Tag Archives: Teotitlan del Valle

Xi-Guia: Making Handbags in Teotitlán del Valle

I spent the morning with Estela Montaño and Edith Montaño Martínez at their home and workshop in Teotitlán del Valle, Oaxaca. Xi-Guía is the name of the town in Zapteco, the indigenous language here. We were filling out a grant application to WARP (Weave a Real Peace). They needed my help since they are not native Spanish writers, they don’t speak or write English, and their education did not take them beyond elementary and middle school.

Despite limited opportunities, these are very talented weavers and seamstresses, and they established a cooperative of twelve women fifteen years ago. They adapted traditional rug weaving done by men to weave small size tapestries. These are then sewn into beautiful handbags of all sizes, from coin purses to back-packs and overnight bags, using industrial strength sewing machines and old Singer treadles.

When I found them over ten years ago, what I noticed first was the quality of construction: the tightness of weave, the impeccably sewn lining with two pouches, the zippered closure, and the securely fastened fine grain leather straps. The colors they use are derived from natural plants and cochineal. These bags are built to last a lifetime! It’s true.

When I sat with them today, we talked in depth about what it takes to operate their business and what they would accomplish if they were to get funding from WARP. We set about creating a budget for their request, and a justification for support. But, in the process, what I discovered was they are not charging enough per bag to cover their costs–labor and materials.

Each weaver is getting paid about $3 USD per hour — hardly a living wage. Their materials expense includes wool, dye materials (indigo and cochineal costs upwards of $300USD per kilo, a 40% increase in the last two years), fabric for linings, zippers, leather, and metal hooks and grommets. It takes about 20 hours to make one bag, start to finish.

So, I ran through the numbers with them and we determined that their actual costs to make a large bag is 2,198 pesos, not the 1,400 pesos they have been charging, and this does NOT include even a small mark-up. It’s no wonder they have no reserve to reinvest in materials and why they need support. I have counseled them to raise prices to cover costs, plus make a small profit.

I have also asked them to consider how to find more venues where they can sell directly. In addition to selling from their home, where they get occasional visitors, they sell to three galleries in Oaxaca City. However, each one asks them to sell the 1,400 pesos bag at a wholesale price of 920 pesos. If they try to negotiate, the gallery managers will tell them they will invite other artisans who will sell for less. In addition, if they agree for tour operators to bring people to them, the operators charge a 30-50% commission on any sales.

Their workshop is usually on our Tlacolula Valley Folk Art Tour, and because the quality of what they make is extraordinary (and, they are very good people), we try to include them whenever we can.

Many visitors still come to Oaxaca hoping to score a bargain, even when pieces are priced fairly for the amount of work and quality that goes into making them. Today, I was astounded that my friends have been working so long and they are paying to keep their business going out of pocket, never receiving any financial counseling, and caring more about making something beautiful.

We talked about justice and setting a price that is just for them — in other words, we talked about fair trade — what is fair for the maker and what is fair for the customer. Such an important topic now.

People and Place: Photography Workshop with Luvia Lazo in Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca

Three Days — October 27, 28, 29, 2024, 9:30 a.m. to 4:00 p.m.

Arrive just before Dia de los Muertos, Day of the Dead, to explore the Zapotec village of Teotitlan del Valle as preparations begin for this grand celebration to honor the ancestors. We take you inside people’s homes and workshops where you might never have access on your own. We explore the 17th century church, ancient archeological sites, the local market, and wander cobblestone streets to find hidden treasures that you will capture with your camera. We arrange portrait sessions with local families where we take you on an insiders journey to document how locals live and work.

We welcome novice and experienced photographers who want to capture people and place. We focus on portrait and street photography, how to look for that great shot and compose it for greatest impact. We do NOT teach you how to use your camera. We teach you what to look for, how to frame a photograph, perspective, how to determine what to shoot close-up and from a distance. We will discuss editing techniques, too. We welcome all types of cameras from DSLRs to iPhones.

