Tag Archives: culture

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

Taking Big Leaps–Dance of the Feather, Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca

Wednesday, July 10, 2019–This group of new dancers start their three-year commitment to church, community and family this year. The most touching moment for me was to be in the home of the Moctezuma, the lead character in the Danza de la Pluma just before they set out to the church plaza to dance for three hours until sunset on July 9.

Grandma raises her hand to make the sign of the cross in blessing

Here I witnessed loved ones bestow their blessings on him. It was like anointing their son and grandson with the benediction of all the generations who came before, offering God’s favor and protection. It was as if all the young men over decades who participated in this sacred dance were present, too. It is an honor and a commitment to perform this service. I am told it is life-changing.

The ritual is repeated year after year, but the first year is a special test for a new group of dancers for their faith, endurance, strength, passion, dedication, coordination and precision. It is also an important exercise in mutual support. Dancers are not individuals. They are part of a team, and it is their team effort that underlies the essence of how this Usos y Costumbres community self-governs.

The Dance of the Feather, which tells the story of the Spanish Conquest from the indigenous point-of-view, is meticulously choreographed. The village symphony orchestra/band knows exactly what to play as the story unfolds. As each step is taken down the cobbled streets to the church, there is a cadence that is repeated in the retelling.

Parents of La Malinche help her prepare

In the altar room at the Moctezuma’s home, family members help each member of the group dress in their costume. This takes time since each element of the dress is an elaborate undertaking.

Dad attaches silk scarves that will fly like wings
Doña Marina, age six, fortifies herself to prepare for three hours of dancing
Grandmothers peel onions and garlic for the barbecue stew

Behind the scenes, another type of choreography takes place. It is the work men, women and girls and boys who do the food preparation and service. Every bit is made by hand. The chickens are slaughtered, boiled and the meat is shredded for tamales.

Each made by hand memela is the blessing of a woman’s hand
Drinking tejate — muy rico — a pre-Hispanic tradition

The toro (bull) is slaughtered and prepared for barbacoa de res. The tejate is stone ground by hand, with home roasted cacao beans. Can I talk about the memelas? I’ve never tasted anything so good — comal toasted corn patties, slathered with bean paste, fresh salsa, shredded Oaxaca cheese, a drizzle of shredded lettuce.

Natividad serves memelas to a guest

We feed each other because we take care of each other. Our survival and continuity depends on it.

This is a hallmark for Teotitlan del Valle and other Usos y Costumbres communities in Mexico. They function so well because of this bond. Mutual support is about respect for heritage and relationships. You do it because it is a value to the self, the other and makes the whole stronger.

Moctezuma flanked by La Malinche (L) and Doña Marina (R)

The dancers who participate in the Dance of the Feather embody these values, embrace them, practice them and model them for others.

Taking big leaps — the strength and prowess of the dancers

The dancing will resume again in the church courtyard on Friday, July 12, at 5:00 PM. Check Oaxaca Events for schedule and other festivities around town.

Village officials and guests offer support — feather crowns on the patio during a rest

As I said goodbye to family members of the dance group, they asked me to tell you how important their culture is to them, how they want to communicate the beauty and friendship of Mexico, and how strongly they are committed to preserving traditions, and extend an invitation to visit.

Church is symbol of faith — but the commitment comes from the heart
Clowning around with the Clown character — symbol of Aztec spy

There are two clown figures included in the Dance of the Feather. They serve multiple functions. Primarily they are the dancers’ helpers, holding crowns when a scarf needs to be retied, bringing water and rehydration drinks, communicating with the officials when a bio-break is needed. They also are jesters that provide fun, frivolity and antics to the story — a diversion of sorts.

They will tease and cajole audience members, like me. Jajajajaja. In the original story, they are the Aztec spies who disguised themselves to get close to the Spanish conquistadores and bring information back to the Aztec generals. There were two battles with the Spanish. The Aztecs won the first.

Beauty and Fashion: Did Carolina Herrera Copy Mexican Designs?

Why should we care?

Yes, I agree that Carolina Herrera’s new 2020 resort collection, just unveiled, is beautiful. The collection, the company says, is inspired by Mexican indigenous designs. When you look at the clothes, some of the designs are startling — exact duplicates of textiles made by hand in Mexican villages for centuries. Excusing this behavior because it is beautiful, ignores deeper questions about race, culture, heritage, history. Why don’t we call it what it is? Plagiarism. Stealing. Copying.

Okay. I’m angry.

Outrage is not based on whether a fashion house creates a beautiful line of clothing for it’s ultra-rich clientele nor does the beauty as a subjective assessment, figure into the discussion.

