Tag Archives: church

Voladores Fly in Cuetzalan del Progreso, Puebla, Mexico. So Do Bees!

Everything leading up to October 3 in Cuetzalan del Progreso is a preview for what’s to come. This is the day each year that the Voladores fly: Danza de Voladores.

When the Voladores fly, everyone pays attention.

When the Voladores fly, everyone pays attention. They are 120 feet high.

There is a huge carnival in the church courtyard and troupes of costumed, masked revelers come in from the villages to dance, sing and raise some hoopla.

Masked revelers dance in church courtyard and before the altar inside

Masked revelers dance in church courtyard and before the altar inside

Handmade beeswax candles adorn the church altar in huge displays of tiered confection, just like wedding cakes. The colors dazzle.

Handmade candles adorn the church, stacked like confeccions

Handmade candles adorn the church, stacked like a tiered wedding cake

On October 4, the queen of the festival is crowned. Cuetzalan is packed with people, a few extranjeros (foreigners), visitors from other parts of Mexico, and lots of locals who come in from mountain villages by colectivos (shared taxis) and camionetas (truck transport).

Wedding cake hand-crafted beeswax candles, Cuetzalan church

Wedding cake hand-crafted beeswax candles, Cuetzalan church

The town square becomes a puesto (open market stalls) with alleys of textiles, beaded necklaces made from local coffee beans and seed pods, roasted corn on a stick layered with mayonnaise and chili, carved wood masks, sizzling comals (griddles).

Voladores circle the pole 52 times, in keeping with the Aztec calendar

Voladores circle the pole 52 times, in keeping with the Aztec calendar, before climbing

Hawkers, mostly the ancient ones, sell armadillo shell purses (yes, I bought one), gourd water jugs (I bought one, too), woven fiber bags (passed), wild mint (poleo) candies guaranteed to cure stomach ache (yes, though I didn’t have a stomach ache).

Four topple in unison, one stays aloft playing a flute

Four topple in unison, one stays aloft playing a pre-Hispanic flute

You can sidle up to a portable comedor (kitchen) to eat tacos, tamales, chicken with mole, squash blossom quesadillas. Thirsty? How about fresh fruit waters made with watermelon, cantaloupe, papaya, oranges.

Young men learn to become Voladores very early, practicing, practicing

Young men learn to become Voladores very early, practicing, practicing

It’s hard to keep your money in your pocket!

Candles that will become part of the church altar to celebrate on October 3

Candles that will become part of the church altar to celebrate on October 3

The day before, Merry Foss took us to the famous candlemaker Eugenio Mendez Nava, whose family makes beeswax candles for church celebrations. He is a national treasure and won the Grand Prize in the 2016 National Folk Art Competition.

Grand master of beeswax candles prepares for church celebration.

Grand master of beeswax candles, Eugenio Mendez Nava, prepares for celebration.

We hopped on a colectivo to get to his workshop outside of town. We saw the preparations for the October 3 church celebrations in the making, were awed by the size of the candles, the intricacy of the molds, the bees swarming around the opening to the clay pot hives that were tucked into the workshop corner.

Makings of the church tiered wedding cake candle extravaganza

Makings of the church tiered wedding cake candle extravaganza

Fresh, wild honey is sold all over Cuetzalan. Here’s what the hives look like. Different from the white boxes we see all over the U.S.  I imagine that Puebla people use the resources that are easiest to make and keep for beehives.

Clay beehives at the candlemaking workshop of Eugenia Mendez Nava

Clay beehives at the candlemaking workshop of Eugenia Mendez Nava

Birdcage in the workshop of candlemaker Eugenio Mendez Nava

Birdcage in the workshop of candlemaker Eugenio Mendez Nava

There are multiple groups of Voladores flyers. Some of them are women, and why not. Courage and fortitude know no gender (as we move into the final days of the election in the United States of America).

Inside the church, at the altar, a frenzy of dance movement, drum beating

Inside the church, at the altar, a frenzy of dance movement, drum beating

They start flying at around 4 p.m. on October 3 and continue until after dark. At twilight, groups of dancers and costumed revelers come into the plaza, tooting horns, flutes, singing, beating drums.  They go in and out of the church, dancing at the altar, seeking blessings.

