Category Archives: Oaxaca Mexico art and culture

Day of the Dead 2021, Teotitlan del Valle Cemetery: Cultural Sensitivity

Preamble: Our Day of the Dead Cultural Study Tour ended on November 4. Everyone tested negative for Covid to exit Mexico and re-enter the USA. We were all very relieved AND we practiced all safety measures during our time in the city and in Teotitlan del Valle — masks in all public spaces (even outdoors), social distancing, hand-sanitizer. Every artisan we visited (except one) was double-vaccinated. We won’t be visiting that artisan again — they were not disclosing! In Oaxaca, vaccine roll-out is slow and no one under 30 has been able to get the vaccine yet. It is a problem of availability and distribution.

I want to talk about how Day of the Dead has changed in Oaxaca and the villages. Years ago, when I first arrived in 2005 and for a decade after, when I went to the Teotitlan del Valle cemetery to participate in Day of the Dead, I was the only non-villager. I always went with local friends at sunset to be a part of the experience and I was mindful to keep as low a profile as possible, even though I knew I would stand out solely based on my skin color. I wore the traditional apron used by village women, came with offerings for the grave: flowers, oranges, chocolate, candles. Paid my respects by joining to sit quietly, mindful of my place as an outsider.

Then, and up until a few years ago, the grave sites of loved ones were surrounded by large gatherings of family members sitting, talking, taking sips of mezcal, placing last minute candles and flowers on the tomb mounds. It was a solemn and mystical time of tradition and respect. One that I hold close to my heart in meaning and symbolism for the circuity of life in pre-Hispanic culture here.

Last minute decorations. photo by Tiina Antiila

Now, it is different. Much different. I could see it coming even by 2016, when tour companies began to add the Teotitlan de Valle cemetery to its list of stops on their itineraries. Perhaps the mezcal culture has influenced this change, too, as drinking and enjoying Oaxaca cuisine has attracted the hedonists to experience an intense 5-day party weekend. I recall a National Geographic Photography Tour coming to the cemetery maybe in 2017 or 2018, huge cameras with impressive lenses in tow, not asking permission, setting up tripods and photos just a foot or two away. Now, with cell phone cameras, it is not as intrusive, but another phenomenon is happening.

Tomb with favorite foods, beverages of deceased

The atmosphere is more like Mardi Gras as face-painted revelers from the city embark from buses, vans and taxis. They are all foreigners, mostly from the USA. The cemetery is overwhelmed by them. I noticed that fewer locals were here this year.

Excavated tomb waiting for burial. Ancestor bones in bags will be reburied with corpse.

I asked my friend Natividad if she goes to the cemetery for Muertos. No, she said. It is like a fiesta. I don’t like it. I go another time, when it is quieter and I can sit without being disturbed. A widespread sentiment here, I think.

Sand painting carpet in chapel

As I sat with Norma Gutierrez and her daugher Lizet at her husband and father’s gravesite to remember Juvenal, age 52 who died of covid in a San Diego hospital, a face-painted woman approached to ask to take a photo (at least she asked). Remember Juvenal? We raised $3,000 to send his body home.

Norma nodded an okay. I looked at her and said, you can say no. (The circumstance felt invasive to me.) Her eyes said, Really? I can say no? So, she turned and said, No, and the woman walked away. This is a culture of being in agreement and it is a culture where women do not speak up as contrarians. So, when people do not object, it does not mean they are comfortable or in agreement.

If course you can take my photo, she says proudly

The flowers and graves were magnificent. A stark contrast to the predominantly Anglo dominance of the cemetery. I could not bring myself to photograph people sitting with their loved ones. I took photos of flowers and tomb altars. I wonder if I should continue to bring our small group of culturally sensitive travelers here in the future. Are we adding to the problem? Even as I prepared them with information about cultural meaning and cemetery protocol, it is difficult to not be a part of the cultural impact. We went to the cemetery accompanied by Ernestina and paid respects to her father Jose. I advised them to disperse and not walk around in intimidating groups larger than two or three people. We were all masked. It was 4:30 p.m. Still two hours of remaining daylight. Most of us left by 6:00 p.m.

Ernestina placing fruit on her father’s grave. Our group observes the tradition.
The band plays on

In the cemetery chapel, the volunteer committee that oversees cemetery maintenance and religious traditions, chanted blessings in Zapotec and Spanish, kneeling before the altar. Outside, the village band started playing Sousa-like music. Visitors planted themselves on benches drinking beer and mezcal, while others began to dance vigorously. Some were picnicking on the grass, pulling out their mezcal bottles from backpacks.

