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.
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.
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!
Explaining Day of the Dead to Friends
Day of the Dead — Dia de los Muertos — is one of the many Mexican holidays that blend Spanish Catholicism with pre-Hispanic, indigenous mystical rites. Despite political rhetoric, with a culturally permeable border, Halloween has crept into Mexico and sugar skulls have crept into the U.S.
My friend Sue said, I thought Day of the Dead was on November 1.
That is when it starts, I replied. It continues through midnight, November 2, when we accompany the spirits of our loved ones back to the cemetery, and sit at the gravesite with them to ensure a tranquil return to their eternal resting place.
November 1 is All Saints Day.
November 2 is All Souls Day.
My Durham, NC, altar — under construction. What’s missing?
On October 31, All Hallows Eve or Halloween, with Celtic origin, there are children’s masquerades in Oaxaca to remember the young ones who have left earth at an early age.
Sunflower bouquet, NC Farmer’s Market, Raleigh
In the village where I live, Teotitlan del Valle, Day of the Dead conjures up a celebration of life and its continuum. Death is merely a continuation of life. We see this greca symbol woven in the rugs and interpreted as the steps through life, from infancy to adulthood to old age to death and then the pattern repeats. Circular. Continuous.
There is something reassuring and elemental about this, which is why I love this spiritual approach to living and dying, why it is easy for me to build an altar and celebrate the lives of my ancestors.
Rows of pumpkins, squash and gourds at NC Farmer’s Market, Raleigh
This time of year also conjures up abundance. Altars are filled with bread, chocolate, fruits, beverages and edibles that the deceased persons we honor enjoyed. It is harvest time, when the sun sets early and we want to cozy up with our memories.
There are photos now of our loved ones on the altar. But not long ago, before access to cameras in small villages, people sat on the floor with altars on the floor, slept on the floor atop handwoven palm leaf petates.
Hot Tamale! or Habanero Heaven at NC Farmer’s Market, Raleigh
They conjured up their memories, visions of the deceased. They lit candles and kept the flame burning for 24-hours. They lit copal incense to entice dead spirits back to earth for a visit with the heady aroma. They cut wild marigolds, also called Mexican mint marigold or winter marigold, a variety of tarragon, and put them in gourd vases, another scent to bring the ancestors home.
My own altar is now under construction. It will be finished by November 1. On November 2, from Durham, North Carolina, I will sit with the memories of my parents, Dorothy and Ben, light candles and copal, honor them.
Rooster crown, or cockscomb, is as popular as marigolds in Oaxaca
On November 2, in Teotitlan del Valle, my friends and neighbors will share a comida midday meal with the spirit world. At 3:00 p.m. the church bells that have been tolling continuously for 24 hours will stop.
Families will then go to the cemetery, sit quietly, drink beer and mezcal, bring an evening meal, consider the meaning of life and death. Their ancestors graves will one day become theirs. The plots are familial; graves are recycled every ten years to accept the body of another, old bones moved aside to make way. A reassurance.
These Calacas came to the Raleigh Art Space from Mexico in time for Muertos
Many spiritual traditions have an annual day of memory. In mine, we light a 24-hour candle on the anniversary of a parent’s death. I will do that, too. It is good to always remember.
Altar at NC Art Space honor organic food and the farmers who grow it
Wherever you live, I bet you can assemble your own altar. Look for farmer’s markets, Mexican groceries, art centers that want to merge multicultural practice to promote appreciation. The papel picado came from a local gift shop. The sugar skulls from the local Mexican sweet shop. What’s missing? Pan de muertos. I’ll buy that next week.
Posted in Cultural Commentary, Teotitlan del Valle, Travel & Tourism
Tagged about, altar, cultural commentary, day of the dead, dia de los muertos, explanation, Mexico, North Carolina, Oaxaca, origins