Monthly Archives: October 2022

Oaxaca Shopping + Market Bags Are Us: Buy Yours

I spent part of the morning yesterday at Oaxaca’s Benito Juarez Market foraging for market baskets just like the ones that I tote everywhere here and back in the USA. I have special requirements. They must be sturdy and well-made. They must be black and white. The design pattern must be graphically simple. To sell them to you, it must be something I would buy for myself.


The one I tote here, there, everywhere

In addition to these practical and serviceable totes, I’m in love with woven palm baskets handmade in Oaxaca’s Mixtec region, high in the mountains and far from the city. These particular styles are hard to find. I use them at home in Taos to hold rolled towels and rolls of bathroom tissue—attractive and practical.

Limited availability! Not many of these can be found and I’m not sure I can get more. Ready to mail when I return to New Mexico on November 15. Buy now to reserve yours.

How to Buy: Send an email to and tell me the item(s) you want to purchase by number, your email, your mailing address and which payment method you prefer: 1) Zelle bank transfer with no service fee; 2) Venmo or 3) PayPal each with a 3% service fee. I will send you a request for funds and then add on a flat rate $14 mailing fee. Happy to combine shipping. Thank you. Note: Thank you for understanding that all sales are final.

1A–SOLD. (left) and 1B–SOLD. (right). 18″x14″ — $56 each
SOLD. #2. Square basket with reinforced leather handles. Only one. 12″x12″–$67
SOLD OUT. #3. 16″ diameter by 14″ high. $67.
View of #3 folded down.

Mezcal and the Labor Shortage in Oaxaca

One of my first outings after settling into my casita in Teotitlan del Valle upon arrival to Oaxaca was to make a visit to weaver Arturo Hernandez in San Pablo Villa de Mitla. Mitla is one of those ancient Zapotec villages where a spectacular archeological site rises from the landscape of wild agave, cactus and a mountain backdrop. It was originally known at Mictlan (translates to Place of the Dead). The Spanish couldn’t pronounce it, so it became Mitla.) This time of year wild marigold dots the horizon with a sea of yellow flowers that the ancestors used to decorate altars in honor of loved ones — a pre-Hispanic tradition that blended into Dia de los Muertos. Because Zapotec royalty were interred here, the town goes all out for Day of the Dead traditions.

Ceremonial sculpture, Mitla antiques shop

Arturo has been a friend for many, many years. He is one of those few weavers remaining in Mitla who uses the back-strap loom to create wool cloth that becomes ponchos and blankets. (He also works in cotton on the pedal loom.) This loom is wider and heavier than the traditional back-strap loom for cotton, and is used by men in a standing position. They sway back-and-forth to control the tension, one end tied to a post, the other around their waist.

Wild marigold with cochineal over-dye

The traditional pattern woven in Mitla includes symbols of corn, cacao and the plumed serpent — all important in Zapotec mythology and prayers for fertility and food. Arturo has the distinction of also working with natural dyes. His pieces are spectacular examples of textiles colored with cochineal, indigo, wild marigold, zapote negro (a local fruit), and pecan shells. Over-dyes yield purple, pink, and green.

Wild marigold dye pot

The village of Mitla, a Pueblo Magico, is about five miles from Santiago Matatlan that bills itself as the Mezcal Capital of the World. Corn fields have given way to neat rows of espadin agave, the fastest growing of all plants used for mezcal, that are ripe after seven years. Traditional farmers of the milpas: corn, squash, and beans are forgoing these crops to plant agave. As demand rises rapidly, this cash crop has become a favored way of making big, fast money. Who can blame them?

Spent wild marigold at Arturo’s feet

I’m standing in a long line at the airport to buy a shuttle ticket to town. In front of me are two young men, 30-somethings. When I ask, they say they are from Denver. How long will you be here? I say. Four days, they answer. What will you do here for four days? I continue. We plan to drink a lot of mezcal, they say. This is the story of Oaxaca today. Mezcal. The men decided to come to Oaxaca instead of going to Chattanooga for a friend’s wedding. Why? Because the airline cost to Tennessee was too high! Go figure. I ask them if they know anything about the culture? Will they visit Monte Alban or any of the nearby Zapotec artisan villages? Hmmm. They hadn’t thought of that. This is the story of Oaxaca today. Mezcal.

