Tag Archives: Zapotecs

Yagul Archeological Site: Oaxaca’s Hidden Treasure

Yagul is one of those magical places in Oaxaca that not many people visit. When I first went there in 2005, it was mostly rubble, secreted away up a hill beyond Tlacolula, on the way to Mitla. Access was (and still is) a narrow, cracked, pot-holed macadam pavement.

Stunning view of the Tlacolula valley and beyond

In those intervening years, there has been progressive archeological restoration, with good signage, uncovered tombs, and vistas of the Tlacolula valley that are unparalleled.

Over the rock wall, the valley below

I guess I love this site most because of the caves where the remnants of early corn (maize) was carbon-dated to 8,000 years ago. It tells the story of human kind in Mesoamerica, the resourceful people who developed the edible kernel from teosintle.

Yagul has a ball court, too. About the same size as Monte Alban.

There are cave paintings here, but they are not open to the public. One can only enter by arrangement with INAH and go accompanied with an archeologist.

How old is this cactus? Others, the size of trees, dot hillsides.

I also love it because of the peace, tranquility, the wind on the mountain top, the open spaces with extraordinary views, the ability to walk and climb unfettered by masses of visitors piling out of tour vans, unbothered by vendors selling replicates and fake jewelry.

Judy and Gail descend from the highest platform

Climb to the top of the mountain to discover another tomb. Imagine that you are standing sentry, guarding the trade route between north and south, protecting your Zapotec territory.  Once a foot path, the road is now called the Pan-American Highway.

A recently uncovered passageway beneath a mound

Yagul is only about seven miles from where I live. I take friends there who come and visit. In June, Judy and Gail went with me. As I roamed the land, I realized that there has been more unearthed there in recent months: Two entry ways at the top of one of the mounds.

Where recent dig uncovered an entrance

There are lots of mounds in this valley. Most of them are said to be archeological sites waiting to be unearthed.  They have been covered for centuries by dirt, rocks, weeds. The Mexican federal government does not have the resources to uncover them all.

Original limestone plaster walls of Yagul

There are a handful of small sites under restoration along this route from Oaxaca to Mitla.  Near Macquixochitl is Dainzu, a significant site undergoing restoration.

Wild flowers in rock outcroppings, rainy season

Close to Tlacolula is Lambiteyco with a small museum. When I drive along the road, I see foundations of platforms that could once have been temples.

Courtyard of one of the ancient residences, Yagul

Few stop at these sites. Why? Perhaps because they are not as fully developed as Mitla or Monte Alban. Perhaps because they are not as famous or promoted as heavily. They offer tourists an opportunity to explore and imagine what lies below.

Frog sculpture near the tomb, where you can climb down and enter

Yagul is a great destination for families where most of the area is accessible to walking, hiking and climbing.  If you are so inclined, bring a picnic or a snack. Sit under the shade and think about life here centuries ago.

Cactus trunk, woody, strong enough for shelter

It’s worth it to come out here and stay a few days to explore the region — a nice contrast to the city. Stay in Teotitlan del Valle, at either Casa Elena or Las Granadas B&B. Both offer posada-style hospitality at reasonable cost. Hosts can arrange local taxi drivers to take you around to visit the archeological sites.

Taking a break under the shade

Day of the Dead in Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca: Guiding the Disfuntos Home

The bells in the Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca church tower start ringing on November 1 at 3:00 p.m. and continue all night and into the next day, November 2, giving the disfuntos (the visiting souls) the sound to follow home.

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They follow the trail of scent, sight and sound: marigold flowers, copal incense, simmering mole negro, chocolate, candlelight, mezcal, bread, music, bells. Home to visit loved ones who are still here on earth.

This 24-hour period is sacred and solemn. It is also festive and joyful. Day of the Dead in Oaxaca, Mexico is more than an all night party (as it has become for some). It is a time to reconnect emotionally and spiritually with departed family members and friends.

