Vera Kandt, Ph.D.

Edited by Jill Vexler, Ph.D.


The RED TRUNK you will receive is filled with objects of the material culture of the State of Oaxaca,  Mexico. They come from one of the eight geographic regions of Oaxaca, the Valles Centrales, the Central Valleys, where the state capital Oaxaca de Juarez (“Oaxaca City”) is located.

The State of Oaxaca has the largest indigenous population in Mexico with fifty percent of the population still speaking their native languages. There are sixteen ethnic (or eth-linguistic) groups in Oaxaca today. In addition to distinctive languages, which are not mutually intelligible, each group has its own customs, social and religious organization as well as distinctive material culture, such as traditional clothing. The principal ethno-linguistic group of the Oaxaca Valley is the Zapotec civilization, one of the earliest pre-Hispanic cultures in Mesoamerica. This group was followed by the Mixtec culture. A number of important and well-known archaeological sites are found in the Oaxaca Valley, including Monte Alban, Mitla, San José Mogote and Yagul.

Around Oaxaca City are many municipalities and villages in which Zapotec is the language of daily life. Others now use Spanish as the dominant language but still share a common cultural heritage with the villages around them.

Most of the objects in the Red Trunk are from the village of Santa María Atzompa, not too far from Oaxaca City. Atzompa is widely known throughout Mexico for its traditional red clay pottery, green glazed cookware and ornamental pieces.

As throughout Mexico, villages specialize in certain handcrafts. In a region like Oaxaca, so deeply rich in material culture, certain communities have become national (and internationally) renowned for their work. Of special note in Oaxaca is the black clay “barro negro” pottery of San Bartolo Coyotepec, wool textiles of Teotitlán del Valle and surrounding communities, belt-weaving and cotton textiles in Santo Tomás Jalieza, and a relatively new handicraft, the colorful animal figures, called alebrijes, carved from wood in San Antonio Arrazola and San Martín Tilcajete. In the village of San Juan Teitipac, artisans makes stone products, especially the traditional metates and molcajetes, grinding stones and mortars and pestles, respectively.  (While essentially all Mexican kitchens have these two tools, sometimes they are replaced by blenders and mixers).

When looking at where different crafts are made, it is important to analyze the raw materials found in the direct surroundings. Clay banks are essential for making ceramics just as trees are for the alebrijes and other wooden tools. Raising sheep is essential for supplying the wool for weaving. In Oaxaca, interestingly, archaeologists have done lab comparisons of the clay in contemporary pottery and that of pre-Hispanic wares and often found that both clays come from the same sources. This is a beautiful and fascinating approach to confirming cultural continuity in the region.

Most of the people of villages in the Central Valleys of Oaxaca are agriculturalists.  Theirs is called subsistence agriculture.  You eat what you grow. Production of the basic “triad” – corn, beans, and squash —  cannot always meet local demand. Thus, income from crafts gives artisan families the economic supplement to meet needs of daily life. Rare are the highly successful artisans who can earn enough to dedicate themselves exclusively to their arts.

The celebration of Mexican fiestas reveals the essence of Mexican culture. Fiestas embody a fascinating and complex mixture of pre-Hispanic cultural heritage and religious beliefs, ritual, and performance imposed in the Spanish colonial time.

Fiestas are at the core of local social structure. The who, what, when, and even where of these social/religious and economic gatherings are entries to all of the different elements that make a society tick and define the rolls that the community assigns to each participant. Mayordomos are in charge of the celebration, essentially the sponsors, and spend the bulk of the money producing the fiestas. Expenses are mostly for food, drink, new clothing, paying the musicians, and all that it takes to be a good host. The capitanes of the dance groups have their own particular tasks. Others are in charge of the music, the fireworks, food preparation, cleaning the church and saint images and a long list of things that have to be done right to honor the occasion.

There are different kind of celebrations depending on the village, time of year, and individual sponsor.  Most fiestas are religious, celebrated on a special day related to a certain Christian saint or holiday, such as Semana Santa, the week before Easter, Carnaval at the beginning of Lent. Important fiestas are: December 12 the day honoring the patron saint of Mexico, María de Guadalupe (known as the Virgen de Guadalupe), December 25, Christmas,  January 6, Epiphany, or Kings Day, Día de los Reyes, February 2, Candlemas known as María Candelaria,  May 3, the Day of the Cross, November 1 and 2, Days of the Dead or Días de los Muertos.

Civil fiestas are celebrated throughout the whole country and commemorate important events in national history. The most important occasions are Independence from Spain (1820) on September 15 and 16) and Cinco de Mayo, the 5th of May, commemorating the Battle of Puebla, the day that the Mexican Army under the command of General Ignacio Zaragoza defeat the French Invaders,  March 21, the Birthday of Benito Juarez (1806 – 1872), the most important President of Mexico, November 20, the day of the Revolution, and February 5, the day of the Constitution of 1917.

Getting Dressed in Oaxaca

Clothing during pre-Hispanic times was generally as follow:

MEN:  loincloth (maxtlatl) and to cover the upper part of the body a manta or cape, tied together with a knot on one of the shoulders.

WOMEN: enredo or wrap-around skirt, bound at the waist with a sash or belt. Upper garment was either a huipil (sleeveless blouse-like garment) or tunic.

During colonial times, the men’s outfit changed to cotton trousers and a shirt. For the most part, women’s apparel in traditional indigenous regions continued as before, sometimes with more colorful new material and in other parts the European skirt and embroidered blouse entered the wardrobe.  Spaniards brought domesticated sheep so wool entered the repertoire of raw materials as did silk from silkworms.

Both men and women remained barefoot or wore huaraches, sandals made of leather from the cow, also introduced by the Spaniards.

Although many garments have changed in modern times, for fiestas and religious processions, many still wear traditional clothing, often saving the most colorful and elaborate for these occasions. Many men and women insist on being buried in their finest traditional clothing.

Although Mexico is a laic Nation with strict separation between Church and State, Roman Catholicism is de facto the “national” religion, introduced by the Spanish Conquistadores. While true throughout Latin America, and markedly in Mexico, there is a unique mix of pre-Hispanic elements in the look, feel, and actual beliefs of Catholicism. This unique mixture of the 2 religions is called syncretism. A good example is the prevalence and visible devotion to the Virgin of Guadalupe, Mexico’s patron saint, the apparition of the Virgin Mary in Mexico. The dark Virgin appears as an Indian woman to the indigenous Juan Diego on the hill of Tepeyac. In that exact place, before the Spaniards arrived, Tonantzin, the principal mother goddess, was venerated by far-reaching indigenous groups. The Spaniards re-couched the power and centrality of Tonantzin )“literally “endeared mother” or Earth Mother) in the “new” form of the Virgen de Guadalupe. The two images melded into one, thus embodying the import and symbol of this Earth Goddess.

At the celebration of the Day of the Dead, Día de los Muertos, this convergence of religions is quite evident. For Mexicans these days are not necessary sad, but more of a wonderful opportunity to bring all the family together, the living and the dead, once a year. It also falls in November, harvest time, and it is a way to bring in the much needed field hands to gather the dried corn on the stalks, beans and squash which have dried enough to be stored until the next harvest. Many Mexicans, especially the ones from rural indigenous regions, have a home altar with pictures of the beloved deceased family members. For Day of the Dead, these altars, called ofrendas, become elaborate assemblages of orange marigolds, called cempasuchitl, and mano de leon, cockscomb,  fruits (as apples, mandarins, tejocote, a miniature apple, jícama a crunchy tuber eaten raw, bananas), nuts, special pan de muerto or bread of the dead, chocolate, candles, tamales  (corn flower, steamed in banana leaves or corn leaves and filled with meat and a hot chili sauce), turkey or chicken in a mole (chocolate with chili and other ingredients) sauce, sugar skulls, water, cut paper banners, mescal and favorite drinks of the dead. Copal (incense) is burned and thought to elevate prayers to God.