Whirlwind of color. No one stood still!

A whirlwind of color. No one stood still. I’m thinking blurry could be okay!

In the naves, young men stopped to take a breath, take a drink, fix broken decorations, tie shoe laces, and give each other the Mexican handshake — first brushing open palms together, then giving each other a bump with the closed fist.

Repairing the feather headdress before joining into the next blessing dance

Repairing the feather headdress before joining into the next blessing dance.

Meanwhile, outside, the next set of Voladores assembled ready to climb the pole. Humans in flight, spinning, ribbons fly in the wind, arms wide, feet wrapped around the rope, upside down, a several minute suspension.

Climbing a wood and rope ladder high into the sky

Climbing a wood and rope ladder high into the sky

There were not many foreign visitors here. Is it because people are afraid to come to Mexico. We took a 6-hour bus ride from Mexico City to get to Cuetzalan. A perfectly safe adventure. And, then a 4-hour bus ride from Cuetzalan to Puebla. Also, very safe. See what you are missing?

The next group of Voladores waiting their turn.

The next group of Voladores waiting their turn.

The flying men gather in prayer before climbing the pole.

The flying men gather in prayer before climbing the pole.

Caps with ribbon tassels, decorated with flowers, worn by Voladores

Soft landing, upside down, but he'll turn over soon enough!

Soft landing, upside down, but he’ll turn over soon enough!

The eagle has landed!

The eagle has landed!

As night descended, Barbara and I left the church. There was a light drizzle that turned to a gentle rain. The scene was obscure, dramatic, filled with shadows of retreating people. This region is tropical, damp and lush. We don’t go anywhere without an umbrella!

Our evening ends amid the rain drops and shadows of retreating dancers

Our evening ends amid the rain drops and shadows of retreating dancers

One more shadowy night on the zocalo, Cuetzalan

How to Get There: From Mexico TAPO bus station, take the ADO bus to Cuetzalan del Progreso, Pueblo. Cost is about $20 USD. Trip length: 6 hours.

Where to Stay: Casa la Piedra, Cuetzalan del Progreso.

How to Return: From Cuetzalan buy a bus ticket at the new bus station in town on the Via line to Puebla CAPU. Cost is about $16 USD. Trip length: 4 hours.

How to Get From Puebla to Mexico City: Buy a bus ticket on Estrella Roja leaving Puebla every 30 minutes to the Mexico City airport, direct. Cost: About $16 USD. Trip length: 2.5 hours.

Where to Stay in Puebla: Hotel Casareyna is one of our favorites! They have a new addition and can accommodate many more guests. Sublime luxury. Try Bookingdotcom for bargain prices available.

Rosa and Abraham Get Married: Wedding Ceremony in Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca

Chapter II: The Wedding Ceremony, Saturday Afternoon, August 1, 2015

Almost every seat was filled and people were standing in the back of the small, simple Iglesia de Dios in Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca, Mexico, waiting for the wedding of Rosa and Abraham to begin.

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They were waiting for Rosa to appear on the arm of her escort in her white gown, the vision of beauty that all brides convey on their wedding day.

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We all love this moment, which reminds us of the promise of new life together, where dreams can be realized with that special someone we have chosen to be with now and forever. Abraham stood on the dais ready to greet her, serious and probably nervous, like most grooms around the world. His parents escorted him there, hugged him, gave him a private message of well-being and returned to their seats.

Abraham’s uncle welcomed the guests to the church.

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Rosa’s parents couldn’t be with us because her dad is suffering from acute diabetes, so a good friend stepped in to escort her down the aisle.

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A band of young instrumentalists played guitar, drums and electric keyboard to the soprano voice of a young woman who captured our attention, gave us pause to reflect about the union we would witness.

The wedding ceremony included and prayer, a hominy given by a pastor who came from Cuernavaca, and rituals familiar to most marriage ceremonies around the world, with the sharing of rings, joining of hands, kisses, tears, laughter, relief and celebration.

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During the ceremony, the pastor acknowledged the absence of Rosa’s parents and Rosa thanked them publicly for their love and support. There were many emotional moments when they were mentioned and missed.

