Tag Archives: change

No Plan to Live in Mexico: How I Got Here

The best plan might be NOT to have a plan.

I spent my working life doing goals and objectives, setting annual plans and then evaluating whether I met those targets. They became part of my annual performance review. Yet, the serendipity of how my personal life progressed was never a conscious decision. Sometimes I felt bad about that. I should have had more direction.

But I couldn’t have planned it better. How I came to live in Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca, Mexico, was pure accident.

Many I meet ask, How did you get here? Here’s a condensed answer.

Church of the Precious Blood, Teotitlan del Valle, built on top of Zapotec Temple, archeological ruins

Church of the Precious Blood, Teotitlan del Valle, built atop Zapotec temple ruins

My friend, Annie Burns, moved to Teotitlan from Pittsboro, North Carolina, in the early 2000’s.  She would return to visit with wonderful textiles to show and sell. At the time, there were probably three or four gueros living here. She kept inviting me to visit. Finally, I did, in 2005 with the wasband.

Teotitecas, parade of the canastas

Teotitecas, Parade of the Canastas each year in July

Annie introduced us to Josefina Ruiz Vazquez and her mother-in-law Magdalena. They had both lost husbands to illness that same year, son and father. Josefina and Magda are great cooks. Josefina, mother of three youngsters, was left with no means of support. Annie thought, maybe they could start a B&B. We were the first experiment in hospitality for gringos.

That’s how Las Granadas B& B in Teotitlan del Valle got started. Today, it is a shadow of its former self. Another friend, Roberta Christie, stepped in to make a huge difference by creating the infrastructure to make it happen. But I digress.

Rooftop View of Teotitlan del Valle from Las Granadas

Rooftop View of Teotitlan del Valle from Las Granadas

Years ago in San Francisco, I was a beginning weaver and experimented in natural dyes. My love of textiles informed my adulthood and as I traveled, I collected. During that first visit to Teotitlan del Valle, I thought I had landed in heaven. Teotitlan was filled with talented weavers and stunning textiles.

Federico Chavez Sosa at his loom in Teotitlan del Valle

Federico Chavez Sosa at his loom in Teotitlan del Valle

I was on a quest to find a family that worked only in natural dyes. I did research in advance and knew that while it was not widespread, there were a few working with plant dyes and cochineal. I set out to find them. It wasn’t easy. And, of course, I loved all those bright aniline dye colors, too.

Yet, it was a time when we were talking more about sustainability and consuming what was healthy, organic. Making a commitment to buying an organic textile was important to me and I didn’t want to compromise.

Dye demonstration with cochineal bug, acid and base

Dye demonstration with cochineal bug, acid and base

For the first few days in Teotitlan del Valle, I walked around meeting and talking with weavers in their workshops to learn more. There were many beautiful textiles and I was smitten. But I restrained myself from buying.

Everyone could give me a natural dye demonstration, crushing the cochineal bug in my palm, squeezing lime juice, adding baking soda. I watched the color change from orange to red to pink to purple, depending on proportions and chemistry. I wasn’t certain who was actually using the process to dye the wool.

Eric Chavez Santiago giving dyeing wool with wild marigold

Eric Chavez Santiago dyeing wool with wild marigold

Then, the only Internet connection in town was at the pharmacy across from the church. One day, as we left, we decided to make a right turn instead of our usual left to wander through the rug market.

I hear a voice say in perfect English, “Do you want to see my rugs?” Looking down to manage my steps on the cobblestones, I waved my hand and shook my head, no. The English was too perfect. Too slick, I thought. Then I looked up, saw these magnificent rugs and stepped into the space.

Chavez Family Weavers, portrait by Norma Schafer, 2012

Chavez Family Weavers, portrait by Norma Schafer, 2012

That’s when I met Eric Chavez Santiago and his sister, Janet. Both were university students, selling rugs in the market during Christmas vacation. Janet was huddled in the corner with a book on her lap, studying. I went to their family home and studio to see the complete collection, meet dad Federico Chavez Sosa and mom, Dolores Santiago Arrellenas.

Being a Teotiteco Danzante for Dance of the Feather requires incredible concentration

Being a Teotiteco Danzante for Dance of the Feather requires incredible concentration

I saw the actual wool dyeing and weaving process. Eric explained how difficult the economy was. The market demand had softened since the 90’s when Santa Fe Style sent thousands of Zapotec rugs out of Oaxaca to the American southwest.

Of course, I bought rugs. Eric later told me, many came to visit them, said they would help and were never heard from.

