Tag Archives: photography

Day of the Dead 2021, Teotitlan del Valle Cemetery: Cultural Sensitivity

Preamble: Our Day of the Dead Cultural Study Tour ended on November 4. Everyone tested negative for Covid to exit Mexico and re-enter the USA. We were all very relieved AND we practiced all safety measures during our time in the city and in Teotitlan del Valle — masks in all public spaces (even outdoors), social distancing, hand-sanitizer. Every artisan we visited (except one) was double-vaccinated. We won’t be visiting that artisan again — they were not disclosing! In Oaxaca, vaccine roll-out is slow and no one under 30 has been able to get the vaccine yet. It is a problem of availability and distribution.

I want to talk about how Day of the Dead has changed in Oaxaca and the villages. Years ago, when I first arrived in 2005 and for a decade after, when I went to the Teotitlan del Valle cemetery to participate in Day of the Dead, I was the only non-villager. I always went with local friends at sunset to be a part of the experience and I was mindful to keep as low a profile as possible, even though I knew I would stand out solely based on my skin color. I wore the traditional apron used by village women, came with offerings for the grave: flowers, oranges, chocolate, candles. Paid my respects by joining to sit quietly, mindful of my place as an outsider.

Then, and up until a few years ago, the grave sites of loved ones were surrounded by large gatherings of family members sitting, talking, taking sips of mezcal, placing last minute candles and flowers on the tomb mounds. It was a solemn and mystical time of tradition and respect. One that I hold close to my heart in meaning and symbolism for the circuity of life in pre-Hispanic culture here.

Last minute decorations. photo by Tiina Antiila

Now, it is different. Much different. I could see it coming even by 2016, when tour companies began to add the Teotitlan de Valle cemetery to its list of stops on their itineraries. Perhaps the mezcal culture has influenced this change, too, as drinking and enjoying Oaxaca cuisine has attracted the hedonists to experience an intense 5-day party weekend. I recall a National Geographic Photography Tour coming to the cemetery maybe in 2017 or 2018, huge cameras with impressive lenses in tow, not asking permission, setting up tripods and photos just a foot or two away. Now, with cell phone cameras, it is not as intrusive, but another phenomenon is happening.

Tomb with favorite foods, beverages of deceased

The atmosphere is more like Mardi Gras as face-painted revelers from the city embark from buses, vans and taxis. They are all foreigners, mostly from the USA. The cemetery is overwhelmed by them. I noticed that fewer locals were here this year.

Excavated tomb waiting for burial. Ancestor bones in bags will be reburied with corpse.

I asked my friend Natividad if she goes to the cemetery for Muertos. No, she said. It is like a fiesta. I don’t like it. I go another time, when it is quieter and I can sit without being disturbed. A widespread sentiment here, I think.

Sand painting carpet in chapel

As I sat with Norma Gutierrez and her daugher Lizet at her husband and father’s gravesite to remember Juvenal, age 52 who died of covid in a San Diego hospital, a face-painted woman approached to ask to take a photo (at least she asked). Remember Juvenal? We raised $3,000 to send his body home.

Norma nodded an okay. I looked at her and said, you can say no. (The circumstance felt invasive to me.) Her eyes said, Really? I can say no? So, she turned and said, No, and the woman walked away. This is a culture of being in agreement and it is a culture where women do not speak up as contrarians. So, when people do not object, it does not mean they are comfortable or in agreement.

If course you can take my photo, she says proudly

The flowers and graves were magnificent. A stark contrast to the predominantly Anglo dominance of the cemetery. I could not bring myself to photograph people sitting with their loved ones. I took photos of flowers and tomb altars. I wonder if I should continue to bring our small group of culturally sensitive travelers here in the future. Are we adding to the problem? Even as I prepared them with information about cultural meaning and cemetery protocol, it is difficult to not be a part of the cultural impact. We went to the cemetery accompanied by Ernestina and paid respects to her father Jose. I advised them to disperse and not walk around in intimidating groups larger than two or three people. We were all masked. It was 4:30 p.m. Still two hours of remaining daylight. Most of us left by 6:00 p.m.