The 4 main elements at the ofrenda altar offering are:

  • Fire is represented by candles and veladoras (small wax light, similar to a tea light).
  • Earth is represented by the fruits, feeding the souls of the deceased.
  • Water. A glass with water on the altar is put there so the souls of the visiting dead can drink water after their long journey to eat the essence of the foods left on the altar.
  • Wind, symbolized by the cut tissue paper that moves with the breeze.


In Mexico, there are ten years of compulsory education beginning with the last year of Kindergarten (Preescolar), 6 years Primary School (Primaria) and 3 years Secundaria or high school. Due to the many native languages spoken in Mexico (officially recognized in the Mexican Federal Constitution) in addition to Spanish, ethnic communities can receive a bilingual, intercultural educational system through a program of Educación Indígena, a department in the Education Ministry. In these settings, literacy is taught in the indigenous language by bilingual teachers. After learning to read and write in their own language, the Spanish language is taught.

Author’s note/Vera Kandt, Ph.D.:

The above information gives a brief background for general, yet important issues in rural Mexico. The majority of the ethno-linguistic  groups of Mexico live in the southern states. These societies represent 12% of the national population. Although these southern areas are among the economically poorest states of the country, they have the greatest richness in diverse cultural manifestations. From all of these people, their indivuality, tenacity to culture and heritage, solutions to the sacred and profane, we can all learn a great deal.


Oaxaca is located in the southeast of the Republic of Mexico. It is one of thirty-one states which along with Mexico City make up the 32 federal entities of Mexico.  Oaxaca has borders with the states of Puebla and Veracruz in the north, Chiapas in the east, in the west by Guerrero and to the south with the Pacific Ocean. Oaxaca is the fifth largest state and hosts the greatest biodiversity of the country.

The State of Oaxaca is divided into 570 municipalities of which 418 (almost ¾) are governed by a system of Usos y Costumbres (Customs and Traditions) with recognized local forms of self-governance. The capital city is Oaxaca de Juarez, usually referred to just as Oaxaca.

Oaxaca has the highest indigenous population of any state in Mexico. Officially, sixteen different ethnic (ethno-linguistic) groups are recognized. The most well-known are the Zapotecs (“zop-oh-TECK”) and the Mixtecs (“mees-TECK”). While all indigenous groups date to thousands of years ago, these two have survived more in tack than others mostly due to living in remote areas in Oaxaca’s highly mountainous geography, rugged terrains, narrow valleys, steep canyons and ravines in which they live.

Most people live in the Central Valleys, one of eight geographic regions in the state. While counted as one region, the reference is plural due to three valleys which converge in the capital city. The Valleys are located within the Sierra Madre Mountains and have a shape of a Y: the north-western arm towards Etla, the southern towards Ocotlán de Morelos and the Coast and the eastern arm towards Tlacolula, Mitla to the Isthmus of Tehuantepec.

Due to the mountain ranges that run throughout the state, only 9% of the territory is suitable for agriculture. While the Central Valleys have 29% of the arable land, agriculture does not provide enough income for rural people, who have diversified their sources of income with breeding and selling goats, sheep and cows and producing handicrafts made of locally procured raw materials.


The map of the United States of Mexico

Mexico, or officially called  the United States of Mexico (Estados Unidos Mexicanos), is a country in North America located between the Pacific Ocean in the west and the Caribbean Sea and Gulf of Mexico in the east. Mexico has national borders with the United States in the north and Belize and Guatemala in south east.

Mexico is a federal republic composed of 31 states and the capital, Mexico City, an autonomous entity on par with the states. According to the Constitution of 1917, the states of the federation are free and sovereign. Each state has its own congress and constitution.

Mexico has a constitutional federal democracy governed by a president elected every 6 years. The term of office is a non-re-electable six years. The current president is Enrique Peña Nieto. The Congress has a Senate and House of Deputies.

The country covers an area of nearly 2 million km², is 772 204 square miles, with a population of 123.5 million people (in 2017).  Mexico is the most populous Spanish-speaking country in the world. It is also the second most populous country in Latin America after Brazil.  Sixty percent of the population is mestizo, meaning that they are of Native American and European descent. Almost 30% of Mexicans are Native American and people with a European background 9%. Most Mexicans (90%) speak Spanish with only 10% speaking a Native American language. For example, there are over a quarter of a million indigenous people who speak Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs.  Other large indigenous groups speak different Maya languages or Zapotec. Most people in Mexico are Roman Catholic (80%) and 8% are Protestant.

Map of the State of Oaxaca.

The State of Oaxaca is divided into eight geographic regions which vary in topography, vegetation, fauna and climate and ethnic groups. These are: the Central Valleys, the Canyon (= la Cañada), the Mixtec Region, the Coast region, the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, the southern Sierra Madre, the northern Sierra and the Papaloapan region (near Tuxtepec. In addition to these eight regions, there are also thirty administrative districts which are further divided into 570 municipalities.

The coat of arms of Oaxaca has a red background, which commemorates the many battles for freedom of the Oaxacan people. Above it, the national coat of arms of Mexico is shown: an eagle holding a snake atop a prickly pear cactus. On the crest are seven stars, representing the 7 original regions of the state (now 8 regions!). At the bottom in a ribbon are the words Estado Libre y Soberano de Oaxaca (Free and Sovereign State of Oaxaca). In the center is an elliptical shield with in the border a quotation from Benito Juarez: El Respeto al Derecho Ajeno es la Paz (“Respect for the rights of others is peace”). The words are separated by representations of nopal, an old Oaxacan symbol of wealth.

The interior of the shield is divided in three sections. The upper dexter (left) section is illustrated with stylized depictions of fruits and flowers from the guaje tree, a member of the acacia family native to the region, and a stylized face of an Oaxaca native. The upper sinister (right) part shows a side view of a Mitla palace and the Dominican Cross. This reference is to the religious order, the Dominicans, who were charged in the sixteen and seventeenth centuries with converting Oaxaca’s Indian population to Catholicism. In the base section, two strong arms are depicted breaking a chain, which symbolizes the yearnings of the Oaxacan people for their freedom.

Zapotecs of the Central Valley

The core of the Zapotec people is the Valley of Oaxaca. This Y-shaped river valley is actually a system of three valleys that forms the Central Valleys of Oaxaca. (In Spanish, these valleys are known as Valles Centrales). The valley system was formed by the Río Atoyac and its tributaries such as the Río Salado. Forested mountains surround the Central Valley.

The city of Oaxaca de Juárez, a large, modern commercial and tourist center and the capital of the State of Oaxaca, is located at the center of three of the valleys, which make up the Valley of Oaxaca. Monte Albán, the ancient capital of the Zapotec territory, is settled on nearby hills, overlooking the modern city of Oaxaca.

