Tag Archives: culture

Annual Basket Fair in San Juan Guelavia, Oaxaca: River Reed Weaving

The Feria del Carrizo is happening this week in the Zapotec village of San Juan Guelavia. The last day is February 7. This annual fair is growing and this year there were hundreds of people on opening day, Sunday, January 31.

I have made this an annual tradition and this was my fourth year here. I love arriving just before 10 a.m. when the weavers are setting up shop and the cooking fires are roaring. This couple, above, still makes the reed fish traps. They make great lampshades or dried flower holders!

 

Just in time for a breakfast of traditional hot chocolate made with water (or milk, if you prefer). It’s a great accompaniment to hot off the griddle fresh made corn tortillas stuffed with yellow mole and chicken (above right) or squash blossoms , quesillo (string cheese) and mushrooms (above left). This was prepared by the volunteers from the Museo Comunitario, the community museum. Super Yummy!

 

The Community Museum is small, just two rooms and admission is by donation. Usos y Costumbres villages maintain museums to keep cultural history. San Juan was closely tied to neighboring Dainzu (now an archeological site) and Macuilxochitl (across the highway) was once the regional center.

Ancient map reproductions show this as well as a diorama of how salt was extracted from the earth by local women using clay vessels from nearby San Marcos Tlapazola. Villagers were active in the Mexican Revolution that hit the region hard because was dotted with haciendas that indentured indigenous labor, eradicated with the Revolution.

 

Of course, the food goes on all day and if you wait long enough and stay for lunch you can enjoy barbecue goat tacos along with a shot of Tobala mezcal (or Madrecuixe, as your taste dictates) straight from the palenque. Buy a bottle for 200 pesos, about 2/3 less than comparable quality in Oaxaca city!

 

The weavers in San Juan Guelavia work in river reed called carrizo. Their baskets were used by farmers, traders and cooks for centuries, long before the Spanish conquest in 1521.

Anthropologists have written and talked about the risks to this artisan craft of the Oaxaca valley. So much of the reed weaving is now replaced by plastic baskets because people everywhere love the bright colors.

But, preferred among the local ladies is the traditional market shopping basket –that round Carrizo basket with curved palm covered handle that fits comfortably in the crook of the elbow.

I use the low-sided baskets as “shipping containers” inside my luggage. I’ve put mezcal bottles and ceramics inside, wrapped in bubble, surrounded by soft clothes packed snugly and nothing ever arrives broken. Use a flat round tray to cover your stuff and secure with duct tape. Very easy!

 

Above left, the ladies prepare atole, a traditional corn drink. Mix it with chocolate for a special taste. Always served at festivals, it’s the drink of the Zapotec and Aztec gods. Above right, a grandmother ties the sash on her granddaughter’s skirt in preparation for the parade.

Above: This year, there were lots of necklaces strung with reed and bright beads. Some dangled with mini- baskets mini-atole cups (all handmade).

 

And, above right, toy trucks and airplanes and whistles for the children, bird cages and shelves for home decor.

 

How to Get There From Oaxaca City: Take a taxi or collectivo or bus that goes to Tlacolula. Get off at the San Juan Guelavia crucero (crossroads). From there, take a moto-taxi (we call them tuk-tuks into town.) The village is situated about a mile inland on the west side of the Carretera Nacional MX190 better known as the Pan-American Highway.

Happy New Year: Feliz Año Nuevo From Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca

My family is here for the New Year. This past week we celebrated with a mezcal tour led by Alvin Starkman, a pottery tour to Santa Maria Atzompa with Innovando y Tradicion and a family trip to Hierve el Agua and San Juan del Rio.

We ended 2015 with a grand New Year’s Eve fiesta and finished off with a January 1 ritual pilgrimage to Las Cuevitas to welcome the New Year with wishes. Here, everyone is encouraged to have dreams.

This year the sunset at Las Cuevitas was less than dramatic but the festivities carried on in grand style befitting Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca.  Like, close to the entire village was here. The band plays on and fireworks continue throughout the day and night.

