Tag Archives: culture

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 in Oaxaca: Teotitlan del Valle Posadas

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For nine days and nights leading up to Christmas eve, the Zapotec village of Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca, Mexico recreates the journey of Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem.  Each night they sleep on the road, which means they arrive at the home of a host family who welcomes them to their courtyard, then altar room, filled with copal incense and prayers.

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There is a huge feast for invited guests:  tamales, roasted beef or pork, homemade tortillas, wild turkey called guacalote.  I can smell the charcoal cook fires from a distance.

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The villagers gather at the front gate.  Hosts distribute tamales and atole (women have been cooking for days), men sip beer and mezcal, children blow whistles. The celebration is grand, festive.  Then, at around 6:30 p.m. the procession leaves the host home and passes through the streets of village, up hills, through narrow alleyways, from one side to the other,  until they come to the home of the next night’s host family and the celebration continues.

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It is both solemn and celebratory.  Women, men and children are selected by each host family to do the honors of leading the procession and light the way with handmade beeswax candles decorated with beeswax flowers, birds, and glittering pendants.  Followers cover their heads in scarves as if in church. 

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The men who handle the fireworks and shooting rockets are out in front to guide the way with sight and sound.  From all corners of the village we can hear them until late at night, and then again in the morning as a wake up call.  I arise at six to the blast of a rocket. Behind the fireworks are the altar boys carrying crosses, then four young women carry the palanquin of Mary and Joseph.

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On this night, our procession must have picked up more than 300 people along the way as the route passed through every corner of the village and ended at a home not more than two blocks from the one we had left.

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Up hill and down, across cobbled streets, we picked our, way careful of potholes and uneven stones and construction materials.  The streets were swept clean and watered so there would be no dust for us.  We must have walked three miles at a steady shuffle.

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Those who didn’t process waited in doorways.  The older people who had difficulty walking made it part of the way and then dropped off, as did the parents carrying sleeping babes on their shoulders, and holding toddlers by their hands.

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On the night of December 24, the baby Jesus appears in the altar room of the host family for La Ultima Posada — the last procession.  This is the biggest party of them all and it will continue through the night and into the morning.

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Visitors are welcome to join the procession.  You can spend the night at Las Granadas B&B or at Casa Elena, both excellent establishments.  You can start out having comida at Las Granadas prepared by Josefina and then end the night with a glass of wine or a cup of mezcal!

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A Word About Night Photography

It is difficult!  In the ideal world, one would use a tripod to hold the camera steady, avoid flash, use manual settings on your camera to manipulate the shutter speed, aperture, and film speed/ISO.  That means constantly changing settings for various lighting situations.  In very dark situations, like during this posada on streets barely illuminated, one gets a golden glow.  I also turned off the automatic focus setting on my camera and lens and used manual focus.  The lens has a hard time reading light and will not focus otherwise.  With my bad eyes and very low light, that meant guessing, which is why many of my photos were blurry.  Those you see here have a warm, golden glow typical of low light, night photography using a hand-held camera.  I was able to adjust some of the photos using Lightroom photo editing software.  We teach all this in our Oaxaca Cultural Navigator photography workshops.  We learn about the camera and immerse ourselves in the indigenous culture, too.

Oaxaca Photography Workshop Tour: Dance of the Feather, Festival & Traditions

Come to Oaxaca, explore indigenous culture, cuisine and traditions, and use your digital SLR camera to capture, record and document it all, including the amazing Dance of the Feather — Danza de la Pluma,   This is cultural immersion at its best!

July 5-13, 2014 — 8 nights, 9 days

The annual Dance of the Feather takes place in Teotitlan del Valle in July.  It is an ancient pre-Hispanic ritual rooted in Zapotec tradition.   Adapted and changed by the Spanish conquerors  to pay homage to the church, dancers today interpret the story of Cortes and the Spanish conquest of Moctezuma and Mexico.  They dance in full regalia for up to ten hours a day for several days before an audience of villagers and visitors.  They do not consider this a performance!  It is a sacred honor to dance — a commitment to church and community.  Two young women are part of the group, representing the duality of Mexican women:  La Malinche and Doña Marina.  You will see it all, along with the Parade of the Canastas and other related festivities.

