Tag Archives: culture

Oaxaca Whirlwind: Mezcal, Worms, Ants, Mole — What Happened to Culture?

It may have started 10 years ago when the New York Times travel section started featuring destinations you could dip into for a long weekend. Oaxaca was one of them. Arrive mid-afternoon Friday, bar hop Friday night, dip your toes into archeology with a quick trip to Monte Alban, try street tacos for lunch and fine dining for dinner, do a bit of market shopping, travel out to the Sunday Tlacolula market followed by a fast in-and-out weaving demonstration along the Teotitlan highway and get out of town by 4 p.m. Sunday. If you have 12 hours more, have another great dinner at El Catedral, Origen, Casa Oaxaca, or Los Danzantes. 36 Hours in Oaxaca. Isn’t that enough?

My Austin, TX cousin Norm sent me a text last week asking if I’d seen Somebody Feed Phil, Episode 1, Season 5, Oaxaca. (Netflix link: https://www.netflix.com/watch/81486397?trackId=253448517)

Norm wanted to know if I’d been to any of the places featured in the 55-minute segment. Curious, I logged on to discover, Yes, I know Casa Oaxaca, Origen, their famous chefs, the Abastos Market, the street taco corner, how to taste and understand mezcal, and the tapestry weaving cooperative featured. I’ve even written about eating chicatanas, gusanos, chicharrones and chapulines for Mexico Today. I know some of the fixers (the people who set up the visits). I don’t know everything. I defer to the experts for that. I also try to research for accurate reporting. The Oaxaca episode of Somebody Feed Phil had information errors and understandably, offered a sensational, brief overview for the foodies and fun-lovers among us. It could have done more. If nothing else grabs your attention, it’s going to be eating insects.

So, watching the visually stunning episode solidified my long-time desire to sit down to write about a topic I’ve been thinking about for a while: When you invite people to discover a place, it takes more than dipping your toe in the water. We must go beyond many of the more famous places featured. You need time to get out into the villages, talk to people, understand the history and the culture, ask questions. You need to discover how people survived over the centuries, sustained themselves, cultivated corn that was first hybridized 10 miles from where I live in the Tlacolula Valley 10,000 years ago. You need to know how the crafts developed out of necessity to clothe themselves and prepare food. You need to understand the political complexities of syncretism — the mix of indigenous religious spirituality and Spanish Catholicism. You need to do more than eat worms, ants and grasshoppers, make yourself up in costume mimicking the film Coco on Day of the Dead. You need to do more than sample mezcal — you need to know why it was used in ceremonial rituals.

Oaxaca is known for her sensational food and beverage. To be a responsible tourist, you need to take a deeper dive into over 8,000 years of Zapotec, Mixtec, Mixe, Ikoots, Amusgos, Chinantla, and the nine other indigenous language groups that comprise Oaxaca today. You may want to read Origin: The Genetic History of the Americas, as I am.

Yes, Oaxaca needs tourism. Our economy here depends on it. There is no other industry and it is how the formal and informal (cash) economy functions. Oaxaca lures people into the idea of coming to sample all that is offered because of its diversity in people and plant life. Of course, the lure is magical — the color, the light, the indigenous dress and the amazing food and beverage. What’s not to love? A five-day dip into the culture is an introduction where we can observe, ask questions, be respectful and discover more. Ultimately, we want you to return again and again. We also want you to learn rather than to judge or impose your own standards on a society that has thrived much longer than those of us whose origins are from Western cultures. Community runs deep here. Individualism not so much.

So when you come for Guelaguetza or Dia de los Muertos or Semana Santa or Navidad, please come with an open heart and mind. Don’t paint your face for the street party and think that you are participating like a local. Locals don’t do that. It is a Hollywood interpretation. Find the makers who are extraordinary but who have not yet achieved the fame bestowed on them by Anthony Bourdain or Phil Rosenthal or Conde Nast Traveler.

Go deeper. Take your time. Discover. There is still much to be discovered.

Tempted to visit? Go deep with us and participate in our one-day to week-long immersion visits that introduce you to the art and artisans of Oaxaca and other parts of Mexico. We still have some spaces open for our Summer Textile Mountain Tour, Day of the Dead Cultural Tour in 2022 and in Chiapas and Michoacan for 2023. See the right column of this site and click on the program that interests you.

2022 Day of the Dead Culture Tour

October 29 to November 4, 2022—6 nights and 7 days— $2,895 for a shared room and $3,495 for a single room. We have 3 single rooms and 4 shared rooms available.

