Monthly Archives: December 2023

Christmas Eve from Taos Pueblo, Oaxaca Connection, and Happy Holidays

We know that New Mexico, in fact the entirety of the southwestern United States, was part of New Spain, and then after Independence in 1821, part of Mexico. The Spanish conquered, enslaved, and imposed Catholicism into all parts of the empire. Christmas celebrations in Oaxaca are an amalgam of pre-Hispanic and Catholic rituals. They are similar here in Taos, New Mexico, where each Christmas Eve, the Taos Pueblo holds a posada against the backdrop of history.

The posada here features a band of men shooting rifles (with blanks). Each crack of gunshot is startling. Following them in procession are others holding flaming logs, pointed skyward, that might be ten feet long. Following them is a covered palanquin (litter) holding the Virgin Mary dressed in white. Locals follow, beating drums, chanting. They are covered in woven serapes or Pendleton blankets wrapped tightly around their shoulders. It is cold this time of year in Northern New Mexico. The children have shell ankle bracelets that jingle when they move.

At first glance, one might assume that this is the ritual of Catholicism worldwide — the Christmas posada, or procession, depicting Mary and Joseph seeking shelter where she can give birth to Jesus. Here, too, the Virgin is dressed in white and carried in a palanquin. I have experienced this so many times in Teotitlan del Valle, where the posadas continue for nine nights, from December 16 to December 24. La Ultima Posada, on Christmas Eve, is the final procession to find the manger where Baby Jesus is born. In Teotitlan, the host family offers an elaborate celebration complete with all night feasting.

But, it is different in Taos pueblo. Christmas Eve, the men carrying rifles, and the attending bonfires are a re-enactment of a painful memory — the 1680 Pueblo Revolt, when the Spanish military entered the village. Many of the pueblo inhabitants — women, children, men, elderly and infants — sought shelter in the church, believing that they would not be harmed there. The Spanish burned the church, killing all inside. The ancient adobe bell tower is all that remains, a reminder of this oppressive history.

In this re-enactment, I see the men shooting rifles symbolizing the Spanish invaders. I believe the burning wood stanchions are a reminder of the destruction of the church. And, I interpret the burning 25-30 foot high pyres to represent the church as it burned to the ground. Those who have not read the history, come to visit for the spectacle. And, indeed, it is that!

On a cold Christmas Eve in Taos, New Mexico, the burning wood towers keep us warm as we huddle together in the 20 degree Fahrenheit evening chill, remembering, honoring those who stood here before us.

This is the day that darkness begins to turn toward light. May this holiday season and your new year be light-filled, with good health, cheer, contentment, and peace. Thank you for reading.

Day of the Dead Magic in Mitla

Our path along the Pan-America Highway leads us to some of the most iconic villages in Oaxaca. The artisans we visit in San Pablo Villa de Mitla not only talk about and demonstrate their craft, they will discuss their personal experiences and traditions growing up and honoring their ancestors during Day of the Dead. When you participate with us, you will go deep into a rich Zapotec history and culture that pre-dates the Spanish conquest of Oaxaca in 1522 and the settlement of Oaxaca as a colonial capitol.

We offer you a very personal, immersion experience!

We pick you up at 9:30 a.m. at a central location in the Historic District of Oaxaca city and return you there before 4:00 p.m. We will let you know the location two-weeks before the tour.

Why travel with us!

  • We know the culture! We are locally owned and operated.
  • Eric Chavez Santiago is Zapotec, tri-lingual, born and raised in Oaxaca.
  • Norma Schafer has been living in Oaxaca for almost 20 years.
  • We have deep connections with artists and artisans.
  • 63% of our travelers repeat — high ratings, high satisfaction.
  • Wide ranging expertise.
  • We give you a deep immersion to best know Oaxaca and Mexico.

In San Pablo Villa de Mitla we meet Don Arturo and accompany him to the Panteon Mitla, the cemetery where his mother is buried. We will participate in honoring his mother with offerings, and observe how other families memorialize their loved ones. We then return to Arturo’s weaving studio where he explains the traditional altar, the history and cultural significance of the celebration.

Arturo is a famous weaver who works on the traditional back strap loom with wool. This loom is primarily used by men here because it is wider and heavier than the looms used by women to weave cotton fabric. He is also a master at creating natural dye recipes, and uses the flying shuttle loom, an industrial revolution innovation of the mid-1800’s designed to make large scale lengths of cloth for tables, bedspreads, and curtains. His workmanship is so outstanding, he has been invited to participate in the Santa Fe International Folk Art Market repeatedly.

