Tag Archives: day of the dead

Day of the Dead Magic in Mitla

Our path along the Pan-America Highway leads us to some of the most iconic villages in Oaxaca. The artisans we visit in San Pablo Villa de Mitla not only talk about and demonstrate their craft, they will discuss their personal experiences and traditions growing up and honoring their ancestors during Day of the Dead. When you participate with us, you will go deep into a rich Zapotec history and culture that pre-dates the Spanish conquest of Oaxaca in 1522 and the settlement of Oaxaca as a colonial capitol.

We offer you a very personal, immersion experience!

We pick you up at 9:30 a.m. at a central location in the Historic District of Oaxaca city and return you there before 4:00 p.m. We will let you know the location two-weeks before the tour.

Why travel with us!

  • We know the culture! We are locally owned and operated.
  • Eric Chavez Santiago is Zapotec, tri-lingual, born and raised in Oaxaca.
  • Norma Schafer has been living in Oaxaca for almost 20 years.
  • We have deep connections with artists and artisans.
  • 63% of our travelers repeat — high ratings, high satisfaction.
  • Wide ranging expertise.
  • We give you a deep immersion to best know Oaxaca and Mexico.

In San Pablo Villa de Mitla we meet Don Arturo and accompany him to the Panteon Mitla, the cemetery where his mother is buried. We will participate in honoring his mother with offerings, and observe how other families memorialize their loved ones. We then return to Arturo’s weaving studio where he explains the traditional altar, the history and cultural significance of the celebration.

Arturo is a famous weaver who works on the traditional back strap loom with wool. This loom is primarily used by men here because it is wider and heavier than the looms used by women to weave cotton fabric. He is also a master at creating natural dye recipes, and uses the flying shuttle loom, an industrial revolution innovation of the mid-1800’s designed to make large scale lengths of cloth for tables, bedspreads, and curtains. His workmanship is so outstanding, he has been invited to participate in the Santa Fe International Folk Art Market repeatedly.

Don Arturo has a traditional altar. He uses only pre-Hispanic fruits and vegetables to decorate, and the mural behind his altar, featuring the Virgin of Guadalupe, Mexico’s patron saint, is a sight to behold. This is a time for reflection and understanding of pre-Hispanic traditions blended with Spanish Catholicism that is known as syncretism.

Lunch is a culinary exploration into the traditional foods of the season, with specialties only prepared here in San Pablo Villa de Mitla.

Registration and Cancellation. Tour cost is $155 per person. This includes transportation in a luxury van, bilingual guide services with translation, altar and studio visits, and lunch. Payment in full is required to reserve. In the event cancellation is necessary, we request a 10-day notice (by October 23) to receive a 50% refund. We accept payment with Zelle (no fees) or with a credit card (3.5% fee). Tell us when you are ready to register and we will send you a request for funds.

To reserve, please contact Norma Schafer by email.

Check out our Shop for all things hand-made in Oaxaca and Mexico!

Come with us to Chiapas, February 20-28, 2024

Day of the Dead Altars + Studio Visits in Teotitlan del Valle 2024

On October 30, 2024, we immerse ourselves in the rich cultural and social history of Teotitlan del Valle. No where is Day of the Dead celebrated with more authenticity than in the villages. Our one-day tour starts at 9:00 a.m. We pick you up at a central location in the Historic District of Oaxaca city and return you there by 6:00 p.m. We will let you know the location two-weeks before the tour. Your guide is Eric Chavez Santiago with Norma Schafer.

Why you want to travel with us:

  • We know the culture! We are locally owned and operated.
  • Eric Chavez Santiago is Zapotec, tri-lingual, born and raised in Teotitlan del Valle.
  • Norma Schafer has been living in Oaxaca for almost 20 years.
  • We have deep connections with artists and artisans.
  • 63% of our travelers repeat — high ratings, high satisfaction.
  • Wide ranging expertise.
  • We give you a deep immersion to best know Oaxaca and Mexico.

