Xochitl is the Nahuatl word for flower and Tlan de Totonaco is the literal meaning for beautiful place. Xochistlan is the beautiful place between the flowers. (You can tell if a word has a Nahuatl origin if it ends in tl.)
Here in the Sierra Norte of Puebla state, a lush landscape of rugged mountains, tall grasses, bamboo, canna lilies, orchids, bromeliad varieties, fruit trees and daisies cling to stony hillsides. Waterfalls flow like abundant rivers. The region is a puzzle of caves. Humidity seeps into everything.
We spent the day with Merry Elizabeth Foss who took us to Xochistlan, the village she stumbled upon seven years ago in search of artisan women who work in fine beading.
When she met the women of Xochistlan, she knew this was the place for her. She started a cooperative, created patterns to fit American women (yes, we are mostly taller and broader), and invested in relationships that have provided friendship and mutual support.
It’s not surprising that the embroidered and beaded images here mimic the landscape, filled with birds, barnyard animals, flowers of every variety, trailing vines, in subdued and rainbow colors.
Xochistlan is not easy to get to. It’s about an hour outside of Cuetzalan del Progreso, Puebla. First you take the winding mountain road along the spine, looking down and beyond at villages tucked into the valleys below.
Then, you divert and start descending on a road that was likely once a switch back donkey trail. You have to know where you are going! Turn right, continue straight, now turn left, straight again, Merry instructs the taxi driver.
We pull into the driveway of a humble home, filled with family, love, joy and beautiful beaded blouses. Radegundis Casilda Teresa greets us with a huge smile, warm hugs and invitation to come in for atole enriched with Mexican chocolate and milk.
She runs out with a bag of whole kernels, telling us to take a seat, she’s going to the molina (mill) to grind the corn.
We meet her husband and grandchildren, sit down by the cooking fire to sip the delicious hot drink, sing and play games, watch the ducks and chickens peck at dried corn.
After lunch at Comedor Betty where we had perhaps the best chicken mole in the state of Puebla (Betty won a prize last year), we stopped to visit Martha and her family.
They sew the beaded panels to the cotton cloth that makes up the entire blouse. Martha, her husband and daughter are master tailors who are very particular about their finish work.
Merry also helped the cooperative open a retail shop to sell beads and fabric to other artisans in the village, and created a plan to help market the blouses in the USA. Merry honors and recognizes the work of each woman by asking her to embroider her name on the inside of each blouse. Personalized. Meaningful.
Merry wholesales these finely beaded blouses, known as the China Poblana style, to upscale shops in the United States whose customers appreciate fine Mexican textiles.
I’ve discovered that sometimes the most wonderful experiences are those when you can meet talented people where they live and work. In Mexico, there is extraordinary talent hidden in often isolated, rural villages.
One has to be willing to be open, explore and appreciate people for who they are, what they do, and how they live. I’m grateful to Merry for introducing us to her friends and for helping bring their talent to the world.
The tradition of beadwork came to Mexico from Europe with the Spanish conquest. Most were trade beads from Venice and Africa, used for ballast on the Spanish galleons that landed in the port of Veracruz. The beads were traded for food and raw materials. Women learned to embellish their garments and the these fantastic blouses were born!