 

We could call it a family picnic on the hillside but it’s much more than that. This celebration to welcome in the New Year is ancient. These grottos where three altars stand hold magical and healing properties. Make a wish at the altar. Then toss a coin into the small brook. If the coin lands on the plate and not in the water your wish will come true.

A wish for good health and prosperity, with candles, flowers and pesos

A wish for good health and prosperity, with candles, flowers and pesos

Mostly, people wish for good health. They might dream of a new house or a baby or a yard filled with farm animals, a good corn crop, the absence of drought. Abundance is a dream we all wish for, worldwide. We sent a prayer to our mom who just died. Lit a candle. Made our tribute.

The fire log toss, Teotitlan del Valle style at Las Cuevitas

The fire log toss, Teotitlan del Valle style at Las Cuevitas

Here young men play with fire. They soak a special log in kerosene and take turns throwing it off to the next one in the circle. A pre-Hispanic ritual, someone explains to me.

Families gather around campfires. Some have pitched tents and spend the night there New Year’s Eve. There are cooking stoves and the smell of grilled meat fills the air.

 

Each year on January 1, I always like to arrive by 4 p.m. to get there in time for sunset. This gives me a chance to gather rocks and join the locals to build a miniature structure that will symbolize plenty in the year to come.

 

Small plastic barnyard animals are for sale at the entrance to the caves. You can add these to the front yard of your house or build a roof with leafy branches gathered from the countryside. 

As sun sets, the sparklers twinkle and we get into the rhythm of the evening. It is festive and makes us pause to reflect on the past year and the one to come.

This year I had my son, sister, brother-in-law and goddaughter with me, along with friends, so being at Las Cuevitas was a special time. We made wishes, gave thanks, remembered parents and grandparents, and looked out onto the Tlacolula Valley from the mountain top.

More than a few of us played with fire. As sunset became night, the hillside filled with a display of light that could be seen from the Pan-American highway.

 

Wishing you all a 2016 filled with love, all that you wish for including blessings, peace, health, contentment and satisfaction. Thank you for being with me on this remarkable journey.

Un abrazo, Norma.

P.S. If you want to come and spend the night, make your reservations early! There is a limited supply of rooms in Teotitlan del Valle and I know some people were disappointed they couldn’t be here.

Happy Holidays From Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca: Procession on the Calle

It’s festival season in Teotitlan del Valle. It was a full moon, a large globe of yellow light illuminating the path and all who walked it. On Christmas Eve baby Jesus is carried on a pillow through the winding cobblestone streets by the patron of the *last posada. He is followed by a litter holding statues of Mary and Joseph shouldered by four young women.

A moment's rest. Christmas Eve Procession, Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca, 2015

A moment’s rest. Christmas Eve Procession, Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca, 2015

The procession is flanked on one side by men, the other side women, each carrying lit decorated beeswax candles adorned with handmade wax flowers. Firecrackers boom out in front. A man swings a copal incense burner. The aroma is sweet, intense. Children and adults tweet whistles. The drummer keeps the pulse of the crowd throbbing.

 

We pick up people along the way to join in. Some stand at street corners or in doorways. Even the smallest of children participate. Early acculturation to custom and tradition.

 

The timing is precise. The procession must arrive at the church exactly at 10 p.m. for the evening mass to return the figures to their rightful resting places for another year, when the cycle will be repeated again with different actors.

Waiting to kiss and bless Baby Jesus before the church procession.

Waiting to kiss and bless Baby Jesus before the church procession.

My son, sister and brother-in-law are here and I’ve had the joy of being a tourist in my own town for the last few days. This night, we got to the house of the patron a little after 7 p.m. to learn that the procession that would leave the house to get to the church wouldn’t begin until 8 p.m.

La Dueña holds the infant as guests line up to bless him and await the procession.

