The polling place is across the street from me at the Durham School of the Arts. Last night the signs began to proliferate.
At this moment, the wind is blowing strong from the southwest. Atop the flag pole, the Stars and Stripes unfurl, waving and below is the Old North State flag bearing dates that testify to North Carolina’s leadership in America’s 1775 independence movement.
I’m on the top floor of my building and I see this every day. It is part of the landscape and I don’t pay much attention. Today is different.
I voted two weeks ago. If you haven’t, please do so today.
I’m not a flag-waver and yet, I see the flags as symbols of our imperfect union, symbol of the ideals of democracy, symbol of hope, symbol of a country that opens its outstretched arms to refugees in every generation, of acceptance for differences, in the belief that together in our diversity we are stronger.
Whatever your political persuasion, please vote to reunite our country in hope rather supporting the rhetoric of destruction and division. I believe that this rhetoric gives permission to people to act out with AK-47s, pipe bombs, and voter suppression. We can put a stop to this.
I live in North Carolina to vote, to connect with friends, to access excellent university-based medical care if needed. Voting is a responsibility, a right and a privilege. I have a commitment to make this country the best it can be.
Please exercise yours.
Tonight, my friend Karen and I will create our own Downtown Durham Election Night Crawl, starting at the Beyu Caffe jazz and supper club on Main Street, to watch early election night results. Neither of us have a television and we don’t want to be isolated.
The altar is complete. Dia de los Muertos — Day of the Dead– 2018 has passed. The difuntos, spirits of the ancestors, have returned to their resting places content that we have welcomed them back to earth for the day to celebrate their lives. Some of us talk to our parents, ask their advice, admonish them for shortcomings, appreciate the gift of life.
Mexicans know how to honor their generations with this day that is considered more important than any in family and community life.
El Dia de los Muertos is the homecoming of the spirits of the dead all over Mexico, a reunion of the dead and the living. The old ones say that when the spirits come back to the world of the living, their path must be made clear, the roadway must not be slippery with the wet flood of human tears.
The Calavera Painter clay figure above is for sale. $75 USD plus $8 mailing.
I am not attempting to appropriate a culture that I haven’t been born into. I participate and create Dia de los Muertos to learn more about how to accept the transition from life to death and the continuum and cycles of life. It is a devotional practice like meditation and prayer. Finding comfort is essential for the human spirit.
Last night, a few friends gathered here at home in Durham, North Carolina, to pay tribute to those who have gone before us. Mostly parents and grandparents. They brought photographs to place on the altar.
Photographs, a recent phenomenon, help us remember. In Teotitlan del Valle, photos were not placed on altars until the 1960’s. It is said that after two generations, memory of a particular person is lost. Storytelling, recalling favorite foods, jokes, clothes, activities was and is essential to remembering especially in the absence of visual clues.
We sat around in a circle sharing our memories, comparing how we prepare for death and dying here in the USA with Mexico. Of course, this depends on our personal upbringings and spiritual beliefs, and whether there is any ritual associated with remembering those who died.
I could imagine, as we sipped wine, beer and mezcal, ate tamales and enchiladas, and told stories of mothers and fathers and grandparents and siblings, that we could have sat around a family gravesite in Teotitlan del Valle, laughing, bringing up tears and feeling connected — to each other and to those who passed on.
We told stories about the love of music, literature, eating and drinking, a good joke, growing up on humble southern farms, sprawling suburbs, gritty city centers, of immigrant and refugee families, of missing a sibling to reminisce and remember details. Someone said that one never recovers from the loss of a mother, another that her father was the most important support in her life. We were real, talking about function, dysfunction and love.
Next year, 2019, I will be in Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca, with Professor Robin Greene. We will be leading the Day of the Dead Women’s Writing Retreat. A year away and we are half-filled — five spaces open. Will you join us?
The Aztecs, I read, believed that death fed life, that human sacrifice was necessary to feed the earth to make sure there is enough rain, fertile seeds and soil, an abundance of food. Death was not feared but celebrated, honored, even welcomed.
Zapotecs practiced ancestor worship and buried their dead in the courtyard of family homes so they would be close and could consult with them regularly. Bones are swept aside every ten years to make room for the next ancestor in the same resting space. This is still common in many villages.
I honor my parents and grandparents by remembering them. Sometimes, I feel they are with me, especially when I am saying or doing something that is exactly as they would have said or done it (or so it feels). I think about my own mortality and try not to be afraid, to accept the natural order of life that is synonymous with death. Will I live on? Yes, in the memories of my family and those I have touched. Is there comfort in that? Perhaps.
Day of the Dead diorama, tin, handmade. For Sale. $85 USD plus $8 mailing. Folds flat.
As we search for meaning, for connection, for intimacy, Day of the Dead gives us pause to examine our own lives and those who came before, those who gave us life, and to ride the tailwinds and not fight the headwinds.
Acid base using fresh lime juice turns the dye bath orange
Most people don’t know that cochineal is the natural dye that colors lipstick, Campari, yogurt, and wine. Anything labeled carminic acid comes from cochineal. When you manipulate the pH, you can change the dye color.
Cochineal dyed silk
When you over-dye with blue, the cloth becomes purple. When you start with wild marigold and over-dye with cochineal, the cloth becomes peach color. The color of the sheep wool will also determine the shades of red.
Cochineal dyed wool
The wool must be washed/cleaned or mordanted first before it is dyed. This takes out the lanolin and makes the wool more receptive to accepting the color. The cochineal mordant bath is clear water with alum, heated to dissolve the natural rock. Wool dyed with cochineal needs mordanting. Wool dyed with indigo does not.
