Tag Archives: history

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

Churro Wool: How the Spanish Brought Sheep to the Americas

In a week, I climb on the magic bird to carry me back to Oaxaca. It’s been a year-and-a-half since I left, just before Covid became a pandemic in March 2021 that erased all our plans and created this hunker-down-for-a-while, I’m scared mentality. Yesterday, I got my third jab, the Pfizer-BioNTech booster, plus a flu shot. I’m ready, face masks and sanitizer in the packing pile. Back to Teotitlan del Valle where churro sheep wool is carded and dyed to weave into rugs.

Churro sheep came to the Americas with the Spanish conquest. We find this breed in Northern New Mexico and Colorado, where the high altitudes are conducive to growing a thick pelt. When it is shorn, carded and woven, it makes thick, sturdy, resilient blankets (for humans and horses), and later adapted to the making of floor rugs.

Display of churro wool rugs at Taos Wool Festival

My adopted Zapotec family in Teotitlan del Valle, Galeria Fe y Lola, buy their handspun Churro wool from Chichicapam and the Mixteca, where 7,000 feet altitude guarantees a higher quality pelt. This elevation is similar to the Mountain States where livestock growers, spinners and dyers work in this wool to textile weavers who use the ancient European treadle loom that was also introduced by the Spanish in the New World.

Baby yak, whose wool is amazingly soft and luxurious

This sheep is descended from the Iberian Churra, prized by the Spanish for its hardiness and adaptability. It was the first breed of sheep domesticated in the New World in the 16th Century, when it was used to feed and clothe the armies of the conquistadores, clergy and settlers. We can trace the lineage to 1494 when Spain established colonies in the Caribbean and Mexico. There were no four-legged animals in North America and only llamas in South America before the Spanish arrived.

Carolyn wrote to me to add this:

How the Spanish brought sheep to America? In slings in the holds of their ships! Several years ago a replica of the Santa Maria sailed into the Oakland estuary and docked for several days. We were able to tour the ship and the sailors were more than happy to answer our questions. Four legged animals were kept in slings so their legs would not break in rough weather. The smell must have been atrocious. But the image stuck with me.I’m happy for you that you finally get to go back to Oaxaca.

Taos is host to the annual Wool Festival, now in its 38th year, and always held the first weekend in October. I made it a point to attend. Fiber art and textiles call to me here, too. Why was I surprised to see rugs woven on the peddle loom using churro sheep wool? I shouldn’t have been. I know the Navajo were resourceful in growing their herds of churro sheep, and all those beautiful blankets and rugs trace their origins to the Spanish introduction of this breed.

Today, non-native weavers use this breed, too, to make and sell beautiful rugs. I saw plenty of them at the festival, many reminiscent of Zapotec and Navajo textiles. Over the years, the churro has been cross-bred with the softer, finer merino sheep. Sometimes, churro and merino are also spun together to give a silkier, softer luster.

When I first moved here to Taos, NM, four months ago, one of the first things I did was join the Millicent Rogers Museum. It has an extensive collection of Native American folk art and craft, including early Navajo looms and textiles. This loom is more similar to the back strap loom, used as a vertical frame loom. This got me thinking about how technology is adapted to the user. It´s not a floor loom and it´s not a back strap loom. Weavers sit on the ground to weave.

History of Navajo Weaving. Some scholars speculate that the Navajo picked up this weaving technique in the 1600´s from nearby Pueblo tribes who were adept using the vertical loom. It couldńt be used to weave a textile wider than 18 inches. Larger pieces needed two identical textiles that were then stitched together. We find thesame circumstance in Oaxaca, Mexico.

In Teotitlan del Valle, the floor loom has hardly changed from when it was introduced there by the Spanish in the 1500´s, who taught the local men to weave in the tradition of the European tapestry loom. It was too heavy and cumbersome for women, who were versatile cotton back strap loom weavers, to use.

Last week I wrote about pronunciations and mis-pronunciations. Here we have another one! Settlers had a difficult time saying Churra Sheep so they said Churro instead. And, that’s how we know this breed today!

Contemporary New Mexico woven churro wool rug
Contemporary churro wool rug with natural dyes woven by Eric Chavez Santiago, Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca (psst, it’s for sale, ask me about it)

Where is the Chili Pepper Capital of the World?

In a nod to Mexican Independence Day today, and in appreciation for all that Mexico has given us, me thinks the answer to this question is MEXICO. However, New Mexico thinks otherwise. It’s newest license plate proclaims this as truth and features big red and green chili peppers next to the identity number of the plate and the slogan: New Mexico, Chili Capital of the World. It’s true, New Mexico was once a part of Mexico and before that New Spain. Spanish and Mexican roots run deep here. So we don’t get confused, the license plate here also says, New Mexico, USA.

The origin of the chili pepper is clear. The indigenous peoples of Mexico had fully domesticated chili peppers far earlier than 1492 and the arrival of Columbus in the Americas. Archaeologists date the origin of chilis back to 5000 BC in the country’s Tehuacán Valley.  The word “chili” can be credited to Nahuatl, an Aztec language from which many modern terms are derived, such as chocolatl and tomatl. The history of chili is a fascinating read.

There are over 60 types of chilis that claim Mexican origins. These include jalapeño, habanero, poblano, Anaheim, and more. These are the names for fresh chilis. Once they are dried, they take on a different identity because the flavor changes. For example, the chilaca chili, rarely used in its fresh form, becomes chili pasilla when dried, a staple of Oaxaca mole sauce. For more about biodiversity and origins, click here. For a varietal explanation, click here and here.

Here in New Mexico, chili pepper history comes much later. By all accounts, seeds were introduced by the Spanish in the late 1500’s to many of the pueblos and by the early 1600’s, became an important cultivar to use in southwest cuisine. Chili, as in the stew that combines spicy chili pepper flavor, meat, onions and tomatoes, traces its origins to Texas and rapidly spread throughout the region. Adaptations in the Midwest added beans and fat. Have you ever been to a chili cook-off?

Now is the season for roasting Hatch Chili in New Mexico.

The Hatch Chili is uniquely New Mexican, first cross-bred in Northern New Mexico in the early 1900’s by a horticulturalist wanting a milder version of jalapeño. It is available in August and September, depending on the weather. This short window of buying and eating opportunity gives it a caché of being rare and has taken on a mystique of desirability. There is a Hatch Chili frenzy here now. In front of the Taos Albertson’s and Smith’s supermarket, on the historic plaza, in the Walmart parking lot, I see outdoor roasters fueled by propane, with serious young men loading and tending the roasting bins. Bags of fresh roasted Hatch Chilis are offered for sale inside. The aroma of smokey chili goodness fills the air, invades naval passages, causes eyes to tear if you get too close.

Does the Hatch Chili make New Mexico the Chili Capital of the World? Not likely. However, I concede, my adopted state is the Hatch Chili Capital of the World, and I salute her for that. Hatch Chili pancakes anyone?

Where to Buy Hatch Chilis fresh and frozen:

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!

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.