Being the wonderful, hospitable people that Teotitecos are, we got invited in to see the creche and the blessing ceremony before the group gathered to walk the streets of the village.

Outdoor comal or cooking area for food preparation

Outdoor kitchen for food preparation, Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca

My sister, a flautist, struck up a conversation with the band leader who invited her to join them at a special morning band ceremony on December 31 that will welcome in the new year. Start time? 4 a.m.!  I’m not sure Barbara is going to make it.

Along the procession path, a pop-up restaurant

Along the procession path, a pop-up restaurant

Tradition in this village is to have a family meal at midnight after the mass ends to welcome the birth of Dios Niño. This is a feast of tamales, wine, mezcal, salad, chicken, stuffed pork, turkey or whatever other favorite entree the family likes. There may be beans, rice, fresh vegetables from the fields, ponché (like a sweet fruit cider), fresh fruit and an extravagant dessert.

It is an honor to be in the procession lighting the way.

It is an honor to be in the procession lighting the way.

There is no big festival meal served during Christmas Day here like in the USA. Families relax, stroll, play games. So, I asked Josefina if she would prepare a carry out. Roasted chicken spiced with salsa roja, mixed with carrots, green beans, squash and potatoes, served with organic rice and beans.  Surprise, Lupita shows up with a gift of handcrafted chile rellenos stuffed with chicken.

Blessings before the altar at the home of the Patron.

Blessings before the altar at the home of the Patron.

We finished on the rooftop terrace with wine and a three-hundred-and-sixty-degree view of the Tlacolula Valley. The red sun vanished in the west.

Almost midnight Christmas Eve dinner, Barbara, Ixcel Guadalupe, Ernestina

Almost midnight Christmas Eve dinner, Barbara, Ixcel Guadalupe, Ernestina

*The Last Posada: La Ultima Posadais actually on December 23, when Mary and Joseph move to the Casa de la Patron for the final evening before the birth of Jesus.  The baby appears at this house on December 24, is cradled by the woman of the household, then is held by the patron under a canopy as the procession leaves the house and moves through the village to the church. This December 24 event is called La Procession.

Wishing you season's greeting with health and joy always.

Wishing you the season’s best with health and joy always.

Technical issues: My USB internet connection is REALLY slow these last days. It takes about 30 minutes to upload one photo! So this is a delayed post. Lots of intervening activities since I wrote this: The radish festival, a trip to Hierve El Agua, and a mezcal exploration to the remote mountain village of San Juan Del Rio. More to come.

 

 

 

Mascaras Mexicanas: Mexican Masks — Dances, Dieties, Identity

A new temporary special exhibition at the Palacio Nacional (National Palace) on the Zocalo in Mexico City features hundreds of hand-made masks from towns and villages throughout Mexico.

This is the same building that houses Diego Rivera murals, so if you go there soon, don’t miss this. Enter on side street through security, go to second floor.

 

I returned on my last day in the Federal District and spent about an hour-and-a-half learning more about Mexican art and culture. Open Tuesday through Sunday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

In ancient civilizations one of the main functions of ritual masks was to represent gods to worship them in religious celebrations. This was designed to support natural and social equilibrium.

 

In pre-Hispanic Mexico, masks served as elements of transformation that allowed rulers and priests to assume the identity of their gods during ritual ceremonies.  This helped bridge communication between the spiritual and natural world.

 The gold mask, above right, was found in a Monte Alban, Oaxaca tomb.

Sculptures, reliefs, murals and figurines from throughout Mesoamerica show ancient members of the elite personifying deities with the masks and attire that empowered them.

If you come with us on Looking for Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera Art History Study Tour in February or March, you can drop in to see this show.

According to the exhibition curators, since the time of the Spanish conquest in 1521, the invaders prevented pre-Hispanic civilizations from freely practicing their religious customs. The conquistadores imposed their will by force. The Catholic religious friars sought to supplant native ancestral traditions by incorporating Christian ideas into native rituals.

