Tag Archives: traditions

Annual Basket Fair in San Juan Guelavia, Oaxaca: River Reed Weaving

The Feria del Carrizo is happening this week in the Zapotec village of San Juan Guelavia. The last day is February 7. This annual fair is growing and this year there were hundreds of people on opening day, Sunday, January 31.

I have made this an annual tradition and this was my fourth year here. I love arriving just before 10 a.m. when the weavers are setting up shop and the cooking fires are roaring. This couple, above, still makes the reed fish traps. They make great lampshades or dried flower holders!

 

Just in time for a breakfast of traditional hot chocolate made with water (or milk, if you prefer). It’s a great accompaniment to hot off the griddle fresh made corn tortillas stuffed with yellow mole and chicken (above right) or squash blossoms , quesillo (string cheese) and mushrooms (above left). This was prepared by the volunteers from the Museo Comunitario, the community museum. Super Yummy!

 

The Community Museum is small, just two rooms and admission is by donation. Usos y Costumbres villages maintain museums to keep cultural history. San Juan was closely tied to neighboring Dainzu (now an archeological site) and Macuilxochitl (across the highway) was once the regional center.

Ancient map reproductions show this as well as a diorama of how salt was extracted from the earth by local women using clay vessels from nearby San Marcos Tlapazola. Villagers were active in the Mexican Revolution that hit the region hard because was dotted with haciendas that indentured indigenous labor, eradicated with the Revolution.

 

Of course, the food goes on all day and if you wait long enough and stay for lunch you can enjoy barbecue goat tacos along with a shot of Tobala mezcal (or Madrecuixe, as your taste dictates) straight from the palenque. Buy a bottle for 200 pesos, about 2/3 less than comparable quality in Oaxaca city!

 

The weavers in San Juan Guelavia work in river reed called carrizo. Their baskets were used by farmers, traders and cooks for centuries, long before the Spanish conquest in 1521.

Anthropologists have written and talked about the risks to this artisan craft of the Oaxaca valley. So much of the reed weaving is now replaced by plastic baskets because people everywhere love the bright colors.

But, preferred among the local ladies is the traditional market shopping basket –that round Carrizo basket with curved palm covered handle that fits comfortably in the crook of the elbow.

I use the low-sided baskets as “shipping containers” inside my luggage. I’ve put mezcal bottles and ceramics inside, wrapped in bubble, surrounded by soft clothes packed snugly and nothing ever arrives broken. Use a flat round tray to cover your stuff and secure with duct tape. Very easy!

 

Above left, the ladies prepare atole, a traditional corn drink. Mix it with chocolate for a special taste. Always served at festivals, it’s the drink of the Zapotec and Aztec gods. Above right, a grandmother ties the sash on her granddaughter’s skirt in preparation for the parade.

Above: This year, there were lots of necklaces strung with reed and bright beads. Some dangled with mini- baskets mini-atole cups (all handmade).

 

And, above right, toy trucks and airplanes and whistles for the children, bird cages and shelves for home decor.

 

How to Get There From Oaxaca City: Take a taxi or collectivo or bus that goes to Tlacolula. Get off at the San Juan Guelavia crucero (crossroads). From there, take a moto-taxi (we call them tuk-tuks into town.) The village is situated about a mile inland on the west side of the Carretera Nacional MX190 better known as the Pan-American Highway.

Happy Holidays From Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca: Procession on the Calle

It’s festival season in Teotitlan del Valle. It was a full moon, a large globe of yellow light illuminating the path and all who walked it. On Christmas Eve baby Jesus is carried on a pillow through the winding cobblestone streets by the patron of the *last posada. He is followed by a litter holding statues of Mary and Joseph shouldered by four young women.

A moment's rest. Christmas Eve Procession, Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca, 2015

A moment’s rest. Christmas Eve Procession, Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca, 2015

The procession is flanked on one side by men, the other side women, each carrying lit decorated beeswax candles adorned with handmade wax flowers. Firecrackers boom out in front. A man swings a copal incense burner. The aroma is sweet, intense. Children and adults tweet whistles. The drummer keeps the pulse of the crowd throbbing.

