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Cleveland Museum of Natural History hosts spectacular Mexican fiesta that enriched and entertained

By Arooj Ashraf, La Prensa Cleveland Correspondent


The Cleveland Museum of Natural History hosted a Mexican Festival on Sunday, February 10, 2008 to coincide with the exhibition, Vibrancy of Tradition: Folk Art of Oaxaca, México.

CMNH's resident Mexican Hawk

The festival was organized by former CMNH intern Christine Salsgiver, who recently graduated from Tri-C with associates in Liberal Art. CMNH has not hosted a cultural event in more than seven years and Salsgiver said the celebration of Mexican culture and history is a wonderful opportunity to breathe life back into the museum. She fell in love with the Oaxaca artifacts while doing research during her internship and eagerly accepted when the museum approached her to host a festival.


“For a people that celebrate everything from birthdays to death a festival was the best way to represent their culture,” Salsgiver said. Nearly 1,500 guests attended the fiesta, which was packed with interesting and educational displays and workshops that ranged from folk art, Mexican dinosaurs, cultural dances, and natural history to star constellations as seen in México.


Salsgiver said her goal was to find the Cleveland connection to all pieces that made the exhibition and the festival and took six months to plan. She culled through 400 Mexican artifacts owned by the museum and selected pieces that revolved around the mercado theme. The exhibition features a piece by potter Dona Rosa del Neito, who innovated the shiny black glaze, negro brilliant, by applying quartz to the clay before firing. “We have a photo of her throwing a pot that is actually in the collection,” Salsgiver said.


She said she hoped wanted the Mexican community to come and enjoy the festival but also wanted to see other ethnicities to come and explore the rich cultural diversity of México.

“I wanted to bring people together and connect them to other cultures and show them everyone has a culture, everyone cries, everyone makes art, bridging the gaps in understanding,” said Salsgiver.

Part-time CMNH curator Andrean Balok did a presentation on Oaxaca, the fifth largest state in México and discussed details of the folk art, influence of colonialism, and the threats traditional weaving methods face in light of globalization.


She shared photos taken by William and Evelyn Ward who first visited Oaxaca for their honeymoon in 1953. In 2004, the couple donated artifacts and photographs they had collected in more than 20 trips they made to the region. 

Mexico Danza Cultura y Tradicion member demonstrates royal Aztec head dress

Lilly Corona Moreno of México Danza Cultura y Tradición held several dance workshops and educated guests about the cultural costumes worn by the Aztecs, Maya, and contemporary cultural dresses from all Mexican regions. She taught an enthusiastic audience simple steps to an Aztec worship dance.

Other hands-on actives included planting Chia figurines with, Salvia hispanica, a herb related to mint that is native to the Central Valley of México. Chia, a nutritious powerhouse, was used in religious ceremonies, medicines, beverages, as a massage oil, and money. Chia was a major food source of the Aztec and Maya civilizations and these ancient civilizations and its destructing by the Spanish colonials is attributed to the fall of these great civilizations.  

Children also learned about the different species of corn (hojas) and made corn husk dolls. They got to grind natural dyes, including the cochineal beetle. A display on the history of chocolate provided tasting of cacao pods, and Hershey samples was most popular. Esther Hoffer shared the importance of cacao bean to the Aztecs and Maya, which referred to it as the food and drink of Gods.

The cacao beans were used as currency and used as a powerful medicinal concoction. Astronomy demonstrations showed how ancient Aztecs and Maya made calendars by watching stars and math lessons taught children the significance of pyramids and indigenous deities.

Five year old Citlali Moreno, in traditional Mexican dress participates in the Aztec dance workshop at the CMNH


The tall winged hawk made a live appearance. These majestic birds migrate to México during winters in the Northern Hemisphere and return in spring to mate.

No festival is complete without music, and Angel Sánchez’s Trio provided live music throughout the afternoon. “The music is really what brings this all together; this was the constant soundtrack playing in the back of my head while I was planning this event,” Salsgiver said.

The Vibrancy of Tradition: Folk Art of Oaxaca, México exhibition will be on display through April 27, 2008 and includes folk art, textiles, and pottery pieces. For more information visit: http://www.cmnh.org/site/AtTheMuseum_OnExhibit_Oaxaca.aspx


Citlali and Cruz Moreno shape mock corn husk dolls from taffeta.

Angel Sanchez Trio provided live Mexican music for the festival

Aztec dance workshop

The Aztec civilization display at the Cleveland Natural History Museum





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