Tag Archives: celebrations

All Night Party Called Las Cuevitas

Seven years ago I wrote one of my first blog posts called Sunset at Las Cuevitas. Las Cuevitas is an annual Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca, Mexico tradition that draws the entire pueblo to the caves up in the grassy, nopal cactus dotted hills beyond the village.  Festivities start on the night of December 31 and continue through November 3.

Sunset at Las Cuevitas 2014

Sunset at Las Cuevitas 2014

This is a rocky, sacred pre-Hispanic ritual site now holds a small chapel.  Three three niches form altars where offerings are made and prayers are whispered. Families come to sleep in the open air or under tarps held high by poles or pitch tents.  Others come for the day and stay well into the night, bringing chairs, blankets and picnic baskets.  Vendors sell all types of snacks and food lest you come or get hungry: sugar wafers, just made French fries drizzled with chili salsa, tamales, even donuts.

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As the sun begins to set, the warm afternoon turns to chill.  Women wrap themselves in wool shawls or put on sweaters and bundle up their children.   Men wear jackets and baseball caps.  The line to enter the grotto snakes down the dusty path lined with sellers of hand-embroidered tortilla covers, copper bracelets for good health, and quesadillas made on wood-fired comals.

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The mood is festive.  At five in the afternoon an outdoor mass begins at the grotto. Then the band plays.  We sit on the hillside and watch pre-teen boys strike matches to light sparklers and fire balls, while others construct rock houses and make roofs of twigs and dried grass.  Everyone is eating something.

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Today the new president begins his three-year term, a voluntary and elected position.  The newly initiated volunteer police force that starts their one-year service term today are present to keep the peace, more symbol than necessity.

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On the hillsides, campfires burn, rockets shoot skyward, balloons and papel picado separate earth from sky.

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As we approach the grotto to add our candles, prayers, and offerings, I see that we are in the perfect spot for the upcoming fireworks display, a perfect ending to my perfect day in southern Mexico.  The celebration will continue through the night, all day and night on January 2, and end on January 3.  Good things come in three’s here.

NOW FOR THE FIREWORKS

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I was so close, I had to stay out of the raining hot cinders.  The cracking sounds were deafening.  It was an amazing spectacle to see a man dancing, holding a cow above his head spewing circles of light.  TheN two men followed holding female figures high as the fireworks circled and the crowd was mesmerized.  The band played on.

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Next?  That brings us up to Day of the Three Kings, January 6, when we will find the markets filled with round holiday breads infused with candied fruits and several little plastic baby Jesus figures.  The bread is called rosca de reyes, and Mexican children will receive their Christmas gifts on this day.  Whoever gets the baby Jesus is obligated to host a tamale party on February 2, Dia de la Candelaria, the last event associated with Christmas.

May the party continue!

MORE SUNSETS ANYONE?

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There were fewer than ten extranjeros (foreigners) in the crowd.  Most of us who were there are connected to local families and live on their land or rent from them. Las Cuevitas is probably the closest thing I can think of to July 4th as a family day of picnicking, partying, and enjoying life.

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And, don’t you agree, Omar’s smile is like a brilliant sunset!

 

Christmas Collage: Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca

Martha, Marianne, and Judy arrive from the city for dinner on December 23 and then we gather at the house of the eighth posada.  Earlier, I go to the local morning market and find a fish vendor from the coast.  We eat organic and fresh talapia, squash, potatoes, carrots, onions seasoned with kumquats, candied ginger, carrots, prunes, dates, and raisins all cooked together in the tagine.  Later, I use the head and bones for stock.

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The posadas continue through December 24, when baby Jesus appears on Christmas Eve at La Ultima Posada, the last posada, which is the grandest and most magnificent of all.

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On the street we meet a young woman and her mother who are originally from Teotitlan del Valle, and now live in Chicago.  She tells us she and her family put their name on the list to host La Ultima Posada ten years ago.  They will welcome baby Jesus in 2014.  The cost to host is about $50,000 USD, which includes a magnificent array of food for three days — enough to serve hundreds, two bands, drinks and refreshments, candles, lanterns, decorations.  She explains to us that it is an honor and a commitment to community and God to be able to do this. They meet with the church committee twice during the year to review details that will ensure a traditional celebration.  Service and community cohesiveness is essential for Zapotec life.  They have lived in this valley for 8,000 years.

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On December 24, I make a last minute run to the village market once more to discover it packed with shoppers and sellers at eight-thirty in the morning.  This is likely the biggest market of the year! Every one presses up to buy fresh moss and flowers from the Sierra Norte to make the creche that will bring baby Jesus to their home, too.

