Walk down Avenida Benito Juarez, the main road of Teotitlan del Valle, or stroll through the central commercial market next to the church and village museum, or go down the side streets and walk into any weavers home, and you will see the myriad different patterns and designs incorporated into the woven wool rugs. Traditional designs will incorporate the patterns you see on the Zapotec temple ruins that make up the foundation of the village church, plus other patterns found in nature. These include grecas (Greek key), the caracol (Pre-Columbian snail), lightening (zig-zags), animals such as birds, lizards, armadillos and jaguars, mountains and rains (alternating pattern of undulating waves, dots, dashes, stripes, and overwoven squares), Zapotec and Aztec god figures, lightening and stars. The “tree of life” pattern filled with birds and animals is a favorite and loved pattern incorporating many anthropomorphic figures.
The ancient sacred Aztec symbol of the cross was widely used long before the landing of Cortes, and continues to be incorporated into rug patterns today. “The cross is not only a Christian symbol, it was also a Mexican symbol. It was one of the emblems of Quetzalcoatl, as lord of the four cardinal points, and the four winds that blow therefrom.” —Fiske: Discovery of America, vol. ii. chap. viii. p. 250.)
If you pick up a copy of the Codex Borgia, you will see that some weavers love to incorporate some of these early Olmec/Aztec/Zapotec images in their weaving. Many will play on the size and scale of a pattern to vary its interest. Weavers will also create or mimic contemporary patterns they think will sell, like a Joan Miro or Escher painting or a portrait of Benito Juarez or Che Guevarra. In the 70’s and 80’s, dealers from New Mexico and California came to Teotitlan to find a cheaper source for creating “Navajo-style” rugs. They brought with them traditional Navajo designs and asked village weavers to reproduce them. Today, you will see this influence in work that incorporates the use of both traditional Zapotec and Navajo patterns, creating a hybrid of sorts. It is important to be able to discern between an authentic Navajo rug and one reproduced in Teotitlan if you are a collector. Now, China has entered the Mexican weaving market, is copying rug patterns, and reproducing them even more cheaply. Soon, perhaps, the Sam’s Club in Oaxaca City will be selling Zapotec designed rugs made in China. Is this the benefit of a global economy?
The weaving cooperative, Bii Dauu, as part of its mission, only sanctions the use of traditional weaving patterns for its members as a practice of preserving Zapotec cultural heritage. Members must bring their designs before a committee to get approval in order to proceed.
Federico, Eric, Janet and Omar Chavez are experimenting with new designs that are not literal replicates of traditional patterns. They are playing with color, the variation and variegation of color, circles and curves. They are also continuing to weave the traditional patterns for which their family is known. I read recently that an artisan is truly an artist when she or he continues to experiment and innovate. Imagination drives development of an art form. Repeating what has been successful in the past is a sure way of doing business but it is not necessarily part of the creative process.
As one becomes familiar with Mexican rug weaving patterns and the variations that weavers are incorporating into the traditional patterns, you can begin to discern the masterful from the mediocre.