Opening ceremonies for the Dance of the Feather in Teotitlan del Valle always begin with a 5:00 PM Monday convite starting in the plaza courtyard. Convite translates into banquet, invitation, feast. Here, it is a procession that by my definition is a Feast For the Eyes.
Today, Tuesday, July 9, Los Danzantes de la Pluma will begin their full presentation at 5:00 PM in the church courtyard. Tomorrow, on July 10, they will start at 12:00 PM noon and dance until about 8:00 PM.
When I’m here, this is a desfile that I do not want to miss. This year is special, too, because a new group of dancers begins their three-year commitment to church and community. They will dance at every community-wide celebration as part of their promise to participate.
We got back to Teotitlan from the city just in time for the festivities to begin. Young women and girls as young as three years old, dressed in traditional fiesta traje, gathered in the church plaza with their ornate decorated baskets to prepare for the parade through the streets.
We were waiting for the Danzantes to arrive. They had left the home of the Moctezuma, the head of the group, and walked behind the band for about a mile to the church. You could follow their path by the sound. In full dance regalia complete with corona (crown), rattles, amulets, and a costume that combines Spanish and pre-Hispanic symbols, they were a sight to behold.
I’ve written a lot here about the syncretism between indigenous spirituality and mysticism combined with Spanish Catholicism which comprises modern Mexico — Mestizo culture. Malinche is the slave given to Cortes who was his lover-translator. Remember, she was a slave and had no choice! Doña Marina is the same woman after being baptized in the church. The conversion is an important part of Mexican mixed identity.
My Note: The Dance of the Feather is a re-telling of the conquest story through dance. It is part of Oaxaca’s oral history. Zapotec, the native language, is not written. In traditional villages, it is part of the usos y costumbres laws and traditions. The dance has become commercialized and performed by professionals during the annual Guelaguetza in Oaxaca’s auditorium. Please don’t confuse the commercial folkloric dance, which requires expensive tickets, with its original purpose.
There were probably four hundred people assembled, including villagers who would follow the procession through the streets. Accompanying the procession were official representatives from each of Teotitlan’s five sections, each a sponsor for a group of young women, plus other patrons who provide the means to build and maintain their canasta baskets.
All along the procession path, locals assembled in front of houses and on corners to watch and to pay respects.
Today is the official start of Teotitlan del Valle’s Dance of the Feather, or Danza de la Pluma. It is a perfect example of how our village celebrates community with a promise and commitment by young people to their people, their church, their history and their culture.
5 PM on Monday there was a convite (procession) that began at the home of the Moctezuma and went to the church courtyard. It then processed through all five sections of the village and returned to the church. Highlights included young women dressed in traditional traje (garments) holding canastas (baskets) on their heads adorned with religious images.
The young men and two girls who form this new Dance of the Feather group are dressed in their plumed headdresses, carry rattles, and wear clothing that suggests the syncretism of Mexico, the mix of indigenous, Aztec and Spanish conquerors. The dance itself is a representation of the conquest from the indigenous point-of-view.
On Tuesday (today, July 9) at around 4:00 p.m. or 5:00 p.m. (I’m told), the dancers will begin in the church courtyard. On Wednesday, they will start around noon and continue until about 8:00 p.m.. Festivities continue throughout the week with a carnival fair surrounding the market.
By luck and serendipity, several events happened before the official celebrations begin. It happened because we set out from my casita Saturday on foot instead of traveling by car. In the church courtyard, a group of musicians were forming. They invited us to join them on the church rooftop for a symphonic concert. We climbed up the narrow, winding carved stone bell-tower where they would play to mark the official start of the celebration.
From the top of the church, one can see and be heard for miles. Everyone knows what these annual rituals mean. It is embedded in life here.
After walking down to Tierra Antigua for lunch, we made a stop at Casa Viviana before heading home. Viviana Alavez is a Grand Master of Oaxaca Folk Art, known for her ornate hand-made beeswax candles. My friend Chris wanted to buy some to take to her new home in Ajijic. The longer, thicker ones weren’t available. They are for the Danzantes celebration, we were told.
As we were leaving, my friend Natividad appeared in the doorway with her baby daughter Esmeralda. I asked her what was going on down the street under the big tented courtyard — always a signal for a fiesta. It’s the home of the Moctezuma, the lead character/dancer for the Dance of the Feather, she said and invited us to come over. Another grand surprise, my comadre Ernestina was there with daughter Lupita, and lo and behold, Viviana was participating in the food preparation, too.
We were invited to the Sunday morning mass to bless the dancers at the church and then come back to the house for breakfast. What a surprising and great day!
This is the early part of the celebration, when the family and closest friends come together in private ceremony. The abuelas enter the altar room to offer their special benedictions to the young people — another way to carry-on tradition, handing it from generation-to-generation, in a tribute to succession and respect.
