The Zapotec Woman Who Caught the Worlds Attention with her Creativity, Innovation, and Kindness

Written and Photographed by Stephanie Gardner

Viviana Alávez is a Zapotec elder who has lived and worked in Teotitlan del Valle, for over 70 years. She was born into the tradition of candle making, learning the craft from her grandmother after her mother passed away when she was a child. In those days traditional candles from Teotitlan were simple designs, sometimes adorned with fruits made of beeswax like pineapples, pomegranates, and apples. Such candles were donated to the Catholic church, due to an aggreement that recompensed candlemakers with food in exchange for their work.

This agreement with the church held up until the early 90’s, but Viviana began paving her own path long before that. Working without monetary compensation was not an option for her. She was married and had three children. Her husband was mostly away because he lived in the United States, leaving Viviana as the breadwinner and caretaking of her family. 

She started making candles to sell in Teotitlan and neighboring villages in Oaxaca, an action no one else in her village had taken. Early interest in Viviana’s candles left the other candle makers in Teotitlan jealous. Viviana’s own grandmother stole the molds Viviana was using out of jealously. She did not like that Viviana’s candles were more beautiful than those made by her children. Such an action is hard for us to understand today, but it represents an old way of thinking that was once common in Teotitlan.

Devastated by her grandmothers actions, Viviana didn’t know what to do without her molds. One weekend she decided to stay home alone to figure out how she would move forward with her work. She picked a rose from her garden and started taking it apart. In doing so, she understood how the rose was constructed and was inspired to make a flower out of beeswax. She began the process of developing her own molds that would allow her to bring her own creative ideas to light.
Slowly, Viviana’s flower embellished candles began to gain in popularity. As she gained recognition, she could barely keep up with production. She kept improving them, making them bigger, even taller than her body. They were different from what had been done before–innovative, more embellished, and truly impressive. When I asked her son, Roman, what made her candles so successful, he laughed, he said, “I don’t know, maybe it was her energy, her kindness, something beyond the candles and just attracted people to her.”

Over the course of her lifetime she has become famous for her work. Travelers visit her from all over the world. When more visitors started showing up, she had the idea to make candles in styles that could be taken home. Those smaller made-to-stand candles have become the mainstay of Casa Viviana.

Viviana is now 75 years old and is still making candles with her family. I asked them about their desire to scale their business. For the time being, it's not something they are interested in. Viviana is happy with the amount of work they have, financially, she has more than needs. Further growth would invite stress she'd rather not take on. She's very happy with the abundance life has brought her. For Viviana, success is defined by keeping things simple. She's often barefoot and still prefers sitting on the floor while she works. She doesn’t care too much about the fame life has brought her--though is a pro at posing for photos with her candles.

There is so much to learn from Viviana’s story. It’s yet another example of the beauty that can be created when we commit to transforming hardship; and the success that flows from putting our authentic selfs into our creative businesses. She shows us a sustainable version of success – one that is not constantly wanting more, but that is happy with healthy balance.

You can visit Casa Viviana at Calle Abasolo 7 in Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca. If you are in the US, you can shop Casa Viviana candles on our website. If you have any questions or are interested in placing an order, please contact us at

Also pictured: Guillermina Ruiz Carrenño (daughter-in-law) and Petra Mendoza (daughter-in-law)

Septemeber 28, 2022