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The 3:00 p.m. comida on November 2 in Teotitlan del Valle signals the moment when the disfuntos will take their favorite meal and then begin their return to the grave. Janet brings a plate of chicken with mole negro to the altar, her grandfather Jose’s favorite food. Bien rico!

The firecrackers or cohetes go off exactly at 3:00 p.m., too. At this moment, Dolores approaches the altar and says a prayer before the photograph of her mother, who died too young.


We raise our mezcal glasses in a Zapotec toast — chee-chee-bay-oh — salud, to health and long life. The CD player starts and music fills the altar room. Federico says this tune, Dios Nunca Muere — God never dies — is always played to guide the difuntos. It soothes them. Federico says it is played just after a person dies and at gravesite before the burial. It is the song to signal the end of each Dia de los Muertos in Teotitlan del Valle. It is a song about the pain of the homeless.

Do you have an altar? he asks me.

Yes, I say. It’s for our father. There are all the pre-requisites: fruit, nuts, bread, chocolate, mezcal, marigolds, beer and candles. (There are no religious symbols.)

Good, he says. Even though your father is buried in the United States, he will come to visit you here. The ancient souls who were buried in the campo many years ago are also happy they have a place to return to. It’s good you have an altar, he says.

Who am I to say what is or isn’t true? Memory and continuity are powerful and life is a mystery.

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The tombs contain the bones of past ancestors. See the photo above left. There are four grave markers. That means there are four family members who are buried in this tomb. This is an ancient Zapotec tradition that continues today.

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I go to the cemetery an hour before dark to capture the last light of day. I don’t think the Panteon has ever been as beautiful. Fresh flowers, fruit and nuts decorate the tombs. Families begin to gather and sit with loved ones as they return to the underworld. They nibble on snacks and drink beer and mezcal.



The volunteer cemetery committee meets in the chapel and chants an ancient Zapotec song, mournful. It permeates, carries through the small graveyard. A wind picks up. The disfuntos are gathering to return.


Visitors come with cameras, accompanied by tour guides. They are respectful of this space. They are prepared well. There are many more this year than last. Locals say this is good for Teotitlan del Valle.  People will come and know our culture. They will appreciate the fine wool tapestries we weave here. Ojala!


Each gravesite is an altar of love and respect for those who came before. All generations take part. Sometimes children bring games or a book to read until the light fades. Everyone sits, some all night, to assure their loved ones rest easy.


Best30TeotiMuertos-25Many religious and spiritual traditions have a day of remembrance set aside to honor the deceased. We light candles. We say prayers. We may read a poem or meditate. We connect with the person who is physically gone from our lives. I don’t know of a warmer, more personal and family centric celebration of life and death than Day of the Dead. It helps soothe the fear of loss with the hopefulness of reconnection.

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Zapotec people tell me that what they practice is a blend of Catholicism and ancient ritual that pre-dates the Spanish Conquest. Zapotecs are more inclined toward their spiritual roots. Want to know more? See meaning of syncretism. Most of the celebrations here take place at home rather than in the church, except for marriage and baptism.

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Recipe: Venison Meatballs and Deer Hunting

What does this have to do with Oaxaca? Read on.  You’ll find out!  Those of us who live at Blue Heron Farm in Pittsboro, NC, have been plagued by an overpopulation of deer.  This fall, our community association invited our local Backyard Bow Pros to come in and thin the herd using the old-fashioned way of deer hunting.  One-third of the cull goes to feed the hungry in our community. I think the ancient Zapotecs would have been proud of us.

According to Wikipedia, “by 2000 BCE, agriculture had been established in the Central Valleys region of the state [of Oaxaca], with sedentary villages.[14] The diet developed around this time would remain until the Spanish Conquest, consisting primarily of harvested corn, beans, chocolate, tomatoes, chili peppers, squash and gourds. Meat was generally hunted and included tepescuintle, turkey, deer, peccaryarmadillo and iguana.[15]

Backyard Bow Pros deliver the deer to a local processor who grinds the meat.  We now have pounds of it in our freezer and I needed to dream up a recipe that tasted good. (This was my first experience eating venison.) I tried it, I liked it and it was so good that Stephen repeated the recipe and prepared 246 meatballs to take as hors d’oeuvres for Thanksgiving dinner.  It makes great meatloaf and burgers, too.