 

Despite these efforts, pre-Hispanic symbols survived and indigenous people continue to observe their ancient religion under the veil of Catholicism.  New masks arose from this cultural mixing (mestizaje) with an original combination of symbols that continue to the present in many regions throughout Mexico.

 

This provides continuity for ceremonial and celebratory traditions.  Many communities throughout Mexico, such as Teotitlan del Valle, where I live, practice rites and dances like Dance of the Feather (Danza de la Pluma) from viceregal times in which costumes and masks play a central role in the celebrations.

        La Malinche mask, left, called Maringuilla bonita, is from the Purepecha Danza de los Viejitos, Michoacan. Here she appears as a sweet, modest young woman.  To the right is Moor Mask from the Sierra Norte, Oaxaca, with eyelashes and red cheeks depicting cultural exoticism.

 

The masks are handmade from gold, precious stones such as jade, turquoise, malachite and coral, wood, paper, straw, textiles and other materials. All the indigenous people of Mexico, including Aztecs, Mayans, Zapotecs, Purepechas and others used them.

 

Sacred dances in pre-Hispanic Mexico were ceremonies of invocation that found resonance in Catholicism as indigenous people were folded into the Spanish concept of small towns or barrios under the sponsorship of patron saints.

  Right, Huichol mask from the Sierra Madre of Jalisco. The Huichol people do intricate beadwork.

Indigenous people adopted and venerated these saint along with their own ancestors and pre-Hispanic deities. Friars promoted village feast days during the liturgical calendar and introduced morality plays. These were dramas based on sacred history and events that focused on the struggle between good and evil.

 

Often featured in these dances are masks representing Judas, Jews, Moors and the devil. The purpose of this was to instill fear and respect in the local population along with the message that they were defeated and obliged to strictly obey the new religion. I have no personal evidence today of any anti-Semitism in Mexico, that continues to welcome dissidents and disenfranchised.

 MuralsSEP+Best81-7

We see in the Hall of Festivals at the Secretary of Public Education Building in Mexico City, many of these celebrations painted by Diego Rivera in his murals. Masks in this exhibit depict the Deer Dance from Sinaloa, also featured by Rivera.

  La mascara posee un extraño poder de sugestiøn sobre la imaginaciøn … es la sintesis, la               esencia de la deidad, del demonio, muerto o héroe qu se trata de representar.                           — Miguel Covarrubias

           The mask has a strange power of suggestion on the imagination … it is the                                    synthesis, and represents the essence of deity, demon, death or hero.                                           — Miguel Covarrubias

The exhibition takes a step beyond the traditional to include the work of Mexican contemporary artists who work in various media. This painting (below) by Frida Kahlo, My Nanny and Me, is on loan for this exhibition from its home at the Dolores Olmedo Museum.

Evoking Frida Kahlo: Making Altars and Shrines Art Workshop

The painting is part of this exhibition because of the masked wet-nurse representing indigenous culture that provides sustenance.

 

Also included are the work of artists Francisco Toledo (paper mask) and Germån Cueto (wood mask), and painters and printmakers whose names I didn’t record (sorry).

   

Today, we often hide behind the mask we present to the world as a way of self-protection, self-preservation. In the days before the popularity of mask-wearing for Halloween, the mask was a symbol for deception, hypocrisy, and lies.

Instead, we can hide behind a straight face, make-up, choice of clothing to present who we are — to project “our face” outward. It is interesting to think that an exhibition of this type can cause each of us to ask the question, Who am I?How do I present myself and how am I “seen” in the world?

 

 

 

 

 

 

Another Year in Santa Cruz Xoxocotlan, Oaxaca, Day of the Dead

It’s my habit, practice, custom, wish to leave Oaxaca city at 3:00 p.m. to arrive at the old cemetery (panteon) in Santa Cruz Xoxocotlan by 4:00 p.m. to celebrate Day of the Dead/Dia de los Muertos. I go there first and spend at least an hour and half in this sacred space. It’s just before the magic hour, before the light begins to fade at dusk. Getting there early has another advantage — a parking place close to the center of town.