Beginners to intermediate level photographers welcome.

Each day, we will meet in a morning learning session,  then go out “on location” to practice what you’ve learned.  You need little or no experience with a digital camera to take part.   What you do need is a willingness and desire to immerse yourself in the experience, and be open to exploring new ways of seeing the world.

  

You will join art photographers Tom and Sam Robbins, our husband-wife team from Columbus, Ohio, who guide our expedition.  The Robbins’ are versatile, experienced teachers and coaches whose work appears in national photography magazines.

    

Throughout the week, we give you access to private homes and artist studios to enrich and personalize your photographic experience.

  

You will take a cooking class (included) to learn more about regional indigenous foods and their preparation, plus have a tasty dining experience including the famed mole sauce and mezcal if you wish.  Photography welcomed!

The cooking class was great and it provided wonderful photo opportunities. The instructors are exceptional, and there are endless picture subjects here. I also learned the different functions of my digital camera. -Kellie Fitzgerald

  

We’ll roam the huge regional Tlacolula market where vendors sell everything from live turkeys, handmade chocolate, woven hammocks, and the kitchen sink.   On market days, people come from remote mountain villages to buy and sell dressed in traditional indigenous clothing–a feast for the photographer’s eye.

  

We’ll also visit a local archeological site where corn was first cultivated over 8,000 years ago before it spread around the world.

Most valuable for me was learning how to use the manual controls of my camera, learning about depth of field and the macro settings.  Norma’s community connections provided unusual access to artisans. –Dan O’Brien

Topics Covered:

  • Using manual camera settings
  • Understanding composition
  • Capturing light, shadow and reflection
  • Knowing more about aperture and shutter speed
  • Experimenting with black and white, and sepia
  • Exploring the essentials of landscape and portraiture
  • Using Lightroom photo editing software
  • Getting feedback for steady improvement

During the workshop, you will review each other’s work and give each other supportive feedback, with expert guidance and coaching from Tom and Sam. A group presentation at the end of the week will give you an opportunity to showcase your best work and select a theme, if you choose.

  

This is a walking expedition!  Instruction will include both formal group discussion and a learn-as-you-go organic, flexible format.

  

Preliminary Itinerary (subject to change)

Day One,  Saturday, July 5:  Teotitlan del Valle.   This is your travel day. Arrive and settle in to our village bed and breakfast. (Light supper)

Day Two, Sunday, July 6:  Breakfast and learning session. Explore the regional tianguis (outdoor) Tlacolula market. Group lunch at the market.   Afternoon on your own. Early evening “Best of the Day” show and tell.  Group dinner. (B,L,D)

Day Three, Monday, July 7: Breakfast, cooking class, lunch.  Afternoon on your own.  Group dinner.  (B, L, D)

Day Four, Tuesday, July 8:  Breakfast, learning session, best of day presentation.  Lunch on your own. Visit homes where young women prepare for the procession of the baskets. Meet in the church square and join the village procession. Group dinner.  (B, D)

Day Five, Wednesday, July 9:  Breakfast, learning session, best of day presentation. Lunch on your own.  Dance of the Feather begins. Group dinner.  (B, D)

Day Six, Thursday, July 10:  Breakfast, learning session. visit Yagul archeological site.  Dance of the Feather continues into the evening.  Group dinner.  (B, D)

Day Seven, Friday, July 11:  Breakfast.  Travel to Oaxaca city.  Afternoon on your own. Early evening learning session and best of day show. Overnight in Oaxaca. Lunch and dinner on your own. (B)

Day Eight, Saturday, July 12:  Breakfast, learning session, Oaxaca street photography. Lunch on your own.  Gala group dinner and best of week presentation.  Overnight in Oaxaca.  (B, D)

Day Nine, Sunday, July 13:  Depart. 

Optional Additional Days:  We are happy to pre-arrange lodging for you to come early and/or stay later in either Teotitlan del Valle or Oaxaca city.  See the registration form and prices for this option.