Norma’s Ground Venison Meatloaf

  • 1 lb. ground venison
  • 1 egg
  • 1 cup whole wheat bread crumbs, fine
  • 4-6 prunes, chopped fine
  • 1/4 c. raisins
  • 1/4 c. coarsely chopped almonds or walnuts or pecans
  • 1/4 c. dried peppers (mix of bell, ancho, poblano), crumbled
  • 1/2 large white onion, diced into 1/4″ cuts
  • 1/4 c. chopped fresh parsley
  • 1 T. sea salt
  • Optional:  1 T. hot red pepper flakes

Put the ground meat in a large mixing bowl.  Add one whole egg and bread crumbs.  Mix well with your hands.  (Do not use a food processor.  This will break down the meat fibers.)

Sprinkle a little flour over the prunes, and chop them with a Chinese cleaver or 8″ chef’s knife until they are about 1/4″ pieces.   Add prunes, raisins, parsley and onion to the meat along with the dried pepper that you have coarsely crumbled. (You can substitute fresh peppers, just double the amount.)

Put the nuts into a plastic baggie.  With the flat end of a mallet crush the whole nut meats until coarse (you can also do this in the food processor).   Or, buy them chopped if you prefer!  Add to the meat.

Mix all together with your hands until everything is completely incorporated into the meat and evenly distributed.  Add salt and mix with hands again.

Meatloaf:  Put into a greased loaf pan and bake uncovered at 350 degrees for 45-55 minutes or until browned on top and sides pull away from the pan.  Test for doneness with a meat thermometer.  Internal temperature should reach 160 degrees.

Meatballs:  Roll meat into 1″ balls.  Place on moderately greased cookie sheet.  Bake 350 degrees for 20 minutes.

Quarter-pounders with cheese, anyone?

For 246 meatballs, we used three pounds of meat and tripled the recipe!  We baked two cookie sheets at a time in our convection oven.

P.S. Once, a long time ago, I owned a gourmet cookware shop and cooking school, where I organized and taught classes.  Today, I just can’t help myself!  Years and years ago, I watched my mother in the kitchen prepare hamburgers, mixing in an egg, bread crumbs and ketchup to stretch the meat to feed our family of five.  An inspiration for this recipe, remembering that the egg and bread crumbs help bind the meat.

Posadas in Teotitlan del Valle


Christmas in Teotitlan del Valle starts nine days before with posadas (procession) every night. The nine days represents nine months of Mary’s pregnancy, according to my Zapotec friends. On the first night, the baby Jesus is taken out of the creche in the church along with Mary and Joseph and carried through the streets under a tented portable altar, led by a group of musicians, many elderly, playing flutes, trumpets, trombones, clarinets and drums. A lay priest swings silver vessel filled with copal incense in front of the altar. They pass along a route that covers every neighborhood so that villagers can join in the procession, which often extends several blocks, and they march to the first home to host a posada. The next day, the posada will leave this house at dusk and move to the next house and so on and so on until December 23, when there is the posada ultima, a grand affair with prayers in the altar room of the home that is filled with copal incense and a greater feast than all the others. The village committee asks a household to host a posada and it is a great honor, but very expensive. It can cost $15-20,000 USD to host a posada because the entire village is invited to the feast. The term “guelaguetza”, which is Zapotec, in actuality means something like “obligation, pay back, exchange, mutual support.” So, families and extended families come together to lend money, provide beer and mezcal, contribute tamales (dulce, amarillo, pollo negro), turkey and guacalotes, and/or the labor to prepare them. To say “no” requires an explanation to the village committee, that not many want to have, and a “no” can trigger shame and isolation.


