Tag Archives: traditions

Day of the Dead, Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca: Gate to Heaven Closed on Sunday

In Teotitlan del Valle, loved ones who come back to visit their families from the great beyond on Day of the Dead, usually arrive on November 1 and depart on November 2.  This year it’s different. They get an extra day on earth and leave on Monday, November 3.

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Why? Because the gate to heaven is always closed on Sunday, explains a local as we sit next to him in the small cemetery chapel with his compadres.  They are waiting to receive thanks and blessings from community leaders who approach them and the altar with offerings of refreshment and a hand raised in salute.

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The local man is one of the volunteer group that guards the cemetery, walking among the tombs to be certain that no souls, either living or dead, are in distress.

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Again, I arrive early, ahead of the crowds, while there is still at least an hour of daylight remaining. The cemetery is brimming with lilies, marigolds, cocks comb, gladiolas.  The scent of copal mingles with wild marigold. Graves are cleaned, topped with fresh earth, quartered oranges, pecans, walnuts, apples.  There is an occasional bottle of unopened beer or mezcal atop each mound.

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As the day fades, families arrive and light candles. Some unpack a picnic supper. Some sit quietly alone. Some are mother and son. Some are multi-generational. We meet young men on vacation from work in the United States to pay respects to their grandparents.  This is my village, one says in English. I was born here. 

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At least two bands are playing. The atonal sound of the younger group is endearing and seems to complement the duality of both this solemn and joyous occasion.

Portrait Photography Workshop coming up at the end of January 2015!

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Lots of people greet us, welcome us, invite us to join them in a sip of mezcal, offer us fresh oranges and beer. When I ask if I can take their photo, yes, is usually the answer. Where are you from? they ask. Carolina del Norte, I say. Welcome to Teotitlan del Valle, they say. I feel lucky to be among them.

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This year, it seems as if the village cemetery is especially vibrant with color.  I hear that Teotitlan del Valle wants to become a Pueblo Magico.  The paths are paved in the cemetery now, making it easier to move among the graves. The space is well-lit and tidy. It seems there are more flowers than ever before.

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Here, it is not like the Xoxocotlan extravaganza, and if you come expecting that, you will be sorely disappointed. Being here is a soothing, quiet, reflective and traditional experience.

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Why are there multiple crosses at the head of grave sites? Families have specific plots and every ten years a tomb can be reused for someone who has just passed. The bones of the antecedents are removed, cleaned and returned to the tomb alongside the next one to be buried there. It is not unusual to see three or four crosses planted one in front of the other representing the tomb’s occupants.

2014DOTDTeoti-23 And, of course, not only the dead get hungry! Vendors sit at the entrance with tasty snack foods. And, the band plays on.

2014DOTDTeoti-26My son is visiting from California. As we move together through the cemetery, we compare traditions here and in the United States, how we want our remains to be handled after death, periods of mourning, celebrations of life and the practice of laying markers. In Teotitlan a marker is placed on the tomb nine months after burial.

2014DOTDTeoti-25 2014DOTDTeoti-18Day of the Dead is an opportune time to talk about what is considered taboo and sad in our western culture. The celebration in Mexico is a religious syncretism of pre-Hispanic mystical tradition and Spanish Catholicism. It is unique and there is much to learn by participating.

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Christmas in Oaxaca: Teotitlan del Valle Posadas

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For nine days and nights leading up to Christmas eve, the Zapotec village of Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca, Mexico recreates the journey of Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem.  Each night they sleep on the road, which means they arrive at the home of a host family who welcomes them to their courtyard, then altar room, filled with copal incense and prayers.

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There is a huge feast for invited guests:  tamales, roasted beef or pork, homemade tortillas, wild turkey called guacalote.  I can smell the charcoal cook fires from a distance.