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The old cemetery is magical. It houses the remains of an old adobe church with crumbling walls that are held up by wood scaffolding. The fading stucco lintel can still be read, dated 1648 and adorned with cherubs and saints. It is roofless.

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Yellow plastic do not cross–danger zone tape is a warning against entry. There is more of it this year. There are tombs inside. Last year a family invited us in to join them at an ancestor’s grave covered with flowers. This year, there was no one and I didn’t see any flowers. Perhaps it is now too dangerous to enter. I don’t know if there is a restoration plan.

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Some of the grave stones are so weathered they are hard to read. Other tombs are marked by simple crosses and mounds of earth. You can tell who still has relatives in town who will pay attention to the dead. Some graves are empty of adornment. Others may have a token marigold plant so the souls know where to return.

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We step carefully. Grave sites are adjoining and there is no clear path. If you aren’t careful, you can trip and fall. I stand against the concrete wall that holds this space to take it all in, look at the clear Oaxaca sky, think about life and death, and see an ancient Zapotec tradition unfold that pre-dates the Spanish conquest. I never tire of this. There are ancient bones here.

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Just as in Teotitlan del Valle and San Pablo Villa de Mitla, locals welcome tourists because tourism is essential for Oaxaca’s economy. Those in larger villages accustomed to visitors for Muertos usually don’t mind having their photos taken but I’m always careful to ask. In the smaller villages, it’s still awkward since tourism is a relatively new phenomenon.

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This year, however, what captivated me most was the changing, deteriorating structure of the old adobe, the arrival of the old and young together to tend to tradition, and the profusion of flowers.

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As I rounded a corner I found a four-legged friend who was barking, guarding her own treasure hidden beneath the marble roof of an old monument that was now serving another purpose — shelter for new-born pups.

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There is a profusion of homeless street dogs in Oaxaca. Most are never neutered and families usually don’t want females because they become pregnant. Duh! In some of the pueblos there is a growing movement toward education about animal protection/sterilization. But it is slow to take hold.

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At every cemetery throughout Oaxaca, families bring in bundles of marigolds and purple cockscomb, vases, candles, oranges and bananas, brooms to sweep up the dried flowers from last year. Often they use wheelbarrows provided by the cemetery committee in each village. There is always a water cistern close by.

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Don’t worry. You can buy candles, flowers and fruit right out on the street on your way to the cemetery. There are plenty of places to snack, grab a beer, and entertain yourself with amusements for children and adults, see the sand sculpture and an art exhibition. Wood-carvers from San Antonio Arrazola have a great annual display of alebrijes, too.

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As we made our way through town to the new cemetery, we began to feel a different vibe. It was beginning look more like Halloween and an all-night party. It was only 7:00 p.m. The night was young and the young ones were getting ready.

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Xoxo (Ho-Ho), as the town is called for short, has many wonderful murals on the Day of the Dead theme that are spray painted by street artists. This is a close-up of one below.

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At the main cemetery, mezcal is offered freely to visitors by those gathered graveside. This burial ground is a wide open space with strolling mariachis and lots of flash photography.

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We didn’t linger there long — long enough to get the taste of the wild and wonderful celebration to come later, and long enough to sip a mezcal with a family in tribute to their ancestors. Remember, the dead are only dead if no one remembers them and celebrates their lives.

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Perhaps this will be my last Dia de los Muertos post this year. We shall see. I hope you have enjoyed the series, and may your departed loved ones continue to rest easy.

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Tips to Participate:  Bring several bundles of marigold flowers and offer some to local people to add to the tombs. You can also bring bananas, oranges and nuts. This is a very thoughtful gesture that demonstrates your desire to share in the ritual. Smile. Sit a while. Even if you don’t speak Spanish and smile and nod of acknowledgement goes a long way to friend-building.