On December 24, families gather for a big Christmas dinner in their homes around 7 p.m. that includes three or four different kinds of tamales, chicken, nopal salad, fresh vegetables, fruits and pastries, accompanied by beer, wine and mezcal. We gathered, too, and after the dinner out came the gift exchange. It wasn’t until three or four years ago that the Chavez family started having a decorated tree and exchanging gifts. Zapotecs in the village tend to adhere more to a lower key gift exchange, but we are noticing now a stronger influence of American culture on the indigenous people and the overlay of the commercialization of the holiday season. After the gift exchange, we hear the sounds of the coming posada that will reach the corner of our street. Some run out to see the passing parade, and others in the family will join it as it continues on to the church, to reinstall the baby Jesus, Mary and Joseph in their permanent altars for another year. A midnight mass celebrates this and the close of the Christmas posadas.

Experimenting with Cochineal: A Pinch of This and a Tad of That

In July 2007, when Andrea Donnelly, a textiles student,  came to Teotitlan from NC State University to do a natural dyeing residency with Eric Chavez, I listened to their conversations and took notes.  Erick talked about how few people are coming to their home in Teotitlan since the teacher’s strike, so he appreciated that Andrea came to study and workshop with him and his father Federico.  Eric explained that he has experimented with cochineal and is able to get over 95 different shades ranging from dark purple to bright orange, reds, and pinks, by manipulating the Ph of the dye bath.  The color intensity and shading depends on whether he uses lime juice or vinegar and the quanitity of cochineal.  An acid solution will result in a brighter color, he says.  Eric is experimenting, measuring the Ph of the dye bath, and recording recipes (chemical formulas).  Another variable is the shade of natural wool a weaver chooses to dye.   Brown, black, white, and beige wool will absorb dyes differently and add to the variation in color.

We estimate that only about 10% of the village weavers are actually using natural dyes because they are so expensive and labor intensive, and those who do usually estimate the ingredients each time they dye, much like our great-grandmothers used to cook — a pinch of this and a tad of that.  

The way to create color using synthetic dyes is much simpler — one doesn’t need a mordant because there is sulfuric acid (toxic) already added to the dye mixture.  In natural dyeing, Eric and Federico use alum and cream of tartar to “fix” the dyes.  Ancient Zapotecs used only natural dyes from palnt materials.  Eric has researched this and says that the written  records that explained methods to extract dye from palnt materials were destroyed in the Spanish conquest.  He wanted to preserve this part of his culture, so began experimenting using modern chemistry techniques. 

In previous entries, I’ve talked about the toxicity of chemical dyes and their environmental impact.  When a weaver dyes 20 lbs. of wool at one time, standing over the dye pot, breathing the vapors,  not using a mask, this will cause itchy throat, watery eyes, and inflamed lungs.  Respiratory problems are not uncommon.  This is one reason why Eric wanted to learn more about natural dyes — to lower the health risks of his people. 

As Eric continues, he explains that there are other natural options for mordants that come from the plants called tejute (Teh-hu-tay) and pericone, in addition to using alum and cream of tartar.  There is an old Zapotec recipe for using tejute that is most effective.  You chop the plant, add it to cochineal along with oak tree bark and then boil it for the dye bath.  Pericone is used to make yellows, and results in the same coloration as the yellow one can extract from moss.  These plants are almost extinct.  The cooperative, Bii Dauu, runs an organic farm near the reservoir outside of Teotitlan and they are growing percone and tejute to reintroduce and preserve it.

When the Spaniards came to Mexico they hoped to find gold, but they discovered cochineal instead.  The Spanish imported 70 tons of cochineal a year for sale on the world markets.  Cochineal was used to dye the red coats of the British Army and the lipsticks made for Europe’s royalty.  The cochineal bug has a short life span as a parasite on the prickly pear cactus.  It is picked, dried, ground and then mixed with various ingredients to create many shades.  Cochineal mixed with baking soda yields purple, with lime you get red or orange, with vinegar — orange, mixed with pomegranate seeds and skins yields green and beige.