Don Arturo has a traditional altar. He uses only pre-Hispanic fruits and vegetables to decorate, and the mural behind his altar, featuring the Virgin of Guadalupe, Mexico’s patron saint, is a sight to behold. This is a time for reflection and understanding of pre-Hispanic traditions blended with Spanish Catholicism that is known as syncretism.

Lunch is a culinary exploration into the traditional foods of the season, with specialties only prepared here in San Pablo Villa de Mitla.

Registration and Cancellation. Tour cost is $155 per person. This includes transportation in a luxury van, bilingual guide services with translation, altar and studio visits, and lunch. Payment in full is required to reserve. In the event cancellation is necessary, we request a 10-day notice (by October 23) to receive a 50% refund. We accept payment with Zelle (no fees) or with a credit card (3.5% fee). Tell us when you are ready to register and we will send you a request for funds.

To reserve, please contact Norma Schafer by email.

Check out our Shop for all things hand-made in Oaxaca and Mexico!

Come with us to Chiapas, February 20-28, 2024

Day of the Dead Altars + Studio Visits in Teotitlan del Valle 2024

On October 30, 2024, we immerse ourselves in the rich cultural and social history of Teotitlan del Valle. No where is Day of the Dead celebrated with more authenticity than in the villages. Our one-day tour starts at 9:00 a.m. We pick you up at a central location in the Historic District of Oaxaca city and return you there by 6:00 p.m. We will let you know the location two-weeks before the tour. Your guide is Eric Chavez Santiago with Norma Schafer.

Why you want to travel with us:

  • We know the culture! We are locally owned and operated.
  • Eric Chavez Santiago is Zapotec, tri-lingual, born and raised in Teotitlan del Valle.
  • Norma Schafer has been living in Oaxaca for almost 20 years.
  • We have deep connections with artists and artisans.
  • 63% of our travelers repeat — high ratings, high satisfaction.
  • Wide ranging expertise.
  • We give you a deep immersion to best know Oaxaca and Mexico.

We welcome you into the Altar Room of each artisan we visit to pay respects to the family and their ancestors. We have arranged for permission for you to take photos and participate in some of the rituals, including tasting Pan de Muertos and Hot Chocolate made locally from toasted cacao beans. All along the way, you will learn more about how this tradition is celebrated, with its deep pre-Hispanic indigenous roots.

The artisans we visit in Teotitlan del Valle not only talk about and demonstrate their craft, they discuss their personal experiences and traditions growing up and honoring their ancestors during Day of the Dead. When you participate with us, you will go deep into a rich Zapotec history and culture that pre-dates the Spanish conquest of Oaxaca in 1522, and the settlement of Oaxaca as a colonial capitol.

While we spent most of the day in Teotitlan del Valle learning about the Day of the Dead traditions here, we start out in Santa Maria El Tule at the home studio of a flying shuttle loom weaver who uses naturally dyed threads to create clothing — blouses and shawls. He also has a selection of beautifully woven home goods — tablecloths, napkins, and dish towels. We learn that ancient traditions pre-date Catholicism, and those who don’t adhere to a religion still observe Day of the Dead.

Our itinerary includes stops to see:

  • a traditional flying shuttle loom weaver who creates award winning home goods and clothing
  • a famous rug weaving family that works only in the highest quality wool and natural dyes
  • a chocolate maker who uses grandmothers’ recipes to make delicious eating + drinking chocolate
  • an accomplished women’s cooperative that fashions leather trimmed handbags
  • lunch prepared by a traditional chef who prepares exquisite food

In El Tule, Alfredo 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.

We make three more stops during the day. First to a favorite rug weaving studio. Here we will feel the emotional connection with the altar, learning about the importance of celebrating in the home. We will be 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 this 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 their families until November 2, consuming the ceremonial foods from the altar. 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.

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.

Our last stop before returning to the city will be to a women’s cooperative whose members 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.

Lunch is a culinary exploration into the traditional foods of the season, including yellow mole tamales, mezcal, and fruit water prepared by a local traditional cook.

Registration and Cancellation. Tour cost is $155 per person. This includes transportation in a luxury van, bilingual guide services with translation, altar and studio visits, and lunch. Payment in full is required to reserve. In the event cancellation is necessary, we request a 10-day notice (by October 20) to receive a 50% refund. We accept payment with Zelle (no fees) or with a credit card (3.5% fee). Tell us when you are ready to register and we will send you a request for funds.

To reserve, please contact Norma Schafer by email.

Check out our Shop for all things hand-made in Oaxaca and Mexico!