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There is fresh pineapple, bananas, papaya, mandarin oranges, apples, and spiced guayaba (guava). Lilies, roses, and flowering cactus lay on tables ready for plucking. Live chickens and turkeys, feet secure to keep them from flying away, lay subdued, waiting.

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Children hide under their mother’s aprons or eat fresh morning bread or sip a horchata. Who can resist the blue corn tortillas?  Not me.

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Piñatas are an integral part of the baby Jesus birthday celebration.  The market is filled with them on December 24.  Children adore the rain of candy.  Me, I adore the perfectly ripe avocados, organic lettuces and eggs.

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I bump into Janet and Jan, expats from France and Holland who winter here. They eat breakfast at the stand set up in the middle of the market, quesdadillas fresh off the griddle.

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Later, I join my family for the traditional dinner at eight.  Elsa brings homemade bacalhau, there is organic salad, roasted pork leg infused with bacon, garlic and prunes, pinto beans, with plenty of beer, mezcal and wine.  Dessert?  Why tiramisu cake from Quemen bakery, of course!

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Omar entertains Christian.  Lupita entertains Christian.  The children kick the soccer ball and jump on the piles of wool waiting for the loom.  We sip spiced ponche (hot fruit punch) made with guayaba fruit sweetened with sugar cane.  Some will go to the church for midnight mass.  Others will go on to aanother supper at midnight.

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Christmas day presents another dinner feast on Roberta’s terrace, this time a potluck with organic lettuces, Annie’s garden arugula, enchiladas with green salsa, roasted chicken, red wine, fruit salad and Susanna Trilling‘s Mexican Chocolate Bread Pudding that Jan prepares.  The patio is filled with flowering cactus and the sunset can’t be better.

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All is well with our world.  I hope your holiday season is spectacular, too.  Feliz Navidad! Gracias a todos.

XmasCollage-37              Our next photography workshop is this summer 2014 for Dance of the Feather.  Find out more!

 

Dance of the Little Old Men–Baile de Viejitos, Oaxaca

After a spectacular week of Semana Santa celebrations in Teotitlan del Valle, the village gathers for yet another tribute.  Dance of the Little Old Men, or Baile de Viejitos, begins on the Monday after Easter Sunday and goes for five continuous days.  It is an ancient pre-Hispanic Zapotec ritual centered around the way the community is organized and how well the voluntary leaders mete out justice and fairness.  The village leaders are assessed by each one of the five administrative sections of the village through an intricate process of information gathering, question asking, and feedback.

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Each section has an opportunity to give feedback to the leaders through the men selected by each section to speak for them.  The men are dressed in disguise as elders, wise, strong, able to take a stand and tell the truth.  It is a power-leveling mechanism that is designed to humble the arrogant.

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Some call it Carnivale, like the pre-Lenten celebration, because there are masquerades and cross-dressing.  To the uninitiated, it looks like a springtime version of Halloween with costumed, dancing young boys.  They join the official masquers who accompany the Old Men as they act out their message through the dance and the tribute they pay to the leaders.  It is ceremonial and formal.

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And, it is fun.  There is excitement in the air.  The village gathers on stone steps that were once the foundation of a Zapotec temple.  The Municipio Building is ringed with folding chairs and behind them, vendors selling fresh-made fruit-flavored ices, cones stuffed with cream, do-nuts, and other sweets.  Another vendor sells steaming tamales seasoned with chipil. Parents buy bags of 5 peso popcorn for children to munch on.

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The dance starts at 6 p.m. and goes well into the night.  All the leaders, starting with the president, dance in succession with the Viejitos representing the section.   The section representatives sit solemnly after they have presented their tribute — cartons of beer and mezcal.  Each section takes their turn — one section for each night.

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Oaxaca: Lost in the Revelry

Since last writing a blog post on March 26, my husband, sister, son and extended family arrived to celebrate our godson’s wedding on April 6.  Semana Santa came and passed.  We found ourselves in the middle of Baile de Viejitos–Dance of the Old Men, then multiple trips to the airport to pick-up family members.  I took a lot of photographs and planned to post them, but found no time as I guided my loved ones around the city and surrounding villages.  It takes time and energy to be a family tour guide, coordinate taxis, and get guest sleeping arrangements ready.

It also takes a lot of energy to party!  They really know how to do it up here wedding-style.  This wedding, with over 300 guests, was celebrated with a mass at Basilica de Soledad, patron saint of Oaxaca, followed by a fabulous all night dinner dance in the ethnobotanical garden.  The beer, wine and  mezcal flowed.  Floating lanterns ascended to the heavens.  Firecrackers announced the newlyweds.  As we entered the garden after the legal ceremony, the Teotitlan del Valle band played classical music and continued on during dinner under the stars.

