Tag Archives: Mardi Gras

Oaxaca Mardi Gras with Jacobo and Maria Angeles

It’s Fat Tuesday, otherwise known as Shrove Tuesday, the day before Lent. Here in Oaxaca, Mexico, we have our own version of Mardi Gras or Carnaval in the Zapotec village of San Martin Tilcajete.  The people know how to put on a good party.


A group of artists, collectors and supporters of Penland School of Crafts from North Carolina are with me and certified tour guide Rene Cabrera for a week. Our time is almost over but this is the first opportunity I’ve had to write a blog post.


Our days have been packed visiting artist and textile studios, attending workshops, rising early to get to markets, and staying out much too late dining in Oaxaca’s exquisite restaurants.

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Today we arrived in San Martin Tilcajete early to get a jump start on the comparsa that we were told would start at eleven in the morning. But, life in Oaxaca is on Zapotec time.  The Zapotecs know that whoever controls time controls the world.  In reality, the formal festivities didn’t begin until four in the afternoon.

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So we shifted plans, went to the workshop home and studio of famed alebrijes carvers and painters Jacobo and Maria Angeles. What was planned to be an hour demonstration of alebrije-making techniques became a full day of watching the carvers and painters become transformed into revelers and merrymakers.

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After lunch — anyone for a tlayuda? — several of our more courageous Penland participants were invited to join in the face and body painting to become part of Jacobo and Maria’s comparsa entourage.

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We then followed them down village streets, costumes with cow bells clanging, voices ringing in shouts, cheers and grunts, breaths panting, dust kicking up under our feet.


It was ninety degrees fahrenheit in Oaxaca today and this was no easy task, keeping up with young men painted to the nines and ready to party.  We sucked a lot of water to stay hydrated and pulled sun hats down over our faces in protection.

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The smarter villagers huddled in the shade of their doorways to watch the revelers shout and clang up and down the streets.


I’ve got a lot of catching up to do to keep you up to date. This week we did an indigo dye workshop and made shibori scarves, took a cooking class and made mole amarillo, visited San Pablo Villa de Mitla archeological site and entered the inner sanctum of Oaxaca artist Rudolfo Morales’ bedroom and studio.  We met painters and lithographers, learned about Oaxaca’s contemporary art scene, and tried our hand at making a woodcut. With a mezcal tasting, we learned about this Oaxaca art form and how this artisanal beverage is crafted.

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On Thursday, seven of us will be continuing on to San Cristobal de Las Casas to explore the art and archeology of that wonderful region.  More to come!

Fat Tuesday, Mardi Gras, Carnival in San Martin Tilcajete, Oaxaca

San Martin Tilcajete is best known for its woodcarvings.  Whimsical figures — human, animal, and anthropomorphic — are painstakingly whittled from copal wood and then painted in bright, magical colors by talented artisans.

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Often, the designs are intricate patterns that derive from Zapotec symbology or represent scenes from every day village life–a band of musicians, a farmer driving an oxen cart, an armadillo or a mezcal toting devil.  The main street is lined with houses selling the figures.  Go back deeper into the village and you will find more alebrijes made and sold by nearly every home.

Shuckiing Corn Mezcal Devil

San Martin Tilcajete is a farming community where organic maize is still grown.  Behind the alebrije store front we found an elderly couple shucking corn — small ears with huge kernels — that would feed both animals and people.  Monsanto has not yet completely intruded here with its genetically modified, perfect, added-sugar, large kernel/large cob corn — thank goodness!  We jumped right in to lend a hand separating hard kernel from the cob.

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But on February 12, we didn’t go there to look at or buy alebrijes!  We were there on Fat Tuesday for Carnival, when the pueblo becomes a revelry of cross-dressers, dancers, greased young men brandishing spears and wearing masks, and a host of village onlookers and parade-goers.

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Tradition has it that Fat Tuesday is the last time to celebrate before the Lenten season of austerity and ritual fasting begins.  Food and drink flow, music pierces the air, and imaginative costumes become living figures of whimsical carvings.

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At the end of the parade through the mostly dusty dirt streets of San Martin Tilcajete, the troupe and entourage assemble in front of the village municipal building where the president and master of ceremonies pay homage to the tradition and the participants.

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Then, the honorary bride and groom of the parade go to the village church where there is a mock wedding ceremony that culminates the festivities.

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We got there early in the morning and left by 1 p.m. before we withered in the hot Oaxaca sun. After trailing the desfila (procession) through the streets of the village we were ready for a bougainvillea covered arbor of shade.  Even on February 12, it was a really hot day.  We heard the revelry will continue well into the night.

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We found respite, a beer, and lunch at Azucena Zapoteca restaurant at the intersection of the road to Ocotlan and San Martin Tilcajete.  Operated by famed carver Jacobo Angeles Ojeda and his wife Maria, the food and service are both outstanding.  Then, we caught a local Ocotlan bus right out front for 15 pesos (12 cents) that took us to Oaxaca, in time to buy bus tickets to Chiapas at the end of the week.

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