Category Archives: Cultural Commentary

Who is the Virgin of Guadalupe, Patron Saint of Mexico

Monday, December 12, 2022 is the Feast Day to celebrate the Virgin of Guadalupe, patron saint of Mexico, canonized in 1887 by Pope Leo XIII, revered. Most of us who live in Mexico know the story and many of us have been to the Basilica named in her honor in Mexico City, the most visited Catholic shrine in the world. She is the amalgamation of the Virgin Mary and Mother Earth, Goddess of Corn, Fertility and Abundance known in pre-Hispanic Aztec Mexico as Tonantzin, the Divine Mother, and protector of women.

Syncretism is what made the adoption of Spanish Catholicism possible in the Americas, and especially in Mexico. Combining the figure of the Divine Mother with the Virgin Mary was a way to ensure acceptance of the new religion without completely discarding the feminine-centric belief system, although the conquerors had hope to do just that! Today, the Virgin of Guadalupe is more revered than the central Christian figure of Jesus.

Because the Virgin of Guadalupe represents empowerment, compassion, motherhood, goodness, social justice and independence, it is easy for non-believers to join the millions of Mexican and Mexican-American faithful to adopt and honor her for these attributes on December 12. She is symbolic of Mexican identity and culture.

Here in New Mexico, once a part of New Spain and then a Mexican territory, the Virgin of Guadalupe is also ubiquitious. As I drive from Taos to Santa Fe, I pass road signs pointing to small villages where a Virgin of Guadalupe church or chapel administers to the local people. Taos artist Lynn Garlick creates retablos that feature the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe, and the Virgin figures predominantly in the Colonial arts section of the Millicent Rogers Museum, along with primitive Santos and Bultos, paintings and carvings of saints created by locals who had no access to sophisticated Spanish religious art.

She is reproduced on everything: refrigerator magnets, t-shirts, jewelry, handbags and tote bags. She adorns the backs of jean jackets sold in Oaxaca clothing and folk art galleries. Even Walmart sells t-shirts with her image emblazoned on the front. As an iconic figure, the Virgin of Guadalupe is definitely part of the popular culture.

We see her on aprons, dish towels, and tablecloths. And, as things go in this direction, it’s important to reflect on the history of her development in the Americas and what she represents today for women who live in rural, male-dominated societies that are repressive, oppressive, and often manifest in femicide.

I see the Virgin of Guadalupe as a universal image to embrace as the embodiment of unconditional love, acceptance, perseverance and fortitude. For me, she is more than and goes beyond her religious roots to encompass all that is beautiful and hopeful. It is easy to embrace and honor her! They say that to be a true Mexican, one must believe in the Virgin of Guadalupe. Count me in!

In recent years, I have written much about the Virgin of Guadalupe. You may want to read these posts, too.

My bet is if you go to a Mexican grocery store (or even a Walmart that caters to Latinos), you will find a tall votive candle with the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe. Lighting it would be a great way to honor her and all women everywhere, especially those who struggle in repressive systems that abuse their personhood.

And, we are not immune in Oaxaca!

Reflections: Oaxaca Day of the Dead 2022

The intensity of organizing three Day of the Dead programs — a culture tour, a writing workshop, a folk art tour– in Oaxaca this October and November gave me little time to adequately reflect upon and write about how Day of the Dead is spiritually satisfying, evolving and changing in Oaxaca. Now, back in Northern New Mexico until the New Year, I have more time to think and write about the experiences of visiting cemeteries, reflecting on memory and loss, and describing how village celebrations take us deep into Zapotec culture and tradition. Why? Its downright COLD here and having gone from eighty degrees Fahrenheit in Oaxaca to a chilly low of eleven degrees, complete with snow on the ground and atop nearby mountains, I am inclined to hunker down and stay indoors. Saving grace: New Mexico sunshine that keeps the spirits elevated and a glow of optimism alive.

