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Hopeful! 2021 Oaxaca Day of the Dead Culture Tour

October 28 to November 4, 2021 – 7 nights and 8 days, starting at $2,795

We are hopeful! 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. A $500 deposit will secure your place. This tour is limited to 10 participants.

We have 3 spaces open! Don’t miss out.

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. Our hope, too, is that we will all be well and it will be safe enough to travel to Oaxaca by October 2021. If for any reason we must cancel this tour, you will receive a full 100% refund. See notes below about COVID vaccination requirements to travel with us.

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Day of the Dead Altar

Now, back to the tour: Beyond the city, in the Tlacolula Valley, the 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 four different villages 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 four Zapotec villages: Teotitlan del Valle, San Pablo Villa de Mitla, San Marcos Tlapazola and San Miguel del Valle
  • 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 differ from those in villages by participating in city events first.  Our desire is to give you a full immersion experience that evokes what Day of the Dead may have been like 20 or 50 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 10-12 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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You have the guidance of local expert Eric Chavez Santiago who will co-lead this cultural tour with Norma Schafer, founder of Oaxaca Cultural Navigator.  

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, ceramic artists, apron makers 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.

You will spend the first two nights in Oaxaca City, then you will move to a comfortable Bed and Breakfast Inn based in Teotitlan del Valle for the remainder of our time together.

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

Preliminary Itinerary

Thursday, October 28: Arrive in Oaxaca City and check in to our centrally-located boutique hotel

Friday, October 29: After breakfast, explore the city and the Benito Juarez market to see preparations for Dia de los Muertos, and gallery/shop decorations. We will also catch a comparsa – the traditional Muertos parade – along the pedestrian street as our schedule permits. Overnight in Oaxaca. (Breakfast and welcome dinner)

Saturday, October 30: Travel to Teotitlan del Valle and check in to our comfortable B&B, take a chocolate making workshop with a traditional cook that includes a visit to the local molino (mill) to grind the cacao bean mixture. See how traditional mole Amarillo tamales are prepared and have a tasting.  We will talk about family altars, their significance and what goes into making one. You will then enjoy comida (late lunch) in the home of a local family.  (B, L)

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Teotitlan del Valle tamales with mole amarillo, made by Ernestina

Sunday, 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 villages of San Marcos Tlapazola and San Miguel del Valle to meet artisans and discuss their family Dia de los Muertos traditions. You will see demonstrations of red clay pottery and embroidered apron making 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). (B, D)  

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Monday, November 1: After breakfast, travel to San Pablo Villa de Mitla to meet weaver artisans who will take us to their family gravesite at the village cemetery and talk about this village and their history and traditions. Visit homes where traditional altars tell the story of ancient Zapotec culture. You will bring your offering of chocolate and bread to put on their altars to honor the deceased of our hosts.  We will take lunch at a local comedor along the way (at your own expense). Then, make a stop on the way home for a mezcal tasting – Para todo mal, mezcal. Para todo bien, tambien.  (B, D)  

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Tuesday, November 2: After breakfast, you will visit the homes of selected weavers in Teotitlan del Valle to experience each family’s variation on altar preparation, and see a weaving and natural dyeing demonstration. You’ll then join a local family for lunch and accompany them to the cemetery to sit with their loved ones as they return to the underworld. After the cemetery, you will have a cena (late repast) of bread and hot chocolate, discuss how participating in Day of the Dead 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, the choice is yours for this free-day. You may like some downtime to write about your experiences or take a hike to the reservoir or meander the village. You can also arrange a taxi to take you to neighboring villages or archeological sites. We will enjoy a final goodbye supper before you depart.

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

  • 7 breakfasts, 2 lunches, 5 dinners
  • 2 nights lodging at an excellent boutique hotel in Oaxaca City
  • 5 nights lodging at a charming B&B hotel in Teotitlan del Valle
  • museum and church entry fees
  • van transportation
  • outstanding and complete guide services

What is NOT Included

The workshop 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 • $2,795 double room with private bath (sleeps 2) • $3,445 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 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, 2021. The third payment is due on or before September 1, 2021. 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, 2021, there are no refunds. If you cancel on or before September 1, 2021, we will refund 50% of your deposit received to date. 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 send proof of vaccination to participate. You must send Proof of Vaccination by email on or before June 15, 2021. You can take a photo of the documentation and forward it to us. All participants are required to wear 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

Reservations and Cancellations.  We accept online e-commerce payments only. We will send you an itemized invoice when you tell us you are ready to register. After September 1, 2021, there are no refunds. If we receive notice of your cancelation on or before September 1, 2021, 50% of the funds you have paid to date will be refunded. After that, there are no refunds.

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 walk a lot — up to 10,000 steps per day. We recommend you bring a walking stick.