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You may notice that the church décor is simple, without the gilded religious symbolism that is so widespread in Mexico, sometimes equal to Spanish cathedrals. With the Spanish conquest came the priests and the will to construct glorious edifices.

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Conquest and conversion go hand-in-hand with human history as people act out “my god is better than your god.”

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This look, on the right, says it all. Wow, we did it!

I’m not exactly certain, but this may be one of two or three Christian churches in the village that seem to co-exist side-by-side with the Catholic majority, with respect and brotherhood. Many have the same family roots that go deep.

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After the ceremony, we lingered in the church courtyard to congratulate the bride and groom, and offer salutations of congratulations. Everyone waited in the hot sun to greet these two wonderful young people with strong values who love each other and are committed to building a life together.

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It was an exceptionally beautiful Teotitlan del Valle summer day, with big puffy white clouds against an iridescent blue sky. It was shimmering and hot. Adults and children ran to the ice cream cart out front for a cooling refreshment as others waited in the receiving line.

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The afternoon sun cast strong shadows and even with Lightroom correction, the photos have some glare – please forgive me! But this will give you the idea of this wonderfully happy occasion.

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Abraham and Rosa, with brother, dad, mom and sister-in-law

Congratulations, Rosa and Abraham! Let the party begin. Next Chapter, the fiesta.

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Some Footnotes

  1. As is tradition here, the groom and his family fund the entire cost of the wedding, including the bride’s dress. The bride comes to live with her husband and his family in their home, often joining an extended family of siblings, spouses and children.
  2. There are Protestant missionaries from the United States working in Mexico who represent many denominations. They are especially active in rural Oaxaca and Chiapas, where poverty, lack of access to education and health care are high.
  3. Some say the missionary movement in Mexico contributes to the erosion of indigenous culture and religious values. Others say it keeps families intact by prohibiting alcohol use while offering a more emotional connection. A positive by-product is a reduction in family violence, usually stress related.
  4. It takes me about 6 hours to prepare the photos and write the narrative for a blog post like this, plus dealing with really poor internet connections, which I why I’m now down to publishing once or twice a week!

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As you read this, please keep in mind that I am an observer, not an academic scholar. There are many academics who have researched and written widely about the topics mentioned here. And, because I was not born into this culture, I am not privy to all the nuances that permeate and underlie relationships. I do know that by suspending judgment and being open to all possibilities, while supporting people to reach their greatest dreams, my life is enriched.

Photography Workshop in Chiapas, Mexico–January 2016

 

 

 

San Juan Chamula, Chiapas: No Photographs, Please

It’s impossible to take a photograph inside the once-Catholic church of San Juan Chamula.  It is a Sunday haven of pre-Hispanic mysticism, with folk practices that go way back in indigenous history.  Tourists are warned to tread lightly.

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My body aches to take a photograph of the family crouched on pine needles in front of a sainted altar surrounded by a pile of eggs, a live chicken, and dozens of burning candles affixed to the tiled floor where the pine needles have been swept aside.

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Taking photos in the church is verboten.  Forbidden.  In years past I have seen village officials who mind the church protocol confiscate the cameras and memory cards of those who sneak a pic.  Impossible to be sneaky here. Sometimes, if a tourist resists, s/he is put in the local jail.

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Our group from Penland School of Crafts is compliant.  We tuck camera’s away into shoulder bags and backpacks. We are not going to tempt the fates or the village fathers.

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A woman kneels in prayer singing in an ancient tongue, a melody pitched so that the gods will hear her.  Another keens.  Another weeps.  A shaman makes a blessing with an offering of coca-cola and mezcal.  Burping the fizzy drink is believed to cleanse the soul. Sunlight streams through the high side window and beneath the glow the people are bathed in shadow and light.  The space is illuminated.  Smells like piney forest, smokey candles, the burst of lilies and roses.

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Feet are bare and worn.  Feet are brown and calloused. Women’s furry black sheep wool skirts are tied at the waist with glittery cummerbunds.  Their blouses, silky polyester, are embroidered with intricate diamonds, birds, flowers, zig-zags and snap at the throat. It’s cold at 7,000 feet elevation.