 

We pick up people along the way to join in. Some stand at street corners or in doorways. Even the smallest of children participate. Early acculturation to custom and tradition.

 

The timing is precise. The procession must arrive at the church exactly at 10 p.m. for the evening mass to return the figures to their rightful resting places for another year, when the cycle will be repeated again with different actors.

Waiting to kiss and bless Baby Jesus before the church procession.

Waiting to kiss and bless Baby Jesus before the church procession.

My son, sister and brother-in-law are here and I’ve had the joy of being a tourist in my own town for the last few days. This night, we got to the house of the patron a little after 7 p.m. to learn that the procession that would leave the house to get to the church wouldn’t begin until 8 p.m.

La Dueña holds the infant as guests line up to bless him and await the procession.

Being the wonderful, hospitable people that Teotitecos are, we got invited in to see the creche and the blessing ceremony before the group gathered to walk the streets of the village.

Outdoor comal or cooking area for food preparation

Outdoor kitchen for food preparation, Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca

My sister, a flautist, struck up a conversation with the band leader who invited her to join them at a special morning band ceremony on December 31 that will welcome in the new year. Start time? 4 a.m.!  I’m not sure Barbara is going to make it.

Along the procession path, a pop-up restaurant

Along the procession path, a pop-up restaurant

Tradition in this village is to have a family meal at midnight after the mass ends to welcome the birth of Dios Niño. This is a feast of tamales, wine, mezcal, salad, chicken, stuffed pork, turkey or whatever other favorite entree the family likes. There may be beans, rice, fresh vegetables from the fields, ponché (like a sweet fruit cider), fresh fruit and an extravagant dessert.

It is an honor to be in the procession lighting the way.

It is an honor to be in the procession lighting the way.

There is no big festival meal served during Christmas Day here like in the USA. Families relax, stroll, play games. So, I asked Josefina if she would prepare a carry out. Roasted chicken spiced with salsa roja, mixed with carrots, green beans, squash and potatoes, served with organic rice and beans.  Surprise, Lupita shows up with a gift of handcrafted chile rellenos stuffed with chicken.

Blessings before the altar at the home of the Patron.

Blessings before the altar at the home of the Patron.

We finished on the rooftop terrace with wine and a three-hundred-and-sixty-degree view of the Tlacolula Valley. The red sun vanished in the west.

Almost midnight Christmas Eve dinner, Barbara, Ixcel Guadalupe, Ernestina

Almost midnight Christmas Eve dinner, Barbara, Ixcel Guadalupe, Ernestina

*The Last Posada: La Ultima Posadais actually on December 23, when Mary and Joseph move to the Casa de la Patron for the final evening before the birth of Jesus.  The baby appears at this house on December 24, is cradled by the woman of the household, then is held by the patron under a canopy as the procession leaves the house and moves through the village to the church. This December 24 event is called La Procession.

Wishing you season's greeting with health and joy always.

Wishing you the season’s best with health and joy always.

Technical issues: My USB internet connection is REALLY slow these last days. It takes about 30 minutes to upload one photo! So this is a delayed post. Lots of intervening activities since I wrote this: The radish festival, a trip to Hierve El Agua, and a mezcal exploration to the remote mountain village of San Juan Del Rio. More to come.

 

 

 

Another Year in Santa Cruz Xoxocotlan, Oaxaca, Day of the Dead

It’s my habit, practice, custom, wish to leave Oaxaca city at 3:00 p.m. to arrive at the old cemetery (panteon) in Santa Cruz Xoxocotlan by 4:00 p.m. to celebrate Day of the Dead/Dia de los Muertos. I go there first and spend at least an hour and half in this sacred space. It’s just before the magic hour, before the light begins to fade at dusk. Getting there early has another advantage — a parking place close to the center of town.

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The old cemetery is magical. It houses the remains of an old adobe church with crumbling walls that are held up by wood scaffolding. The fading stucco lintel can still be read, dated 1648 and adorned with cherubs and saints. It is roofless.

