En Via Events, Indigenous Culture

The Hidden Art of Candle Making

By Lindsey Shilleh

We enter into a dimly lit room, where scattered around the floor are pots and pans, molds of wax, alongside a small fire. Fifteen to twenty velas (candles) hang from hooks overhead, waiting to be adorned, waiting to be brought to life. This is the workshop of Sofia Lorenzo, an En Vía borrower and candle maker in Têotitlan de Valle. More than a workshop, it is her sanctuary for her cherished pastime, a pastime that has merely morphed into “work” and a source of income.

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Sofia begins her presentation explaining the process of candle making and its history. She is exuberant. Her eyes glow and you can feel her excitement to share her passion with us. She tells us that she would do this even if it didn’t produce an income. Attached to that is a strong sense of pride; she is preserving the tradition and secrets of the trade.

Sofia learned the art of candle making as a nineta, a little child. She learned from her paternal grandmother, who herself learned from her grandmother. Candle making is laborious work and only certain children are selected to learn its secrets. Out of 23 grandchildren, Sofia is the only one her grandmother taught. As she tells us, not even Sofia’s mother learned the trade; a mother will not teach her daughter in-law her trade but instead will wait to teach her grandchildren. 

At age nine, Sofia’s grandmother passed away and the responsibility to preserve the familial tradition fell on her. As Sofia spoke, the reverence for her grandmother became apparent. When her family started, is not exactly clear, but the history is long. Sofia suggests that her family began making candles before the Spanish arrived. She carries her family’s history as well as her grandmother’s love for velas on her sleeve. This has become her mission; to preserve the art of her ancestors.

The scent of bee’s wax fills the air. It hangs in there, thick, intimating that thousands of candles have passed hands, and the stories each purchase brought with it. The scent is not perceptible to Sofia, nor is the heat of the wax as she runs her calloused fingers along the still hardening wax. Not anymore at least.

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When Sofia’s grandmother passed away, she had no choice but to jump right in, on her own. Her grandmother had outstanding velas that she owed within the town from prior Guelaguetzas. Guelaguetza, which hails from the Zapotec language, means an mutual offering or gift. Traditionally, the offering was made to a specific deity. For example, in exchange for rain needed for a harvest, an offering would be made. Over time this evolved into a ritualized exchange of gifts within your community. It is an act of reciprocity and a practice that benefits everyone. Whenever there is a major event, perhaps a house needs to be built for newly-weds, there is a birth or a death or a celebration of a saint, everyone chips in and shares the cost. The names are recorded so that at a future date, this courtesy can be repaid. For Sofia’s grandmother, she of course offered her candles but had also been the recipient of this exchange.  As there is no deadline on returning the favor, this form of social etiquette fell upon Sofia to fulfill. 

To make a Vela, Sofia starts with just a string. Kneeled over the fire and a cauldron of wax, she lets the wax come to a boil and then pours the wax over the string. After each pour, she must wait 15 minutes for it to dry.

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Hundreds of pours go into each candle. Depending on the candle’s size it can take anywhere from fifteen days to eight months to complete a it; Eight months for a two meter tall candle!). In Teotitlán the larger candles are used during the ceremony of asking one’s hand in marriage. The tradition is that at four o’clock in the morning, the man must bring his entire family to his girlfriend’s house to ask permission. As a sign of both respect and an offering to the brides family, he must not only bring a two meter candle to his future mother in-law, but his entire family will carry candles of varying sizes.

Candles play a significant role in the Zapotec culture. No celebration is complete without them; from feast days at church to funerals, quinceaneras (Fifeteenth birthdays)to births, candles are a staple. Altars during Day of the Dead celebrations are decorated with candles, lit for each lost soul in order to guide them home once again. But perhaps most interesting is that no candle is adorned without purpose, and rarely purchased without reason. Each candle tells a story through its adornment. 

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After the candles are dried and reach their desired size, Sofia’s decorations transform the candles into living stories and symbols of both life and death. Red wax flowers, died with the cochineal insect, line the center and symbolize the four phases of life: birth, growth, marriage and death. Wax pineapples, apples and birds accessorize the sides and are crafted through hand-made molds. At the base you will often find an angel, who is there to protect you, and look after you through all the elements of life.  The decorations vary in size and color but each added element has a meaning. Different colors are used for different celebrations. White and pink for weddings and births; purple, which represents ‘luto’ (mourning) is used for Day of the Dead in contrast to red, a living color, never used for Dîa de los Muertos candles..

As our time ran out, Sofia didn’t want her presentation to end. She had much more to share. I could sense a rich history lurking behind her eyes; a history ripe with stories and secrets begging to be shared. But these generational secrets must be preserved, after all, this is why Sofia is so dedicated to her work. We did manage to get one secret out of her, passed down from her grandmother, a special trick to make the wax not stick. But I cannot share it here. We made a promise. Perhaps you just need to come visit with En Vîa to find out yourself!

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