The ancestors of the Zapotecs were the earliest human inhabitants of the Valley of Oaxaca. There is archaeological evidence of hunter-gatherers living in the central valleys by 8,900 BC. The cultivation of vegetable crops began between 8,000 and 5,000 BC, and by 1,500 BC Zapotec people were farming and living in settled villages in the valleys.

The Valley Zapotecs speak various dialects of the Zapotec language. The Zapotec language family (which includes Zapotec and Chatino) belongs to the Otomanguean language group, which also includes the Mixtec language family. Evidence shows that Zapotec and Mixtec diverged from their common ancestor (Proto-Otomanguean) sometime between 4,100-3,700 BC. Today, most Zapotecs are bilingual in both Zapotec and Spanish.
The Zapotecs are the biggest group of ethno-linguistic people in the state of Oaxaca. Culturally, the Zapotecs are divided into three sub-groups: from the Sierra, Isthmus of Tehuantepec, or Valley of Oaxaca. The Valley Zapotecs are located in the districts of Ejutla, Etla, Miahuatlán, Ocotlán, Tlacolula, Zaachila, Zimatlán, and Centro.

The Valley Zapotecs live in towns and villages throughout the central valleys. Groups of extended families occupy these communities, which are surrounded by agricultural land and pasturage for goats, sheep, and cattle. Traditionally, the Valley Zapotecs were farmers, growing maize, beans, chilis, and squashes. In fact, the earliest direct evidence of maize cultivation in Mexico comes from the site of Guilá Naquitz near the modern town of Mitla. Few families can sustain themselves through farming today because agricultural plots have grown too small due to the repeated subdividing of land within families. And as the population of the valleys grows, agricultural land is given over to housing and commercial development.

Many Zapotec families rely for most of their income on wage labor in Oaxaca City, or in other cities in Mexico and the United States. Thousands of Valley Zapotecs have migrated to the U.S. Money sent home by these migrants has spurred the construction boom in the Valles Centrales.

Other Zapotec families have turned to craft production for the major part of their income.

There has long been a high level of craft specialization among the Zapotec villages of the Oaxaca Valley. Some villages produce crafts for the domestic market, such as the red pottery of San Marcos Tlapazola, the stone-work in San Juan Teitipac and the reed baskets of Santa Cruz Papalutla and San Juan Guelavía. Other communities are known for their food (the cheeses of the Etla District) and beverages (the famous mezcals of Matatlán). Artisans in many towns produce crafts for the international art market, such as the wooden figures of Arrazola and Tilcajete; the black pottery of San Bartolo Coyotepec, the ornamental pottery of Santa Maria Atzompa; and the wool rugs of Teotitlán del Valle. These artesanias and many other items, are sold in Oaxaca City and at a series of rotating daily markets held in the major towns of the Oaxaca Valley.

Despite their technological progress, Valley Zapotecs still retain many aspects of traditional religion and culture. The old deities are still worshipped, even as communities host fiestas in accord with the Catholic ritual calendar. Many villages, such as Tlacolula and Teotitlan del Valle, are known for spectacular festival processions known as calendas, which include hundreds of participants.

Valley Zapotec men have given up their traditional costume of shirt and pants made of manta fabric, though some older men still wear huaraches and palm hats with their Western-style clothing. In some villages, only older women still wear traditional Valley Zapotec clothing, while in more conservative communities both women and girls wear traditional costume. This outfit generally consists of an embroidered blouse, a wrap-around skirt (often of a plaid fabric), an underskirt or slip, and a woven sash called a ceñidor. A apron is often worn over this costume. Traditional women wear their hair in braids, which are often tied atop their heads with colorful ribbons. In some villages, women use rebozos or scarves as headwraps.

The Valley Zapotecs are among the most extensively documented indigenous people in Mexico. Archaeologists and anthropologists have studied the Valley of Oaxaca and its inhabitants for many years and have produced a large number of scholarly books about the Central Valleys.


The State of Oaxaca has an old tradition of Earth (=Adobe) construction, derived from the Fusion of pre-Hispanic times with the Spanish Tradition. A great part of this tradition stayed in the vernacular application.

Today, as a consequence of the rural Migration to the cities or the U.S., values and knowledge of the people from the rural communities have been changed. Despite the durability and resistance achieved by the vernacular heritage, the natural materials have been progressively replaced by the industrial ones. These causes constant expenses. The “new” self-built houses with modern material show to be totally desadapted and out of the context to the climate and rural landscape, The level of the construction of a house, depends of the economic level of the occupants. In general the rural house in Valles Centrales, consist out of 2 to 3 rooms: one to be used as a kitchen; one as a sleeping area and the other one for multipurpose function.


A petate is a bedroll used in Mexico. Its name comes from the Náhuatl word petlatl. The petate is woven from the fibers of the palm.  Generally petates are woven in quadrangular forms, though not to any exact dimensions. The main use of the petate is for sleeping. It can be extended on the ground for lying down or sleeping. During the day the petate normally is rolled up and stands in the corner, freeing up space in the room. The petate is also used for drying seeds, grains, tortillas, and other foodstuffs in the sun, to prevent their touching the ground.

Canasta o Cesta de palma.                                                                                                                       

This kind of basket is used for storing food like corn kernels or fresh made tortillas, who are covered with a napkin to keep them warm. The kind of weaving with coarse natural fibers shown here on the canasta, as in the petate, is much older weaving of textiles.

Soplador de palma.                                                                                                                

The palm blower is made of the same palm material and the same kind of weaving as the petate. It is used to revive the fire of the stove

Escobeta de raíz o de plástico.                                                                                                

A root brush or the modern version, the brush made of plastic, are used for cleaning or scrubbing. The old version is made from rice roots (zacatón), a root of a plant which can be found on the sides of the rivers. It is a very strong and resistant material.

The Home Altar:

Altars in Mexican homes testify a long tradition that existed already in pre-Hispanic times. Indigenous groups such as the Maya, Toltec and Aztecs created domestic altars to their deities. After the Spanish arrived in the Americas, native people introduced Christian symbols to the home altars, reflecting the emerging syncretic nature of Mexican Catholicism.

Central in the interior of the house is the home altar. It shows the visible link between the spiritual and the physical world and a personal expression of one’s relationship to God.  Depending of personal affinity and group preference, home altars may feature images of Saints, as the Virgin of Guadalupe, the patroness saint of Mexico, Maria de Soledad (Our Lady of Solitude), the patroness saint of the City of Oaxaca, Saint Judas Thaddeus, the apostle and Saint of Hope. There are always artificial and/or real flowers, candles, incense burners around the images of the Saints, and pictures of family members who have died.  It is a family altar as well and connect the living with the dead. Home altars function as sites of memory and teaching tools for families. With photographs and meaningful objects, they teach family history. Singing and praying the rosary binds the family together, binds them around a sacred message, that all are important and valuable. Home altars achieved their greatest importance during the 19th century Mexican political turmoil. New legislation that sought to separate church and state reinforced the privatization and significance of home altars and created the possibility for an increasing private form of devotion. The female prayer leader, the rezadora, became important because of the lack of priests. The elder women passed on the faith and the tradition of home altars. Altars provide a space for women to image and express ultimate meaning, which they’re not always able to in the traditional church.

Still it is generally the women of the house who build and maintain the altar. They are the formers of the religious spirituality of the family and the keepers of the tradition of the home altars.