Taking the wool out of the bath that mordants the wool
Once the wool is cleaned, we prepare the cochineal dye bath dissolving the powdered bugs into hot water and stirring.
A red pullover scarf called a quechquemitl coming out of the dye bath
For a deeper color red, the wool must stay in the dye pot for at least an hour. At home in Teotitlan del Valle, Omar and his family will keep the yard they weave rugs with in the dye bath overnight to get the most intense color.
Another view of a dyed wool scarf coming out of the dye bath
Eight women gathered around Wendy’s kitchen to prepare the mordant and dye pots after Omar gave an introduction and orientation to the cochineal and its color properties.
Cooking it up in Wendy’s kitchen
He brought hand-woven wool scarves with him from Oaxaca that each participant could work with.
Omar coaching participants as they get ready to immerse their scarves
Fresh lime juice is essential because the acid is the necessary ingredient to alter the color of the dye bath. This is exactly how the family does it at home in Oaxaca — an entirely hand-made process.
Everyone squeezed limes by hand!
You can come to Oaxaca for a natural dye workshop or a tapestry weaving workshop. Contact Norma Schafer, Oaxaca Cultural Navigator LLC. We can fit your schedule.
It was a perfect NC day — our outdoor dye kitchen
Wool wet and waiting for the dye pot
When you bring the cloth out of the pot you want to make sure not to waste the cochineal. It cost over $100 USD per kilo, so you squeeze the liquid out over the dye pot to reuse it.
Squeezing the excess liquid
A study in color variation depending on wool type and dye bath
Hot purple and juicy lime, a great color contrast of wool in bowl
Omar Chavez Santiago, a young talented weaver from Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca, and Galeria Fe y Lola, will be in Raleigh and Durham, North Carolina for a set of talks, cochineal dye demonstrations and textile sales from October 17 to October 21, 2018. Events are open to the public.
This year, I will live in North Carolina for only a few weeks. I will be here to vote. That is mostly why I bought my apartment condo in Downtown Durham, though you could say I could vote absentee ballot. But to do that, you need a permanent address. A post office box will not do.
I’m prompted by this fact to remind myself that I am a Mexican immigrant and not an ex-pat. I will explain.
I am here, too, because I have good friends, dear family and a need to have one toe in the water, even though the water now is scalding hot. We are getting burned.
You haven’t heard from me in a while and there’s a reason. My return to Durham was interrupted by Hurricane Florence and the aftermath of clean-up and tragedy, babies loosened from the arms of their fleeing mothers, ripped away by the torrents of rushing water, lost forever. The news captured me. Saddened me.
Then, the drama of the Senate Judiciary Committee interviews of Christine Blasey Ford and a Supreme Court Justice nominee called Kav permeated every fiber of my being. I watched the entire day of testimony from start to finish. Big mistake.
Now, I’m in recovery, big time. I’ve been in near isolation for three weeks. Not much to write about, it seems, in comparison to the big events called politics in the United States of America. I understand why people want to escape. Go on a cruise. Eat ice cream. Not vote. The aftermath disgusts me.
SOLD. intricate embroidered blouse, San Bartolome Ayautla. $265. Size L-XL
In the meantime, I was asked to write a chapter for a book about ex-pat women from the USA who moved to Mexico. Did we flee a god-forsaken nation hell-bent on self-destruction or what?
I procrastinated. Then, I finally sat down to write it. As soon as it’s published, I’ll share it with you. But the most important kernel for me is that I came to realize I’m an immigrant, not an ex-pat.
The distinction is subtle and also simple. The standard definition: An ex-pat lives outside her/his home country. The standard definition: An immigrant claims their adopted country and intends to live there indefinitely.
Immigrants put down roots and embrace the culture, consider that the place they have moved to will always be home. Makes some attempt to learn the language and interact with the local community. Realizes that humility goes much further than arrogance. Defers to local customs. Waits for acceptance.
Ex-pats in Mexico are snowbirds, needing a warm and affordable place to spend the winter. Ex-pats might also be those testing the waters of retirement, determining where to live on a fixed budget that will stretch farther. They are far away from home in the USA or Canada, but for most, replicate that sense of home in a new place, sequestered in gated communities, attached to tennis clubs and those who speak the same language.
If I am being judgmental, please share your opinions.
This discussion gave me pause to think about where I fit in the definition, and part of the ultimate question we all must ask ourselves from time to time: Who am I? Where do I belong?
I’ve been part of Oaxaca for 13 years. Not so long in the scope of my life. But long enough to know it is home and I will live there indefinitely.
Next Monday, Omar arrives. He is the youngest of the Chavez Santiago children. He is bringing beautiful hand-woven rugs for sale and teaching cochineal dye workshops. After Durham, we are going to Philadelphia together where he will be hosted at five different venues. You’ll hear more.
Then, for me, I’m back to Mexico on November 8. After I’ve voted. It won’t be too soon.
Zayzelle: Dress Simply is our new clothing line, one dress, one-of-a-kind, one size fits many, imaginative cloth. Plus, jewelry and an easy-to-wear pullover scarf. Keep checking back for What’s New.
Why We Left, Expat Anthology: Norma’s Personal Essay
Norma contributes personal essay, How Oaxaca Became Home
Norma Contributes Two Chapters!
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Norma Schafer and Oaxaca Cultural Navigator LLC has offered programs in Mexico since 2006. We have over 30 years of university program development experience. See my resume.
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