Tag Archives: culture

In the Villages: Tenejapa, Romerillo and Chamula, Chiapas

The weather turned. It got cold. Cold enough for wool socks, down jackets and mittens. There are fourteen of us and we climbed into the van with our guide Alejandro and our resource expert Sheri. Our destination was the weekly Thursday market in Tenejapa.

Leslie, Felicia, Marsha, Biddy and Irene at the Tenejapa market
Selling threads for weaving and embroidery, Tenejapa

It’s Carnival time here. In Tenejapa, this coincides with a pre-Hispanic celebration to pray for a good corn planting. This is a mash-up time of celebration — to mock political leaders including Lopez Obrador, the president of Mexico, and El Señor Trump whose costumed character paraded around in arrogant style. It is a time for drinking posh, the local distilled alcoholic beverage made from sugar cane, and eating tamales.

Recognize this man?
Young men participating in village rituals and celebrations
We saw a woman working on this embroidered piece inside a pharmacy

I advised our travelers to look deep and carefully along the market street, into dimly lit shops selling food, medicines, household goods, shoes, to find handwoven textiles suspended in the shadows. This is how they might find a treasure to take home from this distinctive backstrap loom weaving village.

Julia found this amazing furry shawl hidden away in the Tenejapa market

At the cooperative founded by 65-year-old Maria Meza and others in 1980, we learned about women’s lives, the passing on of the tradition to young women, and how everything in the cooperative is made without compromise on the traditional backstrap loom — from simple bags to elaborate huipiles.

The Mayordomo of the Fiesta and his Wife, two steps behind

The cold fog never lifts and it seems it got colder by the time we arrived at Romerillo cemetery. Everything was shrouded in fog. We ate our lunch of sandwiches and chips like campers, huddled under the the Maya crosses adorned with dried pine branches, sitting on the concrete base or standing. It was a quick visit.

Maria Meza, 62 years old, cooperative founder, with naturally-dyed textile
Innovation with new colors, traditional designs — key to the future
Melanie with a favorite bag
Organic (criollo) homegrown radishes, Tenejapa market

Our final stop was at the home of Maruch and her son Tesh, in a remote Chamulan village about 30 minutes from Tenejapa up a winding dirt mountain road. This is not standard tourism. Here, they showed us how they weave the furry Chamula-style wool skirts dyed with mud filled with minerals that turns brown sheep wool the color of black.

Pine trees and Maya crosses, pre-Hispanic symbols of life, cardinal points
Maya cemetery, the graves are covered with boards, the door to the underworld`
Maruch wrapping warp on the stairway to the moon, the counting board

After the demonstration and the opportunity to buy ponchos, shawls, and embroidered bags, we ended our day with a sip of nanche-flavored posh and a demonstration of ancient Chamula musical instruments — including ocelet skins with bells — and song performed by Tesh and his brother Alejandro.

Mary, Sunnie and Margaret present reading glasses to Maruch, Tesh’s mother
Weaver acculturates her infant daughter at the backstrap loom

We were back in San Cristobal de las Casas in time for dinner!

Lynn with her dazzling, sparkly bolsa (bag)

Sheri Brautigam, author of Living Textiles of Mexico, and I are organizing another Deep Into the Maya World: Chiapas Textile Study Tour in 2021. The 2021 dates are February 223-March 3, 2021 and the itinerary will be about the same. Our trips usually sell-out, so if you are interested in joining us on this adventure, please complete the registration form at the top of this website and send it to me. Registration is now OPEN.

Our group of 14 travelers with Tesh’s family — we supported them!

Doll Fascination in Oaxaca and Beyond

Walk the artisan lane at the Sunday Tlacolula Market and you will see handmade dolls for sale from San Bartolome Quilana. Their traje (dress) is a replica of the brightly colored floral head scarves and aprons the women of the village wear. Their embroidered faces smile at all passersby.

San Pablo Villa de Mitla doll made by Armando Sosa, Norma’s collection

Every culture makes dolls, it seems. Are they merely playmates for little girls or collectibles for adult women? What do they evoke? Is there some meaning beyond the external? Is a doll more than Barbie, the iconic figure created in 1959, that symbolizes girl as empty-headed plaything?

Everyone here, it seems, is making and selling dolls. At Arturo Hernandez’ weaving studio in Mitla, his wife Marta is making dolls to sell to tourists. In Chiapas, there are doll recreations of Sub-Commander Marcos and his tribe. Villages there make and dress dolls in their traje, too. Papier-mache doll figures from Mexico City city that look like puppets with floppy limbs depict street walkers, cherubs with rosy cheeks and glittery gowns. Giant dolls, called mojigangas — dance in front of Oaxaca’s Santo Domingo church for every Saturday wedding calenda.