Ernestina placing fruit on her father’s grave. Our group observes the tradition.
The band plays on

In the cemetery chapel, the volunteer committee that oversees cemetery maintenance and religious traditions, chanted blessings in Zapotec and Spanish, kneeling before the altar. Outside, the village band started playing Sousa-like music. Visitors planted themselves on benches drinking beer and mezcal, while others began to dance vigorously. Some were picnicking on the grass, pulling out their mezcal bottles from backpacks.

I went to visit the grave of my friend Lupita, who died of breast cancer at age 48, four years ago. I was heartbroken and went home.

The village depends on tourism. Visitors keep weavers and restauranteurs in business. It is up to the village leadership to decide.

No explanation needed

It is difficult for me to suspend judgment. I ask myself, Is this cultural appropriate or insensitivity? What does it mean to be authentic? Does authentic mean to keep things the way they have always been and to prevent change from happening? Change is inevitable and who am I to say that we are are experiencing cultural degradation? It is up to the people who live here to decide.

As we sat around breakfast the next morning, I asked our group about their impressions. Here is what they said:

  • I was offended by the dancing. It seemed so out of place.
  • I’m tired of the commercial creep in the USA. That’s why I came here, for something more meaningful.
  • The face painting was out of place.
  • So many visitors were not wearing masks. I tried not to be judging and I noticed that in myself.
  • I walked by families sobbing from their loss surrounded by revelers. It was a real disconnect.
  • I saw outsiders going to graves, laying down flowers to express their sympathy.
  • I was conflicted — I wanted to be there and found it very uncomfortable.
  • I was angry at the tourists. Then, I was angry at myself to being a tourist and I had to walk away.
  • It was more powerful for me because we had all the preparation leading up to the cemetery visit.
  • It’s creeping commercialization. Will the town speak up?
  • Most of the graves were decorated in advance earlier in the day, so I suppose that’s when most of the villagers were there.
  • It was mixed for me. It was a privilege to be there, but I felt like an invader to private, sacred time. This is an intimate, family time.
  • The city is packed with tourists looking for smaller venues.

The COMMENTS SECTION ON THIS BLOG DOES NOT WORK. If you wish to make a comment, please send me an email and I will publish in a separate post.

Norma with co-leader and godson Eric Chávez Santiago, Teotitlan del Valle

Tlacolula Market Meander in B&W Plus TinType

I’m at Zicatela Beach Puerto Escondido after taking the little plane that could, aka AeroTucan, at 7 a.m. this morning. Our coast of Oaxaca textile tour will start on Saturday. Meanwhile, my long-time Ohio pals Sam and Tom are staying at my casita and caring for my dogs Tia Margarita and Butch.

Yesterday, their first full day in Oaxaca, Sam, Tom and I went to Tlacolula to get cash (there are no ATMs yet in Teotitlan del Valle), and spent a fair amount of time meandering. Sam and Tom are professional photographers. I’ve always aspired to be like them. What I’ve learned is that the beauty is often in the detail. And, often in the grainy detail that using a darkroom can get. Except with digital trickery.

They like using the iPhone App TinType, and so do I. Here’s a sampling of the Not-on-Sunday market in black and white. Slower paced. Almost spare. Time to notice details. And, I like the artsy, old-timey results.

I’m no longer hauling around my big, heavy very professional Nikon equipment. In fact, I’d like to sell it. I also bought an Olympus mirrorless camera a couple of years ago, and find that it’s too weighty for me now, too.

Women of Chiapas Photo Essay

International Women’s Day was Thursday, March 8, 2018.  It’s days later and I now find time to acknowledge, honor, recognize, applaud some of the women we met along the way during our two back-to-back Chiapas Textile Study Tours in February and March this year.

Women make, sell, suckle babies in Magdalenas Aldama, Chiapas

I don’t know all their names.

The Virgin of Guadalupe is a Zapatista icon in Chiapas, role model for justice

Their hands, feet and faces are universal stories of women who work hard with little recompense.

