Celebrating Zapotec Activism: Oaxaca’s Living Language

Last night I participated in a Zoom conference organized by Dr. Brook Danielle Lillehaugen, The Center for Peace and Global Citizenship, and the Ticha Project at Haverford College, Pennsylvania. The discussion, mostly for indigenous language linguists, educators and students, focused on what it means to be a Zapotec Activist.

The Victoriano Rug — Janet’s great-grandfather’s design

The definition is simple: To recognize that Zapotec is a living, modern language of the present as well as that of the past, to preserve the language and support native speakers, to inculcate the language among young people and pass it on, to make it visible and disseminate it to the global community, to apply social media technology to keep the language vibrant, to acknowledge the diverse group of speakers throughout Oaxaca and the diaspora, and to respect the people and culture that have kept this a living language for millenia. There is pride in being a Zapotec speaker.

While the definition is simple, implementation has challenges, but this Project is undertaking a sea-change in how native language is spoken, written, researched and disseminated.

Janet Chavez Santiago at Galeria Fe y Lola Rugs

I participated in the conference as an observer, and mostly to show support to the Zapotec activists I know in Oaxaca: my goddaughter Janet Chavez Santiago from Teotitlan del Valle, and Fellow for Community Based Learning at Haverford College, with friend Moises Garcia Guzman de Contareras from San Jeronimo Tlacochuhuaya. Both Janet and Moises host faculty and students from the USA in Oaxaca, and travel to Pennsylvania to teach. They are linguist educators.

Zapotec archeological site, Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca

Moises greeted us via video in the courtyard of the Tlacochuhuaya church. He then took us to his family’s milpa where he recalled that the 1695 last will and testament of Sebastiana de Mendoza, translated from the Zapotec, proved that land could be inherited by women to fight male exclusiveness. His mother owns this land and it will be inherited by Moises’ daughter. The document certifies this.

There is a substantial Zapotec speaking population in California who are from Oaxaca. Many have been there for generations. Xochitl Flores-Marcial, PhD, teaches history, language and culture at California State University at Northridge. She earned her doctorate at UCLA, renown for linguistics studies.

Xochitl, a presenter last night, studied and wrote about the ancient guelaguetza system (not a folkloric dance) of mutual support to keep Oaxaca communities strong, independent and interconnected. She emphasized that over 2,500 years ago, Zapotecs carved their ideas and beliefs on stone monuments, pottery and deer hides. They produced texts in their own voices citing intellectual achievements.

Carvings on the outside of the Mitla temple

Poet-scholar Felipe H. Lopez, PhD, emphasized that modern social media is being used to harness 16th Century manuscripts and texts documented by Spanish Dominican friar Juan de Cordova. de Cordova translated a codified logographic and pictographic writing system into Spanish and these documents survive. This pre-alphabet writing of symbols (that correspond to words) and drawings were meant to travel across language varieties.

Here are seven poems in Zapotec by Felipe Lopez.

Zapotec Activist Janet Chavez Santiago, who was instrumental in creating the Teotitlan del Valle Zapotec talking dictionary, discussed what it means to be a Zapotec from this famous rug weaving village. Her family operates Galeria Fe y Lola Rugs.

Handwoven indigo rug with greca design

Some years ago, Dr. Lillehaugen, faculty associates and students created the Zapotec talking dictionary to provide a teaching tool and learning foundation. What they have created are various dictionaries that represent the variety of tobal variations spoken in different parts of Oaxaca. Many of us who follow Zapotec language and culture known that villages in the Tlacolula Valley, for example, do not understand each other because of language variation.

Zapotec Activist Janet Chavez Santiago, who was instrumental in creating the Teotitlan del Valle Zapotec talking dictionary and has presented at international linguistics conferences, discussed what it means to be a Zapotec from this famous rug weaving village. She linked together how language, culture and weaving supports continuity.

She explains that weaving derives from ancestral knowledge. Creativity is express by incorporating the influences of the present. Yarn, she says, is a connection with the past. As she demonstrates the technique of pedal loom weaving on a video we watch, Janet says that her hands express Zapotec traditions and culture. The warp and weft weave a story of the ancients and bring them into our contemporary world. Symbols incorporated in the tapestries translate culture to others.

“We are a living culture, existing in the present and rooted in the past, a community supported by past and present. We do not speak of Zapotec people and language in the past tense,” she says.

Indigenous language is at risk. The Ticha Project is designed to protect, preserve and promote Zapotec. Many Oaxaca children do not learn Zapotec unless there is a village operated pre-school (like there is in Teotitlan del Valle). This is a language of the grandmothers. The project aims to give accessibility to native speakers, to expand access to those who want to learn, to instill cultural awareness and pride, and to use the Internet to connect Zapotec speakers in the Diaspora.

As I watched my friends and saw video of the land where I live, I was reminded about how much I miss being in Oaxaca and having this deep connection to people and place.