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This is sacred space, like being in a cave.  Here the human and divine spirit are one and belief is powerful. I guess no photographs are necessary to remember.

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Beyond the church courtyard is a lively market place to buy hand spun and embroidered wool from the town, strange fruit, clothing from surrounding villages, meat, poultry, vegetables tortillas and bread. Amber and jade vendors hawk their wares. Little old ladies whose garments are beyond wearing, peddle purses, bracelets and keychains.

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Today, the plaza is lined with indigenous women and children from outlying hamlets, hundreds of them.  They sit on the edge waiting.  What are you waiting for? I ask one of them. She replies, we wait to receive an every-two-month stipend of 850 pesos. Soon, they form a line and hurry to the back of the government building. Their support is equivalent to $45USD per month.  Of course, she doesn’t want her picture taken.

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A Visit to Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca: More Than Rug Shopping

So many visitors come to Teotitlan del Valle, brought by tour guides to go rug shopping, but never know the other treasures that the village has to offer. In and out of rug galleries on the main road, off they go to the next destination without ever coming into the center of town. I recommend you don’t make that mistake!

You really need a few hours here or more to explore this wonderful Zapotec pueblo.

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Church Built Atop Ancient Zapotec Temple

Did you know there is an ancient pre-Hispanic archeological site behind the Iglesia de Preciosa Sangre de Cristo (Church of the Precious Blood) in Teotitlan del Valle?  It’s not a high pyramid like those at Monte Alban or Mitla because the Spanish conquerors used the temple stones to build the church foundation and edifice. You need to walk around to the back side to see the remains and then go inside the church courtyard to see stone carvings recovered from the original structure that are embedded in the walls.  Look closely and you will see the rain god Tlaloc and the plumed serpent Quetzalcoatl.

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Community Museum: A Living History of Zapotec Life

The community museum, known as Balaa Xtee Guech Gulal or translated from Zapotec to mean In the Shadow of the Old People, is located across from the rug market.  Next to it is the village government building called the Municipio or Palacio.  The entire square was redesigned and rebuilt several years ago into a modern public gathering space and there is ample parking.

In the community museum you can purchase important documentary videos produced by Metamorfosis Documentation Project that explain the history and culture of the village through its very important of Dance of the Feather — Danza de la Pluma.  All sales of the video benefit the ongoing non-profit projects of the museum to preserve and explain traditions. Museum exhibits include old photographs, dioramas, textiles and archeological findings.

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Daily Market: Sustenance of Village Life

You can find market vendors as early as seven or seven-thirty in the morning setting up stalls.  There really isn’t an official time for the market, but it’s going full blast by eight-thirty in the morning and begins to slow down two hours later. By eleven in the morning, only a few fruit sellers are left.  It’s worth it to come into town the day before, spend the night at one of the lovely and basic posadas/hostals, and get up early to get to the market.  I often sit at the periphery just to watch the ladies with their woven market baskets made from bamboo (called canastas) crooked through their elbows, as vendors weigh out the produce and deposit the purchase into the basket.

Here you can get fresh squeezed organic juices. My favorite is beet, carrot, pineapple and orange juice.  Belly up to a comal for a breakfast quesadilla or pick out a savory tamale Teotiteco-style — bean, amarillo, chipil — from one of the women who sell out in the open air. Peel back the husk and use your fingers to eat, just like the locals.  Then, of course, there are the handmade aprons, the uniform of local Zapotec women, sold near the bread vendors.

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Smell the fragrant lilies. Take in the piles of roses. Pay attention to the grandmothers whose braids, interwoven with ribbon, hang down their backs. Catch a whiff of the copal incense coming from the church. Feel your feet on ancient cobblestones.  Immerse yourself and take your time.  The life here is rich and rewarding.

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A Walk to the Presa: The Reservoir Awaits

Egrets, heron, grazing cattle and sheep, herders on horseback or walking with staff in hand are part of everyday life here.  From the village market, walk along Avenida 2 de Abril toward the sacred mountain called Picacho.  When you come to the T, which is Avenida Revolucion, make a right turn and continue along the wide dirt road until you come to the reservoir and dam.  This is the water source for the village’s agricultural endeavors. It is also very scenic and a perfect place for an afternoon picnic.  Did you remember to buy cheese and bread the market?  If you do this, please don’t forget to pack out your refuse!