Caracol rug design, communication symbol

Caracol rug design, communication symbol by color master Federico

Then, I went home to North Carolina, gave thought to how I might help this family. I wrote an arts education grant with the Carrboro Arts Center to the NC Arts Council. We got funding to bring Eric and Federico to North Carolina for workshops, expoventas (show and sale) and give a master class at NC State University College of Textiles. I helped get 10 year visas with assist from Congressman David Price‘s staff.

It was never the plan to live here. The idea was to visit once a year … maybe. Living in Oaxaca City was not considered. I fell in love with Teotitlan del Valle, her people and textiles.

The casita where I live in Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca

The casita where I live in Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca

The next year, Federico and Dolores invited us to build a casita on their land. It was a surprise and a gift. Because no foreigners (even people born in other pueblos) can own property in Teotitlan del Valle, we knew that this would be a vacation home that would always be owned by the family. This relationship is based on trust, respect and good will.

Because of this unique arrangement, this is not for everyone. Many immigrants who live in Teotitlan and other usos y costumbres pueblos rent.

But plans have a way of changing and nothing is for certain. The wasband and I had our differences. Our divorce was final in 2014. For now, this is where I live and this is how I got here. I never planned it this way.

Cane bobbins wrapped with red wool dyed cochineal

Cane bobbins wrapped with red wool dyed cochineal

Eric, who thought he might work in a bank after graduation, went on to become the founding director of education at the Museo Textil de Oaxaca, with our coaching help and his innate intelligence. This year, Eric is starting a new entrepreneurial venture at the Alfredo Harp Helu Foundation. Janet is a linguist educator at the Biblioteca Juan de Cordova. Youngest brother, Omar, will finish university in December and wants to take the family business to the next level. Federico and Dolores run Galeria Fe y Lola in Oaxaca City and continue to weave.

Goals? I have no idea what’s next.

Women’s Creative Writing and Yoga Retreat, March 2017

Natural dyes have strong color, as strong as synthetic dyes

With a great dye master, natural dyes have strong color, as strong as commercial dyes

Will you share your story? If you live in Mexico, how did you get here?




Oaxaca Art Glass Studio Tour: Recycled Beauty Makeover

It’s definitely ugly out there at the industrial park in Magdalena Apasco Etla, Oaxaca, where the experimental glass studio Xaquixe is located. A mound of empty bottles — clear, brown and green — sits at the far end of the property, waiting to be broken up, melted and shaped.

Xaquixe art glass goblets in various sizes, colors

Xaquixe art glass drinking vessels in various sizes, colors, imperfect beauty

There’s a two-story metal silo where organic waste cooks in an experimental process to produce gases that can be used to fuel the furnaces. Rusted metal parts sit to the side waiting for repurposing.

Experiments in glass and creating fuel from organic waste

Experiments in glass and creating fuel from organic waste

This is also a place of beauty, literally and metaphorically. There is always a new project under construction to develop better fuel-efficient ways to produce gorgeous art glass in a socially and environmentally conscious way. Many call this sustainable development.


Making recycled glass with discarded cooking oil that is converted to heat is how experiment takes on new meaning.  Xaquixe founders Christopher Thornton and Salime Harp Cruces are dedicated to continuing process improvement and finding a more efficient, cheaper fuel source.

Solar might be the answer, but they don’t want to use photovoltaic panels since these can’t easily be recycled at the end of their useful life, says our tour guide Salvador Pulido Arroyo as he points to a shiny metal rotating array planted close-by.

Salvador, who is from Michoacan and has a degree in industrial design from IBERO, explains (in perfect English) that Xaquixe is experimenting with concave panels of aluminum that can absorb the sun’s energy and convert it differently. Sometimes experiments like this succeed. Often they fail. They always take an investment of money, time and creativity.


What keeps Xaquixe going strong is its commitment to innovation and design. It is the only glass studio in southern Mexico and serves as a role model for start-ups world-wide who want to adopt similar production strategies.

Christian Thornton explains Francisco Toledo art glass project to visitors

I signed up, along with nine other people, for this tour with Mariana Rivera, the delightful manager of the Xaquixe-Christian Thornton Gallery on 5 de Mayo (in the first block next to Santo Domingo Church), between Constitucion and Abasolo.  Mariana organizes these visits to the factory periodically as a way to educate people.


Animal skull with glass eye sits atop furnace

Xaquixe is devoted to education. As part of their factory remodeling they are creating an educational center where business and conservation practices can be learned as part of a visiting artists residency program.

