Omar’s Discovery Tour: A First Visit to the USA

Omar Chavez Santiago is twenty-four years old. He is a weaver and natural dyer from Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca, Mexico. Last year, he graduated with a degree in industrial engineering after studying for four years at Anahuac University in Oaxaca. He is at a cross-roads.

Fayetteville, Lillington, Coats, NC friends give Omar a warm welcome in Durham. Thanks Becky, Robin and Debbie for your support.

Does he pursue a professional engineering career and move to Monterrey or continue in the generations-old family tradition of his Zapotec culture?

On March 1, 2017, Omar went to Mexico City for an interview appointment at the US Embassy to follow-up on his visitor visa application to enter the USA. He is male. He is young. We didn’t know what his chances would be. Slim, I thought. Very slim. So few are allowed to enter.

I wrote my Congressman G.K. Butterfield ((D-NC) to ask if they would send a message and alert the Embassy staff that Omar would be there on March 1 to present a letter of invitation from me and Wendy Sease, owner of INDIO Durham. We invited him to give a presentation and sale of the family’s 100% naturally dyed wool rugs in early April.

List to this GistYarn Podcast with Omar Chavez Santiago

Omar, age 24, has been weaving since he was eight years old.

An alert is different from a request to approve. No one interferes with US Embassy immigration decisions. An alert just says, Look out for this applicant. I guess they did. At the end of the short interview, Omar was awarded a 10-year visa. Ojala.

Discovering La Superior Carneceria y Super Tienda, Durham

Three weeks later, the paperwork arrived in Teotitlan del Valle, and Omar arrived in Durham, North Carolina on March 28.

I started calling this Omar’s Discovery Tour because everything was new to him. Exciting. Inspiring. Being here gave him the chance to see that what Galeria Fe y Lola creates in Oaxaca is linked to the home goods fashion cycle in the USA, where most of their clients come from. It connected the dots.

A walk through Duke University with Jacob and Hettie.

He discovered that design and color preferences change according to season. Texture and palette compliment. He saw traditional and contemporary side-by-side. He saw cities and farmland. Innovation and comfort. The edges where his countrymen and women live beyond the chi-chi neighborhoods, shopping in grocery stores named La Superior Carneceria or Compare or Tienda Mexicana Guadalupana, where life is familiar and safe. He heard an earful about politics, leadership void and political discontent.

A walk through Duke Gardens with Jacob

Omar thinks we are organized, tidy, friendly, and open to opportunity. (Of course, we know this is NOT a universal truth in the USA.)

Lime bikes propagate in downtown Durham. Take a ride.

He likes that people here greet him with a smile, that cars stop for pedestrians, and he can ride a Lime Bike on the American Tobacco Trail all afternoon for a few dollars, followed by beer and bonding at Ponysaurus with Jacob and Kathryn. He likes that we recycle (some of us). And, he can put on his jogging shoes and run for miles on groomed paths and streets.

Wow, there are REALLY good goat tacos here, just like in Mexico

It got to the point after the first week that he could rank order the best hamburgers in Durham after tastings at many restaurants. In retail shops, he was invited to sit down in a comfy chair or sofa, offered refreshment, and an invitation to kibbitz informally. He saw that deep friendships can be formed well beyond the inner circle of family.

A talk and cochineal dye demo at Echoview Fiber Mill, Weaverville, NC

Then, we went to Asheville and Weaverville, where the fiber arts community welcomed Omar for a cochineal dye demonstration and exhibition. We ate at Buxton Hall Barbecue and White Duck Tacos, and walked the downtown going in and out of fine art and craft galleries. He was mesmerized by the creativity. We slept in a cozy Arts & Crafts Cottage on the Blue Ridge Parkway hosted by Laura and Bryan.

100% naturally dyed churro wool rugs from Galeria Fe y Lola

Omar began to imagine that his dreams could become a reality. He began building new dreams. By the time he went home on Saturday morning after almost three weeks here, he was excited and inspired to create new designs, incorporate new business ideas, capture on cloth that which captured his imagination, and incorporate elements of traditional Zapotec motifs with new energy.

