Tag Archives: ritual

Chiapas Notebook: Maya Cemetery at Romerillo

The day is cloudy, overcast. A mist hangs on the hills like a coverlet. It’s late February, still chilly with winter in the Chiapas Highlands. Fuzzy wool cape weather, even in the early afternoon. After our visit to Tenejapa for the Thursday market, we make a stop at Romerillo before returning to San Cristobal de las Casas.

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From the road, the Romerillo Maya cemetery, majestic

Romerillo is a tiny hamlet with an impressive cemetery. The stand of turquoise blue Maya crosses carved with ancient symbols are sentries, erect on the crest of the hill. Tethered sheep graze at the base. We get out of the van and walk slowly to enter sacred space.

Pine planks cover the mounds so the dead stay where they belong

We moved in a matter of a few miles from textile sensory overload to quiet meditation. After our guide introduces us to the Maya world of death and life, we each walk silently, separating, alone, stepping across dried pine needles, around the mounds of earth designating grave sites. There are things to think about.

Four ancestors share this grave, each buried at ten-year intervals

One of us gets a call to come home to tend to her mother’s dying. Another suddenly loses a brother-in-law just days before. Most of us quietly mourn a parent, a husband, friend, perhaps a child, a relationship.

The cemetery site is rocky, uneven, steep, protected, festive

It’s months past the Day of the Dead season. There are remnants of marigolds, fresh fruit dried by the sun,  graves covered by wood planks to keep the dead secure in their underworld habitat until the next uncovering.

People drink fizzy Coca Cola at ceremonies. Burping is the voice of gods.

The mounded burial ground: scattered pine needles, dried pine boughs tied to the Maya crosses, toppled flower pots, an empty coke bottle, a tossed aside cigarette butt, an overturned flask once filled with pox (pronounced posh), a fresh grave.

(Mary Randall reminds me that the Romerillo hill was featured in the indie film, El Norte, a testimony to the Maya struggle for independent identity.)

Toppled urns of dried flowers. All disintegrates (except plastic).

How do I know of this recent burial? From the lingering aroma of copal incense, scattered green pine needles, flowers still too fragrant in their urns.

Grand vistas from 7,000 feet high, ethereal

Life and death blend together in Maya ritual. The mounds bridge the gap between heaven and earth. Fresh pine boughs are the portal to the other world. There is afterlife, often reincarnation depending on status. Memory must be kept, attended to. Here is ancestor worship — generations buried in the same space. The pine needles represent infinity, too numerous to count.

By February, pine boughs have dried crusty brown, stay until next year

The blue and green crosses are symbols, too, portals of entry for contact with the ancestors. Mayans believe the ancestors are guides and give them counsel in their problems when asked. Blue is significant throughout the Maya world.

Inscription at the base of a giant Maya cross

On November 1, Day of the Dead, family members lift off the wood planks. Sit around the grave sites of their loved ones, carry on a conversation. There are elaborate rituals here that bring people closer to the natural world.  The sun, moon, earth, stars are imbued with meaning, embedded in all that exists. Everything has a purpose, is connected.

Our groups hears the explanations, wants to disperse

Some of us sit. Others walk. The tall crosses guard the land. Small crosses guard each grave. Sometimes I see several crosses marking one grave site. I know from my experience in Oaxaca that each identifies one person in this resting place, that ten years must pass before another can be buried in the same space. There is continuity on this path.

Small crosses designate each grave site

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Voladores Fly in Cuetzalan del Progreso, Puebla, Mexico. So Do Bees!

Everything leading up to October 3 in Cuetzalan del Progreso is a preview for what’s to come. This is the day each year that the Voladores fly: Danza de Voladores.

When the Voladores fly, everyone pays attention.

When the Voladores fly, everyone pays attention. They are 120 feet high.

There is a huge carnival in the church courtyard and troupes of costumed, masked revelers come in from the villages to dance, sing and raise some hoopla.

Masked revelers dance in church courtyard and before the altar inside

Masked revelers dance in church courtyard and before the altar inside

Handmade beeswax candles adorn the church altar in huge displays of tiered confection, just like wedding cakes. The colors dazzle.

Handmade candles adorn the church, stacked like confeccions

Handmade candles adorn the church, stacked like a tiered wedding cake

On October 4, the queen of the festival is crowned. Cuetzalan is packed with people, a few extranjeros (foreigners), visitors from other parts of Mexico, and lots of locals who come in from mountain villages by colectivos (shared taxis) and camionetas (truck transport).

Wedding cake hand-crafted beeswax candles, Cuetzalan church

Wedding cake hand-crafted beeswax candles, Cuetzalan church

The town square becomes a puesto (open market stalls) with alleys of textiles, beaded necklaces made from local coffee beans and seed pods, roasted corn on a stick layered with mayonnaise and chili, carved wood masks, sizzling comals (griddles).

