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One-Day Tour to Oaxaca Silk Source: San Pedro Cajonos

On Wednesday, July 19, 2023, we will take you into the cloud forest deep into the Sierra Norte Mountains of Oaxaca, to the silk weaving village of San Pedro Cajonos. Cajonos is located at 10,000 feet above sea level and fifty-seven (57) miles northeast of Oaxaca City. This amazing region in Oaxaca is set in the middle of a pine forest and boasts a cooler microclimate — a perfect destination for mid-summer travel.

This is a Zapotec community. Many fled here from the Valles Centrales de Oaxaca (the central valleys) to escape the Spanish conquest in 1521. Deep into the folds of the mountains, they remained out of view and inaccessible to the influences of colonization. Here, we will spend the day with artisan families who specialize in making ixtle (agave fiber) bags and weave amazing silk garments from cultivated worms that become silk cocoons that magically are transformed into fine silk strands. We will have a special homemade traditional lunch in the home of one of the most famous silk weavers in Mexico. His dining room overlooks verdant mountain valleys. Then, we will visit the recently opened Silk Sanctuary, built by federal and state funds to support this important economic development project.

This region of Oaxaca is known throughout Mexico as the mecca of hand made silk production. We will discuss the processes used to make these precious textiles. We meet weaving families who devote their creative energies into raising silk worms, raising mulberry trees to feed them, harvesting and preparing the cocoons, using hand-spinning, natural dyeing and fringe knotting (macrame) techniques to complete these fine textiles.

We invite textile enthusiasts to join us on this textile adventure and spend a full day exploring, learning, and appreciating how silk is made into cloth. You will have plenty of opportunity to shop, if you wish, too. (Credit cards accepted.)

This is a full day of travel in a comfortable van. We will depart at 8:00 a.m. and return by 7:00 pm. from the same location in Oaxaca Centro. We will announce the group meeting location closer to the date of the tour. Group size is limited to 14 people.

Your Oaxaca Cultural Navigator Expert is Eric Chavez Santiago. Eric Chavez Santiago is an expert in Oaxaca and Mexican textiles and folk art with a special interest in artisan development and promotion. He is a weaver and natural dyer by training and a fourth generation member of the Fe y Lola textile group. He and his wife Elsa started Taller Teñido a Mano dye studio where they produce naturally dyed yarn skeins and textiles for worldwide distribution. Eric is a business partner with Oaxaca Cultural Navigator, too. He is trilingual, speaking Zapotec, Spanish and English and is a native of Teotitlan del Valle. He is a graduate of Anahuac University, founder of the Museo Textil de Oaxaca education department, and former managing director of folk art gallery Andares del Arte Popular. He has intimate knowledge of local traditions, culture and community, and has deep personal relationships with indigenous artisans throughout Oaxaca and Mexico.

Climate and what to wear to be comfortable: We go high into the misty mountains where it can be overcast and breezy, with drizzle or rain. Please bring a rain jacket, umbrella, wear comfortable walking boots and a hat.

Cost: This one-day tour includes transportation in a luxury van, lunch, complete guide services with translation, textile and cultural interpretation, and commentary. The cost is $295 per person.

Reservations and Cancellations

We require a non-refundable 25% deposit of $73.75 per person to secure your registration. We offer you three (3) ways to pay the deposit: 1) Zelle transfer with NO SERVICE FEE, 2) PayPal and add a 3% service fee, 3) VENMO and add a 3% service fee. Please tell us which payment method you prefer and we will send a request for funds. The 75% balance of $221.25 per person is due on the day of the tour in cash, either USD or MXN pesos (at the current exchange rate). When we receive funds, we will send you confirmation and details. 