If you have mobility issues or health/breathing impediments, 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

What do we call them? Huipiles. Not Caftans!

In addition to cultural appropriation, there is a debate raging about what to call the hand-woven, back-strap loomed garments from Mexico that many of us know as huipiles. This is plural. The singular is huipil. (Some huipiles for sale below!)

How do you say it?

Whee-peel.

(or What do you do with a banana? We peel. — Thank you, Mary Randall)

Whee-peel-ess.

Caftan (kaftan) or tunic is a misnomer. I am reminded of this via a text message this morning from Ana Paula Fuentes, who introduced me to Las Sanjuaneras some years ago and was the founding director of the Museo Textil de Oaxaca. I promised her that you and I would have a discussion about Mexican clothing as a way to spread the word about culture.

I just want to set the record straight that I called these garments thus because it is what the American and Canadian marketplace knows and understands as a fashion definition. We’ve been acculturated since the 60’s when these garments came to us from Europe and North Africa and Asia as casual wear, beach and pool wear, loungewear. Now, with Covid-19, the idea is being reintroduced to the world of contemporary clothing as a perfect solution to comfort while we are homebound.

Let’s have the conversation: Clothing origins from Mexico deserve to be called by their true name. Huipil. Bluson. Blusa. Rebozo. Quechquemitl. Etc. And, we can spread the word about the quality of Mexico’s indigenous weaving by using the true name of the garment. People need to know these are huipiles. Not caftans or tunics.

Bluson: A short, cropped flowing version of a huipil, usually waist-length or hip-length.

Blusa: A blouse, more fitted than free-form; a universal term.

Rebozo: A shawl whose origins are from the Philippines via Spain.

Quechquemitl: A triangular pull-over shawl, scarf, cover-up that is pre-Hispanic and the first indigenous garment.

So, help us out here. When you wear one of these garments, call it a Huipil. Together, we can be influencers and talk about Mexico as being a fashion innovator rather than a follower of Euro-centric style. You give value to the weavers this way, too. Thank you.

Still some beauties from Las Sanjuaneras For Sale

#10. Andrea. Bluson. Marigold, chocolatillo. 35-1/2×24. $295.

To Buy: Please email me normahawthorne@mac.com with your name, mailing address and item number. I will mark it SOLD, send you a PayPal link to purchase and add $12 for cost of mailing. Please be sure to select Send Money to Family and Friends! We also accept Venmo and I can send you a Square invoice (+3% fee) if you don’t use PayPal.

#2. Camerina. Huipil. Indigo, iron oxide. $285. 34-1/2×34. $285.
#18. Aurora. 19×28. Blusa. Nanche, mahogany, almond, beet. $195.
SOLD. #16. Patrocinia. Bluson. Indigo, native cotton, $195.
#24. Aurora. Bluson. Beet, mahogany, nanche, almond, iron oxide. 38×22. $295.
SOLD. #7. Maria Lucia. 40×40. Huipil. Indigo, iron oxide, beet, nanche. $395
#20. Andrea. Blusa. Marigold, iron oxide, native cotton. 22-3/4×30. $195.
#21. Margarita. Blusa. Marigold, iron oxide, beet, brazilwood, 22-3/4×35. $165.

In the Villages: Tenejapa, Romerillo and Chamula, Chiapas

The weather turned. It got cold. Cold enough for wool socks, down jackets and mittens. There are fourteen of us and we climbed into the van with our guide Alejandro and our resource expert Sheri. Our destination was the weekly Thursday market in Tenejapa.

Leslie, Felicia, Marsha, Biddy and Irene at the Tenejapa market
Selling threads for weaving and embroidery, Tenejapa

It’s Carnival time here. In Tenejapa, this coincides with a pre-Hispanic celebration to pray for a good corn planting. This is a mash-up time of celebration — to mock political leaders including Lopez Obrador, the president of Mexico, and El Señor Trump whose costumed character paraded around in arrogant style. It is a time for drinking posh, the local distilled alcoholic beverage made from sugar cane, and eating tamales.

Recognize this man?
Young men participating in village rituals and celebrations
We saw a woman working on this embroidered piece inside a pharmacy

I advised our travelers to look deep and carefully along the market street, into dimly lit shops selling food, medicines, household goods, shoes, to find handwoven textiles suspended in the shadows. This is how they might find a treasure to take home from this distinctive backstrap loom weaving village.

Julia found this amazing furry shawl hidden away in the Tenejapa market

At the cooperative founded by 65-year-old Maria Meza and others in 1980, we learned about women’s lives, the passing on of the tradition to young women, and how everything in the cooperative is made without compromise on the traditional backstrap loom — from simple bags to elaborate huipiles.