Our workshop day is from 9:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. We will meet each morning as a group to discuss process and technique, show our work, give and receive feedback. Then, we will venture out into the village to explore.

Your instructor is Luvia Lazo. She is featured in The New Yorker magazine. You can read more about Luvia and see her work on her website. You can also do a Google search to see and read more!

Luvia is described this way: Photography is her way of portraying the worlds to which she belongs. Her work aims to capture reality from the perspective of the contemporary Zapotec woman, creating a constellation of images through time and spaces in Oaxaca, documenting the generational gaps and the transformation of identities across ages.

She is a recipient of the Jóvenes Creadores grant of the FONCA 2020 (National Fund for the Culture of the Arts, Mexico) and inaugural recipient of the Indigenous photo grant 2021 supported by Leica and Photoville.

Cost: $995 per person. This includes three workshop days, all instruction, three lunches, and one Grand Finale Dinner where we present our best work.

The cost does not include lodging, breakfast or transportation. We recommend several bed-and-breakfast inns where you can book your lodging directly with the innkeeper at your own expense, once you register for the workshop. These are Casa Elena, La Cupula, and Las Granadas.

The workshop will be held from 9:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. each day. We will send you meeting location and other details in late September. We suggest you book your lodging to arrive October 26 and depart on October 30.

How to Reserve Your Space — We are limiting participation to 10 people.

We request payment in full to reserve. Payment can be made with a Zelle transfer (we will send you a request for funds when you send us how your Zelle account is registered), or we can send you a Square invoice to pay with a credit card (4% service fee added). Please advise which payment method you prefer.

Please complete this registration form to participate.

Cancellations.  $500 of your $995 registration fee is non-refundable. If you cancel on or before August 15, 2024, we will refund 50% of your deposit received to date less the $500 non-refundable fee. After August 15, there are no refunds. You may consider purchasing international travel insurance that would allow you to file a claim in the event you are unable to attend.

If we cancel for whatever reason, we will offer a 100% refund of all amounts received to date, less the non-refundable deposit.

NOTE: Covid is still with us. Please bring one Covid test kit and a face mask to use in crowded spaces and inside homes where there is no air circulation. Local people do not have wide access to effective vaccines and are very vulnerable to Covid. We urge you to be up-to-date with all vaccines, including influenza and RSV.

To Register, Policies, Procedures & Cancellations–Please Read

Walking and Group Courtesy: We are at almost 6,000 feet altitude. Streets and sidewalks are cobblestones, and narrow. We will do a lot of walking. We will walk a lot — up to 10,000 steps per day at a moderate pace. We recommend you bring a walking stick and wear sturdy shoes.

NOTE: If you have mobility issues or health/breathing impediments, please consider that this may not be the program for you.

Traveling with a small group has its advantages, and also means that independent travelers will need to make accommodations to group needs and schedule. We include plenty of free time to go off on your own if you wish.

Back to the Oaxaca Villages: Teotitlan del Valle and Mitla

My friend Chris returned to Ajijic, Lake Chapala, Guadalajara, yesterday morning, so it’s been a day of quietude, plus packing to get ready to leave for the Oaxaca Coast early Saturday morning. We have a 14-person tour going to discover handmade textiles on the Costa Chica.

My family wonders when I rest. In bits and pieces, fits and starts, at night when REM sleep kicks in. It’s going to be a very busy winter. After the coast, we go to Michoacan, then I take off for Bacalar in the Yucatan to visit my Taos friend Susy Starr who owns a rug gallery that she opened in the 1970’s. I’d call her an original Hippie. Then, to Chiapas (please join us, we won’t offer this tour again for some time), then to the Mixteca Alta. I’m trying to reschedule medical appointments in New Mexico so I can have a month of unfettered time here before returning in the spring.

