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.

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