I wish we could give this opportunity to other talented young Mexicans who have dreams, who want to create and add value to their country.

Making the presentation at Echoview Fiber Mill, in collaboration with Local Cloth

Cochineal dye demonstration at Echoview Fiber Mill

I feel much this way when I go to Mexico. I see that families are tightly knit, where ancient ritual gives meaning to life, how reverence for the elderly shapes  continuity, how people take time to be with families and celebrate together.

Art at the Durham Museum Hotel

Travel broadens and opens us up to more than new experiences. It gives us something intangible, a new neural pathway to exploration, learning, becoming. It gives us an opportunity to befriend, to connect and to live expansively with meaning.

Taking a break at Ponysaurus Brewing Company, Durham

It was twelve-and-a-half years ago when I met Omar’s brother Eric and sister Janet in the Teotitlan del Valle rug market. They were both students, not knowing where their paths would lead. Omar was not quite twelve. Through mutual support and effort, our lives were changed.

Thanks to all who supported Omar with a purchase!

Laura and her family with Omar in Asheville

There are many people to thank for making Omar’s Discovery Tour possible: parents Federico Chavez Sosa and Dolores Santiago Arrellenas in Teotitlan del Valle; Wendy Sease, Hettie Johnson, Jacob Singleton, Kathryn Salisbury, Karen Soskin, Steve Haskin, Nick and Rochelle Johnson in Durham; Laura and Bryan Tompkins, Judi Jetson with Local Cloth, Grace Casey-Gouin at Echoview Fiber Mill in Asheville and Weaverville, and our friends everywhere.  Thank you.

We are talking now about when he may return.


18 responses to “Omar’s Discovery Tour: A First Visit to the USA

  1. I loved reading about Omar’s visit and feel delighted that Rebecca/Kyle got to meet him at your home. It brings my worlds closer together. In reading your post about the weavers who do piecework in Teotitlan, I feel compelled to share the success of Fundacion En Via (see website or facebook page) in giving women in the Tlacolula Valley villages microloans and business education classes to enable them to stop doing piecework and grow their own businesses. The women often tell visitors the importance of being able to use their own colors, their own designs, and their own ideas as well as to set their prices. As important as the increase in profit is their sense of empowerment and the resulting effect on their families. Leading groups of visitors and residents to meet these women is the best of living in Mexico for me. Today I got to San Sebastian Abosolo to deliver a (used) laptop to a young man who among the very few in his village to be graduating from high school (an hour trip each way daily) and aspiring to university. I asked someone where I could find one to buy and 10 minutes later had one donated in my hands. The generosity of the Mexican people is what inspires this reciprocal generosity. Omar and Eric and Janet are wonderful examples of young people combining traditional skills with modern ideas. And you are a shining light to all of us in both countries!

    • Gosh, Jacki, what an amazing tribute to the craft and creativity and perseverance and possibility for small producers/makers in Oaxaca who want to stop doing piecework and develop independence and financial stability. Saludos to you and Envia and all the volunteers who are working with women to make this happen. Thank you for your comments and for your tribute. If all of us did a little something, the world will change for the better. Yes, we need more role models and more opportunities for young people to explore what they are capable of doing. So happy we know each other. Yours for CHANGE. Norma

  2. This is a lovely story, Norma. I wish Omar well. The late, great Arnulfo Mendoza, Oaxaca weaver and painter, kept his lifelong connection to Teotitlan, but also travelled widely and thought that his community was at times too insular. He was a dear friend to me and my late husband, Gordon Rayner,
    His elder son, Gabriel, is now doing a good job of refreshing the Mano Magica gallery on Alcala.

    • Kate, so few have the opportunity, the wherewithal, the courage and curiosity to leave their villages and explore. Arnulfo was privileged because he had talent and Mary Jane Gagnier, his then wife of many years and a Canadian, gave him encouragement. There are those talented weavers who get visas because they are invited to museums and retail markets to share their knowledge, skill and culture. Then, there are those who leave in darkness to sneak across the border without papers in search of work that pays more than 200 pesos a day (that’s $10 USD). Most in our village are contract weavers who are paid local wages, their pieces sold under the name of someone else.