Home altar here is more important than the church for Zapotec ritual of thanksgiving and appreciation. After the church ceremony, the head of household gathers everyone in the altar room for prayer in both Spanish and Zapotec, thanking God for family, community and continuity. This is cultural preservation at its best!
We then sit down to a breakfast of homemade everything — in abundance: black beans seasoned with epazote, hot chocolate, bread, fresh from the comal stone-ground tortillas, salsa. Later for lunch at 5 p.m. there will be Seguesa de Pollo, a tasty stew of organic chicken mixed in a seasoned mole amarillo (yellow chile sauce) thickened with toasted and rough ground maize (corn).
Let the festivities begin.
It is an honor and privilege to live here and participate in these rituals. Tomorrow I leave to attend and volunteer at the Santa Fe International Folk Art Market in New Mexico, and meet up with long-time friends. Then, I’ll continue on to California to visit my son, sister and brother. I’ll keep you posted along the way.
Thank you for reading and following! I’ve been writing this blog for 12 years. It’s been an amazing process, always filled with new experiences to share.
Scenes of Las Granadas Bed & Breakfast, Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca
In 2005, our friend Annie Burns invited Stephen and I to visit her in Teotitlan del Valle, where she was now living permanently. She told us about a young mother and mother-in-law who were at a loss to figure out how to provide income for themselves and their three children/grandchildren after their husbands had died earlier that year. That is how we came to know Josefina Ruiz Vazquez and her mother-in-law Magdalena. Josefina’s husband and Magda’s son was a famous weaver (Eligio Bazan) who died suddenly of a rare form of cancer at age 38. Annie said she was encouraging them to start a guesthouse and asked if we would be the first guests as an experiment to get the venture launched. Of course, we said yes, and that is how Las Granadas Bed & Breakfast was born.
Now, four years later, the house at 2 de Abril is transformed into a garden paradise in large part through the effort of the two women and the help of Roberta Christie, a Florida State University administrator, who took early retirement and helped renovate the compound. Lush bougainvilla, clean, basic rooms, and fruit-bearing pomegranate trees surround the outdoor kitchen where Magda now prepares her famous hot chocolate made from cacao beans she roasts herself. During the early morning hours before breakfast, you can see Magda at the comal (outdoor wood fired clay griddle) preparing the fresh maize tortillas that she mixed earlier, turning them with her fingers.
Now, participants who enroll in the workshops and small group tours offered through Oaxaca Cultural Navigator: weaving, natural dyeing, oil painting, documentary filmmaking, enjoy a stay at Las Granadas as part of the package cost.
I asked Roberta to talk with Josefina about her life as an innkeeper. Here is her response.
R: What things do you enjoy most about operating a B&B in Teotitlan?
J: I like everything about it. I enjoy working in my own home and making sure that our guests enjoy their stay with us. It is very interesting for me and my family to get to know people from other countries.
I especially enjoy cooking for our guests and am proud when they finish every bit of food on their plates. They seem to especially enjoy the fresh fruit and fresh juice I serve at breakfast, and many say they have never tasted such good eggs — all from local chickens. Everyone enjoys the quesadillas straight from the comal. I’m also pleased to serve vegetarians the things they want to eat. Luckily I can get fresh vegetables every day at our market.
R: How has Las Granadas made a difference in your life?
J: With the income, our life has improved a lot. I sleep better (laughs) because I feel confident that I will be able to support my family.
We’ve also been able to sell some tapetes (rugs) and bolsas (shoulder bags), and Magdalena has sold chocolate. This is also good for us and is very satisfying when people tell us how beautiful the rugs are and how delicious the chocolate is.
R: What are your plans for the future?
J: We are making improvements to the house and second level using some of the income from room rental. I want to eventually put tile on the kitchen and patio-level rooms. Poco a poco, Las Granadas will become even better and we hope even more people will come and enjoy their stay with us.
My friend Annie, known locally as Ana del Campo, lives on the hillside on the other side of the river Rio Grande that runs through town from the presa (dam) throuh the cleavage between two mountains. We came to visit her some years ago and that is how we got to Teotitlan del Valle. Annie was the second gringa to connect with a local Zapotec family and be invited to build a home on their land. A former psychologist, she is an expert Shiatsu massage therapist and has a loyal clientele in the village and in Oaxaca. One of the treasures and pleasures of coming back to Teotitlan is to enjoy time with Annie, sipping tea, catching up, looking out over the village below from her hillside perch, and then laying down on her mat to give myself and my body over to the expert pressure touch of her hands and fingers in her sublimely tranquil space. This evening was my third massage of the week — a totally relaxing experience, and I feel I can splurge with this expense because the cost is 200 pesos (about $18 USD) per hour. As I walked up the winding rocky drive to her brick and stucco casita, the stars sparkled in the sky and were mirrored by village lights below creating a seamless vision of dancing stars with no horizon. Annie has asked me to visualize who I am in the form of an animal to take as my talisman as a form of meditative relaxation. I am a gazelle, sleek, agile and grazing. Annie tells me that my body will respond and become the form that I visualize.
