Monthly Archives: May 2011

Agua Fresca de Sandia Thirst Quencher on a Hot, Hot Day: That’s Watermelon Juice, Folks

Yesterday it was 93 degrees and about 80 percent humidity in North Carolina. Today and for the rest of the week, the temperature will climb toward 97 degrees.  Staying hydrated is really important.  I am calling up the Oaxaca gods of food and drink.  They know what to offer when the heat becomes unbearable: Agua Fresca de Sandia or Watermelon Juice Drink.

Here is the recipe:

  • Equipment:  a blender!
  • 4 cups cubed watermelon flesh
  • 1/4 cup organic Turbinado raw cane sugar
  • 1 cup water
  • juice of two limes
  • ice cubes

Dissolve the sugar in the water.  You can do this by heating the water in a measuring cup in the microwave until warm, then add the sugar and stir.  Add ice cubes (6-8) until the water chills.

Put the watermelon cubes into the blender.  Add the sugar-water and lime juice.  Add ice cubes and blend.  The more ice cubes you add the more you will create a “frozen” drink like a slushy.  Taste.  If you want a stronger watermelon flavor, add more.  And, if you want a Watermelon Margarita, just add tequila!

This drink, with or without the liquor, is a great thirst quencher and very easy.

I’m sorry I don’t have photos.  I drank it all before I thought of writing this post 🙂




Dia de Los Muertos–Day of the Dead in Oaxaca, Mexico–History and Traditions

Dia de los Muertos is a festive, joyous and religious celebration that is one of the most important in Mexico. Families honor the memory of their ancestors and the continuity of life with the belief that the souls of departed loved ones return to visit once a year. A blend of ancient indigenous and European Catholic traditions, Dia de los Muertos is not a time of mourning.  It is believed the practice began long before the Spanish conquest, perhaps as early as the Olmec civilization more than 3,000 years ago. Later cultures — the Toltecs, Maya, Zapotec, Mixtec and Aztecs — adopted the early practices.   At the time of the Spanish conquest in the early 16th century, the dominant Aztec celebration was held during the month of Miccailhitonitl presided over by the goddess of the same name (translated to Lady of the Dead).

Day of the Dead Photography Expedition 2011: Don’t miss it!

In an effort to convert the indigenous people to Catholicism, the church incorporated the Aztec celebration with All Saints’ Day and All Hallows Eve (Halloween).   In Oaxaca, the celebrations begin on October 31 and continue through November 2.  Preparations begin weeks in advance.  Although the skeleton is a predominant symbol for both Halloween and Dia de los Muertos, the meaning is very different.  In Mexico, the skeleton (calavera) represents the dead playfully mimicking the living and not a macabre symbol at all.

Each Oaxaca village celebrates with parades and processions.  Families make an ofrenda or offering on the home altar and on gravesite.  In Xoxocotlan, the major celebration is at the cemetery on All Hallows Eve, the night of October 31. All Saints’ Day, November 1, is celebrated in San Augustin Etla and San Pablo Villa de Mitla.  In Teotitlan del Valle, the village celebrates at their cemetery on All Souls’ Day, November 2.  Throughout the city of Oaxaca there are calendas or processions throughout this several day period, including those with children dressed in costume.

The Ofrenda or Offering

Home altar rooms are the social center and spiritual hub of Zapotec households.  This is where the family gathers and greets relatives and friends for engagements, weddings, baptisms, birthday parties, and deaths.  Home altars are designed in a specific way to allow the spirits of ancestors to easily return to visit their living loved ones during Day of the Dead.  In addition, businesses, hotels, restaurants, churches, museums and offices will also prepare an altar to honor their dead and await their spirits.  Some altars will have a path of marigold flowers leading to it to help guide the way, depending upon family traditions.  Altars are decorated with the favorite foods and beverages of the deceased along with their photos.   Bread, chocolate, beer, mescal, a favorite soft drink, nuts and fruit, marigolds, sugar cane stalks, and skull shaped candies decorate the altar along with with the incense and candles. The aroma of fragrant flowers, copal incense, and the light of the candles are essential elements in helping the dead find their way back from the spirit world.