It is based on how and why indigenous people create the cloth they wear, who has authority and power, and who receives recognition and compensation.

Yesterday, Vanessa Friedman, fashion editor of the New York Times, wrote Homage or Theft? Carolina Herrera Called Out By Mexican Minister. It fuels the conversation about cultural appropriation issues, a hot topic today among those of us who respect indigenous people and what they make. Theirs is a history of culture, family, storytelling, spirituality and belief, through cloth as a cultural expression.

Lifting designs out of context violates the very foundation of culture. We have a hard time understanding this in the USA because we are bred in a culture of be more, earn more, get more, compete more. Here in Mexico, culture is based on community, family and ancient rituals. Clothing interprets this.

What fascinated me most was reading the comments from seemingly intelligent, considerate readers of the New York Times. I encourage you to read the comments section. There are over 450 comments. Overwhelmingly, people feel that:

  • the Herrera designs are beautiful and unique, and in no way resemble the indigenous clothing style of, for example, the Otomi traditional embroidered dress
  • cultural appropriation is PC — politically correct references that which is used to avoid offensive language
  • there are no legal restrictions on design, and runway designs are being copied and mass-marketed everywhere
  • imitation is the sincerest form of flattery
  • artists and creatives take their inspiration from wherever they want
  • political correctness in art and fashion has gone too far

I was surprised to read the responses that confirm that the Western world is either ignorant of or doesn’t appreciate the issues of disenfranchisement facing talented people, who are marginalized with little or no voice and have no legal protections. I am angry that people are blinded to human rights. Someone said, There is no such thing as cultural identity.

But, why should I be surprised? Indigenous design theft is only one more version of the power and wealth imbalance of conquerors with their attendant racism.

Here is what I wrote in the NY Times comment section in response to the Vanessa Friedman article:

Here we go again! This is a recurring theme of the privileged who think that “borrowing” from indigenous cultures is equal to paying homage, respect, and XXX Many of you label cultural appropriation as PC. It’s actually a real problem in Mexico when poor people living in remote areas have no voice to protect what belongs to them. People living and creating in indigenous villages for thousands of years don’t know about PC. They do know that working the cloth takes months. They learned it from their grandmothers and the designs include sacred symbols that have cultural, spiritual and social meaning. There is no context for the designs that haven been lifted and repurposed for the ultra-rich. There is no compensation to villages whose designs have been stolen. These designs are unique. Unlike music or architecture that builds upon what came before. It is different. These are designs copied verbatim. You get thrown out of college for that! Remember? Yes, the CH designs are beautiful – but because the original designs are beautiful. Let’s get it right. Let’s collaborate, not steal. Let’s employ at a fair wage. Let’s justly compensate. This is not about liberal or conservative. This is about doing what is right in the world. I’ve been living part-time in Oaxaca and working with indigenous artisans for years. Their lives are humble, they are generous, and they are concerned about loss of culture because clothing here is identity. We can help, not hinder the cause.

In response to Gail Pellet on my Facebook page, I say:

We have seen here in Mexico with the Isabel Marant case of stealing Tlahuitoltepec designs, that lawsuits don’t work. The indigenous designs are too old to be covered by copyright and patent protection, and are legally considered part of the public domain. However, the patrimony of Mexican pre-Hispanic culture is at risk. Invasion continues in its modern form.

And, in a conversation with Carry Somers, founder of #fashionrevolution on her Instagram page, I noted:

… the luxury brands are stealing our indigenous/native designs without compensation. There is a poverty of ethics in our world.

She says: We need to look to the Nagoya Protocol to protect indigenous knowledge around biological resources and need some comparable protection for indigenous designs. Let’s hope @susana.harp.oaxaca (singer turned senator from Oaxaca) can do something about this.

Please read the NY Times feature, then the comments, and comment, too, if you like. Please don’t comment unless you read the article. Thank you.

Oaxaca WARP Conference Kicks-Off with Marta Turok Wallace Keynote Talk

Marta Turok Wallace is a noted applied cultural anthropologist whose specialty is Mexican textiles. A resident of Mexico City with roots in Boston, Massachusetts, USA, (her parents were ex-pats), Marta was invited by program chair Judy Newland to speak at the WARP (Weaving a Real Peace) textile conference held in Oaxaca, June 8-11, 2017.

WARP attendees gather in San Pablo Cultural Center, Oaxaca

More than 70 people attended the conference. They came from Mexico, the USA, Canada, Poland and Russia.

Applied cultural anthropologist Marta Turok Wallace

What Marta talks about concerns all of us who love indigenous textiles and appreciate the people — women and men — who make them.  She asks questions, makes observations, offers solutions and consultation.  Then she steps back and listens, suggests, guides. She affirms that weavers can create their own destiny, their own future for themselves, their families and their communities. And, that consumers can more fully appreciate the history behind the cloth.

