sending you wishes for a healthy 2022, filled with hopefulness and promise for all goodness and well-being, from our house to yours, our family to yours. We hope to see you in Oaxaca or wherever our paths will cross. With thanks for your support and for following us over the last year as we navigate a new world in this era of caution and uncertainty. There is still much to be thankful for. Abrazos fuertes.
These are photos I took over the last few days as 2021 came to a close, as we visited family and dear friends, as we gathered outdoors, carefully, in celebration.
‘Tis the season to celebrate, reflect and, of course, eat, drink and be merry. There is much to be thankful for as 2021 comes to and end, and the days lengthen. If we are fully vaccinated (meaning two jabs and the booster), we are told we can safely congregate with family and friends who are also fully vaccinated. We have lived to see the day.
For the past week, in the Oaxaca village of Teotitlan del Valle, where I live, the Christmas posadas have been revived. The bands play, there is mucha comida (lots of food), mucha mezcal and cerveza. Villagers gather every evening from December 15 to 24 at around 8 p.m. to accompany the procession that takes Jesus and Mary from one host domicile to the next, until La Ultima Posada, Christmas Eve, when Baby Jesus is born at midnight.
Tradition here is that families gather at home for a midnight supper to welcome in their Savior. It’s likely my family who I will have supper with tonight may not be able to stay awake until midnight. I’m praying for a 9 p.m. dinner so I can get to bed at a semi-reasonable hour. Tradition gets adapted when necessary.
The village market was bustling today with locals picking up last minute gifts and decorations for home altars and creches. There were more campesinos than usual from the mountain villages more than an hour away. They were selling locally grown wildflowers, mosses, pine cones, orchids, and syrupy sweet stewed crabapples. This time of year features a sweet fruit punch flavored with cinnamon, apples, sugar which is similar to a mulled cider.
These are times to be with family and dear friends, when we can.
I wish you and yours a healthy new year, with deepest thanks and appreciation for continuing to read what I write and for your support of the artisans we feature here.
On behalf of all of. us at Oaxaca Cultural Navigator, Happy Holidays,
You are invited! Eric Chavez Santiago and I are making a presentation at the Oaxaca Lending Library (OLL) on January 11, 2022 at 5 p.m. Please come if you are in Oaxaca. The library is next to the Hotel Mariposa o. Pino Suárez near Parque Llano
FACE MASKS REQUIRED. PMEASE KEEP YOUR NOSE AND MOUTH COVERED. NO EXCEPTIONS.
Here is the program:
Stories in Cloth: Deciphering and Collecting Oaxaca Textiles
Tuesday, January 11, 5:00 p.m. — 100 MXN pesos for members. 130 MXN pesos for non-members.
Using examples from their personal collection and through photographs, Norma and Eric will discuss the rich textile history of Oaxaca to help participants better understand our state’s rich weaving traditions. From the Oaxaca coast to the Mixe to the Papoalapan region, the diversity of woven cloth — wool and cotton — tells a story of people, beliefs and traditions. Each village has both similar and different stories to tell through the cloth they weave.
Eric and Norma will select villages from various regions to explore designs and materials and techniques. They will talk about how to assess quality, how to differentiate between cloth woven on the backstop loom, pedal loom or on a machine. They will discuss “fair trade,” pricing and value, authentic from copycat, and cultural appropriation.
Furthermore, they will recommend villages and makers near Oaxaca City where excellent quality can be found at fair prices.
Like Antiques Roadshow, Norma and Eric invite audience members to bring one piece from their own collection to show. Presenters will attempt to identify where it was made, how it was made, and the story in the cloth.
Norma Schafer is a retired university administrator and director of Oaxaca Cultural Navigator LLC. She has lived in with the Chavez Santiago family in Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca, since 2005. In 2006, Norma started organizing tapestry weaving and natural dye workshops, cultural and textile tours, concentrating on Oaxaca and Chiapas.
Eric Chavez Santiago was the founding director of education at the Museo Textil de Oaxaca from 2008 to 2016. In 2017, the Alfredo Harp Helu Foundation tapped him to open, manage and promote indigenous artisan craft through their new folk art gallery, Andares del Arte Popular. Eric resigned from the foundation at the end of 2021 to grow the family enterprise, Taller Teñido a Mano, which provides naturally dyed cotton yard and woven goods to a worldwide market. Eric is a native of Teotitlan del Valle and speaks three languages: Zapotec, Spanish and English.
We are pleased to present this educational program in collaboration with the OLL.
First, thank you friends and readers for your years of following Oaxaca Cultural Navigator. I’ve been writing this blog since 2007. That’s 14 years reporting about Oaxaca (and Mexico) culture, traditions, textiles and the changes that have taken place over this time. There is a lot in the archives! I also want to thank you for your support of the artisan makers who I feature here. So many are grateful for our help and have expressed this to me recently, especially since COViD has all but truncated their ability to bring the beautiful things they make to visitors and collectors. You are their lifeline.
Elizabet Vasquez Jimenez, Triqui weaver, says, ¨A million thanks. You helped me so much because I had no sales in months. Thanks to God and for knowing all of you. Saludos y benediciones.”
Estela Montaño, woven bag maker, cried as she told me, “You kept us alive during COVID with your help. You sent us customers and we are grateful. You are all angels.”
We have been living with COVID for almost two years (since March 2020) and the pandemic has altered (am I’m thinking perhaps for my lifetime) how we make our way in the world with people we love and care about. I recently returned to Oaxaca after being gone for 19 months. I’m grateful my two adopted campo dogs, Tia and Butch, remembered me! I’m grateful to my Chavez Santiago family for their love and support over the last 16 years, making it possible for me to live with them and enjoy the astounding beauty of Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca.