Instead of spending the day in the frenzy of the city, we spent the morning at the Teotitlan del Valle village market, one of the few surviving daily markets in Oaxaca. After we stopped in the church for some silent prayer (it’s all about our health, these days), we drove south along the Pan American Highway MEX 190 to San Pablo Villa de Mitla to visit Arturo the weaver, Armando the doll maker, Epifanio the antique dealer, and Reynoldo, the maker of fine quality table linens.

The chocolate atole (above) is so thick, we can eat it with a spoon!

Then, back to Mo Kalli for the second time this week to eat the amazing food prepared by traditional cook Catalina Chavez Lopez. She is a hidden treasure, tucked into the hillside in the Tres Piedras neighborhood of Tlacolula.

Day of the Dead Altars + Studio Visits in Teotitlan del Valle 2024

On October 30, 2024, we immerse ourselves in the rich cultural and social history of Teotitlan del Valle. No where is Day of the Dead celebrated with more authenticity than in the villages. Our one-day tour starts at 9:00 a.m. We pick you up at a central location in the Historic District of Oaxaca city and return you there by 6:00 p.m. We will let you know the location two-weeks before the tour. Your guide is Eric Chavez Santiago with Norma Schafer.

Why you want to travel with us:

  • We know the culture! We are locally owned and operated.
  • Eric Chavez Santiago is Zapotec, tri-lingual, born and raised in Teotitlan del Valle.
  • Norma Schafer has been living in Oaxaca for almost 20 years.
  • We have deep connections with artists and artisans.
  • 63% of our travelers repeat — high ratings, high satisfaction.
  • Wide ranging expertise.
  • We give you a deep immersion to best know Oaxaca and Mexico.

We welcome you into the Altar Room of each artisan we visit to pay respects to the family and their ancestors. We have arranged for permission for you to take photos and participate in some of the rituals, including tasting Pan de Muertos and Hot Chocolate made locally from toasted cacao beans. All along the way, you will learn more about how this tradition is celebrated, with its deep pre-Hispanic indigenous roots.

The artisans we visit in Teotitlan del Valle not only talk about and demonstrate their craft, they discuss their personal experiences and traditions growing up and honoring their ancestors during Day of the Dead. When you participate with us, you will go deep into a rich Zapotec history and culture that pre-dates the Spanish conquest of Oaxaca in 1522, and the settlement of Oaxaca as a colonial capitol.

While we spent most of the day in Teotitlan del Valle learning about the Day of the Dead traditions here, we start out in Santa Maria El Tule at the home studio of a flying shuttle loom weaver who uses naturally dyed threads to create clothing — blouses and shawls. He also has a selection of beautifully woven home goods — tablecloths, napkins, and dish towels. We learn that ancient traditions pre-date Catholicism, and those who don’t adhere to a religion still observe Day of the Dead.

Our itinerary includes stops to see:

  • a traditional flying shuttle loom weaver who creates award winning home goods and clothing
  • a famous rug weaving family that works only in the highest quality wool and natural dyes
  • a chocolate maker who uses grandmothers’ recipes to make delicious eating + drinking chocolate
  • an accomplished women’s cooperative that fashions leather trimmed handbags
  • lunch prepared by a traditional chef who prepares exquisite food

In El Tule, Alfredo tells us that Day of the Dead is not a religious holiday but a cultural one, hearkening back to the pre-Hispanic ancestors. Building an altar is his way of honoring his grandmothers and grandfathers who taught him to weave. He works on several looms that he inherited from his grandfather that are more than ninety years old. They have been repaired repeatedly and the wood frames are pocked with insect holes that accumulated over the years. Nothing here is discarded and age in whatever form — human or inanimate — is revered.

We make three more stops during the day. First to a favorite rug weaving studio. Here we will feel the emotional connection with the altar, learning about the importance of celebrating in the home. We will be welcomed with the perfume of copal incense, candlelight, and marigold flowers — all important for guiding the spirits of deceased loved ones back home for this twenty-four hour period when they return from the underworld to visit us.

