Tag Archives: Zapotec

Death in the Family: Oaxaca, Mexico

It’s quiet. The sky is covered over with a blanket of thin clouds. Birdsong accentuates the space. Though it’s the end of June just before the solstice, the morning is chill. A breath of wind rustles the guaje tree branches outside the kitchen window. I need a wool wrap. Breakfast is hot oatmeal with goat yoghurt and fresh mango. I am conscious of each bite. Conscious of my mouth chewing, my tongue curling around my teeth, the swallow of sustenance. It is quiet. I feel the solitude. Perhaps this is the morning calm before the sky opens in an eruption of sun and heat, later to be soothed by afternoon rain.

She died yesterday. It’s as if she is waiting to take flight, her soul soaring skyward to the heavens, as her body is prepared by loved ones for burial before the procession to the cemetery. The street in front of her house is covered in a raised white tent, a shelter and a blessing on all who exit and enter. It is a sign to know she has passed to where the gods will take her. This is how it’s done here in the Zapotec village where I live in southern Mexico.

We know other life cycle events by the red and blue striped tents that cover patios and courtyards and streets. These are the happy times: baptisms, quinceaneras, weddings, birthdays and anniversaries. Life here is a constant celebration.

Early summer. Just plowed fields wait to receive indigenous seeds: corn, beans and squash. The earth is moist with rain, fertile volcanic soil is enriched with manure plowed under over centuries. Crops rotate. Fields go fallow. The dry season comes in winter to welcome snow birds. The rainy season cycles around again.

The band plays in her courtyard. It is a dirge. Familiar. Known to all. A call to the dead and those still living to pay attention, pay homage, give thanks, pause, embrace family and mourn. I climb the stairs to the rooftop to look out over the valley and the street where she lived. I didn’t know her well, only in passing. She was a slight woman, quiet, mother of eight, who battled diabetes for the past ten years and died well before sixty.LevineMuertos NormaBest11Xoxo10312013-6

Church bells ring. Sobering. Somber. Soon the procession will form, led by a drummer, followed by the band playing the dirges. Pallbearers will carry her casket, followed by women whose heads are covered in black rebozos. They holdy flowers and candles as they likely did centuries ago. They will walk slowly, thoughtfully, carefully, one foot before the other, through the cobbled streets to the cemetery where she is buried today.

The family will sit in mourning for a week, receive visitors who bring bread, chocolate, flowers, candles and condolences. A black bow will cover the doorway to the house. The bow will stay there forever, until it disintegrates in the wind, rain, sun, over time.

In nine months, her grave will be dedicated with a cross, placed in front of those who passed before her. Until then, it will be unmarked. When they put her to rest in the earth, they will move aside the bones of her ancestors to make a space for her. Her soul will return to visit loved ones during Day of the Dead each year following the scent of cempazuchitl and copal. May she rest in peace.

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In Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca, Only Some Call It Carnaval

The Monday after Easter in Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca, Mexico, begins a five-day ritual practice about sustaining community. This is an ancient tradition that pre-dates the Spanish conquest of 1521. Some call it Carnaval (aka Mardi Gras) but it isn’t. It is called Baile de los Viejos or Dance of the Old Men, according to my interviews with local Zapotecs who know the oral history and culture because they live here and learned the ancient lore from their parents and grandparents.

Today and tomorrow in Teotitlan del Valle, the procession starts around 4 p.m. local time (5 p.m. in Oaxaca) followed by the Dance of the Old Men in the Municipio Plaza.

Carnaval is a pre-Lenten celebration that we know all too well from the festivities in New Orleans and Rio de Janeiro. It is rooted in a Roman celebration that extended throughout Europe during the middle ages.


Dance of the Old Men, the Viejitos, is a way for each of the five sections of the village of Teotitlan del Valle to give anonymous feedback to its elected officials, the president and the committee.  It is a self-governing mechanism that gives voice to each person in the community that is transmitted by the masked actors who represent them. The mime is a ritual about giving feedback, paying honor and tribute to leaders and keeping communication open for honest dialog.