Plowing the milpas to plant corn, squash, beans

SHOP OPEN: French Knot Embroidered Blouses from Chiapas

We just received 14 French Knot embroidered cotton blouses from Aguacatenango, Chiapas. The village is about an hour-and-a-half from San Cristobal and is in a fertile valley nestled between the chilly high mountain ranges and the more humid coastal area of Chiapas. Here, women are skilled in the art of needlework and the most skilled among them, like our master embroiderer Francisca, create extraordinary bodice designs of floral motifs. The base cloth is an open-weave Mexican machine-made manta which is 100% cotton muslin fabric. It washes beautifully — cold water, mild soap.

Large Sizes — 6 pieces — $135 each

  • #L1. Short sleeve beige SOLD.
  • #L2. Short sleeve beige SOLD.
  • #L3. Short sleeve red SOLD.
  • #L4. Short sleeve red SOLD.
  • #L5. Short sleeve peacock blue SOLD.

Medium Sizes — 8 pieces — $125 each

  • #M1. Short sleeve beige SOLD.
  • #M2. Short sleeve beige
  • #M3. Short sleeve beige
  • #M4. Short sleeve blue SOLD.
  • #M5. Long sleeve blue SOLD.
  • #M6. Long sleeve blue SOLD.
  • #M7. Long sleeve red
  • #M8. Short sleeve red SOLD.

Small/Petite — 1 Piece — $110 each

  • #S1. Long sleeve beige — 10″ wide bodice

To Buy: Please email me normahawthorne@mac.com with your name, mailing address and item number. I will mark it SOLD, send you a PayPal link to purchase and add $12 for cost of mailing. For PayPal: Please DO NOT SELECT BUYING GOOD OR SERVICES. It will then automatically choose Sending Money to Family and Friends.  We also accept Venmo and I can send you a Square invoice (+3% fee) if you don’t use PayPal. (If PayPal takes a commission, I will need to send you an additional invoice to cover what they deduct.)

See chart below for measurements. Please measure bodice width from top of rib cage across to start of armpit on either side. Most are 28″ long from shoulder to hem.

  • 53cm = 20 inches
  • 56cm = 22 inches
  • 31cm = 12 inches
  • 36cm = 14 inches
Diagram for illustrative purposes only
Blouse is constructed/sewn entirely by hand; extraordinary finish work.

To Buy: Please email me normahawthorne@mac.com with your name, mailing address and item number. I will mark it SOLD, send you a PayPal link to purchase and add $12 for cost of mailing. For PayPal: Please DO NOT SELECT BUYING GOOD OR SERVICES. It will then automatically choose Sending Money to Family and Friends.  We also accept Venmo and I can send you a Square invoice (+3% fee) if you don’t use PayPal. (If PayPal takes a commission, I will need to send you an additional invoice to cover what they deduct.)

Final Sale: There are no returns, exchanges or refunds. Please measure carefully. We have already sent funds to the artisan for her and her cooperative’s work. Thank you for understanding.

Let me know if you have any questions. Thank you, Norma norma.schafer@icloud.com

An Aside from Norma

Because of covid-19, I have been in the USA since March 12. This is the longest period of time I have remained here since 2011. Based on increased number of cases in Oaxaca and limited covid emergency medical care there, I’m thinking it is prudent to stay put in North Carolina until there is a vaccine. Vamos a ver. We shall see.

In this interim, I feel it is most useful for me to work with the artisan women and men I know to bring what they make here to the USA and Canada to offer their pieces for sale. This is about the only way I know how to best help now during these extenuating circumstances. As long as I stay here, I will continue to do this. If I were in Oaxaca now, it would be prohibitively expensive to mail one or two pieces directly to individuals in the USA. This way, I can receive artisan-made textiles and offer them to you at a reasonable cost until we can all meet together again in Mexico and visit these makers personally. Thank you for all you do to support this effort.

Stay safe. Stay healthy. Vote.

Coming Today: French Knot Blouses From Chiapas

Our shop will open at 1 PM Eastern Time today! Don’t miss it! Limited sizes in long and short sleeve.

Shop Open: Handwoven Rugs–All Natural Dyes

Today, we are showcasing the natural dye and weaving talent of Oaxaca’s Taller Teñido a Mano. There are seven (7) unique, one-off pieces that will add richness to any living environment — home and office, floor and wall. Use it as a sofa, chair or bench accent piece, too. These are textiles woven on the tapestry loom — both sides are exactly the same! Great care is taken to create the hand-spun yarns and give them vibrant, enduring color. A perfect holiday gift as well.

To Buy: Please email me normahawthorne@mac.com with your name, mailing address and item number. I will mark it SOLD, send you a PayPal link to purchase and add $12 for cost of mailing. For PayPal: Please DO NOT SELECT BUYING GOOD OR SERVICES. It will then automatically choose Sending Money to Family and Friends.  We also accept Venmo and I can send you a Square invoice (+3% fee) if you don’t use PayPal. (If PayPal takes a commission, I will need to send you an additional invoice to cover what they deduct.)

