Tag Archives: altars

Mexico Travel Photography: Day of the Dead Photo Challenge, Norma’s Picks

Mexico Travel Photography Facebook Group of 287 members just finished up submitting a photo a day as part of a five-day photography challenge. Here are the statistics:

STATS: Last week’s 5-Day Photo Challenge, Day of the Dead. 39 people participated all week. They posted 136 photos total. 15 people posted 5 days in a row. Congratulations to all.

Panteón de Romerillo, municipio de San Juan Chamula, Chiapas, by Ana Paula Fuentes

Panteón de Romerillo, San Juan Chamula district, Chiapas, by Ana Paula Fuentes

Special thanks to the 15 people with 5-day staying power: Karen Otter, Ann Conway, Maité Guadarrama, Diane Hobbs, Martha Canseco Bennetts, Betsy McNair, Mary Anne Huff Shaw, Aurora Cabrera, Gail Schacter, Shannon Pixley Sheppard, Cristina Potters, Nick Hamblen, Kathryn Leide, Geri Anderson, Karen Nein.

San Martin Tilcajete cemetery, by Karen Nein

San Martin Tilcajete cemetery, by Karen Nein

I selected a few to show you here. Why these? All selections, of course, are personal judgment. I happened to like the light or composition or subject matter. I’m also attracted to blurred images lately, as well as a high contrast black and white photography.

La Señora de Recycling, Toluca, by Betsy McNair

La Señora de Recycling, Toluca, by Betsy McNair

Sometimes, a photo is innovative — the photographer shot from an unusual angle or perspective, came in close or got the sky exactly right.

Mineral de Pozos, Guanajuato cemetery, by Nick Hamblen

Mineral de Pozos, Guanajuato cemetery, by Nick Hamblen

You can see from these that the subject does not have to be looking right at you. The photo can be crisp or slightly out of focus.

Getting into the spirit early in San Miguel de Allende, by Laura Bly

Getting into the spirit early in San Miguel de Allende, by Laura Bly

Ihuatzio, Michoacan cemetery, by Florence Leyret Jeune

Ihuatzio, Michoacan cemetery, by Florence Leyret Jeune

Setting the scene matters. Telling a story counts.

Oaxaca Bachillerato Comparsa (parade) 2013. Her costume is embellished with natural plant materials. By Diane Hobbs

Oaxaca Bachillerato Comparsa (parade) 2013, by Diane Hobbs

Etla Comparsa by Karen Otter

Etla Comparsa by Karen Otter

I bet hundreds of people took photos of the suspended marigolds at the textile museum and not many saw the juxtaposition of orange against blue sky.

Museo Textil de Oaxaca, by Gail Schacter

Museo Textil de Oaxaca, by Gail Schacter

Oaxaca children's procession, by Barbara Szombatfalvy

Oaxaca children’s procession, by Barbara Szombatfalvy

Oaxaca, bringing flowers to the grave, by Kathryn Leide

Oaxaca, bringing fragrant marigolds to the grave, by Kathryn Leide

San Felipe, Chiapas cemetery, by Ann Conway

San Felipe, Chiapas cemetery, by Ann Conway

As you can see, Dia de los Muertos is one of my favorite holidays, right up there with Thanksgiving in the USA. I’m having a hard time letting go the the days behind us, but soon, we’ll be showing images leading up to the Christmas celebrations in Mexico.

Oaxaca Comparsa by Erin Loughran

Oaxaca Comparsa by Erin Loughran

Kids' parade, San Miguel de Allende, 2013, by Gina Hyams

Kids’ parade, San Miguel de Allende, 2013, by Gina Hyams

Tlacolula market Muertos flower vendors, by Christophe Gaillot

Tlacolula market Muertos flower vendors, by Christophe Gaillot

Hope you like this curated selection. To see them all, go to Mexico Travel Photography.

In two weeks, I leave for India. Look for posts about the textiles I find there. Meanwhile, enjoy this beautiful autumn season.

From Los Angeles, con abrazos, Norma.


Traditional Altars: Dia de los Muertos in Oaxaca, Mexico

After a night spent in the Santa Cruz Xoxocotlan cemetery on October 31 for Dia de los Muertos in Oaxaca, Mexico, I headed back to the Tlacolula Valley on Sunday morning. I was invited to San Pablo Villa de Mitla by friends Arturo Hernandez and Epifanio Ruiz Perez to visit for Day of the Dead. Here in Mitla it is always celebrated on November 1.

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Mitla, or originally Mictlan, is an ancient Zapotec town at the valley terminus with Mixtec influences carved into its archeological ruins. Mitla was just named a Pueblo Magico so it’s likely that in future years there will be many more tourists there for Muertos.

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Arturo took me to the cemetery with him to place flowers on his mother’s grave. The practice in Mitla is different from Teotitlan del Valle, and likely different for each of the Zapotec villages throughout Oaxaca.

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Here, he explained, the people come to the cemetery early in the morning, clean the sites of their loved ones, place fresh flowers, light copal incense and finish by noon. The firecrackers go off as the signal to finish.