Mezcal and the Labor Shortage in Oaxaca

One of my first outings after settling into my casita in Teotitlan del Valle upon arrival to Oaxaca was to make a visit to weaver Arturo Hernandez in San Pablo Villa de Mitla. Mitla is one of those ancient Zapotec villages where a spectacular archeological site rises from the landscape of wild agave, cactus and a mountain backdrop. It was originally known at Mictlan (translates to Place of the Dead). The Spanish couldn’t pronounce it, so it became Mitla.) This time of year wild marigold dots the horizon with a sea of yellow flowers that the ancestors used to decorate altars in honor of loved ones — a pre-Hispanic tradition that blended into Dia de los Muertos. Because Zapotec royalty were interred here, the town goes all out for Day of the Dead traditions.

Ceremonial sculpture, Mitla antiques shop

Arturo has been a friend for many, many years. He is one of those few weavers remaining in Mitla who uses the back-strap loom to create wool cloth that becomes ponchos and blankets. (He also works in cotton on the pedal loom.) This loom is wider and heavier than the traditional back-strap loom for cotton, and is used by men in a standing position. They sway back-and-forth to control the tension, one end tied to a post, the other around their waist.

Wild marigold with cochineal over-dye

The traditional pattern woven in Mitla includes symbols of corn, cacao and the plumed serpent — all important in Zapotec mythology and prayers for fertility and food. Arturo has the distinction of also working with natural dyes. His pieces are spectacular examples of textiles colored with cochineal, indigo, wild marigold, zapote negro (a local fruit), and pecan shells. Over-dyes yield purple, pink, and green.

Wild marigold dye pot

The village of Mitla, a Pueblo Magico, is about five miles from Santiago Matatlan that bills itself as the Mezcal Capital of the World. Corn fields have given way to neat rows of espadin agave, the fastest growing of all plants used for mezcal, that are ripe after seven years. Traditional farmers of the milpas: corn, squash, and beans are forgoing these crops to plant agave. As demand rises rapidly, this cash crop has become a favored way of making big, fast money. Who can blame them?

Spent wild marigold at Arturo’s feet

I’m standing in a long line at the airport to buy a shuttle ticket to town. In front of me are two young men, 30-somethings. When I ask, they say they are from Denver. How long will you be here? I say. Four days, they answer. What will you do here for four days? I continue. We plan to drink a lot of mezcal, they say. This is the story of Oaxaca today. Mezcal. The men decided to come to Oaxaca instead of going to Chattanooga for a friend’s wedding. Why? Because the airline cost to Tennessee was too high! Go figure. I ask them if they know anything about the culture? Will they visit Monte Alban or any of the nearby Zapotec artisan villages? Hmmm. They hadn’t thought of that. This is the story of Oaxaca today. Mezcal.

A stunning cochineal shawl

So, Arturo says to me, I don’t have enough weavers. I’m down to one. No one wants to work the traditional looms. They are all going to the agave fields where they can make 400 pesos a day. That’s $20 USD, folks. Considered a good wage here. So, my observation is that labor for traditional craft and artisan work will become more scarce in the Tlacolula Valley. I ask Arturo what he pays his workers. About the same, he says. But, I see this is repetitive work to stand at a flying shuttle pedal loom all day, throwing the shuttle back and forth across the warp threads, manipulating the design with your feet. Whereas in the agave fields, one can move and breathe the fresh air.

For everything that ails you, mezcal will cure it. For everything good, also mezcal. — old Oaxaca saying

There’s another factor at play here that has a huge impact on the environment and sustainability. Arturo says that herbicides and pesticides are now widely used in the agave fields. He says this is no longer artisanal, even though the marketing people claim otherwise. He sees men carrying the tanks on their backs, spraying the earth to eradicate the weeds that come up between the rows. The edible wild plants eaten by the ancestors, like quelites, are supressed. The insects and animals that aerate the earth are wiped clean. The plants will grow faster and bring a larger yield.

