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Oaxacan Memoirs: Kara Gunderman '14 Reflects on Day of the Dead Trip to Mexico
12.12.13 |

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An internship, for many students, is an experience that provides them with skills that they will need for their future careers, and also an opportunity to meet employers within their chosen career path. For me, it is much, much more. Receiving an internship with the Suzanne H. Arnold Art Gallery at Lebanon Valley College has easily been one of the greatest experiences of my academic career, and also of my life. Not only has this internship supplied me with vital skills that will help me in any future museum position, but it has also provided me with amazing hands-on experiences that many interns at other museums and galleries may not be fortunate enough to experience. Oh, and we went to Mexico for a week.

Mexico? A week? In the middle of a semester? In conjunction with the language and study abroad departments, the Gallery received one of the College’s President’s Innovation Fund Grants enabling the Director, student intern, and their chosen guide to travel to the city of Oaxaca, Mexico, for one week to research for the 2014 Gallery exhibition “The Day of the Dead (El Día de los Muertos).” The purpose of the trip was to study and experience firsthand the Day of the Dead celebrations. Oaxaca was the chosen location because it is a region of Mexico where the indigenous people, such as Zapotecs and Mixtecs, and their traditions still thrive and our guide, Marisela Chaplin, had given numerous college Day of the Dead tours in the region.

Departing from the gravel parking lot beside Fencil Art Studio at 8 a.m. on Monday, October 28, we began this once in a lifetime adventure. With over twelve hours of travel under our belts, we safely arrived in Oaxaca and settled in at Casa Arnel, our home away from home for the week. At a late dinner on our first night we sat down with a friend of Marisela’s, Antonio Ortega, who gave us a brief introduction of Mexican history and culture. Hearing his information only made me more excited to experience Oaxaca and the cultural traditions of Mexico.

Our first full day in Mexico, Tuesday, was jam-packed with experiencing Oaxacan life. In the morning we met Carlos Ortega, brother of Antonio, who gave us a more detailed history of Oaxaca, specifically, and then an extended walking tour of the city. Carlos guided us through the historic district of Oaxaca and also through a few interesting markets. The markets were exciting because you experienced firsthand what a typical shopping experience would be like for the locals, including the swarms of fried grasshoppers for sale to snack on.

In the afternoon we continued our exploration of Oaxaca by visiting art galleries, museums, and churches. After walking through La Catedral, the primary church of Oaxaca, we came across the location of the main sand sculpture in the city. Sand sculptures, or tapestries, are central to Day of the Dead traditions. On this day, the pit of sand was in place for the artists and workers to begin working the next day. Sitting near this space were a few of the artists, who we spoke to regarding this year’s theme of the sculpture. One artist, Armando Martinez Martinez, explained that the tapestry this year was designed to commemorate his late art school mentor. While we spoke with Armando he explained that he is a practicing artist and offered to show us his portfolio. We followed Mato, as he likes to be called, to his car in a parking garage where he began pulling pastels, prints, and paintings out of his portfolio to show us. While he explained different works, Mato also mentioned that an exhibition including one of his works would be opening later in the week at the Railroad Museum. His work was so impressive that the Gallery came home with one to be displayed in the exhibition next year titled: “The Day of the Dead (El Día de los Muertos),” which will be on view from October 31 – December 14, 2014.

One of the most notable things I experienced in Oaxaca was that the Mexican people were simply happy. Although the Mexican situation is very tragic and between 60-70 percent of the population is below the poverty line, the people are known to be extremely generous and traditional. The approximate minimum wage in the Oaxaca region is 52 pesos per day, the equivalency of 4 USD. The familial ties and traditionalism of people in Mexico represents a completely different culture than that found in the United States, as many Mexican people would go into debt to honor and commemorate their deceased loved ones.

The third day of our trip was packed full with a little more travel and a lot more adventure. In the morning we toured the site of Monte Alban. It is considered one of the earliest Mesoamerican cities and also the earliest Zapotec city and served as the socio-political and economic center for this indigenous civilization for over one thousand years. Standing on top of the pyramids at Monte Alban not only provided a fabulous view, but also allowed me to feel in a small way attached to the Zapotec civilization. Monte Alban is located on a flattened mountain peak, and only the nobles and religious leaders would have been so lucky as to climb the pyramids. There is something sacred about looking around at the same mountains that ancient rulers would have worshipped on and defended.

