My United flight to Houston from Oaxaca leaves tomorrow morning at 7:45 am. I got a notice from the airline several days ago that I needed a negative covid test dated at maximum 72 hours before departure. That put me to November 8 as the earliest I could get the test.
It’s one more layer of trip planning that we need to deal with during this pandemic.
Last week, Laboratorios San Francisco came to our Teotitlan Del Valle inn to test eight in our travel group who were departing the next day. For large groups they are able to do that and we made arrangements in advance. Everyone tested negative.
Laboratorios San Francisco operates labs all over the city. The closest one to me is in Tlacolula. I called in advance to see if I needed an appointment. No, you don’t, the nurse said, but we only offer the test from noon to 2 pm and from 5 to 6 pm daily. I arranged my day to be there at 5 pm, well within the 72 hour window.
I decided to do the test well enough in advance within the window allowed in case I tested positive (and I needed to regroup) or it read as a false positive and I needed to get retested.
There was no wait for the test. I showed identification and reviewed my birthdate, phone number and name spelling. The test took a minute. The nurse who administered it wore a mask, face shield, gloves and a protective body gown. She gently put a swab up my nose and I sat there while she did the test tube process. Fifteen minutes later I was out the door. Cost: 600 pesos or $30 USD. They take credit cards.
The results were negative. I have the printed documentation to present at airport check-in.
There are many places around the city to get the test, including at some Ahorro pharmacies. Upon arrival I took a photo of all the places where one can get tested. Maybe your hotel can help you find one close by.
Preamble: Our Day of the Dead Cultural Study Tour ended on November 4. Everyone tested negative for Covid to exit Mexico and re-enter the USA. We were all very relieved AND we practiced all safety measures during our time in the city and in Teotitlan del Valle — masks in all public spaces (even outdoors), social distancing, hand-sanitizer. Every artisan we visited (except one) was double-vaccinated. We won’t be visiting that artisan again — they were not disclosing! In Oaxaca, vaccine roll-out is slow and no one under 30 has been able to get the vaccine yet. It is a problem of availability and distribution.
I want to talk about how Day of the Dead has changed in Oaxaca and the villages. Years ago, when I first arrived in 2005 and for a decade after, when I went to the Teotitlan del Valle cemetery to participate in Day of the Dead, I was the only non-villager. I always went with local friends at sunset to be a part of the experience and I was mindful to keep as low a profile as possible, even though I knew I would stand out solely based on my skin color. I wore the traditional apron used by village women, came with offerings for the grave: flowers, oranges, chocolate, candles. Paid my respects by joining to sit quietly, mindful of my place as an outsider.
Then, and up until a few years ago, the grave sites of loved ones were surrounded by large gatherings of family members sitting, talking, taking sips of mezcal, placing last minute candles and flowers on the tomb mounds. It was a solemn and mystical time of tradition and respect. One that I hold close to my heart in meaning and symbolism for the circuity of life in pre-Hispanic culture here.
Now, it is different. Much different. I could see it coming even by 2016, when tour companies began to add the Teotitlan de Valle cemetery to its list of stops on their itineraries. Perhaps the mezcal culture has influenced this change, too, as drinking and enjoying Oaxaca cuisine has attracted the hedonists to experience an intense 5-day party weekend. I recall a National Geographic Photography Tour coming to the cemetery maybe in 2017 or 2018, huge cameras with impressive lenses in tow, not asking permission, setting up tripods and photos just a foot or two away. Now, with cell phone cameras, it is not as intrusive, but another phenomenon is happening.
The atmosphere is more like Mardi Gras as face-painted revelers from the city embark from buses, vans and taxis. They are all foreigners, mostly from the USA. The cemetery is overwhelmed by them. I noticed that fewer locals were here this year.
I asked my friend Natividad if she goes to the cemetery for Muertos. No, she said. It is like a fiesta. I don’t like it. I go another time, when it is quieter and I can sit without being disturbed. A widespread sentiment here, I think.
As I sat with Norma Gutierrez and her daugher Lizet at her husband and father’s gravesite to remember Juvenal, age 52 who died of covid in a San Diego hospital, a face-painted woman approached to ask to take a photo (at least she asked). Remember Juvenal? We raised $3,000 to send his body home.
Norma nodded an okay. I looked at her and said, you can say no. (The circumstance felt invasive to me.) Her eyes said, Really? I can say no? So, she turned and said, No, and the woman walked away. This is a culture of being in agreement and it is a culture where women do not speak up as contrarians. So, when people do not object, it does not mean they are comfortable or in agreement.
