Xochitl is the Nahuatl word for flower and Tlan de Totonaco is the literal meaning for beautiful place. Xochistlan is the beautiful place between the flowers. (You can tell if a word has a Nahuatl origin if it ends in tl.)
Here in the Sierra Norte of Puebla state, a lush landscape of rugged mountains, tall grasses, bamboo, canna lilies, orchids, bromeliad varieties, fruit trees and daisies cling to stony hillsides. Waterfalls flow like abundant rivers. The region is a puzzle of caves. Humidity seeps into everything.
We spent the day with Merry Elizabeth Foss who took us to Xochistlan, the village she stumbled upon seven years ago in search of artisan women who work in fine beading.
When she met the women of Xochistlan, she knew this was the place for her. She started a cooperative, created patterns to fit American women (yes, we are mostly taller and broader), and invested in relationships that have provided friendship and mutual support.
It’s not surprising that the embroidered and beaded images here mimic the landscape, filled with birds, barnyard animals, flowers of every variety, trailing vines, in subdued and rainbow colors.
Xochistlan is not easy to get to. It’s about an hour outside of Cuetzalan del Progreso, Puebla. First you take the winding mountain road along the spine, looking down and beyond at villages tucked into the valleys below.
Then, you divert and start descending on a road that was likely once a switch back donkey trail. You have to know where you are going! Turn right, continue straight, now turn left, straight again, Merry instructs the taxi driver.
We pull into the driveway of a humble home, filled with family, love, joy and beautiful beaded blouses. Radegundis Casilda Teresa greets us with a huge smile, warm hugs and invitation to come in for atole enriched with Mexican chocolate and milk.
She runs out with a bag of whole kernels, telling us to take a seat, she’s going to the molina (mill) to grind the corn.
We meet her husband and grandchildren, sit down by the cooking fire to sip the delicious hot drink, sing and play games, watch the ducks and chickens peck at dried corn.
After lunch at Comedor Betty where we had perhaps the best chicken mole in the state of Puebla (Betty won a prize last year), we stopped to visit Martha and her family.
They sew the beaded panels to the cotton cloth that makes up the entire blouse. Martha, her husband and daughter are master tailors who are very particular about their finish work.
Merry also helped the cooperative open a retail shop to sell beads and fabric to other artisans in the village, and created a plan to help market the blouses in the USA. Merry honors and recognizes the work of each woman by asking her to embroider her name on the inside of each blouse. Personalized. Meaningful.
Merry wholesales these finely beaded blouses, known as the China Poblana style, to upscale shops in the United States whose customers appreciate fine Mexican textiles.
I’ve discovered that sometimes the most wonderful experiences are those when you can meet talented people where they live and work. In Mexico, there is extraordinary talent hidden in often isolated, rural villages.
One has to be willing to be open, explore and appreciate people for who they are, what they do, and how they live. I’m grateful to Merry for introducing us to her friends and for helping bring their talent to the world.
The tradition of beadwork came to Mexico from Europe with the Spanish conquest. Most were trade beads from Venice and Africa, used for ballast on the Spanish galleons that landed in the port of Veracruz. The beads were traded for food and raw materials. Women learned to embellish their garments and the these fantastic blouses were born!
Voladores Fly in Cuetzalan del Progreso, Puebla, Mexico. So Do Bees!
Everything leading up to October 3 in Cuetzalan del Progreso is a preview for what’s to come. This is the day each year that the Voladores fly: Danza de Voladores.
When the Voladores fly, everyone pays attention. They are 120 feet high.
There is a huge carnival in the church courtyard and troupes of costumed, masked revelers come in from the villages to dance, sing and raise some hoopla.
Masked revelers dance in church courtyard and before the altar inside
Handmade beeswax candles adorn the church altar in huge displays of tiered confection, just like wedding cakes. The colors dazzle.
Handmade candles adorn the church, stacked like a tiered wedding cake
On October 4, the queen of the festival is crowned. Cuetzalan is packed with people, a few extranjeros (foreigners), visitors from other parts of Mexico, and lots of locals who come in from mountain villages by colectivos (shared taxis) and camionetas (truck transport).
Wedding cake hand-crafted beeswax candles, Cuetzalan church
The town square becomes a puesto (open market stalls) with alleys of textiles, beaded necklaces made from local coffee beans and seed pods, roasted corn on a stick layered with mayonnaise and chili, carved wood masks, sizzling comals (griddles).
