Tag Archives: fiestas

International Priests Visit Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca

The firecrackers call in early afternoon to announce that something spectacular was about to happen in the village later that day. It’s filled with surprises here.  My neighbor Ernestina comes over in the morning to offer me 20 fresh, creamy chicken and mole amarillo tamales for 100 pesos.


Then, later tamales are served for lunch at the guest house where the felt fashion workshop participants assemble.  It is not yet Dia de la Candelaria, when everyone eats tamales. What is going on? I wonder.

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At six-thirty, the young men atop the bell tower ring the church bells. Rosario and Josefina say goodbye.  Where are you going? A la iglesia. To the church, they say.  There’s a fiesta  to welcome 30 visiting priests from Columbia, China, Nueva York (New York), California and India.  I follow the sound of the bells to the church courtyard.

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Nearly the entire village gathers.  I arrive just in time to be offered a fresh, steaming hot tamale, to see the children dressed in Dance of the Feather plumage dancing the re-enactment of the conquest, to hear the band play, and to see banquet tables filled with men who sip hot chocolate and eat tamales, served by traditionally dressed village women.

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I hear that more than a thousand tamales are made that day by the women chosen to the traditional, pre-Hispance Jarabe del Valle dance.  They are part of the church committee that supports the village festivals.

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A master’s of ceremonies talks about cultural exchange, the many Zapotecs from this village who live and work and practice their traditions in towns throughout southern California, and how these priests help people to adapt, acclimate and stay connected to their roots.  The Spanish is sprinkled with a little English to make the visitors more welcome.


Then, the women, holding branches of fragrant herbs welcome the guests to join them for the Jarabe del Valle.  The men, towering above them, move their feet to the rhythm of the dance and catch on quickly.


The band played on.

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Dance of the Little Old Men–Baile de Viejitos, Oaxaca

After a spectacular week of Semana Santa celebrations in Teotitlan del Valle, the village gathers for yet another tribute.  Dance of the Little Old Men, or Baile de Viejitos, begins on the Monday after Easter Sunday and goes for five continuous days.  It is an ancient pre-Hispanic Zapotec ritual centered around the way the community is organized and how well the voluntary leaders mete out justice and fairness.  The village leaders are assessed by each one of the five administrative sections of the village through an intricate process of information gathering, question asking, and feedback.



Each section has an opportunity to give feedback to the leaders through the men selected by each section to speak for them.  The men are dressed in disguise as elders, wise, strong, able to take a stand and tell the truth.  It is a power-leveling mechanism that is designed to humble the arrogant.

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Some call it Carnivale, like the pre-Lenten celebration, because there are masquerades and cross-dressing.  To the uninitiated, it looks like a springtime version of Halloween with costumed, dancing young boys.  They join the official masquers who accompany the Old Men as they act out their message through the dance and the tribute they pay to the leaders.  It is ceremonial and formal.

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And, it is fun.  There is excitement in the air.  The village gathers on stone steps that were once the foundation of a Zapotec temple.  The Municipio Building is ringed with folding chairs and behind them, vendors selling fresh-made fruit-flavored ices, cones stuffed with cream, do-nuts, and other sweets.  Another vendor sells steaming tamales seasoned with chipil. Parents buy bags of 5 peso popcorn for children to munch on.





The dance starts at 6 p.m. and goes well into the night.  All the leaders, starting with the president, dance in succession with the Viejitos representing the section.   The section representatives sit solemnly after they have presented their tribute — cartons of beer and mezcal.  Each section takes their turn — one section for each night.

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Danza de la Pluma–Dance of the Feather: Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca Pre-Hispanic Tradition

Many people come to Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca to photograph the extraordinary Dance of the Feather.  This was how we spent Day 5 of our Market Towns and Artisan Villages Photo Workshop.

Los Danzantes — the dancers — make a three-year commitment to recreate the history of the Spanish conquest of Moctezuma and the Aztecs through dance.  The main characters include Moctezuma, Cortes, La Malinche/Doña Marina, the masked spies who gathered intelligence for Cortes, and an assortment of soldiers and warriors.

However, this is an ancient Zapotec ritual dance that pre-dates the arrival of Cortes and the conquistadores to Oaxaca in 1521.   The ritual dance was integrated into a festival to honor the patron saint of Teotitlan del Valle and her church, Preciosa Sangre de Cristo.  It begins every year  on the first Monday of July with the Parade of the Canastas to coincide with the full-moon.  The subtext includes tribute of mezcal, beer, bread, and maize.  Pre-conquest dancers paid tribute to the gods of rain, corn, and fertility.  This is not a folkloric dance or guelaguetza.

It is a serious part of maintaining culture, community, ritual and tradition in Teotitlan del Valle.  The dancers take their commitment seriously and the community supports them in this endeavor.  Everyone turns out to see the dancers.

Even though the rains came during the afternoon, they lasted only about 30 minutes. Loyal viewers were undaunted and stayed; the dancers danced on.  They endure a strenuous 10 hours of dancing on this first day that can be through intense downpours and brutal summer sun.  Fortunately this year, the rain was short and the sky was overcast with just a hint of sunshine — much cooler than those sweltering in the U.S. midwest and east, and what dancers have experienced in years past.

This is the last Dance of the Feather for this group that formed three years ago.  Tradition directs a village man who wants to be Moctezuma to organize a group.   This group is larger than usual.  They added a troupe of young boys to play the role of Spanish soldiers.  We have seen these boys grow up and mature.  They, too, take their responsibilities seriously despite their youth.


Each of the dancers weaves his own breast and backplate and makes his own amulets.  The masked jester, who represents Cortes’ spy, puts a banana on the horn of his mask. A man watches from the church courtyard sidelines.  A nieves vendor sells these fruity frozen treats.

Our assignment for the workshop was to capture motion by using a slow shutter speed, low ISO and high aperture, experiment with depth of field, and incorporate black and white or sepia.  This was a new stretch for me, a challenge that I welcomed!  I’ve come to discover that blur is something you want in art photography IF it is your intention!  I’m training myself to see those blurred shots a little differently and not discard them (smile).  They can evoke mood.

Villagers come from throughout the Tlacolula Valley dressed in their unique traditional clothing.  These women from a nearby village wear pleated skirts and floral aprons — a style different from the dress in Teotitlan del Valle.

Teotitlan del Valle is a communitarian village.  It’s leaders volunteer for three-years of service without pay.  The dancers also honor these people who govern their community through consensus decision making.

I hope you enjoy these photos and perhaps next summer you can be with us, too.  Consider joining in for the Day of the Dead Photography Expedition this October!


The feather headdresses are weighty and uncomfortable.  The men need to take periodic breaks to reposition and re-tie them.  Endurance and athleticism is a necessity for this test of courage and commitment.