About Husband and Wife Photographers Tom and Sam Robbins, Your Expedition Guides and Workshop Leaders

Tom Robbins, a photographer for more than 40 years, retired as professor of architecture at Columbus (Ohio) State Community College.  His careers in architecture and education have deepened his love for, and understanding of design, composition and visual impact.  Tom and his wife, Sam, have exhibited widely and their work is published in “Black and White Magazine.”  In the last five years, Tom and Sam have made Mexico the primary subject of their photography and have visited Oaxaca and the surrounding villages many times.

A serious photographer for over 20 years, Sam Robbins calls herself a “photographic hunter.”  Like her husband, Tom, she is most comfortable walking and wandering with her camera at the ready. While she has done studio portrait work, she is happiest allowing photographs to present themselves.  Before retirement, Sam taught art, English and photography.  Sharing her passion for photography with others is one of the most rewarding experiences of her life.  Though most of her work has been with a 35 mm SLR, she also has shot with medium format and really enjoys using a plastic, toy camera.  Recently, Sam taught and exhibited at the Museo Textil de Oaxaca, where English and Spanish-speaking participants applauded her thoughtful, supportive style.  See their work at   www.robbinsx2.com

  

Dance of the Feather, Danza de la Pluma

What You Should Bring

1)     Your energy and enthusiasm

2)     Digital SLR camera

3)     Laptop computer

4)     Lightroom on your computer ready for photo editing

5)     Batteries and battery charger

6)     Memory card(s) and card reader

7)     Pen and notepad

8)    Memory stick/jump drive

Plus, sturdy, comfortable walking shoes, sun protection, sun hat

(Upon registration, you will receive a complete packet and information guide with suggested packing list and other useful information.)

Lodging/Accommodations are basic, clean and simple in the village.  In Oaxaca city we will stay at a well-known, highly rated bed and breakfast.

Cost:  The base cost for the trip is $1,795.00 USD.  This is for a shared room and shared bath.  Add on $300 per person for single room and private bath.

What the Workshop Includes

  • 8 nights lodging double occupancy
  • 8 breakfasts
  • 2 lunches
  • 7 dinners
  • Cooking class with famed local chef
  • Transportation to market towns
  • Transportation and admission to archeological sites
  • All instruction

It does NOT include airfare, taxes,  gratuities, travel insurance, liquor and alcoholic beverages, some meals and some transportation.

Costs, Reservations,  and Cancellations

A 50% deposit is required to guarantee your spot.  The final payment for the balance due (including any supplemental costs) shall be postmarked by May 1, 2014.  We request Payment with PayPal.  When you email us and tell us you are ready to register, we will send you a PayPal  invoice.

If cancellation is necessary, please notify us in writing by email.   After May 1, no refunds are possible.  However, we will make every possible effort to fill your reserved space.  If you cancel before May 1, we will refund 50% of your deposit.  We strongly recommend that you take out trip cancellation, baggage, emergency evacuation and medical insurance before you begin your trip, since unforeseen circumstances are possible.

To register or for questions, contact:  normahawthorne@mac.com

This workshop is produced by Norma Hawthorne, Oaxaca Cultural Navigator LLC.  For more information, see:  http://oaxacaculture.com

Day of the Dead 2013 Begins in Oaxaca

Visitors and local revelers fill the streets.  Hotels are booked months ahead.  The pre-Hispanic traditions of Day of the Dead — Dia de los Muertos — in Oaxaca are becoming blended once again as people gather for this amazing celebration of life.

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The Spanish combined ancient indigenous practice with Catholic All Saints Day. Now, as migrants return home to Mexico from the United States, the Halloween celebration and symbols from El Norte cross the border going south, and change happens.

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On Sunday, families and young lovers gathered on the Zocalo to play with balloons, eat cotton candy or crunchy glazed red candy apples.

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In late afternoon, we stumbled upon preparations for a mass in honor of the Virgin of the Rosary — Virgen del Rosario — at the famous gilded Santo Domingo Church, complete with village representatives adorned in indigenous dress participating, followed by a glorious fireworks spectacle which we saw from the rooftop terrace at Casa Oaxaca over dinner and mezcalinis.

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On Monday, the comparsa — or children’s parade — assembled on the plaza at Santo Domingo before marching down the Alcala.  

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Street vendors, moms and dads with costumed children, often costumed themselves, and tourists with cameras mulled around.  The band played and Santo Domingo was aglow in the light of late afternoon.  