Oaxaca is a mecca for Day of the Dead celebrants, now attracting hordes of visitors from around the world. On Oaxaca streets, I heard German, Italian, English, Portuguese, Spanish, French and Chinese. On the evening of November 2, when Zapotec residents of Teotitlan del Valle accompany the spirits of their deceased ancestors back to their gravesites, sit quietly to honor their memories, perhaps having a picnic supper with a mezcal toast, a group of Korean tourists intent on capturing the moments, approached with heavy-duty telescopic lenses, pointing cameras into sacred spaces. I reminded our travelers to be respectful, to ask permission for photos, and to not gawk. Gawking is not culturally responsible tourism.

At strategically located corners throughout the Historic Center of the city, local entrepreneurs set up face-painting stations. For $150 and much more, one can become a Calavera Freda, complete with a ghostly appearance and head topped with a fake floral crown. We also heard of families offering authentic experiences at the cost of $200 per person to join in a family meal followed by a cemetery visit. Those of us who live in Oaxaca applaud this creative approach to earning extra income, particularly when visitors are willing to pay any price, it seems, to participate in a more intimate experience.

We heard tell of another scene, this more private, whereby only those invited could buy a $250 ticket to a secret venue in Santiago Matatlan, Mezcal Capital of the World. You have to know someone who knows someone to get in. In addition to the ticket cost, arriving in costume is mandatory. A van picks-up the party-goers at a secret meeting point in Oaxaca city and takes them to an undisclosed location where mezcal flows freely well into the night, and a frenzied dance-party Burning Man-style ensues, entertaining revelers.

We eschew these experiences, preferring a more culturally quiet and sympathetic approach to the holiday. This is one important reason we are based in the villages. What I did notice this year in our Teotitlan del Valle cemetery, is that no visitors appeared wearing face make-up like they did last year. I also noticed that more visitors were there under the auspices of local families, hovering with them around their family gravesites. There were more villagers sitting around the cemetery this year than last. Perhaps, this is because our group arrived earlier at four-thirty in the afternoon. Most of us departed by six just as the light was waning. Yes, there were tourist vans, but fewer and smaller than before. We did hear that the village authorities had intervened to discourage large groups.

When we went with Arturo to his mother’s grave in San Pablo Villa de Mitla the day before, we arrived in late morning. At noon, the difuntos (deceased) arrive, announced by the cohetes (firecrackers). This is the signal to leave and accompany the spirits back home. There were very few foreign visitors here and participating felt so special. At the home altar, Arturo said a prayer to his mother, lit the copal incense and invited her to partake of special pre-Hispanic foods on display at the altar–chocolate, tortillas (corn), squash, water, chile, honey, peanuts, pulque, beans, limes –all native to Mexico.

(Let me introduce you to Arturo Hernandez, an outstanding weaver who has gained worldwide recognition, and invited to the Santa Fe International Folk Art Market. He has been a good personal friend for many years)

How do you know her soul will follow you home, someone in our group asks.

I ask her in Zapotec to come with me. I feel her with me in my heart. I talk to her. I let her know our happiness and our challenges. I also ask her to remember me and welcome me when it is my time to join her. She is inside me and it brings us both joy to have this day together, Arturo says.

The base of this altar is constructed with three arches or openings, representing three stages–birth, life, death. They are replicas of the arches found at the nearby Mitla archeological site. Mitla, once known as Mictlan, meaning Place of the Dead or Underworld. This was a major Zapotec burial site for royalty. With the Spanish conquest, the openings were renamed to become God, the Son of God and the Holy Ghost.

After the altar ceremony and explanation of this important tradition, we followed Arturo to the al fresco dining area where his wife Marta had prepared a delicious meal of mole negro, chicken, rice, tamales and nopal salad for us, followed by my favorite dessert, nicuatole, a corn pudding. Buen provecho!

Rare Opportunity, Day Trips, July 27 + July 29: San Pedro Cajonos and Santa Maria Tlahuitoltepec

We are doing a cultural textile tour from July 25-31, 2022 where extraordinary garments are made by very talented weavers. This includes two days up into the Sierra Madre del Sur mountains. We want to fill our van! So, we are offering one-day travel opportunities to Oaxaca residents, collectors and visitors. Join our travel group for one or both days! We have space for 4 more travelers on each day.

