This is a big question as we try to live in the present and get through each day. One reason I turned my focus to creating The Oaxaca Mask Project, I have come to realize, is that it is a perfect distraction to keep me busy and helpful. I can think about NOW, not what will be.
Note: We will likely start the project up again in the next few weeks. Janet Blaser, a journalist who lives in Mazatlan, interviewed me yesterday for Mexico News Daily. The mask project story will likely appear in the next 10 days. We will begin accepting donations again then, ordering masks to be made, and giving them to people in need.
I started the project soon after I arrived in Huntington Beach, California, for what was to be a one-week visit with my son on my way to Durham, North Carolina. I was there for two months. Now, I’m in NC, just out of quarantine. My plan was to be here until the end of May and then return to Oaxaca for the summer. Now, who makes plans?
Meanwhile, the news came yesterday that Traditions Mexico is closing after 20+ years of operation. They set the bar for many of us who lead cultural journeys and tours in Oaxaca and Mexico. I want to acknowledge Eric Mindling’s passion, heart and generosity for opening doors to indigenous artists and communities over the years and send well wishes to all who have been part of his adventure.
Yes, COVID19 will take its toll in many ways.
What we have come to rely on will be no more. The familiar and the dependable will be no more. Life has changed and will continue to do so. We grieve the losses and must take comfort in making positive next steps.
We want to do more than survive! We want to thrive. We want to be with family and friends. We want to explore. For most of us, this is impossible now. I suspect that this will be the case over the next two years.
This got me to thinking about our own Oaxaca Cultural Navigator situation amid this virus and attendant path of destruction. We are a small operation. Tiny, actually. It’s mostly just me. I dream up the programs, organize them, contact the artisans I know and love, handle the bookkeeping, and make arrangements to ensure quality. Now, there is nothing to do but wait.
This is also about others. It impacts the artisans I work with in the villages. It impacts the local experts who provide the cultural guidance I rely on at the Oaxaca coast, in Chiapas and Michoacan, and yes, in Kyoto and Tokyo, to create a rich experience for our travelers. What will it be like for them who depend on people like us to appreciate their work and support them?
We have canceled the Japan textile study tour. We have canceled the Oaxaca Day of the Dead study tour. We are waiting to see about the December writing workshop and the programs set for early 2021. We read that there will probably be a surge in virus infections this fall.
When will we be be able to resume?
If you don’t travel for a year or two or even more, what will that mean for you? How will you make your future travel choices? Where will you go first and next? Will Oaxaca Cultural Navigator be starting over then? What will our collective future hold? Will we ever regain the confidence to travel on a plane or in a van with ten strangers?
Friends here and there are asking me: When will you return to Oaxaca? How long will you be in North Carolina? When will we see you next? My best answer is: I don’t know. Maybe September. Maybe October. Vamos a ver.
Right now, we must be focused on staying healthy and safe. It is difficult to know what the future will bring. Let’s take a deep breath and carry on.
On early Thursday morning, March 12, I climb on an airplane to travel to visit my son and siblings in California. There are risks. I’m of that certain age of vulnerability, but with no underlying health issues. I’ve struggled with this decision and decided to move ahead despite all the cautionary (and near-panic) media attention. I’ve even watched CDC and Johns Hopkins Medical Center briefings to Congress to better understand the science of this virus. Will it ease my anxiety?
Alas, all the hand-sanitizer bottles were sold-out from the Ahorro Farmacia in Oaxaca’s historic center. No disinfectant wipes to be found, either. The snowbird season is over. All the Gueros returning to the USA must have cleaned them out. The little convenience store in Teotitlan del Valle had plenty, so I stocked up and left a few on the shelf for the next person.
This message came to my inbox from Sarah Resnick, owner of Gist Yarn and Fiber. A well-crafted, thoughtful essay about fear, anxiety and lack of control for what presents itself in our lives. She mirrors my feelings, exactly.
I want to share it with you.
Sarah here, the owner of Gist (Yarn and Fiber). I want to take a pause in our regularly scheduled yarn emails to acknowledge this moment we are living in. Fears about a public health crisis and an unsteady economy can bring on strong feelings of anxiety that can be hard to shake, and I’m sure that some people on this email list have already been touched personally by these issues. We are lucky to have a craft and art that is so soothing – many of us can relate to the calming feeling of running a shuttle back and forth across a warp, steadying our minds.