I went to visit the grave of my friend Lupita, who died of breast cancer at age 48, four years ago. I was heartbroken and went home.

The village depends on tourism. Visitors keep weavers and restauranteurs in business. It is up to the village leadership to decide.

No explanation needed

It is difficult for me to suspend judgment. I ask myself, Is this cultural appropriate or insensitivity? What does it mean to be authentic? Does authentic mean to keep things the way they have always been and to prevent change from happening? Change is inevitable and who am I to say that we are are experiencing cultural degradation? It is up to the people who live here to decide.

As we sat around breakfast the next morning, I asked our group about their impressions. Here is what they said:

  • I was offended by the dancing. It seemed so out of place.
  • I’m tired of the commercial creep in the USA. That’s why I came here, for something more meaningful.
  • The face painting was out of place.
  • So many visitors were not wearing masks. I tried not to be judging and I noticed that in myself.
  • I walked by families sobbing from their loss surrounded by revelers. It was a real disconnect.
  • I saw outsiders going to graves, laying down flowers to express their sympathy.
  • I was conflicted — I wanted to be there and found it very uncomfortable.
  • I was angry at the tourists. Then, I was angry at myself to being a tourist and I had to walk away.
  • It was more powerful for me because we had all the preparation leading up to the cemetery visit.
  • It’s creeping commercialization. Will the town speak up?
  • Most of the graves were decorated in advance earlier in the day, so I suppose that’s when most of the villagers were there.
  • It was mixed for me. It was a privilege to be there, but I felt like an invader to private, sacred time. This is an intimate, family time.
  • The city is packed with tourists looking for smaller venues.

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Norma with co-leader and godson Eric Chávez Santiago, Teotitlan del Valle

Collector’s Textile Sale: Preview 6

It’s been 19 months since I’ve been to my home in Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca. In the past several years I’ve been walking, and eating for health (gluten and lactose free). Most of what I’m featuring here are shawls, scarves, bed and table covers. Some are cotton and some are wool. Many use natural dyes. In this group are Rosario’s Bolsas, all hand-embroidered, cross-body bags for beauty and security.

Many pieces are new. I bought them to support artisans over the years as I have traveled to remote villages throughout Mexico.

How to buy: mailto:norma.schafer@icloud.com Tell me the item you want by number. Send me your mailing address. I will send you a PayPal invoice after you ID your choices. The invoice will include the cost of the garment + $12 mailing. If you want more than one piece, I’m happy to combine mailing. I’ll be mailing from Taos, NM when I return after November 15.

Holidays are coming! Think gift-giving.

SOLD 6.1 Cotton shawl or throw dyed with indigo. Woven on the pedal loom in Mitla. 25” wide x 86” long. Beautiful hand-twisted fringes. $65
SOLD. 6.2 Backstrap loom woven in Zinacantan, Chiapas. Square folds to triangular scarf. 24” x 24”. $65
SOLD. 6.3. Soft wool shawl or throw dyed with wild marigold in Mitla on the pedal loom. 30” wide x 78” long. $65.
SOLD 6.4. San Andres Larrainzar, Chiapas, backstrap loom woven scarf. All cotton. 14” wide x 80” long. $55.
SOLD 6.5. Cotton shawl, ikat woven on pedal loom, black, white, dark green. 44” wide x 62” long. $65
SOLD 6.6. From Tlahuitoltepec, Oaxaca, cotton dyed with indigo and nanche fruit. Look at the macrame fringes! Spectacular. 12” wide x 80” long. $75.
SOLD. 6.7. Indigo wool throw using the ikat weaving technique. Special twisted fringes include indigo touches. From our favorite Mitla design studio. 26” wide x 88” long. $125.

SOLD. 6.8. Indigo poncho using ikat dyeing techniques. From our favorite Mitla design studio. Soft and cozy wool. 35” wide x 31” long. $125.

SOLD. 6.9. A large densely embroidered cotton cloth finished with mitered edges. Motifs of birds and flowers. Use as bed or table covering or wall hanging. From the best embroidery cooperative in San Bartolomé Ayautla. 66” wide x 96” long. $125.
SOLD. 6.10. Wool shawl from Veracruz. Handmade. Natural dyes including wild marigold. 22” wide x 80” long. $55.
#6.11. Índigo 3-panel posahuanco (traditional wrap-around skirt and fabric) woven on the backstrap loom by Luis Adan on the Oaxaca coast. 44” x 82”. Use as bed or table cover. Use as throw for a sofa or chair accent piece. $135.
SOLD. 6.12. Three handwoven and embroidered napkins from Jamiltepec on the Oaxaca coast. Approximately 20” x 20” square. $45.
#6.13. A selection of 8 hand-embroidered cross body bags made by my friend Rosario in Teotitlan Del Valle. Each is lined with an inside pocket and zippered close. Approximately 11” wide x 9-1/2” high. $45 each.

tell me the number and the color, please!