Dolls from Chiapas and Oaxaca, Norma’s collection

Dolls are not frivolous playthings just for little girls, said Ellen Benson at her talk at the Oaxaca Lending Library this week. The room was filled to capacity with almost 70 people attending.

Ellen Benson with Keep My WiFi Working talisman

She explains. We call them action figures if they are for boys. In cultures around the world they are idols, effigies, saints, totems, shamans, power objects, and healers. Dolls are objects of cultural significance. They bring good luck, they are supplications for a good harvest, they are used for magic, storytelling and veneration.

A doll is NOT belittling and should not be considered as gender stereotyping, Ellen goes on to say.

She should know. She is a maker of dolls using found objects. She is part of a Philadelphia art group called Dumpster Divers. She calls herself a Dumpster Diva, and she calls the dolls she makes Divas. She combs junk yards and yard sales, piles of rejects, has a basement workshop filled with memorabilia, bottle caps, ribbon, fabric pieces, shards and discards. Her work is widely exhibited. And she spends two-months each winter in Oaxaca, Mexico.

Detail, paint brush legs and found objects, Ellen Benson dolls

Dolls are used in play therapy, Ellen says. They tell stories of women, men and families. They are memory prayers. They may contain herbs or medicine, or ward of evil spirits. In the Hopi spirit world the color of the Kachina signifies direction, ceremony. On every continent, native peoples created dolls from available materials to pray, heal, symbolize the resilience of people.

Ellen has favorite artists who has influenced her doll-making: Terry Terrell, an outsider artist from Seattle who uses texture, carved wood, clay, twine and beads. Betye Saar who depicted the Liberation of Aunt Jemima (below), set free from the stereotyped image of black servant, released from the burden of being a domestic. Hugo Tovar, whose lifesize figures adorn the courtyard of Plaza Santo Domingo in Oaxaca. Paul Klee, who made puppets for his grandson. Nick Cave, who creates images that obscures race and gender, offering the freedom to be who we are.

The Liberation of Aunt Jemima, by Betye Tovar

We need to take a broad view of doll as a human figure, offering protective power and meaning. Doll-making is a way, perhaps, of self-reflection about who we are and who we want to be.

Ellen Benson’s Doll Family — they belong together!

So, when you walk the Oaxaca streets, keep your eyes open for dolls. They are more than a thing of beauty or playmate for a grandchild. They are a reflection of the culture.

Papier-maché street-walker doll, Mexico

In Teotitlan del Valle, Hidden Treasures: Adrian Montaño

My North Carolina friends just left the village after spending a week with me celebrating a belated birthday. It was a bash! Mucho mezcal. Mucha fiesta. Mucha comida. Lots of travel to villages to visit favorite artisans.

We spent a morning with antiquarian Adrian Montaño in Teotitlan del Valle. I met Adrian a couple of months ago when I was visiting with friends Christophe and Rogelio who operate Maison Gallot. But, I had seen him around town, in the market, always impeccably dressed, a woven straw hat topping off the costume.

Adrian at his loom, with (left to right) Scott, Wendy, Kathryn (NC) and Carol (Texas)

Adrian lives in a part adobe, part brick and part concrete house tucked into the hillside above the village. He has a wonderful view. He has one very ancient loom. His house is adorned in antiquities and a beautiful altar. He has been weaving since he was a boy. He is now age 75 and still productive.

Virgins of Guadalupe and Soledad watch over revered ancestors on the altar

In the 1960’s, missionaries came to town and began a program of conversion, translating oral Zapotec into English. (Many still do, and call themselves linguists.) They befriended Adrian, who decided that rather than convert, he would learn English from them.

Adrian is also a painter, and adorns the jicara gourds a la Matisse

His language skills are impeccable and he speaks Zapotec, his first language, Spanish and English flawlessly. He says it is important for young people to keep the language traditions alive. To earn a living, he teaches Zapotec and English to village youth, and weaves ponchos.

The beautiful poncho that Wendy bought. Not natural dyes, but gorgeous nevertheless.

His hidden treasures are a stash of vintage textiles that he wove himself, mostly when he was in his twenties, and those he has collected over the years. We were treated to a Show and Tell. I am sharing the photos of these beauties here.