Come with us to Chiapas, February 20-28, 2024

Guatemala Textile Study Tour 2025: Cloth and Culture

Registration is now open. A $750 non-refundable deposit will reserve your space. We offered this tour first to those who expressed interest a couple of months ago, and we have filled seven out of fourteen spaces. We hope that if you want to go to Guatemala with us in February 2025, you won’t hesitate to tell us and send your deposit as soon as possible!

Guatemala Textile Study Tour: Cloth and Culture will be held February 6-15, 2025, nine nights and ten days. Join Olga Reiche, Eric Chavez Santiago, and Norma Schafer to explore Maya hand weaving, natural dyeing techniques, markets, and remote artisan villages where women work on back strap looms.

We begin first in Antigua, Guatemala’s colonial city where the Spanish conquest left its mark on art, architecture, food and culture. Antigua, founded in 1524, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. After settling into our hotel, we meet Olga, visit her Indigo studio where she dyes threads with natural plants that she provides to weavers with whom she works in the Coban region where they make fine gauze textiles using the pikbil technique. Later in the tour we will visit this region, off the beaten path where few venture.

We also visit master weaver Lidia Lopez, who Norma met at the Santa Fe Folk Art Market this year. Lidia also attended and exhibited at the 2023 WARP annual conference. Her rendition of flower gardens in her weaving is nothing short of extraordinary.

Of course, we travel to Panajachel, take a boat launch across Lake Atitlan, and visit weaving cooperatives there with whom Olga has relationships. Before going to Lake Atitlan, we spend time at the famed Chichicastenango market. I was there in the mid-2000’s and was amazed by the indigenous Maya culture, mysticism practiced in the church — a testimony to syncretism that blends ancient beliefs with Catholicism, and one of the most vibrant outdoor marketplaces in Latin America. The abundance of textiles is beyond belief! As we meander, we will have expert guidance on textile iconography, region, quality, and rarity.

From Chichi, we travel to Coban to meet Amalia Gue, who many collectors know as being one of the greatest weavers of fine gauze cloth. Amalia has exhibited at the Santa Fe Folk Art Market, the Museo Textil de Oaxaca, and we have invited her to Oaxaca Cultural Navigator expoventas at our Taller Teñido a Mano dye studio and weaving workshop in Teotitlan del Valle. In addition, we spend several days in this area to discover other talented artisanbs who also work in the same pikbil gauze weaving technique.

We make our way back to Antigua via Lake Atitlan and Panajachel to explore villages accessible only by boat, where women are also weaving huipiles and blusas using naturally dyed threads.

Preliminary Itinerary: February 6 – 15, 2025, 9 nights, 10 days

Day 1, Thursday, February 6: Arrive to Guatemala City, travel to Antigua before 4 p.m. by airport shuttle (at your own expense) to avoid traffic. Check in to our group hotel. Dinner included. 

Day 2, Friday, February 7: Drive to San Antonio Aguas Calientes to visit the town and Lidia Lopez home with a textile weaving demonstration. Then, we visit Olga Reiche´s Studio at San Juan Del Obispo, with natural dye demonstration and discussion about natural dyes. Lunch at La Cascade Marc in San Juan Del Obispo. The afternoon is free to explore Antigua. Breakfast and lunch included. Dinner on your own.

Day 3, Saturday, February 8: Antigua morning tour, with visits to places of interest. Breakfast included. Lunch and dinner on your own.

Day 4, Sunday, February 9: Early departure to Chichicastenango Market – Visit the market and have an early brunch at Hotel Mayan Inn. We then depart to nearby Santa Cruz del Quiche to visit artisans and then go on to Coban, Alta Verapaz. Our travel time is approximately 3-1/2 hours by luxury van. Arrive at Coban Alta Verapaz in mid-afternoon. Dinner at Restaurant Casa Acuña. Breakfast and dinner included.

Day 5, Monday, February 10: After breakfast, drive to Samac to visit famed pikbil weaver Amalia Gue who participates in the Santa Fe International Folk Art Market. We will invite other nearby weaving groups of Coban to an expoventa at our hotel. Dinner at X’Kape Coban with a local food. Breakfast, lunch and dinner included.

Day 6, Tuesday, February 11: One more day in Coban to visit other weaving groups or return to Amalia’s or visit and tour orchid farm. Breakfast, lunch and dinner included.

Day 7, Wednesday, February 12:  After Breakfast, visit Coban’s market and depart mid-morning. Travel to Panajachel, Lake Atitlan. Afternoon free to wonder around the shops on Santander Street. Breakfast included. Lunch and Dinner on your own.