Top Row: left to right— 16.13-A, 16.13-B, 16.13-C
Middle Row: left to right—16.13-D, 16.13-E, 16.13-F
Bottom Row: left to right— 16.13-G, 16.13-H

Collector’s Textile Sale: Preview 5

It’s been 19 months since I’ve been to my home in Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca. In the past several years I’ve been walking, and eating for health (gluten and lactose free). Most of the handwoven clothes I have, mostly from Oaxaca and Chiapas, do not fit! If you wear a size Medium, Large or Extra Large, then look closely below for some beautiful  
blouses (blusas) and dresses (huipiles). Many rare, most with natural dyes. I am also including shawls and scarves, too.

How to buy: Tell me the item you want by number. Send me your mailing address. I will send you a PayPal invoice after you ID your choices. The invoice will include the cost of the garment + $12 mailing. If you want more than once piece, I’m happy to combine mailing. I’ll be mailing from Taos, NM when I return after November 15.

SOLD. #5.1 Huipil from Zacoalpan, Guerrero. Back-strap loom woven with native green pre-Hispanic cotton. Soft, comfortable and rare. 28”wide x 28” long. Will fit M-L. $295
SOLD. 5.2. Huipil from Las Sanjuaneras in San Juan Colorado, Oaxaca, woven on the backstrap loom by Camerina, cotton with natural dyes. 27” wide x 36” long. $145
#5.3. From the Dreamweavers collection, Pinotepa de Don Luis, Oaxaca coast. 100% cotton woven on backstrap loom. Embellished in wine colored designs depicting the double headed eagle, man/woman, the serpent got Quetzalcoatl. 31” wide x 47” long. $495.
#5.4. San Andres Larrainzar, Chiapas blouse, densely covered woven bodice that shimmers with finely detailed figures. 24” wide x 23” long. Great with jeans! $135
SOLD. #5.5. Vintage Amusgo huipil from Guerrero with natural dyes. Amazing workmanship rarely found today. 36” wide x37” long. $395
#5.6. From the best cooperative in the San Pablo Tijaltepec Mixtec region of Oaxaca, a smocked blouse with traditional figures of reindeer. Naa Naanga group. Size L-XL. 28” wide x 27” long. $285.
#5.7. Chinantla region of Oaxaca state in the mountains between the city and Caribbean coast of Veracruz. See these in the famous pineapple dance at the Guelaguetza! Backstrap loom and cross stitching. 27” wide x 45” long. Pristine. $595.
#5.8. From Tenejapa, Chiapas, completely made on the backstrap loom using supplementary weft technique. Open sides. Sew it up for a blouse, wear it open for a poncho, hang it for textile display. 27” wide x 25” long. $225.
#5.9. Birds are the predominant feature of this vintage backstrap woven huipil from a village on the Chiapas-Guatemala border. 34” wide x 34” long. $285.
SOLD. 5.10. Another beauty from Chinantla in the traditional red, black and white color way. Woven on a backstrap loom. Supplementary weft. No embroidery! 27” wide x 41” long. These sell for $800-1200 USD in the city. $595.
#5.11. Dress with fine embroidered bodice made in Aguacatenango, Chiapas. Pima cotton. 23” wide x 41” long. $165
SOLD. 5.12. Ikat woven vintage Guatemala fabric made on the backstrap loom, embellished with embroidery from the Juchitan region of Oaxaca. Made by Aurora, owner of Oaxaca’s La Zandunga restaurant. 28” wide x 44” long. $125.
SOLD. 5.13. Needle lace roses adorn the bodice, shoulders and skirt of this dress from Morelia, Michoacán. This is a very difficult technique and not many work this way now. Perfect for spring. Is anyone getting married? 28” wide x 50” long. $295.
#5.14. Finest backstrap loom collectors piece from Chinantla bought at an expoventa in the village. 28” wide x 44” long. $595.
#5.15 Shawl/ rebozo dyed with fuchsine, a trade mark of the Oaxaca coast village of Santiago Ixtlayutla, near Pinotepa de Don Luis. The silk woven supplementary weft designs absorb the dye. The dye running is intentional. 26” wide x 90” long. $285.
SOLD. #5.16. I bought this from Remigio Mestas at Los Baules de Juana Cata and it has been a very favorite piece. I’m swimming in it. I’d say it’s a Large-Extra Large. The embroidered bodice and cuffs are filled with birds. The workmanship is dense and perfect. The fabric is a gauzy cream colored cotton that is soft and luxurious. You can’t find a piece like this now. $350.

