It is difficult to hear Francisca Palafox Herran speak over the sound of the wind. She is the weaver, one of the last of the great Huave backstrap loom artisans, who we have come here to interview in her home village of San Mateo del Mar, on the southern coast of Oaxaca beyond Salina Cruz. In this small fishing village, Huave women have been weaving on backstrap looms for generations. Traditional huipils from here are finely woven cotton decorated with motifs of the beach and sea: turtles, fish, crab, palm trees, shrimp, birds, butterflies, stars, fishermen, dancers. Sometimes a fox will appear in a textile, too. It is hot and humid here and the airy fabric would have provided women with covering that breathes. The village, however, has adopted the dominant Tehuana style of dressing, so Huave origins are not immediately evident by the traje (local costume).
Francisca Palafox is 33 years old, the youngest in a family of many children. She was “discovered” by Remigio Mestas, who searches for master weavers in remote villages and encourages them to preserve their craft by representing them in his shops in Oaxaca and San Miguel de Allende, and by offering them national and international exhibitions. Francisca learned to weave from her oldest sister who learned from their mother. Their sister, Telofila Palafox is also an excellent weaver.
San Mateo del Mar is a humble, isolated village, dependent upon fishing for mojarras (a type of fish) and camarones (shrimp), which is sold in the local street market and exported to Tehuantepec and Juchitan. But mostly, the catch of the day provides food for the family. We did not see many young people. An aging populations implies out-migration to bigger cities for education and job opportunities not offered here. This is a simple, and by all appearances, difficult life. My impression is that this small group of Huave are at risk of being absorbed into the larger culture. This is part of what makes Francisca’s work so important.
A group of us from the Museo Textil de Oaxaca have traveled over 6 hours through mountainous Mexico Highway 190 to come here to interview and film Francisca in preparation for a documentary the museum is making to accompany an upcoming exhibition of her work. We watch as Francisca and her cousin Sabina demonstrate the techniques of weaving on a backstrap loom, and talk with Francisca’s children, a son Noe, age 15, and two daughters, Jazmin, age 13, and Liliana, age 11, as they weave and continue the traditions. There is a risk in this small Huave village of losing the craft. Most women are no longer weaving, and if they are, the quality of process and product are generally basic. Lili coats the warp threads of the backstrap loom with atole (a corn drink) to make it easier for Francisca to dress the loom and separate the threads.
Museum director Ana Paula Fuentes, textile preservation director Hector Manuel Meneses Lozano, and education director Eric Chavez Santiago ask questions about weaving process, culture, values, design, history, impact on Francisca as an individual, her family and her village, the future of Huave weaving. Eduardo Poeter, a Mexican multimedia artist in incorporating stories of transborder migration in her upcoming exhibition, is also with us. We are there for five hours.
In the next courtyard, separated by a green chain link fence and a gate, I see an elderly woman finishing the fringes on a piece of textile. This is Antonina Herran Roldan, Francisca’s mother, age 73. Her husband is asleep in a hammock in the next courtyard. The village is hammocks, palm thatched huts, tin covered palapas, sand, salt, wind, intense heat. In another section of the courtyard, shaded by ancient lime trees, a man weaves a fishing net and ties weights to the border. Everyone is weaving. Floral huipils and children’s t-shirts flap on the clothes line. Two bird cages are filled with green, blue and white exotic warblers. Antonina shows me her work, including a hanging basket she has adapted from fishing apparatus as container for fruits or vegetables.
When the filming is complete, we are invited to sit down for the afternoon meal together. The big table is covered with brightly colored laminated cloth. We are served a first course of thick, pancake-like tortillas, eggs, limes and fresh water to drink. A bowl of sea salt is on the table. We use a soup spoon to bring salt to bread and squeeze lime on top. It is VERY hot and salt is essential to retain body fluids. (We are told it does not rain much here.) Salt is also used to cure the chunks of fish that is float in the fish soup that is our next course. There are commercial salt flats in nearby Salina Cruz, and indigenous peoples have been bringing salt from the sea and drying it here for millenium. The soup is seasoned with pepper, salt, fresh squeeze lime and a spinach-like green herb called epasote. It is delicious.
After the meal and a few textile purchases from Antonina (everything that Francisca weaves is only available from Remigio Mestas), we decide to walk through the village market. This is not a tourist location. There are no beach palapas or hammocks for rent. We all agree that we will pass on the only hotel in town that is neither clean nor hospitable, and travel to Juchitan for dinner and lodging.
You can see from the photos that the day was extraordinary and Francisca and her family were most welcoming. It was an incredible adventure. The 45 minute ride to Juchitan was easy, and we found comfort in the patio of Bar Jardin, on Cinco de Mayo, just off Av. Efrain R. Gomez a couple of blocks from the Zocalo, with beers, Margaritas, and salsa fresca shrimp ceviche.