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The villagers gather at the front gate.  Hosts distribute tamales and atole (women have been cooking for days), men sip beer and mezcal, children blow whistles. The celebration is grand, festive.  Then, at around 6:30 p.m. the procession leaves the host home and passes through the streets of village, up hills, through narrow alleyways, from one side to the other,  until they come to the home of the next night’s host family and the celebration continues.

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It is both solemn and celebratory.  Women, men and children are selected by each host family to do the honors of leading the procession and light the way with handmade beeswax candles decorated with beeswax flowers, birds, and glittering pendants.  Followers cover their heads in scarves as if in church. 

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The men who handle the fireworks and shooting rockets are out in front to guide the way with sight and sound.  From all corners of the village we can hear them until late at night, and then again in the morning as a wake up call.  I arise at six to the blast of a rocket. Behind the fireworks are the altar boys carrying crosses, then four young women carry the palanquin of Mary and Joseph.

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On this night, our procession must have picked up more than 300 people along the way as the route passed through every corner of the village and ended at a home not more than two blocks from the one we had left.

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Up hill and down, across cobbled streets, we picked our, way careful of potholes and uneven stones and construction materials.  The streets were swept clean and watered so there would be no dust for us.  We must have walked three miles at a steady shuffle.

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Those who didn’t process waited in doorways.  The older people who had difficulty walking made it part of the way and then dropped off, as did the parents carrying sleeping babes on their shoulders, and holding toddlers by their hands.

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On the night of December 24, the baby Jesus appears in the altar room of the host family for La Ultima Posada — the last procession.  This is the biggest party of them all and it will continue through the night and into the morning.

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Visitors are welcome to join the procession.  You can spend the night at Las Granadas B&B or at Casa Elena, both excellent establishments.  You can start out having comida at Las Granadas prepared by Josefina and then end the night with a glass of wine or a cup of mezcal!

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A Word About Night Photography

It is difficult!  In the ideal world, one would use a tripod to hold the camera steady, avoid flash, use manual settings on your camera to manipulate the shutter speed, aperture, and film speed/ISO.  That means constantly changing settings for various lighting situations.  In very dark situations, like during this posada on streets barely illuminated, one gets a golden glow.  I also turned off the automatic focus setting on my camera and lens and used manual focus.  The lens has a hard time reading light and will not focus otherwise.  With my bad eyes and very low light, that meant guessing, which is why many of my photos were blurry.  Those you see here have a warm, golden glow typical of low light, night photography using a hand-held camera.  I was able to adjust some of the photos using Lightroom photo editing software.  We teach all this in our Oaxaca Cultural Navigator photography workshops.  We learn about the camera and immerse ourselves in the indigenous culture, too.

Santa Ana, California Zapotecs Return Home: Dance of the Feather — Danza de la Pluma

They were born or raised in Santa Ana, California, which they call Santana. They keep sacred Zapotec traditions alive by practicing life cycle events from their Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca homeland.

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Most especially, these young men know what it means to be a Danzante — a dancer.  The Dance of the Feather or Danza de la Pluma is a ritual rite of passage.  To become a dancer is to make a commitment to the principles and traditions of Zapotec life.   The Danza de la Pluma is practiced with as much passion, integrity, endurance and intention in Santa Ana as it is in Teotitlan del Valle.  It is not a folkloric performance.  It is a serious part of Zapotec identity.

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That’s why a group of young men from Santa Ana, fluent in English, Spanish and Zapotec, asked permission from the village leaders to return to Teotitlan del Valle and make the three-year commitment and live here for the duration.

Their group debut was in the early July 2013 festival to honor the patron saint and church of Teotitlan — Preciosa Sangre de Cristo.  The choreography is different, the finely woven intricately designed tapestry that each dancer wears on his back was either made by the dancer or a father, uncle or grandfather.

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They leap, twist, kneel, and it looks as if they are flying, as if God is carrying each one somewhere deep into the pre-Hispanic past to bring forth the spirit of the ancients.

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Many brought their wives and young children with them.  Some were reunited with family members — sisters, brothers, grandparents — after years of separation.  Some have never seen their abuelos — grandparents — since they were infants or if they were born in the USA, perhaps never before.