I may have time to list Preview 6 before I leave Oaxaca, but I’m not sure. Stay tuned. Thanks to everyone for looking and helping me pass these treasures along.

Day of the Dead in San Pablo Villa de Mitla 2022

San Pablo Villa de Mitla is known as the City of the Dead. This is where Oaxaca Zapotec royalty were buried during the height of power. The village is steeped in a tradition that goes very deep in the Tlacolula Valley of Oaxaca. Once called Mictlan, this is the word for underworld in Aztec mythology. Most people who die will travel to Mictlan. We learned from our day with master weaver Arturo Hernandez and his wife Marta, that dogs were an essential part of this belief in Mitla. They are loyal mascots and serve to guide their masters from the world of the living to their tombs beyond.

Diane brings a gift of Day of the Dead flowers to present on behalf of us all

The village closed its cemetery to visitors this year, limiting those who enter to two people per family. The reason: fear of Covid-19. At the entrance to the village on our way to visit Arturo’s home and studio, our van pulled up to a check-point where we were asked to get out, to check our temperatures and to apply hand-sanitizer. The van was then disinfected with an alcohol spray. Whether that does any good or not, I don’t know, but people here feel more secure with this process.

Arturo’s traditional back-strap loom weaving. Corn, cacao and the sacred serpent are represented here.

We came with traditional gifts of flowers, chocolate and bread to present to our host, to add to their altar. He greets us in Zapotec and we present our gifts. This is a very special day for the family. And, it is our blessing to honor those from this home who have passed. Whatever is placed on the altar is not removed until after Day of the Dead, which starts here on November 1. At noon, the church bells rings, firecrackers explode, and the dead souls (difuntos) arrive to participate in a meal with the family.

Guava is a pre-Hispanic fruit used to adorn this altar

Everything on this altar has pre-Hispanic significance: honeycomb — representing the sweetness of life, salt signifies bitterness, pulque—a preHispanic fermented pineapple drink used by the ancestors often more potent than mezcal (distillation came to Mexico with the Spanish conquest), and tabacco. Before the conquest, locals smoked marijuana that they rolled in corn husks, used in celebrations. It is called a sacred leaf Ojas de humo sagrado. When Catholicism arrived, this practice was prohibited. Guaje, a tree pod whose seeds are filled with protein and also has digestive medicinal benefits. Some of you may know that this tree is prolific in Oaxaca and that is how the city got its name. Pumpkin seeds and native corn, representing sustenance. Nopal cactus is also excellent for the stomach to prevent sickness and preserve health. Chocolate (chocolatl, an Aztec word) was a sacred beverage, too, and always made with hot water, not milk.

Traditional Mitla altar with arches representing the three stages of life

Arturo comments that many decorate altars with fruit that is imported and symbols that represent the modern world, like coca cola or beer. He prefers to use native apples from the mountains (not from California), guava, pecans, peanuts, jicama, banana, squash and corn that were available during the time of the ancestors. He tells us the names in Zapotec and linguistically explains that anything that has a name that includes some Spanish is not original. Evidence of many of these seeds were found in the caves at Yagul, just up the road and are carbon-dated to 8,000 years ago. Furthermore, he only uses the wild marigolds, not those that are cultivated.

Pumpkin seeds for the altar

The altar is a shelf with three arches below representing the stages of life. The first arch represents birth and childhood. The center arch represents youth to middle age. The third arch represents old age and death. Originally, altars were made with reeds to look like a table with three openings below. The shape of the arch was introduced by the Spanish.

In the Mitla tradition, women are given power at marriage. They wear the key to the door of the house at the ceremony and the keys to the money that is in the baule (the wedding chest). There is no evidence of femicide or abuse of women in this village, according to Arturo.

Arturo gives us a backstrap loom wool weaving demonstration, telling us that this is men’s work here. He is using indigo that he dyes himself.

Shannon with the throw woven by Martin using natural dyes

Precisely at noon we stop what we are doing and have five minutes of silence. Precisely at noon the firecrackers go off at the cemetery and Gabriel, who is doing an internship from Guanajuato, lights one in the front yard. Marta comes out with an incense burner filled with copal and lights it. She walks with Arturo to the altar room and he purifies the space with the smokey, aromatic copal. This is the moment that the ancestors arrive — women lay down on the woven palm petate (mat) and men take their seat at the chair flanking the altar. It is sacred space.

