Tag Archives: Mitla

Finding Meaning: Day of the Dead Inspiration for Women’s Writing Workshop

We gathered in Teotitlan del Valle on October 30 for the Women’s Creative Writing Retreat to find meaning, reflect on life and death through the written word. Some of us were mourning recent losses: husbands, mothers, fathers, and yes, even self. There are those other kinds of losses as we age, lose memory, become infirm, face our own mortality.

Elaborate Day of the Dead altar, San Pablo Villa de Mitla, Oaxaca

Being here during Day of the Dead offers perspective on the Zapotec and Mexican way, gives us a point of comparison to our own culture. Mexican poet Octavio Paz says, A culture that celebrates death knows how to celebrate life. We find spiritual meaning here in the notion that life is a continuum. Our references are the deeply incised stone images at the Mitla archeological site, stones embedded in the walls of the Teotitlan church built by the conquerors with remains from the Zapotec temple, depicting infinity, regeneration.

Mitla woman guiding her difuntos home with copal incense

On October 31, we go to the market to buy bread, candles, chocolate, fruit, tamales, beverages and flowers. We build an altar with these and place photos of our loved ones there. In the doing is the remembering. One of us buys sugar cane branches that will serve as the door from which the ancestors will enter and exit earth from the spirit world, a Zapotec tradition. They will visit us, too, for the 24-hour period called Dia de los Muertos.

Our altar to bring our own loved ones back — memory is powerful!

Our journey into remembering continues with a visit to the cemetery in San Pablo Villa de Mitla with Arturo Hernandez. He takes us to his mother’s tomb. Day of the Dead is practiced in this village differently than the one I live in where our workshop is held.

Panteon (cemetery), San Pablo Villa de Mitla

On November 1 in the morning, Mitla villagers lovingly tidy up the grave sites, removing spent flowers and adding new. They entice the dead to return to earth by burning aromatic copal incense, scattering fresh marigold flowers, placing sliced oranges and apples or an open bottle of Coke on the tomb. Aromas awaken the dead. At eleven in the morning, the cemetery is packed with people.

The tomb of Maria G, a child who died February 5, 1996. Remembered.

At twelve o’clock noon, the church bells toll and the cohetes (firecrackers) explode. This gives the dead an extra jolt to get up from their slumber to visit. One of us reports seeing a youngster leaning over a tomb and speaking softly. I explain that the tradition here in Oaxaca is to ask the dead for their advice, to commune with them, to respect their wisdom. There is a spiritual loveliness to this that evokes generational connection, I think.

Making a marigold path to help the difuntos find their way home

In our science-based western culture, we often eschew that which we know is impossible. The literal practice of talking to dead parents or grandparents is seen as abnormal, primitive, uneducated. But there is much to learn from other traditions, and that is why we are here. The experience opens us up to write about memory, family, loss.

By noon, the people of Mitla are exiting the cemetery, carrying bundles of marigold flowers so large that you can hardly see their bodies. Girls carry baskets filled with marigold petals, dropping them in a path of petals from the grave along the streets to their home altar. Men and women scurry, carrying ceramic incense burners, leaving a smoky aromatic trail. The idea is for the aroma to guide the difuntos home for this annual re-visit. Families walk together, grandparents, mothers, fathers, children. Some have returned to the village from far away places to honor and participate in this sacred tradition.

Robin, Debbie and Amy looking down at courtyard

We move to the home of Epifanio Perez whose elaborate altar draws visitors to enjoy the atmosphere and his daughter Reyna’s house made hot chocolate, bread and chicken barbecue. We sit and marvel at the piles of bread on the altar, the candle — an eternal flame, the fragrant wild flowers of the campo, the spectacle of yellow marigold blossoms, the memories it conjures up for us.

In the courtyard, writing professor Robin Greene (r) talks with Claudia

We return to Teotitlan to our base, to write, to read what we have written to each other, to understand our own feelings around celebration and honoring those we have lost. We experience grief, yet we can share this approach to death with equanimity as the Zapotecs do, with acceptance that without death there is no life.

Abundant bouquet in vintage vase

Ultimately, this leads me to looking at and accepting my own mortality without fear. I’m working on it.

Day of the Dead is a pre-Hispanic corn harvest festival, adapted to Catholicism

We will hold the 2020 Women’s Creative Writing Retreat from December 15 to December 21 in Teotitlan del Valle. Holding the retreat close to over the winter holidays, just before Christmas, will give us an opportunity to reflect on celebrations here and our own family holiday observances — what they evoke, how they are remembered, the stories of holiday expectations and disappointments, the pressures for a perfect home and table, gift giving and symbolism. We will participate in the village Posadas, too. You might want to invite your family to join you after the retreat and stay on for Christmas in Oaxaca. It is magical.