Image of the Virgin of Guadalupe.                                                                               

Our Lady of Guadalupe, also called the Virgin of Guadalupe, in Roman Catholicism. https://www.britannica.com/topic/Roman-Catholicism – The name also refers to the Marian apparition itself before St. Juan Diego in a vision in 1531. Our Lady of Guadalupe holds a special place in the religious life of Mexico and is one of the most popular religious devotions. Her image has played an important role as a national symbol of Mexico.

On December 12 of each year, the Catholic Church celebrates the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, marking the day when, in 1531, the Virgin Mary appeared in Mexico to a 57 year old Aztec peasant named Juan Diego. According to the earliest reliable account of the story, Juan Diego was walking near what is now Mexico City (Tepeyac Hill) when he came upon an apparition of a “Maiden” who he soon came to recognize as the Virgin Mary. Our Lady requested that a church be built on that site, which Juan Diego dutifully relayed to the archbishop. In trying to convince the archbishop of what he had seen, Juan Diego eventually was asked for a sign to prove what he had seen. Upon returning to Mary and sharing this with her, Juan Diego was instructed to climb to the top of the hill to gather flowers to bring back to the bishop. Reaching the crest of the hill, Juan Diego found Castilian roses, which were neither in season nor native to the region. The Blessed Mother arranged the flowers herself in Juan’s tilma (a burlap-type cloak) and instructed him to open the cloak only upon return to the bishop. When Juan Diego arrived back at the bishop’s residence and opened his cloak, the flowers fell to the floor and left on the surface of the tilma the image that was come to be known as “Our Lady of Guadalupe”. What happened next is history.

Other facts about Maria de Guadalupe:

Her image has been used throughout Mexican history, not only as a religious icon but also as a sign of patriotism. Miguel Hidalgo used her image when he launched his revolt against the Spanish in 1810. She could be seen on the rebels’ banners and their battle cry was “Long Live Our Lady of Guadalupe.”

Emiliano Zapata also carried a banner of the Virgin of Guadalupe when he entered Mexico City in 1914.

Pope John Paul II canonized Juan Diego in 2002, making him the first indigenous American saint, and declared Our Lady of Guadalupe the patroness of the Americas. The day of the Virgen de Guadalupe became a national holiday in Mexico in 1859. Thousands gather each year on Dec. 12 at Mexico City’s Basilica of the Virgin of Guadalupe to celebrate the patron saint’s birthday. Over 800,000 people gather around the Basilica and bring candles and offerings to honor her. They also sing from early in the morning the famed “Las Mañanitas”, the Mexican birthday song.

Image of Our Lady of Solitude (Maria de Soledad).

Our Lady of Solitude is the patroness of Oaxaca.  Every December 18, Oaxacan people celebrate the day of the Queen of Oaxaca and is carried through the streets of the city on many religious celebrations.  According to local folklore the stunning Basilica of Nuestra Señora de la Soledad is located where it is, because a mule driver on his way to Guatemala through Oaxaca from Veracruz noticed that he had gained an extra mule from somewhere. At what is now the location of La Soledad, this mule collapsed and when the bags that it was carrying were removed it promptly died. In the bags, an image of the Virgin of Solitude (Virgen de la Soledad) in the company of Christ was found with a legend that read “The Virgin of Solitude at Christ’s feet”. This was taken as a sign of divinity, and the construction of a sanctuary was ordered in honor of the divine occurrence.

Small statue of Saint Judas Thaddeus or Saint Jude Thaddeus.                                                            

Saint Judas Thaddeus is the Patron Saint of Hope and impossible causes and was one of the Twelve Apostles. A relative of Jesus, he was one of his first followers and after Christ’s death, became an evangelizer He was martyred along with Simon the Zealot, by decapitation. Depictions of this saint, especially in Mexico, include a medallion on the chest with Christ’s image (representing evangelism), a staff and a hatchet (reminder of martyrdom). He is considered to be a direct intercessor to Jesus Christ as a saint to appeal to in difficult and desperate situations and is credited with many miracles. Petitions often include help with personal problems, legal problems, work issues and family. He is also invoked to help find lost objects. Sometimes the petition can simply be that the situation does not get worse. Devotion to Saint Judas Thaddeus is widespread in Mexico City (at the Saint Hippolytus Church in the city center) and some other areas, especially among the poor, often referred to by the familiar diminutive San Juditas.

In Oaxaca, the celebration of the Saint of Hope and the impossible causes becomes every day more popular and there exist since 20 years a chapel located on the Y which communicate de highway of Ocotlan de Morelos with Zimatlan de Álvarez. Every 28 of the month, Saint Jude is venerated, but in particular on the 28 of October, his special day.

Food Preparations And Utensils:

Oaxaca is one of Mexico’s major gastronomic centers whose cuisine is known internationally. The state’s great botanical and cultural diversity gives a wide range of ingredients and methods of preparation, many of these dating back to pre-Hispanic times. Like the rest of Mexican cuisine, Oaxacan food is based on staples such as corn, beans, and chili peppers and it is served in a seemingly infinite variety of ways. Tasteful moles, fresh herbs, dried chilies, quesillo (Oaxacan mozzarella-like string cheese), and handmade corn tortillas are just a few of the ingredients that make Oaxacan food so outstanding.

Oaxaca is sometimes referred to as “the State of the seven moles. Mole is a sauce made with a wide range of ingredients. Many have over 20 ingredients with flavors that range from bittersweet to spicy and consistency that can be soupy or thick. The seven standard moles are: mole negro, coloradito, rojo, amarillo, verde, chichilo and manchamantel. Mole negro (black mole) is the best known of the seven (even though there are variations on these seven). Among the long list of ingredients in black mole is chocolate, making this sauce, together with the chili pepper, both spicy and sweet. Other ingredients that are included in the different types of mole include garlic, onion, cinnamon, cumin, cloves, almonds, sesame seeds, pumpkin seeds, cilantro, tomato, dried fruit, and more.  Mole is usually served over chicken, pork or turkey with rice on the side, but you will find it in other presentations, such as in tamales and enchiladas (corn tortillas with mole sauce, alternatively called enmoladas, which essentially means “enveloped in mole”.)

Tamales are made with corn meal dough (called masa) and some type of filling (either sweet or savory), wrapped in corn husks or banana leaves and then steamed. Tamales are prepared with a variety of ingredients, such as rajas (tomato and steamed or grilled chili strips), verde, amarillo, and mole negro, the latter of which usually contain chicken. Vegetarians can choose tamales de dulce (sweet tamales), tamales de frijol (bean), or tamales de chepil (an herb). These last two are usually served with spicy salsa. Tamales were prepared and consumed in ancient times in Mesoamerica and also throughout Central and South America. It is a practical food: nutritious, filling and portable, but the preparation is highly time and labor intensive. Tamales are associated with certain holidays like Day of the Dead, Christmas posadas (from December 16 through the 24th), and Día de la Candelaria, the second of February. The Oaxacan specialty is tamales de mole negro wrapped in banana leaves. The banana leaves add extra flavor to these tamales.

Quesillo also known as Queso Oaxaqueño, is a mild cow’s milk string cheese produced in Oaxaca. The production process involves stretching the cheese into long strips and then rolling it into a ball which is then sold by weight. This type of cheese melts well and is perfect for making quesadillas (corn tortillas with quesillo cheese) or, as tlayudas (see there).  Empanadas de quesillo con flor de calabaza (quesillo empanadas with squash blossoms), are really a delicacy.

