Candles, a tradition lighting new generations in Oaxaca
Casa Viviana has worked in the elaboration of candles for four generations – Photo: Mario Arturo Martínez/EL UNIVERSAL

Candles, a tradition lighting new generations in Oaxaca

04/01/2020
15:37
Mexico City
Christian Jiménez
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This artisanal and highly creative trade was shared from a family to a whole community as a way to improve economic conditions

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Here, traditions are preserved as incandescent lights that time cannot turn off. On 7 Abasolo street, in a house with huge patios, where the sun hits every spot, the family history of Casa Viviana lives among wax pieces.

José Hernández Alavés is part of the family that, for four generations now, has worked in the elaboration of artisanal candles that are used in the celebrations of the community. “My great-grandfather began this work: it was continued by my grandmother, my mother, and now us… each one addressing the needs of their time,” he says.

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The owner of the workshop, Viviana Alavés, José’s mother, is a recognized master in Oaxaca for the elaboration of “seashell candles,” called this way because they were decorated with flowers whose mold was a seashell.

In times of the great-grandfather of the family, the candles were used in the ritual of “La contentada,” (coming to terms) which was the moment in which men proposed to women after they had stolen them from their homes.
 

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La contentada
Although in Teotitlán most people know each other, couples begin as a secret, said the municipal president Pantaleón Ruiz Martínez.

He says that they usually begin in junior high school or in high school and that secrecy is part of the conditions established by tradition.

If the relationship is successful, the couples decide to become official and tell their families; however, the man will have to earn merit, like being in charge of obligations in the house of his in-law family if he wants to get married: cleaning, helping in celebrations, and daily chores.

Ruiz Martínez says that in past decades if the couple decided to get married, the man could propose in a dinner that then became a party because he had to offer a dowry – cows, animals, food, among other things – to obtain permission from the family.

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Nevertheless, most grooms chose to steal their brides from their families so as not to have to earn merits.

The couples agreed to live together without getting married in many cases.

If after the theft, the bride’s family demanded a wedding or the bride herself asked for an official wedding, an “ahuehuete” - a person known by both families – worked to convince the bride’s father to accept the relationship.

If he accepted, the groom would have to give presents, like a hundred pineapples, a hundred breads, a thousand oranges, 30 kg of chocolate, several liters of mezcal and beer, as well as being accompanied by a hundred couples with the same number of seashell candles to light the new family and their future. This offering is known as “La contentada.”
 

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The symbols
A seashell candle is made of a chain that represents the fertilization and three divisions that symbolize birth, life, and death. They are also decorated with fruits that represent friendship and birds alluding to the Holy Spirit. Later on, stars and flowers were added to wish light and luck to the marriage.

“For us Zapotecs, marriage is a very valued part of life. Part of the ritual is to make the couple know that marriage is for life and that the woman is the root, the fundamental base for a family… that is represented in the candles,” says Ruiz Martínez.
 

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A rebel trade
Traditions in this community are very strict. Before, they thought trades had to be taught only among relatives. When she was in charge of the workshop, Viviana Alavés witnessed the peak of Catholicism.

The religious boom implied that the six families who elaborated candles gave service to the church the whole year in exchange for food, but in the 1970s, Viviana decided to go out of her community to promote her products in other towns and exchange them for others.

“We were very marginalized back then, and seeing the lack of income, the families who made candles stopped making them,” adds José.

Viviana was the only one who focused on spreading the trade to obtain profits. The family had to walk in ways where no roads had been built yet to offer the candles to be used in religious celebrations.

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Since the candles were made with bee wax, they were hard to sell because they were considered expensive.

The artisanal workshop began to have clients from the town and other communities. When the work was too much, Viviana invited other young people in the community to learn the candles trade; the news spread in town and, since she broke the rule of the family tradition, the settlers decided to take away the molds Viviana had inherited from her great-grandfather.

The problems with her neighbors did not stop her creativity in the workshop and, little by little, Viviana improvised tools with objects from her own home to create new designs, mainly of flowers and different colors, made with completely handmade processes.

The new designs were a success among the clients because they had a new take on the traditional design.
 

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Young labor
It was at that moment, says José, when more young people became interested in learning the trade. With the sales success, and after some years, the apprentices opened their own workshops.

“If currently, someone in the community makes candles, he learned in Casa Viviana or from someone who attended the workshops,” he mentions.

The proliferation of artisans created competition, also in an unloyal way, so the workshop faced a second crisis by the end of the 1980s.

“Everyone sold except us and we had the idea to invite tourists to improve sales because North American tourists began to talk about the workshop they called Casa Viviana,” remembers José. The decision was good for the market.

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Currently, approximately 10 families in Teotitlán del Valle work in the elaboration of candles; however, collaborators in Casa Viviana say the others are at the ready of the new models they design. The workshop produces nearly 700 candles per month.

José asserts that keeping the trade has not been easy because the costs of raw materials, like bee wax, have risen since they began and are now even 10 times higher.

On the other hand, he says that although eight persons work in the workshop, all of them relatives, in high seasons Casa Viviana works with young labor. “It’s important for knowledge to be transmitted to the new generations,” says José, and adds that currently her mother Viviana is in California in the United States giving classes.
 

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Recognized work
With the years, the workshop began to work on ornamental wax figures and then started with sculpture. The constant innovation of Casa Viviana has given fame and recognition to the workshop.

Nowadays, José and his brothers work in prototypes that they will present in Oaxaca’s Museum of Contemporary Art (Maco) where they will address lack of water matters through wax figures.

Previously, the workshop’s labor has been exhibited in other museums both in the state and in the country. Likewise, local, national, and international media outlets have shown the work done in the workshop.

“We have preserved and made evolve our trade, after four decades, now we are present in all the regions of the state, where candles represent part of Oaxaca’s culture; even other states, like Veracruz and Puebla, have replicated out traditions.”
 

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