A stunning cochineal shawl

So, Arturo says to me, I don’t have enough weavers. I’m down to one. No one wants to work the traditional looms. They are all going to the agave fields where they can make 400 pesos a day. That’s $20 USD, folks. Considered a good wage here. So, my observation is that labor for traditional craft and artisan work will become more scarce in the Tlacolula Valley. I ask Arturo what he pays his workers. About the same, he says. But, I see this is repetitive work to stand at a flying shuttle pedal loom all day, throwing the shuttle back and forth across the warp threads, manipulating the design with your feet. Whereas in the agave fields, one can move and breathe the fresh air.

For everything that ails you, mezcal will cure it. For everything good, also mezcal. — old Oaxaca saying

There’s another factor at play here that has a huge impact on the environment and sustainability. Arturo says that herbicides and pesticides are now widely used in the agave fields. He says this is no longer artisanal, even though the marketing people claim otherwise. He sees men carrying the tanks on their backs, spraying the earth to eradicate the weeds that come up between the rows. The edible wild plants eaten by the ancestors, like quelites, are supressed. The insects and animals that aerate the earth are wiped clean. The plants will grow faster and bring a larger yield.

Natural dyes, Arturo’s studio

I think a lot about the rise of mezcal as a favored distilled beverage. Of course, I love it! Especially the wild agaves like tepeztate, madrecuishe, and arroqueño. It takes a longer time for these varieties to mature, some as much as twenty-five years, which makes the cost so much higher. As the wild varieties are used up, the mezcaleros (mezcal makers) are now reproducing them as cultivars. So, technically, they may no longer be wild, absorbing the flavors of the earth from a specific rocky outcropping of land. Mezcal making is a complex art much like wine making. It is NOT tequila!

The devil made me do it!

So, what will happen to Arturo and his weaving studio if there is no one who wants to work the looms? Is our Oaxaca artisan craft on the verge of extinction, much like the Emperor Penguins of Antarctica.

What will you do and what will you learn when you come to Oaxaca? Isn’t the story of Oaxaca more than mezcal?

Arturo and his wife Marta grow their own organic corn

The BEST Oaxaca Expoventa is November 3

If you are in Oaxaca for 2022 Day of the Dead, be sure to put this on your calendar and show up in Teotitlan del Valle on November 3, 11 am to 4 pm. Map is on the poster. Ride share a taxi from the city with friends. Don’t miss it!

This expoventa showcases the textiles of some of Oaxaca’s most accomplished and famous weavers — personally curated by Eric Chavez Santiago and Norma Schafer.


Can’t read the map? Here are directions: Enter Teotitlan del Valle from MEX 190 and continue on Avenida Benito Juarez to the center of town. Turn left on Hidalgo. Continue until it ends at the unpaved road and bear left. Go for about 1/4 mile. Turn left at the next road — Prolongacion Francisco I. Madero. Go to the first 2-story house on the right. You have arrived!

What is an Expoventa?

It’s like an artisan fair and exhibition that is a cross between a gallery show and sale. A purely Mexican event that has universal appeal.

The expoventa will be held at Taller Tenido a Mano, a new weaving and natural dye studio in Teotitlan. Come enjoy the mountains, fresh air, great country views and browse hand-made clothing, rugs, pottery, chocolate, and more.

Participating artisans come from all corners of Oaxaca State, from the coast to the Mixe to Papoalapan, and include the famous Palafox family from San Mateo del Mar, Dreamweavers Tixinda Cooperative from Pinotepa de Don Luis, Galeria Fe y Lola naturally-dyed rugs and wall hangings, the family of Hermalinda Isidro from San Felipe Usila, Las Sanjuaneras from San Juan Colorado, Amalia Gue from Coban, Guatemala, Fernando Gutierrez Vasquez from Santa Maria Tlahuitoltepec, Francisca Diaz Ortega from San Juan Cotzocon.

