For the past six days I have been on a textile journey through the Cuenca del Papaloapan Region where the Sierra Madre de Oaxaca mountain range meets the coastal plain of Veracruz. This has been off-the-beaten-path travel into remote villages where textile traditions, back strap loom weaving and intricate embroidery techniques, manage to survive in a dominant culture invaded by polyester, machined fabrics and low-wage, Chinese-made clothing.
Travel took us overland starting from Veracruz, the oldest port in Mexico, south along the Gulf of Mexico to Tuxtepec, a jungle wonderland and gateway into Oaxaca state from the east. Today, I’m featuring the indigenous dress of San Felipe Usila, the most isolated village of our tour.
From Tuxtepec, it takes us three hours to get to Usila on a winding mountain road, half of which is unpaved. But, the gift of meeting some extraordinary weavers who are incredibly hospitable make the trip worthwhile.
We are greeted with the opportunity to purchase some very beautiful pieces followed by a lunch of chicken and mole amarillo, and handmade tortillas fresh from the comal. Dinner is a delicious, home-cooked traditional stone soup that is a pre-Hispanic recipe originating from Usila. Overnight lodging in Usila is basic and clean. A hotel is located on the outskirts of town down a dirt road that turns to mud in the rain. It’s a rainforest here, so the climate is tropical, damp and lush.
Many of the plants and animals of the region are reflected in the weaving designs including flowers, squirrels, corn, butterflies and the tree of life. Every woman has her own interpretation of the mythic and actual world that is translated to cloth, so each weaver creates a different and very distinct design.
We learn that the two headed eagle represents the duality of life, the good and the bad. We see quetzalcoatl, the plumed serpent, and the eye of god that offers protection. We are told about the four cardinal directions, how they are incorporated into the woven story and their pre-Hispanic significance.
We hear that traditional women want to be buried in their wedding huipil so that their husbands will recognize them in the afterlife. We see that only the grandmothers continue to wear the huipil as a daily garment.
For holidays, festivals and special occasions there is more elaborate dressing with the media-gala and gala huipiles, adorned with flowers, ribbons, lace and intricate detailing that is unparalleled.
Many of the ancient techniques of back strap loom weaving to create traditional clothing has been lost by some villages. There is a dedicated effort to teach young women the techniques to keep the tradition alive. But, it’s a challenge. People everywhere want an education and higher paying jobs.
Today, the major markets for these garments are textile lovers and collectors who purchase them in many fine Oaxaca galleries. Few dare to venture into the hinterlands to find these treasures on their own.
Oaxaca Cultural Navigator offers in-depth, educational workshops usually based in one location to establish a sense of place. We are not a tour or guide service. I decided to travel with Tia Stephanie Tours to discover the source of this beautiful, ancient, woman-centered tradition. We moved from village to village across a wide swath of territory at a racer’s pace to get an excellent overview.
If you are more inclined to get there as an independent traveler, take a bus or collectivo from town to town, or rent a car and drive from Oaxaca city on Mexico 175. Get a Guia Roji Mapa 20 for the Estado de Oaxaca.
You may want to stop and spend the night in Pueblo Magico Capulalpam de Mendez or continue on until you reach Valle Nacional. There are several lovely hotels in Capulalpam and a few small hostals in Valle Nacional. From there, you can get to the pueblos in the Papaloapan Region that we visited: Valle Nacional, Rancho Grande, San Miguel Soyaltepec and San Lucas Ojitlan, bypassing the entry through Veracruz. This route will take six to eight hours of driving from Oaxaca to Valle Nacional over winding mountain roads! You might also consider establishing a base in one of the villages if you don’t mind sleeping in a hammock or a basic, no frills room with only cold running water.