The altar at the home of Epifanio Perez

After a short visit to the home and altar of Mitla antique dealer Epifanio, we return to Arturo and Marta for a traditional black mole and turkey tamale lunch. This made-from-scratch lunch for 12 of us is complete with locally grown chayote squash, nopal cactus salad, beer, mezcal, and topped off with nicuatole for dessert. This is a traditional pre-Hispanic corn pudding flavored with vanilla (also original to Mexico) and cinnamon.

Our group with Arturo, Marta, Martin and our co-leader Eric Chavez Santiago
Barbara admires an indigo dyed throw woven on the flying shuttle loom

It’s a privilege to go deeper into the meaning of Day of the Dead and learn the oral history from local people. This is what makes what we do different to give our visitors a cultural immersion experience. Cultural sensitivity and respect is an essential part of our approach.

Commercialization Creep is happening with Day of the Dead. Oaxaca City is completely overrun with an atmosphere of party going. Face painters ply their talent on the streets so that the atmosphere is becoming more like a combination of the U.S. version of Halloween and Mardi Gras. This is encroaching on the traditional villages, too.

I will be writing about our Day of the Dead experience in Teotitlan del Valle in the next few days, where tourists have taken over the cemetery and few local people come to sit by their loved ones tombs.

Arturo shows us each of the special offerings on the altar and explains their significance

All Soul’s Day, Dia de los Muertos, Oaxaca 2021

Today is the day, November 2, that the souls of the departed visit their loved ones here on earth. Our Oaxaca Day of the Dead Culture Tour is immersed in the traditions of the small weaving village of Teotitlan del Valle. We have also spent time in San Pablo Villa de Mitla, the Zapotec City of the Dead, with weaver Arturo Hernandez and his family. We have come to know the deeper meaning of Muertos intimately by sharing this pre-Hispanic tradition with local families.

Mike is an architect and he laid out the altar plan in advance

On October 31 we went to the Teotitlan del Valle village market to buy the decorations for the altar we would construct together in our B&B. We made a list of the important altar elements and divided them up for the group to get: flowers, chocolate, Day of the Dead bread, candles, nuts, fruit, copal incense. We would also make five bundles to give to the families we would visit over the next couple of days.

Market baskets for sale with Teotitlan church in the background

The altar is an offering to the deceased. It is a way to remember them and to honor the tradition of welcoming them back to visit us for a 24-hour period between All Saint’s Day and All Soul’s Day. The altar is a symbol of the continuum of life — birth to death and it is thought to be a circular spiritual event that is unending. Life begins and ends. Without death there is no life.

An abundance of flowers and chocolate

The copal incense, the fragrant seasonal flowers, the aroma of hot chocolate and bread, the light of the candles, all serve to bring the difuntos (souls) home. Strewn marigold petals are the spirits of loved ones making their way into the home altar room. The candles and aromas guide them so they don’t get lost.

Just picked pecans for sale

October 31 was a busy market day. Hug bags of bread loaves and homemade chocolate were tucked under the arms of shoppers. Palm fronds will make an arch over the altar that represents the gateway between earth and the spirit world. Tradition is to visit relatives whose loved ones have passed and bring fruit, flowers, candles, chocolate, mezcal as a tribute to them and the family. People here need lots of bread and chocolate.

Skull decor for sale

In exchange, the family being visited will serve guests a cup of hot chocolate, a piece of bread for dipping in it, and a place to site by the altar to reminisce. Family relationships are central and people take the time to nurture this. A visit can often extend to an hour or longer.

Mike shopping for wild marigolds and cockscomb at the market

Today, at 5 p.m., as the sun sets, we will accompany the spirits back to the cemetery so they are assured of finding their way. and to be comfortable with their passage from here to there. We will sit with them there in reverence and attend to the mystery of life. Our group will spend this day with Ernestina who will give us chocolate making and tamale making demonstrations. We will have lunch with her and the difuntos of her family, and then accompany her to the family gravesite at the cemetery.

Flor de Muertos, picked from the mountains, a tradition with significance—fragrance to lead the difuntos home

It is a privilege to be able to share this observance in a traditional Oaxaca village where people attend to the rituals they have grown up with, retelling the stories of their ancestors.

The altar we constructed at our B&B remembering our own ancestors
Our group of cultural appreciation travelers, here to learn more about the deeper meaning of Day of the Dead