Day 8, Thursday, February 13: Visit De Colores Studio in Panajachel, with an explanation of the work they do. Cross the lake on a private boat to Santiago Village and visit Cojolya Cooperative of weavers. Continue to travel by boat to San Juan La Laguna to visit artisans that practice natural dyes, with demonstrations. Return to Panajachel. Breakfast and lunch included. Dinner on your own.

Day 9, February 14: Return to Antigua, free afternoon to visit museums and galleries. Grand finale dinner. Overnight in Antigua.

Day 10, February 15: Departure to Guatemala City airport. Please schedule flights to depart after 11 a.m.  It will take 1-1/2 hours to get there, and you need to be there two hours ahead to check in to international flights.

On your own options are to arrive a day or two earlier or stay a day or two later to visit Guatemala City. The Archeological Museum there has an extensive textile collection, and next door is a vast Craft Market which has a nice selection of artisan made craft from different regions of Guatemala.

Price $4,395 shared room. $5,195 single room. Deposit to reserve $750 (non-refundable). Please complete this Registration Form and return to Norma Schafer at norma.schafer@icloud.com to participate. Please read Registration Policies and Procedures. Thank you.

Space is limited to 14 travelers.

About the Tour Leaders

Olga Reiche is a Guatemala textile artisan, dye master, and social justice advocate who has worked with local artisans and indigenous groups for over 30 years to train them to use natural dyes. Her concern for environmental and artisan sustainability is a driving force in her work around Lake Atitlan and in the northern Coban region of Guatemala.

She has been an invited participant at the Santa Fe International Folk Art Market for many years, teaches natural dyeing and weaving, has written numerous articles about natural dyes and sustainability, indigenous culture, and continuity.

She mentors weavers, developing new designs and products, teaching them how to manage a business, and how to competitively market products in the international arena.

Olga heads the sustainable eco-fashion brand Indigo that works with craftspeople from different regions to create clothing from recycled and reused materials. The name of her brand is inspired by the rich blue pigment which comes from the native Guatemalan indigo plant.

Olga is the lead designer and produces naturally-dyed threads that are used by a team of weavers with whom she collaborates—mostly women working out of their homes. They make pieces according to Olga’s instructions, weaving almost exclusively on backstrap looms, incorporating patterns and symbols inspired by their shared Mayan heritage. Once the pieces are fabricated, they are returned to Olga for assembly into comfortable and luxurious handmade garments that have been featured in Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue Mexico. 

Eric Chavez Santiago is a fourth-generation weaver and natural dyer from Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca. He is fluent in Spanish and English, and is managing partner of Oaxaca Cultural Navigator. He joined OCN in 2021. Eric was founding director of education at the Museo Textil de Oaxaca, where he organized artisan-led programs for eight years. After that, he was asked by the Alfred Harp Helu Foundation to open and direct the Oaxaca folk art gallery Andares del Arte Popular, which he did for six years. Eric is knowledgeable about all aspects of weaving and naturally dyeing, having developed over 100 different shades of cochineal before the age of 21, and is deeply embedded in the folk art and craft culture of Mexico.

Norma Schafer founded Oaxaca Cultural Navigator LLC in 2007, and has been offering educational programs, workshops and tours since then. She served for thirty years in university leadership roles, and has a keen personal interest in artisan economic development, all things textiles and folk art.

.Reservations and Cancellations.  A $750 non-refundable deposit (first payment) is required to guarantee your place. The balance is due in two equal payments. The second payment of 50% of the balance is due on or before August 1, 2024. The third payment, 50% balance, is due on or before November 1, 2024. We accept payment using Zelle cash transfer or a credit card with Square. For a Zelle transfer, there is no service fee.  We add a 3.5% service fee to use Square. We will send you a request for funds to make your reservation deposit when you tell us you are ready to register. Please tell us how your account is registered (email or phone number).

After November 1, 2024, there are no refunds. If you cancel on or before November 1, 2024, we will refund 50% of your deposit received to date (less the $750 non-refundable deposit). After that, there are no refunds UNLESS we cancel for any reason. If we cancel, you will receive a full 100% refund.

Required–Travel Health/Accident Insurance: We require that you carry international accident/health insurance that includes $50,000+ of emergency medical evacuation insurance. Check out Forbes Magazine for best travel insurance options. https://www.forbes.com/advisor/travel-insurance/best-travel-insurance/

Proof of insurance must be received at least 45 days before the tour start date.

About COVID. Covid is still with us and new variants continue to arise. As of this writing (December 2023), we request proof of latest COVID-19 vaccination and all boosters to be sent to us 30 days before departure. We suggest that you test two days before traveling to the tour. Please bring Covid test kits with you in the event you feel sick during the tour. Face masks are strongly suggested for airport and air travel, van travel, densely populated market visits, and artisan visits that are held indoors. We ask this to keep all travelers safe, and to protect indigenous populations who are at higher risk.