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Then, they immediately return home to wait for the disfundos (the deceased) to return and join them for the afternoon meal. By one o’clock, the cemetery is empty. There is no sitting around the tombs here, like there is in other Oaxaca cemeteries.


This is a family, home-based tradition, says Arturo. Everyone leaves their doors open so that the spirits of loved ones can find their way home, following the scent of marigold, copal incense and the lure of their favorite foods or even a cigarette and shot of mezcal.


At the Mitla cemetery I met Gildardo Hernandez Quero who has a very traditional altar and is known for his in-depth historical knowledge of Mitla and the ways of practicing Day of the Dead from pre-Hispanic times. He invited us to visit.  With an offering of a loaf of Pan de Muertos and a bottle of mezcal for the altar, Arturo and I set out to pay our respects.


This is a visiting day. Family and close friends go to each other’s home with flowers, a candle, perhaps bread and chocolate. There is always a candle burning in front of the altar and a fresh one guarantees the light will never extinguish during the 24-hour visit of the dead.

Visitors sit a while. They talk. They remember. No visit is shorter than an hour. You can’t be in a hurry here. You are offered hot chocolate and a piece of sweet egg bread. Perhaps you are invited to taste the mole negro with guajolote. You will always be offered mezcal.


Gilardo’s altar is a ritual vision of serenity that combines pre- and post-Hispanic traditions. Photos of saints adorn the wall. A woven mat, the traditional sleeping mattress called a petate, is on the floor where the dead come to rest. Also on the floor is the candle, jug of mezcal, a squash gourd, beans, fruit and flowers — symbols of the harvest and bounty. Altars were always constructed on the ground before the conquest.

The concrete altar with its arch base is a colonial design imported along with bread, Gilardo says. He also points to the coarse traditional tortilla, black from the comal, that asks us to remember to honor indigenous corn that sustains the people.

We sit a while, talk about the politics of historic preservation and what it means for Mitla now that the town is a Pueblo Magico.

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I go back with Arturo to his house where I share a meal with his family and then make a visit to Epifanio Ruiz in the center of town. Epifanio has an antique business on Calle 5 de Mayo. Some of my vintage glass mezcal bottles come from him. He also is recognized by the town for his traditional altar.


I have another mezcal, a hot chocolate and bread, and Epifanio brings me mole chichilo. This is a traditional savory mole that is made the same way as mole negro except without the chocolate, so it doesn’t have the thick chocolate sweetness. I only have room for a taste. It is very good.


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Then, I get back to Teotitlan, make a stop to visit Michelle. She has house guests visiting from the United States for the week, so she asked each of them to bring a family photo to add to the altar, which each of them participated in building.

Next, I visit to say hello to the Chavez Santiago family. They sit around the dining room table in their altar room, eating fruit and nuts, playing card games, sipping mezcal and keeping their dead loved ones company.

It’s after dark when I get to the casita.

With each stop to visit, I make an offering of bread and fruit for the altar out of respect to the family and their traditionBest 71Muertos-74

At home, I light the 24-hour candle on my own altar in honor of our dad, set the mezcal bottles and copal incense burner on the floor, get cozy in the easy chair and continue to remember.

Practices and traditions for Day of the Dead in Oaxaca vary from village to village, and are held on different days. Epifanio says that the remote village of San Lorenzo Albarradas holds the celebration for a week.


The Teotitlan del Valle church bells are ringing. Someone is in the bell tower for 24-hours and the bells toll from 3 p.m. November 1 to 3 p.m. November 2. Today we will have a 3:00 p.m. meal with the disfundos and then guide them back to the tombs to rest for another year. We will sit with them at their tombs to ensure they rest easy and then return home.

Someone I knew once said, The dead don’t care.  I think he’s wrong. I think they do.