The flowers and graves were magnificent. A stark contrast to the predominantly Anglo dominance of the cemetery. I could not bring myself to photograph people sitting with their loved ones. I took photos of flowers and tomb altars. I wonder if I should continue to bring our small group of culturally sensitive travelers here in the future. Are we adding to the problem? Even as I prepared them with information about cultural meaning and cemetery protocol, it is difficult to not be a part of the cultural impact. We went to the cemetery accompanied by Ernestina and paid respects to her father Jose. I advised them to disperse and not walk around in intimidating groups larger than two or three people. We were all masked. It was 4:30 p.m. Still two hours of remaining daylight. Most of us left by 6:00 p.m.
In the cemetery chapel, the volunteer committee that oversees cemetery maintenance and religious traditions, chanted blessings in Zapotec and Spanish, kneeling before the altar. Outside, the village band started playing Sousa-like music. Visitors planted themselves on benches drinking beer and mezcal, while others began to dance vigorously. Some were picnicking on the grass, pulling out their mezcal bottles from backpacks.
I went to visit the grave of my friend Lupita, who died of breast cancer at age 48, four years ago. I was heartbroken and went home.
The village depends on tourism. Visitors keep weavers and restauranteurs in business. It is up to the village leadership to decide.
It is difficult for me to suspend judgment. I ask myself, Is this cultural appropriate or insensitivity? What does it mean to be authentic? Does authentic mean to keep things the way they have always been and to prevent change from happening? Change is inevitable and who am I to say that we are are experiencing cultural degradation? It is up to the people who live here to decide.
As we sat around breakfast the next morning, I asked our group about their impressions. Here is what they said:
I was offended by the dancing. It seemed so out of place.
I’m tired of the commercial creep in the USA. That’s why I came here, for something more meaningful.
The face painting was out of place.
So many visitors were not wearing masks. I tried not to be judging and I noticed that in myself.
I walked by families sobbing from their loss surrounded by revelers. It was a real disconnect.
I saw outsiders going to graves, laying down flowers to express their sympathy.
I was conflicted — I wanted to be there and found it very uncomfortable.
I was angry at the tourists. Then, I was angry at myself to being a tourist and I had to walk away.
It was more powerful for me because we had all the preparation leading up to the cemetery visit.
It’s creeping commercialization. Will the town speak up?
Most of the graves were decorated in advance earlier in the day, so I suppose that’s when most of the villagers were there.
It was mixed for me. It was a privilege to be there, but I felt like an invader to private, sacred time. This is an intimate, family time.
The city is packed with tourists looking for smaller venues.
It’s been 19 months since I’ve been to my home in Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca. In the past several years I’ve been walking, and eating for health (gluten and lactose free). Most of what I’m featuring here are shawls, scarves, bed and table covers. Some are cotton and some are wool. Many use natural dyes. In this group are Rosario’s Bolsas, all hand-embroidered, cross-body bags for beauty and security.
Many pieces are new. I bought them to support artisans over the years as I have traveled to remote villages throughout Mexico.
How to buy: mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org Tell me the item you want by number. Send me your mailing address. I will send you a PayPal invoice after you ID your choices. The invoice will include the cost of the garment + $12 mailing. If you want more than one piece, I’m happy to combine mailing. I’ll be mailing from Taos, NM when I return after November 15.
Holidays are coming! Think gift-giving.
SOLD. 6.8. Indigo poncho using ikat dyeing techniques. From our favorite Mitla design studio. Soft and cozy wool. 35” wide x 31” long. $125.
It’s been 19 months since I’ve been to my home in Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca. In the past several years I’ve been walking, and eating for health (gluten and lactose free). Most of the handwoven clothes I have, mostly from Oaxaca and Chiapas, do not fit! If you wear a size Medium, Large or Extra Large, then look closely below for some beautiful blouses (blusas) and dresses (huipiles). Many rare, most with natural dyes. I am also including shawls and scarves, too.
How to buy: Tell me the item you want by number. Send me your mailing address. I will send you a PayPal invoice after you ID your choices. The invoice will include the cost of the garment + $12 mailing. If you want more than once piece, I’m happy to combine mailing. I’ll be mailing from Taos, NM when I return after November 15.
I may have time to list Preview 6 before I leave Oaxaca, but I’m not sure. Stay tuned. Thanks to everyone for looking and helping me pass these treasures along.
San Pablo Villa de Mitla is known as the City of the Dead. This is where Oaxaca Zapotec royalty were buried during the height of power. The village is steeped in a tradition that goes very deep in the Tlacolula Valley of Oaxaca. Once called Mictlan, this is the word for underworld in Aztec mythology. Most people who die will travel to Mictlan. We learned from our day with master weaver Arturo Hernandez and his wife Marta, that dogs were an essential part of this belief in Mitla. They are loyal mascots and serve to guide their masters from the world of the living to their tombs beyond.