Day of the Dead in Oaxaca, Mexico, is meaningful and magical.  Celebrations in the villages go deep into Zapotec culture, community, tradition and pre-Hispanic practice. Some say it is the most important annual celebration in Mexico and here in Oaxaca, we know this is true. This tour is limited to 10 participants.

At Oaxaca Cultural Navigator, we hope to give you an unparalleled and in-depth travel experience to participate and delve deeply into indigenous culture, folk art and celebrations.

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Day of the Dead Altar

Beyond the city, in the Tlacolula Valley, many smaller villages are still able to retain their traditional practices.  Here they build altars at home, light copal incense, make offerings of homemade chocolate, bread and atole, prepare a special meal of tamales, and visit the homes of relatives to greet deceased ancestors who have returned for this 24-hour period.  Then, at the designated hour, the living go to the cemeteries to be with their loved ones  — either to welcome them back into the world or put them to rest after their visit here – the practice depends on each village.

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You will learn about this and more as you come with us to meet artisans in three different villages beyond Oaxaca city who welcome us into their homes and their lives during this sacred festival. 

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Study Tour Highlights:

  • Visit homes, altars and cemeteries in three Zapotec villages: Teotitlan del Valle, San Pablo Villa de Mitla, and San Marcos Tlapazola
  • Participate in presenting altar offerings at each home we visit
  • As a group, build a traditional altar to remember and honor your own loved ones
  • Learn to make homemade chocolate with the Mexican cacao bean
  • See a tamale-making demonstration and taste what is prepared
  • Shop for altar décor at the largest Teotitlan del Valle market of the year
  • Learn how mezcal is an integral part of festival culture and tradition
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We created this study tour to take you out of the city, beyond the hubbub of party revelry and glitz of a Halloween-like experience that has morphed into a Hollywood-style extravaganza in downtown Oaxaca.  We will compare how city celebrations complete with costumes and face painting differ from those in villages even as outside influences impact change. Our desire is to give you a full immersion experience that evokes what Day of the Dead may have been like 20 or 30 years ago–mystical,  magical, transcendent and spiritual.

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Even so, cultural tourism has found its way into the back roads of Oaxaca.  We do our best to be respectful by limiting the size of our group to 10 participants, to give you an orientation about to what to expect and do during our visits, and to offer you an intimate, personal experience.

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We give you an insider’s view. You have the guidance of local expert Eric Chavez Santiago who will lead this cultural tour. Eric is a partner in Oaxaca Cultural Navigator LLC.

Eric Chavez Santiago is an expert in Oaxaca and Mexican folk art with a special interest in artisan economic development.  He is a weaver and natural dyer by training, a fourth generation member of the Fe y Lola rug weaving family, who was born and raised in Teotitlan del Valle. He has intimate knowledge of local traditions and customs, speaks the indigenous Zapotec language, and serves as your cultural navigator. 

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Eric is a graduate of the Anahuac University, and speaks English and Spanish. He can translate language, culture and traditions, tell you about practices in his extended family and how they have experienced the changes over time.

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Moreover, he is deeply connected and will introduce you to some of the finest artisans in the region, where you will meet weavers, natural dyers, ceramic artists, and traditional cooks. You will have an opportunity to see artisan craft demonstrations and to shop for your own collection or for gifts, as you wish.

We will be based in a comfortable Bed and Breakfast establishment one block from the market in Teotitlan del Valle for our time together. (You might decide to arrive early and stay a few nights in the city or extend your trip to be in the city afterward.)

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Angel in Pan de Muertos (Day of the Dead bread)

Preliminary Itinerary

Saturday, October 29: Arrive in Oaxaca and travel to Teotitlan del Valle. Check in to a highly-rated, locally owned bed and breakfast inn. Snack box available for arrivals after 8 p.m.

Sunday, October 30: During our breakfast orientation, we discuss how Day of the Dead is celebrated in the villages and then go on a walking tour that includes the village market, church, archeological site, and cultural center. Today you will also visit the homes and studios of rug weavers, candle makers, and silk weavers talking with them about their own family observances. Overnight in Teotitlan del Valle. (Includes breakfast and welcome dinner)

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Teotitlan del Valle tamales with mole amarillo, made by Ernestina

