It takes over one hundred passes of hot dripping wax poured over a four or five-foot tall woven cotton wick to create a handmade ceremonial beeswax candle. We are in the Teotitlan del Valle home workshop of traditional candlemaker Viviana Hippolito Alavez, who is recognized as one of the Grand Masters of Oaxaca Folk Art. Her work is exemplary.
The family lives on an unpaved road off the main street just as you enter the village, about two miles from the Pan American Highway 190. There is a freshly painted, brand new sign at the corner directing visitors to Abasolo #7. It is a humble house, filled with activity and warmth.
Viviana greets us with a wide smile and guides us to the covered outdoor space where she works alongside her son and daughters-in-law. They are learning from her, just as she learned from her grandmother. In the corner, a pot of cochineal-dyed wax simmers over a wood fire. It is hazy and aromatic.
The wicks are suspended from wheels. Viviana climbs on a small chair that she tells us she has been using for thirty years. It is crusted with wax layers like an archeological discovery.
Today, there are only four artisans remaining in Teotitlan who craft these traditional candles that are used every life cycle celebration: baptisms, funerals, engagements (contentamientos), weddings. These are candles used in the church, home altar rooms, and posadas during Christmas, Day of the Dead, and Semana Santa.
We talk about the abuelas, the traditional grandmothers who keep craft alive. Viviana tells Crespo, you must present your wife with a bouquet of candles when you ask her to marry you. Did you do that? she asks. Crespo’s wife, Ana, stands next to us, smiles and says, no, but he will do that today!
Claudia wonders how long this art form will survive as we watch Viviana first spit on and lick the bottom of the clay bowl before dipping it into the hot wax colored red with cochineal. An enzyme in the saliva must make it easier to remove the wax once it hardens. She then dips it into a bowl of cool water and peels off the circle that will become a flower decoration for an elaborate candle.
Will this be the last generation to do this work? Is our visit something that only tourists do, as one village visitor said as she declined to join us? What can we learn here about family, environmental sustainability, and the hard work and time that goes into creating something made by hand? What do we value as a society?
The family uses only natural dyes to color the beeswax and the clay molds made in Aztompa that Viviana inherited from her grandmother. Her son shows us the molds that are intricately carved with figures of hummingbirds, nuts, ducks, and lilies. The type of clay used then is no longer available today.
Should it be our responsibility to visit, support, and buy the handcrafts and artwork created here, whatever it is, in order to offer and demonstrate our respect for the traditions that keep a culture vibrant? I believe so.
Over the years, I have visited Maestra Viviana many times, never tiring of watching her create, the expression in her face, appreciating the knowledge and rootedness and love she expresses for her traditions. I see the caring and support of her children who help her continue her work. This is a blessing for all of us as she teaches the next generation of candle makers.
Best to call in advance to make an appointment for a visit. Impromptu often leads to the disappointment that no one will be home! Although serendipity happens, too!
Viviana Alavez Hipolito, Abasolo #7, Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca, tel: 951-524-4309
Voladores Fly in Cuetzalan del Progreso, Puebla, Mexico. So Do Bees!
Everything leading up to October 3 in Cuetzalan del Progreso is a preview for what’s to come. This is the day each year that the Voladores fly: Danza de Voladores.
When the Voladores fly, everyone pays attention. They are 120 feet high.
There is a huge carnival in the church courtyard and troupes of costumed, masked revelers come in from the villages to dance, sing and raise some hoopla.
Masked revelers dance in church courtyard and before the altar inside
Handmade beeswax candles adorn the church altar in huge displays of tiered confection, just like wedding cakes. The colors dazzle.
Handmade candles adorn the church, stacked like a tiered wedding cake
On October 4, the queen of the festival is crowned. Cuetzalan is packed with people, a few extranjeros (foreigners), visitors from other parts of Mexico, and lots of locals who come in from mountain villages by colectivos (shared taxis) and camionetas (truck transport).
Wedding cake hand-crafted beeswax candles, Cuetzalan church
The town square becomes a puesto (open market stalls) with alleys of textiles, beaded necklaces made from local coffee beans and seed pods, roasted corn on a stick layered with mayonnaise and chili, carved wood masks, sizzling comals (griddles).
Voladores circle the pole 52 times, in keeping with the Aztec calendar, before climbing
Hawkers, mostly the ancient ones, sell armadillo shell purses (yes, I bought one), gourd water jugs (I bought one, too), woven fiber bags (passed), wild mint (poleo) candies guaranteed to cure stomach ache (yes, though I didn’t have a stomach ache).