In addition to making beautiful mouth blown and molded glass vessels for drinking and containing our favorite local liquid (mezcal), Christian works with Mexican painter, sculptor and graphic artist Francisco Toledo to build major one-of-a-kind installations.


Today, Christian was making wax molds to form a Toledo commission for a private client. He explained that he will spoon the molten glass into the mold and use the lost wax casting technique. See the wax chicken feet, below?


One benefit of going on the tour this week was to enjoy a big discount on seconds. There were lots to choose from. If you go out to the factory independently, from time to time you might also find seconds to buy. (Stop by and ask Mariana when the next tour is scheduled. It’s 300 pesos per person.)


Of course, it’s much easier to get to the gallery in the city where you will find drinking and mezcal glasses, big beautiful blown glass jars, pitchers, vases, dishes and sculpture in an array of magical colors — all made from broken glass shards melted and reformed.

Mariana Rivera leads the tour from gallery to factory

Mariana Rivera leads the tour from gallery to factory








Life Transitions Retreat: What are you doing with the rest of your life?

In Oaxaca, Mexico. 3 days, 4 nights — arrive Saturday, March 8 and leave Wednesday, March 12, 2014.

This retreat will help you explore and identify life’s possibilities and choices.  Our two professional workshop facilitators – psychotherapist Susanne Saunders and professor of creative writing Robin Greene – will offer caring guidance and support for imagining the journey that comes next and how to get there.  There will be plenty of time for meaningful reflection, exploring passions and setting personal, achievable goals.

About the Retreat 

Change happens and opens up questions, possibilities, and opportunities for hopes and dreams to become realized.  Change also creates fear of the unknown.  Sometimes change brings euphoria.  Perhaps we move ahead too quickly and we don’t arrive at the destination we had in mind.  Or, the ideas may swirl in our head of all the extraordinary possibilities open to us based on what we know we are capable of achieving … and stay there unfulfilled as time passes.

Sunset at Mazunte MarketWomen

The retreat program, held in a lovely, private B&B in the historic 16th century colonial city of Oaxaca, Mexico, is open to anyone facing change or imagining it, including those who are

  • considering retirement
  • contemplating a career change
  • transitioning back to the workforce
  • experiencing divorce, separation or widowhood
  • dealing with an empty nest
  • coping with the needs of elderly parents
  • reinventing life with boomerang kids
  • wanting a more satisfying life and steps to achieve it
  • dreaming of living life larger and more fully

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We will offer structured and unstructured time that will allow you to re-envision and give shape to your journey.  Thoughtful meditation time and reflective writing exercises serve to guide you toward holistic self-understanding, while more structured activities create opportunities for you to integrate the many complex parts of your life that need to come together to create meaningful, positive change.

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In addition, you will have the opportunity to examine the cultural richness of Oaxaca while participating in workshop and independent activities. In fact, we designed this program so that people, unhooked from their usual routines and assumptions at home, gain the necessary distance to understand and re-evaluate them.


Scheduled for early spring—life’s natural season of renewal—you will find yourself in a world of color, texture, smells, and tastes that will help awaken the spirit and give access to the self’s inner purpose.

At the end of our retreat, you will leave Oaxaca with a journal filled with meaningful reflective writing, three plans for a re-imagined future, and a better understanding of yourself and life’s next direction.

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Retreat Program Schedule–Preliminary

Each workshop day includes individual and group exercises, reflective writing, time on your own, meditation sessions, group discussion, and breakfast.  Lunch and dinner are at your own expense, although many meals will be shared as part of the group experience.

Saturday, March 8  (Travel Day, Arrive by Evening)

Arrive / Informal Introductions / Welcome & Orientation

Sunday, March 9

Following breakfast we will meet for formal introductions, discuss the reflective writing process, review the pre-workshop exercises you prepared, and go over workshop organization, etiquette, and boundaries.  We will define the Life Board and how we will use it.  Our goal is to offer a caring, supportive and safe space in which you can freely share your hopes and dreams.  We will meditate, engage in a body awareness exercise, and assess personal strengths and values.  This will give each of us an opportunity to Dream Large and identify our unique skills.

After lunch, we will engage in exercises that will help explore beliefs, capabilities, perceived limitations, and then have reflective writing and feedback time.

After dinner there will be time for reflection and writing.  (Meals: Includes breakfast only.)

Robin_Laura mezcal

Monday, March 10

After breakfast we will explore what brings us each joy, then after lunch we will walk to Oaxaca’s outdoor market for a fun exercise that we anticipate will stimulate your senses and stretch your imagination.   You will then write about this experience and bring meaningful found objects back to add to your Life Board. (Meals: Includes breakfast only.)