Following our excursion at Monte Alban we drove to San Martin Tilcajete, a small village on the outskirts of Oaxaca known for creating alebrijes. Alebrijes are fantastic wooden creatures that are carved from the copal tree. The entire process from carving the wood to painting designs is all completed by the hands of skilled workers in mostly family-run workshops. In our workshop tour we were able to see master carvers and master painters practice their skills. This is one of the most famous places for alebrijes creation, with these creatures supplying the majority of the income for this village.

On Thursday we filled our day with the creation of ofrendas, or altars, to welcome the souls back into the homes of their family members. First, we attended an ofrenda-making workshop at the Las Bugambilias hotel to receive instruction on the techniques involved with these magnificent organic displays. At this workshop we learned the methods of placing flowers, water, candles, salt, and food as the traditional elements included in the altar to welcome and nourish the souls of deceased loved ones. Following this workshop we visited markets in the city to buy the bread, candles, skulls, and other decorative items to create our own altars.

Following dinner Thursday evening we made our first excursion to a cemetery. Allow me to clarify, in Mexican beliefs the souls visit the homes of their loved ones during the day and then return to their graves at night. The altars in the homes or public spaces are only part of Day of the Dead beliefs; the other part is decorating the tombs. The first cemetery we visited was the old Xoxo Cemetery, where we were actually able to take our own flowers and candles to decorate abandoned gravesites. Candle light and the potent scent of flowers such as marigolds and cockscomb, and incense welcome the spirits back to their burial places, so it is an important detail of Day of the Dead that graves are decorated. In the older cemetery there were a few graves that were left dirty and undecorated because their families may not have lived in the area any more. Taking part in this tradition made me feel closer to the Mexican families that surrounded us, and helped personalize the entire experience. Throughout the week we visited three other cemeteries that all differed in size, modernity, and tradition.

Understanding contemporary Mexican culture, as well as history, is vital to understanding Day of the Dead traditions. On Friday morning we were fortunate enough to meet with Gustavo Esteva, a Mexican activist and founder of an alternative college for students who may otherwise not be able to afford an education. Esteva founded the Universidad de la Tierra which serves as a place to learn by doing. Most of the work completed by the students is done so throughout the community, and everything at the school is free.

To end our day on Friday we put up our personal ofrenda at Casa Arnel. By bringing photos and personal items of deceased loved ones from home we were able to make our altar unique and commemorative. By taking a few moments each to share memories and stories of our passed loved ones, the experience became very personal and very life altering. Experiencing a new form of remembering loved ones and creating a physical memory space aids in the grieving process and also expresses love and honor.

Our final day in Mexico consisted of a short trip to Teotitlán del Valle where we visited Vida Nueva, a Zapotec Women’s Weavers Cooperative. This was one of the most important experiences for me, personally, throughout the entire trip. This Cooperative was begun in 1995 as a way for women in the community to meet with each other, plan community beautification and betterment projects, and also weave handmade rugs and goods. Beginning with 30 members, the Cooperative now only holds about ten members. All of the women in this group are of the indigenous Zapotec tribe, and use Zapotec traditional designs in their rugs. The only elements bought by the women are the wool itself, and the cochineal beetles and indigo for the dyes. The women of Vida Nueva use only natural pigments to create dyes for their wool, and they complete all of the cleaning, spinning, dying, and weaving processes themselves.

Meeting these women, learning Zapotec words from them, and hearing their stories was life-changing. Weaving was originally described as a man’s job, but many women taught themselves this trade as men began migrating for work. Married women typically are not able to participate, due to their husband’s rules. In the beginning, women were criticized harshly for participating in this group, and were treated terribly by community members.

The amazing experience provided to me by Lebanon Valley College, The Suzanne H. Arnold Art Gallery, and the President’s Innovation Fund Grant is one that I will never forget. The ability to travel to a foreign country, immerse myself in the culture, and also help cultivate these memories into an art exhibition is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. I am very excited for the entire campus to experience at least a portion of what we learned in Mexico, through the upcoming Day of the Dead exhibition.

View additional photos from Kara's trip on the Suzanne H. Arnold Art Gallery Facebook page.

Kara Gunderman is a senior art and art history and history double major. Her trip was made possible by the President's Innovation Fund. You can help make experiences like this available for future students by contributing to the fund this calendar year. Make your year-end gift at and help us reach our goal of $100,000 for this fund.

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