Monday, October 31: After breakfast, walk to the Teotitlan del Valle market to shop for altar decorations to later build a group altar. Bring photos of those you want to remember! Then, we will venture out into the countryside to visit the Zapotec village of San Marcos Tlapazola to meet artisans and discuss their family Dia de los Muertos traditions. You will see demonstrations of red clay pottery and have a chance to buy if you wish. We will come prepared with altar gifts of chocolate and bread to present to the difuntos. On the road, we will stop at a traditional comedor for lunch (at your own expense). We finish the day with a mezcal tour and tasting in Santiago Matatlan, mezcal capital of the world. Mezcal is an integral part of Zapotec celebrations and we will see why. (B, D)  

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Monday, November 1: After breakfast, travel to San Pablo Villa de Mitla to meet a noted weaver artisan who will take us to their family gravesite at the village cemetery and talk about history and traditions. Visit a home where a traditional altar tells the story of ancient Zapotec culture. Our hosts will explain the ancient, pre-Hispanic altar offerings and go deep into the meaning of Muertos here in Oaxaca. You will bring your offering of chocolate and bread to put on their altar to honor our host’s ancestors. We will spend the day with this family and enjoy a very special lunch that they have prepared in our honor. – Para todo mal, mezcal. Para todo bien, tambien.  (B, D)  

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Tuesday, November 2: After breakfast, we will visit the Teotitlan del Valle cemetery to see preparations being made to honor dead loved ones: cleaning and decorating the graves. Then we will spend the afternoon in the courtyard of a traditional cook, who shows us how to make hot chocolate and tamales with mole amarillo. We’ll have late lunch there and then accompany her to the cemetery while she sits with her loved ones as they return to the underworld. After the cemetery, you will enjoy a before bedtime snack and discuss how participating in Day of the Dead has had an impact on you. Compare and contrast this experience with USA and Canadian experiences with death and dying.  (B, L, D)

Wednesday, November 3: After breakfast, we will arrange for any laboratory tests (at your own expense) required to re-enter the USA. Then, we will hold an EXPOVENTA to showcase the work of outstanding weavers representing various villages throughout Oaxaca state, including San Juan Colorado, Triqui, and San Mateo del Mar, and San Pedro Cajones. The rest of the afternoon is on your own. You can arrange a taxi to take you to the city, to neighboring villages or archeological sites. We will enjoy a final goodbye supper before you depart. (B, D)

Thursday, November 4: Departure. We will help you arrange a taxi (at your own expense) to the airport or you may choose to stay on in Oaxaca or visit another part of Mexico.  (B) Hasta la proxima!

Itinerary subject to change based on scheduling and availability.

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What Is Included

  • 6 breakfasts, 2 lunches, 5 dinners
  • 6 nights lodging at a charming B&B hotel in Teotitlan del Valle
  • museum and church entry fees
  • luxury van transportation
  • outstanding and complete guide services
  • multi-lingual translation
  • the cultural experience of a lifetime

What is NOT Included

The program does NOT include airfare, taxes, tips, travel insurance, liquor or alcoholic beverages, some meals, and local transportation as specified in the itinerary. We reserve the right to substitute instructors and alter the program as needed.

Cost • $2,895 double room with private bath (sleeps 2) • $3,495 single room with private bath (sleeps 1)

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Natural dyes have strong color, beautiful and more complex than synthetic dyes

Reservations and Cancellations.  A $500 non-refundable deposit is required to guarantee your spot. The balance is due in two equal payments. The second payment of 50% of the balance is due on or before June 15, 2022. The third payment is due on or before September 1, 2022. We accept payment using online e-commerce only. We will send you an itemized invoice when you tell us you are ready to register. After September 1, 2022, there are no refunds. If you cancel on or before September 1, 2022, we will refund 50% of your deposit received to date less the $500 non-refundable deposit. After that, there are no refunds. If we cancel for whatever reason, you will receive a full refund. 

The tour and COVID-19: You are required to be FULLY VACCINATED to participate. You must send Proof of Vaccination (this includes all boosters) by email on or before June 15, 2022. You can take a photo of the documentation and forward it to us. All participants are required to wear N95 OR KN95 face masks, use hand-sanitizer and practice social distancing while together. We will sanitize vans and keep the windows open when traveling together. Please note: You MUST also provide proof of international travel insurance including $50,000 of emergency medical evacuation coverage. 

Registration Form

Complete the form and Send an email to Norma Schafer.

Tell us if you want a shared/double room or a private/single room. We will send you an e-commerce invoice by email that is due on receipt.

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Red clay pottery, San Marcos Tlapazola

Who Should Attend • Anyone interested in indigenous culture and creativity, who wants a deep immersion experience into Day of the Dead practices and traditions, and who appreciates artisan craft — weaving, embroidery, pottery. If you are a collector, come with us to go deep and find the best artisans. If you are a photographer or artist, come with us for inspiration. If you are an online retailer, come with us to find the stories to market what you sell.

