Tag Archives: day of the dead

Death in the Family: Oaxaca, Mexico

It’s quiet. The sky is covered over with a blanket of thin clouds. Birdsong accentuates the space. Though it’s the end of June just before the solstice, the morning is chill. A breath of wind rustles the guaje tree branches outside the kitchen window. I need a wool wrap. Breakfast is hot oatmeal with goat yoghurt and fresh mango. I am conscious of each bite. Conscious of my mouth chewing, my tongue curling around my teeth, the swallow of sustenance. It is quiet. I feel the solitude. Perhaps this is the morning calm before the sky opens in an eruption of sun and heat, later to be soothed by afternoon rain.

She died yesterday. It’s as if she is waiting to take flight, her soul soaring skyward to the heavens, as her body is prepared by loved ones for burial before the procession to the cemetery. The street in front of her house is covered in a raised white tent, a shelter and a blessing on all who exit and enter. It is a sign to know she has passed to where the gods will take her. This is how it’s done here in the Zapotec village where I live in southern Mexico.

We know other life cycle events by the red and blue striped tents that cover patios and courtyards and streets. These are the happy times: baptisms, quinceaneras, weddings, birthdays and anniversaries. Life here is a constant celebration.

Early summer. Just plowed fields wait to receive indigenous seeds: corn, beans and squash. The earth is moist with rain, fertile volcanic soil is enriched with manure plowed under over centuries. Crops rotate. Fields go fallow. The dry season comes in winter to welcome snow birds. The rainy season cycles around again.

The band plays in her courtyard. It is a dirge. Familiar. Known to all. A call to the dead and those still living to pay attention, pay homage, give thanks, pause, embrace family and mourn. I climb the stairs to the rooftop to look out over the valley and the street where she lived. I didn’t know her well, only in passing. She was a slight woman, quiet, mother of eight, who battled diabetes for the past ten years and died well before sixty.LevineMuertos NormaBest11Xoxo10312013-6

Church bells ring. Sobering. Somber. Soon the procession will form, led by a drummer, followed by the band playing the dirges. Pallbearers will carry her casket, followed by women whose heads are covered in black rebozos. They holdy flowers and candles as they likely did centuries ago. They will walk slowly, thoughtfully, carefully, one foot before the other, through the cobbled streets to the cemetery where she is buried today.

The family will sit in mourning for a week, receive visitors who bring bread, chocolate, flowers, candles and condolences. A black bow will cover the doorway to the house. The bow will stay there forever, until it disintegrates in the wind, rain, sun, over time.

In nine months, her grave will be dedicated with a cross, placed in front of those who passed before her. Until then, it will be unmarked. When they put her to rest in the earth, they will move aside the bones of her ancestors to make a space for her. Her soul will return to visit loved ones during Day of the Dead each year following the scent of cempazuchitl and copal. May she rest in peace.

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2015 Day of the Dead Photography Workshop in Oaxaca, Mexico

Oaxaca, Mexico, is the place to be for Day of the Dead  and you will capture it with your camera: parades, cemeteries, family traditions, special food and decor, markets, fiestas and faces. Follow the copal incense and marigold trail. Starts Sunday morning, October 30 and ends Thursday night, November 3.

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Cost:  $995 per person. Price includes all instruction, feedback sessions, personal coaching and transportation to and from Xoxocotlan and Teotitlan del Valle cemeteries. Does not include food or lodging.  We will provide you with a list of hotels and B&B’s to choose the level of accommodation you prefer after you register. Then, make your own reservations directly. Come early or stay later, too.  We will recommend sightseeing and other activities!

  • Limited to 10 participants. Small Group. Personal Attention.
  • Beginners and more experienced photographers welcome.
  • Bring any camera: DSLR, iPhone or Point and Shoot!
  • Registration is now open!

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This is a hands-on photography workshop for learning and improving technique while you experience Oaxaca’s famed Day of the Dead rituals.  By the end of the week, you will better use your camera for visual storytelling, photojournalism, portraiture and cultural discovery.

Your Workshop Leader is Matt Nager

Matt Nager is a Denver, Colorado, based portrait and editorial photographer. We invited him back to teach this workshop after rave reviews for teaching the People of Oaxaca Portrait Photography Workshop.