Voladores circle the pole 52 times, in keeping with the Aztec calendar

Voladores circle the pole 52 times, in keeping with the Aztec calendar, before climbing

Hawkers, mostly the ancient ones, sell armadillo shell purses (yes, I bought one), gourd water jugs (I bought one, too), woven fiber bags (passed), wild mint (poleo) candies guaranteed to cure stomach ache (yes, though I didn’t have a stomach ache).

Four topple in unison, one stays aloft playing a flute

Four topple in unison, one stays aloft playing a pre-Hispanic flute

You can sidle up to a portable comedor (kitchen) to eat tacos, tamales, chicken with mole, squash blossom quesadillas. Thirsty? How about fresh fruit waters made with watermelon, cantaloupe, papaya, oranges.

Young men learn to become Voladores very early, practicing, practicing

Young men learn to become Voladores very early, practicing, practicing

It’s hard to keep your money in your pocket!

Candles that will become part of the church altar to celebrate on October 3

Candles that will become part of the church altar to celebrate on October 3

The day before, Merry Foss took us to the famous candlemaker Eugenio Mendez Nava, whose family makes beeswax candles for church celebrations. He is a national treasure and won the Grand Prize in the 2016 National Folk Art Competition.

Grand master of beeswax candles prepares for church celebration.

Grand master of beeswax candles, Eugenio Mendez Nava, prepares for celebration.

We hopped on a colectivo to get to his workshop outside of town. We saw the preparations for the October 3 church celebrations in the making, were awed by the size of the candles, the intricacy of the molds, the bees swarming around the opening to the clay pot hives that were tucked into the workshop corner.

Makings of the church tiered wedding cake candle extravaganza

Makings of the church tiered wedding cake candle extravaganza

Fresh, wild honey is sold all over Cuetzalan. Here’s what the hives look like. Different from the white boxes we see all over the U.S.  I imagine that Puebla people use the resources that are easiest to make and keep for beehives.

Clay beehives at the candlemaking workshop of Eugenia Mendez Nava

Clay beehives at the candlemaking workshop of Eugenia Mendez Nava

Birdcage in the workshop of candlemaker Eugenio Mendez Nava

Birdcage in the workshop of candlemaker Eugenio Mendez Nava

There are multiple groups of Voladores flyers. Some of them are women, and why not. Courage and fortitude know no gender (as we move into the final days of the election in the United States of America).

Inside the church, at the altar, a frenzy of dance movement, drum beating

Inside the church, at the altar, a frenzy of dance movement, drum beating

They start flying at around 4 p.m. on October 3 and continue until after dark. At twilight, groups of dancers and costumed revelers come into the plaza, tooting horns, flutes, singing, beating drums.  They go in and out of the church, dancing at the altar, seeking blessings.

Whirlwind of color. No one stood still!

A whirlwind of color. No one stood still. I’m thinking blurry could be okay!

In the naves, young men stopped to take a breath, take a drink, fix broken decorations, tie shoe laces, and give each other the Mexican handshake — first brushing open palms together, then giving each other a bump with the closed fist.

Repairing the feather headdress before joining into the next blessing dance

Repairing the feather headdress before joining into the next blessing dance.

Meanwhile, outside, the next set of Voladores assembled ready to climb the pole. Humans in flight, spinning, ribbons fly in the wind, arms wide, feet wrapped around the rope, upside down, a several minute suspension.

Climbing a wood and rope ladder high into the sky

Climbing a wood and rope ladder high into the sky

There were not many foreign visitors here. Is it because people are afraid to come to Mexico. We took a 6-hour bus ride from Mexico City to get to Cuetzalan. A perfectly safe adventure. And, then a 4-hour bus ride from Cuetzalan to Puebla. Also, very safe. See what you are missing?

The next group of Voladores waiting their turn.

The next group of Voladores waiting their turn.

The flying men gather in prayer before climbing the pole.

The flying men gather in prayer before climbing the pole.

Caps with ribbon tassels, decorated with flowers, worn by Voladores

Soft landing, upside down, but he'll turn over soon enough!

Soft landing, upside down, but he’ll turn over soon enough!

The eagle has landed!

The eagle has landed!

As night descended, Barbara and I left the church. There was a light drizzle that turned to a gentle rain. The scene was obscure, dramatic, filled with shadows of retreating people. This region is tropical, damp and lush. We don’t go anywhere without an umbrella!

Our evening ends amid the rain drops and shadows of retreating dancers

Our evening ends amid the rain drops and shadows of retreating dancers

One more shadowy night on the zocalo, Cuetzalan

How to Get There: From Mexico TAPO bus station, take the ADO bus to Cuetzalan del Progreso, Pueblo. Cost is about $20 USD. Trip length: 6 hours.