To Register, Policies, Procedures & Cancellations–Please Read

All documentation for plane reservations, required travel insurance, and personal health issues must be received 45 days before the program start or we reserve the right to cancel your registration without reimbursement.

Terrain, Walking and Group Courtesy: Oaxaca and surrounding villages are colonial and pre-Hispanic. The altitude is close to 6,000 feet. Many streets and sidewalks are cobblestones, narrow and uneven. We will do a lot of walking. We recommend you bring a walking stick and wear study shoes.

If you have mobility issues or health/breathing impediments or you are immunocompromised, please consider that this may not be the study tour for you.

Traveling with a small group has its advantages and also means that independent travelers will need to make accommodations to group needs and schedule. We include free time to go off on your own if you wish.

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Sitting vigil in the village cemetery, Dia de los Muertos

Winter Solstice, Dark Days, Let there Be Light

www.facebook.com/280837062184/posts/10157263088792185/

This came across my viewing path today and I want to share it. The wisdom of Ancient Mexico.


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

Family, Culture, Community and Covid in Mexico and New Mexico: Thoughts

Preface: It’s Labor Day. We depend on labor wherever we live to work the fields, harvest food, wash dishes or cook in restaurants, sew clothes, tend our nursery-school age children and grandchildren, build, repair or clean our homes. Before I learned the word, Huelga from Cesar Chavez when I participated in the California Farm Workers Union demonstrations, I knew from my teacher-father the value and importance of taking a stand to protect basic human rights — a fair wage, health care, education. He was part of the California Federation of Teachers Local #1021 that went out on strike in 1969. He was proud of that. Our mom was scared. There was no income for months.

Now that I’m in New Mexico, I am constantly reviewing the similarities and differences between living here and in Oaxaca. The similarities are startling, especially as it relates to our indigenous First Peoples. This week, The Washington Post published an opinion piece about how the Navajo Nation has suffered during the covid pandemic: Navajo Culture is in Danger. I encourage you to read this. It offers insights into a way of life that is essential to cultural survival.

Here and in rural Oaxaca villages, Native American families live together in multi-generational households, often encompassing four or five generations. They care for each other in close-knit communities where language, values and culture are shared and transmitted. This is an important way cultural survival mechanism.

Living in close community poses huge risks to the vulnerable, especially the aged. We know from history that disease ravaged indigenous peoples with the European conquests, decimating huge swaths of the population. The covid pandemic reiterates how a rapidly spreading airborne disease can bring sickness and death to rural communities. Most hold the attitude that they want little to do with government intervention because of historical mistrust, abuse and discrimination. Lack of access to clean water, health services, education, and economic opportunity shape these attitudes. Poverty and isolation are huge factors.

The Washington Post article addresses how the Navajo Nation, hard-hit by covid early in its cycle, is weathering the disease. Small houses are built adjacent to family dwellings to house grandparents to make sure they stay safe, separated from family but not too far away! The tribe has a successful vaccination campaign and a high percentage of their people are vaccinated now.

What I loved about this article was the effort to keep loved ones safe in auxiliary dwellings, and still keep them close to the family and community. I’m not certain that this is a practice in Oaxaca, where family celebrations and observances are a priority and people gather in large groups despite the on-going threat of the pandemic. Most often, it is the octogenarians who are the keepers of culture.

For those of us traveling soon to Oaxaca, we will need to stay vigilant to maintain safe distance and wear face masks during Day of the Dead celebrations at the end of October. It is very likely that celebrations will not be curtailed much at the cemeteries or in the streets. Traditions are powerful. It is also doubtful that elders will be housed in adjacent small homes for protection there like the Navajo are here.

Footnote: Today begins the 10 days of the Jewish New Year. This is a time to reflect on our place in the world, what we can do to actively “repair the world,” our relationship within it and with others. On Rosh Hashanah (today), the Book of Life is opened and for the next days, we review behavior, intentions, deeds and misdeeds. We use this time in self-reflection to set things right with ourselves and others. On Yom Kippur, the Book of Life is closed and the promises for change we make is “sealed.” This open book period gives us a chance to start fresh and steer a new course. We reconnect with family and friends, renew spirit by being in nature, take action to make change where it is needed.

I have been in New Mexico for almost four months. New beginnings are intentional, spark creativity, and create opportunity. At this moment, I’m grateful to again ask the questions: Who am I? Who do I want to be?