1930’s-1940’s tapestry, two wefts woven together, natural and synthetic dyes

In the 1930’s and 1940’s, most of the textiles woven were bed blankets. They were natural sheep wool or were synthetic dyes most common to the era — red, green and black. Motifs were animals, birds and symbols of Mexican nationalism. Few remain in pristine condition. Storage is a problem and moths love the dark “chocolate” richness of natural wool.

Panteleon or leopard motif on tapestry blanket, Teotitlan del Valle, 1930’s-40’s

Back then, the looms were narrower and to make a bigger tapestry, the weavers needed to create two exact pieces and then sew them together down the middle. Each side needed to match up! Only the masters could achieve this. These became either blankets or ponchos/serapes.

Famous vintage Victoriano Chavez rug design, Federico Chavez Sosa‘s grandfather

It was not until the early 1970’s that blankets then became adapted to become floor rugs. This happened when young travelers came to Oaxaca from the USA, saw the beautiful weavings produced in Teotitlan del Valle, understood the beginning craze of Santa Fe Style and worked with weavers to create sturdier floor tapestries.

Curved figures are the most difficult to achieve in tapestry weaving

Many back then brought Navajo designs with them and contracted with weavers to reproduce Native American designs that were then sold throughout the Southwest. Thus, began the rug-weaving boom in the village where I live.

Adrian wrapped in one of his vintage blankets

Today, there is a return to natural dyes and to the traditional Zapotec designs that are found on the stone walls of the Mitla Archeological Site. Moreover, young weavers are developing their own style, taking traditional elements and making them more contemporary, innovating to meet a changing marketplace.

Adrian Montaño has a reverence for his roots. He openly shared his collection with us. Many of the weavings had moth holes. Some were pristine. He tells me that those washed with amole, the traditional natural root used for soap, will prevent moths from nesting. But few people use amole these days.

Eagle and the Serpent Medallion, Mexican nationalism motif

I love Adrian’s ponchos. They are short-cropped and come to the waist. They are designed using the Greca (Greek-key) pattern so named by a European archeologist who explored Mitla.

Adrian wove this Covarrubias-inspired tapestry over 50 years ago

If you want to visit Adrian and purchase a poncho, please give him a call. (951) 166-6296. Only go with the intention of supporting him by purchasing what he makes.

Wedding Fiesta: Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca

Mucha Fiesta! I knew it would be BIG when two giant tents went up three days ago beyond the tall concrete walls that separate my neighbors from me. I steeled myself for a really BIG party. I even thought I should high tail it to the city for the night to escape the sound of music.

I knew it would be LOUD. I wasn’t sure how loud. And, since I had been up since 5 a.m. to say goodbye to my sister and brother, I thought earplugs would block out the sound by the time I went to bed, early. WRONG.

There are no photos of this wedding fiesta. Only the SOUND OF MUSIC. Here, in this video, just mere feet from my bedroom window. This is what its like living in the village of endless fiestas. Sooner or later, they come to your back door.

Now, a word about weddings. They go on for three days. This is the tradition. There’s the party. Then, the after-party (that’s today, Sunday, and the music started at 11:30 a.m.). And, the clean-up crew party hearty on the third day. Usually there is barbecue beef or pork, plenty of tortillas, beer and of course, mezcal. And, always leftovers.

The music for this one started around 2 p.m. and went until 2 a.m. or so …. It probably wasn’t interrupted by the earthquake that shook my bed at around 11 p.m. It didn’t matter. I wasn’t sleeping, and the quake wasn’t as strong the music.

Another word about weddings. There is the civil wedding, the legal wedding performed by a justice of the peace, and recognized by the state. Then, there is a church wedding. Church weddings can cost $50,000 USD or more, and that’s why many young couples wait for the church wedding until they can afford it. Some never have one.

The one next door was a church wedding. They have been married for years and have children, but the church wedding is icing on the cake. To have children at the wedding altar in church is a common practice here. If children are young, they are sometimes baptized during the wedding ceremony, too. Since the priest comes from another village, there can be several weddings in one day, as was the case yesterday.

I could hear the Jarabe del Valle and firecrackers echoing throughout the village from more than one fiesta site.

In the morning at around 10:30 a.m. a village band led the procession of bride and groom from home to church. We could tell when the ceremony ended because the cohetes (firecrackers) shot up in a trail of smoke from the church courtyard about a mile away.

Rosca de Reyes topped with candied fruits, stuffed with plastic Baby Jesus

Tomorrow is Day of the Three Kings. I’m certain all the markets are filled with Rosca de Reyes today. The fiestas continue. We roll from one to the next, with weddings, baptisms, funerals, birthdays and anniversaries in between. Fiestas are part of the culture and tradition of Oaxaca life. Let’s celebrate!