We welcome you into the Altar Room of each artisan we visit to pay respects to the family and their ancestors. We have arranged for permission for you to take photos and participate in some of the rituals, including tasting Pan de Muertos and Hot Chocolate made locally from toasted cacao beans. All along the way, you will learn more about how this tradition is celebrated, with its deep pre-Hispanic indigenous roots.

The artisans we visit in Teotitlan del Valle not only talk about and demonstrate their craft, they discuss their personal experiences and traditions growing up and honoring their ancestors during Day of the Dead. When you participate with us, you will go deep into a rich Zapotec history and culture that pre-dates the Spanish conquest of Oaxaca in 1522, and the settlement of Oaxaca as a colonial capitol.

While we spent most of the day in Teotitlan del Valle learning about the Day of the Dead traditions here, we start out in Santa Maria El Tule at the home studio of a flying shuttle loom weaver who uses naturally dyed threads to create clothing — blouses and shawls. He also has a selection of beautifully woven home goods — tablecloths, napkins, and dish towels. We learn that ancient traditions pre-date Catholicism, and those who don’t adhere to a religion still observe Day of the Dead.

Our itinerary includes stops to see:

  • a traditional flying shuttle loom weaver who creates award winning home goods and clothing
  • a famous rug weaving family that works only in the highest quality wool and natural dyes
  • a chocolate maker who uses grandmothers’ recipes to make delicious eating + drinking chocolate
  • an accomplished women’s cooperative that fashions leather trimmed handbags
  • lunch prepared by a traditional chef who prepares exquisite food

In El Tule, Alfredo tells us that Day of the Dead is not a religious holiday but a cultural one, hearkening back to the pre-Hispanic ancestors. Building an altar is his way of honoring his grandmothers and grandfathers who taught him to weave. He works on several looms that he inherited from his grandfather that are more than ninety years old. They have been repaired repeatedly and the wood frames are pocked with insect holes that accumulated over the years. Nothing here is discarded and age in whatever form — human or inanimate — is revered.

We make three more stops during the day. First to a favorite rug weaving studio. Here we will feel the emotional connection with the altar, learning about the importance of celebrating in the home. We will be welcomed with the perfume of copal incense, candlelight, and marigold flowers — all important for guiding the spirits of deceased loved ones back home for this twenty-four hour period when they return from the underworld to visit us.

The difuntos enter this world through the sugar cane arches flanking the altar and this portal is necessary to ensure an easy passage. Almost everyone here will have their altars complete by November 1, just in time for the spirits to return at three o’clock in the afternoon. They will stay with their families until November 2, consuming the ceremonial foods from the altar. At three o’clock on November 2, the church bells will ring and announce the time for the difuntos to return to their resting places in the cemetery. We accompany them, leading the way with copal, to ease them back to the underworld, offering prayers for a smooth passage and a promise that we will see them next year.

The offerings on the altars in Teotitlan del Valle include chocolate, bread, and candles. Other foods can include those favored by the deceased: beer, mezcal, coffee, coca cola, tortillas, tamales stuffed with mole amarillo (a village tradition). There will always be peanuts and pecans, eaten here long before the Spanish arrived.

Our last stop before returning to the city will be to a women’s cooperative whose members who weave beautiful small tapestries colored with natural dyes that they make into totes and handbags, trimmed with leather straps. It takes about two weeks to make a bag and the craftsmanship is superb.

Lunch is a culinary exploration into the traditional foods of the season, including yellow mole tamales, mezcal, and fruit water prepared by a local traditional cook.

Registration and Cancellation. Tour cost is $155 per person. This includes transportation in a luxury van, bilingual guide services with translation, altar and studio visits, and lunch. Payment in full is required to reserve. In the event cancellation is necessary, we request a 10-day notice (by October 20) to receive a 50% refund. We accept payment with Zelle (no fees) or with a credit card (3.5% fee). Tell us when you are ready to register and we will send you a request for funds.

To reserve, please contact Norma Schafer by email.

Check out our Shop for all things hand-made in Oaxaca and Mexico!

Come with us to Chiapas, February 20-28, 2024

Patti White’s Essay About Memory and Muertos

Patti wrote to me in response to my post about Day of the Dead Etiquette and Behavior. It is so touching and expressive that I asked permission to share it with you. Here it is.