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It was a thrill to watch this group whose spirit infected the entire audience– villagers and about 150 guests of Aeromexico, the Mexican airline that offers several flights a day between Mexico City and Oaxaca.   Tourism is the economic engine for Oaxaca and the weavers of Teotitlan del Valle depend upon visitors for their livelihood.

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The Dance of the Feather is iconic.  It is a history retold from generation to generation of the 1521 Spanish conquest, Cortes and Moctezuma, and the dual figure of La Malinche and Doña Marina. There are few stronger images to convey a sense of place and culture.

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Both before and after, I talked to many of the dancers who said they love it here so much, they are wanting to stay on after their three-year promise ends.

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After the festivities came to a close, many of the guests walked out of the church courtyard to the adjacent community museum and rug market.  Just in time for a refreshment break, a bicycle vendor selling nieves — a Spanish word that means snow but what all of us know as delicious fresh fruit ices that Mexico is famous for!  (Try the tuna — nopal cactus fruit.) Or, if you want something more substantial, there are homemade tamales in that wheelbarrow.

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Viviana Alavez Hipolito, Grand Master of Oaxaca Folk Art–Beeswax Candlemaking

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It takes over one hundred passes of hot dripping wax poured over a four or five-foot tall woven cotton wick to create a handmade ceremonial beeswax candle. We are in the Teotitlan del Valle home workshop of traditional candlemaker Viviana Hippolito Alavez, who is recognized as one of the Grand Masters of Oaxaca Folk Art.  Her work is exemplary.

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The family lives on an unpaved road off the main street just as you enter the village, about two miles from the Pan American Highway 190.  There is a freshly painted, brand new sign at the corner directing visitors to Abasolo #7.  It is a humble house, filled with activity and warmth.

Viviana greets us with a wide smile and guides us to the covered outdoor space where she works alongside her son and daughters-in-law.  They are learning from her, just as she learned from her grandmother.  In the corner, a pot of cochineal-dyed wax simmers over a wood fire.  It is hazy and aromatic.

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The wicks are suspended from wheels.  Viviana climbs on a small chair that she tells us she has been using for thirty years.  It is crusted with wax layers like an archeological discovery.

Today, there are only four artisans remaining in Teotitlan who craft these traditional candles that are used every life cycle celebration: baptisms, funerals, engagements (contentamientos), weddings.  These are candles used in the church, home altar rooms, and posadas during Christmas, Day of the Dead, and Semana Santa.

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We talk about the abuelas, the traditional grandmothers who keep craft alive. Viviana tells Crespo, you must present your wife with a bouquet of candles when you ask her to marry you.  Did you do that? she asks.  Crespo’s wife, Ana, stands next to us, smiles and says, no, but he will do that today!

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Claudia wonders how long this art form will survive as we watch Viviana first spit on and lick the bottom of the clay bowl before dipping it into the hot wax colored red with cochineal.  An enzyme in the saliva must make it easier to remove the wax once it hardens.  She then dips it into a bowl of cool water and peels off the circle that will become a flower decoration for an elaborate candle.

Will this be the last generation to do this work?  Is our visit something that only tourists do, as one village visitor said as she declined to join us?  What can we learn here about family, environmental sustainability, and the hard work and time that goes into creating something made by hand?  What do we value as a society?

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The family uses only natural dyes to color the beeswax and the clay molds made in Aztompa that Viviana inherited from her grandmother.  Her son shows us the molds that are intricately carved with figures of hummingbirds, nuts, ducks, and lilies.  The type of clay used then is no longer available today.

Should it be our responsibility to visit, support, and buy the handcrafts and artwork created here, whatever it is, in order to offer and demonstrate our respect for the traditions that keep a culture vibrant?  I believe so.