SOLD. #1 Rayas. 2’x3′ $295

#1. Rayas. Churro sheep wool dyed with blue indigo, red cochineal with the natural gray color of the sheep. This is a stunning graphic design made on the tapestry loom. Same design on both sides. 2 feet wide x 3 feet long.

SOLD. #2. Zapotec. 2’x3′ $295

#2. Zapotec. Variegated graphic design elements with indigo, cochineal and natural gray sheep wool. 2 feet wide x 3 feet long.

SOLD. #3. Cintas. 2’x3′ $265

#3. Cintas. Natural dyes from indigo, pecan leaves and shells, natural white and gray wool. 2 feet wide x 3 feet long.

SOLD. #4. Grecas. 23″ square. $195

#4. Grecas. Natural dyes from indigo, cochineal, pomegranate and pecan shells. 23″ square.

SOLD. #5. Diamante. 23″ x 24″ $195

#5. Diamante. Natural dyes from indigo, pomegranate, cochineal, pecan shells, natural white and gray Churro sheep wool. 23″ wide x 24″ long.

SOLD. #6. Tlacolula Valley Mountains. 23″x24″ $250

#6. Tlacolula Valley Mountains. A visual landscape perfect for a wall-hanging, pillow cover or floor mat. The weaver’s impression of the Sierra Madre del Sur mountains surrounding Oaxaca. Natural dyes from indigo, pomegranate, natural white and gray wool. 23″ wide x 24″ long.

SOLD. #7. Cintas Azules. 23″x25″ $175

#7. Cintas Azules. Perfect stripes from natural dyes of indigo, cochineal and natural un-dyed white wool. The striking contrast of blues with gray and the red accent gives pizzaz to any decor. 23″ wide x 25″ long.

#8 Oaxaca Blue Basket — Indigo-dyed and hand-woven, is also for sale. $95.

The Taller Teñido a Mano dye studio uses only dyes from natural plant materials and cochineal, the insect that is found on the prickly pear cactus. Carminic acid is created through a chemical exchange between insect and plant, making the perfect red. The studio can produce over 110 different shades of red based on formulas perfected over time. Elsa Sanchez is the dye master. Her husband, Eric Chavez, (my godson) is the weaver. Eric has been weaving for over 20 years and has an extraordinary talent for color and design innovation.

This will be the last rug sale until early December.

Please email me normahawthorne@mac.com with your name, mailing address and item number. Please don’t send money until I confirm that what you want is available. I will mark it SOLD, send you a PayPal link to purchase and add $12 for cost of mailing. For PayPal: Please DO NOT SELECT BUYING GOOD OR SERVICES.  (If PayPal takes a commission, I will need to send you an additional invoice to cover what they deduct.) We also accept Venmo (@Norma-Schafer) and I can send you a Square invoice (+3% fee) if you don’t use PayPal. Thank you for understanding.

Care Instructions: I wash all my personal handmade rugs from the Chavez family in the washing machine, on gentle/delicate setting, using cold water and a mild soap (not Woolite–it bleeds the color). Make sure your spin cycle is set to HIGH. I then hang to dry. I do not use an automatic dryer since this breaks down the wool fibers.

Coming This Week: Woven Rugs + French Knot Blouses

First, I want to say thank you to everyone who has supported the artisans whose work I have featured here. The dollars I have sent back to them in Oaxaca and Chiapas have helped sustain families through this health crisis — Covid-19 — when there is no tourism.

I also want to add that there is a benefit to my being here in Durham, NC, right now — shipping cost is bundled and covers sending multiple pieces from Mexico to the USA, making these pieces much more affordable. Usually, it is $60-80 USD to send one piece from Oaxaca to the states or Canada. So, while I am here, I will continue to work with cooperatives to bring their work to you. I would not be able to do this were I in Oaxaca!

Tomorrow, October 19, I will feature five (5) rugs from the Taller Teñido a Mano workshop in Oaxaca.

Shop will open Monday, October 19, 1 PM Eastern Time

Elsa Sanchez, proprietor of Taller Tenido a Mano, dyes the wool yarn with natural plant materials and cochineal. Colors include cochineal, indigo, wild marigold, wood barks and nuts. These sturdy rugs are woven by my godson and Elsa’s husband, Eric Chavez. Cost will range from $195 to $295 plus mailing.

Here is one rug example:

2-1/2 ft. by 3 ft. — 100% wool, handwoven. Machine wash gentle. Hang to dry.

At the end of the week, I will offer handmade blouses from Aguacatenango, Chiapas, by Francisca. She works in embroidery using exquisite French knots. The bodice is so dense with embroidery you cannot see the base fabric, which is 100% cotton manta. This time, we will have more long sleeve pieces and more that are sized Large and Extra-Large. They will sell for $120 plus mailing.

Here is an example:

Machine wash gentle, cold water. Use mild soap. Hang to dry.