Cultural Commentary: What’s At Risk?

Walk down any cobbled back street of Teotitlan del Valle or Mitla or Arrazola or any village in the Oaxaca Valley and what will you find?  Weavers, potters and carvers tucked away behind bamboo fences or solid walls creating incredible art.  You will also see that the only wearers of traditional dress are older women, and as they pass on, the fear is that the culture will, too.  Zapotec, the unwritten spoken language of the people, is also at risk as young people answer their parents and grandparents in Spanish rather than their native tongue.

The pressure of assimilation so as not to be “different” is strong.  Television and the Internet deliver pop culture and sophisticated product advertising into Zapotec homes. As weaving becomes  a cheap commodity, rather than an art form, there will be fewer reasons for young people to learn the craft. They may plan to move to the cities after mandatory 8th grade education to earn more money than they could  by staying in order to achieve the dream life promised by the cultural icons of blonde beauty and criollo handsome good looks.

The guelagetza system of the Zapotecs is one predicated on strong family and community bonds, paying back and giving forward.  It is a social system that was long in practice before the Spanish conquest.  Families in Zapotec villages are interdependent and multi-generational.  There is responsibility for one and the other.  The culture promotes cooperation and mutual support within extended family.

Fiestas are continuous.  There are celebrations around marriage, birth and death, for Christmas, Day of the Dead, the patron saint of the village, and when a girl turns age fifteen there is the quinciniera.   These can continue for several days or a week or more. Food, especially mole, tamales, atole, take on ceremonial significance.  Visiting during Christmas season or mid-summer are times rich with cultural celebration.

At Risk.  Since the 1940’s, the loom is gradually being abandoned by traditional weaving communities. In the last few decades, the loss is more pronounced as certain fibers, such as raw silk, and weaving techniques such as the weft-warp openwork, have been lost or are endangered.  In some cases, even the designs have been forgotten and because of the region’s humidity, no older textiles have survived. In many weaving communities, women and men active today may be the last generation in their family to weave.

During recent stays in Teotitlan del Valle, I have noticed that there are fewer younger men attending local celebrations.  Where are they, I’ve asked friends?  They tell me that there is an upsurge of migration to the U.S. where there are plentiful, higher paying jobs. People are not leaving their extended families because they want to, but because tourism has dropped off in recent years, and they must continue to earn a living.

There are a number of issues that compound this environment.  For example, in Teotitlan del Valle, tourists are funneled to only a handful of weaving houses by Oaxaca tour guides or hotel taxi drivers who are paid a per person fee for the business they bring and a hefty commission on what is sold.  There are fewer independent travelers who venture on their own into villages like Teotitlan del Valle to discover the fine artisans who are not willing to compromise their huge investment of time and materials.

4 responses to “Cultural Commentary: What’s At Risk?

  1. I appreciate your commentary on preserving the beautiful indigenous culture and art of Oaxaca. I want to share your understanding and appreciation with other U.S. citizens who have no understanding. It seems that Americans think everyone wants to live as we do, devoid of deep history and art. You clearly point out that without tourists these artisans can’t make it, thus their migration north. I am horrified, sickened and ashamed of the attrocities we commit at our border as we take children from their families and lose them.

    I wonder if portions of this would make a good letter to the editor in our local newspaper.

  2. Can someone recommend person(s) in Teotitlan who make beautiful shawls? I am going on a bus to the village and WILL NOT have a tour guide who will expect a pay back….. Is typical clothing made in this village?

    • Susanne, I recommend two places in Teotitlan del Valle for great shawls (rebozos) made with 100% wool and natural dyes. They are: 1) Arte y Seda, #4 Benito Juarez (toward the mountains on the way to the village of Benito Juarez, about 1 mile outside the village), email:; and 2) Bii Dauu on Calle Iturbide. Both have very fine woven shawls and scarves.

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