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Over the years, I have visited Maestra Viviana many times, never tiring of watching her create, the expression in her face, appreciating the knowledge and rootedness and love she expresses for her traditions.  I see the caring and support of her children who help her continue her work.  This is a blessing for all of us as she teaches the next generation of candle makers.

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Best to call in advance to make an appointment for a visit.  Impromptu often leads to the disappointment that no one will be home! Although serendipity happens, too!

Viviana Alavez Hipolito, Abasolo #7, Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca, tel: 951-524-4309

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Oaxaca Guelaguetza is Authentic: True or False? and Tickets

The week-long Guelaguetza, the last two Mondays in July folkloric dance event on the Cerro Fortin, is Oaxaca’s biggest tourist event of the year. Tickets for reserved seats are expensive, from 900 to 1,250 pesos, and now also hard to come by.   There are two performances left, one at 10 a.m. and one at 5 p.m. on Monday, July 29, 2013.

Where to Get Tickets

At Teatro Macedonio Alcala, no tickets are available and a handwritten sign directs you to go to the Tourist Office on Av. Benito Juarez across from Llano Park.  At the Tourist Office, they tell you that tickets are sold out and direct you to a travel agency.  Seems like the agencies bought up lots of advance tickets in order to charge a 200+ peso commission on each one.  Ticket Master Mexico is also sold-out.  Try the travel agency in the Quinta Real hotel on 5 de Mayo.  They are very helpful and the commission is less than most.

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Guelaguetza: Tourist Attraction or Traditional Custom

The three-hour extravaganza that features the indigenous dress of pueblos throughout Oaxaca state along with their particular dance traditions, draws people here from all over the world.  

The spectacle is grand entertainment, though not everyone can afford to see this version of it.  True, there is free seating in sections C and D of the Guelaguetza Auditorium, the white-tented amphitheater on the hill, but seats are way up in the peanut gallery far from the stage.  People tell me you have to get in line by 5 a.m. for the 10 a.m. performance in get in free.  Not for the faint of heart.  Chilangos and gringos have far more money, so the economic class system prevails.

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Nevertheless, throughout Oaxaca, free performances abound under tents near Santo Domingo Church, on the Zocalo, and in public spaces at San Pablo Academic and Cultural Center on Calle Independencia.  Or, anyone could catch a parade of masquers down Macedonia Alcala, the walking street that connects the Zocalo and the plaza in front of Santo Domingo.

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This week, Oaxaca is sizzling with excitement — a mezcal fair at Llano Park and a festival of seven moles.  It is a great time to be here.

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Yet, the controversy and discussion around Guelaguetza continues.  Earlier in the week, San Pablo hosted academics from Mexico City and Oaxaca, and indigenous leaders from Oaxaca to talk about the authenticity of what has become this city’s tourism masthead.   Public definitions are influenced and changing through the lens of tourism.

Guelaguetza Definitions

In traditional villages throughout the state, Guelaguetza is the form of mutual exchange and support for the community good.  It is how indigenous people have survived and continued for thousands of years.   I ask you for something that I need now that you have.  I ask and you give it to me freely. In years to come, I owe you this same thing back plus a bit more — a cow for a wedding feast, a band for a quinciniera, tamales for a baptism, mezcal for a birthday, etc.  We keep a record so the interchange is accurate.  It is not considered a debt nor is it a gift.  It is giving and giving back.  The price one pays to be in community.

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What happens when the general public believes that Guelaguetza is a folkloric dance performance that is disconnected from its cultural roots?

We see the baskets on the stage filled with nuts, candies, bread that the dancers throw out to the audience.  We see the gourds filled with mezcal that are traditional offerings that predate the Spaniards and Aztecs.  Little cups of mezcal are offered to the audience.  How are we able to understand the symbolism of these discreet events that become intertwined with a performance.

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Yes, tourism is important to Oaxaca.  It is vital to Oaxaca’s economy.  It is good that there are ways to draw and attract visitors.  Yet, somehow it seems, we need to be doing better to make Guelaguetza more accessible, affordable and understandable.

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