This morning as I was snuggling in bed with my baby and trying to calm the pit of anxiety in my stomach, I took a deep breath and thought about all of the ways that I am relating to these issues – as a mother, as a daughter, as a granddaughter, and as a small business owner. All of those fears really centered around one thing – acknowledging a lack of control. I can’t control how this plays out, who it will impact, when it will feel less scary, and how our business and the livelihoods of our small team will weather a challenging economy. But of course, the feeling of control is always false, and we have all had experiences in our lives where everything changed in a moment.
So I’m choosing to lean into gratitude and trust – gratitude for the health care workers who are risking their own well-being to work to keep the most vulnerable people safe and protected, trust that our communities will come together instead of panic driving us apart. And trust also in this beautiful little business and community that we are building here at Gist – that we will weather this storm right along with the rest of our weaving community, that you will be here for us, and that we will be here for you.
Here are a few things I’m working with: deep breaths, long walks, quiet time with family, and of course, the steadiness of weaving. If you’re looking for some new yarn or weaving projects to dive into, we have you covered. But this wasn’t an email trying to sell you something. If, like me, you’re struggling with some anxiety, here’s a gentle reminder to take a breath and remember we are all in this together.
The Maya World of Chiapas, Mexico, spans centuries and borders. Maya people weave their complex universe into beautiful cloth. Symbols are part of an ancient pre-Hispanic animist belief system. In the cloth we see frogs, the plumed serpent, woman and man, earth and sky, the four cardinal points, moon and sun, plus more, depending on each weaver.
We go deep into the Mayan world of southern Mexico, from February 23 to March 3, 2021. While we focus on textiles, we also explore what it means to be indigenous, part of cooperative, live in a remote village, have agency and access to economic opportunity. We meet creative, innovative and talented people who open their doors and welcome us.
Our dates of February 23 to March 3, 2021, are reserved in a fine historic hotel. 8 nights, 9 days in and around the San Cristobal de Las Casas highlands.
Cost • $2,695 double room with private bath (sleeps 2) • $3,195 single room with private bath (sleeps 1)
We are based in the historic Chiapas mountain town of San Cristobal de las Casas, the center of the Maya world in Mexico. Here we will explore the textile traditions of ancient people who weave on back strap looms.
Women made cloth on simple looms here long before the Spanish conquest in 1521 and their techniques translate into stunning garments admired and collected throughout the world today. Colorful. Vibrant. Warm. Exotic. Connecting. Words that hardly describe the experience that awaits you.
We are committed to give you a rich cultural immersion experience that goes deep rather than broad. We cover a lot of territory. That is why we are spending eight nights in this amazing Pueblo Magico — Magic Town — to focus on Maya textiles, weaving and embroidery traditions.
Our cultural journey takes us into villages, homes and workshops to meet the people who keep their traditions vibrant. We explore churches, museums and ancient cemeteries. This is an interpersonal experience to better know and appreciate Mexico’s amazing artisans.
There will be only ONE study tour to Chiapas in 2021.
Your Study Tour Leader is Norma Schafer, Oaxaca Cultural Navigator LLC. Sheri Brautigam, author of Living Textiles of Mexico, will be your expert resource guide.
Take this study tour to learn about:
culture, history and identity of cloth
cultural appropriation or cultural appreciation
wool spinning and weaving
clothing design and construction
embroidery and supplementary (pick-up) weft
Maya textile designs — iconography and significance
village and individual identity through clothing
social justice, opportunities and women’s issues
market days and mercantile economy
local cuisine, coffee, cacao and chocolate
quality and value
We work with one of San Cristobal’s best bilingual cultural guides who has worked with weavers and artisans in the region. Alejandro is a native Mexican who knows textiles and can explain the meaning of the woven symbols embedded in the cloth. You will enjoy learning from him.
We will travel in a comfortable van as we go deep into the Maya world.
