Monthly Archives: February 2013

Fat Tuesday, Mardi Gras, Carnival in San Martin Tilcajete, Oaxaca

San Martin Tilcajete is best known for its woodcarvings.  Whimsical figures — human, animal, and anthropomorphic — are painstakingly whittled from copal wood and then painted in bright, magical colors by talented artisans.

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Often, the designs are intricate patterns that derive from Zapotec symbology or represent scenes from every day village life–a band of musicians, a farmer driving an oxen cart, an armadillo or a mezcal toting devil.  The main street is lined with houses selling the figures.  Go back deeper into the village and you will find more alebrijes made and sold by nearly every home.

Shuckiing Corn Mezcal Devil

San Martin Tilcajete is a farming community where organic maize is still grown.  Behind the alebrije store front we found an elderly couple shucking corn — small ears with huge kernels — that would feed both animals and people.  Monsanto has not yet completely intruded here with its genetically modified, perfect, added-sugar, large kernel/large cob corn — thank goodness!  We jumped right in to lend a hand separating hard kernel from the cob.

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But on February 12, we didn’t go there to look at or buy alebrijes!  We were there on Fat Tuesday for Carnival, when the pueblo becomes a revelry of cross-dressers, dancers, greased young men brandishing spears and wearing masks, and a host of village onlookers and parade-goers.

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Tradition has it that Fat Tuesday is the last time to celebrate before the Lenten season of austerity and ritual fasting begins.  Food and drink flow, music pierces the air, and imaginative costumes become living figures of whimsical carvings.

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At the end of the parade through the mostly dusty dirt streets of San Martin Tilcajete, the troupe and entourage assemble in front of the village municipal building where the president and master of ceremonies pay homage to the tradition and the participants.

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Then, the honorary bride and groom of the parade go to the village church where there is a mock wedding ceremony that culminates the festivities.

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We got there early in the morning and left by 1 p.m. before we withered in the hot Oaxaca sun. After trailing the desfila (procession) through the streets of the village we were ready for a bougainvillea covered arbor of shade.  Even on February 12, it was a really hot day.  We heard the revelry will continue well into the night.

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We found respite, a beer, and lunch at Azucena Zapoteca restaurant at the intersection of the road to Ocotlan and San Martin Tilcajete.  Operated by famed carver Jacobo Angeles Ojeda and his wife Maria, the food and service are both outstanding.  Then, we caught a local Ocotlan bus right out front for 15 pesos (12 cents) that took us to Oaxaca, in time to buy bus tickets to Chiapas at the end of the week.

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Felted Fabric Fashion Oaxaca Style

Making felt is one of the oldest forms of fabric known to humankind–a process more than 6,000 years old.   Felt happens when sheep wool is moistened, heated and agitated.  

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For our Felted Fashion Workshop with Jessica de Haas in Oaxaca this week, we used merino wool dyed with natural plant materials — pericone and indigo, and the cochineal insect.   At the end of the week, we had collectively created shawls, scarves, rebozos, wall hangings, pillow covers and enough ideas to feed our creative energy for some time to come. 

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We gathered in the pomegranate tree-shaded courtyard, first to see examples of great garments, including published examples of Jessica’s.  Then, we jumped into two days of preparing sample fabric swatches to experiment with the colors and materials we brought.  Jessica warned us: always make samples first to see how the fabric will look before you make a larger piece.

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On day three, we jumped into tuk-tuks to have lunch at Tierra Antigua Restaurant.  (Can you see five of us packed into that little electric go-cart?)

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Afterward, I commandeered a pick-up truck to take us up the hill to see examples of indigenous clothing made by Arte y Seda.  We were ready to delve into the process of making felted yardage that could become a garment.

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Here in Teotitlan del Valle, people weave with wool every day, but using roving (wool that is not spun) for making felt is not familiar.  Zapotec  women who came into our workspace during the week were fascinated with the process.  I am hoping to give a demonstration of the process to local women later this spring.

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Some who participated were accomplished artists, like Linda Jacque, who paints guitars for famous rock musicians.  Her colorful vision was immediately evident in the pieces she created.

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Most of us were novices or beginners to the felt making process, so the experience was both instructive and fun.

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Working with bubble wrap, soap, water, plastic baggies, and lots of elbow (and sometimes foot) grease, we rolled, pressed, and agitated the wool until it began to felt.  The fibers of the wool move together and interlock.  Our instructor, felt fashion designer Jessica  checked, demonstrated, and encouraged us every step of the way.

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By the end of each day we were ready for a TMM.  Some of us chose to keep going even after dark.

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The local color inspired us!  Oaxaca’s great food gave us sustenance. The camaraderie kept us motivated.  We learned from and supported each other.  It was a fantastic experience.

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We hope you will join us next time!