Natural dyes, Arturo’s studio

I think a lot about the rise of mezcal as a favored distilled beverage. Of course, I love it! Especially the wild agaves like tepeztate, madrecuishe, and arroqueño. It takes a longer time for these varieties to mature, some as much as twenty-five years, which makes the cost so much higher. As the wild varieties are used up, the mezcaleros (mezcal makers) are now reproducing them as cultivars. So, technically, they may no longer be wild, absorbing the flavors of the earth from a specific rocky outcropping of land. Mezcal making is a complex art much like wine making. It is NOT tequila!

The devil made me do it!

So, what will happen to Arturo and his weaving studio if there is no one who wants to work the looms? Is our Oaxaca artisan craft on the verge of extinction, much like the Emperor Penguins of Antarctica.

What will you do and what will you learn when you come to Oaxaca? Isn’t the story of Oaxaca more than mezcal?

Arturo and his wife Marta grow their own organic corn

Why Day of the Dead is NOT Halloween

Rooted in pre-Hispanic indigenous religious and spiritual practices that has nothing to do with the Catholicism imported to Mexico by the Conquistadores and attending priests, unfortunately, Day of the Dead has morphed into what is becoming an attraction for party-goers in Oaxaca. Day of the Dead is coming back around on the calendar, observed from October 31 to November 2, and it’s time to write about What is Day of the Dead? for visitors and travelers. I want to plead for respectfulness for ancient cultural practices. These are the days to remember the ancestors.

These dates were set by the conquerors to blend the pre-Hispanic native rituals to remember those who have passed with All Souls’ and All Saints’ Days on the Christian calendar. The blending of European and indigenous practices is called syncretism and was an effective way of bringing indigenous people into the religious fold of the conquerors.

Let’s take a step back. Up the road from where I live in Oaxaca, the Zapotec-Mixtec archeological site (and village) San Pablo Villa de Mitla was the burial grounds for the ruling elite. Originally called Mictlan, which means place of the dead, the reverence for the ancestors was played out with offerings of candles, incense, bread, corn and squash, pulque, chocolate and flowers, mostly wild marigold that grew in the countryside. Elaborate altars were constructed on floor-level that included these offerings. With the conquest, the altars were raised and included a backdrop of Jesus on the Cross and the Virgin of Guadalupe. Today, in many traditional homes we visit, the altar is placed on the ground as it was in ancient days. Around the altar, family members sit with their memories in quiet contemplation as the candles burn and the incense is constantly replenished.

In ancient times, family members were buried in tombs inside each home. With Catholicism, cemeteries became the place where the deceased were interred. Yet, the tradition of respect, reverence and solemn tribute to a loved one’s memory continued. In the 18 years I have lived in Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca, I have come to understand how important Day of the Dead is to the collective, family and individual memory of a loved one who has crossed over. I have sat quietly with friends at their family plots as they recall the life of the person buried there. Often, these plots will hold the bones of generations of family members, as the plot is recycled every ten years, the time it takes for a body to decompose. The grave is cleaned and the bones replaced there, readying it for the next occupant.

This is how we do it here.

In the last two years, all this has changed. Foreign visitors arrive on tour buses with painted faces and in Halloween costume. (Did you know that Halloween is the second biggest spending holiday in the USA next to Christmas?) They bring mezcal, beer and a picnic into the cemeteries. They gawk. They dance to the music the village band is playing to cheer the local community. It is party-time in Oaxaca regardless of local custom, and these external influences are changing local behavior.

I’m not one to say, Let’s keep everything the way it was. Change is inevitable and there has always been cultural interchange, innovation and adaptation. Yet, what I see I interpret as destructive. Locals are going earlier in the day to decorate the graves and then leave the cemetery before the crowd of visitors arrive. They prefer the peacefulness and solitude that marks this ritual. A few locals say, It’s good for business to have visitors. But, no one, in my opinion, who comes to the cemetery to party is going to buy a handwoven rug that may cost hundreds of dollars! They come to take away only an experience.