His clients include: DISCOVER Magazine, Fast Company Magazine, Mother Jones Magazine, The New York Times, Smithsonian Magazine, and the Wall Street Journal. Matt speaks English and Spanish.  His work is at: www.mattnager.com

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His love for nature and the outdoors, as well as his interest in people and culture, is central to his photography. Before starting his own photography business, Matt worked with the Dallas Morning News and the Rocky Mountain News.

In addition to photography, Matt also regularly shoots video and recently completed his first documentary titled: Campania In-Felix (Unhappy Country) which looks into the rise of health issues in Southern Italy as a result of illegal waste disposal. 6_Zapotecs-7

This cultural immersion workshop tour offers you a deeper appreciation for the food, religious symbols, rituals and family celebrations both in Oaxaca city and in the rural Zapotec village of Teotitlan del Valle.

You will learn to:

  • Use natural light and respond to different lighting situations
  • Include portraits in your travel photography
  • Direct your subject through varying body positions
  • Identify your own photographic style
  • Find and execute portraits “on the fly”
  • Practice street photography
  • Use skills you learn through daily assignments
  • Learn more with one-on-one coaching sessions with Matt
  • Contribute to a gift for subject families — included in your workshop fee

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During our week together, we will review each other’s work, give feedback, and offer supportive critiques.  The workshop includes a mix of class instruction and being out on the streets to capture the action.

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Technical topics covered include natural light, exposure, manual camera settings and night photography. We will offer optional editing sessions using Lightroom photo editing software.  13_Sunset@Xoxo1a Xoxocotlan2014-14

Preliminary Itinerary (subject to change) 

Day of the Dead Workshop Expedition 2015

Day 1, Saturday, October 30:  Meet after breakfast at a central location in Oaxaca City where we will have a welcome and learning session, with a review of camera settings, exposure and using natural light. Then, we’ll hit the streets and local markets! Option is to meet up for a group dinner at your own expense. 2014DOTDTeoti-28

Day 2, Sunday, October 31:  We meet after breakfast. After showing your best work of Day 1, with review and feedback, we will have a learning session on night photography.  At 3:30 p.m. we depart for the famed Xoxocotlan cemetery for an extraordinary Day of the Dead extravaganza.  Matt is with us every step of the way for coaching and technical support. This could be a late night, so be prepared!  We will stay until at least 10 p.m., maybe later! Includes transportation to/from Xoxocotlan.

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Day 3, Monday, November 1:  You will have the morning on your own to prepare your best of the Xoxocotlan cemetery. We will meet midday to share our work with a feedback and learning session, then get back on the streets to catch the calendas and other processions. Some may want to share an optional taxi to San Pablo Villa de Mitla for their Day of the Dead festivities that start mid-afternoon

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Day 4, Tuesday, November 2:  We leave for an afternoon and evening in Teotitlan del Valle after our morning learning and photo feedback session.  You are paired with another workshop participant to share a traditional meal with a local host family and go with them to the village cemetery. To be embedded with a local family is an amazing cultural immersion experience to learn more about indigenous customs and traditions.  We return to Oaxaca city mid-evening. Includes transportation and lunch.

Day 5, Wednesday, November 3:  We meet after breakfast to share experiences and photos of the day. You’ll have the rest of the day on your own to meander and prepare your Best of Week photo presentation.  We get together in early evening for a Best of Week photo presentation followed by goodbyes. Please feel free to invite guests! Then, we’ll meet for an optional group supper (expense on your own).

What You Should Bring

  1. Camera, either Digital SLR camera with lens(es) — wide angle, zoom, and/or fixed focal point 50mm, or iPhone or Point and Shoot
  2. Optional tripod for night photography
  3. Laptop computer for photo editing
  4. External hard drive
  5. External card reader
  6. Extra batteries (2) and battery charger
  7. Memory cards (at least 2) and jump drive
  8. Pen and notepad
  9. Sturdy, comfortable walking shoes, sun protection, sun hat

(Before the workshop starts, we will send you a complete packet and information guide with suggested packing list, and other useful information.)

