“Respect for the right of all is peace” – Benito
Juarez, Mexico’s 1st indigenous President
In late October of 2007 I made a
journey to Oaxaca, Mexico with a group of 20 artists to experience the truly
beautiful and unique celebration of Day of the Dead – El Dia de los Muertos. We
traveled with the very talented artist, Michael de Meng and our travel host and
organizer, Colleen Darling. An amazing time unfolded for us, filled with many
experiences that gave us a true sense and taste of Oaxaca. We spent several
days walking the cobbled streets of Oaxaca, exploring this colonial city's
charms and lovely ambiance. Four of our days were spent in our
"studio" (at the Holiday Inn) creating cigar box retablos. We had a
lovely guide for several days, Juan Montes-Lara, who showed us the ancient
Zapotec ruins of Mitla and Monte Alban. He also escorted us to see several
beautiful 16th century churches, an amazing Sunday market just outside of
Oaxaca and on tours of several villages specializing in the traditional Oaxacan
crafts of weaving, pottery and wood carving. We were able to see and walk
around four cemeteries, both as people prepared for, and participated in, their
Day of the Dead observances. It was truly a special opportunity. In between all
our art making and planned and guided events, new friendships were formed,
amazing food was eaten, copious amounts of mescal were consumed, laughter was
abundant and we had a glimpse into a culture of lovely, warm people.
On my first morning, after
a quick breakfast and meeting some of my compatriots for our week’s adventure,
we headed out to get the lay of the land and venture down to Oaxaca’s venerated
zocalo or town square. It’s the heartbeat of the city and is still very much a
meeting place for lovers, shoe shiners, hawkers, families, business men and
teenagers. It’s a living, breathing gathering place (something we are sorely
lacking in our strip mall culture). As we wound our way through the old
colonial streets, and approached the zocalo, we came upon a group of high
school students involved in a kind of celebration and competition making sand
sculpture carpets or what are known as “tapetes”.
On the closed, cobbled street
they had constructed raised “beds” of sand about 6 inches tall, varying in
depth and width, some as small as 12 by 12 inches and others as large as 10 by
14 feet. On top of the sand they were designing tributes for the Day of The Dead – some very traditional and some with a contemporary
As some people piled the sand to build the structures, others were
carrying arm loads, huge arm loads, of flowers and bags of colored sand and
smaller bags of incredibly colored glitter.
What began to appear was this
amazing street painting. The energy that morning was electric.
The kids were
totally into it, completely absorbed in their creations.
As I stood admiring
one group’s work, one of the kids came up to me and said, “Do you like it?” and
I answered that I loved it, it was beautiful. I asked him if it was a
competition, and he said yes. I asked what the prize was, and he said, with his
hand on his heart, “Pride.” This, coming from a 18 year old boy. I was very
touched by his honesty and his deep sense of belonging. His answer really spoke
to me of my whole experience of Oaxaca that week – cultural pride.
Coming up next – our visit to the mercados.