Tag Archives: Dance of the Feather

La Reina de Mexico: Celebrating the Virgin of Guadalupe

I’ve been corrected. The Virgin of Guadalupe is not a saint. She is Our Lady of Guadalupe, giver of miracles. In reality, she is the quintessential symbol of Mexican syncretism, combining indigenous roots/beliefs with Spanish Catholicism. In reality, she is more indigenous than Catholic receiving much more attention than the Virgin Mary or Jesus.

A few of the many Virgins created on Virgin Play Day 2019

As a spiritual symbol, Guadalupe, or Lupita as many call her, sings to us. Especially women. She is Queen. She is Corn Goddess. She is Mother Earth. Protectress. She is Tonantzin.

A Virgin in the making
San Martin Tilcajete woodcarvers and painters made Virgins, too

To celebrate her, regardless of religious beliefs or spiritual disposition, is therefore easy and fun.

Virgins come in all sizes, shapes and genders
And, now for the finishing touches.

In the spirit of fun-ness, I participated in a Virgin Play Day at the home of Linda Hanna, who has been hosting this event for years. This was my first time and it was a glorious respite from my routine (whatever that is).

Our host Linda Hanna with the Virgin she created
Don’t miss this Virgin of Guadalupe exhibition in Mexico City, organized by Linda Hanna, there until April 2020
Purely Mexican Goddess, the Virgin of Guadalupe

About forty women, extranjeras and Zapotecas, gathered in the courtyard to create our own version of the Divine Lupita. There was a wood form which we would spend the day breathing life into.

Calavera Virgins are a popular theme this year
I’m with ceramic artist Angelica Vasquez, Grand Master of Oaxaca Folk Art

Creating a goddess icon was easier for others than for me. Too many choices of bric-a-brac, magazine images, cloth, glitter, paint, and every other creative type of decorative materials you could imagine. I managed to burn my fingers using the glue gun, another first for me.

Four Virgin Versions
Ruth came from Philadelphia to participate

I was reminded about how important it is to take a creative day away from the everyday. It was good to catch up with women I rarely have the opportunity to be with. And, of course, the potluck interlude for lunch was over-the-top! There are a lot of good cooks in Oaxaca — even extrajeras!

Virgin of Guadalupe altar, Teotitlan del Valle church

Then, to put a cap on an already glorious day, at the end of the day I returned to Teotitlan del Valle. In the church courtyard, Los Danzantes de la Pluma were paying homage to the Virgin with their traditional Dance of the Feather. As evening descended into darkness and warmth turned to chill, the village gathered here in celebration of ancient traditions. Pre-Hispanic traditions.

Guadalupe, Queen of Mexico, honored in Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca
Taking big leaps for the Virgin of Guadalupe, Teotitlan del Valle
Doña Marina and La Malinche twirl in honor of the Virgin
This is her first year of a three-year commitment

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.

Parade of the Canastas and Dance of the Feather, Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca

Opening ceremonies for the Dance of the Feather in Teotitlan del Valle always begin with a 5:00 PM Monday convite starting in the plaza courtyard. Convite translates into banquet, invitation, feast. Here, it is a procession that by my definition is a Feast For the Eyes.

Today, Tuesday, July 9, Los Danzantes de la Pluma will begin their full presentation at 5:00 PM in the church courtyard. Tomorrow, on July 10, they will start at 12:00 PM noon and dance until about 8:00 PM.

When I’m here, this is a desfile that I do not want to miss. This year is special, too, because a new group of dancers begins their three-year commitment to church and community. They will dance at every community-wide celebration as part of their promise to participate.

We got back to Teotitlan from the city just in time for the festivities to begin. Young women and girls as young as three years old, dressed in traditional fiesta traje, gathered in the church plaza with their ornate decorated baskets to prepare for the parade through the streets.

La Malinche (l.) and Doña Marina (r.) flank Moctezuma

We were waiting for the Danzantes to arrive. They had left the home of the Moctezuma, the head of the group, and walked behind the band for about a mile to the church. You could follow their path by the sound. In full dance regalia complete with corona (crown), rattles, amulets, and a costume that combines Spanish and pre-Hispanic symbols, they were a sight to behold.

I’ve written a lot here about the syncretism between indigenous spirituality and mysticism combined with Spanish Catholicism which comprises modern Mexico — Mestizo culture. Malinche is the slave given to Cortes who was his lover-translator. Remember, she was a slave and had no choice! Doña Marina is the same woman after being baptized in the church. The conversion is an important part of Mexican mixed identity.