If you are interested in participating, please send me an email: norma.schafer@icloud.com

Our writing group 2019, with weaver Arturo Hernandez

One-Day Tlacolula Valley Folk Art Study Tour

We are your portal to Oaxaca! This one-day customized study tour takes you beyond Oaxaca City and into the villages along the Tlacolula highway to San Pablo Villa de Mitla. We schedule this excursion based on your travel plans and our availability. It is a menu-based, mixed-media approach to discovering the best artisans that the region has to offer. We visit where artisans live and work. You choose your own tour destinations.

We want to give you flexibility and choice. We also want to give you a guided cultural experience, personalized and deep. We have spent years developing relationships with the artisans we visit. This is NOT a “punch my ticket” tour.

You can select to visit four (4) of the following options from this menu of experiences:

  1. A flying shuttle loom weaver who creates beautiful cotton home goods and clothing — El Tule or Mitla
  2. A fine wool rug weaver who works only in natural dyes on the fixed frame pedal loom — Teotitlan del Valle
  3. A beeswax candle maker who is an artist craftswoman — Teotitlan del Valle

CHOOSE FROM ONE OF THE FOLLOWING, EITHER #4 OR #5 OR #6 OR #7. (Each of these villages are about 30-minutes from the main road!)

4. A pottery cooperative in San Marcos Tlapazola OR

5. A family of apron makers and embroiderers in San Miguel del Valle OR

6. A mezcal tasting at a palenque in Santiago Matalan OR

7. An antique dealer on a hidden-away street in San Pablo Villa de Mitla with a treasure trove of vintage finds, with a stop at the famed Mitla archeological site

We give you a full day, picking you up in the city at 9 a.m. and returning you by 6 p.m. If you want to add destinations, the cost is $100 USD more for each.

We don’t go on Sundays, the frenzied day of the Tlacolula Market, when there is a crush of people and visitors, and it’s too difficult to savor the experience. We also select the artisans to visit based on our knowledge and experience about outstanding craftsmanship.

What is included?

  • Transportation to/from Oaxaca City Historic Center
  • Lunch at an excellent restaurant or comedor
  • Translation
  • Expert explanations of art and craft
  • Curated visits to meet some of the best artisans we know

Cost

$300 per day for one or two people. $135 per person additional. If you want more than 4 destinations, the cost is $100 USD for each added stop.

Schedule your dates directly with Norma Schafer. You reserve for the dates you prefer. Please send us a couple of date options. You are welcome to organize your own small group.  We match your travel schedule with our availability.

This is for a full day, starting at 9 a.m. when we pick you up and ending at around 6 p.m. when we return you to your Oaxaca lodging. Please provide us with hotel/lodging address and phone number.

Reservations and Cancellations

We require a non-refundable 50% deposit via an e-commerce payment service. We will send you an invoice when you tell us you are ready to register and we confirm dates. The 50% balance is due on the day of the tour in cash, either USD or MXN pesos (at the current exchange rate). When we receive funds, we will send you confirmation and details. Be sure to send us the name and address for where you are staying.

Everyday Life in the Campo, Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca, Mexico

Those of us who live here in Mexico probably do much the same things that you do every day. Food shop, clean house, exercise, visit friends, read, write, take naps, volunteer, etc. Most of the immigrants I know are retired and live here either part or full-time. We’re from Canada and the U.S.A. for the most part, but Australians, New Zealanders and South Africans are among us, too.

Oaxaca Red casita color. With Gar Bii Dauu. Local endangered succulent.

Oaxaca Red casita color. With Gar Bii Dauu. Local endangered succulent.

Living in Teotitlan del Valle is different from being a city dweller. This village of indigenous Zapotec people holds to a strong, powerful and ancient culture. Many work at weaving wool rugs. Some are musicians. Others are shopkeepers or run comedors. Some are bakers and butchers. A few sew clothing. Many are farmers. In times when there are fewer tourists, many weavers supplement their income by growing and harvesting food.

Plowing my neighbors corn field, a five-hour project

Plowing my neighbor’s corn field, five plus hours of labor

I live in the campo. Out beyond the hubbub of town, amid the traditional milpas of corn, beans and squash. I’m surrounded on three sides by maize fields. Some are tasseling now. Here, the tradition is to plow the furrows when the corn is waist-high to break the crust and allow rain to penetrate earth. This is living close to the soil. Organic. Honorable.

It’s rainy season. Green stretches for miles. Today I awakened to whistling. Out my window was a young man driving a team of bulls plowing the field next to the casita I live in.

Rene's Volkswagen van. Can you guess it's vintage?

Rene’s Volkswagen van. Can you guess it’s vintage?

I grew up in Los Angeles. Miles of freeways. Concrete. Tiny lots separated by six-foot block walls. School yards paved with asphalt. I remember scraped knees and elbows. The hum of car engines passing. We were all jammed together, a jam of humanity. Even more now. Gridlock. I think I’ve become a country girl.

