Tag Archives: retirement

No Plan to Live in Mexico: How I Got Here

The best plan might be NOT to have a plan.

I spent my working life doing goals and objectives, setting annual plans and then evaluating whether I met those targets. They became part of my annual performance review. Yet, the serendipity of how my personal life progressed was never a conscious decision. Sometimes I felt bad about that. I should have had more direction.

But I couldn’t have planned it better. How I came to live in Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca, Mexico, was pure accident.

Many I meet ask, How did you get here? Here’s a condensed answer.

Church of the Precious Blood, Teotitlan del Valle, built on top of Zapotec Temple, archeological ruins

Church of the Precious Blood, Teotitlan del Valle, built atop Zapotec temple ruins

My friend, Annie Burns, moved to Teotitlan from Pittsboro, North Carolina, in the early 2000’s.  She would return to visit with wonderful textiles to show and sell. At the time, there were probably three or four gueros living here. She kept inviting me to visit. Finally, I did, in 2005 with the wasband.

Teotitecas, parade of the canastas

Teotitecas, Parade of the Canastas each year in July

Annie introduced us to Josefina Ruiz Vazquez and her mother-in-law Magdalena. They had both lost husbands to illness that same year, son and father. Josefina and Magda are great cooks. Josefina, mother of three youngsters, was left with no means of support. Annie thought, maybe they could start a B&B. We were the first experiment in hospitality for gringos.

That’s how Las Granadas B& B in Teotitlan del Valle got started. Today, it is a shadow of its former self. Another friend, Roberta Christie, stepped in to make a huge difference by creating the infrastructure to make it happen. But I digress.

Rooftop View of Teotitlan del Valle from Las Granadas

Rooftop View of Teotitlan del Valle from Las Granadas

Years ago in San Francisco, I was a beginning weaver and experimented in natural dyes. My love of textiles informed my adulthood and as I traveled, I collected. During that first visit to Teotitlan del Valle, I thought I had landed in heaven. Teotitlan was filled with talented weavers and stunning textiles.

Federico Chavez Sosa at his loom in Teotitlan del Valle

Federico Chavez Sosa at his loom in Teotitlan del Valle

I was on a quest to find a family that worked only in natural dyes. I did research in advance and knew that while it was not widespread, there were a few working with plant dyes and cochineal. I set out to find them. It wasn’t easy. And, of course, I loved all those bright aniline dye colors, too.

Yet, it was a time when we were talking more about sustainability and consuming what was healthy, organic. Making a commitment to buying an organic textile was important to me and I didn’t want to compromise.

Dye demonstration with cochineal bug, acid and base

Dye demonstration with cochineal bug, acid and base

For the first few days in Teotitlan del Valle, I walked around meeting and talking with weavers in their workshops to learn more. There were many beautiful textiles and I was smitten. But I restrained myself from buying.

Everyone could give me a natural dye demonstration, crushing the cochineal bug in my palm, squeezing lime juice, adding baking soda. I watched the color change from orange to red to pink to purple, depending on proportions and chemistry. I wasn’t certain who was actually using the process to dye the wool.

Eric Chavez Santiago giving dyeing wool with wild marigold

Eric Chavez Santiago dyeing wool with wild marigold

Then, the only Internet connection in town was at the pharmacy across from the church. One day, as we left, we decided to make a right turn instead of our usual left to wander through the rug market.

I hear a voice say in perfect English, “Do you want to see my rugs?” Looking down to manage my steps on the cobblestones, I waved my hand and shook my head, no. The English was too perfect. Too slick, I thought. Then I looked up, saw these magnificent rugs and stepped into the space.

Chavez Family Weavers, portrait by Norma Schafer, 2012

Chavez Family Weavers, portrait by Norma Schafer, 2012

That’s when I met Eric Chavez Santiago and his sister, Janet. Both were university students, selling rugs in the market during Christmas vacation. Janet was huddled in the corner with a book on her lap, studying. I went to their family home and studio to see the complete collection, meet dad Federico Chavez Sosa and mom, Dolores Santiago Arrellenas.

Being a Teotiteco Danzante for Dance of the Feather requires incredible concentration

Being a Teotiteco Danzante for Dance of the Feather requires incredible concentration

I saw the actual wool dyeing and weaving process. Eric explained how difficult the economy was. The market demand had softened since the 90’s when Santa Fe Style sent thousands of Zapotec rugs out of Oaxaca to the American southwest.

Of course, I bought rugs. Eric later told me, many came to visit them, said they would help and were never heard from.

Caracol rug design, communication symbol

Caracol rug design, communication symbol by color master Federico

Then, I went home to North Carolina, gave thought to how I might help this family. I wrote an arts education grant with the Carrboro Arts Center to the NC Arts Council. We got funding to bring Eric and Federico to North Carolina for workshops, expoventas (show and sale) and give a master class at NC State University College of Textiles. I helped get 10 year visas with assist from Congressman David Price‘s staff.