Day 1–July 27: San Pedro Cajonos Silk Weaving Village

On July 27 we depart Teotitlan del Valle at 8 a.m. for a two and-a-half hour luxury van ride up the mountain to San Pedro Cajonos. If you haven’t been there, this is your opportunity! We visit one of the finest, most distinguished silk weaving cooperatives in all of Mexico. Here, high in the Sierra Madre del Sur, Moises Martinez and his group created a sanctuary to cultivate and preserve silkworm production, with hand-spinning, natural dyeing and weaving. Yes! They grow the mulberry trees to feed the silkworms before they spin their cocoons. The cocoons are silk! You will see the entire process — growing, spinning, dyeing and weaving — and meet these talented weavers. They will prepare a homemade lunch for us and show us their silk textiles and accessories that are for sale. Garments include blouses, dresses, shawls, scarves and jewelry. We return to Teotitlan del Valle before suppertime.

Day 2–July 29: Santa Maria Tlahuitoltepec

On July 29, we depart Teotitlan del Valle at 8 a.m. to travel two hours on our luxury van to the mountain village of Santa Maria Tlahuitoltepec. Many of you may have heard of the village when several years ago a French designer appropriated the cultural heritage design of the blouses that are made here and marketed them as her own. Here you will meet weavers and embroiderers who work on the back-strap and pedal looms in wool and cotton. They use locally dyed alderwood tree bark called Palo de Aguila in Spanish to yield soft, creamy brown, beige and orange colors that are distinctive and beautiful. We will discuss with the family the issues of cultural appropriation and copyright, and what we as buyers can do to support their cultural patrimony. They also use banana tree bark, indigo, cochineal and wild marigold to dye the threads before weaving. After lunch, we will visit a large format potter famous for his amazing pieces featured in museums and private collections around the world. We return to Teotitlan del Valle before suppertime.

Cost: $395 each day. Or, register for both days at $735. Cost includes luxury transportation originating from and returning to Teotitlan del Valle, lunch, snacks and water, cultural commentary and textile expertise, bilingual English-Spanish translation services with a native Spanish speaker, and an adventure into remote mountain villages that you may never be able to do on your own.

Send us an email to register. Payment can be made in full with a Zelle transfer (no service fee) or with PayPal or Venmo (with a 3% service fee). Let us know which payment method you prefer.

Your knowledgeable guides 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.

Note: To travel with us, you must be Covid vaccinated. Everyone over age 50 is required to have two boosters. Please send us a copy of your vaccine card upon registration. In addition, N95 and KN95 face masks are required for all indoor activities. We observe US CDC guidelines regarding same. We do this out of respect for each other and for native peoples who have not had access to the quality of vaccines that we enjoy. We will ventilate the van and most of our activities will take place outdoors.

We also strongly recommend for these two day tours that you have travel insurance for accident protection.

Travel to/from Teotitlan del Valle is on your own. Please make your own arrangements to arrive by the departing time. When you register, we will send details of where to meet and recommendations for Teotitlan taxi drivers who can pick you up in the city and return you there at the end of our day.

Thank you very much! Let us know if you have any questions.

Pre-Hispanic Oaxaca Cooking Class with Vicky Hernandez

High up the hill in the shadow of Oaxaca’s famed archeological site of Monte Alban is a humble comedor on a dirt side street down the hillside from a paved access road. Carefully make your way down a curved, steep stairway cut into the hill to find the simple kitchen of Cocina Pre-Hispanica con Fogon where Vicky Hernandez teaches about the origin of Oaxaca food. Simple yet complex, organic and healthy, flavorful and rich with tradition.

Carol, who has known Vicky for years, arranged this cooking class for her daughter and her daughter’s fella. I tagged along. While I used to own a gourmet cookware shop and cooking school, there is always more to learn, especially about the roots of Oaxaca food. Moreover, I remember meeting Vicky six years ago when she taught her first cooking class in Carol and David’s miniscule kitchen on Huzares.

First, what is a FOGON? This is the adobe mud table-height cooking stove fueled by wood and topped with a clay comal (griddle) that is nixtamalicized (coated with white calc so the corn doesn’t stick).