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Yellow plastic do not cross–danger zone tape is a warning against entry. There is more of it this year. There are tombs inside. Last year a family invited us in to join them at an ancestor’s grave covered with flowers. This year, there was no one and I didn’t see any flowers. Perhaps it is now too dangerous to enter. I don’t know if there is a restoration plan.

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Some of the grave stones are so weathered they are hard to read. Other tombs are marked by simple crosses and mounds of earth. You can tell who still has relatives in town who will pay attention to the dead. Some graves are empty of adornment. Others may have a token marigold plant so the souls know where to return.

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We step carefully. Grave sites are adjoining and there is no clear path. If you aren’t careful, you can trip and fall. I stand against the concrete wall that holds this space to take it all in, look at the clear Oaxaca sky, think about life and death, and see an ancient Zapotec tradition unfold that pre-dates the Spanish conquest. I never tire of this. There are ancient bones here.

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Just as in Teotitlan del Valle and San Pablo Villa de Mitla, locals welcome tourists because tourism is essential for Oaxaca’s economy. Those in larger villages accustomed to visitors for Muertos usually don’t mind having their photos taken but I’m always careful to ask. In the smaller villages, it’s still awkward since tourism is a relatively new phenomenon.

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This year, however, what captivated me most was the changing, deteriorating structure of the old adobe, the arrival of the old and young together to tend to tradition, and the profusion of flowers.

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As I rounded a corner I found a four-legged friend who was barking, guarding her own treasure hidden beneath the marble roof of an old monument that was now serving another purpose — shelter for new-born pups.

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There is a profusion of homeless street dogs in Oaxaca. Most are never neutered and families usually don’t want females because they become pregnant. Duh! In some of the pueblos there is a growing movement toward education about animal protection/sterilization. But it is slow to take hold.

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At every cemetery throughout Oaxaca, families bring in bundles of marigolds and purple cockscomb, vases, candles, oranges and bananas, brooms to sweep up the dried flowers from last year. Often they use wheelbarrows provided by the cemetery committee in each village. There is always a water cistern close by.

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Don’t worry. You can buy candles, flowers and fruit right out on the street on your way to the cemetery. There are plenty of places to snack, grab a beer, and entertain yourself with amusements for children and adults, see the sand sculpture and an art exhibition. Wood-carvers from San Antonio Arrazola have a great annual display of alebrijes, too.

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As we made our way through town to the new cemetery, we began to feel a different vibe. It was beginning look more like Halloween and an all-night party. It was only 7:00 p.m. The night was young and the young ones were getting ready.

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Xoxo (Ho-Ho), as the town is called for short, has many wonderful murals on the Day of the Dead theme that are spray painted by street artists. This is a close-up of one below.

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At the main cemetery, mezcal is offered freely to visitors by those gathered graveside. This burial ground is a wide open space with strolling mariachis and lots of flash photography.

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We didn’t linger there long — long enough to get the taste of the wild and wonderful celebration to come later, and long enough to sip a mezcal with a family in tribute to their ancestors. Remember, the dead are only dead if no one remembers them and celebrates their lives.

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Perhaps this will be my last Dia de los Muertos post this year. We shall see. I hope you have enjoyed the series, and may your departed loved ones continue to rest easy.

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Tips to Participate:  Bring several bundles of marigold flowers and offer some to local people to add to the tombs. You can also bring bananas, oranges and nuts. This is a very thoughtful gesture that demonstrates your desire to share in the ritual. Smile. Sit a while. Even if you don’t speak Spanish and smile and nod of acknowledgement goes a long way to friend-building.

 

 

 

Day of the Dead in Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca: Guiding the Disfuntos Home

The bells in the Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca church tower start ringing on November 1 at 3:00 p.m. and continue all night and into the next day, November 2, giving the disfuntos (the visiting souls) the sound to follow home.

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They follow the trail of scent, sight and sound: marigold flowers, copal incense, simmering mole negro, chocolate, candlelight, mezcal, bread, music, bells. Home to visit loved ones who are still here on earth.