Various price ranges. Huipiles, blusas, rebozos, bufandas, cojines. (Dresses, blouses, men’s shirts, shawls, scarves, pillow covers, home goods.) A collector’s delight. Most take credit cards.

Many have been invited to the juried Santa Fe International Folk Art Market, and are recognized as Grand Masters of Oaxaca Folk Art.

100% of sales go directly to artisans. We take no commissions.

Eric and Norma, Teotitlan cemetery, 2021

Your producers are Eric Chavez Santiago, co-director and Norma Schafer, founder and co-director of Oaxaca Cultural Navigator LLC. 

Eric is an expert in Oaxaca and Mexico textiles and folk art with a special interest in artisan development and promotion. He is a weaver and natural dyer by training and a fourth generation member of the Fe y Lola textile group. He and his wife Elsa are founders of Taller Teñido a Mano dye studio where they produce naturally dyed yarn skeins and textiles for worldwide distribution. He is trilingual, speaking Zapotec, Spanish and English and is a native of Teotitlan del Valle. He is a graduate of Anahuac University, founder of the Museo Textil de Oaxaca education department, and former managing director of folk art gallery Andares del Arte Popular. He has intimate knowledge of local traditions, culture and community.

Norma founded Oaxaca Cultural Navigator in 2006 while she was a senior staff administrator at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Since then, hundreds of people have traveled with Norma to experience the art, culture and textiles of Oaxaca, Chiapas and other parts of Mexico. About 65% of all participants return to take workshops, day tours and extended travel programs, an indication of client loyalty and satisfaction.

Species Migrate: Insects, Birds, Mammals, Humans

This morning I’m at the Albuquerque airport waiting to board my flight to Oaxaca. I arrive this evening, in advance of Day of the Dead and our concurrent three workshops and tours. It’s a busy and frenzied time in Oaxaca where I expect the city streets will be packed with revelers by October 28.

Migratory patterns of earth’s species

My sister has been visiting from Northern California. Yesterday we visited 516 Arts in downtown ABQ where they mounted an important two-part art installation MIGRATORY and When the Dogs Stop Barking.

You’ve heard these themes before, as have I. The focus is on the issues surrounding migration and immigration that affect so many people on both sides of the Mexico-US border. Arizona, New Mexico, Texas and California, as well as Chihuahua on the Mexican side. So many recent and earlier immigrants came from Northern Mexico. Today, refugees from Venezuela, Central America, and Eastern Europe, especially now Ukraine, wait at the border for visas to enter legally. It is a log-jam.

The exhibit begins this way: Migration is a natural phenomenon. Birds migrate from north to south to seek warmer climates. There is a history of animals migrating throughout Africa, Asia, the North and South American continents in search of food and watering holes, especially in periods of drought. We are going to Michoacan in February to see the spectacular migration and nesting place for endangered Monarch butterflies. Are humans any exception? I don’t think so.

The North American continent was populated by migrants from northern Asia across Beringia. Most archeologists agree this occurred from 16,000 to 25,000 years ago, maybe more. I’m reading Jennifer Raff’s Origin: The Genetic History of the Americas, and this is my source. She is a genetic archeologist from University of Kansas.

The exhibit begins with the premise that species migrate as part of the natural evolution of life. it is easy to extrapolate that this extends to humans. If the Americas was a blank slate, migration was necessary to populate it. I am alive because of my immigrant grandparents escaped a Europe frought with war, economic instability and anti-Semitism that imperiled their lives. They got here in the early 1900’s, eager to become citizens and assimilate. It wasn’t long before immigration policies changed and those at risk where shut out. Rising isolationism dictated this policy.

Many Indigenous Nations along the border share traditions despite the fact that they span both Mexico and the USA. They have a unique perspective on migration since their people are part of geopolitical separation. The second part of the exhibition focuses on this issue

Referencing the photo above the paragraph

The exhibition pays attention to the solidarity networks, creativity, and mutual aid around the topic of migration. Migration is not a contemporary crisis but a historical departing point of all human societies. Migration is a natural process that is common to diverse species.

Consider making an end-of-year gift to immigrant legal aid organizations. My favorites are RAICES and HIAS. Please suggest yours.