Mamela with yellow corn masa, beans, cheese, salsa verde

We start the morning at 8 a.m. Vicky picks us up in the Historic Center where Carol lives, hiring two taxis to ferry the four of us and her to Abastos Market first to do the shopping. Central de Abastos is one of the largest market in Mesoamerica. It is a maze, a warren, a hub of everything Oaxaca — food, drink, pottery, clothing, animals and feed. The uninitiated can get lost — easily. It is best to follow an expert like Vicky, who led us to her favorite organic vendors.


Vicky at Abastos Market, smelling a lime for ripeness

On the cooking class menu today are memelas, sopa de guias, quesadillas with squash blossoms, chicken with mole rojo, atole — all traditional pre-Hispanic foods. So we gather ingredients, wending our way through narrow aisles just as the market vendors start to set up shop. The bustling begins.

Vicky shopping for ingredients ts

We are like ducklings and somehow, we end up on the other side of the market only to exit to find the taxis waiting for us on the street. We climb in and begin the drive up the winding Monte Alban hill.

Cheese vendor, Abastos Market

The day is starting to heat up but the hillside shade keeps us cool. We start off with traditional sweet bread to dunk into a cup of steaming cafe de olla (sweetened coffee flavored with cinnamon). On the table are plump cobs representing different pre-Hispanic colors of corn. Vicky asks Becky to choose which color corn to use for the memelas, and Becky points to the red.

Chicken vendor, Abastos Market
Becky and Tyler with Chipil

Vicky puts the corn kernels into a pot on the charcoal burner and adds calc. Corn needs human intervention to eat. The corn soaked and cooked in calc will soften the hard protective shell, making it edible. Then, the grinding begins. For speed, Vicky uses an untraditional hand-cranked grinder instead of a metate (original stone grinding platform).

Nixtamalization, corn cooking in the olla

We learn that corn soaked in ash is used for corn beverages like atole and tejate, while corn soaked in calc is used for food preparation. We learn that pre-Hispanic cooking translates to using only natural materials: clay, wood, calc and ash, and native plants.

Vicky’s mom preparing a mamela

The memelas are the best I’ve eaten, smeared with bean paste and topped with Oaxaca queso fresco (the crumbly local cheese). The corn base is shaped into a huarache (a shoe). The native red corn turns blue in the cooking. It is crunchy, nutty, filled with flavor. Corn and beans combined are an excellent protein source.

Sopa de Guías ready to eat

For the sopa de guias — squash vine soup — three local herbs are needed: chipil, chipiche and piohito. The base is water to which is added small round squashes called calabacitas that are quartered, squash blossoms (remove the stamens), shredded squash vine leaves, and 2” cut sections of the vine (thick outer strings removed like you do with celery stalks). Nothing of the plant goes to waste. We set about stripping the leaves and flowers from the chipil stalks, careful not to add the seed pods.

Vintage Molcajete with salsa, plus ingredients for quesadillas

Next comes the herb epazote. This very aromatic green is used to flavor beans and squash blossom quesadillas. We use quesillo for this, the Oaxaca string cheese. Don’t be skimpy with the cheese! Vicky tells us epazote is also used as a tea to kill parasites and to eliminate gas and bloating when added to beans during cooking. She a scrambled egg sandwich with epazote and chopped onions is the best.

Tyler consuming a quesadilla

The mole rojo, the red sauce for the chicken, is started by cooking together roasted, skinned organic tomatoes and two tablespoons of vegetable oil, then adding two cups of chicken broth. Once this is combined and cooked, we add about one cup of mole paste Vicky bought in the market earlier. Later, we eat this slathered over a piece of cooked chicken, scooping up the sauce with pieces of tortilla. Yum.

Chicken slathered in mole rojo

Kitchen accoutrements are basic: a molcajete to make the salsas, a metate to grind the corn or cacao, a clay olla or cooking pot, a comal (griddle) on which to cook the tortillas. For the salsa to accompany the Sopa de Guias, Vicky puts sliced onion, lime juice, salt and chiles de agua in the molcajete her father made 50 years ago, smashing all the ingredients together. Aromatic and flavorful. If you can’t find chile de agua, you can substitute jalapeño or serrano chiles.


