Monthly Archives: October 2009

Altars, Altars Everywhere: Oaxaca Muertos 2009

This is a spectacular time of year to be in Oaxaca.  The streets are filled with music, parades, costumes, tourists, and cars.  It can take 30 minutes to get through the historic district in a taxi.  There is excitement and energy in the air with preparations for when beloved departed will return to earth to visit and those who remember them honor their memory.  Altars are everywhere:  in restaurants, hotels, homes, in street vendors’ stalls, shops and tiendas.  Every one is a work of art, incorporating food, drink, photos of the departed, bright marigold flowers, and special touches applied by each creator.  At Restaurante Azucena at the San Martin Tilcajete crossroads, the altar used the seven varieties of indigenous corn, yellow-orange marigolds, sugar skulls, and the light of many votives.  Bamboo fronds form the arch from which to hang fruit, bread, and chocolate.  On Sunday, we will go to Teotitlan to participate in the family ritual of decorating the altar, the center of religious and spiritual home life.  Today, we will accompany the family to the Abastos market to shop for all the goodies.

Shopping Oaxaca: Galeria Lola y Fe


Around the corner from the Santo Domingo Church on Ave. Cinco de May #408 is the new gallery shop opened by my friends Federico Chavez Sosa and his wife Dolores Santiago Arrellanas.  Her nickname is Lola and his is Fe!  They weave the most spectacular tapetes (rugs) that I have talked about and featured on my blog and website for the past several years.  This is a new adventure for the family.  They have been based in Teotitlan del Valle their entire lives, where they live, work and sell their rugs from their home on Francisco I. Madero #55.  Now, their dream to have a spot in the city that is more accessible to visitors is realized.

They work only in natural dyes, buying the hand carded and spun churro wool from friends in the Oaxaca highland town of Chichicapam.  They wash the wool by hand and prepare it in skein for dyeing.  Then, they create the glorious, vibrant colors using the natural, organic materials from the cochineal bug and plants:  wild marigold, indigo, pecan leaves and shells, pomegranates, lichens and moss.

In addition to the rugs, wall hangings and table coverings, you will find handbags, folk art and other collectibles.

There are many rug vendors in Oaxaca, but few have the artistic mastery of this weaving family.  Designs range from contemporary to traditional, and many rugs incorporate the Zapotec motifs from the archeological sites of Mitla and Monte Alban.  There is depth and imagination that you will find no where else.

It is important to emphasize that chemical dyes used by most other weavers are toxic and put the people who use them at risk for cancer and respiratory illness.  Using natural dyes takes time, skill and greater expense.  Supporting weavers who use authentic natural dyes is a way to sustain the environment, promote good health, and reintroduce indigenous dyeing techniques.

Galeria Lola y Fe has been open less than a week.  It is inside a lovely courtyard with a bubbling fountain, in a space shared by the Gestalt Institute.  To get there, you enter into the courtyard and it is on your immediate left.  The gallery is not visible from the street, so you have to venture inside the courtyard, past the shop that sells fabrics from Mitla.  It is a few doors down from my other favorite gallery, El Nahual.

You can see the documentary I made about this work on YouTube:  Weaving a Curve Movie

To contact Lola y Fe, telephone (951) 524-4078.  Hours vary.

Or (951) 1302481 (son Eric Chavez Santiago, director of education, Museo Textil de Oaxaca)