Itzel Rodriguez Tolis Receives OCN Scholarship at Oaxaca Learning Center

Oaxaca Cultural Navigator LLC established a named scholarship at the Oaxaca Learning Center a few months ago to give back to the community we love and respect. The scholarship fund is supporting deserving students and mentors from indigenous communities who are either enrolled in or plan to enroll in university.

Education is our driving force. While we organize tours, our primary interest is in cultural and community appreciation, while understanding makers and what they make. We pride ourselves on creating experiences that offer in-depth insights into how people live and and work. Our goal is to give you an immersive experience that takes you into remote villages to meet women, men, and their families who create amazing works of art — textiles, pottery, basketry, food, alebrijes, and more — while giving you an understanding for history, social justice, public policy, and opportunities (or lack thereof) for economic opportunity.

Donate to Friends of Oaxaca Learning Center

Add your tax-deductible donation to the Oaxaca Cultural Navigator Scholarship Fund

This is why we chose to support the Oaxaca Learning Center. We are investing in the future of Oaxaca. The receipient of our first scholarship is Itzel Rodriguez Tolis, from San Mateo Cajonos, a Zapotec-speaking silk weaving village about 2-1/2 hours from Oaxaca City.

On her application, Itzel Says …

My name is Itzel Rodriguez Tolis, I was born on April 29, 2005, so I am 18 years old. I am originally from the community of San Mateo Cajonos, Villa Alta Oaxaca, located in the Sierra Norte of Oaxaca. My parents are Emilio Rodriguez Martinez and Sandra Tolis Baltazar, and I have two brothers named Yanneth Rodriguez Tolis and Abner Jediael Rodriguez Tolis.

I attended “Unión y Progreso Primary School” in said community. During this time, I was learning the mother tongue of my community, which is Zapotec, and thanks to the fact that my parents taught me, I am very proud to speak my native language. Then I attended Telesecundaria. During my academic stay there was a need for more teachers, and this had an impact since we only had a single teacher who taught us all the subjects. Despite this, I gave my best effort to learn. I developed various workshops, one of them was composing music Zapotec. The teachers who came from the city learned to pronounce some words in our native language. I also participated in basketball tournaments. During my studies, I was months away from completing Telesecundaria when classes were suspended due to covid-19. This affected us, since classes were then given online, and internet connection in my community was very slow. Some of us did not have cell phones and computers to enter the online classes. To continue with my studies at an academic level, I felt the need to leave my community since it does not have this higher level.

So I had to study high school in San Pedro Cajonos, Villa Alta, Oaxaca, which is one hour from my village. A very important detail here is transportation since it was very expensive, so I couldn’t return home every day. Because of this I had another expense to live at the school and pay a special fee.

I started working during vacations to financially help my parents, since it was an expense that they incurred for me. I completed my high school degree, from which I graduated with an average of 9.5 (out of 10), but even there my dreams did not end. I wanted to continue studying. I am enrolled at the Technological Institute University of the State of Oaxaca, studying civil engineering.

The expenses that my parents have to cover for tuition, room and board are not enough. The support from this scholarship fund will help to support my studies. I am also aware that I have a sister who is studying at the university and my brother who is in high school. My parents are unable to support the education for all three of us. I do not have any financial support from the university I attend. That’s why I always look for a way to reduce my expenses as much as possible. For example, I always bring my own food to university and I try not to buy food there, in order to save a little.

I am aware that studying a career involves many expenses and sacrifices. For this reason, I ask that my request for this scholarship be considered. I could contribute to my community by teaching summer classes during my vacations, so I would talk to the municipal authority so that they can grant the possibility of teaching classes. I am writing to you in order to request a Financial Scholarship that will allow me to continue my studies and achieve my academic and professional goals. I thank you in advance for considering my application and will be happy to provide any additional information required to evaluate my application. And I’m waiting for a favorable response.

***

Itzel exemplifies many who come from remote indigenous villages where higher education is not the norm, and where financial constraints discourage young people from going beyond an eighth grade education. We are so pleased that the Oaxaca Learning Center selected her to receive the Oaxaca Cultural Navigator Scholarship Fund to support her drive, ambition, and talent. She will be a role model and mentor for other young people in her community who want to know and do more.

One of our criteria was to ask that a student be selected to give back to their community. Itzel will do that as she returns during vacation to teach and mentor others.

We hope you join us in making a generous year-end donation to the Oaxaca Learning Center. Thank you.