San Baltazar de Chichicapam is a hill town nestled in the Sierra Madre del Sur about midway between Tlacolula and Ocotlan de Morales and requires the better part of a day to get there. The village is noted for its fine, hand spun wool created in the traditional method by women using the drop spindle or malacate. [It is also known for producing some of the finest mezcal in Oaxaca.] The best of the best traditional spinners is Yolande Perez Vasquez who has been recognized by Mexico as a national treasure. I met Yolande a couple of weeks ago at the Friday night art opening at La Olla where the wool she spun and dyed with natural plant materials was used in the tapestries woven by Tito Mendoza and designed by Lisa Cicotte. She was sitting along the wall in the back of the courtyard, a beautiful, regal Zapotec woman. I didn’t know her or her role in the process then, but her presence drew me to her and I introduced myself and we talked some. I discovered that her hand was integral to the art I was looking at and essential to the traditional process of weaving. I asked if I could come to visit her at her home sometime and she agreed.
We approached Chichicapam from Ocotlan because we had gone to Oaxaca first to pick up my friend Eric Chavez Santiago, the director of education at the Museo Textil de Oaxaca. His father, Federico was driving, and Sam and Tom Robbins, my photographer friends from Columbus, Ohio, were with us. Federico has been buying his handspun wool in Chichicapam for as long as he has been weaving (at least 40 years) and knows how to get there. The road from Ocotlan to Chichi is 22 km and is not well marked at the source. There is some winding around city streets to find the route, so this is not an adventure you want to take lightly. We climb into the rolling hills, passing the village of Santa Catarina Minas. Farmers are carrying huge bundles of dried cornstalks on their shoulders, the last of the harvest. A man pushes a wheelbarrow along the road filled with plastic tubing. King sized cloud pillows float in the clear blue sky. Sheep graze along the base of a mountain peak. Bamboo pillar fences border a dirt side road.
As the road climbs, the terrain shifts to mesquite, organ pipe cactus, white flowering yucca, agave and herds of goats. We pass over Puente Rio Lodo. Trees give forth lavender and violet flowers. Burros carry firewood. A turbaned cow herder stands by the side of the road with long pole in hand. Her cows are grazing on a hillock nibbling on dry grasses. She is sucking on sunflower seeds and spits husks as we pass. The landscape is vast, dry, endless. We are in the bosom of the Sierra Madre del Sur.
Yolande Perez is age 65. She learned from her grandmother when she was 8 years old. Her grandmother spun and wove ponchos which she sold in the Ocotlan and Tlacolula markets and used in the early Guelaguetzas. In 1970 Yolande formed a group of 400 spinners from the village who sold their wool to Teotitlan weavers. Those were the prosperous years. She and others were invited to national contests and to show their work in Mexico City, invited by the president, along with other noted pottery, weaving, and textile artisans. Yolande and her son San Juan say that not much financial benefit came from these showcases and they have felt exploited. Today, much of the wool that most weavers purchase is commercially spun because the price is less. Weavers are using chemical (aniline) dyes because the tourist market demands lower priced goods. The dye plant materials that Yolande grows in her garden or picks from the campo and the process to make tintas naturales to color the handspun wool is not appreciated or valued by most consumers. There is little if any recognition for her role or the role of other traditional spinners or even the citing of the Chichicapam pueblo as being part of the process of creating a fine wool tapestry. Most weavers in Teotitlan claim that they do all the production steps.
We are invited into the adobe complex. The kitchen walls are lined with turquoise enamel cook and dye pots. The floor is soft, spongy adobe. A large wood work table is centered in the room. There is the remnants of a wood fire under the comal in the corner. Yolande, a daughter tells us, does not want to upgrade the kitchen. She likes the traditional way of life. We move to the courtyard under the arbor. A dump truck filled with dried corn husks backs in almost on top of us and begins to spill its load, an avalanche of corn is deposited at our feet. The family will husk each cob and pick off the dried kernels, basket them and take them to market for extra income over the winter months. The husks are pale yellow tinged with purple.
Yolande’s garden is filled with plants and flowers, a shady arbor, and a pen in the back that holds two sheep and a newborn lamb. The goats have been shorn for their fleece which is piled and ready for spinning. Yolande lays out a handwoven grass mat, pulls out her handmade wood malacate (drop spindle), and demonstrates for us the technique of handspinning coyuche (natural brown) cotton, locally cultivated silk, cotton, and wool. She cards white and black wool together to show us how she achieves a soft grey color. She spins the malacate and gently pulls and coaxes the thread out with her other hand and the thread is consistently even and pliable. Hers is the first essential step in the weaving process. Without fine handspun wool there can be no rebozo, poncho, or tapete, and her work is that of an artist.
The women’s spinning cooperative is no longer in existence since commerically spun wool is what most weavers are buying. Now, Yolande tells us, there are a few young women in the village who are learning to use the malacate. I wonder how long this tradition will continue. Some of the weavers say they don’t like the colors of naturally dyed handspun yarn because they are softer and more subtle. The marketplace drives demand, I remind myself. If people know about and appreciate the craft and artisanry that goes into creating a fine woven textile, perhaps there will be a resurgence and compensation for people like Yolande Perez Vasquez and my weaver friend Federico Chavez Sosa or the 200 weavers commissioned by Remigio Mestas to create authentic, naturally dyed textiles. The cost is double, but the handwork is extraordinary.
There is a possibility that Yolande will come to the Museo Textil de Oaxaca to teach and demonstrate. She has participated in so many programs over her lifetime with little recognition or compensation that she wants to know more before she will make a commitment. Eric understands this and because he comes from a family dedicated to preserving the traditions, he will do his best to give Yolande the visibility, recognition and compensation she deserves. After toasting each other and the future with shots of mezcal in the coolness of the family altar room, we leave and head back to Ocotlan. The visit was over two hours but definitely worthwhile.
If anyone is interested in purchasing handspun wool that is a natural color of the sheep or dyed with natural dyes made by Yolande Perez Vazquez, please contact Eric Chavez Santiago at the Museo Textil de Oaxaca, firstname.lastname@example.org