The village closed its cemetery to visitors this year, limiting those who enter to two people per family. The reason: fear of Covid-19. At the entrance to the village on our way to visit Arturo’s home and studio, our van pulled up to a check-point where we were asked to get out, to check our temperatures and to apply hand-sanitizer. The van was then disinfected with an alcohol spray. Whether that does any good or not, I don’t know, but people here feel more secure with this process.
We came with traditional gifts of flowers, chocolate and bread to present to our host, to add to their altar. He greets us in Zapotec and we present our gifts. This is a very special day for the family. And, it is our blessing to honor those from this home who have passed. Whatever is placed on the altar is not removed until after Day of the Dead, which starts here on November 1. At noon, the church bells rings, firecrackers explode, and the dead souls (difuntos) arrive to participate in a meal with the family.
Everything on this altar has pre-Hispanic significance: honeycomb — representing the sweetness of life, salt signifies bitterness, pulque—a preHispanic fermented pineapple drink used by the ancestors often more potent than mezcal (distillation came to Mexico with the Spanish conquest), and tabacco. Before the conquest, locals smoked marijuana that they rolled in corn husks, used in celebrations. It is called a sacred leaf Ojas de humo sagrado. When Catholicism arrived, this practice was prohibited. Guaje, a tree pod whose seeds are filled with protein and also has digestive medicinal benefits. Some of you may know that this tree is prolific in Oaxaca and that is how the city got its name. Pumpkin seeds and native corn, representing sustenance. Nopal cactus is also excellent for the stomach to prevent sickness and preserve health. Chocolate (chocolatl, an Aztec word) was a sacred beverage, too, and always made with hot water, not milk.
Arturo comments that many decorate altars with fruit that is imported and symbols that represent the modern world, like coca cola or beer. He prefers to use native apples from the mountains (not from California), guava, pecans, peanuts, jicama, banana, squash and corn that were available during the time of the ancestors. He tells us the names in Zapotec and linguistically explains that anything that has a name that includes some Spanish is not original. Evidence of many of these seeds were found in the caves at Yagul, just up the road and are carbon-dated to 8,000 years ago. Furthermore, he only uses the wild marigolds, not those that are cultivated.
The altar is a shelf with three arches below representing the stages of life. The first arch represents birth and childhood. The center arch represents youth to middle age. The third arch represents old age and death. Originally, altars were made with reeds to look like a table with three openings below. The shape of the arch was introduced by the Spanish.
In the Mitla tradition, women are given power at marriage. They wear the key to the door of the house at the ceremony and the keys to the money that is in the baule (the wedding chest). There is no evidence of femicide or abuse of women in this village, according to Arturo.
Arturo gives us a backstrap loom wool weaving demonstration, telling us that this is men’s work here. He is using indigo that he dyes himself.
Precisely at noon we stop what we are doing and have five minutes of silence. Precisely at noon the firecrackers go off at the cemetery and Gabriel, who is doing an internship from Guanajuato, lights one in the front yard. Marta comes out with an incense burner filled with copal and lights it. She walks with Arturo to the altar room and he purifies the space with the smokey, aromatic copal. This is the moment that the ancestors arrive — women lay down on the woven palm petate (mat) and men take their seat at the chair flanking the altar. It is sacred space.
After a short visit to the home and altar of Mitla antique dealer Epifanio, we return to Arturo and Marta for a traditional black mole and turkey tamale lunch. This made-from-scratch lunch for 12 of us is complete with locally grown chayote squash, nopal cactus salad, beer, mezcal, and topped off with nicuatole for dessert. This is a traditional pre-Hispanic corn pudding flavored with vanilla (also original to Mexico) and cinnamon.
It’s a privilege to go deeper into the meaning of Day of the Dead and learn the oral history from local people. This is what makes what we do different to give our visitors a cultural immersion experience. Cultural sensitivity and respect is an essential part of our approach.
Commercialization Creep is happening with Day of the Dead. Oaxaca City is completely overrun with an atmosphere of party going. Face painters ply their talent on the streets so that the atmosphere is becoming more like a combination of the U.S. version of Halloween and Mardi Gras. This is encroaching on the traditional villages, too.
I will be writing about our Day of the Dead experience in Teotitlan del Valle in the next few days, where tourists have taken over the cemetery and few local people come to sit by their loved ones tombs.
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Eric Chavez Santiago is Zapotec, born and raised in Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca.
Norma Schafer has been living in Oaxaca for almost 20 years.
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Dye Master Dolores Santiago Arrellanas with son Omar Chavez Santiago, weaver and dyer, Fey y Lola Rugs, Teotitlan del Valle