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Two make-up artists were on hand to decorate the faces of toddlers, youngsters, teens and adults.  The kids sat patiently while large hands tickled their faces with colored pencils, lipstick and lots of powder.

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The walking street that connects Santo Domingo with the Zocalo was a crowd scene.  Fun, colorful, and sometimes I got the impression that the parents wanted to be there more than the children did!  A universal circumstance.

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Of course, food is a highlight here, as is cempasuchitl.  Love the food at Cafe San Pablo.  Well prepared and reasonably priced.  Shall we say goodnight now?

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Chicago’s New Maxwell Street Market: Little Mexico

When you are in Chicago and if you want a bit of Mexico — with her street food and open air tianguis market culture — make your way to Chicago’s near west side for the New Maxwell Street Market every Saturday.   The backdrop is the city’s stunning Loop and Magnificent Mile.

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Beyond the Loop on the near west side is a historic immigrant neighborhood where Polish-Americans, Italian-Americans, Eastern European Jews, African-Americans, and now Latinos from Mexico and Central America settled.

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The original Maxwell Street has been developed for a University of Illinois at Chicago expansion.  The new market, a neighborhood gathering place, is now located on Des Plaines Avenue between Roosevelt Road and Polk Streets, just west of the Chicago River. You get there from Michigan Avenue and Roosevelt Road by CTA Bus #12 or by foot.

Serving horchata and aguas de tamarindo, sandia, jamaica

Serving horchata and aguas de tamarindo, sandia, jamaica

In my days of living in the midwest, I confess I never made it to the Maxwell Street Market, known for its blues musicians, flea market bargains and once-in-a-lifetime antique treasures.  So, when I arrived in Chicago from Mexico City to visit friends on my way back to North Carolina and the opportunity came to explore, I said “yes.”

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The line for Rubi’s snaked down the block

Be sure you come hungry!  What I found were several blocks filled with street vendors not much different from Oaxaca’s Tlacolula Sunday market except on a much smaller scale.  The standout was the food vendors. People from all ethnic backgrounds, including plenty of visitors toting cameras, formed lines snaking down the street for tastes of savory tacos al pastor, steaming tamales, traditional aguas — fruit waters — made from tamarind, watermelon, lime and coconut.  There were at least four stands selling nieves, the famed ice creams that more resemble the intense flavors of an Italian gelato.

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There is also organized live music, and if you are lucky as I was, you might come across an old African American blues musician belting out a tune on a guitar or saxophone, reminding me of the Mississippi Great Migration and The Warmth of Other Suns.

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There’s not much remaining of the original Maxwell Street’s flea market atmosphere.  What I saw were sellers of new tires, perfumes, electronics, out-of-date packaged foods and snacks, nail polish and make-up, hardware and garden tools, office and school supplies, used and new clothes, shoes, records, and a few chachkahs.  There were few antiques per se.

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Dried hibiscus flowers

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Dried star fruit, papaya, kiwi, pineapple, mango

What attracted my attention were the dried tropical fruits, roasted nuts, tamarind pods, spices and chili peppers that we see throughout Mexico and especially Oaxaca.  I heard mostly Spanish spoken by buyers and sellers.  

At the food trucks and under the cooking tents, women prepared and cooked fresh tortillas and grilled corn on the comal, men tended the spit-roasted pork and grilled pineapple, a family displayed their made that morning sweet and chicken-stuffed tamales,  and young girls ladled out fruit drinks into clear plastic cups.

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The children strolled hand-in-hand with parents licking on a cone of traditional Mexican ices.  Neighborhood shoppers bought fresh berries from the few produce vendors interspersed between the aluminum kitchen utensil and car cleaning supplies stalls.

Pods of tamarindo fruit ready to pluck the juicy centers

Pods of tamarindo fruit ready to pluck the juicy centers

If I lived there, I would have filled my shopping bag, tempted by what is familiar to me and the tastes I love.  As it was, I settled for a glimpse into what it means to keep the culture through a reverence for its food.

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Of course, saying a prayer at the home altar to the Virgin Mary, a patron saint, and the Baby Jesus  will help ensure that the culture is preserved.  Locals shop for religious icons at the market, too.