Tlayudas are oversized hand-made corn tortillas, often baked on the griddle (comal) until crunchy. “normal size” corn tortillas are known as blandas. The word tlayuda refers both to the tortilla itself and a prepared dish. For the dish, tlayudas are spread with a layer of rendered lard (asiento) and black bean paste and then covered in quesillo, veggies – either shredded cabbage or lettuce, tomato and avocado — and served with a choice of meat such as tasajo (the air-dried beef jerky), cecina (in Oaxaca: dried pork meat with chili powder) or chorizo oaxaqueño (pork sausage with chilies, vinegar and other spices).


Various insects are consumed in Oaxaca but the most famous is the grasshopper, called a chapulín (chapulines – plural). Others chicatanas (large ants with wings, which appear in the beginning of the rainy season), and worms and grubs from maguey plants. Although chapulines are eaten in other parts of Mexico, they are most popular in the Central Valleys area of Oaxaca, where they are an important source of protein. In the city, they are a delicacy and always somewhat exotic to non-Mexican visitors.

Insects have been eaten in Mexico since pre-Hispanic times and are generally eaten as a condiment, snack food and sometimes, even the main dish. Their preparation and sale is a full-time occupation and an important source of income for many rural families.  Grasshoppers are harvested from the alfalfa and corn fields, especially during the rainy season (June until the end of October). After collecting them in huge nets, they are cleaned and then, either fried or toasted on a comal (a clay griddle) with chili, lime, salt, and garlic added for flavor. People eat them crunching one-by-one or putting them on a tostada or in a taco with chili sauce and some guacamole.

A popular legend says that if you eat chapulines, you will return to Oaxaca some day!

Barbacoa is meat (beef, goat or lamb) which is cooked in a pit dug in the ground into which burning embers are place.  The raw meat with seasoning is place in the pit and covered with maguey or banana leaves to cook. The chili-marinated meat cooks slowly in its own juices over a period of 6 to 8 hours until the meat starts to fall off the bones. The broth is collected in a pot at the bottom of the pit and is used to make consommé which is served as an appetizer. The meat is served with tortillas so that people gathered can makes their own tacos with beans and masita (cracked corn which is baked in the oven with the barbacoa). Barbacoa is a meal for special occasions, customarily served on Sundays and also at large family fiestas such as weddings, quinceañeras (15 year celebrations for girls) and baptisms.


Although Oaxaca is not a major growing region of Mexico for cacao, people seem to have an obsession with it. The cacao tree is native to Mesoamerica and the beans were ground and consumed in pre-Hispanic times as a hot drink. Unlike today, the ancients drank their chocolate spicy, not sweet. In the past the cacao was ground on a metate (grinding stone), but nowadays it’s ground in a special mill but for some masters who prefer the texture and refined mixtures that can be made on a metate.

When prepared with a mill, cacao beans are inserted into the top of the mill and a rich chocolaty paste comes out the bottom. This is then blended with sugar, cinnamon, and almonds to the customer’s specifications. You can purchase Mexican chocolate in bar shapes or balls, either of which is then placed in hot milk or water and blended to make either chocolate de leche or chocolate de agua. The best hot chocolate is served foamy. To whip up a foam the traditional implement is a special wooden whisk called a molinillo. The molinillo is rotated by holding it between the palms of your hands and rubbing them back and forth. If you can’t get the hang of the molinillo, a blender does a reasonably good job. In Oaxaca hot chocolate is often served with sweet bread, or pan de yema (egg yolk bread).

Cazuela of green glazed ceramic from Santa María Atzompa. A round casserole or cazuela molera made of clay, which is used for making mole, prepared for big celebrations or festivities

Jarra para Chocolate, of green glazed ceramic from Santa María Atzompa. A pitcher used for making chocolate with water or milk. To make it foamy, a molinillo is used.

Molinillo, made of wood. A molinillo is a traditional Mexican turned wood whisk. Its use is principally for the preparation of hot beverages such as hot chocolate, atole and champurrado

Bars of Chocolate and whole Cacao beans are used for the preparation of chocolate water or milk, see in food preparation.

Jícara A small, woody container, typically made from the fruit of the calabash tree and used (especially in rural Mexico) to serve hot food or drink in order to preserve its temperature.

Chile Ancho A dried poblano chili pepper, used especially in Mexican cookery.

Molcajete A mortar, made of stone, From San Juan Teitipac, used in Mexican cooking for pounding spices. The village of San Juan Teitipac is famous for its Stone-work


In the Central Valley, most of the Zapotec men have given up their traditional costume of shirt and pants, made of manta (unbleached cotton) fabric, although some elder men wear still huaraches (leather sandals) and sombrero (palm hat) with their western-style clothing. Traditionally they covered themselves with a sarape or jorongo (a poncho) to protect against the cold.

In some of the villages, only the older Zapotec women still wear the traditional clothing, while in more conservative places all the women, also younger girls, wear the traditional outfit. This consists of an embroidered blouse, a wrap-around skirt (mostly of plaid fabric) an underskirt and a woven sash, called ceñidor. In some villages the women use, instead of the wrap-around skirt, a skirt with waistband. An apron is often worn over this costume, which vary according to the occasion. Leather huaraches also are used by them. Mostly the women wear their hair in braids, tied atop their heads with colorful ribbons. In some villages women use rebozos (shawls) as head wraps or to cover their shoulders.


Traditional Male costume in the Valley:

Camisa y Calzon: shirt and pants of manta (unbleached cotton fabric), used traditionally by the indigenous men

Ceñidor: sash to hold up the pants

Sarape: The sarape is a long blanket-like shawl, woven with a split in the middle for the head to pass, often brightly colored and fringed at the ends, worn in Mexico, especially by men.

Paliacate: a brightly colored scarf or handkerchief, with parsley designs, usually square and used around the neck, in certain parts of Mexico with the traditional outfit.

Huaraches: Sandals, originally made of all-leather, the thong structure around the main foot is traditionally made with hand-woven braided leather straps. The name Huarache is derived from the Purépecha language term kwarachi, and directly translates into English as sandal. The huaraches were used in the rural communities and they were adopted by some religious orders, such as the Franciscan friars. Later they became popular under the tourists. Traditional huarache designs vary greatly, but are always very simple.

Sombrero: a broad-brimmed, high-crowned hat, worn in Mexico, made of palm or other material and used to shield from the sun.

Traditional Female costume in the Valley:

  • Blusa: an embroidered blouse. Depending of the village these blouses and their decoration can vary. The most elaborated as from San Antonino Castillo Velasco. Others have simpler designs. But the embroidery tells the origin of the person who carries it.
  • Falda: Most of the girls and the younger women prefer to use a skirt with waistband and not the wrap-around skirt or enredo. Before the most appreciated enredos in the Central Valley were the woolen ones, dyed with the cochineal and woven on the treadle loom in Teotitlan del Valle.
  • Rebozo: is a long woven shawl and used by women in Mexico. It can be worn in various ways, usually folded or wrapped around the head and/or upper body to shade from the sun, provide warmth and as an accessory to an outfit. It is also used to carry babies and large bundles, especially among indigenous women.
  • Huaraches: see before at male costume.
  • Mandil bordado: is an embroidered apron. In different communities in the Central Valley, women make beautiful machine embroidered aprons. These aprons are worn over a dress and are more than a utilitarian article of clothing, used to protect the wearer’s clothes from getting dirty. It is an expression of personal identity, social status, wealth and sometimes their places of origin.

