Tag Archives: Zapotec

Semana Santa–Easter Holy Week in Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca

As I write, someone is in the bell tower pulling the rope that rings the campana — a clarion call to gathering. Today is El Lunes Santo in Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca.  You still have time to catch a taxi or colectivo from Oaxaca to arrive for the 9 a.m. mass in the Preciosa Sangre de Cristo church. Afterward, the procession will begin from the church courtyard and wind through the village, an all day event. Just listen for the music to find it!


Teotitlan del Valle is divided into five different administrative units that are part of the Municipio, the volunteer usos y costumbres municipal governing body. Each of the five sections will host resting places along the route that symbolizes the Via Dolorosa and the Stations of the Cross.


On Good Friday, there will be two separate processions — one carrying the Christ and the other the figure of Mary. They will come together in the village municipal courtyard in front of the rug market where a mass will be celebrated before they are returned to the church.

Here are some links to posts, photos and videos about Semana Santa in Teotitlan del Valle:


Easter Sunday is a quiet day here, celebrated in the home with an elaborate meal and gathering of extended family.


Celebrating 50 Years of Marriage in Teotitlan del Valle: Felicidades Gloria y Porfirio

Family is more than important here in Teotitlan del Valle. Being and staying connected, committed to each other’s well-being, is a way of life. The social fiber of the village is based upon maintaining strong family ties and mutual support. That manifests by participating in ancient rituals and celebrations tied to life cycle events such as birth, death, birthdays, engagements and marriage.

Porfirio and Gloria with their six children

Porfirio and Gloria with their seven children

Yesterday was no exception when at least a hundred extended family members — brothers, sisters, children, nieces, nephews, cousins and in-laws — gathered to celebrate the 50th wedding anniversary of Gloria Bautista and Porfirio Santiago.

Family gathers at the altar to congratulate the couple

Family gathers at the altar to congratulate the couple

We first gathered in Teotitlan del Valle’s beautiful church for a 1:30 p.m. mass to honor the couple. While I am not Catholic, I am spiritual. So, being inside the Preciosa Sangre de Cristo church, now undergoing fresco restoration in its interior, gave me time to reflect on what it means to be married to one person for half-a-century.

Gloria and Porfirio with wives and husbands of their sons and daughters

Gloria and Porfirio with daughters-in-law and sons-in law

Many in the United States are unable to endure the longevity of marriage and respect its attending responsibilities. There are many reasons for divorce. There is ample cause for celebration when a couple honors this promise and commitment they have made to each other for a lifetime. This was a reason to celebrate. In addition to their 50th, Porfirio recently celebrated his 75th birthday.

And now, all the grandchildren!

And now, all the grandchildren

Gloria and Porfirio were surrounded with love. They have devoted their lives to their family and now it was their children’s turn to honor them. At the end of the mass, everyone took turns surrounding them at the altar, taking group photos and exchanging hugs and kisses.

Preciosa Sangre de Cristo church, Teotitlan del Valle

Preciosa Sangre de Cristo church, Teotitlan del Valle

People lingered. They took photos. Took turns gathering. First the sons and daughters. Then their husbands and wives. Then the grandchildren. My friend Hollie said we were in the middle of a love fest.


Then, we all went to the family compound for a meal of goat consomme, barbecue goat, handmade organic corn tortillas, plenty of beer and mezcal. The toasts were ample. A trio of musicians entertained the group under a large fiesta tent.


Guests flowed in with flowers, cases of beer, bottles of mezcal and wrapped gifts. We all went to the altar room to greet Gloria and Porfirio and offer gifts, a customary tribute. The altar room is where all family celebrations take place, where promises are made, people honored, prayers offered.

Daughter Carina Santiago Bautista, Tierra Antigua Restaurant owner

Daughter Carina Santiago Bautista, Tierra Antigua Restaurant owner

The younger women of the family prepared and served the meal. Their husbands, brothers and sons pitched in, too to make sure there was enough for everyone. In this land of abundance and plenty, containers were passed for the leftovers to carry home. One sister told me six organic goats were slaughtered for the meal.


The ritual meal that can serve hundreds is part of this village tradition. I think of it as “let no person go hungry.” I think it is part of the strong values here to maintain family and community support, so show respect.

A 50th wedding anniversary cake like no other, baked by Norma Gutierrez

A 50th wedding anniversary cake like no other, baked by Norma Gutierrez

For the grand finale, we had cake. Not just any cake, but a multi-layered almond confection that looked like it belonged at a wedding. This was accompanied by the ubiquitous gelatina — a mosaic jello mold, only lightly sweetened, that everyone here loves, including me.

Young boys busied themselves on smart phones

Young boys busied themselves on smart phones

Gloria’s brother is director of the village symphony orchestra. They marched in, horns out front, and we all waited for them to strike up the Jarabe del Valle, the traditional Zapotec line dance, men on one side, women on the other, that is played at every fiesta gathering.


People here take their commitments seriously. There were three or four generations sitting together around these tables, each knowing their roles and what they were responsible for doing. This usos y costumbres village is based on the guelaguetza system of give and take, mutual support and harmony. To maintain the village, there are volunteer responsibilities that residents must accept and do.

An astounding practice is the way all guests are greeted individually. Instead of a receiving line, all arriving guests go around the tables and offer two hands extended to each person seated. They say hello in Zapotec (zak schtil) or Spanish (buenas tardes). This is practiced by adults and children alike, a show of respect and thanks for participating together. P.S. Zapotec is an oral, not written, language. There are researchers who are writing a transliterated oral dictionary. 

Gloria in a tete-a-tete with her mother. Chismes?

Gloria in a tete-a-tete with her mother. Chismes?

Porfirio served as president of the municipio, the village governing body, some years ago. That means that Gloria was by his side to serve the village, too. Honor, ritual, connection, keeping the chain of tradition going are admirable values. There is time given to celebration and to being with people. Lots of time for an eight hour fiesta. There were few cell phones in sight.

I love this photo of Gloria. It honors her strength, dependability and work ethic.

I love this photo of Gloria. It honors her strength, dependability and tenderness.

And, to cap it all off, just a couple of out-takes to keep you entertained!





Happy New Year: Feliz Año Nuevo From Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca

My family is here for the New Year. This past week we celebrated with a mezcal tour led by Alvin Starkman, a pottery tour to Santa Maria Atzompa with Innovando y Tradicion and a family trip to Hierve el Agua and San Juan del Rio.

We ended 2015 with a grand New Year’s Eve fiesta and finished off with a January 1 ritual pilgrimage to Las Cuevitas to welcome the New Year with wishes. Here, everyone is encouraged to have dreams.

This year the sunset at Las Cuevitas was less than dramatic but the festivities carried on in grand style befitting Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca.  Like, close to the entire village was here. The band plays on and fireworks continue throughout the day and night.


We could call it a family picnic on the hillside but it’s much more than that. This celebration to welcome in the New Year is ancient. These grottos where three altars stand hold magical and healing properties. Make a wish at the altar. Then toss a coin into the small brook. If the coin lands on the plate and not in the water your wish will come true.

A wish for good health and prosperity, with candles, flowers and pesos

A wish for good health and prosperity, with candles, flowers and pesos

Mostly, people wish for good health. They might dream of a new house or a baby or a yard filled with farm animals, a good corn crop, the absence of drought. Abundance is a dream we all wish for, worldwide. We sent a prayer to our mom who just died. Lit a candle. Made our tribute.

The fire log toss, Teotitlan del Valle style at Las Cuevitas

The fire log toss, Teotitlan del Valle style at Las Cuevitas

Here young men play with fire. They soak a special log in kerosene and take turns throwing it off to the next one in the circle. A pre-Hispanic ritual, someone explains to me.

Families gather around campfires. Some have pitched tents and spend the night there New Year’s Eve. There are cooking stoves and the smell of grilled meat fills the air.


Each year on January 1, I always like to arrive by 4 p.m. to get there in time for sunset. This gives me a chance to gather rocks and join the locals to build a miniature structure that will symbolize plenty in the year to come.


Small plastic barnyard animals are for sale at the entrance to the caves. You can add these to the front yard of your house or build a roof with leafy branches gathered from the countryside. 

As sun sets, the sparklers twinkle and we get into the rhythm of the evening. It is festive and makes us pause to reflect on the past year and the one to come.

This year I had my son, sister, brother-in-law and goddaughter with me, along with friends, so being at Las Cuevitas was a special time. We made wishes, gave thanks, remembered parents and grandparents, and looked out onto the Tlacolula Valley from the mountain top.

More than a few of us played with fire. As sunset became night, the hillside filled with a display of light that could be seen from the Pan-American highway.


Wishing you all a 2016 filled with love, all that you wish for including blessings, peace, health, contentment and satisfaction. Thank you for being with me on this remarkable journey.

Un abrazo, Norma.

P.S. If you want to come and spend the night, make your reservations early! There is a limited supply of rooms in Teotitlan del Valle and I know some people were disappointed they couldn’t be here.

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.




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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.