Tag Archives: dia de los muertos

Mega Market for Muertos: Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca

They tell me tomorrow’s market on October 31 will be even bigger in Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca, as everyone prepares for Dia de los Muertos.


Huge trucks filled with oranges are parked in front of the church. Vendors sell copal incense, at least five different varieties of marigolds, brilliant magenta rooster’s crown, pecans and walnuts, lots of handmade Oaxaca chocolate and pan de muertos — the special bread of the season made with butter, knotted and topped with a Jesus or Mary milagro.


Beyond the market courtyard is Picacho rising to a pristine blue sky as if making a special blessing on the village.


Later, I get water delivered to fill the rooftop cistern. Danny tells me his abuelos will be here with his family for an extra day this year, arriving from the underworld on Saturday and departing on Monday.

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It is a festive time. The cane branches will arc over each home alter to provide a door for departed loved ones to re-enter and visit their families. They will be guided by incense, the scent of flowers, the smell of hot chocolate, tamales and mezcal.


Death and life are one, integral to what it means to exist. This morning I hang papel picado and little cut-out-doll skulls across the patio. Vases of marigolds and incense fill the house where I live with memory for my own father and grandparents.


Soon, my son will arrive and we will join comparsas and family meals. It is a festive time in Oaxaca.

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Mystery of Muertos in Oaxaca, Mexico

Procession, Dia de los Muertos

Procession, Dia de los Muertos

You may have noticed that I changed the blog banner to a night-time Oaxaca, Mexico, Day of the Dead cemetery scene. Rituals are ancient, family-centered and mystical. Dia de los Muertos will start at the end of October and continue through November 3 this year.  In Teotitlan del Valle, the traditional November 2 cemetery ritual moves to Monday, November 3, because November 2 falls on Sunday.

Teotitlan del Valle, Dia de los Muertos

Teotitlan del Valle, Dia de los Muertos

September brings rain. It has always been this way. (The ancients did not worry about global warming.) The circle of life is complete and comes around once again. The rains bring the October profusion of wild marigold blooming throughout the countryside, coming just in time as Mother Earth’s gift to decorate altars and grave sites to honor deceased loved ones.

Copal incense burners

Copal incense burners

Muertos is coming. The season is changing. This week, the night air turned chilly and I wrap myself in a handwoven wool rebozo.  Hot chamomile tea is on the stove. The corn has tassled and is ready to harvest.  There is a full moon and the evening sky sparkles. Days are still warm, but the afternoon winds bring with them a whisper of winter.

Xoxocotlan Ancient Cemetery

Xoxocotlan Ancient Cemetery

In the next few weeks, our Oaxaca snowbirds will return. Visitors will arrive to experience the wonder and mystery of Muertos, and bring with them much needed tourism dollars that artisans depend upon.

Pan de Muertos, Bread of the Dead

Pan de Muertos, Bread of the Dead

In the central valley of Oaxaca, we will light copal incense, gather marigold flowers, decorate homes and reflect on the meaning of life and death, memory and relationships. The scent of the copal and marigolds help guide the dead from and back to their graves.

Sueño de Elpis-Muertos Marigold Art Installation

Sueño de Elpis-Muertos Marigold Art Installation

Portrait Photography Workshop Starts at the end of January. Taking Registrations!




Day of the Dead: Parades and Costume Creativity

In Oaxaca, the Day of the Dead parades are called comparsas.  On the first day of our seasonal photography expedition, color, sound, and the display of unparalleled costume creativity bombard us.


Frank Hunter, whose work was just published in the New York Times, and our instructor for this week, starts the workshop by showing photo examples captured using manual camera setting.

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We begin with simple subjects like the ancient fountain at the Quinta Real Hotel, once a Dominican convent.  Take at least five or six frames of each subject, manipulating the shutter speed one or two stops for each, advises Frank.  Then, you can see what the light will do.

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We are to use manual settings with a fixed f-stop of 8 and ISO of 500, and only manipulate the shutter speed to experiment with how might light to let into the lens.   Today is an exercise in light and what a fast or slower shutter speed will produce.


The idea of moving away from automatic is daunting for most.  So, the idea of using manual and making adjustments based on a greater understanding of how the camera works can be a challenge.

We could practice by shooting landscapes, objects, scenes, and details.  My subject seemed to develop into Maquillaje Mexicano.


As we approach Alcala from our walk through the city, first to Santo Domingo, then to Plaza de la Danza where the teams are building sand sculptures, we hear the hubbub and band personnel tuning instruments.

We come upon a competition among high schools.  They are to use recycled materials in their costumes for the afternoon Day of the Dead parade starting from the Zocalo.    The whole process of make-up artistry fascinates me and I linger to get as much detail as I can.


The staging was magnificent.  The groups moved slowly up the walking avenue, Macedonia Alcala, giving the crowd lots of time to take photos, show due appreciation, and dance to the live music.



There is always love on the street, couples in embrace, stealing kisses and today is no exception, even attired in painted newspaper evening dress.

