Augustin Ruiz Gutierrez is writing his thesis in preparation for graduation from the University of Oaxaca. He is 24 years old, just like Eric Chavez Santiago, and they were school mates during their growing up years in Teotitlan and is one of a few who went on to high school and then college. We met Augustin last year during the Teotitlan posadas and he invited us to meet the leaders of Bii Dauu, a weavers cooperative of extended family members whose mission it is to preserve the traditions of Zapotec culture, including designs, natural dyeing techniques, education, sustainable development, and permaculture. Augustin is a documentarian, taking videos of village life, commenting on the culture. His thesis question is one that all cultures, societies could benefit from asking continually as it helps to define the vision of a people. He called to ask if he could interview me and Stephen about our impressions, beliefs, ideas to include in his thesis research. These are his questions.
- In 20 or 30 years, what do we think will happen with Zapotec weaving and natural dyes?
- What type of organization would best communicate the principals of educating people about appreciation their traditions and values, to work cooperatively and not competitively?
- Is it possible to develop a system where cooperation and sustainability were equally important to making money?
- Can we create a national and international market for our weavings that supports both income generation and cultural continuation? How do we protect the heritage of our people and compete in the world market?
- Is weaving a rug with natural dyes the best way? I(n the future, is it worth it to have this as a standard of quality? Does the marketplace care?
- Can you be an artist and be successful without compromising the principles of cooperation and sustainability, economic equality?
Currently, there are no easy channels of distribution for highest quality, naturally dyed rugs from Teotitlan del Valle. Indeed, most families work independently, even brother to brother, to weave and sell their work. Every summer, in July, a large tractor trailer trucks pulls into the edge of town and parks for several days. Weavers bring their work, mostly tepetes (rugs) woven with chemical dyes that the importer pays a low price for and can resell in New Mexico or Arizona for a big profit. Here there are middlemen who contract with households to weave for this shipment. Weavers will get paid about $25-100 per rug, depending on size, and the mark-up in the States will be 4 to 6 times grater than what they are paid.
There is no gallery in Teotitlan del Valle that showcases the highest quality work. There is no “stamp of approval” that guarantees that a guild of weavers has agreed that a rug meets certain standards of quality. If one walks through the shops and rug market one can appreciate the variety and differences between the rugs: heaviness and strength of the wool used, even edges signifying that there are two large chords of cotton on each side that add strength to the piece, the purity and subtlety of color that connotes the use of natural dyes.
Augustin says that there is little support from the state or federal government to continue the traditions of weaving in the village and he is fearful that in the next 20-30 years the use of natural dyes and traditional colors will die out. He comments that people are most concerned about feeding their families and will do whatever they can to get paid, and compromise the quality standards to sell their work.
We talk about how important it is to identify all the people in the village who are committed to working with natural dyes and to document who they are and their work. We explore how we might organize more visits to the U.S. for great weavers who have not been discovered by the guide books and the New York Times, whose travel editors continue to send people to only those most well known and most expensive. We talk about ways to mount exhibitions in the U.S., in Oaxaca City, in Mexico City, in San Miguel de Allende, in San Augustin Etla. All of this requires commitment, money, organization, and someone to doggedly lead the way.