The Mayordomo of the Fiesta and his Wife, two steps behind

The cold fog never lifts and it seems it got colder by the time we arrived at Romerillo cemetery. Everything was shrouded in fog. We ate our lunch of sandwiches and chips like campers, huddled under the the Maya crosses adorned with dried pine branches, sitting on the concrete base or standing. It was a quick visit.

Maria Meza, 62 years old, cooperative founder, with naturally-dyed textile
Innovation with new colors, traditional designs — key to the future
Melanie with a favorite bag
Organic (criollo) homegrown radishes, Tenejapa market

Our final stop was at the home of Maruch and her son Tesh, in a remote Chamulan village about 30 minutes from Tenejapa up a winding dirt mountain road. This is not standard tourism. Here, they showed us how they weave the furry Chamula-style wool skirts dyed with mud filled with minerals that turns brown sheep wool the color of black.

Pine trees and Maya crosses, pre-Hispanic symbols of life, cardinal points
Maya cemetery, the graves are covered with boards, the door to the underworld`
Maruch wrapping warp on the stairway to the moon, the counting board

After the demonstration and the opportunity to buy ponchos, shawls, and embroidered bags, we ended our day with a sip of nanche-flavored posh and a demonstration of ancient Chamula musical instruments — including ocelet skins with bells — and song performed by Tesh and his brother Alejandro.

Mary, Sunnie and Margaret present reading glasses to Maruch, Tesh’s mother
Weaver acculturates her infant daughter at the backstrap loom

We were back in San Cristobal de las Casas in time for dinner!

Lynn with her dazzling, sparkly bolsa (bag)

Sheri Brautigam, author of Living Textiles of Mexico, and I are organizing another Deep Into the Maya World: Chiapas Textile Study Tour in 2021. The 2021 dates are February 223-March 3, 2021 and the itinerary will be about the same. Our trips usually sell-out, so if you are interested in joining us on this adventure, please complete the registration form at the top of this website and send it to me. Registration is now OPEN.

Our group of 14 travelers with Tesh’s family — we supported them!

Doll Fascination in Oaxaca and Beyond

Walk the artisan lane at the Sunday Tlacolula Market and you will see handmade dolls for sale from San Bartolome Quilana. Their traje (dress) is a replica of the brightly colored floral head scarves and aprons the women of the village wear. Their embroidered faces smile at all passersby.

San Pablo Villa de Mitla doll made by Armando Sosa, Norma’s collection

Every culture makes dolls, it seems. Are they merely playmates for little girls or collectibles for adult women? What do they evoke? Is there some meaning beyond the external? Is a doll more than Barbie, the iconic figure created in 1959, that symbolizes girl as empty-headed plaything?

Everyone here, it seems, is making and selling dolls. At Arturo Hernandez’ weaving studio in Mitla, his wife Marta is making dolls to sell to tourists. In Chiapas, there are doll recreations of Sub-Commander Marcos and his tribe. Villages there make and dress dolls in their traje, too. Papier-mache doll figures from Mexico City city that look like puppets with floppy limbs depict street walkers, cherubs with rosy cheeks and glittery gowns. Giant dolls, called mojigangas — dance in front of Oaxaca’s Santo Domingo church for every Saturday wedding calenda.

Dolls from Chiapas and Oaxaca, Norma’s collection

Dolls are not frivolous playthings just for little girls, said Ellen Benson at her talk at the Oaxaca Lending Library this week. The room was filled to capacity with almost 70 people attending.

Ellen Benson with Keep My WiFi Working talisman

She explains. We call them action figures if they are for boys. In cultures around the world they are idols, effigies, saints, totems, shamans, power objects, and healers. Dolls are objects of cultural significance. They bring good luck, they are supplications for a good harvest, they are used for magic, storytelling and veneration.

A doll is NOT belittling and should not be considered as gender stereotyping, Ellen goes on to say.

She should know. She is a maker of dolls using found objects. She is part of a Philadelphia art group called Dumpster Divers. She calls herself a Dumpster Diva, and she calls the dolls she makes Divas. She combs junk yards and yard sales, piles of rejects, has a basement workshop filled with memorabilia, bottle caps, ribbon, fabric pieces, shards and discards. Her work is widely exhibited. And she spends two-months each winter in Oaxaca, Mexico.

Detail, paint brush legs and found objects, Ellen Benson dolls

Dolls are used in play therapy, Ellen says. They tell stories of women, men and families. They are memory prayers. They may contain herbs or medicine, or ward of evil spirits. In the Hopi spirit world the color of the Kachina signifies direction, ceremony. On every continent, native peoples created dolls from available materials to pray, heal, symbolize the resilience of people.