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The visual frenzy is eye candy, a feast for the senses.  Zapotec and Aztec symbolism is rampant.  Corn goddesses stand straight and mute, careful not to disturb their heavy headdresses, while supplicants dance in circles around them.


Girlfriends take special care to paint each other and apply make-up that will be the most dramatic and daring.

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A revolutionary war hero on stilts cries the Grito as costumed campesinos accompany him.

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Yellow nail polish and chicken livers provide enough imagination to give me a chill and a thrill.

Building a Dia de los Muertos Altar: Send Us Your Photos

Wherever you are, I invite you to send me your Dia de los Muertos Altar photos. They should be no larger than 150 KB and sent as an email attachment (any larger and they won’t be considered).  One photo per person!  They need to arrive in my inbox by midnight, November 1, 2013.  I will ask our Day of the Dead Photograph Expedition participants to select 10 for publication here!  Meanwhile, here’s the start for my altar!

Casita Altar

For my Virgin of Guadalupe, I have a flying saint sending blessings over the campo.  It is a lithograph by Oaxaca artist Francisco Olivera.  Of course, there is a bottle of mezcal and soon we will add a photo my father who died in 1997.  My sister is bringing it on October 30, just in time.


My friend Lupe went out in front of the casita where I live and cut fresh cempasuchitl for the vase. I added chocolate made by Magdalena, Oaxaca mandarin oranges, and two candles.  Lupe added the little apples that she says taste like strawberries.  There is a field of agave for mezcal next door.


When I’m in Oaxaca tomorrow, I’ll get papel picado cut paper streamers, bread, nuts and copal incense to add.  We will need candles under the table and a palm arch so that the spirits can enter and exit with ease.  There are three levels to every Day of the Dead altar.

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As I get ready for the photography workshop, I went out into the fields near where I live to practice my f-stops in the late afternoon light.  Here are some photos to share with you.

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Day of the Dead 2012 Photography Expedition in Oaxaca, Mexico

7 Nights and 8 Days, Sunday, October 28 to Sunday, November 4, 2012Bill Bamberger returns in 2012 to lead this very popular expedition that gives you an intimate view of Oaxaca’s extraordinary Day of the Dead celebrations.

You get a taste of how the city and a smaller village celebrate.  Bill teaches in the Folklore Program in the College of Arts and Sciences at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and in the renown Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University.  His approach is both creative and technical.



Travel with us to Oaxaca, Mexico where you will explore the magic and mystery of Day of the Dead through photography– a feast for the visual senses.  This seven-night, eight-day expedition is a cultural immersion experience.  Come with us to document the food, religious symbols, people, cemeteries and family celebrations both in the city and in the rural Zapotec village of Teotitlan del Valle.  By the end of the week, you will better use your digital SLR camera for visual storytelling and cultural discovery.

We will accept 10 participants.  Last year we filled quickly.  If this is something you’ve always dreamed of doing, don’t hesitate!

This workshop is for beginning and intermediate-level amateur photographers who want to learn more about their digital SLR cameras and move more comfortably beyond the automatic setting.  Technical topics covered include using natural light, aperture and shutter speed, using a tripod for night-time photography, using bounce flash, focusing on details, photographing people and taking the time to set up your shot.


The workshop features documentary-style photography, which involves some degree of assimilation and a greater understanding of the culture and people you are photographing.  On this journey you will photograph people in their natural settings, experience local rituals, visit family environments, all as you immerse yourself in both the city and rural life of Oaxaca.


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.  We offer structured group discussion and opportunities for individual feedback with Bill during privately scheduled coaching sessions.


You will have the option to undertake an independent project during the week to document Day of the Dead family observances and rituals. Here is what 2011 participant, photographer Nick Eckert, created:

About Photographer and Educator Bill Bamberger

For two decades Bill Bamberger has been photographing people around the world and their daily lives. His photographs have appeared in ApertureDoubletakeHarper’s and the New York Times Magazine.  He has appeared as a featured guest on CBS Sunday Morning, About Books (CSPAN2), and North Carolina People with William Friday. His first book, Closing: The Life and Death of an American Factory (DoubleTakeBooks/Norton, 1998), won the Mayflower Prize in Nonfiction and was a semifinalist for the Robert F. Kennedy Book Award.

Bamberger’s work explores large social issues of our time: the demise of the American factory, housing in America, adolescents coming of age.  A trademark of Bamberger’s exhibitions is that they are first shown in the community where he has chosen to photograph prior to their museum exhibition. Closing: The Life and Death of an American Factory premiered in an abandoned department store a block from the closed furniture factory, while Stories of Home was first shown in a custom-designed 1,000 square foot mobile art gallery on San Antonio’s Mexican-American West Side.


Bamberger has had one-person exhibitions at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History, the North Carolina Museum of Art, the Yale University Art Gallery and the National Building Museum.  He was one of fifty-six American artists to take part in Artists and Communities: America Creates for the Millennium, the National Endowment for the Arts millennium project where he produced part II in an ongoing series about teenage boys coming of age.

