daniel Chank In, a Lacandon native and registered eco-tourism guide who takes visitors through the jungle and arranges overnight stays.  Daniel is part of a Lacandona owned/operated eco-tourism cooperative called Jaguar Ojo Anudado certified by the Mexican Tourist Board.  He knows Carmela and Cayhum and says they live about 2 km from the ancient ruins and told me that, yes, they had been friends with the Bloms and subjects of her photography.

If you are interested in a guided visit with overnight stays (I highly recommend this, since one day to see both Yaxchilan and Bonampak are not enough), please contact Daniel at jaguarojoanudado2@yahoo.com.mx.  His website is www.jaguarojoanodado2.com.mx

Daniel introduced me to his wife, Victoria Chank In Chana Bor, his son Esteban Daniel (males wear white tunics, females wear floral tunics), and their newborn son wrapped and sleeping close to his mother’s heartbeat.