I often wonder if any of the guides who bring visitors has a conversation with them about cultural history and respectfulness, as we do when we bring people to the cemetery. When we take a small group we always go accompanied by a local friend who will take us to a family gravesite, sit with us, and explain the practices.

Oaxaca is now an international destination. It is attracting visitors who want to sample mezcal, dine in world renown restaurants, and immerse themselves in the excitement of the Day of the Dead comparsas — the parades — in Oaxaca city. The film Coco did much to popularize Day of the Dead, and I hear from friends in Patzcuaro, Michoacan, where the Coco story originated, that in the artisan villages surrounding the lake, Purepecha people have adapted and adopted the face painting and costumes to attract tourism.

Eric and Norma, Day of the Dead 2021, Teotitlan del Valle

When you visit, please be aware that you will leave a footprint. What kind of footprint do you want to have? What will you learn and what will you take away from participating in this ancient practice? How will you reflect on death and dying, and compare it to how mourning and remembrance is done in Mexico with where you come from? What are your own family traditions?

And, how would you respect your own grandparents and antecedents in the cemetery where they are buried?

Rare Opportunity, Day Trips, July 27 + July 29: San Pedro Cajonos and Santa Maria Tlahuitoltepec

We are doing a cultural textile tour from July 25-31, 2022 where extraordinary garments are made by very talented weavers. This includes two days up into the Sierra Madre del Sur mountains. We want to fill our van! So, we are offering one-day travel opportunities to Oaxaca residents, collectors and visitors. Join our travel group for one or both days! We have space for 4 more travelers on each day.

Day 1–July 27: San Pedro Cajonos Silk Weaving Village

On July 27 we depart Teotitlan del Valle at 8 a.m. for a two and-a-half hour luxury van ride up the mountain to San Pedro Cajonos. If you haven’t been there, this is your opportunity! We visit one of the finest, most distinguished silk weaving cooperatives in all of Mexico. Here, high in the Sierra Madre del Sur, Moises Martinez and his group created a sanctuary to cultivate and preserve silkworm production, with hand-spinning, natural dyeing and weaving. Yes! They grow the mulberry trees to feed the silkworms before they spin their cocoons. The cocoons are silk! You will see the entire process — growing, spinning, dyeing and weaving — and meet these talented weavers. They will prepare a homemade lunch for us and show us their silk textiles and accessories that are for sale. Garments include blouses, dresses, shawls, scarves and jewelry. We return to Teotitlan del Valle before suppertime.

Day 2–July 29: Santa Maria Tlahuitoltepec

On July 29, we depart Teotitlan del Valle at 8 a.m. to travel two hours on our luxury van to the mountain village of Santa Maria Tlahuitoltepec. Many of you may have heard of the village when several years ago a French designer appropriated the cultural heritage design of the blouses that are made here and marketed them as her own. Here you will meet weavers and embroiderers who work on the back-strap and pedal looms in wool and cotton. They use locally dyed alderwood tree bark called Palo de Aguila in Spanish to yield soft, creamy brown, beige and orange colors that are distinctive and beautiful. We will discuss with the family the issues of cultural appropriation and copyright, and what we as buyers can do to support their cultural patrimony. They also use banana tree bark, indigo, cochineal and wild marigold to dye the threads before weaving. After lunch, we will visit a large format potter famous for his amazing pieces featured in museums and private collections around the world. We return to Teotitlan del Valle before suppertime.

Cost: $395 each day. Or, register for both days at $735. Cost includes luxury transportation originating from and returning to Teotitlan del Valle, lunch, snacks and water, cultural commentary and textile expertise, bilingual English-Spanish translation services with a native Spanish speaker, and an adventure into remote mountain villages that you may never be able to do on your own.

Send us an email to register. Payment can be made in full with a Zelle transfer (no service fee) or with PayPal or Venmo (with a 3% service fee). Let us know which payment method you prefer.