Go to the Tlacolula Market on Sunday, and you will see women, old and young, covered in aprons. You can identify their villages by apron style.

For example, women from San Miguel del Valle wear a bib apron with an attached gathered skirt that has a heavily embroidered hem.

The aprons worn by women from San Marcos Tlapazola are cotton with pleated skirts often trimmed in commercial lace or bric-a-brac.

Teotitlan del Valle women prefer gingham cotton aprons with scalloped bodices and hems, trimmed in machine embroidered flowers, plants, fruits and animal figures.

There are fancy aprons, more densely embroidered for Sunday wear and special fiestas, and simple ones for everyday to cook, wash clothing and do the other daily tasks.



For thousands of years, inhabitants of the Valley of Oaxaca have lived within an agricultural economy. Most of the production is consumed by the agriculturalist themselves and the surplus is used for commercial exchange in local or regional markets. Income made in selling foods in the market is often supplemented by selling handcrafts. Communities specialize in particular crops and crafts.

One could divide economic life into three main areas of economic activities. Subsistence agriculture and handcraft production are primarily based in rural areas. But what we could categorize as larger commercial settings are in urban areas like Oaxaca City and at rotating markets (tianguis) in different towns and large villages of the region. These latter markets, which are held on a certain day each week in a specific town, existed prior to the Spanish Conquest. The main market days are Sunday in Tlacolula and Nochixtlán, Monday in Ixtlán, Miahuatlán and Teotitlán, Tuesday in Atzompa and Santa Ana de Valle, Wednesday in Etla and Zimatlán, Thursday in  Zaachila and Ejutla, Friday in Ocotlán, and Saturday, the enormous market in Oaxaca City (Central de Abastos).

Although people in villages combine different forms of economic activities, economic realities and quality of live for most remain precarious, in large part due to the extreme fragmentation and division of land available to the small agriculturalist.

From an academic point of view, ironically, these small parcels of land  favor the use of traditional agricultural implements and techniques. For example, the coa, a traditional digging stick for planting seeds, is often used by elder men to sow corn seeds. In one hole punched by the coa, the four basic subsistence agricultural seeds are planted: corn, black bean, chili pepper and squash. These four items (called “the triad” plus squash) have been planted in this manner since pre-Hispanic times until now. The farmers of the Valley depend greatly on plows pulled by oxen and sometimes burros for soil preparation, sowing and weed control. The double-head yoke, which originated in Spain, is used to team oxen for draught power. Hard to steer, Oaxaca farmers are masters are perfecting even rows and don’t waste an inch of arable land.


A miniature wooden yoke (yugo) made for 2 different size animals.


A large segment of the Oaxaca Valley population important part of the people of the Valley works in the arts and crafts production and here strike out the production of ceramics, the weaving of hard fibers as palm and the textiles in wool and cotton, as stone-work, carving of wood, tinwork, the production of mezcal and the tanning and producing of leather. The handcrafts activities are lately almost entirely determined by the requirements of the extern market, because the traditional intern market looks for the cheaper commercial products. These extern factors determine prices, production quota and the production process. Traditionally the production of textiles, ceramic and others products were done in the family workshops, but through the excessive demand of a certain handcraft there can be the irrational use of raw material as in the case of the over-exploitation of copal trees, whose soft wood is preferred by alebrije carvers. The greatest part of the handcraft activities on small scale is realized by women, although this is not reflected in census, because these activities are socially and culturally considered as part of the daily tasks of the female and not a specialized job.


Alebrijes are colorfully painted, hand-sculpted mythical animals. The concept was conceived by Mexico City master of cartonería (papier-mâché art) Pedro Linares in the 1960s and was later adapted to wood forms in Oaxaca.

Oaxaca, with its long tradition of accomplished wood carvers, was known for masks and utilitarian objects. One such wood carver was Manuel Jimenez of the town of Arrazola. He originated the adaption of the papier-mâché objects to a carved wooden version of alebrijes. These animal-like creatures are carved in wood and painted in bright contrasting colors with intricate geometric designs. With the success of such handicrafts in

Arrasola, the craft spread to a number of other towns, most notably San Martín Tilcajete and La Unión Tejalapan. These carvings, done by many members of a family, have become an important source of income of many people of the area, especially those who live in Tilcajete.

Alebrijes are carved from wood from the copal tree native to Mexico. Copaleros collect the wood, which is then dried and pieces are selected for carving. The shape of the branch determines the figure to be carved. Intricate, twisting shapes are favorable for carving dragons, dogs, cats, and lizards with inserted tails. One of the most important things about the fantastical creatures is that every piece is removable. A wing or leg is detachable which makes construction for flexible and variable and also makes these sometimes fragile objects easier to transport when bought by visitors to the region. The figures are sanded and painted with a base coat. The final painting is done with much care with intricate patterns and bright colors. At the beginning of producing alebrijes, water-based aniline paints were used. But artisans and buyers found that the colors faded or rubbed off. Since then artisans switched to latex based house paint.

There is gendered division of labor in the production of alebrijes. Both men and boys gather to carve the wood and select the pieces that will become an alebrije. This is in keeping with the long established tradition of men as woodworkers in rural Oaxaca. The sanding of the alebrijes is usually relegated to children or unskilled labor. Women typically paint the alebrijes with the most skilled and talented painters creating the most complex and intricate patterns.

Miniature rug

The village of Teotitlán de Valle is well-known for its unique weavings — hand-woven wool rugs, blankets and wall hangings.  Weaving on the European upright loom is done with hand-spun wool colored with natural dyes. Design motifs may depict traditional regional or architectural motifs or more contemporary designs. Weavers work from memory, sometimes having only a small sketch of the overall design.

In Oaxaca during Colonial times, Spanish introduced the upwright foot-treadle loom and brought sheep to the weavers in Teotitlán del Valle. These new materials and looms led to the weaving of large, heavy duty items as rugs, sarapes and blankets, which, in turn, became integral parts of daily life.

Prior to the arrival of the Spanish in 1548 the backstrap loom was widely used mostly by women weavers who wove cotton and cactus fiber. In those days, cotton grew in many colors and there was vast knowledge of natural dye sources.  Cactus fiber, known as ixtle, comes from the maguey (agave) whose leaves can be stripped down to reveal an extremely strong thread-like fiber.

The introduction of the treadle loom had a profound impact in the New World. Whereas in Mesoamerica women always had been the producers of cloth, now it was men who were taught to weave (although women continued weaving on the backstrap loom).   Over time, Teotitlan del Valle grew and began specializing solely in rugs to be used for trade or sale in markets throughout the State of Oaxaca.

Nowadays, weaving is done by both men and women in family workshops in which artisans of all ages participate in the production process.

The making of the rugs begins with washing raw wool to rid it of dirt and residues. Next, the wool is carded to clean it more thoroughly. This yields a more cotton-like material which is then spun into yarn with a spinning Wheel. (NOTE: in pre-Hispanic times, thread and yarn were spun by twisting the cleaned fibres on spindle whorls. Yarn is wound into large balls to prepare for dying with natural dyes, such as those obtained from cochineal (red), indigo (blue), musgo de roca, (rock moss, a yellow dye), huizache huaje (an acacia legume which gives an intense black).