After dinner, the band started the traditional Jarabe del Valle.  The padrinos of the wedding had the first dance with the newlyweds.  Then, the parents joined in.  The rest of us were invited for the general Jarabe.  We stomped our hearts out on the dance floor to the Jarabe del Valle, then to cumbia, salsa, and music through the decades starting with the 60’s.  I tried to hold out until the 6 a.m. planned end, but a few of us caved in and got into a taxi at 4 a.m.

Being somewhat dazed from lack of sleep and the hazy afterglow of mezcal, I left my wonderful Nikon D7000 camera with 17-55mm lens on the taxi seat.  So, I have no wedding photos to show, nor photos of the pre-wedding preparations.  I decided not to beat myself up — stuff can always be replaced.  Yes, there is a cost, but we are all healthy and content, so that’s what matters most.

On the Sunday after the wedding, with four hours of sleep under our belt, we gathered in the village for more eating, drinking and traditional Jarabe del Valle dancing under the fiesta tent.  Handmade tortillas, savory grilled, chicken, amazing kinship.  I’ve posted some of these photos on my Facebook page since I still have my iPhone!

My sister and I are leaving Oaxaca tomorrow for a few days in Puebla before flying to San Francisco, where I will visit my 97-year  old mother in the Bay Area for a week.  I’m returning to Oaxaca this summer, hopefully with another camera.  So stay tuned for more to come.

Danza de la Pluma–Dance of the Feather: Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca Pre-Hispanic Tradition

Many people come to Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca to photograph the extraordinary Dance of the Feather.  This was how we spent Day 5 of our Market Towns and Artisan Villages Photo Workshop.

Los Danzantes — the dancers — make a three-year commitment to recreate the history of the Spanish conquest of Moctezuma and the Aztecs through dance.  The main characters include Moctezuma, Cortes, La Malinche/Doña Marina, the masked spies who gathered intelligence for Cortes, and an assortment of soldiers and warriors.

However, this is an ancient Zapotec ritual dance that pre-dates the arrival of Cortes and the conquistadores to Oaxaca in 1521.   The ritual dance was integrated into a festival to honor the patron saint of Teotitlan del Valle and her church, Preciosa Sangre de Cristo.  It begins every year  on the first Monday of July with the Parade of the Canastas to coincide with the full-moon.  The subtext includes tribute of mezcal, beer, bread, and maize.  Pre-conquest dancers paid tribute to the gods of rain, corn, and fertility.  This is not a folkloric dance or guelaguetza.

It is a serious part of maintaining culture, community, ritual and tradition in Teotitlan del Valle.  The dancers take their commitment seriously and the community supports them in this endeavor.  Everyone turns out to see the dancers.

Even though the rains came during the afternoon, they lasted only about 30 minutes. Loyal viewers were undaunted and stayed; the dancers danced on.  They endure a strenuous 10 hours of dancing on this first day that can be through intense downpours and brutal summer sun.  Fortunately this year, the rain was short and the sky was overcast with just a hint of sunshine — much cooler than those sweltering in the U.S. midwest and east, and what dancers have experienced in years past.

This is the last Dance of the Feather for this group that formed three years ago.  Tradition directs a village man who wants to be Moctezuma to organize a group.   This group is larger than usual.  They added a troupe of young boys to play the role of Spanish soldiers.  We have seen these boys grow up and mature.  They, too, take their responsibilities seriously despite their youth.

    

Each of the dancers weaves his own breast and backplate and makes his own amulets.  The masked jester, who represents Cortes’ spy, puts a banana on the horn of his mask. A man watches from the church courtyard sidelines.  A nieves vendor sells these fruity frozen treats.

Our assignment for the workshop was to capture motion by using a slow shutter speed, low ISO and high aperture, experiment with depth of field, and incorporate black and white or sepia.  This was a new stretch for me, a challenge that I welcomed!  I’ve come to discover that blur is something you want in art photography IF it is your intention!  I’m training myself to see those blurred shots a little differently and not discard them (smile).  They can evoke mood.

Villagers come from throughout the Tlacolula Valley dressed in their unique traditional clothing.  These women from a nearby village wear pleated skirts and floral aprons — a style different from the dress in Teotitlan del Valle.

Teotitlan del Valle is a communitarian village.  It’s leaders volunteer for three-years of service without pay.  The dancers also honor these people who govern their community through consensus decision making.

I hope you enjoy these photos and perhaps next summer you can be with us, too.  Consider joining in for the Day of the Dead Photography Expedition this October!

 

The feather headdresses are weighty and uncomfortable.  The men need to take periodic breaks to reposition and re-tie them.  Endurance and athleticism is a necessity for this test of courage and commitment.