Ellen has favorite artists who has influenced her doll-making: Terry Terrell, an outsider artist from Seattle who uses texture, carved wood, clay, twine and beads. Betye Saar who depicted the Liberation of Aunt Jemima (below), set free from the stereotyped image of black servant, released from the burden of being a domestic. Hugo Tovar, whose lifesize figures adorn the courtyard of Plaza Santo Domingo in Oaxaca. Paul Klee, who made puppets for his grandson. Nick Cave, who creates images that obscures race and gender, offering the freedom to be who we are.

The Liberation of Aunt Jemima, by Betye Tovar

We need to take a broad view of doll as a human figure, offering protective power and meaning. Doll-making is a way, perhaps, of self-reflection about who we are and who we want to be.

Ellen Benson’s Doll Family — they belong together!

So, when you walk the Oaxaca streets, keep your eyes open for dolls. They are more than a thing of beauty or playmate for a grandchild. They are a reflection of the culture.

Papier-maché street-walker doll, Mexico

In Teotitlan del Valle, Hidden Treasures: Adrian Montaño

My North Carolina friends just left the village after spending a week with me celebrating a belated birthday. It was a bash! Mucho mezcal. Mucha fiesta. Mucha comida. Lots of travel to villages to visit favorite artisans.

We spent a morning with antiquarian Adrian Montaño in Teotitlan del Valle. I met Adrian a couple of months ago when I was visiting with friends Christophe and Rogelio who operate Maison Gallot. But, I had seen him around town, in the market, always impeccably dressed, a woven straw hat topping off the costume.

Adrian at his loom, with (left to right) Scott, Wendy, Kathryn (NC) and Carol (Texas)

Adrian lives in a part adobe, part brick and part concrete house tucked into the hillside above the village. He has a wonderful view. He has one very ancient loom. His house is adorned in antiquities and a beautiful altar. He has been weaving since he was a boy. He is now age 75 and still productive.

Virgins of Guadalupe and Soledad watch over revered ancestors on the altar

In the 1960’s, missionaries came to town and began a program of conversion, translating oral Zapotec into English. (Many still do, and call themselves linguists.) They befriended Adrian, who decided that rather than convert, he would learn English from them.

Adrian is also a painter, and adorns the jicara gourds a la Matisse

His language skills are impeccable and he speaks Zapotec, his first language, Spanish and English flawlessly. He says it is important for young people to keep the language traditions alive. To earn a living, he teaches Zapotec and English to village youth, and weaves ponchos.

The beautiful poncho that Wendy bought. Not natural dyes, but gorgeous nevertheless.

His hidden treasures are a stash of vintage textiles that he wove himself, mostly when he was in his twenties, and those he has collected over the years. We were treated to a Show and Tell. I am sharing the photos of these beauties here.

1930’s-1940’s tapestry, two wefts woven together, natural and synthetic dyes

In the 1930’s and 1940’s, most of the textiles woven were bed blankets. They were natural sheep wool or were synthetic dyes most common to the era — red, green and black. Motifs were animals, birds and symbols of Mexican nationalism. Few remain in pristine condition. Storage is a problem and moths love the dark “chocolate” richness of natural wool.

Panteleon or leopard motif on tapestry blanket, Teotitlan del Valle, 1930’s-40’s

Back then, the looms were narrower and to make a bigger tapestry, the weavers needed to create two exact pieces and then sew them together down the middle. Each side needed to match up! Only the masters could achieve this. These became either blankets or ponchos/serapes.

Famous vintage Victoriano Chavez rug design, Federico Chavez Sosa‘s grandfather

It was not until the early 1970’s that blankets then became adapted to become floor rugs. This happened when young travelers came to Oaxaca from the USA, saw the beautiful weavings produced in Teotitlan del Valle, understood the beginning craze of Santa Fe Style and worked with weavers to create sturdier floor tapestries.

Curved figures are the most difficult to achieve in tapestry weaving

Many back then brought Navajo designs with them and contracted with weavers to reproduce Native American designs that were then sold throughout the Southwest. Thus, began the rug-weaving boom in the village where I live.

Adrian wrapped in one of his vintage blankets

Today, there is a return to natural dyes and to the traditional Zapotec designs that are found on the stone walls of the Mitla Archeological Site. Moreover, young weavers are developing their own style, taking traditional elements and making them more contemporary, innovating to meet a changing marketplace.

Adrian Montaño has a reverence for his roots. He openly shared his collection with us. Many of the weavings had moth holes. Some were pristine. He tells me that those washed with amole, the traditional natural root used for soap, will prevent moths from nesting. But few people use amole these days.

Eagle and the Serpent Medallion, Mexican nationalism motif

I love Adrian’s ponchos. They are short-cropped and come to the waist. They are designed using the Greca (Greek-key) pattern so named by a European archeologist who explored Mitla.

Adrian wove this Covarrubias-inspired tapestry over 50 years ago

If you want to visit Adrian and purchase a poncho, please give him a call. (951) 166-6296. Only go with the intention of supporting him by purchasing what he makes.