The COVID era brought many changes to all of us. We lost friends and neighbors to the virus. Some of us lost family members. Some of us still feel at risk and are wary of gathering this Thanksgiving and of socializing with those who are vaccine resistant. I hear from many friends that they are fearful of traveling outside their local area, let alone getting on an airplane to go to a distant land. These are polarizing and discomfiting times.
This said, I’m extraordinarily grateful to those of you who are traveling with me to Mexico this year — 2021 and 2022. Thank you. I feel very reassured that when we practice COVID safety with vaccines and masks and hand sanitizer that we can stay healthy. Everyone on our recent Day of the Dead Culture Tour tested COVID negative the day before returning to the USA. For this, I’m incredibly grateful.
This has been a year of dramatic change for me. COViD isolation did me in and I made the decision just a year ago at Thanksgiving (where four of us huddled on the Taos Rio Grande Gorge mesa for an outdoor dinner), to change my lifestyle, leave downtown Durham, NC condo living in exchange for the austere beauty of northern New Mexico and the wide open spaces. Without COVID, I doubt this would ever have happened. At age 75, I decided to build a house! Crazy? Maybe. Liberating? Definitely.
When I left Oaxaca on March 12, 2020, my plan was to stopover in Huntington Beach, CA, to visit my son Jacob for a week and then to go up to Santa Cruz to see my sister Barbara before heading back to Durham for a while and then return to Oaxaca. I stayed with Jacob for two-months in a one-bedroom apartment. We juggled space and time. We bonded even more as mother and son. It was a blessing. I also got to know Shelley, who became his fiancee this year (they are getting married in March 2022). Her mom, Holly, has become a friend. COVID brought them closer together and they decided to make a life together.
Little did I know then that my boy would get approval from his office in March 2021 to work from home on a permanent basis and move to Albuquerque. We are now both living in the same state after being separated for over 30 years. Jacob and Shelley will be here this week for Thanksgiving, joining a group of 15 family members and friends under a heated tent outdoors on the Rio Grande Gorge Mesa. We are monitoring invitees for vaccines, exposure and overall COVID health.
It’s cold here in Taos, but the sun is shining, delivering beauty and hopefulness. Even the drying sagebrush is green today. Reminding me that even in the worst of times, there are many things to be grateful for. This, to me, outweighs the commercialism of the season and Black Friday.
Francisca Hernandez, master blouse embroiderer from Chiapas, says: “Thank you for the special orders over the last year. You have helped sustain my family. Otherwise, we would have earned very little, if anything.”
I remember Oaxaca losses from COVID: Estela, a woman from San Bartolome Quialana, in the Tlacolula valley foothills who worked at Tierra Antigua Restaurant, always gracious, cheerful, helpful. Juvenal, my 52-year old friend, generous and compassionate, who left behind a wife, three children and new grandchild born after he died in a San Diego Hospital in February 2021. Juan Manuel Garcia, Grand Master of Oaxaca Folk Art, silversmith and filigree jewelry maker extraordinaire, died at age age 77 in January 2021. I miss them, and so many more. 700,000 is an unfathomable number. I am grateful to be among the living. I mourn our losses.
Ím grateful for the vaccines that offer a miracle for life without risk of death or severe illness necessitating hospitalization. So much to be grateful for among the tragedy of our times.
This coming week, in the spirit of the season, I will be posting a Black Friday Sale either Tuesday or Wednesday. What I offer will all be hand-made, made in Mexico — and will be sure to bring joy to whomever receives them.
I also want to follow-up with the continuing discussion about Day of the Dead, commercialization of a pre-Hispanic tradition that has changed dramatically in the last two years. I want to share what readers sent to me and talk about whether Muertos has been co-opted by the film Coco, by the influx of mezcal drinking young tourists, or by COVID itself.
Sending you blessings for a holiday filled with gratitude, giving thanks, abundance, good health and joy, however you celebrate and with whom.
P.S. I’d love to hear what this year has wrought for you and your thoughts about gratitude and giving thanks at this season. Write me at: firstname.lastname@example.org
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Why We Left, Expat Anthology: Norma’s Personal Essay
Norma contributes personal essay, How Oaxaca Became Home
Norma Contributes Two Chapters!
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Norma Schafer and Oaxaca Cultural Navigator LLC has offered programs in Mexico since 2006. We have over 30 years of university program development experience. See my resume.
Study Tours + Study Abroad are personally curated and introduce you to Mexico's greatest artisans. They are off-the-beaten path, internationally recognized. We give you access to where people live and work. Yes, it is safe and secure to travel. Groups are limited in size for the most personal experience.
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1-Day OaxacaCity Collectors Textile Tour.Exclusive Access! We take you into the homes and workshops of Oaxaca State's prize-winning weavers. They come from the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, the Mixteca, Mixe, Amuzgos and Triqui areas and represent their weaving families and cooperatives here. For collectors, retailers, buyers, wholesalers, fashionistas.
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Maps: Teotitlan + Tlacolula Market
We require 48-hour advance notice for map orders to be processed. We send a printable map via email PDF after order received. Please be sure to send your email address. Where to see natural dyed rugs in Teotitlan del Valle and layout of the Sunday Tlacolula Market, with favorite eating, shopping, ATMs. Click Here to Buy Map After you click, be sure to check PayPal to ensure your email address isn't hidden from us. We fulfill each map order personally. It is not automatic.
Dye Master Dolores Santiago Arrellanas with son Omar Chavez Santiago, weaver and dyer, Fey y Lola Rugs, Teotitlan del Valle
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