Oaxaca Indigenous Textiles: Preservation or Adaptation

A group of Mexicanos and gringos gathered on Monday evening in the city for the Oaxaca preview of “Weaving a Curve” movie and to see the latest work of Federico Chavez Sosa, master weaver of Teotitlan del Valle.  Most of us came dressed in our local Mexican finery.   Patrice, who has been living in Puerto Escondido for over 20 years and holds dual Mexican and U.S. citizenship, was wearing a fine huipil handwoven in coyuche cotton (pre-conquest, native to the region) indigo dyed huipil.  Eduardo, a Mexicana artist who was raised in Ensenada, Baja California, and I were wearing our Juchitan traje.  Sheri donned a magnificent olive green robozo woven in the mountain village of Tenancingo which was wrapped around a floral blusa intricately hand embroidered in the village of San Antonino in Ocotlan, Oaxaca.

As we were treated to the exhibit of Federico’s magnificent weavings, our talk turned to the textile traditions of Oaxaca and Mexico, and how weavers are adapting traditional huipils to meet the demands of the marketplace — as innovators have done for millenia.  We talked about how some of the great weavers from Santiago Pinotepa Nacional, noted for their traditional handwoven striped faldas (wrapped skirts) dyed with cochineal and purpua, are now sewing the fabric into halter tops and zippered straight line skirts that are being worn by local women as well as sold for the tourist market in Oaxaca.  Traditional adaptation is occurring for many reasons.  Weavers cannot afford to wear the work they create.  They might be able to afford to wear a blouse that costs 85 pesos (about $5 USD), and prefer to sell what they weave that will bring income to the family.  If a San Mateo del Mar weaver, for example, can sell a huipil for 500-1,000 pesos, she may not wear her own work.  The influences of the dominant culture, driven by television, the internet, and the shifting styles of contemporary fashion, bring change (wanted or not) to once remote villages that are now connected to the world by technology.  Out-migration, returning emigrants who worked in the U.S. for a while and then returned to their home villages have an impact.

I asked Federico and his daughter, Janet Chavez Santiago, why they do not use the rugs they weave on the floors of their home.  “We weave them to sell, they say.  These are our livelihood.”  Zapotec rugs from the village of Teotitlan del Valle are a great example of adaptation.  Woolen goods woven in the village on the fixed frame pedal loom were originally blankets and sarapes (ponchos) which the Spanish needed to cover themselves and their horses.  The fixed frame pedal loom is an import from Europe by the Spanish.  Teotitlan Zapotecs adapted the backstrap loom techniques to the floor loom and shifted from weaving in cotton to weaving in wool in 1521.  In the 60’s and 70’s, rug exporters from the U.S. came to the village and introduced Navajo motifs for export to a hungry U.S. design market primarily based in Santa Fe.  Zapotecs adapted.  Floor rugs were never part of their original weaving repertoire.

As we observe these changes in the weaving culture of Oaxaca, it is important to not make a judgment about whether what is happening is good or bad.  Adaptation, change, and innovation will occur as long as human beings wander this earth.  It is part of creativity and of market forces.  Yet, some of these traditions will disappear unless we are willing to support the weavers who continue to weave fine work using natural dyes and other high quality raw materials, and be willing to pay a higher price for their work.

There are more questions than answers.  What will the long-term impact be on local weaving villages where more than half the male population has left to work in the U.S.?  When they return, what attitudes will these men bring with them that will influence change in the traditional lifestyle and artforms?  Do we expect small, isolated indigenous villages to retain their traditional cultures while the rest of the world changes around them and how is this possible?  Does this mean that we expect people to continue to live with substandard education, health care, and access to economic opportunity?  Does textile preservation require that life remains static?  Are our priorities to preserve the well-being of the people or the work they produce?   What will be “lost” if the last woman in a village who weaves fine work dies and there is no one else to carry on?

2 Responses to Oaxaca Indigenous Textiles: Preservation or Adaptation

  1. WOW – what an eye opener this article is. Can’t wait to come to Oaxaca in January to see and buy hopefully from the best artisans and help support their fine workmanship.

  2. Thank you for these thought provoking questions.

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