This 24-hour period is sacred and solemn. It is also festive and joyful. Day of the Dead in Oaxaca, Mexico is more than an all night party (as it has become for some). It is a time to reconnect emotionally and spiritually with departed family members and friends.

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The 3:00 p.m. comida on November 2 in Teotitlan del Valle signals the moment when the disfuntos will take their favorite meal and then begin their return to the grave. Janet brings a plate of chicken with mole negro to the altar, her grandfather Jose’s favorite food. Bien rico!

The firecrackers or cohetes go off exactly at 3:00 p.m., too. At this moment, Dolores approaches the altar and says a prayer before the photograph of her mother, who died too young.

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We raise our mezcal glasses in a Zapotec toast — chee-chee-bay-oh — salud, to health and long life. The CD player starts and music fills the altar room. Federico says this tune, Dios Nunca Muere — God never dies — is always played to guide the difuntos. It soothes them. Federico says it is played just after a person dies and at gravesite before the burial. It is the song to signal the end of each Dia de los Muertos in Teotitlan del Valle. It is a song about the pain of the homeless.

Do you have an altar? he asks me.

Yes, I say. It’s for our father. There are all the pre-requisites: fruit, nuts, bread, chocolate, mezcal, marigolds, beer and candles. (There are no religious symbols.)

Good, he says. Even though your father is buried in the United States, he will come to visit you here. The ancient souls who were buried in the campo many years ago are also happy they have a place to return to. It’s good you have an altar, he says.

Who am I to say what is or isn’t true? Memory and continuity are powerful and life is a mystery.

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The tombs contain the bones of past ancestors. See the photo above left. There are four grave markers. That means there are four family members who are buried in this tomb. This is an ancient Zapotec tradition that continues today.

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I go to the cemetery an hour before dark to capture the last light of day. I don’t think the Panteon has ever been as beautiful. Fresh flowers, fruit and nuts decorate the tombs. Families begin to gather and sit with loved ones as they return to the underworld. They nibble on snacks and drink beer and mezcal.

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The volunteer cemetery committee meets in the chapel and chants an ancient Zapotec song, mournful. It permeates, carries through the small graveyard. A wind picks up. The disfuntos are gathering to return.

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Visitors come with cameras, accompanied by tour guides. They are respectful of this space. They are prepared well. There are many more this year than last. Locals say this is good for Teotitlan del Valle.  People will come and know our culture. They will appreciate the fine wool tapestries we weave here. Ojala!

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Each gravesite is an altar of love and respect for those who came before. All generations take part. Sometimes children bring games or a book to read until the light fades. Everyone sits, some all night, to assure their loved ones rest easy.

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Best30TeotiMuertos-25Many religious and spiritual traditions have a day of remembrance set aside to honor the deceased. We light candles. We say prayers. We may read a poem or meditate. We connect with the person who is physically gone from our lives. I don’t know of a warmer, more personal and family centric celebration of life and death than Day of the Dead. It helps soothe the fear of loss with the hopefulness of reconnection.

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Zapotec people tell me that what they practice is a blend of Catholicism and ancient ritual that pre-dates the Spanish Conquest. Zapotecs are more inclined toward their spiritual roots. Want to know more? See meaning of syncretism. Most of the celebrations here take place at home rather than in the church, except for marriage and baptism.

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Traditional Altars: Dia de los Muertos in Oaxaca, Mexico

After a night spent in the Santa Cruz Xoxocotlan cemetery on October 31 for Dia de los Muertos in Oaxaca, Mexico, I headed back to the Tlacolula Valley on Sunday morning. I was invited to San Pablo Villa de Mitla by friends Arturo Hernandez and Epifanio Ruiz Perez to visit for Day of the Dead. Here in Mitla it is always celebrated on November 1.

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Mitla, or originally Mictlan, is an ancient Zapotec town at the valley terminus with Mixtec influences carved into its archeological ruins. Mitla was just named a Pueblo Magico so it’s likely that in future years there will be many more tourists there for Muertos.