Whirlwind Day One Shopping in Oaxaca, Muertos 2009

I must confess, I wonder what the cultural value is of spending an entire day in quest of Oaxaca goodies:  mole, alebrijes, hand wrought silver jewelry, textiles, plus a couple of great meals thrown in for good measure.   I am traveling with my sister  Barbara who is the essence of great shopping.  She is the only one I know who can both keep up with me and out-do me.  We must share more than 50 percent of the gene pool.  Our day started at our bed and breakfast, Las Bugambilias.  Brigitte arrived early laden with her wax carved then cast silver.  Brigitte is a French woman who has been living in Oaxaca for over 15 years.  Her husband Ivan relaxed in the rattan chair on the patio with a cigarette poised in his left hand, smoke twirling skyward, while she came into the breakfast room, took a seat on the red divan, and opened her jewelry roll on the coffee table in front of her for the guests around the breakfast table to see.  Barbara prearranged the meeting, bringing orders from her friends in the Bay Area, and by the time the four remaining women at the breakfast table had turned their seats and attention toward Brigitte, tried on the rings, earrings, bracelets, necklaces carved with symbols of Aztec, Mayan and Zapotec life, over an hour had passed.  If you want Brigitte to come to your hotel to give you a showing, you can find her at Kanda Jewelry Oaxaca.  My textile designer friend Sheri Brautigam arrived next.  We discussed this new marketing technique of going to where the customers are!  Sheri, who grew up in San Francisco, is working with local women in Tlacolula to fashion lovely shoulder wraps called “quetchquemals”  pronounced Ketch-Keh-Mahls with hand woven jaspe (Has-pay) fabric from Tenancingo.  Another fashion show ensued!  By the time we left the B&B it was 1:30 p.m. and we both needed to get to an ATM to withdraw pesos – destination Zocalo.  But I couldn’t withdraw after repeated attempts and realized I had forgotten to call my bank to tell them I was traveling.  By the time I had cleared this up going through voicemail jail, another hour had passed.  Our original plan to leave for Arrazola to see Berta Cruz by late morning had not materialized.  By 2:30 p.m. we hailed a taxi, negotiated a fixed 120 peso per hour rate, and took off for Arrazola.  Many people have asked me, where is Berta Cruz?  The best I can tell you is, drive into town, turn right at the village cooperative, turn left at the first street, turn left at the next street, and go down the hill until you come to a bamboo door just a little bit past the corner and there you will find Berta.  She is becoming very famous as a fantastic painter of alebrijes that her husband carves.  They are a young couple with a lovely baby girl called Luna, and their work is showcased in the Jacobo Angeles gallery in San Martin Tilcajete.  I purchased a few small gifts: a beautiful armadillo, two iguanas, a dragon whose mouth Berta decided to paint bright yellow on the spot.  Barbara  went for an extraordinary Muerta topped with checkered hat, arms on an ample bustle, holding an umbrella.   We decided to pass on going to Atzompa and returned to La Ciudad, a trip that took almost forty five minutes.  I won’t bore you with the details of stopping to buy mole on 20 de Noviembre at Mayordomo (tip: buy it by the kilo in triple wrapped plastic bags, you won’t be paying for glass packaging and you’ll take home more), making our way to Casa Oaxaca for comida, an exercise of almost two hours by the time we stopped to watch a street parade of children from Benito Juarez dressed for Muertos, foraging for textiles in and out of shops.  At Raizes, a shop on Matamoros, we found a beautiful Teofila Palafox handwoven silk and cotton huipil dyed with indigo details of crab, fish, and rabbit, from San Mateo del Mar at a great price.  Finally, by 6 p.m., we went to the original Casa Oaxaca on Garcia Virgil where there is a smaller kitchen with a limited menu and quiet patio dining.  It was just perfect.  Barbara had the cream of squash blossom soup followed by a beautiful shrimp and avocado salad that tasted like ceviche.  I chose the nopal cactus and shrimp soup in a spicy broth that was to die for, followed by tempura battered shrimp each the size of my fist.  Extraordinary.  We then arrived at Amate Bookstore 30 minutes late for a presentation by a northeast travel writer about how he mapped the alebrijes artisans of La Union and San Martin Tilcajete.  His next project is Teotitlan, he says.  All we can say is, good luck!  How to determine which 100 weavers to put on a map remains a mystery to me, since my personal criteria would be to only select those who work in natural dyes, of which there are only eight to ten.  Our evening wrapped up with a visit to El Nahual on Cinco de Mayo to say hello to Ale and Tito Mendoza.   Their shop is doing very well and we are happy for them.

Next door, in the arcade at 408 Cinco de Mayo, where you will see a beautiful fountain in the courtyard, our dearest friends the Chavez Santiago family have opened a gallery to show their tapetes (rugs) from Teotitlan.   These are guaranteed to be authentic naturally dyed rugs, and they are incredible.  Don’t miss the experience.

Swine Flu Cases Higher in U.S. Than in Mexico

The debate rages on: What will be the health impact of swine flu this season?  Is there any greater risk for traveling to Mexican than there is staying home in the U.S.?  We had this debate in my family last week.  My sister and I are traveling to Oaxaca for a week to be together during the Day of the Dead at the end of this month.  We’ve had our plane tickets for six months.  We bought them cheap during the height of the swine flu scare last summer!  She lives in Northern California and I live in North Carolina.  Our annual sisterly rendezvous has taken us to places where we can meet up and have fun together.    This year, she has been concerned because she is allergic to flu shots and has been advised by her physician not to get innoculated with the swine flu vaccine (which isn’t even readily available to the general public so far).

So, what to do?  We went online, of course, and here’s what we discovered.  As of September 27, 2009 there were:

51,675  cases of swine flu in the United States
23,375  cases of swine flu in Mexico

I was in the Los Angeles International Airport last Monday returning to North Carolina and all the visitors from Japan were wearing face masks!  Rightly or not, it seems by the raw numbers that I could be at higher risk for staying home in the U.S.  What do you think?

We decided to keep our travel plans and go to Oaxaca.  The scare seems to be taking on a life of its own.  The impact on tourism to Mexico is huge and our friends in Oaxaca tell us that there are few visitors from the U.S. and Canada.  Crafts villages and the people who create textiles, pottery, wood carvings, and other art that depend upon tourism are suffering.  I wonder how long it will take for Mexico to shake this stigma.

Here’s a CDC report via MSNBC: