Monthly Archives: October 2023

Day of the Dead in Teotitlan del Valle: Altars + Artisans

While we spent most of the day in Teotitlan del Valle learning about the Day of the Dead traditions here, we started out in Santa Maria El Tule at the home studio of flying shuttle loom weaver Alfredo who uses naturally dyed threads to create clothing — blouses and shawls. Oaxaca Cultural Navigator tour partner Elsa Sanchez Diaz, a natural dye master, dyes many of the threads that Alfredo uses in his work. She explained the different fibers and colors to our group of fourteen travelers on a beautiful Oaxaca morning filled with clear air and sunshine!

Alfredo also makes tablecloths, napkins, table runners, dish towels, and bedspreads. For these, he uses natural white manta cloth of fine quality, however the colorful threads incorporated in the weaving are synthetic dyes, much more economical and will withstand years of machine washing. As we know, stains are inevitable and using natural dyes in home goods is impractical!

Alfredo does not practice a formal religion though he was raised Catholic. He tells us that Day of the Dead is not a religious holiday but a cultural one, hearkening back to the pre-Hispanic ancestors. Building an altar is his way of honoring his grandmothers and grandfathers who taught him to weave. He works on several looms that he inherited from his grandfather that are more than ninety years old. They have been repaired repeatedly and the wood frames are pocked with insect holes that accumulated over the years. Nothing here is discarded and age in whatever form — human or inanimate — is revered.

Above video features all the different fibers and dyes that Alfredo uses in his studio. His partner Ana is a book artist who also makes boxes covered in handmade paper and fabric. She is a talent in her own right!

We made three more stops during the day. First to Galeria Fe y Lola to smell and feel the emotional connection with the altar, learning about the importance of celebrating in the home. We were welcomed with the perfume of copal incense, candlelight, and marigold flowers — all important for guiding the spirits of deceased loved ones back home for this twenty-four hour period when they return from the underworld to visit us.

The difuntos enter our world through the sugar cane arches flanking the altar and this portal is necessary to ensure an easy passage. Almost everyone here will have their altars complete by November 1, just in time for the spirits to return at three o’clock in the afternoon. They will stay with us until November 2, consuming the ceremonial foods we have put on the altar for them. At three o’clock on November 2, the church bells will ring and announce the time for the difuntos to return to their resting places in the cemetery. We accompany them, leading the way with copal, to ease them back to the underworld, offering prayers for a smooth passage and a promise that we will see them next year.

For the children who have died before their time, families build small altars and give special prayers on November 1, too. In the city of Oaxaca, there will be comparsas (processions) of parents and children to give special tribute to the young ones who have passed.

The offerings on the altars in Teotitlan del Valle include chocolate, bread, and candles. Other foods can include those favored by the deceased: beer, mezcal, coffee, coca cola, tortillas, tamales stuffed with mole amarillo (a village tradition). There will always be peanuts and pecans, eaten here long before the Spanish arrived.

After a weaving and natural dyeing demonstration, we went to lunch where nutritionist Joanna prepared a meal of memelas topped with bean paste, Oaxaca cheese, and seasoned pork cubes. We were offered toppings of guacamole, roasted tomatoes, and pickled onions. To wash it all down, what else but hibiscus fruit water (agua de jamaica).

A piece de resistance of the afternoon was a demonstration of chocolate making, followed by a cup of steaming hot chocolate and pan de muerto (a Day of the Dead egg bread), which we dunk into the deliciousness.

Our last stop before returning to the city was a visit to Estela and Edith who weave beautiful small tapestries colored with natural dyes that they make into totes and handbags, trimmed with leather straps. It takes about two weeks to make a bag and the craftsmanship is superb. Everyone on the tour got a chance to make a pompom to adorn purse, hair, or use as a hatband, a special gift from the artisans.

On Wednesday, November 1, we will spend the day in San Pablo Villa de Mitla, starting off at the cemetery with Don Arturo where his family is buried.

Day of the Dead on the Ocotlan Highway 2023

Oaxaca City is at the apex of three valleys: Tlacolula, Etla and Ocotlan. Each is separated by a mountain range, so you have to go through the city to get to each. Yesterday, a group of 12 gathered in the city to explore some of the artisans along the Ocotlan Highway where villages specialize in pottery, textiles, and alebrijes.

First, we stopped in San Bartolo Coyotepec where we know a very accomplished and traditional potter who works in traditional black clay. Her studio is not commercial and is off-the-beaten-path. Adelina is deeply rooted in the centuries old tradition of clay-making and her family is one of the most talented in the village. She is skilled not only in making decorative pottery, but also utilitarian pieces that are fired at much higher temperature to make them waterproof. If you missed this special Day of the Dead Tour, you might want to register for our Ocotlan Highway Tour offered any time during the year.

P.S. Not too late to join us November 1 to go to the Mitla cemetery and learn about how Day of the Dead is celebrated in this traditional Zapotec burial site. Send an email immediately if you want to come!

The black pottery is a ceremonial pre-Hispanic Zapotec tradition that is part of Day of the Dead. The waterproof jars are used for burials to ensure that the disfuntos have water to drink as they make their journey to the underworld. Traditionally, the tombs were in family homes, and many relics of this ancient period have been found as people build and add onto their houses.

Adelina explains that artisans were buried with their tools so they could continue to make their craft after they pass to the underworld. She says that the skulls remind us that we are only bones and skeletons. While the Spanish conquerors said that skeletons were evil, the Zapotecs believe this is a natural, normal part of life, and that life is a transition to living in the underworld. We celebrate death as we celebrate life, she says. We celebrate our our past and our ancestors. Her grandparents told her, as they aged to 100 years, that they are going to a new world. This gave the children tranquility and peace of mind.

Day of the Dead is a time to celebrate and remember. We are not sad, she says. The essence of the person comes back to visit us and enjoy the foods and drink we have put on the altar for them. For Adelina, it is important to preserve indigenous pre-Hispanic traditions.

Our next stop was a whirlwind tour of the Friday Ocotlan Market. Today, it was packed with local vendors selling all the decor and foods needed for the Day of the Dead celebrations. Home altars are a central part of the celebration and the centerpieces are marigolds, cockscomb, bread, chocolate, candles, and mezcal.

Before lunch, we made a visit to master folk art potter Don Jose Garcia and his wife Teresita. We have known them for twenty years. Now, they have many young helpers, and their children have joined in making these whimsical figures, many of them life-size. It is always a joy to see them again in San Antonino Castillo Velasco on the Ocotlan Highway.

Lunch was in the copal forest and plant sanctuary at Almu, in San Martin Tilcajete. This is a cocina de humo — an outdoor smoke kitchen, where all natural, organic ingredients are used. Almost all of us had either mole coloradito or mole estofado. It was the best!

At Almu, pottery from Mogote is also featured. You can buy plants from the nursery, too.

And, finally before heading back to the city, we spent the last hours of the afternoon with Waldo Hernandez, owner/founder of Alebrijes Casa Don Juan in San Martin Tilcajete. This tradition of carving copal wood into mythical, whimsical, fantasy figures that are brightly painted with intricate, pre-Hispanic designs is a recent innovation, about forty years old. Often, these are figures that combine the parts of different animals and reptiles. Some even combine animal and human forms.

The village has hundreds of wood carving studios. Eric chose to visit here because he worked with Waldo when he was the managing director of Andares del Arte Popular folk art gallery. Waldo is known for his intricate painting designs and finest quality admired by collectors.

Waldo shared with us that Day of the Dead is a very quiet celebration in San Martin Tilcajete. Visitors are not allowed to enter the cemetery. It is a time of reflection and remembrance to honor the lives of loved ones whose spirits return to visit family. He reminds us that visitors are more than welcome to celebrate at the grand fiesta in the village for Carnival, which is Fat Tuesday, before Lent.

The copal wood is carved soft, then it dries for a year on the shelves. Usually cracks develop and they are repaired with copal plugs, then cut, sanded smooth, sealed, and then painted. The studio has its specialists — carvers and painters.

It’s Muertos time in Oaxaca! The traffic is crazy. The streets are filled with parades of costumed revelers, bands, and visitors who crowd the sidewalks. It took us an hour and a half — almost twice as long — to make the return trip from San Martin Tilcajete to town. Whew. Sleeping with ear plugs is de rigueur.

Now, I’m in the quiet of Teotitlan del Valle, happy to be home.

P.S. Not too late to join us November 1 to go to the Mitla cemetery and learn about how Day of the Dead is celebrated in this traditional Zapotec burial site. Send an email immediately if you want to come!

Breakfast in Oaxaca: XAOK

This amazing TINY restaurant is at the corner of Calle Reforma and Gomez Farias, across the street from Conzatti Park. It has six tables and seating for about 20 people. How do you say it? XAOK = Sha-Oh-K. The K is soft, barely the hard consonant we know in English.

Chef Uriel Garcia works the kitchen and the dining room with two staff members who assist in serving and cooking. Why do we love it? Everything is delicious and artfully presented. The food is innovative, fresh, and there are many vegetarian, gluten-free, and vegan options. There is no compromise on quality.

He came up with the name XAOK as a derivative of Oaxaca. An anagram, so to speak.