We visit 6 Maya weaving villages
We enjoy home-cooked meals
We meet makers and directly support them
We go far and away, off-the-beaten path
We decode the weaving designs unique to each woman and village
We explore three towns on their market days
We understand the sacred, mysterious rituals of Maya beliefs
Who Should Attend Anyone who loves cloth, culture, and collaboration • Textile and fashion designers • Weavers, embroiderers and collectors • Photographers and artists who want inspiration • Resellers
Tuesday, February 23: Travel day. Arrive and meet at our hotel in San Cristobal de las Casas. You will receive directions to get from the Tuxtla Gutierrez airport to our hotel. The airport is a clean and modern facility with straightforward signage. You will book your flight to Tuxtla from Mexico City on either Interjet, AeroMar, Volaris or Aeromexico. There are plenty of taxis and shuttle services to take you there. Your cost of transportation to/from San Cristobal is on your own. Taxis are about $55 USD or 800 pesos. Shared shuttle is 180 pesos or about $10 USD.
Wednesday, February 24: On our first day in San Cristobal de las Casas, we orient you to the textiles of the Maya World. You will learn about weaving and embroidery traditions, patterns and symbols, women and villages, history and culture. After a breakfast discussion, we will visit Centro Textiles Mundo Maya museum, Sna Jolobil Museum Shop for fine regional textiles, meander the Santo Domingo outdoor market that takes over the plaza in front of the church, and visit two outstanding textile shops. We guide you along the walking streets to get your bearings. We finish the morning together with a Group Welcome Lunch. (B, L)
Thursday, February 25: Tenejapa is about an hour and a world away from San Cristobal de Las Casas. Today is market day when villagers line the streets filled with fresh fruits, vegetables, meats, and household supplies. Peer into dimly lit doorways to find hidden textile treasures. We’ll meander the market to see what’s there. In years past, I’ve found some stunning shawls, huipils and bags. Keep your eyes open. Then, we will visit the outstanding textile cooperative founded by Doña Maria Meza Giron. After a box lunch at the centuries- old Romerillo Maya cemetery, we continue on up another mountain to visit Maruch (Maria), a Chamula woman at her rural home. Surrounded by sheep and goats, Maruch will demonstrate back strap loom weaving and wool carding, and how she makes long-haired wool skirts, tunics and shawls. Perhaps there will be some treasures to consider. Return to San Cristobal de Las Casas in time for dinner on your own. (B, L)
Friday, February 26: After breakfast, we set out for a full morning at Na Bolom, Jaguar House, the home of anthropologist Franz Blom and his photographer wife, Gertrude Duby Blom. The house is now a museum filled with pre-Hispanic folk art and jewelry. We walk the gardens and learn about Franz and Trudy’s work with the Lacandon tribe and their relationship with Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera. After hot chocolate there we go to the outskirts of town to an outstanding women’s weaving cooperative that was founded over 40 years ago. You will learn about international collaborations and textile design that conserves traditions while meeting marketplace needs for exquisite and utilitarian cloth. After lunch on your own, we meet in the early evening to visit Museo de Trajes Regionales and humanitarian healer Sergio Castro, who has a large private collection of Maya indigenous daily and ceremonial dress representing each Chiapas region. (B)
Saturday, February 27: We set out by foot to a nearby textile collaboration that houses three different cooperative groups, one of which is founded by Alberto Lopez Gomez who was invited to New York Fashion Week in 2019. We hear presentations about creativity, style, innovation, and how to incorporate tradition while breaking new ground. Next, we stop at Los Leñateros, the hand-made paper workshop that is also a graphics arts print studio. You will have the afternoon and evening on your own. (B)
Sunday, February 28: This is a big day! First we go to San Lorenzo Zinacantan, where greenhouses cover the hillsides. Here, indigenous dress is embellished in exquisite floral designs, mimicking the flowers they grow. First we meander the open-air market, then visit the church, bedecked in fresh flowers. Next stop is magical, mystical San Juan Chamula where the once-Catholic church is given over to a pre-Hispanic pagan religious practice that involves chickens, eggs and coca-cola. You’ll find out why. We’ll roam Chamula’s abundant textile market, compare and contrast fabrics and designs. (B, L) Dinner on your own.