Four topple in unison, one stays aloft playing a pre-Hispanic flute
You can sidle up to a portable comedor (kitchen) to eat tacos, tamales, chicken with mole, squash blossom quesadillas. Thirsty? How about fresh fruit waters made with watermelon, cantaloupe, papaya, oranges.
Young men learn to become Voladores very early, practicing, practicing
It’s hard to keep your money in your pocket!
Candles that will become part of the church altar to celebrate on October 3
The day before, Merry Foss took us to the famous candlemaker Eugenio Mendez Nava, whose family makes beeswax candles for church celebrations. He is a national treasure and won the Grand Prize in the 2016 National Folk Art Competition.
Grand master of beeswax candles, Eugenio Mendez Nava, prepares for celebration.
We hopped on a colectivo to get to his workshop outside of town. We saw the preparations for the October 3 church celebrations in the making, were awed by the size of the candles, the intricacy of the molds, the bees swarming around the opening to the clay pot hives that were tucked into the workshop corner.
Makings of the church tiered wedding cake candle extravaganza
Fresh, wild honey is sold all over Cuetzalan. Here’s what the hives look like. Different from the white boxes we see all over the U.S. I imagine that Puebla people use the resources that are easiest to make and keep for beehives.
Clay beehives at the candlemaking workshop of Eugenia Mendez Nava
Birdcage in the workshop of candlemaker Eugenio Mendez Nava
There are multiple groups of Voladores flyers. Some of them are women, and why not. Courage and fortitude know no gender (as we move into the final days of the election in the United States of America).
Inside the church, at the altar, a frenzy of dance movement, drum beating
They start flying at around 4 p.m. on October 3 and continue until after dark. At twilight, groups of dancers and costumed revelers come into the plaza, tooting horns, flutes, singing, beating drums. They go in and out of the church, dancing at the altar, seeking blessings.
A whirlwind of color. No one stood still. I’m thinking blurry could be okay!
In the naves, young men stopped to take a breath, take a drink, fix broken decorations, tie shoe laces, and give each other the Mexican handshake — first brushing open palms together, then giving each other a bump with the closed fist.
Repairing the feather headdress before joining into the next blessing dance.
Meanwhile, outside, the next set of Voladores assembled ready to climb the pole. Humans in flight, spinning, ribbons fly in the wind, arms wide, feet wrapped around the rope, upside down, a several minute suspension.
Climbing a wood and rope ladder high into the sky
There were not many foreign visitors here. Is it because people are afraid to come to Mexico. We took a 6-hour bus ride from Mexico City to get to Cuetzalan. A perfectly safe adventure. And, then a 4-hour bus ride from Cuetzalan to Puebla. Also, very safe. See what you are missing?
The next group of Voladores waiting their turn.
The flying men gather in prayer before climbing the pole.
Soft landing, upside down, but he’ll turn over soon enough!
The eagle has landed!
As night descended, Barbara and I left the church. There was a light drizzle that turned to a gentle rain. The scene was obscure, dramatic, filled with shadows of retreating people. This region is tropical, damp and lush. We don’t go anywhere without an umbrella!
Our evening ends amid the rain drops and shadows of retreating dancers
How to Get There: From Mexico TAPO bus station, take the ADO bus to Cuetzalan del Progreso, Pueblo. Cost is about $20 USD. Trip length: 6 hours.
Where to Stay: Casa la Piedra, Cuetzalan del Progreso.
How to Return: From Cuetzalan buy a bus ticket at the new bus station in town on the Via line to Puebla CAPU. Cost is about $16 USD. Trip length: 4 hours.
How to Get From Puebla to Mexico City: Buy a bus ticket on Estrella Roja leaving Puebla every 30 minutes to the Mexico City airport, direct. Cost: About $16 USD. Trip length: 2.5 hours.
Where to Stay in Puebla: Hotel Casareyna is one of our favorites! They have a new addition and can accommodate many more guests. Sublime luxury. Try Bookingdotcom for bargain prices available.
Posted in Cultural Commentary, Photography, Travel & Tourism
Tagged Aztecs, beeswax, candles, church, Coffee, Cuetzalan del Progreso, dance, Eugenio Mendez Nava, fiesta, flyers, Merry Elizabeth Foss, Mexico, Puebla, ritual, textiles, Voladores