XAOK has been open for four months. While its a newbie on the restaurant scene, Uriel has deep experience in food preparation. He went to university in Oaxaca for four years to study culinary arts, then worked as a chef in Rodolfo Castellanos’ award-winning kitchen at Origen for six years before opening XAOK. No wonder each dish is special!

This is a must-visit foodie destination for residents and travelers alike. You won’t be disappointed. In fact, you will revel in the taste sensations and appreciate the value of this extraordinary food.

BTW, the sourdough bread here is as good as anything I’ve had in San Francisco, where I lived, ate, and reveled in the sourdough bread culture. It’s crustiness is sublime. Its soft center, pocked with fermented air pockets, is tangy and exactly what sourdough bread should taste and look like. It comes from Sagrado Filemon at the corner of Allende and Porfirio Diaz across the street from Gourmand Deli.

Giving Back: Oaxaca Learning Center Scholarship Funded by Oaxaca Cultural Navigator LLC

We have just established a Friends of the Oaxaca Learning Center (FOLC) named scholarship fund that will support underserved Oaxaca students to further their university education. Our goal is to help encourage young people and advance their communities. We’ve been working on this over the past several months with FOLC board president Bob Anyon and Jaasiel Quero, Oaxaca Learning Center executive director. Some of you may remember Gary Titus, a transformative visionary. He co-founded the Oaxaca Learning Center (OLC) with Jaasiel in 2005. Gary passed away in December 2015 following a progressive illness, but his legacy continues.

Oaxaca is the second poorest state in Mexico following Chiapas. Access to even basic education is limited, especially in rural communities. Advanced education is almost unheard of, even in villages within driving distance to Oaxaca city. We aim to change this paradigm.

Eric Chavez Santiago, co-owner of Oaxaca Cultural Navigator LLC, and I decided that we wanted to do even more to give back to the communities where we bring visitors and support artisans directly. We want to encourage the next generation to further their dreams. As educators, we know how important a university education can be for creating possibilities to further economic opportunity and stability.

Add to the tax-deductible Scholarship Fund to help us make an even bigger impact.

Please note this is for the Oaxaca Cultural Navigator Scholarship Fund!

We have agreed that OLC will select the most deserving student(s) and manage the award. From time to time, we will meet with the award recipient(s) to learn more about their personal hopes and dreams, to recognize them for their accomplishments, and to share this with you, our readers.

The Oaxaca Cultural Navigator LLC Scholarship Fund will support students and/or tutors who:

  • Are from areas where we have artisan relationships, including but not limited to Tlacolula de Matamoros, Teotitlan del Valle, San Marcos Tlapazola, San Pablo Villa de Mitla, Ocotlan de Morelos and surrounding villages, Santa Maria Tlahuitoltepec, Santiago Matatlan, San Pedro Cajonos, San Mateo del Mar, The Mixteca Alta and Triqui communities, Pinotepa de Don Luis, and San Juan Colorado.
  • Demonstrate academic excellence and a will to complete their education and graduate.
  • Are university or high school students.
  • Are committed to giving back to their communities through advocacy, capacity building, and social justice.

Some students participate online because their communities are some distance from the city, where the Center is located.

The scholarship fund would also include the extra training and support students need with job skills, resume writing, practical skills, transportation and incidentals to be determined by OLC staff.

We have established this as an annual expendable fund that can be renewed each year.

Our Hope! Contributions to this scholarship fund are tax-deductible in the USA when made through the Friends of the Oaxaca Learning Center, which is a USA 501(C)3 not-for-profit organization. We hope and encourage you to augment our efforts to give back to Oaxaca communities by making a 2023 Donation — just in time for year-end giving! Your gift can double or triple our impact and make a difference in more than one student’s life! Please note your gift is for the Oaxaca Cultural Navigator Scholarship Fund!

  • $50 supports university acceptance prep course
  • $140 funds a month of classes, tutoring & workshops
  • $550 covers scholarships for meals and transportation
  • $1,500 funds classes, tutoring, & workshops for one year
  • $5,000 supports two tutors´ annual salary

Thank you for all your support over the years. Your loyalty has helped make this scholarship fund a reality.

Day of the Dead Decor + Oaxaca Day Tours

We have some Day of the Dead decorations for sale on our new website Shop Oaxaca Culture. I’m leaving for Oaxaca early Monday morning, so if you want to purchase, please do so before 3:00 p.m. on Sunday, October 22, to give me a chance to package up and mail to you! Send me an email.

We have a few spaces left on our one-day Day of the Dead Tours in Oaxaca. If you or anyone you know will be there during this auspicious time and would like to explore and go deep into indigenous culture, meaning, and to meet artisans, please register or pass the information along! Thank you.

To know more about Day of the Dead, read these!

Why Day of the Dead is Not Halloween

Reflections on Day of the Dead