Where to Stay: Casa la Piedra, Cuetzalan del Progreso.

How to Return: From Cuetzalan buy a bus ticket at the new bus station in town on the Via line to Puebla CAPU. Cost is about $16 USD. Trip length: 4 hours.

How to Get From Puebla to Mexico City: Buy a bus ticket on Estrella Roja leaving Puebla every 30 minutes to the Mexico City airport, direct. Cost: About $16 USD. Trip length: 2.5 hours.

Where to Stay in Puebla: Hotel Casareyna is one of our favorites! They have a new addition and can accommodate many more guests. Sublime luxury. Try Bookingdotcom for bargain prices available.

Oaxaca Road Trip to Hierve el Agua: Perhaps the World’s First Infinity Pool

Final Hierve A-3Hierve el Agua is an ancient pre-Hispanic Zapotec ceremonial site located about an hour beyond San Pablo Villa de Mitla, one of Oaxaca’s archeological wonders. Hierve el Agua, meaning bubbling water, is a wonder in its own right, nestled on the edge of a mountain ridge in Oaxaca’s Sierra de Juarez.

Final Hierve B-6 Final Hierve B-2

A cluster of small pools are carved out of the rock, formed by bubbling underground springs that are no longer hot but lukewarm. The stunning calcified waterfall is one of only two in the world.

Final Hierve A-7Look out at the pool’s edge and there appears to be a shear drop-off into the steep canyon below.  The calcium formations on the surface create interesting patterns and are like stalactites found in caves. Touch them. They feel like a coral reef, sharp and hard. We wore water sandals to protect our feet and to keep from slipping over the edge!

Final Hierve A-9

Rivulets of water bubble up from holes and run in small streams toward the hollowed out pool.

Final Hierve A-6 Final Hierve A-12

This is a perfect place for swimming and sun-bathing. Be sure to bring a towel, bathing suit, hat and sunscreen.  I even saw some swimmers wearing goggles.

Final Hierve A-4

Since I didn’t plan too far ahead, I went dipping in my sun dress and undies. A very refreshing interlude to a hot day in November in the Oaxaca mountains not far from the village where I live.

Final Hierve A-10How to get there? You can travel in your own car like we did and follow the Carretera Nacional (Pan American Highway) MEX 190 from Oaxaca to Mitla, then connect on MEX 179 and follow the signs. It’s pretty easy. Click here for a road map.

Final Hierve A

Getting there takes the same route as the trip to San Juan del Rio, one of my favorite mezcal making villages. So you might think about combining this as a day trip.

Final Hierve B-3

Another option is to take a tour van from Oaxaca city. This is limiting, since you only get about an hour at the site and the tour may combine this trip with a stop at Mitla and Teotitlan del Valle.  In my opinion, this route deserves an entire day if you have the time. It’s a perfect place to enjoy and relax.

Final Hierve B-8


I also saw that people came out on collectivos connecting from Mitla. So, there are independent travel options if you are so inclined!

Final Hierve A-5


Portrait Photography Workshop coming up the end of January, 2015. There is space for you!


Danza de la Pluma–Dance of the Feather: Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca Pre-Hispanic Tradition

Many people come to Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca to photograph the extraordinary Dance of the Feather.  This was how we spent Day 5 of our Market Towns and Artisan Villages Photo Workshop.

Los Danzantes — the dancers — make a three-year commitment to recreate the history of the Spanish conquest of Moctezuma and the Aztecs through dance.  The main characters include Moctezuma, Cortes, La Malinche/Doña Marina, the masked spies who gathered intelligence for Cortes, and an assortment of soldiers and warriors.

However, this is an ancient Zapotec ritual dance that pre-dates the arrival of Cortes and the conquistadores to Oaxaca in 1521.   The ritual dance was integrated into a festival to honor the patron saint of Teotitlan del Valle and her church, Preciosa Sangre de Cristo.  It begins every year  on the first Monday of July with the Parade of the Canastas to coincide with the full-moon.  The subtext includes tribute of mezcal, beer, bread, and maize.  Pre-conquest dancers paid tribute to the gods of rain, corn, and fertility.  This is not a folkloric dance or guelaguetza.

It is a serious part of maintaining culture, community, ritual and tradition in Teotitlan del Valle.  The dancers take their commitment seriously and the community supports them in this endeavor.  Everyone turns out to see the dancers.

Even though the rains came during the afternoon, they lasted only about 30 minutes. Loyal viewers were undaunted and stayed; the dancers danced on.  They endure a strenuous 10 hours of dancing on this first day that can be through intense downpours and brutal summer sun.  Fortunately this year, the rain was short and the sky was overcast with just a hint of sunshine — much cooler than those sweltering in the U.S. midwest and east, and what dancers have experienced in years past.

