Tag Archives: las cuevitas

All Night Party Called Las Cuevitas

Seven years ago I wrote one of my first blog posts called Sunset at Las Cuevitas. Las Cuevitas is an annual Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca, Mexico tradition that draws the entire pueblo to the caves up in the grassy, nopal cactus dotted hills beyond the village.  Festivities start on the night of December 31 and continue through November 3.

Sunset at Las Cuevitas 2014

Sunset at Las Cuevitas 2014

This is a rocky, sacred pre-Hispanic ritual site now holds a small chapel.  Three three niches form altars where offerings are made and prayers are whispered. Families come to sleep in the open air or under tarps held high by poles or pitch tents.  Others come for the day and stay well into the night, bringing chairs, blankets and picnic baskets.  Vendors sell all types of snacks and food lest you come or get hungry: sugar wafers, just made French fries drizzled with chili salsa, tamales, even donuts.

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As the sun begins to set, the warm afternoon turns to chill.  Women wrap themselves in wool shawls or put on sweaters and bundle up their children.   Men wear jackets and baseball caps.  The line to enter the grotto snakes down the dusty path lined with sellers of hand-embroidered tortilla covers, copper bracelets for good health, and quesadillas made on wood-fired comals.

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The mood is festive.  At five in the afternoon an outdoor mass begins at the grotto. Then the band plays.  We sit on the hillside and watch pre-teen boys strike matches to light sparklers and fire balls, while others construct rock houses and make roofs of twigs and dried grass.  Everyone is eating something.

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Today the new president begins his three-year term, a voluntary and elected position.  The newly initiated volunteer police force that starts their one-year service term today are present to keep the peace, more symbol than necessity.

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On the hillsides, campfires burn, rockets shoot skyward, balloons and papel picado separate earth from sky.

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As we approach the grotto to add our candles, prayers, and offerings, I see that we are in the perfect spot for the upcoming fireworks display, a perfect ending to my perfect day in southern Mexico.  The celebration will continue through the night, all day and night on January 2, and end on January 3.  Good things come in three’s here.


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I was so close, I had to stay out of the raining hot cinders.  The cracking sounds were deafening.  It was an amazing spectacle to see a man dancing, holding a cow above his head spewing circles of light.  TheN two men followed holding female figures high as the fireworks circled and the crowd was mesmerized.  The band played on.

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Next?  That brings us up to Day of the Three Kings, January 6, when we will find the markets filled with round holiday breads infused with candied fruits and several little plastic baby Jesus figures.  The bread is called rosca de reyes, and Mexican children will receive their Christmas gifts on this day.  Whoever gets the baby Jesus is obligated to host a tamale party on February 2, Dia de la Candelaria, the last event associated with Christmas.

May the party continue!



There were fewer than ten extranjeros (foreigners) in the crowd.  Most of us who were there are connected to local families and live on their land or rent from them. Las Cuevitas is probably the closest thing I can think of to July 4th as a family day of picnicking, partying, and enjoying life.

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And, don’t you agree, Omar’s smile is like a brilliant sunset!


Las Cuevitas: Building New Year Dreams

New Year wishes and dreams come in many forms.  In the U.S.A. we open a bottle of bubbly, raise a toast  and dance the night away.  For some, the ritual for watching the New Year arrive involves peering into the television to party-on with Times Square revelers.  Some of us may get really serious and make a list of resolutions that require dedicated devotion to change.  This can be a time of celebration, of renewal and of making and attempting to keep commitments.  A noble endeavor.

Teoti Las Cuevitas Family Sparkler

I remember growing up in Los Angeles and crawling out of bed to join my little sister and brother in front of the television to watch the Pasadena Rose Parade.  We dreamt of being there, of getting a great curbside view of the pageantry, the floats, the horsemanship of bygone T.V. cowboys who we adored.   We lived twenty miles away but the early morning January 1 ritual of snuggling in front of the television was our way of welcoming in the new year as children. Eventually, both my brother and sister marched in that parade when their high school bands won the competition to participate.  I was their cheerleader.


Each year as the clock counts down and the calendar page turns, we can take part in the process to pause, assess, and reevaluate what is important in our lives.  It can be a turning point, a marker, an opportunity and a blessing.  New Years celebrations are universal and timed to different cycles.   Chinese New Year  marks the end of winter when celebrants decorate with red paper cut-outs, forget grudges and wish each other peace and happiness.   Ramadan is the most sacred for observers of Islam, when the focus is on spiritual reflection, improvement and increased devotion and worship.   For Jews, Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, offers an opportunity to amend behavior and seek forgiveness for wrongs done.  Many traditions mark an annual observance to acknowledge the mysteries of life, to rebuild, rededicate and look to a better future.

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In Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca, Mexico, each year on January 1 and January 2, villagers begin the annual cultural and religious festivities known as Las Cuevitas.  After a family meal, they process together  en mass as a community to the caves in the foothills beyond the pueblo.  Clustered in extended family groupings, they approach the grotto where the virgin appeared, make an offering and a new year wish, then move inside the serene on-site chapel to give and receive blessings.  In years past we have participated, joining our adopted Teotitlan del Valle family to find a suitable rocky outcropping to gather rocks and build our dreams.