Your knowledgeable guides are Eric Chavez Santiago, co-director and Norma Schafer, founder and co-director of Oaxaca Cultural Navigator LLC.

Eric is an expert in Oaxaca and Mexico textiles and folk art with a special interest in artisan development and promotion. He is a weaver and natural dyer by training and a fourth generation member of the Fe y Lola textile group. He and his wife Elsa are founders of Taller Teñido a Mano dye studio where they produce naturally dyed yarn skeins and textiles for worldwide distribution. He is trilingual, speaking Zapotec, Spanish and English and is a native of Teotitlan del Valle. He is a graduate of Anahuac University, founder of the Museo Textil de Oaxaca education department, and former managing director of folk art gallery Andares del Arte Popular. He has intimate knowledge of local traditions, culture and community.

Norma founded Oaxaca Cultural Navigator in 2006 while she was a senior staff administrator at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Since then, hundreds of people have traveled with Norma to experience the art, culture and textiles of Oaxaca, Chiapas and other parts of Mexico. About 65% of all participants return to take workshops, day tours and extended travel programs, an indication of client loyalty and satisfaction.

Note: To travel with us, you must be Covid vaccinated. Everyone over age 50 is required to have two boosters. Please send us a copy of your vaccine card upon registration. In addition, N95 and KN95 face masks are required for all indoor activities. We observe US CDC guidelines regarding same. We do this out of respect for each other and for native peoples who have not had access to the quality of vaccines that we enjoy. We will ventilate the van and most of our activities will take place outdoors.

We also strongly recommend for these two day tours that you have travel insurance for accident protection.

Travel to/from Teotitlan del Valle is on your own. Please make your own arrangements to arrive by the departing time. When you register, we will send details of where to meet and recommendations for Teotitlan taxi drivers who can pick you up in the city and return you there at the end of our day.

Thank you very much! Let us know if you have any questions.

Endangered Monarch Butterflies in Mexico: On Your Bucket List?

Monarch butterflies winter in the Mexican states of Michoacan and Estado de Mexico. Environmentalists report that the butterfly population increased in 2021 by 35% for various reasons, including fewer forest fires and lower rates of logging. But there is still considerable concern because of the use of herbicides to eradicate milkweed in the USA and Canada. Milkweed is essential plant food and egg-laying environment for the Monarchs. And, according to the World Wildlife Fund, climate change with hotter, drier weather, is also affecting migration patterns, often shortening them and putting more stress on the survivability of these amazing insects.

You can read this Washington Post story, Monarch butterfly numbers increase 35%.

I was at the El Rosario Butterfly Sanctuary, a UNESCO World Heritage site in the State of Michoacan in 2019, noted as a year that millions of butterflies wintered over from their long journey south, often covering thousands of miles. Along the way, they feed, lay eggs to hatch the next generation, and arrive in Mexico, staying from November to March. Four generations of butterflies live and die along the eight-month migratory path to ensure continuity.

The Purepecha peoples, indigenous to the region, believe that Monarch butterflies are the souls of deceased children who likely died from natural causes. Violent school massacres did not create this lore.

Bucket List Tour 2023: Monarch Butterflies and Michoacan

In the past, I wrote about our group experience seeing the butterflies in Michoacan. I never realized it SHOULD be on everyone’s bucket list until I got there. It was an amazing emotional, spiritual and mystical experience to see millions of butterflies hanging from the tree tops high in the mountains several hours beyond Mexico City. As the sun came out, the butterflies opened their wings and the dark black clusters turned to brilliant orange and the sky begins to flutter, juxtaposing orange against blue and dark green foliage. I experienced this as an affirmation of life, endurance, tenacity and ancient patterns of survival and continuity.

We have five spaces remaining for the 2023 tour. If you are interested, please do not hesitate to make a reservation deposit. This tour will fill.

Here are links to stories about our past experiences:

Fragile, Glorious Monarch Butterflies

Millions of Monarch Butterflies Michoacan Biosphere