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Viviana Alávez of Casa Viviana on creating her own path. 

— As told to Rodrido Cruz and Melissa Patenaude

Viviana Alávez in her outdoors workshop. Picture by Eva Lépiz.

Interview

A passion for an old tradition.

But reimagined to fit her vision.

10/13/2021

Words by
Melissa Patenaude

I grew up here in Teotitlan del Valle with my grandmother. I always said she was my mother. Honestly, I did not have a mother or a father. I was told that my parents died when I was little--first my mother, and a year after, my father.

Introductions-
Good morning, good afternoon. What time is it? Haha. My name is Viviana Alávez. This is my workshop, Casa Viviana.

I grew up here in Teotitlan del Valle with my grandmother. I always said she was my mother. Honestly, I did not have a mother or a father. I was told that my parents died when I was little--first my mother, and a year after, my father.

I have one brother. My brother grew up with my father's brother. I didn't realize that he was my brother for a long time. I had heard rumors on the streets, and finally one day, the neighbors confirmed this to me. We didn't grow up together, so he doesn't feel like my brother, we don't eat together. But I have respect for them, they have respect for me as well.

Once, when I was young, I went out to the street crying. A neighbor said "Vivi, why are you crying?" and I said "because my mother doesn't want to send me to school and I want to go to school." At that time girls didn't go to school. I was very sad, for a very long time.

My great-great-grandmother made candles. My great-grandfather father learned to do it from her, and later my grandmother learned to do it from him. And then she thought me.

Candle-making is a tradition that is more than 300-400 years-old in my family. But it used to be much easier.

My baby was about 6 months old when all this happened. I was fifteen years-old.

Determination on a challenging path

I started playing with wax at around six or seven years old. My grandmother did not treat me like her daughter. She scolded me. She would say "Come on Vivi, I have the molds here. You are going to do this!" Once she burned me, she put hot wax on my face. My life was very difficult. I was very little, and I learned to do her job. I learned what she did, but I used the shapes I wanted.

Much later, when I wanted to start a candle business, my husband, Manuel, wasn't happy. He wanted me to continue making rugs and bags as the we had been doing, and as the entire town did.

I have a rose bush in the corner there. I decided to cut a rose and thought I would donate rose-shaped candles to our church service.  

I cut the rose and places it on our altar so Manuel wouldn't suspect anything. But when he wasn't looking, I was studying the rose, looking at how it was shaped and constructed. I soon after told him about my plan to make roses out of wax. I told him I wanted to do do something unique so we could be successful with our workshop. I reassured him that the rest of our work would not be impacted, and spent hours in the kitchen with a basket of wax trying to make these roses. Still, he got angry, but I ignored him.

I got very passionate about this. One day, I wanted to go to the workshop on that Sunday. Manuel didn't take that well. "On a Sunday?!" I went anyways--I was determined to make this work. That day, I went to my grandmother's house. The trash collection had not come. I found a few bottles I would go sell in order to buy some candles which I melted to reconstruct. All week I would leave the house at dusk to start work. I would only take a 2-3 hour break during my day to eat. Still while I was eating I was thinking about the roses. I still do! And throughout this journey, even when we didn't know how we would make money from candles, I had faith. I know GOD would guide me.

My baby was about 6 months old when all this happened. I was fifteen years-old.

My grandmother was very sad when she saw my candles, when she saw the two candles that I was able to give to the church. I told her “look mom, you are going to come to my house, we are going to go to the altar of the church, and I'm going to give two offerings. When people looked at my candles, they said“ Vivi, where did you get those flowers from?” with interest. My mom started crying--a lot. Who knows how she felt. I told her, “Look mom, don't cry, we're going to be successful. You have worked on what your grandmother taught you for all these years and, thanks to you, I am going to continue the tradition, but I am going to change it the way I want.” She cried a lot.

I really like the roses, daisies and carnations. I love the colors--the rose button and the color with which it combines.

No other candle goes well with mine, that's why people come to see here first. Many people go elsewhere, but then they return because I clean my wax well and it brings out unique colors--the color that I want.

I clean the wax with lemons which are very expensive. I have to use a lot of them. I don't ind about the money. I want clean wax. It makes the candles burns well. People here have respect for me because of my quality standards. When they see me on the street, they ask me where are you going. I tell them I'm going to run an errand. They say "Get in, we're going to take you!” Everyone, because they know my work.

I didn't even realize that I'm famous. [Laughs]

I must say, I work better alone. I won't say no to my daughter-in-law, but she already has her children, and I like it like that.

Th children can get burned. It happened to us once, but children insisted that they wanted to try working with wax. One of the girls ate wax once, she didn't like that. With children around, pieces get ruined. I told my son, the moment I take my flowers out, you can help me, but without the girls because they ruin my things.

I have 3 children. One daughter and two sons. They all know how to work the wax. They help me sometimes but I realize they are bothered by it. So they don't work with me a lot.

I learned that my daughters-in-law, my grandchildren, they are going to want to do it because it is a tradition. I am going to leave them, I will keep teaching. But my work here at the workshop is already done. I am satisfied with the work I have. Many people, from around the world, come to see me make candles.

I make several type of flowers, but mostly carnations, rosebuds, daisies, and primrose. I have a primrose on my altar. In Tetitlán, every house has an altar, it's a tradition, that's why candles are made. The day after tomorrow I will deliver twelve, on Friday. Candles get lit on Sunday, Monday, and Wednesday--three times a week to honor of the virgin Mary.

When people get married, the boyfriend, if he already thought about it, brings his partner to pick a candle together for their wedding. A boy recently came with his mother, but didn't want to follow the same flower tradition. I kept thinking all night, I didn't sleep well. I told him the next day that I was going to make him a candle with something from life, a little bird, one that is going to look as if it is flying up. I like to work to make something different.

For the future, I hope customers are happy so that I can keep doing what I am doing. So I can continue the tradition.

Right now, I am here just working just so the tradition does not get lost--it is the promise I have. I want for my family to live in love. My children already got married. I am going to do this work; we are going to be successful. This little job helped me a lot. No one has helped me on this journey. I just want people to continue to come here to receive happiness and joy, so that they want to keep going.

More on Viviana and Casa Viviana coming soon.

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