Gracias y adios!

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Uriel and Rosalia’s Zapotec Wedding, Oaxaca, Mexico

The church wedding is an important part of Zapotec community life. Often, a couple will have a civil marriage ceremony and begin their family as Rosalia and Uriel did three years ago.  Their dream will be to save enough to hold a religious service that recognizes their marriage in the eyes of God.  Their young children are baptized as part of the celebratory mass.  This is common practice.

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As a by-product of the Mexican Revolution and its sweeping reforms, the state eradicated church political power and confiscated lands, so it is the civil ceremony that takes legal precedents.  Yet, the traditional church wedding holds strong emotional appeal for many couples, their parents and extended family.

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Uriel and Rosalia’s wedding began with a twelve o’clock noon mass at the Teotitlan del Valle church and included the baptism of their two young sons, Emilio and Cristian.

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There were about two hundred people attending, a fraction of the six hundred who would later join the fiesta and meal at the home of Uriel’s uncle and aunt, who hosted the event.

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In Zapotec tradition, it is the groom’s family who hosts and pays for everything:  the two large bulls slaughtered to become barbacoa (barbecue) to serve the multitude, the beer and mezcal, the band, the tortillas, fresh flowers, decorations, gifts for guests, ample takeaway containers, and an elaborate, multi-level wedding cake filled with strawberry cream.

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There is not usually a cash outlay for these expenses.  It is part of the elaborate mutual support, bartering, give-and-take system called guelaguetza in Oaxaca’s usos y costumbres pueblos.  Extended family comes together to do what it takes to host.  For example, I give you a pig one year for a baptism.  In six years, when my son gets married, I ask you to return the pig to me.  Maybe it weighs a little more than the one I gave to you.  That’s how it works and the cycle continues.

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Wedding preparations began weeks before.  The women of the family gathered to plan the food and make decorations.  They ordered large yellow corn tortillas handmade in a neighboring village.  

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Men conferred to determine how many tables and chairs, cases of beer, and bottles of mezcal would be required.  Together, they all determined the collective resources needed to mount this significant event.  Then, on the wedding day, they served the hearty festival dish offering greeting of buen provecho to each guest.

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On the wedding day, Uriel’s extended family pitched in to cook and serve:  aunts, uncles, cousins, nieces and nephews.  As guests arrived, more tables and chairs unfolded.  Their arms held extended in greeting, offering gifts, adding their tribute to honor the couple and their families, an ancient practice modernized.

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In addition to bottles of mezcal and cases of beer, guests brought cookware sets, utensils, toys for the boys, dinnerware, drinking glasses. and other household items.  There was even a new washing machine and bedroom closet on display outside the altar room.  Inside was barely passable. The line to greet the newlyweds and family snaked through the courtyard and out onto the sidewalk.  We all waited patiently to offer personal congratulations.

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In the back of the family compound an army of 60 women were on hand to measure out the meat and broth so that everyone would have their portion.  They had been tending the stew pot for days.  Platters of fresh tortillas, lime wedges, shredded cabbage, diced onions, and cilantro were set on each table to add as condiments to the  spicy meat.

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After the meal, the plates were cleared, the tables folded and stacked in a corner, and the chairs arranged in a circle.  Let the dancing begin.  First, the band from Yalalag played as the couple came out, she adorned in traditional dress from her native Zapotec village.

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Then, Teotitecos welcomed their band to play the traditional Jarabe del Valle.  Paco served as master of ceremonies, inviting family members to dance with the couple in honor of their emotional, financial and in-kind support.  Celebrants carry fragrant herbs gathered from nearby mountains.  On the bride’s arm is a basket filled with flowers, bread and chocolate — essential for sustaining life.

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The party continued through the next several days, and I could hear the band and firecrackers each morning and evening.  These celebrations are rooted deeply in a pre-Hispanic past, embedded in memory.  It is a wonderful experience to share.

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