This is the last Dance of the Feather for this group that formed three years ago.  Tradition directs a village man who wants to be Moctezuma to organize a group.   This group is larger than usual.  They added a troupe of young boys to play the role of Spanish soldiers.  We have seen these boys grow up and mature.  They, too, take their responsibilities seriously despite their youth.


Each of the dancers weaves his own breast and backplate and makes his own amulets.  The masked jester, who represents Cortes’ spy, puts a banana on the horn of his mask. A man watches from the church courtyard sidelines.  A nieves vendor sells these fruity frozen treats.

Our assignment for the workshop was to capture motion by using a slow shutter speed, low ISO and high aperture, experiment with depth of field, and incorporate black and white or sepia.  This was a new stretch for me, a challenge that I welcomed!  I’ve come to discover that blur is something you want in art photography IF it is your intention!  I’m training myself to see those blurred shots a little differently and not discard them (smile).  They can evoke mood.

Villagers come from throughout the Tlacolula Valley dressed in their unique traditional clothing.  These women from a nearby village wear pleated skirts and floral aprons — a style different from the dress in Teotitlan del Valle.

Teotitlan del Valle is a communitarian village.  It’s leaders volunteer for three-years of service without pay.  The dancers also honor these people who govern their community through consensus decision making.

I hope you enjoy these photos and perhaps next summer you can be with us, too.  Consider joining in for the Day of the Dead Photography Expedition this October!


The feather headdresses are weighty and uncomfortable.  The men need to take periodic breaks to reposition and re-tie them.  Endurance and athleticism is a necessity for this test of courage and commitment.





Dance of the Old Men in Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca

It looks like Carnival.  Some people call it Carnival.  But, it isn’t.  El Baile de los Viejos — Dance of the Old Men — is an ancient annual Zapotec pre-Hispanic tradition.  The “dance” is a ritual communication to ensure the stability and survival of a people.  The dancers remind the volunteer elected village leaders and especially the president to attend to their own behavior and the justice of their decisions.

The oral history of this dance, also called “disfrasan de vestementas,” is passed from generation to generation.  I asked Pedro Montano Lorenzo to tell me the story of the Dance of the Old Men.  We are sitting all together around the table for comida (lunch) during a giant afternoon thunder and lightening storm.  The heavens are pouring rain. Listen!  he says to his nearly adult children.  This is important for you to know.


The spirits of the Old Men first came to the village to save the people.  They return each year to celebrate life and remind us that we must be good people.  The Old Men have the right to represent the people, and speak honestly and directly to the authorities on their behalf.  They must have the courage to tell the president of the village about what needs to be improved.  They transmit to the leaders specific areas of concern after going from home to home in their section of town to talk directly to the people. Pedro says this tradition is “muy fuerte” — very strong and powerful.  It is a reminder that the people are more powerful than the leadership, and it is the people who put them there.

The Old Men are masked and anonymous.  Each of the five sections of the village select their “old man” representatives.  These are trusted individuals who speak Zapotec and know the traditions and customs.  They must be be strong enough to hear the issues and complaints of the people in their section and transmit the information honestly to the leadership.  Theirs is a serious responsibility.


Each section hosts a party that is financed by the people of the section, every household giving according to their means.  It could be money, a bottle of mezcal or a chicken.  The party is to welcome the Old Men from the other world, to celebrate them, and to feed them and give them strength before they leave the host house and proceed to the municipal building where they will meet with the president to give feedback.  Each section goes to the municipal building on one of the five days to speak to the president and dance the ritual, hence the five-day celebration.

The Old Men and their two other-worldly assistants, men dressed as women (to represent the women of the village, I am told), laugh with a ribald, stylized “risa” that tells everyone they are present and to pay attention.  The laugh is called a broma sannas — a good joke — to remind the pueblo that is needs to be in equilibrium and to restore good feelings if relationships need mending.

The band accompanies the procession and all ritual gatherings

The Old Men wear traditional manta cloth out of respect for the old ways.  They perform a ritual dance in the municipal palace with the president and village leaders to mime the relationship between the leaders and the village people.  The dance says that there is mutual respect between the leadership and the people, that they agree to fulfill the obligations to the village, responsible for each others’ behavior and the behavior of the leadership.  The dancers give an offering of mezcal, sweets and beer to the president of the village.  This is a ritual exchange to offer congratulations if everything is going well.  It can also be a  reminder that the balance of power is out of equilibrium and needs correction.

Some people think that the fiesta celebrates the resurrection of Jesus because it falls on the Monday immediately after Easter Sunday and call it Carnival.  Others say it has no relationship to Christianity and is an ancient pre-Hispanic practice.  All say that the children need to know this story in order to sustain the culture.