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Workshop To Dye For: Cochineal, Indigo, Wild Marigold

It is a 10-hour day working together to dye the merino wool roving we are using for our Felted Fashion Workshop in Oaxaca, Mexico.  Long, but satisfying.   Our textile dye master is Eric Chavez Santiago who is also the education director at the Museo Textil de Oaxaca.   The colors we get are magnificent.


We gather first to talk about the history of cochineal and indigo, where it is grown now, how it is prepared for dyeing, and the chemistry of natural dye mixing.  Eric uses a mordant on the wool first before dyeing with  cochineal and wild marigold, called pericone here, to fix the color.  The pericone is gathered from the countryside.  Indigo, which comes from the coast of Oaxaca, needs no mordanting.

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First, we remove the merino wool roving from the mordant bath, squeeze it, and make 2 lb. bundles.  All hands together!  A great team building experience for our first day together, one of the participants says later. The dye formula is calculated based upon the weight of the fiber.

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After calculating the weight of fiber, Eric measures the cochineal, dilutes it and adds it to the warm water, which must be held at a specific temperature.  Bella brought a digital thermometer from the U.S.A. that goes between centigrade and fahrenheit to translate the heat for us.

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We carefully immerse the wool into the dye bath to insure an evenly saturated color.

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We are in the home of the Chavez Santiago Family Weavers in Teotitlan del Valle.  They only work with natural dyes, an important ingredient for sustainability that achieves glorious color.  Eric’s mother, Dolores Santiago Arrellanas, gives us a hand to check the color of the wool.  And we stir, and stir some more.

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Next, we move on to preparing indigo.  It’s a family affair, and Eric’s dad Federico Chavez Sosa, also checks out the dye baths, while youngest brother Omar helps move the giant dye pots, which must be either enamel coated or stainless steel.

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Eric adds the powdered indigo to a glass jar filled with marbles.  He shakes the jar to disburse the dye particles and oxygenate it.  He then pours this carefully into the dye pot and stirs from the center.

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Your fingers can’t do anything else but turn blue.  Eric says that indigo is not really a dye, but rather is a stain that coats the surface of the fiber rather than saturating it.

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We use the indigo to over dye some of the cochineal and pericone to get various shades of red, coral, pink, and green.  And we leave some of the pericone and cochineal in its original color.

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After removing the dyed roving from the pots, we rinse and then begin separating the fibers to fluff them.  This makes it easier to pull apart later to start the felting process.

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Lunch is delivered by La Tierra Antigua Restaurant — host Carina Santiago makes delicious tacos dorados with guacamole and fresh fruit. We are finished by 7 p.m. after starting at 9:30 a.m. and walk back to our bed and breakfast completely satisfied with the day.   

Candelaria and Tamales Go Together in Oaxaca

Candelaria means tamales in Oaxaca, Mexico. Here in Mexico, tradition dictates that the person who gets the plastic baby Jesus imbedded in the Rosca de Reyes on Three Kings Day, January 6, gets to offer tamales on Candelaria, February 2.  Nearly everyone gets the baby and everyone eats tamales.

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And, it’s not just one type of tamale but two:  One version is a traditional soft masa tortilla stuffed with mole amarillo and chicken wrapped in a green corn husk.

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The second version originates from the tropical coast of Oaxaca where banana trees are plentiful.  The leaf is smeared with the masa paste and stuffed with mole negro and chicken.  Both are then steamed for 30 minutes until cooked.

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The flavors are definitely distinctive, not only because of the different moles.  Each type of exterior package imparts a unique flavor to the ground corn (masa) interior.  Not all make them as good as Reyna!

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A few of us gathered before the Felted Fashion Workshop started for a cooking class with Reyna Mendoza Ruiz.  We happened to schedule it on Candelaria (lucky us), known as Candlemas in England, the interval holiday between winter solstice and spring equinox.

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Of course, we prepared the mole amarillo on the traditional metate from scratch with expert guidance from cooking teacher Reyna Mendoza Ruiz.  This mole is a favorite of Teotitlan del Valle and made for all the fiestas.


As a consequence, we ate these tasty packages for both lunch and dinner on February 2.  So, who’s complaining?

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The rest of the menu included a nopal salad with avocado dressing served in little corn husk boats that we learned to tie ourselves.


A salsa with comal toasted tomatillos and poblano chiles, prepared with a granite mortar and pestle a la rustica — fantastic on crunchy tortillas.

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As we left the kitchen to sit down at the al fresco dining table, each place was set with a small gourd into which was poured a shot of mezcal.  We picked up a lime slice, dipped it in gusano salt, sucked and then sipped.  For chasers, a hibiscus juice or a little Coronita.

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For a look at dessert, a boysenberry sorbet flavored with goat milk caramel, see my Facebook page.

El Sabor Zapoteco — cooking with Reyna Mendoza Ruiz, who offers traditional Zapotec style classes at in Teotitlan del Valle with recipes in English.  Wonderful!