It was never the plan to live here. The idea was to visit once a year … maybe. Living in Oaxaca City was not considered. I fell in love with Teotitlan del Valle, her people and textiles.

The casita where I live in Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca

The casita where I live in Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca

The next year, Federico and Dolores invited us to build a casita on their land. It was a surprise and a gift. Because no foreigners (even people born in other pueblos) can own property in Teotitlan del Valle, we knew that this would be a vacation home that would always be owned by the family. This relationship is based on trust, respect and good will.

Because of this unique arrangement, this is not for everyone. Many immigrants who live in Teotitlan and other usos y costumbres pueblos rent.

But plans have a way of changing and nothing is for certain. The wasband and I had our differences. Our divorce was final in 2014. For now, this is where I live and this is how I got here. I never planned it this way.

Cane bobbins wrapped with red wool dyed cochineal

Cane bobbins wrapped with red wool dyed cochineal

Eric, who thought he might work in a bank after graduation, went on to become the founding director of education at the Museo Textil de Oaxaca, with our coaching help and his innate intelligence. This year, Eric is starting a new entrepreneurial venture at the Alfredo Harp Helu Foundation. Janet is a linguist educator at the Biblioteca Juan de Cordova. Youngest brother, Omar, will finish university in December and wants to take the family business to the next level. Federico and Dolores run Galeria Fe y Lola in Oaxaca City and continue to weave.

Goals? I have no idea what’s next.

Women’s Creative Writing and Yoga Retreat, March 2017

Natural dyes have strong color, as strong as synthetic dyes

With a great dye master, natural dyes have strong color, as strong as commercial dyes

Will you share your story? If you live in Mexico, how did you get here?




Working From Home Has New Meaning: From Oaxaca to North Carolina and Back Again

This blog post is about work, working from home, retirement, immigration reform, and travel on the secluded Oaxaca coast.  A hodgepodge.

You haven’t heard from me much in the past few weeks and I admit I have been remiss in writing and blog posting.  I left Oaxaca at the end of April for the luxury of a 10-day sojourn with my family (son and family, brother and family, sister) in California, then continued on to North Carolina for a long-overdue reunion with my husband Stephen.  I have settled into working from home in NC until I return to Oaxaca on June 21 for our summer Market Towns and Artisan Villages photography workshop that starts June 28.  Working from home has taken on new meaning for me.  Some days I even take this to a higher level: “working from bed.”


At this moment, I am looking out at a lush green perennial garden filled with hot pink echinacea, equally hot phlox, silvery coriander with yellow flowers, yucca stalks sprinkled with white blooms, and hydrangea blossoms bigger than my fist.  The pollen is about killing me!  But, I delight in the contrast between this landscape and my beloved Oaxaca where magnificent mountain ranges ring the expansive high desert plateau punctuated with herds of grazing sheep, maize and agave fields.  Oaxaca is always on my mind and in my heart.  I feel fortunate to be able to go back and forth between the U.S. and Mexico and love living in both places.  My round-trip plane tickets originate and end in Mexico!

Now, for the serious stuff!

Thank you, Damien Cave, The New York Times Mexico City foreign correspondent, for writing about another Mexico — Mexico: Without the Crowds, or Attitude (June 2, 2012) and the tranquil fishing villages of Oaxaca’s Costa Chica — Mazunte, Zipolite and San Agustinillo.  This is where you can still sleep in a hammock or a 3-star hotel and hear the ocean roar, dip your toes into rock protected coves, and visit the sea turtle preservation sanctuary.  This is the real part of Oaxaca, far from the over-developed Huatulco (in the style of Cancun), where you can be lazy, eat and sleep well.


Also, in The New York Times on June 1, 2012, Jorge Casteñeda and Douglas Massey published Do-It-Yourself Immigration.  They discuss immigration reform, the controversy around undocumented immigrants in the U.S., and the natural decline in migration from Mexico to the United States. Jorge G. Castañeda, the foreign minister of Mexico from 2000 to 2003, is a professor of politics and Latin American and Caribbean Studies at New York University. Douglas S. Massey is a professor of sociology and public affairs at Princeton.

Working from home now constitutes organizing workshops for the coming year, confirming registrations, making lodging and restaurant reservations, and setting itinerary plans for moving participants from one location to another.  It also means having the time to do market research and planning. So, while you haven’t heard from me, please know that I’ve been busy working!

