Tag Archives: definition

Is Mexico’s Day of the Dead Like Halloween? Muertos Photos in Black and White.

Day of the Dead altar honoring our Dad, 2015. Selenium filter ala Ansel Adams

Day of the Dead altar honoring our Dad, American Federation of Teachers strike for fair wages, 1960’s, Los Angeles. Selenium filter a la Ansel Adams.

We just finished a week of publishing a Day of the Dead Photography Challenge over at the Facebook site I manage, Mexico Travel Photography. You might want to jump over there to take a look at some amazing shots of this spiritual celebration of life and death. Consider joining and participating if you are not already a member.

Preparing the grave with flowers, fruit, nuts and prayers.

Preparing the grave with flowers, fruit, nuts and prayers. Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca.

What everyone loves about Mexico is her vibrant color. Everywhere. Dia de Los Muertos is a celebration of life and death. There is nothing more vibrant than the flowers that adorn altars and grave sites, market life and costumes.

But, this post takes a turn to Black and White Photography.

Four crosses mark this family plot where generations of people are buried 10 years apart.

4 crosses on family plot where generations can be buried 10 years apart. Copper filter.

A friend asked me today, what is Muertos? Is it like Halloween?  My answer is definitely NO … and SORT OF.

Cloth imprinted with Day of the Dead theme for decorating.

Cloth imprinted with Day of the Dead theme for decorating.

Here is my short-version explanation: When the Spanish came to Mexico in 1521, they co-opted an indigenous ancestor worship tradition (Day of the Dead) and overlaid it with All Saints and All Souls Day observations. All Saints’ Day begins with All Hallows Eve, or Halloween with deep Catholic religious and spiritual tradition.

At Amate Books on Alcala, a selection of titles on Muertos.

At Amate Books on Alcala, a selection of titles on Muertos, Oaxaca city.

All Souls’ Day commemorates the faithfully departed and is most closely linked to the death and resurrection of Christ.

Skulls in the market. All altars have some form of them.

Skulls in the market. Most altars have some form of them.

The Spanish were very smart conquerors. Rather than obliterating the religious practices of indigenous people, they integrated observances to make conversion much more palatable. It is possible that Muertos was celebrated during another time of year. As with most other rituals, it moved to coincide with a Catholic feast day.

Sitting in mourning and reflection. Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca, Mexico.

Sitting in mourning and reflection. Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca, Mexico.

Before the Spanish conquest, Dia de Los Muertos had no link to Halloween. In recent years the US images of pumpkins, witches on broomsticks, black cats and gauzy synthetic cobwebs have migrated across the border as Mexicans born in the USA visit their family in cities and villages throughout the country. We see this blending of commercialism and ancient tradition throughout Oaxaca.

Calavera sculpture, cutting stone, San Pablo Cultural Center, 2015

Calavera (skeleton) sculpture, chiseling stone, San Pablo Cultural Center, 2015

I’m editing my photos first using Lightroom, a Photoshop editing tool. Then, I convert these photos to SilverEfex, a free black and white software editing tool now owned by Google. It’s easy to download. You can choose filters, film type and manipulate the histogram if you wish. I’m having fun with it and wanted to share what I’ve done with you.

Flowers in the form of a cross, covering a fresh gravesite. Teotitlan del Valle.

Flowers in the form of a cross, covering a gravesite. Teotitlan del Valle. Intentional?

In case you are interested it takes me from 2 to 4 hours to make a blog post. This includes selecting and editing the photos and then writing the text (or vice versa!) Thank you for reading and following.

Names, Identity and Change: Why Norma Schafer

Perhaps you have noticed, or not, that my name on the masthead of this blog has changed to Schafer. I thought I might offer an explanation. If you don’t care, just stop reading, delete this post and Move On. This is not about Oaxaca or Mexico or my recent trip to Spain. This is personal. In my creative writing and the work I have published on Minerva Rising, I have learned to write from the depths.

When I married in 2002, I took my husband’s surname. This is something neither of his first two wives had done. In doing so, I believed it would honor him and signal a strong commitment to this union.

Many years earlier, I had taken another man’s name when it was conventional custom and after the dissolving of this first marriage, I kept that name for a very long time because it also belonged to my son.

The man I married in 2002 became my recent ex-husband.  He was Husband Number Two. I was Wife Number Three. Soon, friends told me, there will be a Wife Number Four. I realized it is time for me to put that identity completely behind. Some said, it’s a nice name, you can keep it. But names are symbolic of something else.


As a woman, I have always carried a man’s name, starting with the name of my father. I never liked my father’s name although I loved him very much. It is awkward to say, lengthy, unusual and must be spelled at each introduction. For me, it never fit.