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Cost:  $995 USD.  Deposit to reserve your space is $500. Workshop includes:

  • All instruction and coaching
  • 1 lunch as specified in the itinerary
  • Transportation to villages included in the itinerary
  • Gift to local Teotitlan del Valle host family
  • Comprehensive pre-trip planning packet (via email)

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Not Included:  The expedition does NOT include lodging, meals that are not specified in the itinerary, airfare, taxes, tips/gratuities, travel insurance, liquor/alcoholic beverages and optional transportation.

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About Recommended Accommodations: We will be based in Oaxaca city for this workshop. We will recommend several outstanding hotels and B&B’s where you may choose to stay, complete with contact information and estimated pricing. You can also check TripAdvisor and BookingDotCom.  All reservations for lodging will be made and paid for by you directly with the hotel.  You are free to choose any accommodation you prefer, from luxury to basic hostel.  We will send you a list of recommended hotels after you register and make your deposit.

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Reservations and Cancellations

A 50% deposit will reserve your space.   The final payment for the balance due shall be made on or before August 1, 2014.  We accept PayPal for payment only. We will send you an invoice for your deposit to reserve when you tell us you are ready to register.

If cancellation is necessary, please notify us in writing by email.   After August 1, no refunds are possible; however, we will make every effort to fill your reserved space or you may send a substitute.  If you cancel on or before August 1, we will refund 50% of your deposit.

We require that you take out trip cancellation, baggage, and at least $50,000 USD of emergency evacuation and medical insurance before you begin your trip. We know unforeseen circumstances are possible.

To register, email us at oaxacaculture@me.com  We accept payment with PayPal only. Thank you.

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This workshop is produced by Norma H-Shafer, Oaxaca Cultural Navigator LLC.  We reserve the right to alter the itinerary and substitute instructors without notice.

Don’t let this workshop pass you by!

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Oaxaca Portraits: Photography by Allen Ciastko

Allen Ciastko came to Oaxaca People: Portrait Photography Workshop taught by photojournalist Matt Nager because it focused on people. An avid photographer all his life and retired pediatrician, Allen and his wife come to Oaxaca from Canada each winter to escape the cold.  He commuted daily from the city to our workshop base in Teotitlan del Valle.

Using the more portable and easier to handle iPhone, Allen was able to get some excellent photographs with personal coaching from Matt. Some claim that the lens on the iPhone is vastly improved and many people have switched over from using heavier cameras for the convenience of this type of photography.

Allen Ciastko, Kamloops, B.C., Canada

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Are you interested in a Day of the Dead photography workshop? Let me know by email.

Day of the Dead, Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca: Gate to Heaven Closed on Sunday

In Teotitlan del Valle, loved ones who come back to visit their families from the great beyond on Day of the Dead, usually arrive on November 1 and depart on November 2.  This year it’s different. They get an extra day on earth and leave on Monday, November 3.

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Why? Because the gate to heaven is always closed on Sunday, explains a local as we sit next to him in the small cemetery chapel with his compadres.  They are waiting to receive thanks and blessings from community leaders who approach them and the altar with offerings of refreshment and a hand raised in salute.

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The local man is one of the volunteer group that guards the cemetery, walking among the tombs to be certain that no souls, either living or dead, are in distress.

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Again, I arrive early, ahead of the crowds, while there is still at least an hour of daylight remaining. The cemetery is brimming with lilies, marigolds, cocks comb, gladiolas.  The scent of copal mingles with wild marigold. Graves are cleaned, topped with fresh earth, quartered oranges, pecans, walnuts, apples.  There is an occasional bottle of unopened beer or mezcal atop each mound.

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As the day fades, families arrive and light candles. Some unpack a picnic supper. Some sit quietly alone. Some are mother and son. Some are multi-generational. We meet young men on vacation from work in the United States to pay respects to their grandparents.  This is my village, one says in English. I was born here. 

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At least two bands are playing. The atonal sound of the younger group is endearing and seems to complement the duality of both this solemn and joyous occasion.

Portrait Photography Workshop coming up at the end of January 2015!

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Lots of people greet us, welcome us, invite us to join them in a sip of mezcal, offer us fresh oranges and beer. When I ask if I can take their photo, yes, is usually the answer. Where are you from? they ask. Carolina del Norte, I say. Welcome to Teotitlan del Valle, they say. I feel lucky to be among them.

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This year, it seems as if the village cemetery is especially vibrant with color.  I hear that Teotitlan del Valle wants to become a Pueblo Magico.  The paths are paved in the cemetery now, making it easier to move among the graves. The space is well-lit and tidy. It seems there are more flowers than ever before.

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Here, it is not like the Xoxocotlan extravaganza, and if you come expecting that, you will be sorely disappointed. Being here is a soothing, quiet, reflective and traditional experience.

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Why are there multiple crosses at the head of grave sites? Families have specific plots and every ten years a tomb can be reused for someone who has just passed. The bones of the antecedents are removed, cleaned and returned to the tomb alongside the next one to be buried there. It is not unusual to see three or four crosses planted one in front of the other representing the tomb’s occupants.

2014DOTDTeoti-23 And, of course, not only the dead get hungry! Vendors sit at the entrance with tasty snack foods. And, the band plays on.

2014DOTDTeoti-26My son is visiting from California. As we move together through the cemetery, we compare traditions here and in the United States, how we want our remains to be handled after death, periods of mourning, celebrations of life and the practice of laying markers. In Teotitlan a marker is placed on the tomb nine months after burial.

2014DOTDTeoti-25 2014DOTDTeoti-18Day of the Dead is an opportune time to talk about what is considered taboo and sad in our western culture. The celebration in Mexico is a religious syncretism of pre-Hispanic mystical tradition and Spanish Catholicism. It is unique and there is much to learn by participating.

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Xoxocotlan, Oaxaca: Day of the Dead Cemetery Before Dark

Before the crowds descend on the cemetery, before the tour buses and vans arrive, before the photographers with strobe flash and tripods begin their crawl among the gravesites at dusk, I arrive in Xoxocotlan.  Marta and Citlalli are with me today.

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It is the perfect time, the magic hour between day and night, when there is a glow that illuminates the world.

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Xoxocotlan on Halloween, the night before All Saint’s Day, has become a major party venue for Oaxaca visitors. By seven in the evening, the new cemetery will be packed with revelers who come dressed in costume, as well as families who sit reverently by the grave sites of their loved ones.

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I focus my visit on the old cemetery, Panteon San Sebastian, which continues to draw me back year after year. The space is small. An adobe chapel built in 1684 is now remnants, destroyed by earthquake. It’s ancient walls that still stand are cordoned off by plastic tape warning of peligroso, danger, caution. The tape is new this year. Who knows when the next earthquake will strike?

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Don’t step on the graves, Citlalli says. My grandmother told us if you do, the dead will grab your feet and drag you to the underworld at night.  We step carefully out of respect.  Some of the grave sites are ancient, unmarked, crumbling.

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Many tombs are marked with a date of death in the 1970’s. Citlali says there was a cholera epidemic then and many in Oaxaca died.

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I ask Luis Conseco if I can take his photo. His face is interesting, weathered. He stands upright, squares his shoulders. He says he wants to go the the United States to work to make more money. It is a dream of many. He is sixty-eight years old.

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He tells us that the shape and form of the tombstones signify the wealth or poverty of the person buried beneath. There were many simple tombs made of flat brick. This is all people can afford, he says.

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Things are changing in Xoxocotlan. The old cemetery is getting a facelift. There are men working on a new, paved entry way. The paths between the grave sites have been raked, leveled and cleared making passage easier, more visitor friendly. The outside walls are painted bright green.

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Locals, now used to having their photographs taken, look up in greeting. I still ask permission each time, though. And, it is fun to engage in conversation. Do you like visitors pointing cameras in your face? I ask. And, everyone laughs and beckon me closer!

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We even get an invitation to come into the ancient, crumbling walls of the old chapel where a man is decorating the grave of his grandfather. He takes us to the tomb of a Spanish priest resting behind a gated sanctuary.

Xoxocotlan2014  As we leave the cemetery, the groups begin to come in. I hire a moto-taxi tuk tuk to lead us out of town. The roads are starting to get clogged with in-coming visitors. It’s about six o’clock at night. Just in time to get back to Oaxaca for a dinner of enchiladas de jamaica (hibiscus flowers) at Restaurante San Pablo.

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But not before getting some last minute street shots before we leave. I decided to skip Atzompa. So many people, so little time! Welcome to Muertos.

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Portrait Photography Workshop coming up the end of January. There’s a space for YOU!