The crop was planted in July. There wasn’t much rain in June and farmers worried about another year of drought. In my absence over the last five weeks, seems that weather has played catch up and everything is growing.

Two teams of bulls on two days, one white, the other black. Take a rest.

Two teams of bulls on two days, one white, the other black. Take a rest.

The young man plowing the field rents out his services. His two bulls are tethered with a hand-hewn yoke that supports a wood plow. He guides the curved stick deep into the earth with one hand to keep the furrow straight. In the other, he holds a switch that gently prods the animals to keep on the straight and narrow. Farm machinery cannot do this job well enough.

A perfect day for plowing the fields.

A perfect day for plowing the fields. From my living room window.

This is his second day at it. Both days, he started at eight in the morning, ended around two o-clock in the afternoon, just before lunch. People work hard here. Five plus hours plowing the field with no break in the heat of the day. The monotony of walking back and forth. The patience of walking back and forth.

Oaxaca Women’s Creative Writing and Yoga Retreat, March 2017

My friend, plumber and handy-man extraordinaire René asks me if I know what the greca (Greek key) symbol means that is woven on village rugs.  It’s the step-fret carved into the Mitla temple walls, I answer.

Grecas, Mitla archeological site

Grecas, Mitla archeological site, post-classical Monte Alban

Yes, and more, he says. The ancient Zapotecs believe the two interlocking hands that form the pre-Hispanic greca represent the serpent deity duality and the life-giving connection between earth and sky, water and fire.  

The transformation. Beige to red. Another symbol.

Rene executing the transformation. Beige to red. Symbol of change.

We are eating lunch and the thunder is rolling in. The sky darkens. Earth gives off the aroma of on-coming rain.  The just plowed field next door will soon drink its fill. René packs up his painting supplies. Paint does not do well with humidity.

Handwoven indigo rug with greca design

Handwoven indigo rug with greca design, Teotitlan del Valle

The exterior walls of the casita I live in are getting a makeover. The wasband liked beige. I’m in the mood for Oaxaca Red.

From rooftop terrace, a 360 degree view of Tlacolula valley

From rooftop terrace, a 360 degree view of Tlacolula valley

Yo hice tu ropa! I made your clothes! Fashion Revolution

Carry Somers founded Fashion Revolution in England some years ago. It has grown into a worldwide organization with country representatives who promote the use of natural materials, fair trade and sustainability in the fashion industry.

Yo hice tu ropa! I made your clothes!

Carry advocates for transparency, says we should all be aware of who makes our clothes. She is committed to giving recognition to each artisan around the world whose labor creates clothing that gives us so much more than protection from the elements.

Pedal loom weaver Arturo Hernandez, San Pablo Villa de Mitla, Oaxaca

Pedal loom weaver Arturo Hernandez, San Pablo Villa de Mitla, Oaxaca

Clothing is a fashion statement. Fashion Revolution aims to bring us in touch with artisans dedicated to preserving their culture through the cloth they make.

Carry traveled with me last week on a one-day natural dye and weaving textile study tour to meet artisans in the Tlacolula Valley who dedicate their lives to preserving their traditions.

This blog post features the work of one of my favorite artisans, Arturo Hernandez, who weaves on the counterbalance flying shuttle loom, from his home studio in Mitla. His random design ikat shawls are all made with natural dyes. He is invited to the 2016 Santa Fe International Folk Art Market in July, a juried show and sale.

I hope you have a chance to read what Carry just published.

Antiques in San Pablo Villa de Mitla, Tlacolula, Oaxaca

There is a tall, inconspicuous door on a San Pablo Villa de Mitla side street. Open it and discover a home gallery filled with antique treasures. The inventory is small and includes ancient stone metates, glass vases hand-painted with flowers and edged in gold, reliquaries and ex votos. Señor Epifanio knows his stuff.

Scott Roth-6

Scott Roth holding an old Mitla hand-woven textile

Upstairs via a narrow, concrete passageway painted in brilliant blue is a gallery filled with blown glass mezcal bottles, remnants of the time when this was how the agave liquor was stored. They are hard to find and very expensive.

Scott Roth-3

Dolls, old photos, books, chachkeh from Mitla, Oaxaca

Occasionally, there is a jewelry find, like the Mexican silver coin earrings from the early part of the 20th century. I returned a month later to buy them and they were gone. Rule for Shopping in Mexico: buy it when you see it. Usually, these things are one-of-a-kind.

Scott Roth-2

Hand-blown mezcal and water bottles, most from Oaxaca, 1950’s-1960’s

I’m reluctant to share the address and contact information. Only because I haven’t asked permission to cite the location, plus these things are getting scarce, and with scarcity comes higher prices. As demand rises, prices do, too. So, why am I publishing this?

So you can see the photos, of course.

Faces and Festivals Chiapas Photography Workshop

Scott Roth

Portrait of Scott Roth with old Zapotec textile from Teotitlan del Valle