And, as always, I’d love to hear from you.  Let me know if you have any questions.  I haven’t talked much about what it’s been like after taking retirement from UNC Chapel Hill last December.  I don’t know if that would be interesting to you.  I did worry about whether I would be able to continue to be creative without the structure of a traditional work day and if I could sustain myself financially–all those things that we worry about when making life transitions.  But, it’s working out. For anyone out there who is afraid of taking the plunge, I will give you encouragement.

Sending all my best,  Norma


Norma Hawthorne’s 9 Tips for Living in Mexico Successfully (Mas o Menos)

Norma Hawthorne’s 9 Tips for Living in Mexico Successfully (choose your own priority order):
  1. Speak the language. Learn to speak the language. Try to learn to speak the language. Keep trying.  Hire a tutor.  Take a class.  Don’t give up and expect Spanish-speakers to understand you!  Otherwise, you will stay isolated within the gringo community.
  2. Before driving to Mexico, sell your high-performance vehicle in the U.S. and buy something simple that Mexican mechanics know how to repair, like a Ford, a Nissan, or a Honda.  I recently sold my 10-year old Saab 900s and bought a 2003 Honda CRV in preparation for my Oaxaca move.
  3. Visit many times (at least three or four) for at least several weeks at a time before you make the commitment to even rent in a particular location.  Stay with friends.  Talk to people.  Get the “lay of the land.”  Don’t let the romantic notion of living in Mexico — where it is warm, friendly and inexpensive — turn your head too quickly.
  4. Rent, don’t buy or build immediately.  Start out with several weeks in the winter.  Then, come in the off-season – during the rains or in the hot and dusty months.  Know what you are getting into regarding the climate.   It’s not pure blue sky and balmy days year ‘round.
  5. Create a base of friends and a support system before you make the move.  Get connected with local cultural organizations or volunteer groups.  For example, expats gather at the Oaxaca Lending Library for educational infrastructure, connection, and doing good in the world of Oaxaca.
  6. Expand your multicultural lifestyle and friendship circles – get to know the locals to appreciate and share history, culture, wisdom.  Understand that you are a guest in someone else’s country.  Treat all with respect and kindness.
  7. Understand that cultural competency means accepting things the way they are rather than trying to change them or make things “better” (in our own image of what is right).  Mexicans know what is best for them in their country — they have been living this way for thousands of years.  There is a lot we can learn from them without trying to “fix” it to suit U.S. standards.
  8. Stay open to adventure, to change, to the unpredictability of what each day might bring, to opportunity and who you might meet, what unusual delicacy you might taste, an impromptu invitation.
  9. Relax and enjoy yourself.  Saving money should not be your primary motivation for moving to Mexico.  It should be to expand your cultural competency, improve your language skills, and to stretch yourself through exploration and discovery.

Want to add your tips in the Comment section?

One Way Ticket to Paradise–Oaxaca, Mexico

Four years in the planning and my dream is becoming reality — a one-way ticket to paradise: Oaxaca, Mexico.  This is not the Lawrence Welk boring,  Dave Loggins choral doo-wap version of A One-way Ticket to Paradise but a raucous, edgy “not knowing what the future will bring” hard-rocking style put out there by the Italian band Hungryheart and their “One Ticket to Paradise.  Listen to this and you will know how I feel! In fact, listen to the entire album.  It’s an amazing lyrical adventure of how dreams, aspirations, and desires can translate into energy, and ultimately, reality.

My one-way ticket to Oaxaca (arriving on December 28) represents the ultimate freedom for me to savor, explore, and immerse myself in a place I love.  I am leaving my return date to the U.S. open, to be determined.  There is something so metaphorical about this for me.  My one-way ticket is about stepping into an unknown future where nothing is predictable and there are no absolutes –no schedules to keep, no appointments to be made, no deadlines, no annual reports or performance reviews, or measurable goals and objectives to be reviewed and approved.

The vast landscape of southern Mexico is filled with high mountain peaks, deep valleys, clear blue sky, the scent of musky soil just tilled and ready to plant with seeds of indigenous corn.  Life is warm, slow, satisfying, elemental.  I imagine myself in the hammock or walking along the path lined by bed spring fences. This experience will be my personal stretch to see what will materialize each moment.

For the first time in my adult life, I will be able to take more than two or three-weeks away from responsibilities.   I will be mobile and unfettered.  I will communicate from anywhere there is Wi-Fi.

I’m not exactly clear what this will “look like.”  This experience is like starting to write a story and not yet knowing how the main character will develop.   I remember when friends graduated from college and traveled through Europe for a while.  Instead, I went right to work and life happened, often unintentionally.

My commentary to family, friends and beloved husband is that ultimately, all we have is time and our health — both are finite resources to be used wisely with intention.  My intention is to be home in Oaxaca and North Carolina.

Bienvenidos a Oaxaca.  Regresso a Carolina del Norte.  Cuando quiero.