WARP president Cindy Lair welcomes participants

Traditions are powerful in Mexico.  Remote villages throughout Oaxaca continue to weave garments using distinctive iconographic designs particular to place. These weavings are rooted in centuries past, worn by grandparents and great-grandparents. There are garments for daily wear and special ceremonial occasions.

Clothing is cultural identity in Mexico. It signifies where you are from and your status in the community.

Teotitlan del Valle weaver Porfirio Gutierrez talks about history, culture

Yet, over time, clothing has changed (think cotton to synthetic threads, hand-spun to machine-spun) based on cost of raw materials, time to make, and influence of current fashion trends in the larger culture. This has an impact on style, design and quality.  As villages interact with each other because of communication and ease of transportation, there is design-crossover, too.

What is “pure” or “authentic” is no longer relevant, perhaps. Change happens and it is impossible to keep people in a box doing what they have always been doing to satisfy collectors and appreciators of tradition. What we want to do is encourage innovation, collaboration, independence and economic success.

The inversion graph, an aging population of artisans, copyright M. Turok

Marta showed a slide explaining that there is a 50% loss of traditional artisans in Mexico. Artisans are aging out and so few of the next generation are stepping in to continue the work. She asks, Why is tradition dying out?

Is the acquisition of artesania being abandoned by the consumer? What is happening in the communities to impact this change? What is in need of revitalization? How do you prepare artisans to sell at fairs and expoventas? How do they show things, take orders, fulfill and ship? Are goods priced fairly for the amount of time put into making them? What are people willing to pay because something is made in Mexico?  How do you commodify art, handmade?

Scholarship recipients present their work, philosophy of design

So, it’s not only about keeping the skill alive, it is about getting it out into the marketplace?  Once something becomes commercialized, then does that erode its value and also compromise how an artisan is compensated?

As they say, It’s complicated!

Young women from Chenalho, Chiapas, represent their cooperative

And, if one changes the scale of motifs or introduces different color palettes to satisfy marketplace demands, or adapt a textile to another purpose (think going from sarapes/ponchos to rugs to handbags and purses), is this a compromise of traditions?

Important topics of discussion during the conference included appropriation of traditional design motifs by contemporary fashion designers, fair wages, using sustainable and native materials.  “What is Fair Trade, really?” when there are no standard rules.

Speaker Eric Chavez Santiago will discuss commercialization

Marta notes that when something is handmade AND mass-produced, someone is not being paid very well.

Many of us want to meet the artisan, have a personal relationship and buy directly so that the money exchange benefits the maker 100%.  That’s not always possible, so it’s important for us to read labels, and ask who made my clothes.

We also need to be sensitive and conscious to the myth that Mexican handmade items are cheap or that we can bargain just for the fun of it.  Let’s be conscientious about the haggler mentality.

What we also notice is that most weavers are no longer creating cloth for themselves — they are weaving for the marketplace, no longer investing a year of labor to create an elaborate ceremonial huipil.  They may dress in ready-made cotton or polyester purchased at Soriana or Walmart. Why?

SOLD: Hand-woven, embroidered ceremonial huipil, San Felipe Usila. 

[Note: This “stained glass window” huipil, above, is from the Chinantla pueblo of San Felipe Usila, about 12 hours from Oaxaca up a mountain road. I know the makers. It is woven on a back-strap loom, then intricately embroidered in cross-stitch. A special piece. Size L-XL. $500 USD. Time to make: 8 months. Who wants it?]

To dress differently exposes one to racism and discrimination. We heard a story about a Oaxaca village where the mayor was so intent on assimilation, that he forbade any weaving of traditional garments. It took thirty years to rescue the tradition by encouraging a new generation of weavers to bring back their cultural identity.

During the conference, Andares del Arte Popular hosted a curated show and sale of artisans in an adjacent patio. Conference-goers could meet the makers and buy directly from them. It was a wonderful introduction to Oaxaca for WARP.

A conference of weavers, dyers, anthropologists, collectors, textile lovers

I was pleased to to work with WARP to produce this conference. I served as the on-site administrator and conference planner, participated on the program committee, contacted speakers, organized a panel discussion, arranged for hotel, meals, conference venue, transportation, and a one-day natural dye textile tour for all conference attendees.  We went to villages to meet artisans and understand the complexity of the creative work of Oaxaca. On Sunday, 12 women accompanied me on an optional walking tour of Oaxaca with a focus on naturally dyed textiles. More about this in the next posts.