After the massage and to honor my gazelle, Annie makes me a plate full of salad containing at least four different lettuces, fresh grated beets, cherry tomatoes and bright red nasturtiums from Valentina’s garden. This is for grazing, she says. Valentina, who was once Valerie, moved to Oaxaca some years ago from somewhere in el norte and started an organic garden. She sells her bounty every Friday and Saturday at the Pochote Market in the Arcos, just beyond Santo Domingo Church on Macedonio Alcala. Annie sprinkled goat cheese and pecans on the salad and topped it with a homemade balsamic vinaigrette. I followed her lead. This is the ONLY way I will eat lettuce in Mexico — organically grown and washed in purified water by someone you know and trust. To top it off, Annie brings to the table a red tortilla, handmade by Esther (Ess-tare) her neighbor, who ground the village grown red maize herself. Below us, the band is playing its posada repertoire, drum beats, tubas, and saxaphones call out to the night sky. A firecracker rocket is a shooting star. I imagine the tables full of revelers eating fiesta tamales with amarillo mole, downing shots of mezcal followed by beer chasers, sucking limes and salt, dancing the slow Zapotec two-step far into the night, men in one line facing the women opposite them, never touching. The firecrackers pop and the dogs bark in response. The bray of a donkey punctuates it all. Tomorrow, Mary and Joseph will move to another home where the cycle repeats the harmony.
Augustin Ruiz Gutierrez is writing his thesis in preparation for graduation from the University of Oaxaca. He is 24 years old, just like Eric Chavez Santiago, and they were school mates during their growing up years in Teotitlan and is one of a few who went on to high school and then college. We met Augustin last year during the Teotitlan posadas and he invited us to meet the leaders of Bii Dauu, a weavers cooperative of extended family members whose mission it is to preserve the traditions of Zapotec culture, including designs, natural dyeing techniques, education, sustainable development, and permaculture. Augustin is a documentarian, taking videos of village life, commenting on the culture. His thesis question is one that all cultures, societies could benefit from asking continually as it helps to define the vision of a people. He called to ask if he could interview me and Stephen about our impressions, beliefs, ideas to include in his thesis research. These are his questions.
In 20 or 30 years, what do we think will happen with Zapotec weaving and natural dyes?
What type of organization would best communicate the principals of educating people about appreciation their traditions and values, to work cooperatively and not competitively?
Is it possible to develop a system where cooperation and sustainability were equally important to making money?
Can we create a national and international market for our weavings that supports both income generation and cultural continuation? How do we protect the heritage of our people and compete in the world market?
Is weaving a rug with natural dyes the best way? I(n the future, is it worth it to have this as a standard of quality? Does the marketplace care?
Can you be an artist and be successful without compromising the principles of cooperation and sustainability, economic equality?
Currently, there are no easy channels of distribution for highest quality, naturally dyed rugs from Teotitlan del Valle. Indeed, most families work independently, even brother to brother, to weave and sell their work. Every summer, in July, a large tractor trailer trucks pulls into the edge of town and parks for several days. Weavers bring their work, mostly tepetes (rugs) woven with chemical dyes that the importer pays a low price for and can resell in New Mexico or Arizona for a big profit. Here there are middlemen who contract with households to weave for this shipment. Weavers will get paid about $25-100 per rug, depending on size, and the mark-up in the States will be 4 to 6 times grater than what they are paid.
There is no gallery in Teotitlan del Valle that showcases the highest quality work. There is no “stamp of approval” that guarantees that a guild of weavers has agreed that a rug meets certain standards of quality. If one walks through the shops and rug market one can appreciate the variety and differences between the rugs: heaviness and strength of the wool used, even edges signifying that there are two large chords of cotton on each side that add strength to the piece, the purity and subtlety of color that connotes the use of natural dyes.
Augustin says that there is little support from the state or federal government to continue the traditions of weaving in the village and he is fearful that in the next 20-30 years the use of natural dyes and traditional colors will die out. He comments that people are most concerned about feeding their families and will do whatever they can to get paid, and compromise the quality standards to sell their work.
We talk about how important it is to identify all the people in the village who are committed to working with natural dyes and to document who they are and their work. We explore how we might organize more visits to the U.S. for great weavers who have not been discovered by the guide books and the New York Times, whose travel editors continue to send people to only those most well known and most expensive. We talk about ways to mount exhibitions in the U.S., in Oaxaca City, in Mexico City, in San Miguel de Allende, in San Augustin Etla. All of this requires commitment, money, organization, and someone to doggedly lead the way.
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Norma Writes for Selvedge Latin Issue
Why We Left, Expat Anthology: Norma’s Personal Essay
Norma contributes personal essay, How Oaxaca Became Home
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