The Teotitlan Trail

I’ve got to back up two days in my mind because I didn’t do an entry for 12/21 and it’s already 12/22.  First, my impressions of the day: an old man, whip in hand, head covered with yellowed woven straw sombrero is riding a donkey down the cobbled street at a pretty fast clip. Between him and the donkey’s neck is a bundle of hay wrapped in cloth and bound with string.  He is sitting on the hind quarters of the beast. Poinsettias are in bloom everywhere, pink, deep red, fuschia–they are native to the area. Sister’s friends Linda Uno and Linda Dos arrive from Oaxaca city accompanied by Elsa.  The troupe is four gringas — me, Barbara, the two Lindas — and the two indigenas, Janet and Elsa. We hike the back alleys, the cobbled and dirt streets, to the end of Iturbide to find the casa of Alejandrina and Tito.  He is one of the finest weavers in the village but not famous like many of the self-promoters. He mostly does contract work for his cousin who is the famous one and sells Tito’s work under his own name. (This is how some families support each other here–cousins, uncles, nieces and nephews working to produce for the famous one.)  The house is cool, calm, beautiful. The altar, a feature of every Zapotec village home, is decorated for Christmas. The Virgin of Guadalupe raises her outstretched arms in blessings over the baby doll laying on the poinsettia decorated cloth table cover. The baby is Jesus.  The walls are thick adobe, floors are concrete, the kitchen is modern with sienna stained concrete countertops, the whitewashed walls are punctuated with textiles: antique huipiles from Peru and the Isthmus and intricately woven Saltillo-style bags by Tito.  We sit on the comfortable sofa and leather covered bamboo-woven chairs typical of Spanish Oaxaca and Ale displays the treasures she brought from Oaxaca to show us: a finely woven silk tapestry about 18×24″ that was the prototype for a top that Tito wove for Lila Downs, the singer.  The piece, 22 threads per inch, vibrated with color, the pattern was a feather border that was iridescent yellow, cream, rust and magenta.  There were small silk bags finished off with straps hand woven  in Santo Tomas Jalieza, a village famous for its fine work on backstrap looms.  If you go to the website: www.oaxacaculture.com I will try to post photos of this later today. The work is extraordinary. More impressions:  Dolores Chavez prepares pollo con mole negro and sopa de higadito for comida.  Here’s the recipe for the sopa:  prepare chicken broth to taste.  Scramble 6 eggs together with 1 cup of chopped cooked chicken and season to taste with salt, pepper, paprika.  Bring the chicken stock to a low boil.  Pour the egg/chicken mixture into the boiling soup.  Serve with salsa huajillo (This is a mild chile pepper.  You can use as a substitute any mild chile pepper salsa.)  We all sit around the large rectangular table that is brought out into the courtyard. We are surrounded by looms with rugs on them in various stages of completion. We stuff the chicken mole into fresh corn tortillas or flour tortillas that are possibly 18″ in diameter, ripping them apart and stuffing a piece with chicken mole and quesillo, the famous Oaxaca cheese.  After lunch, Elsa, Janet, Barbara, Linda Uno and I climb into the back of the pick-up truck for a visit to the mezcal vendor who is only in town this afternoon to do his pre-Posada sales. Eric drives and Linda Dos is in the cab beside him.  How we get into the truck bed is a hoot. I lift my skirt, put my foot on the bumper and hold on to the back of the tailgate like it was a horses mane, hoisting myself up and over in one clean swoop.  A couple of others pull the tailgate down, hoist their fannies up, do a little swirl to get from a seated to standing position to maneuver onto the truck bed.  We giggle, look at the sun setting, the 10,000 foot mountains ringing the valley, the lights of houses coming on in the dusk, and ride to the edge of the village in search of the mezcal vendor.  Of course, he got tired of waiting for us and was not there when we arrived.Next stop: Juvenal and Norma Gutierrez. He teaches English to villagers eager to learn in order to better communicate with customers from Canada and the U.S. They have a large compound behind tall walls and a big iron gate.  We go there because Norma makes magnificent aprons, checked cloth in various colors that she decorates with big, bold appliqued flowers, fantastic curlycues and zigzags. They are like the apron version of alebrijes.  Village women wear them like a uniform.  The Gringas want to buy and there is an English class in session.  Juvenal invites me and Barbara to speak to the class while the two Linda’s look at aprons (mandils).  I ask one man, Where do you live? He answers, Hidalgo Street. I ask, do you live in a big house or a small house? He says, I live in a poor house. I say, no, you live in a rich house, every house is rich. It doesn’t matter what size it is. There is silence and we look at each other.  I see him as a beautiful, strong and caring man. He looks at me with huge eyes, warm, open, accepting and appreciative. I ask him to repeat, I live in a small house on Hidalgo Street. I want to go back to teach because these are opportunities for all of us to see the world and ourselves in a different light.  At that moment, I think of the young man from Costa Rica waiting in the RDU airport to go home. He is in Duplin County, NC, one of the most rural, underserved parts of the state, teaching ESL through the Visiting International Faculty program. No doubt, he is teaching children of immigrants in the public schools yearning for education, too.The Giggling Gaggle of Girls climb back into the truck, Eric at the helm, steering us to the other side of the village, up the steep hillside, down the back alley of Calle de Fiallo, until we get to the home of Josefina Mendoza, at the outskirts of town.  From her house you can see the lights of the next village in the valley below.  It has taken me two years and five visits to discover these hidden treasures. Her house has no number, one just has to know, search, discover. Her husband is working in the U.S.  She and her daughter weave magnificent pieces using natural dyes, and they, too, contract their work out to a famous weaver to sell under his name.  I know her well enough that we hug in reunion, I ask about her sister who has recovered from cancer diagnosed last year, and the health of her mother.  I speak in halting Spanish, she speaks in Spanish with bits of English good enough for greeting and to complete a commercial transaction.  Josefina supplements her weaving income by selling frijoles in the village market during most weekdays or attending to the basket vendor’s stall when she is not there.It is late now, almost 9 p.m. and we make our plans to go to the Ocotlan market on Friday for the big market day, then go to sleep.