Tuesday, March 11

After breakfast, we will write about what it means to dream large, the possibilities that are open to you, and honoring the authentic self.  We will then talk about what has meaning for each of us and what future paths would help manifest this.  After lunch the afternoon will be free for journal writing and to prepare our culminating work. Dinner will include a celebratory toast followed by presentations.

(Meals: Includes breakfast only.)

Wednesday, March 12

Departures—After breakfast, you may choose to return home or stay on to further explore Oaxaca.

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What the Retreat Includes

  • 4 nights lodging in an upscale Oaxaca city bed and breakfast inn
  • 4 breakfasts, delicious and healthfully prepared
  • 24+ hours of guided facilitation by skilled professionals
  • all retreat materials including journal books
  • an experience to awaken your senses and give direction to your future 


Robin Greene is the McLean Endowed Professor of English and Writing, and Director of the Writing Center at Methodist University in Fayetteville, North Carolina. She is also co-founder and senior editor of Longleaf Press, a literary press that publishes contemporary poetry. Greene is the recipient of a NC Arts Council/NEA Fellowship, a university teaching award, and a visiting professorship in Romania. Her work is widely published in literary journals. Greene has led community and conference workshops, has served as a writing consultant, and has taught creative writing for over two decades. She is also a member of the Association for Contemplative Mind in Higher Education and integrates mindfulness practices in her writing classes. In 1999, Greene co-founded Sandhills Dharma, a Buddhist meditation group in Fayetteville, NC. Her books include Real Birth: Women Share their Stories nonfiction), Memories of Light and Lateral Drift (collections of poetry), and Augustus: Narrative of a Slave Woman (novel). Greene holds an M.A. in English from SUNY-Binghamton and an M.F.A. in Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts. See Greene’s website: www.robingreene-writer.com 

Susanne Saunders is a psychotherapist in private practice in the Chapel Hill, North Carolina, area here she has lived and worked for the past 34 years.  A Licensed Clinical Social Worker, she works with individuals, families, and couples across the life span.  She earned the Master of Social Work degree from The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, is a founding member of Blue Heron Farm Intentional Community, where she actively participates in community growth and development.  Music is an essential part of Susanne’s adult life, and she  performs in and writes original music for a 5-piece band.  She has made many transitions in her life, including growing up in Massachusetts, starting a family in North Carolina, moving from an urban to rural setting, attending graduate school as a young mother and then again as an empty-nester, changing professions, moving a house and rebuilding it, and on and on.  She enjoys listening to people’s stories and supporting them in getting the life they want.

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Lodging/Accommodations and Cost

We will be based at one of Oaxaca’s most lovely, hospitable Bed & Breakfast Inns within walking distance of the Zocalo and historic center of the city.  Vegetarian options are available for meals. 

Cost.  Because we are able to offer you all the benefits of personal attention within a small group setting, we can keep costs lower than comparable programs.    

  • $995 per person double occupancy with private bath (sleeps 2)
  • $1295 per person single room with private bath (sleeps one)
  • $845 per person if you make your own  housing arrangements and join us for the retreat portion only (you must participate in all group activities, including meals)
  • $125 per person per night, extend your stay at the B&B in Oaxaca city
  • $45 per night per person, extend your stay with lodging in Teotitlan del Valle

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The workshop does NOT include airfare, taxes, tips/gratuities, travel insurance, liquor or alcoholic beverages, lunches, dinners, snacks, and local transportation to and from Oaxaca city. Secure airport taxi and shuttle service is available at Oaxaca airport when you deplane. We reserve the right to alter the program as needed.

Reservations and Cancellations

A 50% deposit based on your selected options is needed to reserve your space. The final payment for the balance due (including any add-ons) shall be paid by January 15, 2014. Payment is by PayPal. We email an itemized invoice to you when you tell us you are ready to register.

We strongly recommend that you take out trip cancellation, baggage, emergency evacuation and medical insurance before you begin your trip, since unforeseen circumstances are possible. 

Workshop Details and Travel Tips.  Before the workshop begins, we will email you a pre-workshop questionnaire, a map, instructions to get to the workshop location from the airport, and a document that includes extensive travel tips and information.

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To get your questions answered and to register, contact: normahawthorne@mac.com  Since we are in Oaxaca most of the year, we are happy to arrange a Skype conversation with you if you wish, to be arranged by email.

This retreat is produced by Norma Hawthorne, Oaxaca Cultural Navigator LLC. We reserve the right to make itinerary changes as needed.