The difuntos enter this world through the sugar cane arches flanking the altar and this portal is necessary to ensure an easy passage. Almost everyone here will have their altars complete by November 1, just in time for the spirits to return at three o’clock in the afternoon. They will stay with their families until November 2, consuming the ceremonial foods from the altar. At three o’clock on November 2, the church bells will ring and announce the time for the difuntos to return to their resting places in the cemetery. We accompany them, leading the way with copal, to ease them back to the underworld, offering prayers for a smooth passage and a promise that we will see them next year.

The offerings on the altars in Teotitlan del Valle include chocolate, bread, and candles. Other foods can include those favored by the deceased: beer, mezcal, coffee, coca cola, tortillas, tamales stuffed with mole amarillo (a village tradition). There will always be peanuts and pecans, eaten here long before the Spanish arrived.

Our last stop before returning to the city will be to a women’s cooperative whose members who weave beautiful small tapestries colored with natural dyes that they make into totes and handbags, trimmed with leather straps. It takes about two weeks to make a bag and the craftsmanship is superb.

Lunch is a culinary exploration into the traditional foods of the season, including yellow mole tamales, mezcal, and fruit water prepared by a local traditional cook.

Registration and Cancellation. Tour cost is $155 per person. This includes transportation in a luxury van, bilingual guide services with translation, altar and studio visits, and lunch. Payment in full is required to reserve. In the event cancellation is necessary, we request a 10-day notice (by October 20) to receive a 50% refund. We accept payment with Zelle (no fees) or with a credit card (3.5% fee). Tell us when you are ready to register and we will send you a request for funds.

To reserve, please contact Norma Schafer by email.

Check out our Shop for all things hand-made in Oaxaca and Mexico!

Come with us to Chiapas, February 20-28, 2024

Patti White’s Essay About Memory and Muertos

Patti wrote to me in response to my post about Day of the Dead Etiquette and Behavior. It is so touching and expressive that I asked permission to share it with you. Here it is.

Dear Norma, 

Over 20 years ago, I lost my sister to cancer, and her husband just a few years after that. We had been to the Yucatán in 1990 together and always assumed we would some day travel to Oaxaca for Dia de Los Meurtos.  Unfortunately, I never traveled with them again. 

I work in Olympia, Washington, at a small art gallery that features primarily Northwest artists. One of our long time print makers went to Oaxaca de Juárez six years ago to create and learn from local print makers after meeting Edgar Martinez from Oaxaca, who now lives in our area. Together, they were able to bring up almost 100 prints from 25 Oaxaca artists to sell at our gallery. We fell in love with the artwork and were touched by the history and background of the  protests and struggles of the teachers ( Mimi Williams, who was our resident printmaker, was a teacher herself ) whose story the printmakers were able to bring to the attention of the world. The exhibit was wildly popular and educating. I translated all of the titles and found myself reading everything I could to learn more about their meaning. traditions, archaeology, folklore, geology animals, rituals…I drank it in. I found your blog and have read every entry at least once.

Five years ago, my husband Roger and I were blessed to carry out the dream of my sister, Lynda and brother in law, Bob, and fulfill their dream. We were able to see the build up to the holiday, visit most of the cultural sites, experience markets, museums and of course visit all of the print shops. I brought with us postcards and media info on our exhibit and was able to meet almost every artist we had represented. This was a thrill for both myself and the artists. Of course, we came home with many new prints!

We spent only two days in Teotitlan de Valle where we felt a bit out of place at first, but quickly realized we should have spent more time. We visited the beautiful pantheon as the villagers worked decorating their loved ones gravesites, heard the church bells ring, the fireworks at 3:00 pm, the scent of chocolate and tamales in the air, and see all of the flower filled moto-taxis en route to alters and the cemetery which we visited early in the day.  There was only a small tour group of six there that were very respectful. They appeared to be the only other tourists.  What I felt was no coincidence; I struck up a brief conversation with an older woman, and then was approached by her husband who recognized me from my former occupation, working at a plant nursery in Olympia! This was just one of many coincidences we experienced. Norma, my family was raised without religion, but open to spirituality. I hadn’t felt closer to my lost loved ones than when we were walking the streets of Teotitlan de Valle. The warmth and welcome we received was nothing short of magical, and I felt Lynda and Bob’s presence every step. 