Monday, March 1: Today, we make a study tour to the textile villages of San Andres Larrainzer and Magdalena Aldama. This is another ultimate cultural experience to immerse yourself into families of weavers in their humble homes. We will see how they weave and embroider beautiful, fine textiles, ones you cannot find in the city markets or shops. They will host a show and sale for us, and we will join them around the open hearth for a warming meal of free range chicken soup, house made tortillas, and of course, a sip of posh! (B, L)
Tuesday, March 2: This is expoventa day! We have invited one of the finest embroiderers of Aguacatenango blouses, an amber wholesaler, an organic coffee grower/roaster, and other artisans to show and sell their work. Afternoon is on your own to do last minute shopping and packing in preparation for your trip home. We end our study tour with a gala group goodbye dinner. (B, D)
Wednesday, March 3. Depart. You will arrange your own transportation from San Cristobal to the Tuxtla Gutierrez airport. The hotel guest services can help. It takes about 1-1/2 hours to get to Tuxtla, plus 1-2 hours for check-in. Connect from Tuxtla to Mexico City and then on to your home country.
What Is Included
• 8 nights lodging at a top-rated San Cristobal de las Casas hotel within walking distance to the historic center and pedestrian streets
• 8 breakfasts • 4 lunches • 1 grand finale gala dinner
• museum and church entry fees
• luxury van transportation
• outstanding and complete guide services
The workshop does NOT include airfare, taxes, tips, travel insurance, liquor or alcoholic beverages, some meals, and local transportation as specified in the itinerary. We reserve the right to substitute instructors and alter the program as needed.
Cost • $2,695 double room with private bath (sleeps 2) • $3,195 single room with private bath (sleeps 1)
Reservations and Cancellations. A 40% deposit is required to guarantee your spot. The balance is due in two equal payments. The second payment of 30% of the total is due on or before October 1, 2020. The third 30% payment is due on or before December 15, 2020. We accept payment using online e-commerce only. We will send you an itemized invoice when you tell us you are ready to register. After December 15, 2020, there are no refunds. If you cancel on or before December 15, 2020, we will refund 50% of your deposit received to date. After that, there are no refunds.
All documentation for plane reservations, required travel insurance, and personal health issues must be received 45 days before the program start or we reserve the right to cancel your registration without reimbursement.
How to Register: First, complete the Registration Form and send it to us. We will then send you an invoice to make your reservation deposit.
Terrain, Walking and Group Courtesy: San Cristobal de las Casas is a hill-town in south central Chiapas, the Mexican state that borders Guatemala. The altitude is 7,000 feet. Streets and sidewalks are cobblestones, mostly narrow and have high curbs. Pavement stones are slippery, especially when walking across driveways that slant across the sidewalk to the street. We will do a lot of walking. Being here is a walker’s delight because there are three flat streets devoted exclusively to walking. We walk a lot — up to 10,000 steps per day at a moderate pace. We recommend you bring a walking stick.
NOTE: If you have mobility issues or health/breathing impediments, please consider that this may not be the program for you.
Traveling with a small group has its advantages and also means that independent travelers will need to make accommodations to group needs and schedule. We include plenty of free time to go off on your own if you wish.
The textile cooperative Jolom Mayaetik is one of the oldest and most successful in and around San Cristobal de Las Casas, founded in 1980. This is the 5th year we have visited them and they continue to improve processes, increase production, build capacity and create highest quality weavings.
They have over 200 cooperative members in five different villages: Chamula, Zinacantan, San Andres Larrainzar, Magdalenas Aldama, and Oxchuc. Each village is known for their distinctive style of garment. All weave using the back-strap loom, are rescuing traditional designs, and are experimenting, too, with color and form to meet marketplace taste.
I’m always reminded about what cultural anthropologist Martha Turok once told me: Innovation and creativity are vital for keeping traditional indigenous textile processes alive. Without change, the practice will be lost.
Jolom Mayaetik president Elvia Gomez Lopez welcomed us again with open arms. She is the daughter of one of the founders. Their organization is based on mutual support of women, providing health care and education to families, guaranteeing a fair wage, and profit-sharing. Even those who don’t sell get paid.
These women are activist artisans. They subscribe to social justice and human rights. Resisting oppression is a cornerstone of their survival strategies. They are political. They participate in training programs to improve textile making skills and business skills. They are role models for young women in their villages who want to learn and work in collaboration with each other.
Husbands and sons participate, too. Boys are learning to weave. Men help with loom-building and some are supportive of their wives’ independence, because they are bringing money to the family and to communities.
Before we entered the newly constructed showroom where clothing and home goods are displayed for sale, we sat down around a large meeting table to share stories, break bread together, and hear from some of the cooperative leaders. The beauty of doing this first is to gain an appreciation for the values, goals, challenges and opportunities that Maya women face in their lives.