      Omar has the talent and potential to rise to the level of Arnulfo and others who go back and forth freely. He also has me and the network he is building to support and encourage him, to give him a place to stay and make introductions. If each visitor to Teotitlan del Valle identified a talented young man or woman who they would mentor, many others would have the same opportunities as Omar. But, Omar worked hard, learned English and is ready to be bi-modal. We have choices, each of us, to create relationship and live by example. I know that you and Gordon were special friends of Arnulfo and that enabled him to go beyond the village and be in the larger world. It is not easy, as we know, to do this, when tradition to stay put is so strong. Thanks for sharing and inspiring me to write this.

  3. The tour sounds so idealistic! Lucky Omar, but needs to visit a larger city in the Progressive West Coast where downtowns have homeless begging on street corners and sleeping in makeshift cardboard and plastic shelters tucked in doorways of closed businesses. Yes, of course, there are lovely “protected” neighborhoods, but still, more and more street people,
    pushing shopping carts filled with all their possessions, are creeping farther afield searching for empty bottles to be returned for the 10 cent deposit that many residents can’t be bothered doing. When I return from Oaxaca each year I am shocked and depressed by what I see again in one of richest countries of the world. Welcome to reality.

    • Yes, I totally agree with you, Ron. We gave Omar a sheltered and protected view of the USA, although in downtown Durham he and my son rode bikes along the American Tobacco Trail and came across homeless black men asking for help. We walked around town and encountered a tent village on the highway overpass. We explained to him that life here is a big mix of haves and have-nots, widening because of the lack of leadership in this country to make choices that have wider benefits for those in need. Here, in Durham, NC, we are surging skyward in glass condos as the push for gentrification pushes out people who have lived and done business here all their lives as rents go up and property values soar. Corruption is rampant in both countries. Mexico, my other home, is far from ideal, too. We know the story of the 43 Ayotzinapa disappeared and murdered journalists and progressive politicians too well. I don’t mean to paint an ideal landscape. To get a grip on reality we need mid-term election change across the nation so that we can get back on track to focus on the ideals that give immigrants, poor, single mothers, homeless, jobless a leg up and a chance. Right now, our country is rich but we suffer from moral impoverishment. I’m here to vote, to change it, and to do what I can for each Mexican I meet and know to give hope. Thanks for rousing the dialog.

      Who else wants to speak up? Who else wants to take a Mexican family under their wing to Think Globally and Act Locally?

  4. We travel to Oaxaca frequently and we support the art community. For years we have been talking to anyone who will listen about moving forward into the 21 century with their crafts. Every store has the same items woven out of the same cloth in the same colors and designs. the colors are not easy to use in modern homes. we have several rugs from Teotitlan and we make the colors work because our house has so much in it from Mexico but when we bring friends to Teotitlan they want to buy rugs but have difficulty finding colors and designs that will work at home. The woman want to buy tablecloths but bright orange and yellow or purple and lime green are not easy to use.
    that being said it was refreshing to read in your blog that Omar recognized the different color pallets and wanted to go home and incorporate his traditional designs with modern ideas. you are doing great things Norma to help these craftsmen succeed
    thank you
    Bev in Connecticut

    • Hi Bev, thanks for the great comment. Same old, same old just doesn’t work any more. You are right. Those who recognize the need for innovation and adaptation will sustain their craft to meet changing market preferences. A discovery tour helps do that! Besos. Norma

  5. I’m so glad you posted the wonderful news of Omar’s first jouney to the US and your thoughtful observations and reflections.

  6. So wonderful!

  7. Lovely story. What a great opportunity to share cultures. I would love to do something like this with a Mexican friend. Maybe someday he can get a visa! Wish we were better neighbors.

  8. So wonderful for Omar! What a great opportunity for him to visit and share his expertise. Great job Norma!

  9. Happy to hear Omar had a great experience. AAnother option for him would be to live in Saltillo Coahuila which is about 45minutes from Monterrey. It might be an easier transition for him as Saltillo is also well know for its weaving/weavers- a little more like home for him.

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