The procession winds through village streets for several blocks

My Note: The Dance of the Feather is a re-telling of the conquest story through dance. It is part of Oaxaca’s oral history. Zapotec, the native language, is not written. In traditional villages, it is part of the usos y costumbres laws and traditions. The dance has become commercialized and performed by professionals during the annual Guelaguetza in Oaxaca’s auditorium. Please don’t confuse the commercial folkloric dance, which requires expensive tickets, with its original purpose.

Canastas are heavy, difficult to carry

There were probably four hundred people assembled, including villagers who would follow the procession through the streets. Accompanying the procession were official representatives from each of Teotitlan’s five sections, each a sponsor for a group of young women, plus other patrons who provide the means to build and maintain their canasta baskets.

On-lookers and blocked traffic. Patience is a virtue.

All along the procession path, locals assembled in front of houses and on corners to watch and to pay respects.

The Dance of the Feather Begins in Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca

Today is the official start of Teotitlan del Valle’s Dance of the Feather, or Danza de la Pluma. It is a perfect example of how our village celebrates community with a promise and commitment by young people to their people, their church, their history and their culture.

The celebration honors the 16th century church, Templo de la Preciosa de Sangre de Cristo and its central part of village life.

16th Church rises above Zapotec temple base. Stones used for church walls.
Sacred mountain Picacho seen from church steeple
A beautiful day from the top of the Teotitlan del Valle church

5 PM on Monday there was a convite (procession) that began at the home of the Moctezuma and went to the church courtyard. It then processed through all five sections of the village and returned to the church. Highlights included young women dressed in traditional traje (garments) holding canastas (baskets) on their heads adorned with religious images.

Corona (crown) of the Moctezuma with turkey feathers, representing Quetzalcoatl

The young men and two girls who form this new Dance of the Feather group are dressed in their plumed headdresses, carry rattles, and wear clothing that suggests the syncretism of Mexico, the mix of indigenous, Aztec and Spanish conquerors. The dance itself is a representation of the conquest from the indigenous point-of-view.

A procession around the church courtyard before entering the church for blessings.

On Tuesday (today, July 9) at around 4:00 p.m. or 5:00 p.m. (I’m told), the dancers will begin in the church courtyard. On Wednesday, they will start around noon and continue until about 8:00 p.m.. Festivities continue throughout the week with a carnival fair surrounding the market.

The Mexican ram

By luck and serendipity, several events happened before the official celebrations begin. It happened because we set out from my casita Saturday on foot instead of traveling by car. In the church courtyard, a group of musicians were forming. They invited us to join them on the church rooftop for a symphonic concert. We climbed up the narrow, winding carved stone bell-tower where they would play to mark the official start of the celebration.

360 degree views of the Tlacolula Valley and Teotitlan lands
A slice of life from the winding stone church stairwell — escalera de caracol

From the top of the church, one can see and be heard for miles. Everyone knows what these annual rituals mean. It is embedded in life here.

Traditional and ancient Zapotec flute, sounds like a clarinet … sort of

After walking down to Tierra Antigua for lunch, we made a stop at Casa Viviana before heading home. Viviana Alavez is a Grand Master of Oaxaca Folk Art, known for her ornate hand-made beeswax candles. My friend Chris wanted to buy some to take to her new home in Ajijic. The longer, thicker ones weren’t available. They are for the Danzantes celebration, we were told.

Chris and Ben at Casa Viviana candlemakers

As we were leaving, my friend Natividad appeared in the doorway with her baby daughter Esmeralda. I asked her what was going on down the street under the big tented courtyard — always a signal for a fiesta. It’s the home of the Moctezuma, the lead character/dancer for the Dance of the Feather, she said and invited us to come over. Another grand surprise, my comadre Ernestina was there with daughter Lupita, and lo and behold, Viviana was participating in the food preparation, too.

Making masa mixed with cacao for tejate — at it for five hours

We were invited to the Sunday morning mass to bless the dancers at the church and then come back to the house for breakfast. What a surprising and great day!

Breakfast is hot chocolate and sweet bread — dunk in the chocolate for yummies

This is the early part of the celebration, when the family and closest friends come together in private ceremony. The abuelas enter the altar room to offer their special benedictions to the young people — another way to carry-on tradition, handing it from generation-to-generation, in a tribute to succession and respect.

Home altar here is more important than the church for Zapotec ritual of thanksgiving and appreciation. After the church ceremony, the head of household gathers everyone in the altar room for prayer in both Spanish and Zapotec, thanking God for family, community and continuity. This is cultural preservation at its best!

The cooking fires — how food is made in Teotitlan del Valle
Amulets, rattles and feathers on the altar, an offering to God, community and church

We then sit down to a breakfast of homemade everything — in abundance: black beans seasoned with epazote, hot chocolate, bread, fresh from the comal stone-ground tortillas, salsa. Later for lunch at 5 p.m. there will be Seguesa de Pollo, a tasty stew of organic chicken mixed in a seasoned mole amarillo (yellow chile sauce) thickened with toasted and rough ground maize (corn).