Vicky and Carol go way back together
Tomatoes roasting on bed of charcoal

We sit to eat at a table in the humble comedor with views of the mountain above and the city below. The sun is shining and we are satisfied. At the entry, Vicky’s mother prepares an order for customers at the next table. I sip the hot atole. It is the best I’ve ever had, a rich corn liquid punctuated with small particles of floating corn. I ask to take home the corn residue left after squeezing the liquid through the gauze cloth. I’ll use this to add crunch to my homemade, gluten-free biscotti. In Italy, the residue is what makes polenta. Mexico, the source of corn, provides sustenance around the world.

View from the comedor

When we finish, we walk to the crossroads a short distance from the comedor and hop on a new Oaxaca city bus that takes us back to the zocalo in the historic center I. 20 minutes. Cost: 8 pesos or 40 cents.

Bus to town

Note: Class is taught in Spanish. If you need translation, Vicky can arrange for a translator to be there with you.

How to find Vicky Hernandez:

Telephone: 52-951-396-2621

email: vickyher70@gmail.com

Instagram: cocinaprehispanica

Reserve class with linktree — linktr.ee/cocinaprehispanicaoaxaca

Website: cocinaprehispanicaenfogon.com

Cost: $1,800 pesos per person cash for a 5-hour experience

Four stuffed and satisfied people

Highly recommend for great food and culinary education.

Permanent Resident of Mexico: Green Card Equivalent

Today, after my third trip to Migracion in as many weeks, I picked up my official Residente Permanente card granted by the federal government of Mexico. I was surprised at myself: I couldn’t stop smiling.  I’m thrilled, in fact, to now be an official part of this country I call home most of the year.

That’s not to say that the USA is not my home. I am a citizen, I vote, I take part in my community, I own property that I return to often, my family is there and I have a deep friendship network. I know my final resting place — in Santa Cruz, California, in a redwood grove, next to our mother, the Pacific Ocean in the distance.

There is much to appreciate in these two worlds — Estados Unidos Mexicanos and the United States of America. Neither is perfect. At the moment, I am happy to have focus here away from the turmoil of nationhood that has gone awry in my home country. As a friend recently said, we live in an imperfect world.

There is solace living in a small Zapotec village thirty minutes from a smallish town that is rich in cultural heritage and indigenous traditions.

I made this decision to apply for a permanent residence in September after I was invited to contribute a chapter to a book featuring the voices of women in the United States who have chosen to live in Mexico. I wrote almost 4,000 words about how I first came here, what kept me coming back, and the difference that living in Mexico has made in my life.

As an exercise in self-reflection, I realized how meaningful life here is for me, my relationships with people who come from an 8,000 year old heritage, and how my creativity is energized by the experience.

When I got to North Carolina in October, the first thing I did was contact the Mexican Consulate in Raleigh to make my application and arrange a personal interview. I was welcomed and treated with respect. I know that Mexicans do not have a similar experience when they appear for their appointments at the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City to apply for a simple tourist visa.

The paperwork required is extensive: one year of printed bank records documenting income to meet a threshold to qualify for this type of visa. I did not tell them anything about me in advance and I did not bring a resume. They must have found this blog and while at the interview invited me to meet with the cultural attache to talk about ways we could work together to educate Carolinians about the artistic and cultural richness of Mexico and her people.  I received the preliminary approval with a stamp in my Passport within two hours.

That was just the beginning. Then, in Oaxaca, on recommendation from friends, I hired German Osorio, a very helpful English-speaking attorney who facilitated another application, payment of a fee, and the series of meetings with officials to complete the process that took several weeks. This included surrendering my Passport for several days, surrendering my Tourist Visa permanently. Without the Tourist Visa, I could not leave the country until the Permanent Resident Visa process was complete.

Not much will change for me with this Permanent Resident Visa, except that the official approval solidifies my commitment to people and place.