It’s true that the Dance has taken on a more carnival atmosphere, complete with food and drink and ice cream vendors. Children participate in the masked dancing and there is a frivolity in the air. But, this is a serious practice that ensures cohesion and lets the leaders know how well they are doing, if they are meeting expectations and where they may be falling short. Humility is rewarded here. Arrogance is not. Leaders are reminded that they are in their voluntary and elected roles at the behest of the people.


This is a self-governing model for Mexico’s Usos y Costumbres villages, many of which are in Oaxaca.

The generation of grandfathers and grandmothers want their children to know that this is not Carnaval. It is an important, ancient Zapotec practice about how to live together peacefully, with self-governance. Let’s do our part to help perpetuate the accurate story.


Oaxaca Road Trip to Hierve el Agua: Perhaps the World’s First Infinity Pool

Final Hierve A-3Hierve el Agua is an ancient pre-Hispanic Zapotec ceremonial site located about an hour beyond San Pablo Villa de Mitla, one of Oaxaca’s archeological wonders. Hierve el Agua, meaning bubbling water, is a wonder in its own right, nestled on the edge of a mountain ridge in Oaxaca’s Sierra de Juarez.

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A cluster of small pools are carved out of the rock, formed by bubbling underground springs that are no longer hot but lukewarm. The stunning calcified waterfall is one of only two in the world.

Final Hierve A-7Look out at the pool’s edge and there appears to be a shear drop-off into the steep canyon below.  The calcium formations on the surface create interesting patterns and are like stalactites found in caves. Touch them. They feel like a coral reef, sharp and hard. We wore water sandals to protect our feet and to keep from slipping over the edge!

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Rivulets of water bubble up from holes and run in small streams toward the hollowed out pool.

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This is a perfect place for swimming and sun-bathing. Be sure to bring a towel, bathing suit, hat and sunscreen.  I even saw some swimmers wearing goggles.

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Since I didn’t plan too far ahead, I went dipping in my sun dress and undies. A very refreshing interlude to a hot day in November in the Oaxaca mountains not far from the village where I live.

Final Hierve A-10How to get there? You can travel in your own car like we did and follow the Carretera Nacional (Pan American Highway) MEX 190 from Oaxaca to Mitla, then connect on MEX 179 and follow the signs. It’s pretty easy. Click here for a road map.

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Getting there takes the same route as the trip to San Juan del Rio, one of my favorite mezcal making villages. So you might think about combining this as a day trip.

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Another option is to take a tour van from Oaxaca city. This is limiting, since you only get about an hour at the site and the tour may combine this trip with a stop at Mitla and Teotitlan del Valle.  In my opinion, this route deserves an entire day if you have the time. It’s a perfect place to enjoy and relax.

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I also saw that people came out on collectivos connecting from Mitla. So, there are independent travel options if you are so inclined!

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Portrait Photography Workshop coming up the end of January, 2015. There is space for you!


Oaxaca’s Monte Alban Archeological Site Key to Zapotec Civilization

The UNESCO World Heritage archeological site of Monte Alban never ceases to capture and hold my attention. I go there every time I host visitors to Oaxaca and each time there is something new that I notice or an area that is recently restored. MonteAlban

The Spanish conquerors named Monte Alban, or white mountain, because the hill was in bloom with white flowering trees when they arrived.  This week, the sky was nearly flawless blue with outstanding big, white cloud formations. I don’t remember a more beautiful, breathtaking day here.

MonteAlban-8The best way to enter the site is to begin on the north platform, the highest place. After you go through the ticket turn-style make a right turn and continue up the hill.  The path isn’t well-marked, but the trail is well-traveled, so you will figure it out.  Even though it looks daunting, be sure to climb the pyramids.

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Otherwise, you will miss the most stunning views.  On the main level of the platform you will see carved stones depicting men captured in war. Called Los Danzantes, or dancers, these are replicas. The originals are in the museum on site and in the National Anthropology Museum in Mexico City.