It takes a village to cook for the minions, including famous Viviana (right).
Eating Seguesa de Pollo. We use tortillas for spoons here!

Let the festivities begin.

The abuelitas — the little grandmothers, friends for a lifetime
At 4 a.m. men start the toro slaughter, to become barbacoa and consumé on Wednesday
We know where our food comes from — teaching the children (Arnulfo, left, Rodolfo right)

It is an honor and privilege to live here and participate in these rituals. Tomorrow I leave to attend and volunteer at the Santa Fe International Folk Art Market in New Mexico, and meet up with long-time friends. Then, I’ll continue on to California to visit my son, sister and brother. I’ll keep you posted along the way.

Thank you for reading and following! I’ve been writing this blog for 12 years. It’s been an amazing process, always filled with new experiences to share.

Teotitlan del Valle daily market from the church steeple

In Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca It’s Dance of the Feather with Basketball and HonkeyTonk Fair

Los Danzantes and the Dance of the Feather, Danza de la Pluma

There’s a lot going on this week in Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca, where I live part of the year. Next to the Church of Jesus Christ of the Precious Blood and the annual saint’s day celebrations honoring the church founding with the Dance of the Feather, there is a carnival fair with kiddie rides, a basketball tournament, and the daily market. To say there is a traffic jam is an understatement.

Today’s Danza de la Pluma starts at 5 p.m.

How many basketball courts are there in Teotitlan del Valle? Who knows?

At the lighted court, two teams are competing while a crowd looks on. Basketball is a big deal here. This court, next to the village market and across from the church was completed last year, complete with grandstand seating and a raised platform for scorekeeper and the guy who does the play-by-play.

Playing basketball under the shadow of the 17th century church, Teotitlan del Valle

The tournament continues through the entire week and attracts young and older alike. This is important entertainment here. A new court was recently built in my neighborhood and each of the five administrative districts of the village will field their best team for this event.

Ball is in the air. Will he make the hoop? YES!

Some of these young men are talented enough to play for the UNC Tarheels, I think.

Meanwhile, back in the church courtyard, hundreds of visitors are watching

This is the third and last year of this 2016-2018 group of Los Danzantes. It is particularly meaningful now as they get ready to pass the baton to the next group who make the three-year commitment to their church and village traditions.

La Malinche, Moctezuma and Doña Marina hold court

Teotitlan is widely known for its Dance of the Feather. Each group tries to outdo those who came before. They are all capable of high leaps and dizzying spins.

Exit the church courtyard to a world of rides and games

Bright lights, loud music projected via huge loudspeakers, screams of delight from children, and booths filled with all types of cakes and cookies are just beyond the church courtyard.

In the distance, we see the sacred mountain Picacho, but who is paying attention? Surely not those who are playing bingo for a chance to win a large plastic trash pail or those tossing the ring with the hope to land a teddy bear.

Family and friends enjoying nieves, Oaxaca version of ice cream

Families and lovers stroll holding ice cream cones, called nieves here. The word means snow. This treat is more like sorbet or gelato. Moms and dads watch over their children who are deep into the moment.

A commitment to recycling, organic and inorganic waste baskets

I’m with my host family. We stop for esquites and boiled corn cob on a stick.  Both are slathered with mayonnaise, shredded cheese, lime juice, hot sauce and chili pepper.

Slathered corn cob on a stick, a Mexican favorite

The esquite maker — an art form, too

Back in the church courtyard, a mezcal toast — salud!

The tradition here is to give and receive guelaguetza, which represents mutual and community support. This includes the significance of gifting mezcal, fruit, bread and chocolate representing abundance for all. It is the responsibility of those more fortunate to help those in need, especially family members.

Members of the church committee distribute fruit to audience members

Stray dog stops play for a moment

Back at the basketball court, the tournament comes to a stop, interrupted by one of the many roaming dogs in the village that is searching for a scrap of food.

Shadows grow longer as the sun descends

The dancers have danced since 1 p.m. It is almost past eight o-clock in the evening. They take breaks with rest, water and Gatorade. There has been no rain so far, so this year the dancing has been a bit easier as temperatures hover in the low eighties (fahrenheit).

Moms watch their children at the rides.

This is a huge regional festival. People from other villages come to enjoy the party. Here, a group of women from Santa Ana del Valle watch their children and take a respite. I can tell where they are from by their elaborate aprons and pleated skirts, a different costume than what traditional women in our village wear.

The grand finale, a prayer by the dancers in the church courtyard

Inside the church, long lines to pay tribute to the altar of the patron saint

Night descends and fiesta-goers shift from church to the adjacent carnival