Dear Norma, 

Over 20 years ago, I lost my sister to cancer, and her husband just a few years after that. We had been to the Yucatán in 1990 together and always assumed we would some day travel to Oaxaca for Dia de Los Meurtos.  Unfortunately, I never traveled with them again. 

I work in Olympia, Washington, at a small art gallery that features primarily Northwest artists. One of our long time print makers went to Oaxaca de Juárez six years ago to create and learn from local print makers after meeting Edgar Martinez from Oaxaca, who now lives in our area. Together, they were able to bring up almost 100 prints from 25 Oaxaca artists to sell at our gallery. We fell in love with the artwork and were touched by the history and background of the  protests and struggles of the teachers ( Mimi Williams, who was our resident printmaker, was a teacher herself ) whose story the printmakers were able to bring to the attention of the world. The exhibit was wildly popular and educating. I translated all of the titles and found myself reading everything I could to learn more about their meaning. traditions, archaeology, folklore, geology animals, rituals…I drank it in. I found your blog and have read every entry at least once.

Five years ago, my husband Roger and I were blessed to carry out the dream of my sister, Lynda and brother in law, Bob, and fulfill their dream. We were able to see the build up to the holiday, visit most of the cultural sites, experience markets, museums and of course visit all of the print shops. I brought with us postcards and media info on our exhibit and was able to meet almost every artist we had represented. This was a thrill for both myself and the artists. Of course, we came home with many new prints!

We spent only two days in Teotitlan de Valle where we felt a bit out of place at first, but quickly realized we should have spent more time. We visited the beautiful pantheon as the villagers worked decorating their loved ones gravesites, heard the church bells ring, the fireworks at 3:00 pm, the scent of chocolate and tamales in the air, and see all of the flower filled moto-taxis en route to alters and the cemetery which we visited early in the day.  There was only a small tour group of six there that were very respectful. They appeared to be the only other tourists.  What I felt was no coincidence; I struck up a brief conversation with an older woman, and then was approached by her husband who recognized me from my former occupation, working at a plant nursery in Olympia! This was just one of many coincidences we experienced. Norma, my family was raised without religion, but open to spirituality. I hadn’t felt closer to my lost loved ones than when we were walking the streets of Teotitlan de Valle. The warmth and welcome we received was nothing short of magical, and I felt Lynda and Bob’s presence every step. 

We went back to the big city and met with the guide we had for several days and had an amazing experience with the first week. He convinced us we should go on a cemetery tour that evening. This was the single most poor choice we have  ever made traveling. At first, lost in the beauty and excitement we took a few photos, but then chose to exit and wait for our group outside the gates.  The inappropriate behavior, sexy party clothing, open drinking and pure disrespect made us feel sick to our stomachs. Literally. 

Well, that experience left a sour taste in our mouths, but we chose to go back again in 2021. This time, we took more time to simply wander the streets and neighborhoods a bit further out, eat at smaller less known “risky” restaurants, and if course revisit the print shops and artists when we were in the big city. We then spent four days in Teotitlan de Valle. We stayed at the same little hotel, Teocalli, and met up with the rug maker who treated us like royalty and had us stay for lunch. He arranged for his nephew to guide us up El Picacho, which was breathtaking, and an education even though we really don’t speak Spanish and our guide no English! We were taken to our innkeepers home for delicious snacks and beverages made by all three generations of women in the home.

That night I was attempting to ask the innkeeper’s husband where we could purchase cerveza for our ofrenda  so late in the evening. A pleasant friend of his, who spoke English offered to take us to a store. Breaking every travelers rule in the book even during a non pandemic year, we got into the vehicle with this stranger, and drove off. Well, not only did he take us to the store, he asked if he could drive us to his home and show us his own alter. Keeping in mind, we had left the door to our room wide open, with my purse, our laptop and extra cash in plain sight. We spent almost four hours sitting in front of their ofrenda, shared mezcal, nuts and stories with his wife and son. Before we left, he made sure that we had fresh tortillas (both large and small for angelitos ), nuts, more chocolate, freshly made tamales, all in a handwoven basket his wife gave as a gift, and a HUGE  bundle of Fleur de Muertos, which we were told, was more important than cempasuchil in their village. He drove us back a bit tipsy, stopping to say hello to every person still out and about. Of course, our unlocked room was just as we left it. 

We set up as proper of an altar as you can in a place that is not your own home, and walked to the cemetery. We only sat outside under the tree and observed. We did not go in. We saw both the beautiful and obnoxious side of this important holiday. We retired to our room, lit a few candles, drank a couple of cervesas and talked about each loved one whose photo we placed and snacks we set out for. Two days later when we left, the gentleman whose home we had spent time in, happened to be driving by and saw us. My husband asked if he wanted to come in and see our ofrenda. He left the car running in the street, came inside, and actually started to cry telling us it was perfect! Of course, this made both of us cry as well. We hugged and said our farewells and thank you’s. Before we exited to go back to the city, another rug maker we spent a few hours with insisted we ride with him and not call a taxi. It was a memorable drive back and consider him a friend now as well. 

Last week, we once again created an alter in our Pacific Northwest home. We added two photos this year. Very bittersweet. Again, not being raised in an organized religion, we both feel such a driving force to carry out this yearly ritual now. We are pleased that we had the blessing of doing so from the native people we met and now consider friends. 

I realize this is quite a long message, but I’ve been wanting to write and thank you for a few years now, for guiding us through our travels to this amazing part of our world. The experiences and the opportunities that were presented to us left no doubt that the spirits of our dear Lynda and Bob indeed made it to Oaxaca and joined us, guided our travels and celebrated life with us. We hope to go back again and join you on a tour some day. 

Thank you for all you do. You are my hero.  Keep up the great work!

Cheers!

Patti White

Day of the Dead Etiquette and Behavior: Teotitlan del Valle Cemetery

Last year, 2022, Day of the Dead in Teotitlan del Valle was a frenzy. Big tour buses and mini-vans each holding 24 to 36 passengers unloaded face-painted visitors in front of our cemetery. I had made a plan this year to go early and not stay very long, expecting the same thing — travelers looking for mezcal shots, pointing their cameras in locals’ faces without asking permission, and having a roaring good time. I noted that tour guides had not prepared the visitors for an experience that included cultural sensitivity and respect. In 2022, foreign visitors outnumbered village residents two to one.

This year, I was very surprised to see only one face-painted visitor, no buses or vans, and very few tourists between 5 and 6:30 p.m. I thought, perhaps it was because the village municipal authorities made a policy to collect a toll from the buses and vans.

Oh, but how I was misled! My good friend Ani, who has been living here since 2003, went to the cemetery to pay her respects to our dear friend Juvenal, who died from Covid at the front end of the pandemic. He was fifty-two. She reported to me that the buses and vans showed up at 7 p.m., disgorging revelers who came to party. I narrowly escaped the assault.

The benefit of visiting earlier is that I saw Teotiteco familes enjoying the balmy fall evening, sitting around the gravesites of their loved ones, telling stories, eating peanuts and oranges, maybe taking sips of mezcal or beer. I mistakenly assumed that the panteon had returned to how it was pre-Pandemic.

So this brings me around to visitor behavior and etiquette for visiting cemeteries in Oaxaca for Day of the Dead.

  1. Please do not dress up in costume or paint your face! Locals don’t like it. This is not the tradition here (nor is it in Patzcuaro). Face painting comes right out of the movie Coco and has nothing to do with Day of the Dead. Nor does Halloween. Like many things, foreigners introduce ways that are culturally inappropriate and erode customs.
  2. Observe how local people dress and comport themselves and do the same.
  3. Come with flowers for graves, Day of the Dead bread, and candles. You can connect with a family this way if you make an offering to their loved one.
  4. Please do not arrive drunk or bring mezcal into the cemeteries. This is not your celebration. You are a visitor who needs to be respectful and circumspect.
  5. Walk slowly. Smile. Say hello. You may be invited to sit when you show that you understand and care.
  6. Please do not point your camera lens in someone’s face. I see this time and again. It happened to me in the village market and it doesn’t feel good. It feels invasive. Ask for permission if you are within six feet of another. Panorama photos can be taken without asking permission.
  7. Understand that you are stepping on sacred ground. This is an 8,000 year old tradition. Please let’s help keep it that way.

If anyone has any other tips or comments they want to add, please send me an email and I’ll publish them. Thank you for reading and listening.

Day of the Dead in San Pablo Villa de Mitla

Each Oaxaca village celebrates Day of the Dead a bit differently, according to their own customs. In Mitla, the spirits (difuntos) leave their tombs and follow the scents of copal and marigold back to the family homes on November 1. The transition from the underworld back to the world of the living happens in the morning and tradition has it that all have left their resting places by noon. This is when the firecrackers go off, the church bells ring, and all living relatives have left the cemetery in a procession, guiding the spirits with the intense aroma of incense and flowers.

Our group arrived at the cemetery at 11 a.m. in time to give prayers to Arturo’s mother Elena Quero Quero at her grave site. Arturo is a back strap and flying shuttle loom weaver who we have known for many years. We visit the Mitla cemetery with him for an explanation of the cultural history and traditions. Having a local friend to take us makes all the difference in how we are seen and accepted by locals, as well as enhances our learning experience.

We pay homage to two men from the USA who made Mitla their home in the mid-1900s, archeologist Ervin Frissell and artist Howard Leigh. They are both buried in a mausoleum at the cemetery and this is highly unusual. They are honored by the village and Oaxaca state because they were instrumental in collecting and documenting important artifacts that are part of the town’s cultural patrimony. In addition, Frissell introduced the fixed frame treadle loom here, bringing it from Saltillo, and taught women to weave shawls and make hand-knotted fringes. His hotel and restaurant attracted artists, writers, and archeologists from around the world. Frissell was the first outsider to come to help, according to Arturo, and the town reveres him.

We return to Arturo’s home studio for an explanation of his traditional altar and it’s significance for Day of the Dead. He uses only pre-Hispanic fruits and vegetables, uses a corn stalk instead of sugar cane (introduced by the Spanish) to create the portal to enter the living world from the underworld. He says there are more elaborate, luxurious altars, but this is how he personally wants to honor the ancestors. He tells us that the raised concrete altar was introduced by the Spanish. Before that, altars were on the ground.

Mitla is significant. It’s original name is Mictlan, place of the dead. It is believed that all Zapotec spirits eminate from here, a testimony that death is the most consequential event of life.

In the practice of blending Zapotec and Spanish tradition that we call syncretism, Arturo explains that the first arch of the concrete altar represents birth. The middle arch represents life and the one on the right represents death. The Catholics adapted the three portals to fit with their own spiritual beliefs and said the three portals represent the Trinity: Father, Son, Holy Ghost.

He shows us a new basket on the floor next to the portal. The spirits use this to collect the food from the altar to take with them when they return to the underworld. The basket must be new because it cannot occupy the spirit of anyone else! Alongside the altar is a petate, where the spirits can rest. The petate is a key part of ancient Zapotec life. This is where you are born, sleep, and wrapped with for burial. A man’s petate is tied closed with his sash. A woman’s is tied with her rebozo. The textiles help people cross over into the underworld.

Arturo serves us pulque, a lightly fermented juice from the agave plant. Different from mezcal, which is distilled, pulque is a viscous slightly sweet liquid that is a digestive cleanser, much like kombucha, and very important to indigenous culture for ceremonies.

He describes the mural behind the altar that shows the Mitla archeological site, the Catholic church built atop of these ruins, Spanish conquerors on horseback, birds that symbolize peace, native hairless Mexican dog called Xoloitzcuintli, a pre-Hispanic pastoral scene. Arturo says that the indigenous worshipped nature, water, and mother earth. The Spanish needed to conquer them spiritually.

After lunch next door at La Choza del Chef, we return to Arturo’s studio for a backstrap loom weaving demonstration and to see the beautiful textiles he and his son Martin create.

Next, we made a stop to visit Epifanio, another long-time friend in Mitla, who has constructed a very traditional altar amidst his collections of antiques that he buys and sells.

It was a great day of learning and exploring!