Shop keeper, San Juan Chamula, Chiapas

Their garments tell the stories of culture, history, creativity and subjugation by Spanish conquerors who imposed clothing style as indigenous identifier.

Maria and her niece, Aguacatenango, Chiapas

Most are women who weave or embroider.

Maruch is her Tzotzil name, Maria is her Christian name, San Juan Chamula district

Some are women who craft pottery — cooking vessels and decorative jaguars, many of them life-size.

This is Esperanza sculpting a clay jaguar, Amantenango del Valle, Chiapas

A few are famous. Most are not.

Grand Master of Mexican Folk Art Juana Gomez Ramirez, Amantenango del Valle

They are mothers, daughters, grandmothers, aunts, cousins, nieces.

Rosa, center, and her nieces, Magdalenas Aldama

Some, like Rosa and her husband Cristobal, participated in the 1994 Zapatista uprising to stand for indigenous rights. The movement paved the way for a stronger voice for women.

Producing handmade paper, Los Leñateros, San Cristobal de Las Casas

They carry babies on their backs, harnessed by robozos.

Market day, San Juan Chamula, Chiapas

They use rebozos shifted to the front of their bodies so infants can suckle. They use rebozos to carry market vegetables and fruit to the cooking fires.

Lourdes, research coordinator, Museo Textil Mundo Maya

Few are professionals like Lourdes who translates Spanish to English for us, educated in sophisticated cities far away.

Maria Meza, weaving cooperative director, Tenejapa, Chiapas

Others head cooperatives, organizing the business of textile making and selling to sustain families.

A metaphor for indigenous women worldwide, essential and faceless

Some are faceless. We see their progeny.

Manuela Trevini Bellini with PomPom Shawl at her shop Punto Y Trama,

A few are expats from Italy, France, Canada, the United States or Japan, who migrate to the promise land.

Women’s hands make organic tortillas from native corn

We see hands making tortillas, tending the cooking fire, soothing a child’s cry, serving a husband dinner.

Pioneer Swiss photographer, Gertrude Duby Blom, at Na Bolom

Most of all, we know that women’s work begins early and ends late, is continuous, often self-less and usually in the service of others.

Andrea Diaz Hernandez weaves this for eight months, San Andres Larrainzar

Take a moment to consider what women around the world give as we regard those whose photos we see here.

In Yochib, Oxchuc, impaired mobility, health care access hours away

Take a moment to give thanks to all the women in the world. We are more similar than we are different.

Meet the Women of Chiapas: 2019 Textile Study Tour

What will become of the next generation of women?

 

 

 

 

 

Bonus–Yochib, Oxchuc, Chiapas: Portrait of Young Girl with Dog

Oaxaca and Chiapas have a lot in common. They are the two poorest states in Mexico, have the lowest literacy rates and in the rural areas there is little or no access to health care.

Chiapas and Oaxaca have the highest percentage of indigenous people in Mexico, yet they are under-represented in politics and business, lack access to education.

Because of the rural character of each state, people are isolated and removed from the mainstream. They produce some of the most exquisite textiles in all of  Mexico.

For this entire time in Chiapas, I am using only my iPhone 8Plus with zoom lens. All the photos you’ve seen since February 12 are from my portable device with very little editing. I’m a devotee. Thinking of selling other equipment!

Thank you for following this adventure. There is more to come. Our Chiapas Textile Study Tour Group 2 starts this coming Tuesday evening.

Join us for 2019 Chiapas Textile Study Tour, February 27-March 8

Oaxaca, More than Fashion, A Place of Rootedness and Identity: Video

I am an admirer of Eric Mindling who has, over his 30-year relationship with Oaxaca, documented her people with glorious photography, and introduced many travelers to regions far off-the-beaten path. Thank you for this beautiful tribute to life, the grandparents, culture, survival and identity. It gives us pause to think about whether we are sagebrush or tumbleweed — and what we appreciate. I hope you enjoy and share.