Visitors to Oaxaca homes in the city or in a village during this time should not go empty handed!  It is a courtesy to bring a loaf of pan muerto, chocolate, a bottle of mescal or a six-pack of beer.  The hospitality will be reciprocated: you will be offered hot chocolate, a slice of bread and a shot of mescal in true guelaguetza fashion.

The Xoxocotlan Cemetery is a frenzy crowds, candles, flowers, families picnicking, strolling musicians, local costumed revelers and a g-zillion visitors. The sun sets this time of year at around 7 p.m. and that’s when most people arrive.  Even then, it’s difficult to find a parking space and there is a taxi line-up going into town.  There are TWO cemeteries in Xoxo, and if you have time, be sure to see them both.  They are about six blocks apart.  The new cemetery is huge and that’s where the biggest party takes place.  At the entrance is a giant tent with a bandstand and chairs for the audience.  The music ranges from local bands with vocalists to symphony.  Lining the side streets are tented booths selling food and carnival trinkets.  The old cemetery is smaller and more serene.  The grave sites abut each other with few places to walk without stumbling over a candle or a cross.  At the center of this space is a crumbling, ancient church whose roof disappeared long ago.

In Oaxaca city, the Benito Juarez and Abastos Markets are filled with food, flowers, sugar and chocolate and sesame candy skulls, egg bread in various shapes decorated with painted heads of saints, mounds of cinnamon sticks, and fabled Oaxaca chocolate, plus whatever else you can imagine.  You could get lost in the flowers.

So, as we think about Day of the Dead, it is important to challenge our own cultural beliefs by understanding that death in Mexico is considered a positive part of the life cycle and a time for remembrance.

About Day of the Dead: What it is and isn’t!

  • It is not Halloween.  Mexicans have celebrated Day of the Dead for thousands of years.
  • It is not morbid; there are no pictures of dead people, ghosts, witches or devils.
  • It isn’t a cult.  It is a Catholic ritual blended with folk culture.
  • It honors dead relatives, but it does not dwell on death.  It celebrates life, cultural heritage, ancestors, and the meaning and purpose of our own life on earth.
  • Altars or ofrendas are not for ancestor worship, but for offering love and remembrance.
  • It is not a sad ritual, but a joyful one.
  • It is not about fear, but about love.
  • It is not “strange” and is like going to paying respects at a grave, leaving flowers, and lighting a candle.
  • It is not disrespectful; it is a reflection on the cycle of life.

Our ofrenda to you:  Visit Oaxaca and take part in our Day of the Dead Documentary Photography Expedition.

Countdown to Muertos in Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca

October 31–All Hallows Eve

Our family friend, Janet Chavez Santiago, tells us that we don’t want to miss being with them in the village of Teotitlan del Valle on October 31.  This is when the Zapotec villagers go to the local market to buy the fruits and special bread for the altar that is part of each family’s home.  Her brother Eric tells me that this market day in Teotitlan del Valle is one of the largest and most abundant of the year.

November 1–All Saints’ Day

Oaxacan Zapotecs believe that the souls of all their dead relatives will arrive in the altar room of their houses at 3:00 p.m.  So, the family gathers there, eat tamales together, light candles and welcome the spiritual return of their loved ones.  At 5:00 p.m. after the special comida, the practice is to visit the houses of their relatives to pay respects to the souls of the extended family members who have passed.  Janet says that many family visitors come to their house, too, bringing gifts for the altar that include some of the favorite foods of the dead.

November 2–All Souls’ Day

Everyone stays home to rest, to visit more, and to be with the spirits of the dead relatives.  At 3:00 p.m. the souls return to the cemetery and there is a family procession to the graveyard to accompany the souls as they re-enter the graves.  Family members sit by the grave side in solitude and reflection in this village.  The ceremony here is very low-key compared to Xoxocotlan.





Film Review: Woven Lives—Contemporary Textiles from Ancient Oaxacan Traditions

This documentary film is a visual feast for the senses that takes us on a sensory journey across Oaxaca, Mexico.  Here we meet the exemplars – the outstanding artists, artisans, and curators who are keeping the weaving traditions alive.  This film captures sense of place, history, culture, and diversity.  It creates a vital thread from past to future, linking the emotional and aesthetic work that goes into the creative process with the economic implications of survival for the art and the culture.