Summer in Oaxaca is very temperate and GREEN.  Now,  the rainy season that brings torrents of water is almost over, and so we may get a late afternoon or evening shower, which is lovely, and tends to cools things off — a perfect temperature for sleeping.


By the time we arrived at Monte Alban, it was almost ten-thirty in the morning, and the sun was already strong. Our guide extraordinaire, Rene Cabrera Arroyo, was prepared and had plenty of bottled water for us.

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It took about two hours to walk the site and get a complete explanation of Zapotec history, conquests, relationships with the Aztecs and Mixtecs, and the political and religious structure at the time they were at the height of their power.

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Of course, we had to stop to look at the clay replicas of the found objects in the Monte Alban tombs made by local craftsmen from Arrazola. The figures are all hand formed and the sellers — who are the artisans — are licensed by Monte Alban to create and sell their wares.  Prices are reasonable and there’s room for a little bargaining to make it more fun — if you must!  (Remember, the dollar to peso value is in favor of the visitor so don’t drive a hard bargain.)

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It’s Guelaguetza time and Monte Alban crawling with visitors who come to Oaxaca from throughout Mexico and many foreign countries. I am hearing a cacophony of languages: German, British English, Australian English, Dutch, French, Japanese and Chinese, as well as Spanish and American English.


Oaxaca is a wonderful place to visit and bring the family for summer vacation. It’s safe, educational, fun and affordable. Entry fees are 59 pesos per person.  That translates to about $4.25 each. We’d love to see you here!


After Monte Alban, we went off to Atzompa, the nearby village of potters who supplied the priests and nobles with utilitarian and ceremonial clay vessels.

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My advice: wear sturdy shoes for rock climbing, use a sun hat, sun screen, and pack a water bottle — as important as your camera! And, consider hiring a licensed guide who knows the in-depth history of the place.  It will enrich your visit.


Rain Torrents and New Priest in Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca

The heavens opened yesterday afternoon to welcome a new priest to Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca. Perhaps, the ancient Zapotecs, in their infinite wisdom, said a special prayer for the rain god, too.  It is corn-planting season.

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The torrents came just as the celebration was to begin in the church courtyard, starting with a procession of young girls, soon-to-be women, with symbolic religious baskets to carry atop their heads. Needless to say, everyone ran for cover and the procession start was delayed. It rained about eight inches in less than an hour and a flood ensued


This is a very special occasion.  Very.  It has been decades, perhaps longer than most can remember here, even the grandmothers, that a Catholic priest has been assigned to perform permanent, regular service for the village.  The regional religious center for the area is in the neighboring village of Tlacochahuaya, and one circuit priest has served many villages in the valley, scheduling religious rites according to who needs what, when.

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Everyone in Teotitlan del Valle is ecstatic.  In honor of this event, there is a mass this morning (Saturday) followed by tamales for everyone. I’m told the village expects more than 3,000 people in the church courtyard this afternoon.

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As is customary, the occasion will be marked by Los Danzantes, the famed group of young men who make a three-year church commitment to serve God through performing the Dance of the Feather whenever the volunteer church committee calls on them.

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For the girls, this, too, is a special occasion. For some of them, it will be the first time they will have participated in a desfile and it means a lot. They wear colorful hand-embroidered blouses, traditional woven wool wrap skirts usually dyed with cochineal and tied with a wool sash adorned with pom poms.  This is what the grandmothers wear every day. But times are changing and the dress is worn only for ceremonial purposes by the younger generations.


In the photograph directly above, you can see the girls gathered, with the heavy canastas or baskets resting on the ground.  They are waiting for the procession to begin.  To the right, on the pillar of the inner courtyard of the church, is a Zapotec stone carving taken from the temple on the site and embedded into the church wall by the Spanish to attract the locals to the new religion.

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The rites of passage in Mexico has been an important part of indigenous culture for centuries.  The roots of these celebrations pre-date the conquest and one can imagine what it may have been like during the time of the Aztecs, Zapotecs and Mixtecs at the height of their civilizations by being here now.

That’s why it’s so meaningful to participate as a visitor. Please consider: