Life in Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca, centers around life cycle events. Dia de los Muertos — Day of the Dead — brings us together at the village market to prepare our altars to welcome the difuntos — the spirits of our loved ones who return to earth to visit us each year.
This could be considered the most important observance in Oaxaca, especially in the villages, where customs and traditions that survived the Spanish conquest continue. The most money is spent on altar and gravesite decorations during Muertos than any other annual holiday, I’m told. It looks that way.
For days, the streets surrounding the market are closed to vehicular traffic. It is packed with people and vendors from the countryside. Backs of trucks and stalls are overloaded with oranges and apples, pineapple, sugar cane fronds, pecans and peanuts, skeleton beeswax candles adorned with handmade wax flowers, tapers, incense burners and copal incense.
At the molino (neighborhood mill) down the street from where I live, women wait in line with their baskets of ingredients to get their turn at the grinder. Their men — husbands, fathers, sons — wait out front by the truck, catching up on village business. The women will make and serve mole negro, mole amarillo, toasted garbanzo bean soup, or atole — the pre-Hispanic corn drink flavored with homemade chocolate and vanilla. All these need ingredients to be ground. The women bring their unique family recipes, generations in the making.
Ten of us are here for the Day of the Dead Women’s Creative Writing Retreat. We come to express ourselves through the written and spoken word. We write about memory and loss, mourning and grief, forgiveness of self and others. In our writing we honor our dead, we cherish what we have lost and in the process we give life to those who have left us.
The culture that celebrates death, celebrates life, says Octavio Paz. Here in Teotitlan del Valle, we are privileged to participate in a sacred ritual of celebration, memory and renewal of spirit.
We buy the ingredients to create our own altar, including those listed above. To this we add chocolate, mounds of marigold flowers, Pan de Muertos, mezcal and beer. We use a special quilted cloth made by Gretchen Ellinger who could not be with us. We bring photos of our dead to remember them. We remember them. We cherish their memories. We write about them, our feelings of loss, survival, making do without their day-to-day presence. We bring the practice of another culture closer to us to understand that there are different ways to approach life and death, as a continuum, as a process, as we examine and accept our own mortality, too.
I write about my father. It is my blessing to his memory, that his life informed mine and gave me meaning. I write about his love of coffee and cigarettes, how he quit, where he failed and endured, how he died. I write the vignettes of memory as a child turned adult. It is my portrait of him, my love for him, his quirks and idiosyncracies. This is my time to go beyond Oaxaca Cultural Navigator, into the depths of my family and my heart.
I savor Dia de los Muertos because of this. I think the women who are with me this week share in this sense of honoring our loved ones, discovering our voices, and giving words to feelings. As we said, we grieve many things: the loss of people in our lives, the loss of self as we age and change, the loss of circumstances that alter us, the loss of who we wish we had become and embracing who we are.
I’ll be writing more about this in days to come. Meanwhile, I hope you enjoy these photos of preparations. We were at the market today at 7:30 a.m. It was packed with people!
Tlacolula Market Christmas Preview: Oaxaca Glitters
I grew up in Tinseltown. My memory is imprinted with pink, blue and white flocked Christmas trees for sale on pop-up corner lots along Ventura Boulevard in the San Fernando Valley of Los Angeles. Glitter was not only reserved for Hollywood. Garlands of sparkling silver ropes and plastic poinsettias could make any California dream of snowmen come true even in sunny December.
Checking email, texting or whatever — Tlacolula, Oaxaca, Mexico
Little did we know that poinsettias, called nochebuena here, are native to Mexico, bloom in November and December, have become the North American symbol for Christmas. They are all over town.
Welcome to Tlacolula, Oaxaca, Mexico, where traditional Mexican Christmas decorations of moss and bromeliads mingle with shiny stars, dangling bulbs, plastic farm animals and colored Christmas trees — a cross-cultural holiday morphing that points to the immigration back and forth across the border (sorry, Donald Trump). And it’s sunny here, too. Sometimes downright hot in December.
Everything you’d ever need to decorate for Christmas
Evoking Frida Kahlo: Making Memory Altars and Shrines, February 25-28, 2016
So many of Mexican parentage are United States of American citizens and they come home to visit family this season. We can debate the impact of change and commercialism on the culture of indigenous Mexico and what the word authentic means. People come back together after being separated and that in itself is good news.
Bromeliads from the Sierra Juarez, traditional decorations
(Don’t forget, Donald Trump, that Mexicans have lived in the United States for over 400 years, and that the southwest was stolen from Mexico in a trumped up war to gain territory.)
Poinsettias that are planted in tierra firma bloom here every holiday season — a natural part of the environment. So, there’s no excuse for fake here, although I see plenty of imported from China nochebuena flowers sticking out of vases on restaurant tabletops.
A 30-lb. turkey (or more) at 1,300 MXN pesos, led on a string
Those who can afford it will have turkey — pavo, guajolote — on their Christmas table. This will usually be dressed with mole negro or mole amarillo, depending on family tradition. There were plenty of live turkeys for sale on this Tlacolula market day, the last one before Christmas. The ladies were vying for customers.
The poultry sellers market, Tlacolula, Oaxaca
I could hardly get through the crowds, even at my usual 10:30 a.m. arrival time when typically there are fewer people. The crowds don’t usually come until after noon. But, the aisles were jammed with vendors, either stationary at tables or sitting on mats, or trying to move rolling carts from one spot to another.
Couple this with families out shopping for Christmas gifts and visitors from the city and you can imagine the skill required to negotiate the camino without tripping over someone or getting stepped on.
Fancy day-glow tennis shoes, a perfect Christmas gift
What I noticed most were a different variety of displays this time of year destined to become gifts: day-glow socks, lacy underwear, art work, fleecy hats, piles of oranges, embroidered little girl dresses and fancy tennis shoes.
Mamay fruit also known as Zapote Chico
Wall decor for holiday giving, some original, some reproductions
Plus, lots of fireworks for sale. Pyrotechnics are a big deal here and kids love shooting off firecrackers and spinners. Are they regulated? Heck, no.
Waiting in line for remittances, Tlacolula, Oaxaca, Mexico
The line out in front of the money exchange was a block long all day long. People were waiting to collect the remittance dollar being sent from the U.S.A. by family members who are there working for the benefit of those at home. Since the exchange rate is now over 17 MXN pesos to the dollar, this is a Christmas bonus for many in the Tlacolula Valley.
Notice the Michigan Black Beans sign above. Wonder who picked them?
Tourists love it, too. This is an especially good time to go shopping in Mexico. I noticed the market had more than its share of gringo travelers. Let’s hope they left with some treasures and left their pesos behind.
Oil paintings and watercolors for sale on Tlacolula street, kitsch folk art
Piñatas for Christmas? Yes, it’s someone’s birthday!
I am waiting for my family to arrive this week for holiday celebrations. We are going on a Collectivo 1050 Degrados tour to Atzompa tomorrow, a mezcal tour next week, maybe a visit to Hierve el Agua and a stop in Mitla on the way back. It’ll be busy, but I’ll try to keep up with Oaxaca comings and goings.
Packed parking lot — first time in my memory here.
Posted in Cultural Commentary, Mexican Immigration, Mexico, Photography, Travel & Tourism
Tagged Christmas, decorations, gifts, guajolote, labor, market, Mexico, nochebuena, Oaxaca, poinsettia, remittances, Sunday, Tlacolula, turkey