Sitting With the Ancestors: Day of the Dead, Teotitlan del Valle Cemetery

Not only do I organize the Day of the Dead Women’s Creative Writing Retreat, I am a participant. This means I take Natalie Goldberg’s advice for Writing Down the Bones seriously. I sit with my thoughts and emotions, dig in, write. We are based in Teotitlan del Valle, where I live many months each year and most of my creative writing energy is spent with this blog. Day of the Dead and the retreat give me the freedom to look back in a more personal way.

The retreat/workshop focuses me, helps me dig deeper and remember stories, especially about my dad, who was the supporting role in our 1960’s San Fernando Valley, Los Angeles, California, family movie. I loved this experience. Day of the Dead in Teotitlan del Valle transported me back to my youth and it was an important way to bring my dad to life again.

Dia de los Muertos in Teotitlan del Valle is low key compared to many extravagant city celebrations, which is why I love it here. From three in the afternoon on November 1 to three in the afternoon on November 2, people go visiting extended family, godmothers and godfathers, to pay their respects to the dead.

They come bearing gifts of bread, flowers, a candle, chocolate, a bottle of mezcal or beer to add to the altar. They sit a while, usually an hour or more, in the altar room to talk about memories and catch up. Relationships take time.

Here, the difuntos make their own way back home, following the aroma trail of copal incense, marigold flowers, and their favorite foods placed on the altar to entice them back. On November 2, they join the family for tamales (traditionally, yellow mole amarillo with chicken) for lunch before making their way back to their tombs.

We follow them, making sure they are safe and secure going back to the underworld. We want their spirits to be at rest. By dusk, usually the Teotitlan del Valle cemetery is filled with locals who settle in at grave sites with a picnic, beer, mezcal, fruit and nuts, both for themselves and their loved ones.

Children do not fear death, a part of life. Note Halloween creep.

There is the village band playing joyful music under the outdoor shelter. There are village volunteers inside the small chapel praying and chanting in ancient, tonal Zapotec. It is a contradiction to the band. I imagine they are asking for guidance and support from a higher power to help them fulfill their charge. This is their cargo; they are responsible for cemetery care. With them are volunteer constables who carry a baton for just-in-case.

Band plays at grave site. Tunes are joyful, celebratory.

It is different this year, I see. There are newly paved cement cemetery paths. We are no longer stumbling between graves to get to the distant side of the cemetery. There is strobe light that illuminates some areas as if it were daylight and fewer candles. The periphery is still obscure. And, there appear to be more tourists now. Five years ago, I was among one or two foreigners.

Most of the families I know come to the cemetery early now, decorate the graves and go home, or they don’t go at all. By seven in the evening, the cemetery is alive with visitors and by eight there are only a few locals hanging on to tradition. Sitting with the difuntos all night was the practice then.

Streetlight casts eerie shadows

The grandmothers still wear their faldas, their plaid, wool woven wrap around skirts held in place at the waist with a red-dyed wool sash. Their long braids, woven with ribbons, are wrapped like a crown on their heads. They are the last generation in traditional traje and they will be here next.

I see village friends and sit with them. Debbie joins me. So does Poppy and Claudia. We are offered beer, a cup of potato chips. We sit on a concrete skirt serves us as a bench. It contains the dirt of an adjacent grave. Children play, running across the mounds of the ancestors. No one seems to care. It is natural.

Garbage pile reveals discarded grave marker

A boy of about five comes over and hands each of us peanuts. He is grinning. We are grateful. We had lunch a long time ago. His father explains that we are sitting at the grave of his grandmother and great grandfather. We can use the same tomb if people are buried fifteen years apart, he says.

In the cemetery chapel, prayers for guidance

As a land conservation plan, I think this makes sense. In the ancient world, Zapotec tombs where at the center of each dwelling. People practiced ancestor worship. I call that respectful and it is how to keep memory alive.

Digging a grave is a human process

What I noticed was the serenity of being in the obscurity. Away from the sharp light and the gaggle of visitors, I could feel the meditation of sitting in a cemetery celebrating life.

We will hold the next Women’s Creative Writing Retreat from December 15-21, 2020, to explore the winter holiday/Christmas season, what it evokes for memory, traditions, expectations and disappointments, giving and receiving. Ask your family to join you in Oaxaca after the retreat. It’s a magical time here.

If you are interested, send me an email: norma.schafer@icloud.com

Reyna makes us a beautiful lunch before we go to the cemetery