Bill lives in Durham, North Carolina, and teaches photography at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and at Duke University.  He has lectured at museums and universities, and has taught classes and workshops for the public good in underserved communities across the country.  His ability to relate to people to draw them into the photographic experience as a subject is why he makes an outstanding instructor.  Website:  billbamberger.com

Preliminary Itinerary (subject to change)

Day 1, Sunday, October 28: Travel to Oaxaca and check-in to our lovely bed and breakfast close to the Zocalo.  Dinner on your own.  Overnight in Oaxaca.

Day 2, Monday, October 29:  After breakfast and a brief orientation, we’ll embark on a group walking expedition around the city, visit markets selling wild marigold, special breads, candies, and holiday ritual necessities.  After lunch we will meet for class, then enjoy free time  to capture the “magic hour” before dinner.  Options to explore  churches, street parades, public altars. Overnight Oaxaca.  Includes breakfast, lunch.

Day 3, Tuesday, October 30: After breakfast and class, we will arrange an optional guided visit to Monte Alban and the Atzompa pottery village.  Otherwise, you will have the day on your own.  We’ll meet in late afternoon to review our best of day work.  Overnight Oaxaca.  Includes breakfast.

Day 4, Wednesday, October 31:  After breakfast and class, you will have the afternoon free.  At 3:30 p.m. we will go together  to the famed Xoxocotlan cemetery for an extraordinary Day of the Dead extravaganza. This is a VERY late night, so be prepared!  We will stay until at least 12 a.m.  Overnight Oaxaca. Includes breakfast.


Day 5, Thursday, November 1:  After breakfast and a debriefing session, we will leave for the Zapotec weaving village of Teotitlan del Valle.  After lunch and check-in at our bed and breakfast posada, we’ll enjoy a village walkabout orientation.  Overnight Teotitlan del Valle.  Includes breakfast, lunch, dinner.

Day 6, Friday, November 2:  After breakfast and a briefing session, we will pair you with another participant and introduce you to a local host family for a cultural immersion experience.  This gives you the opportunity to meet people and share in their customs and traditions.  The families welcome you into their homes where you will share the traditional meal and go with them to the village cemetery.  We’ll see you back at our B&B after nightfall.  Overnight Teotitlan del Valle.  Breakfast, lunch and dinner.


Day 7, Saturday, November 3:  After breakfast we will share experiences and photos of the day before in our last class session.  You’ll have the rest of the day on your own to meander or prepare your Best of Week photo exhibition and celebration supper. Includes breakfast and dinner.

Day 8, Sunday, November 4:  After breakfast leave for your home countries.


What You Should Bring

1)     Your energy and enthusiasm

2)     Digital SLR camera

3)     Laptop computer

4)     Software for organizing and presenting images (such as Lightroom)

5)     Batteries and battery charger

6)     Camera Memory card(s) and data sticks

7)     Pen and notepad

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. To keep this experience affordable, we have selected accommodations that are clean and basic.  We will spend three nights in Oaxaca at a bed and breakfast featured in the New York Times, and three nights at a posada/hostel in Teotitlan del Valle.   If you prefer luxury accommodations, please consider a different program.

Cost:  The basic cost for the trip is $1,395. USD. This includes seven nights lodging shared occupancy with shared bath, seven breakfasts, three lunches, three dinners, transportation to the villages included in the itinerary, and all instruction.  Most travel workshops of this type and length cost more than twice as much! It does NOT include airfare, taxes, tips/gratuities, travel insurance, liquor/alcoholic beverages, some meals as specified in the itinerary, site entry fees, and transportation.

You will have the option of sharing a double room with shared bath for the base price of the trip.  Please indicate your preference.

Option 1: Double room with shared bath; $1,395. Deposit to reserve: $700.

Option 2: Double room with private bath; $1,595. Deposit to reserve: $800.

Option 3:  Single Supplement, private room with private bath;  $1,795.  Deposit to reserve: $900.

Option 4:  Add one night lodging in Oaxaca on Saturday, October 27, +$125 each.

Option 5:  Add guided visit to Monte Alban and Atzompa pottery village, $65 per person (minimum of 2 people needed).  We will arrange for one of the most knowledgeable English-speaking local guides to take you to this famed archeological site, explain its history and then take you to a great ceramics family of Atzompa.


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 August 1, 2011.  Payment may be made by check or PayPal.  We will be happy to send you an itemized invoice.

Please understand that we make lodging and transportation arrangements months in advance of the program.  Deposits or payments in full are often required by our hosts.  If cancellation is necessary, please notify us in writing by email.   After August 1, no refunds are possible; however, we will make every possible 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 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, contact:  normahawthorne@mac.com or call (919) 274-6194.  We accept payment with PayPal only. Thank you.

This workshop is produced by Norma Hawthorne, Oaxaca Cultural Navigator LLC.  We reserve the right to alter the itinerary and substitute instructors without notice.
Hand-colored sand becomes sculpture depicting Day of the Dead scenes at gravesites and public spaces; by Nick Eckert.