The heart of mezcal country is in Oaxaca’s central valley south between the city of Oaxaca and Mitla, along the highway that leads to the Isthmus of Tehuantepec. Small, traditional producers distill the spirit alongside their crops and farm animals. Most mezcal is produced using centuries-old traditional methods and prepared in distilleries called palenques, barn-like structures. Agaves (locally called “maguey”) must grow for at least 7 to 8 years and will be carefully selected based on maturity, sugar levels and other ideal factors. There are wild specious of agaves that need 20 years to be ripe enough for harvesting to make mescal. The agave plants that are chosen have thick, tall leaves  which are cut with machetes down to heart, the trunk (called the piña because its form and appearance are similar to that of a pineapple). The piñas are then cooked in a big pit dug into the earth fur 48 to 72 hours atop red hot heated river rocks. Piñas and stones are covered with used fibers, plastic and earth to conserve the heat. During this process the piñas are converted in fermented sugar. Then, the cooked piñas are cut in smaller pieces and ground on a traditional palenque (a circular and heavy stone wheel moved by a horse or a donkey) to obtain the pulp of the maguey. (Visualize an ancient olive oil press.) To create a natural fermentation, the pulp is placed in big oak tubs for at least a week. Once the pulp is fermented, it is transferred to a copper or clay pot to start the ebullition, or boiling, stage. The master distiller then carefully chooses which concentrations (extracts) of the fermentation will make the best mescal to be distilled into a smoky-flavored clear alcohol. Most distillations are done twice or three times.

The three main types of traditional mezcal are blanco or jóven (young), reposado and añejo. The first type of mezcal has come directly from the still without any aging.  Reposado (“rested”) has been aged in oak barrels anywhere from 3 to 18 months and is infused with different fruits which impart flavor and smoothness. Añejo, mezcal which is mature or aged, has been kept for 3 or more years in oak barrels. A good añejo which has been carefully distilled and aged has a nice, smoky essence and is very smooth.

CURRENCY: Notes and coins

The Mexican Peso                                                                                                                                  

Mexico’s currency is the Mexican Peso. The peso is sub-divided into 100 cents (centavos)   The symbol for the Mexican Peso is $. To distinguish this from the US Dollar, you sometimes see it presented as MXN.

Mexican notes are printed in denominations of 20, 50, 100, 200, 500 and 1,000 pesos. The most commonly seen and used are the 50, 100 and 200 peso notes.

Mexican Coins                                                                                                                                         

Mexican centavo coins are minted in denominations of 5, 10, 20 and 50 centavos (cents) pieces. However, it’s very rare to see coins of less than 50 centavos these days.  Peso coins in denominations of $1 $2, $5, and $10 are used frequently in Mexico, especially for giving small tips.

As of January 9, 2018, the peso’s exchange rate was $22.97 per Euro and $19.22 per U.S. dollar.

Day of the Dead – Día de los Muertos – and Related Celebrations

Oaxaca’s celebration of the Day of the Dead is the biggest event of the year and the most important family feast. Oaxacans now living in other parts of Mexico, even other countries, try to return to be with their families for this fall festival which begins on October 31 and end on November 2. It isn’t just “day” of the dead. Rather the celebration and rituals take place over several days, often has at least a week of preparations as well as activities which take place after November 2nd.  The essence of the celebration is the veneration of beloved deceased members of the family.

Activities before the fiesta begin at the Plaza de Muertos. VERA: Where is this? How does it differ from what they buy at the Abastos? Is it the fiesta market in the zocalo? Or did that one get too big and was moved?

Nearly everyone goes to a local market, principally in the huge Mercado de Abastos in Oaxaca City, to buy the things needed to make the family altar. There are sections of the market specializing in the ingredients for the special foods that are prepared at this time of year. There are also prepared foods, particularly abundant at this time of year, like chocolate, tamales, and black mole sauce. In addition, several different types of bread, known as pan de muerto (“bread of the dead”) is baked for this fiesta. The bread produced most often is what is known the rest of the year as pan de yema, (egg yolk bread). But for Día de los Muertos, there is a decorative head  stuck into each ball of dough before it is baked. Essential to the family altar, the ofrenda to welcome the souls of the deceased, are flowers such as the cempasuchitl (marigold) and cresto de gallo (cockscomb).

These family altars are generally built October 30th and the morning of October 31st in each home. The altar is usually assembled on a table which has been wrapped with a white tablecloth or sheet and decorated with papel picado. Two sugarcanes are put on each side of the table and then bound together to form an arch. The altar is decorated with the cempasuchitl and cresto de gallo flowers. Different kinds of fruit, like tangerines, limes, bananas, jícamas, apples, nuts and also nísperos (medlar, small tart yellow fruits) are placed on the altar in addition to photographs of the beloved deceased.. Little folk art skeletons and sugar skulls, purchased at the market, provide an extra touch.

On the morning of October 31st, the first offerings are placed on the altars. These include pan de muerto (bread of the dead), chocolate, tamales (with a sweet taste) and nicuatole (dark corn jelly) and a glass of water. At 3pm that same day, candles and veladoras (candles placed on ceramic or tin holders) are set on the altar and on the floor in front of it. Incense burners with copal (sap from a local tree) are prepared and lit to greet the angelitos (small angels), which refers to the souls of the family’s children who have passed away. These angelitos stay for a full day and depart at 2:00 pm next day. At that time, now November 1, the souls of deceased adults come to visit the altars and also stay for 24 hours. Before their arrival, more offerings have been brought to the altar; beautiful ceramic cazuelas (casseroles) filled with black mole sauce over turkey or chicken and tamales (corn dough, steamed in banana or corn leaves and filled with meat and sauce), served with spicy mole sauce. For the adult visitors, bottles of beer or mezcal also stand ready to be offered. It is believed that the dead, after their long pilgrimage from the other life, arrive on earth tired and thirsty, so a glass on the altar is always filled with water and some salt.

November 2 is the visiting day. Family and close friends go to each other’s home with flowers or food (bread, chocolate, tamales or a mole negro dish) to be placed on the altar. The candles are never allowed to die down as reminders of the welcome and honor always given to the departed especially during these 24 hours.

In the morning on both days people go to the cemetery to clean the gravestones of their loved ones. From 2:00 pm families decorate the tombs with bright orange marigolds cempasuchitl and red cockscomb, candles, copal incense and spend time with family members buried there. In the cemetery, food and drink are shared with friends and relatives, some of whom may bring musicians to play the favorite music of their dead relatives. Many families remain graveside for the entire night in a vigil to honor and remember the souls.

(N.B! Depending of the village the visit to the cemetery can change. In some villages, the afternoon and night of October 31; in others November 2).


A comparsa is a carnival-like street procession of people in costumes with music and dancing. These take place in many different barrios (neighborhoods) of Oaxaca City and also in villages. Often these are informally organized among neighbors or family members. Comparsas always include brass bands playing  traditional songs, dancing in the streets, and, of course, imbibing mezcal.

Comparsas usually begin in the late afternoon and continue throughout the night.  In Oaxaca City, comparsas take place “downtown,” which means near the central plaza and in what are considered to be traditional neighborhoods, such as Jalatlaco and Xochimilco.  In rural villages, comparsas are generally restricted to a particular night.  In Atzompa, for example, the village where our green-glazed ceramics are made, the comparsa occurs on November 2nd.  Another popular comparsa take place in various Etla-area villages on November 1st.