Featured are extraordinary weavers who work on the two-harness floor loom, the back-strap loom, and use fly shuttle weaving.  We learn about the process of cultivating, spinning and weaving silk.  We understand the environmental and sustainable responsibility for using natural dyes, and the importance of finding world markets to sell so that the culture endures.

The film features several of my favorite weavers:  Federico Chavez Sosa, Erasto “Tito” Mendoza Ruiz, and Abigail Mendoza.  It also includes commentary by my friends Eric Chavez Santiago, education director at the Museo Textil de Oaxaca, and Janet Chavez Santiago, a linguist and weaver. (Federico’s rugs are available for sale on this web site in the Gallery-Shop Here)

There is so much that this 1:16:19 DVD film by University of Wisconsin-Madison professor Carolyn Kallenborn covers in such a relatively short period. And you can choose to watch in English or in Spanish.

We hear the Zapotec language spoken and how its revival is a way to sustain cultural traditions. We appreciate weaving as a community endeavor to support generational continuity.  We learn how designs are created on the tapestry loom extrapolated from archeological stone carving.  We see how the cochineal bug is cultivated on the prickly pear cactus and the chemical oxidation of indigo.  To ground us, life in Oaxaca is interwoven throughout.

We discover how American students can intern with Oaxaca weavers for cultural exchange.  We realize that it takes 20 days to hand spin enough silk to make one shawl and five days to weave it.  We come to value the time and energy it takes to work by hand — to wash, card, spin, dye and weave a quality textile.

Carolyn Kallenborn’s in-depth film is ambitious, comprehensive, and compelling.  It is a must-see for every lover of woven art, every student and teacher who is involved in the creative process, and all who want to know more about Oaxaca and its extraordinary textile traditions.

To order your own personal copy, go to or

Federico Chavez Sosa’s handwoven rugs made with naturally dyed wool are available for sale on this web site. Click on Gallery Shop Here under the photo banner.

Review by Norma Hawthorne, Oaxaca Cultural Navigator LLC,




Dos Perros, Durham, NC, Mexican Restaurant Oaxaca Rug Decor

Durham, NC is the destination for dining, named among the top 10 locales in the U.S. for great restaurants and urban redesign.  The downtown is renewed, gentrified and electrified.  It is more than charming.  It is full of spunk and sizzle.  Turn the corner, discover another great dining room and bar with kick-A ambience. One of my favorite Durham eateries is Dos Perros–A Mexican Place. I’ve written about their fresh mango cayenne margaritas and tasty, reasonably priced wine list and knock-your-socks-off pozole with chicken and salsa verde.


Federico Chavez Sosa at his loom



Yesterday, I dropped in for a visit with Charlie (owner) and Raul (manager) who selected four fantastic hand-woven and naturally dyed wool rugs made by our friend Federico Chavez Sosa for permanent display on the walls of the restaurant.  The rugs are beautiful and add a cozy, authentic decor to the brick walls of the renovated historic building that houses the dining spot. Federico is thrilled, too.  There have not been as many visitors to Oaxaca since the fear of drug violence has kept Americans and Canadians from traveling south.   So, we are grateful to Charlie and Raul for wanting to support Federico and his family while adding this special ambience to the Dos Perros restaurant decor.

International Surface Design Association Conference Features Oaxaca Weaver Tito Mendoza

Tito Mendoza Ruiz uses a traditional Saltillo-style tapestry weaving technique that employs 22 threads per inch to create his very intricate and detailed work.  He is one of the weavers, along with Federico Chavez Sosa, featured in Carolyn Kallenborn’s documentary film, “Woven Lives.”  Tito’s work and Carolyn’s film are showing at the 2011 International Surface Design Association Conference in Minneapolis-St. Paul.  See the invitation letter from Tito below.

Click here for a link to the Conference Brochure.

An Invitation from Oaxaca weaver Tito Mendoza




Tito Mendoza's Art Rug Mural selected for special exhibition in Mexico City

The figure of an indigenous Zapotec moves out of the traditional “Eye of God” design on the left side of the tapestry into the cornfields, through wind, sky and ocean.  The allegorical piece is a tribute to the power of nature and the place that humans hold in it.  The cotton hand-woven fringes were tied off by Alejandrina Rios, the wife of Tito Mendoza.