My mother’s family name has resonance. I experimented with spelling (just like they did at Ellis Island) first selecting Shafer. I tacked it on to the married name to ease into a public transition to change. How long does it take? Maybe a year? Do readers even notice? I wasn’t sure. Now, easing into another name is not an option.

What I also know is that I also want to reclaim my identity through my last name. The spelling Schafer makes sense. It means scribe, an ancient Jewish record-keeper, then later a theologian or jurist. I am a contemporary record-keeper of Oaxaca art, culture, history, etc. I document what I experience through photographs and words.

I researched various spellings of my  mother’s family name that has both German and Ashkenazi Jewish origins, and made a choice. Please join me in celebration of Norma Schafer and new beginnings.

Please let me know if you have any questions: norma.schafer@icloud.com

Today, I am leaving North Carolina, returning to Northern California to visit my 99-year old mother and sister, and then will get back to Mexico in early June. It’s been quite a journey.

Women’s Creative Writing and Yoga Retreat: Lifting Your Creative Voice 2016




Oaxaca’s Guelaguetza 2014 Thrills Crowds, Still Controversial


Tickets to sit close to Oaxaca’s Guelaguetza Auditorium stage are costly, about $100 USD per person.  Up high in the upper galleries, the seats are free and people start lining up hours in advance of the opening to be able to capture one.

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The controversy lies in the accessibility to this annual folkloric performance in an auditorium that can hold 11,000 people.  So, the government provides live video streaming on the Internet and broadcasts the performances on a big screen in the Zocalo.

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However, this year the Zocalo is an encampment, occupied by another demonstration of teachers who continue to protest poor pay and lack of support for adequate school supplies.  Since 2006, it has become much more than that.


In the political tradition of Mexico, this legal demonstration highlights the ongoing conflict between the workers and the bourgeoisie, those in power and those who have no voice, those who have access and those who don’t.

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Lila Downs sings about this. Diego Rivera painted it.  Jose Guadalupe Posada sketched the iconic images of this Day of the Dead Calavera Catrina mocking the middle class who turned its back on the impoverished.

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This is my third year to attend the Guelaguetza. Fortunately, my ticket was a gift this year. Each time, I think about what a privilege it is to be here.


The other controversy is about what Guelaguetza really means. Guelaguetza is not a folkloric performance as most visitors believe, but a way of life for indigenous people.  Full baskets of gifts for visitors is a symbol for the hope of there being enough — more than enough, of plenty — for all.

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Guelaguetza is a complex word meaning mutual support, giving and receiving, a way to keep communities intact, a way to honor ritual and tradition. You can learn more about this in the Teotitlan del Valle community museum.  It is why Zapotecs here have survived and thrived for 8,000 years.



It is beautiful to see this honored on the stage of the auditorium, replete with Oaxaca’s most beautiful women, handwoven textiles, music, and ritual dance.Guelaguetza2014-34

We watch mating and marriage rituals recreated complete with live guajolotes, and the teasing between young men and women from Pinotepa Don Luis. The women’s purple and red skirts are back strap loom woven with cochineal and purpua dyed cotton.


We see how communities like Juxtlahuaca in the Mixteca-Baja depend on raising, killing and selling cattle as they dance with spurs clicking and rattling.



That is why this performance never tires.  It is important to know, however, that this is a re-enactment of daily life.  To get to know the real Oaxaca, visit her villages and meet her people. Don’t sit in an auditorium with a camera and binoculars, and believe this is a complete experience!

Guelaguetza2014-35The evening performances end in a dazzling fireworks display!  It can be seen for miles around and went on for what seemed a good ten or fifteen minutes. This is only one of many images I caught. Yes, it’s a great time to be in Oaxaca!Guelaguetza2014-39


The performances happen on the last two Mondays of July each year.  There are two performances remaining, one at 10 a.m. and the other at 5 p.m. on Monday, July 28.  Go, if you can. It’s a magnificent experience.


Another Tlacolula Market Sunday: Guajolote Shopping

We didn’t set out to buy two cute, baby guajolotes. It just happened. An impulse purchase, you might say. My impulses tend to center around clothes, jewelry, or maybe a larger than necessary size ice cream cone. My Zapotec neighbors, on the other hand, covet what they can add to their barnyard.


Where I live in Oaxaca, one sign of a woman’s wealth and independence is how many pigs, goats, guajolotes, or chickens she owns. Raise them to plump and they convert to pesos in a year or so. Pocket money she can do with as she pleases.

What is a guajolote, you may ask?

This is a pre-Hispanic wild turkey indigenous to Mexico, named by the Aztecs, and preferred to domesticated turkey by locals in the know!


I had no particular goal in mind on Sunday, my last day in Oaxaca until June, but to pick up some little clay dishes made in San Marcos Tlapazola for my sister. She uses them as handy soap dishes. Some people use them for salsa.

The ladies of San Marcos ply the market with bundles of little clay vessels and figures wrapped in their rebozos held close to their bosoms. They also set up shop on the street, displaying platters, clay pitchers, tortilla griddles, and other kitchen essentials. I’m especially fond of their primitive figures.

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My neighbors had no particular goal in mind either. We wandered for a while. Then, they went shoe shopping. We stopped for nieves at my favorite Tlacolula purveyor Nieves Rosarita, one of the many stalls that line the street near the Banamex bank ATM.

Nieves means snow in Spanish, is like ice cream but with less cream and more intense flavor. My favorite is Besos de Angel with cherries, nuts, and fresh grated carrots. Truly yummy.  Especially when topped with tuna aka the fruit of the nopal cactus, not the fish. Next, we followed the abuela through the labyrinth to find the seller of Atzompa green pottery, and finally began to make our way out of the market back to the car.


Then, there they were. Love at first sight. None of us could walk away, though I must confess we tried. I even reached out to touch their silky smooth feathers. After a heavy bargaining session, not one, but two guajolotes had a new home. We could tell by their chortles and cries that they needed to be together and this was, in part, a guilt purchase, too.

On the way to the car, many people stopped us along the way in envy. Envy is when another admires something you have and then asks, how much did it cost. The humble reply is to always understate the value. This is not a boastful culture.


As they settled comfortably on the lap of their new owner in the front seat of my car, I reached out to stroke their long skinny necks. Their eyes closed and they fell asleep on the ride home. Definitely a first for La Tuga and me!


How to Felt Wool: For Beginners

Ten women gathered together at the Museo Textil de Oaxaca for a felting workshop with Jessica de Haas from Vancouver, Canada. All but one of us were raw beginners. I had knitted and then agitated my wool in a washing machine, but Jessica was quick to say this is NOT felting. Rather it is called fulling–which is the process of creating the wool structure first and then agitating it. Felting, on the other hand, is when you put wool fibers together to create structure.


The Felting Process

1. In a large 2-3 gallon basin, add room temp water and some liquid soap, about 1T. Put aside.
2. Cover a work table with bubble wrap, bubble side up, taping it securely to the underside of the table. Work on a concrete floor or outside. The floor will get very wet. Jessica covers her floors with old towels.
3. Put a bamboo mat on the table. We used a placemat. You can use a mat for rolling sushi.
4. Cut merino wool roving into 8-12″ lengths. We used wool that had been dyed the day before with indigo, pericone, cochineal, and then overdyed to get purple, moss green and brown. The wool was prepped by separating the fibers until it was fluffy. Note: merino wool is softer and also faster to felt.
5. Pull the wool fibers gently until you get a transparent piece about 4-8″ long.
6. Lay the fibers onto the bamboo mat In ONE DIRECTION each overlapping with the one before.
7. You can mix colors and do sections in different thicknesses. Patch areas that look thin.




8. For the second layer, lay down your wool pieces in the opposite direction. You will be creating a horizontal layer if your first layer was vertical or vice versa.
9. For the third layer, it will go in the same direction as the first layer.
10. 3 to 4 layers are preferred for strength and durability.
11. You can add wool, silk or cotton threads for texture.
12. The thinner your layers the stronger your fabric will be.
13. The cloth will expand when wet, and shrink up to 50% when dry.
14. Push the wool evenly into a square when completed, then cover with a clean piece of synthetic window screening.
15. Get a plastic bag and use it to dribble water –in thirds– over your screen covered mat.
16. Pat down each section with two hands u til wool completely absorbs the water. NO RUBBING. ONLY PATTING.


17. Use the plastic bag (vegetable bag) to rub the water into the wool cloth using a circular motion. Do this for about 5 minutes, keeping the cloth constantly wet with the sudsy water. The wool has to be completely saturated for the fibers to begin to break down. Remove the screen.
18. Fold the thin edges over so they are the same thickness as the rest of the square.
19. Roll up the mat with the wool square I side of it and then roll it back and forth in a rocking motion with two hands, using some force like you are rolling dough with a rolling pin. Count to 50.
20. Unroll the mat. Add water. Rotate the mat so you are rolling it up again from the other direction. Repeat Step 19.
21. Repeat Step 20. Do this process for about an hour until the felted wool fibers cannot be pulled from the fabric. From time to time, you can rotate the wool cloth inside the mat to make your cloth more even. Note: there will be wrinkles, but don’t worry. Just dribble more water on and these will even out.
22. Rinse your material in hot water. Squeeze out water. Hang to dry.



I’ll write another post about how to make a felt flower.