In this cultural exchange of sharing and asking questions, we come to know people as individuals, to hear their stories, and to appreciate the time it takes — often months — to create a handmade textile. Then, as we consider what we may want to purchase, we have a better sense of value for a woman’s time and materials.
We brought gifts of eye glasses of varying strengths to help weavers and embroiderers see better. We brought scissors, embroidery floss and scissors. We brought crayons and books for children. We brought our goodwill and desire to support the efforts of the cooperative by making purchases and making memories.
Thanks to our textile study tour travelers for contributing photos to this blog post: Lynn Nichols, Bitty Truan, Claudia Michel, Sheri Brautigam, Marsha Betancourt, Winn Kalmon, Margaret Sherraden.
We are offering this Deep Into the Maya World: Chiapas Textile Study Tour in 2021. The itinerary will be the same but the dates are February 23-March 3, 2021. If you want to join us, complete the Registration Form at the top of the banner of this website and email it. We will then send you a deposit invoice.
The weather turned. It got cold. Cold enough for wool socks, down jackets and mittens. There are fourteen of us and we climbed into the van with our guide Alejandro and our resource expert Sheri. Our destination was the weekly Thursday market in Tenejapa.
It’s Carnival time here. In Tenejapa, this coincides with a pre-Hispanic celebration to pray for a good corn planting. This is a mash-up time of celebration — to mock political leaders including Lopez Obrador, the president of Mexico, and El Señor Trump whose costumed character paraded around in arrogant style. It is a time for drinking posh, the local distilled alcoholic beverage made from sugar cane, and eating tamales.
I advised our travelers to look deep and carefully along the market street, into dimly lit shops selling food, medicines, household goods, shoes, to find handwoven textiles suspended in the shadows. This is how they might find a treasure to take home from this distinctive backstrap loom weaving village.
At the cooperative founded by 65-year-old Maria Meza and others in 1980, we learned about women’s lives, the passing on of the tradition to young women, and how everything in the cooperative is made without compromise on the traditional backstrap loom — from simple bags to elaborate huipiles.
The cold fog never lifts and it seems it got colder by the time we arrived at Romerillo cemetery. Everything was shrouded in fog. We ate our lunch of sandwiches and chips like campers, huddled under the the Maya crosses adorned with dried pine branches, sitting on the concrete base or standing. It was a quick visit.
Our final stop was at the home of Maruch and her son Tesh, in a remote Chamulan village about 30 minutes from Tenejapa up a winding dirt mountain road. This is not standard tourism. Here, they showed us how they weave the furry Chamula-style wool skirts dyed with mud filled with minerals that turns brown sheep wool the color of black.
After the demonstration and the opportunity to buy ponchos, shawls, and embroidered bags, we ended our day with a sip of nanche-flavored posh and a demonstration of ancient Chamula musical instruments — including ocelet skins with bells — and song performed by Tesh and his brother Alejandro.
We were back in San Cristobal de las Casas in time for dinner!
Sheri Brautigam, author of Living Textiles of Mexico, and I are organizing another Deep Into the Maya World: Chiapas Textile Study Tour in 2021. The 2021 dates are February 223-March 3, 2021 and the itinerary will be about the same. Our trips usually sell-out, so if you are interested in joining us on this adventure, please complete the registration form at the top of this website and send it to me. Registration is now OPEN.
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.
Study Tours + Study Abroad are personally curated and introduce you to Mexico's greatest artisans. They are off-the-beaten path, internationally recognized. We give you access to where people live and work. Yes, it is safe and secure to travel. Groups are limited in size for the most personal experience.
Programs can be scheduled to meet your travel plans. Send us your available dates.
Designers, retailers, wholesalers, universities and other organizations come to us to develop customized itineraries, study abroad programs, meetings and conferences. It's our pleasure to make arrangements.
Our Clients Include
*Penland School of Crafts
*North Carolina State University
*WARP Weave a Real Peace
We send printable map via email PDF usually within 48-hours after order received. Where to see natural dyed rugs in Teotitlan del Valle and layout of the Sunday Tlacolula Market, with favorite eating, shopping, ATMs. Click Here to Buy Map
Dye Master Dolores Santiago Arrellanas with son Omar Chavez Santiago, weaver and dyer, Fey y Lola Rugs, Teotitlan del Valle