Birthdays in Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca, are celebrated BIG TIME starting at the youngest, most tenderest age. They become grand celebrations when the honoree hits a milestone, like age 50 or 60 or 70. Depending on the number of extended family and economic wherewithal, a birthday party can include 200 or 300 invitees, mostly relatives, and go on for hours, even days.
Fortunately for me, I literally ran into Juana Gutierrez Contreras and her husband Antonio Lazo Hernandez at the village market the day before the celebration. A minute later and I would have missed them! Juana gave me a big hug. They said they were trying to reach me but didn’t have my phone number, and invited me to the party with warmth and sincerity.
First, let me say I’m in awe of her talent and that of Antonio. I’ve known them for years and they are included on my Self-Guided Tour Map of Teotitlan del Valle. She is a master dyer using only native plants and cochineal. He is among the most talented weavers who live here. So, this was a very special invitation for me.
This was Juana’s 50th birthday and it was an important celebration, not only to honor her age but her achievements.
There is an etiquette to village birthdays. We arrive with a bottle of mezcal and/or a big handmade basket of fruit and/or a huge bouquet of flowers and/or a box of 24 Coronitas and/or a beautifully wrapped gift and/or lots of bread, candles, homemade chocolate for making mole or hot chocolate. Take your choice: Any or all of the above.
First, we arrive around 3 p.m., step into the Altar Room* to greet the honoree and present the gifts. This is ceremonial. The gifts are accepted, kissed, and placed on the altar, symbols of blessings and abundance. We embrace, kiss, shake hands, stand for photos. There are others in line behind us, ready to give tribute.
We take our place at one of about 30 tables that seats 10 people. The waiters serve beer and mezcal, piña coladas with chamoya candy stirrers, fresh fruit waters. There are snacks. The village mariachi band, an extraordinary group, serenades Juana, Antonio and their parents who sit at the head table. Respecting family is an essential cultural tradition here.
A battalion of women are working in the area that is usually Juana’s dye kitchen. Today, it is a food kitchen. They are preparing the meal, tending the hot cauldrons fueled with wood. We are served barbacoa, in this case a beef stew with spicy red chile broth, along with fresh tortillas, tlayudas, and platters of grated cabbage, cilantro, chopped onion and cut limes to add to the soup.
In the late afternoon, not much before dusk, the mariachi band packs up and another village band, famous for playing the jarabe, arrives in full fanfare. The tables are cleared. The chairs reset in a big oval and a dance space materializes. It will be hours before the cake gets cut.
Back in the kitchen, women kneel over huge aluminum vats of chipil and masa paste, stuffing them into corn husks for tortillas. These will be served around midnight.
The family is waiting for Juana’s brother Porfirio Gutierrez to arrive from California. Expected later that evening, he has been key to bringing international attention to their work. In July, Juana will make her first visit to the Santa Fe International Folk Art Market, where they have been participated for the last three years. Keith Reckers, IFAM’s creative director, has featured her photo on the cover of his new book, True Colors.
This recognition is important because it draws attention to the few Teotitlan del Valle weavers who work with, rescue and are dedicated to creating natural dye textiles. There are only about a dozen of them among the hundreds of village artisans. Raising the quality bar and talking about it is essential to survival of this ancient craft. Plus the results are beautiful!
This type of celebration is more usual than not. Behind the high walls and formidable patio gates there exists a world of community, continuity, cooperation and amazing celebrations. I was so happy to be included in this one.
Feliz Cumpleaños, Juana Gutierrez Contreras. May you thrive for another 50 years! Felicidades.
*The Altar Room is the most important place in every village home, however humble or grand. It is the hub of family, religious and cultural life — even more important than the church. It is the locus of celebration for funerals, weddings, birthdays, baptisms, engagements, confirmations, Day of the Dead and Navidad. Everything important happens here.