We went back to the big city and met with the guide we had for several days and had an amazing experience with the first week. He convinced us we should go on a cemetery tour that evening. This was the single most poor choice we have  ever made traveling. At first, lost in the beauty and excitement we took a few photos, but then chose to exit and wait for our group outside the gates.  The inappropriate behavior, sexy party clothing, open drinking and pure disrespect made us feel sick to our stomachs. Literally. 

Well, that experience left a sour taste in our mouths, but we chose to go back again in 2021. This time, we took more time to simply wander the streets and neighborhoods a bit further out, eat at smaller less known “risky” restaurants, and if course revisit the print shops and artists when we were in the big city. We then spent four days in Teotitlan de Valle. We stayed at the same little hotel, Teocalli, and met up with the rug maker who treated us like royalty and had us stay for lunch. He arranged for his nephew to guide us up El Picacho, which was breathtaking, and an education even though we really don’t speak Spanish and our guide no English! We were taken to our innkeepers home for delicious snacks and beverages made by all three generations of women in the home.

That night I was attempting to ask the innkeeper’s husband where we could purchase cerveza for our ofrenda  so late in the evening. A pleasant friend of his, who spoke English offered to take us to a store. Breaking every travelers rule in the book even during a non pandemic year, we got into the vehicle with this stranger, and drove off. Well, not only did he take us to the store, he asked if he could drive us to his home and show us his own alter. Keeping in mind, we had left the door to our room wide open, with my purse, our laptop and extra cash in plain sight. We spent almost four hours sitting in front of their ofrenda, shared mezcal, nuts and stories with his wife and son. Before we left, he made sure that we had fresh tortillas (both large and small for angelitos ), nuts, more chocolate, freshly made tamales, all in a handwoven basket his wife gave as a gift, and a HUGE  bundle of Fleur de Muertos, which we were told, was more important than cempasuchil in their village. He drove us back a bit tipsy, stopping to say hello to every person still out and about. Of course, our unlocked room was just as we left it. 

We set up as proper of an altar as you can in a place that is not your own home, and walked to the cemetery. We only sat outside under the tree and observed. We did not go in. We saw both the beautiful and obnoxious side of this important holiday. We retired to our room, lit a few candles, drank a couple of cervesas and talked about each loved one whose photo we placed and snacks we set out for. Two days later when we left, the gentleman whose home we had spent time in, happened to be driving by and saw us. My husband asked if he wanted to come in and see our ofrenda. He left the car running in the street, came inside, and actually started to cry telling us it was perfect! Of course, this made both of us cry as well. We hugged and said our farewells and thank you’s. Before we exited to go back to the city, another rug maker we spent a few hours with insisted we ride with him and not call a taxi. It was a memorable drive back and consider him a friend now as well. 

Last week, we once again created an alter in our Pacific Northwest home. We added two photos this year. Very bittersweet. Again, not being raised in an organized religion, we both feel such a driving force to carry out this yearly ritual now. We are pleased that we had the blessing of doing so from the native people we met and now consider friends. 

I realize this is quite a long message, but I’ve been wanting to write and thank you for a few years now, for guiding us through our travels to this amazing part of our world. The experiences and the opportunities that were presented to us left no doubt that the spirits of our dear Lynda and Bob indeed made it to Oaxaca and joined us, guided our travels and celebrated life with us. We hope to go back again and join you on a tour some day. 

Thank you for all you do. You are my hero.  Keep up the great work!

Cheers!

Patti White