The Sand Tapestry – Tapetes de Arena 

Sand tapestries, known as tapetes de arena in Spanish, are common in Day of the Dead celebrations and also part of Oaxacan mortuary customs in some villages. After the burial of a loved one, some families create designs of colored sand (sand paintings) on the floor of their home. It isn’t a “tapestry” in the technical sense but rather an ephemeral tapestry-like artistic and religious expression. The tapestry depicts a religious image, such as a saint to whom the deceased was devoted. For nine nights following the burial, family members and friends gather to pray in the family home. On the ninth day, the tapestry is swept up and the sand is taken to the cemetery. This sand is poured onto the grave of the deceased as part of the farewell in a special ceremony.

For Day of the Dead, sand tapestries are also made, but these are usually whimsical images depicting skeletons and other themes related to death and Day of the Dead.


Skeletons and Skulls -Eesqueletos/Calaveras y Calacas were important symbols of death and sacrifice in the pre-Columbian period. Yet, a satirical and comical death figure or illustration probably appeared during the 1700s. These humorous representations often take the form of puppets, toys, candy made of sugar or little figurines acting out scenes of daily lives (working, marrying, and singing) Skull art is a reminder of life’s brevity and the inevitability of death.

A female skeleton figurine, called la Catrina, wearing a wide-brimmed hat and dress common for upper class Mexican women in the late 1800s and early 1900s became very popular. This style satirizes those who favored European culture over Mexican foods and customs. La Catrina was popularized in graphic images by artist José Guadalupe Posada in the end of the 19th century.

These skulls of clay, sugar or papier maché are placed on the family altar to recall family members who has passed. Often his or her name is written on the sugar skull’s forehead and, depending on the age of the deceased, the size of the skull can vary — baby skulls are dedicated to those who passed at a young age and larger skulls are for adults.

Sugar art was introduced in Mexico by the Spanish friars in the 17th century. Sugarcane as a cultivated crop was introduced in Mexico early in the colonial period. It was originally brought from the Canary Islands and adapted well to the climate. It is back-breaking work and only took hold on in the Mexican economy when African Slaves were forced to work in “the New World.” Its production dramatically changed the Mexican palate and in this case, its crafts. Once individuals saw that they could make these skulls from sugar and water in clay molds, the sugar skull became a very popular offering and an important symbol of the day.

Today, many different versions of the sugar skull exist. There are not only different sizes, but also coffins and skulls made out of chocolate and almonds (those you can eat!). But the meaning behind the “little skull,” calaverita (diminutive of the word, used affectionately) remains the same.

Different offerings for the altar:

Ofrenda de Muertos: a miniature altar with different offerings for the Dead, to be put on the home – altar as an offering.

Small Skull of black pottery.

Painted ceramic skull. The bright colors symbolizes the living, and often have names of the deceased painted on them.

Coffin with chickpea carriers/pall bearers. This miniature of a reminder of our imminent death.

Wooden Calacas. This puppet has a double function as an offerings and at the same time a toys for kids to play with.

Small Catarina made of plaster: This is another type of offering for the family altar.

Tinwork Catrina and her companion: These are yet other newish forms to be placed on the family alter. One could deduce that such expensive folk art forms, such as these in tin, are most probably used in urban homes. Rural, especially indigenous, ofrendas do not have this type of object.

Incense or copal (resin) for the Incense burner. The smell as well as the smoke lead the deceased to find the altar.

Cempasuchitl, (a kind of Marigold). Flowers represent the fragility and fleeting moment that life is. Their special sweet fragrance leads the soul to its home during life.

Papel Picado: Cut tissue paper. Because it moves with the breeze, it symbolizes wind, another concept related to the soul.

Games and Toys.

Mexico has a rich culture and with it, many traditional games that are played among children and adults throughout the country.These traditional Mexican games are meant to not only be a lot of fun, but also are education and a great way to spend time with family and friends.

Board Games                                                                                                                                      

Mexico also has very popular and traditional board games; among those are Loteria, Chinese pick-up sticks, the great game of goose, chutes & ladders, Chinese and English checkers. The most popular game is Loteria also known as Lottery.

The Mexican Loteria Card Game is a very interesting, traditional Mexican game that is played all across the Mexico. This Mexican game of chance is similar to “Bingo”, but there are some important differences. For instance, a 54 card deck of brightly colored Mexican cards is used instead of numbered balls. The board game normally comes with a set of ten game cards featuring the Mexican popular images. Instead of an ink dauber, beans, or pebbles are used to mark the pictures. Another twist is that the caller randomly selects a card form the deck and, traditionally, instead of announcing it to the players by its name makes up a rhyme about the image or a riddle.

The cards themselves are colorful images represent popular Mexican figures, and the Spanish captions will be helpful to anyone studying that language. This is one of the reasons it is a great game for learning Spanish, because the Lotería cards include the name of the item beneath its illustration. Loteria is a game of chance that uses the images on a deck of cards. Every picture on the deck of cards is named and numbered, though the numbers don’t serve any purpose to the game. All players must use a randomly created table, which is a large card with a different selection of images.  A dealer will choose random cards from the deck and will call them out loud in a humorous tone or riddle. Players must mark the images on their tables that the dealer has called out, mostly with beans or kernels of corn in Mexico. The winner of the game is automatically determined by the first player to score a whole row with 4 pieces (in a horizontal, vertical, or diagonal row) and must shout “Lottery”.

Balero (Cup and Ball Toy)                                                                                                                                                 

Balero is a popular Mexican game that you play with a very simple toy. Made of either a handled cup with a ball attached to the inside of the cup with a string or of a rod with a ring attached by string, the entire object of balero is to get the ball in the cup or the rod to land onto the handle. Whoever gets the wooden cup onto the handle is the winner.   This is a great game for just one child to play, or you can make it into a friendly competition with a group of children. The great thing about Mexican games like balero is that they are a fantastic way to help your children develop fine motor skills and coordination, which you can explore further with a comprehensive course of the same subject.

Trompo (Spinning Toy)  The trompo is another popular game that originated in Mexico and made its way to Japan, Europe and Latin America. A trompo resembles a top; it has a pear like shape and is most commonly made of wood. The toy has a button shaped tip on the top that is bigger than the tip at the bottom which is made from metal & is used to spin the trompo. This popular toy uses a string that is wrapped around it and is released when the trompo is thrown on the ground. Pirinolo. (Different kind of Spinning Toy)  Another toy that is similar to the trompo is the pirinola, which also resembles a top and is traditionally made out of wood. The difference is that it has 6 sides with different directions written on each, so when it is thrown and the pironola spins the players must follow the directions on which it lands. Resortero (Catapult). The traditional wooden hand-carved slingshot catapult, Y-shaped, is made out of pine or copal. It is also made with a rubber band type material and a small piece of leather. This product is a wonderful toy and great for any age children,

Mexican games also include variations of games that are played by children all over the world: Mexican children also play many variations of the hide and seek game. For example Singing games are also very popular in Mexico.

Only in Mexico will you find children happily playing with what to most people are reminders of their own mortality. During the time of the Days of the Dead, you can see children delight in eating candy skulls and skeletal figures cavort in the most amusing ways. Fashionably dressed dolls sport grinning skulls while fleshless figures play musical instruments, ride motorcycles, dance and generally have a high old time.

Musical toys. Traditional musical toys are generally made from material found in the surroundings as reed, wood or clay and made by parents for their kids to play with., From reed the Flauta or flute is made.  From clay in all kinds of animal forms with different colors, small whistles are formed.

Artifacts: Loteria, Ballero, Trompo and Resortero. Flute of Reed and Clay whistles.