Sparklers at Las Cuevitas Building the Casita

Dreams take the physical form of houses, barns, cars, a new plow.  But the dream is also spiritual and along with firecrackers and food, the altar is the hillside where the collective assembles to give prayer in hope for a better world for families, loved ones, and extended community.


Today in North Carolina we will move through our farm, gather rocks, sticks and branches, and leaves.  We will build another house in symbolic solidarity with our Mexican friends and land that we love.

Happiest new year to you all.  May your dreams be filled with abundance, peace and well-being, good health and contentment.  May your family and friends be surrounded by warmth, generosity and hope.  Welcome 2013.   Feliz y prospero año nuevo.

Papel Picado at Las Cuevitas


Feliz Navidad: Christmas in Oaxaca

The winter solstice is upon us and there is a sliver of moon hanging in the sky like an oyster shell, illuminated and alluring. In the southern part of the northern hemisphere Oaxaca is celebrating Christmas with her traditional pomp, ceremony, somber ritual and ubiquitous brass band.  From the city to the villages,  women are preparing tamales with mole, patting the corn tortillas, and simmering the guacalote (indigenous turkey) for the feast day.  The wood fires curl skyward from the comal where the tortillas will cook. Children will run underfoot and bring ingredients or utensils.  Men will sit with a beer or mescal after their work at the loom or wood carving table.  They will all gather at the church for La Ultima Posada (the last procession on Christmas eve) where there will be an all-night celebration after Baby Jesus is rightfully restored to the manger of his birth.

Here are some of my favorite scenes of Christmas in Oaxaca to share with you:  Feliz Navidad — Happiest Holidays.  May all your seasons be filled with peace, joy and love.  -Norma

Weekly Photo Challenge: Possibility

Sunset at Las Cuevitas

New Year’s in Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca, is an extraordinary, momentous and reflective time when families gather to make wishes for the coming year.  The celebration is on January 2 when the entire village makes a pilgrimage to the caves (las cuevitas) or grottoes in the hills outside the town.  There, they make an offering to the Virgin of Guadalupe for the hopes, dreams and possibilities of the year to come.  From the twigs, rocks and grasses, families will construct a symbolic house, adding a roof or a garden or barnyard or a new addition or a second floor.  Everyone wants to create a home that holds children, grandchildren, grandparents, aunts and uncles.  This is a sign of both satisfaction and wealth.

This photo captures the mystery of the Las Cuevitas annual ritual.  As the sun sets and the people gather, the possibilities for the future are luminous.

Las Cuevitas Sparkler

The boy sits by the “house” made of rocks contemplating his future.  A sparkler lights the space.  Are the possibilities limitless for him?  Oaxaca is the second poorest state in Mexico and many young people migrate to the cities or El Norte looking for work.  Perhaps he will stay in the village and work construction or weave like his father or grandfather before him or plow his father’s fields and plant them with organic indigenous maize.  Will he dream of going on to high school?  Perhaps. And, then, what possibilities will open to him?

A family wishes for bright possibilities

Circle of Women, a not-for-profit advocacy organization, says, “Oaxaca, being a mainly indigenous state, has one of the lowest literacy rates in Mexico, and literacy among indigenous adult women is even lower. Historically there has been a major bias towards Spanish literacy in education, leaving indigenous languages marginalized. Migration to the US for jobs has also left women as heads of households. Illiteracy and discrimination has been a major barrier for women in trying to market their weaving products and create sustainable micro-businesses.”

See our Oaxaca arts workshops:  Christmas and New Year’s photojournalism workshop, Day of the Dead documentary photography, creative writing, and more.


Las Cuevitas 2010

We arrived late in the afternoon at that magic hour between daylight and sunset when everything is aglow.  Village people had been gathering on the mountainside behind the village since last night, many of them camping overnight.  There are some shallow caves there that are holy altars and each year a pilgrimage takes place to this spot where families gather, eat, take the rocks from the hillside and build miniature structures that represent the grand houses they wish for.  Everyone wants a house and everyone wants their house that is under construction to be complete.  This is what dreams are made of and the biggest dream for a Teotiteco family is to have a large casa where all the extended family of multi-generations can live together comfortably.

As we got in line to make our wishes at the altar, I saw this stunning, tall woman coming out of the small hillside chapel.  She was dressed like an angel in a gorgeous handwoven silk and wool sarape.  I got as close as I could to take photos of this incredible garment, which you will see in the gallery above.  Today, I found out that this was woven by my friend Tito Mendoza and the person wearing it was none other than Lila Downs.

This year, Federico and Stephen gathered rocks helped by Dolores, Janet and me, and completed the houses we have had under construction for two years as miniatures right before our eyes, complete with garden, roofs, courtyards, driveway and fencing surrounding the property.  Others sat alongside their completed rock houses, nibbling on sweets or drinking beer, or lighting bonfires and shooting off firecrackers.  By the time it was dark, the hillside was aglow with firelight, families gathered together, contemplating their dreams.