Why Day of the Dead is NOT Halloween

Rooted in pre-Hispanic indigenous religious and spiritual practices that has nothing to do with the Catholicism imported to Mexico by the Conquistadores and attending priests, unfortunately, Day of the Dead has morphed into what is becoming an attraction for party-goers in Oaxaca. Day of the Dead is coming back around on the calendar, observed from October 31 to November 2, and it’s time to write about What is Day of the Dead? for visitors and travelers. I want to plead for respectfulness for ancient cultural practices. These are the days to remember the ancestors.

These dates were set by the conquerors to blend the pre-Hispanic native rituals to remember those who have passed with All Souls’ and All Saints’ Days on the Christian calendar. The blending of European and indigenous practices is called syncretism and was an effective way of bringing indigenous people into the religious fold of the conquerors.

Let’s take a step back. Up the road from where I live in Oaxaca, the Zapotec-Mixtec archeological site (and village) San Pablo Villa de Mitla was the burial grounds for the ruling elite. Originally called Mictlan, which means place of the dead, the reverence for the ancestors was played out with offerings of candles, incense, bread, corn and squash, pulque, chocolate and flowers, mostly wild marigold that grew in the countryside. Elaborate altars were constructed on floor-level that included these offerings. With the conquest, the altars were raised and included a backdrop of Jesus on the Cross and the Virgin of Guadalupe. Today, in many traditional homes we visit, the altar is placed on the ground as it was in ancient days. Around the altar, family members sit with their memories in quiet contemplation as the candles burn and the incense is constantly replenished.

In ancient times, family members were buried in tombs inside each home. With Catholicism, cemeteries became the place where the deceased were interred. Yet, the tradition of respect, reverence and solemn tribute to a loved one’s memory continued. In the 18 years I have lived in Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca, I have come to understand how important Day of the Dead is to the collective, family and individual memory of a loved one who has crossed over. I have sat quietly with friends at their family plots as they recall the life of the person buried there. Often, these plots will hold the bones of generations of family members, as the plot is recycled every ten years, the time it takes for a body to decompose. The grave is cleaned and the bones replaced there, readying it for the next occupant.

This is how we do it here.

In the last two years, all this has changed. Foreign visitors arrive on tour buses with painted faces and in Halloween costume. (Did you know that Halloween is the second biggest spending holiday in the USA next to Christmas?) They bring mezcal, beer and a picnic into the cemeteries. They gawk. They dance to the music the village band is playing to cheer the local community. It is party-time in Oaxaca regardless of local custom, and these external influences are changing local behavior.

I’m not one to say, Let’s keep everything the way it was. Change is inevitable and there has always been cultural interchange, innovation and adaptation. Yet, what I see I interpret as destructive. Locals are going earlier in the day to decorate the graves and then leave the cemetery before the crowd of visitors arrive. They prefer the peacefulness and solitude that marks this ritual. A few locals say, It’s good for business to have visitors. But, no one, in my opinion, who comes to the cemetery to party is going to buy a handwoven rug that may cost hundreds of dollars! They come to take away only an experience.

I often wonder if any of the guides who bring visitors has a conversation with them about cultural history and respectfulness, as we do when we bring people to the cemetery. When we take a small group we always go accompanied by a local friend who will take us to a family gravesite, sit with us, and explain the practices.

Oaxaca is now an international destination. It is attracting visitors who want to sample mezcal, dine in world renown restaurants, and immerse themselves in the excitement of the Day of the Dead comparsas — the parades — in Oaxaca city. The film Coco did much to popularize Day of the Dead, and I hear from friends in Patzcuaro, Michoacan, where the Coco story originated, that in the artisan villages surrounding the lake, Purepecha people have adapted and adopted the face painting and costumes to attract tourism.

Eric and Norma, Day of the Dead 2021, Teotitlan del Valle

When you visit, please be aware that you will leave a footprint. What kind of footprint do you want to have? What will you learn and what will you take away from participating in this ancient practice? How will you reflect on death and dying, and compare it to how mourning and remembrance is done in Mexico with where you come from? What are your own family traditions?

And, how would you respect your own grandparents and antecedents in the cemetery where they are buried?