Voladores circle the pole 52 times, in keeping with the Aztec calendar, before climbing
Hawkers, mostly the ancient ones, sell armadillo shell purses (yes, I bought one), gourd water jugs (I bought one, too), woven fiber bags (passed), wild mint (poleo) candies guaranteed to cure stomach ache (yes, though I didn’t have a stomach ache).
Four topple in unison, one stays aloft playing a pre-Hispanic flute
You can sidle up to a portable comedor (kitchen) to eat tacos, tamales, chicken with mole, squash blossom quesadillas. Thirsty? How about fresh fruit waters made with watermelon, cantaloupe, papaya, oranges.
Young men learn to become Voladores very early, practicing, practicing
It’s hard to keep your money in your pocket!
Candles that will become part of the church altar to celebrate on October 3
The day before, Merry Foss took us to the famous candlemaker Eugenio Mendez Nava, whose family makes beeswax candles for church celebrations. He is a national treasure and won the Grand Prize in the 2016 National Folk Art Competition.
Grand master of beeswax candles, Eugenio Mendez Nava, prepares for celebration.
We hopped on a colectivo to get to his workshop outside of town. We saw the preparations for the October 3 church celebrations in the making, were awed by the size of the candles, the intricacy of the molds, the bees swarming around the opening to the clay pot hives that were tucked into the workshop corner.
Makings of the church tiered wedding cake candle extravaganza
Fresh, wild honey is sold all over Cuetzalan. Here’s what the hives look like. Different from the white boxes we see all over the U.S. I imagine that Puebla people use the resources that are easiest to make and keep for beehives.
Clay beehives at the candlemaking workshop of Eugenia Mendez Nava
Birdcage in the workshop of candlemaker Eugenio Mendez Nava
There are multiple groups of Voladores flyers. Some of them are women, and why not. Courage and fortitude know no gender (as we move into the final days of the election in the United States of America).
Inside the church, at the altar, a frenzy of dance movement, drum beating
They start flying at around 4 p.m. on October 3 and continue until after dark. At twilight, groups of dancers and costumed revelers come into the plaza, tooting horns, flutes, singing, beating drums. They go in and out of the church, dancing at the altar, seeking blessings.
A whirlwind of color. No one stood still. I’m thinking blurry could be okay!
In the naves, young men stopped to take a breath, take a drink, fix broken decorations, tie shoe laces, and give each other the Mexican handshake — first brushing open palms together, then giving each other a bump with the closed fist.
Repairing the feather headdress before joining into the next blessing dance.
Meanwhile, outside, the next set of Voladores assembled ready to climb the pole. Humans in flight, spinning, ribbons fly in the wind, arms wide, feet wrapped around the rope, upside down, a several minute suspension.
Climbing a wood and rope ladder high into the sky
There were not many foreign visitors here. Is it because people are afraid to come to Mexico. We took a 6-hour bus ride from Mexico City to get to Cuetzalan. A perfectly safe adventure. And, then a 4-hour bus ride from Cuetzalan to Puebla. Also, very safe. See what you are missing?
The next group of Voladores waiting their turn.
The flying men gather in prayer before climbing the pole.
Soft landing, upside down, but he’ll turn over soon enough!
The eagle has landed!
As night descended, Barbara and I left the church. There was a light drizzle that turned to a gentle rain. The scene was obscure, dramatic, filled with shadows of retreating people. This region is tropical, damp and lush. We don’t go anywhere without an umbrella!
Our evening ends amid the rain drops and shadows of retreating dancers
How to Get There: From Mexico TAPO bus station, take the ADO bus to Cuetzalan del Progreso, Pueblo. Cost is about $20 USD. Trip length: 6 hours.
Where to Stay: Casa la Piedra, Cuetzalan del Progreso.
How to Return: From Cuetzalan buy a bus ticket at the new bus station in town on the Via line to Puebla CAPU. Cost is about $16 USD. Trip length: 4 hours.
How to Get From Puebla to Mexico City: Buy a bus ticket on Estrella Roja leaving Puebla every 30 minutes to the Mexico City airport, direct. Cost: About $16 USD. Trip length: 2.5 hours.
Where to Stay in Puebla: Hotel Casareyna is one of our favorites! They have a new addition and can accommodate many more guests. Sublime luxury. Try Bookingdotcom for bargain prices available.
Posted in Cultural Commentary, Photography, Travel & Tourism
Tagged Aztecs, beeswax, candles, church, Coffee, Cuetzalan del Progreso, dance, Eugenio Mendez Nava, fiesta, flyers, Merry Elizabeth Foss, Mexico, Puebla, ritual, textiles, Voladores