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Arturo took me to the cemetery with him to place flowers on his mother’s grave. The practice in Mitla is different from Teotitlan del Valle, and likely different for each of the Zapotec villages throughout Oaxaca.

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Here, he explained, the people come to the cemetery early in the morning, clean the sites of their loved ones, place fresh flowers, light copal incense and finish by noon. The firecrackers go off as the signal to finish.

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Then, they immediately return home to wait for the disfundos (the deceased) to return and join them for the afternoon meal. By one o’clock, the cemetery is empty. There is no sitting around the tombs here, like there is in other Oaxaca cemeteries.

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This is a family, home-based tradition, says Arturo. Everyone leaves their doors open so that the spirits of loved ones can find their way home, following the scent of marigold, copal incense and the lure of their favorite foods or even a cigarette and shot of mezcal.

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At the Mitla cemetery I met Gildardo Hernandez Quero who has a very traditional altar and is known for his in-depth historical knowledge of Mitla and the ways of practicing Day of the Dead from pre-Hispanic times. He invited us to visit.  With an offering of a loaf of Pan de Muertos and a bottle of mezcal for the altar, Arturo and I set out to pay our respects.

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This is a visiting day. Family and close friends go to each other’s home with flowers, a candle, perhaps bread and chocolate. There is always a candle burning in front of the altar and a fresh one guarantees the light will never extinguish during the 24-hour visit of the dead.

Visitors sit a while. They talk. They remember. No visit is shorter than an hour. You can’t be in a hurry here. You are offered hot chocolate and a piece of sweet egg bread. Perhaps you are invited to taste the mole negro with guajolote. You will always be offered mezcal.

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Gilardo’s altar is a ritual vision of serenity that combines pre- and post-Hispanic traditions. Photos of saints adorn the wall. A woven mat, the traditional sleeping mattress called a petate, is on the floor where the dead come to rest. Also on the floor is the candle, jug of mezcal, a squash gourd, beans, fruit and flowers — symbols of the harvest and bounty. Altars were always constructed on the ground before the conquest.

The concrete altar with its arch base is a colonial design imported along with bread, Gilardo says. He also points to the coarse traditional tortilla, black from the comal, that asks us to remember to honor indigenous corn that sustains the people.

We sit a while, talk about the politics of historic preservation and what it means for Mitla now that the town is a Pueblo Magico.

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I go back with Arturo to his house where I share a meal with his family and then make a visit to Epifanio Ruiz in the center of town. Epifanio has an antique business on Calle 5 de Mayo. Some of my vintage glass mezcal bottles come from him. He also is recognized by the town for his traditional altar.

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I have another mezcal, a hot chocolate and bread, and Epifanio brings me mole chichilo. This is a traditional savory mole that is made the same way as mole negro except without the chocolate, so it doesn’t have the thick chocolate sweetness. I only have room for a taste. It is very good.

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Then, I get back to Teotitlan, make a stop to visit Michelle. She has house guests visiting from the United States for the week, so she asked each of them to bring a family photo to add to the altar, which each of them participated in building.

Next, I visit to say hello to the Chavez Santiago family. They sit around the dining room table in their altar room, eating fruit and nuts, playing card games, sipping mezcal and keeping their dead loved ones company.

It’s after dark when I get to the casita.

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At home, I light the 24-hour candle on my own altar in honor of our dad, set the mezcal bottles and copal incense burner on the floor, get cozy in the easy chair and continue to remember.

Practices and traditions for Day of the Dead in Oaxaca vary from village to village, and are held on different days. Epifanio says that the remote village of San Lorenzo Albarradas holds the celebration for a week.

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The Teotitlan del Valle church bells are ringing. Someone is in the bell tower for 24-hours and the bells toll from 3 p.m. November 1 to 3 p.m. November 2. Today we will have a 3:00 p.m. meal with the disfundos and then guide them back to the tombs to rest for another year. We will sit with them at their tombs to ensure they rest easy and then return home.

Someone I knew once said, The dead don’t care.  I think he’s wrong. I think they do.