Walk the artisan lane at the Sunday Tlacolula Market and you will see handmade dolls for sale from San Bartolome Quilana. Their traje (dress) is a replica of the brightly colored floral head scarves and aprons the women of the village wear. Their embroidered faces smile at all passersby.
Every culture makes dolls, it seems. Are they merely playmates for little girls or collectibles for adult women? What do they evoke? Is there some meaning beyond the external? Is a doll more than Barbie, the iconic figure created in 1959, that symbolizes girl as empty-headed plaything?
Everyone here, it seems, is making and selling dolls. At Arturo Hernandez’ weaving studio in Mitla, his wife Marta is making dolls to sell to tourists. In Chiapas, there are doll recreations of Sub-Commander Marcos and his tribe. Villages there make and dress dolls in their traje, too. Papier-mache doll figures from Mexico City city that look like puppets with floppy limbs depict street walkers, cherubs with rosy cheeks and glittery gowns. Giant dolls, called mojigangas — dance in front of Oaxaca’s Santo Domingo church for every Saturday wedding calenda.
Dolls are not frivolous playthings just for little girls, said Ellen Benson at her talk at the Oaxaca Lending Library this week. The room was filled to capacity with almost 70 people attending.
She explains. We call them action figures if they are for boys. In cultures around the world they are idols, effigies, saints, totems, shamans, power objects, and healers. Dolls are objects of cultural significance. They bring good luck, they are supplications for a good harvest, they are used for magic, storytelling and veneration.
A doll is NOT belittling and should not be considered as gender stereotyping, Ellen goes on to say.
She should know. She is a maker of dolls using found objects. She is part of a Philadelphia art group called Dumpster Divers. She calls herself a Dumpster Diva, and she calls the dolls she makes Divas. She combs junk yards and yard sales, piles of rejects, has a basement workshop filled with memorabilia, bottle caps, ribbon, fabric pieces, shards and discards. Her work is widely exhibited. And she spends two-months each winter in Oaxaca, Mexico.
Dolls are used in play therapy, Ellen says. They tell stories of women, men and families. They are memory prayers. They may contain herbs or medicine, or ward of evil spirits. In the Hopi spirit world the color of the Kachina signifies direction, ceremony. On every continent, native peoples created dolls from available materials to pray, heal, symbolize the resilience of people.
Ellen has favorite artists who has influenced her doll-making: Terry Terrell, an outsider artist from Seattle who uses texture, carved wood, clay, twine and beads. Betye Saar who depicted the Liberation of Aunt Jemima (below), set free from the stereotyped image of black servant, released from the burden of being a domestic. Hugo Tovar, whose lifesize figures adorn the courtyard of Plaza Santo Domingo in Oaxaca. Paul Klee, who made puppets for his grandson. Nick Cave, who creates images that obscures race and gender, offering the freedom to be who we are.
We need to take a broad view of doll as a human figure, offering protective power and meaning. Doll-making is a way, perhaps, of self-reflection about who we are and who we want to be.
So, when you walk the Oaxaca streets, keep your eyes open for dolls. They are more than a thing of beauty or playmate for a grandchild. They are a reflection of the culture.
Love Oaxaca? Love artisan makers? Mark you calendar for this Friday and Saturday, February 14 and 15 in downtown Oaxaca, Mexico. Two big expoventas feature some of Oaxaca’s top artisans. English and Spanish spoken. Debit and credit cards accepted.
For me, the most emotional part of our visits to the remote Oaxaca villages along the coast of Oaxaca is to meet the women who weave and hear their stories.
Our Oaxaca Coast Textile Study Tour takes us north out of Puerto Escondido along Mexico Highway 200. This region is called the Costa Chica and extends from Puerto to Acapulco, Guerrero. Small roads, often winding, are like fingers carrying people to/from the main towns of Jamiltepec, Pinotepa Nacional and Ometepec.
We travel deep into the foothills into these weaving villages where isolation has preserved a traditional way of life.
We meet the women who are the backbone of their families. For the most part they work in cotton. Their work is intense. They grow and pick native cotton. They clean and card it. They preserve the seeds of natural cream-colored, green and coyuchi brown cotton. They use the malacate drop-spindle to make thread. And, they weave wefts of cloth using the back-strap loom, creating designs formed by a technique called brocade or supplementary weft.
There is a growing market for natural, hand-made cloth dyed with natural plants and cochineal and the caracol purpura snail. But the market is still not big enough to create widespread prosperity. It takes years to be recognized and sometimes, not at all.
Women and families struggle. Mostly it is the women’s work that brings the income that buys medicine for aging parents or a sick relative. Mostly it is the women’s work that pays the school tuition, buys books and uniforms for children and grandchildren. Mostly it is the women’s work that brings food to the table — the tortillas, the hot chocolate, the occasional chicken for a fiesta.
Men work the fields. They raise corn, beans and squash. They tend the animals. This work is not income producing because every family grows its own corn, beans and squash to feed themselves. There is no commercial market for the basics that go on the table. This work for men is subsistence farming. In the socio-economic life of a village, weaving cloth can mean a path out of poverty.
Another path out of poverty is the long road north, to El Norte, where uneducated village men can migrate with a coyote across the desert at night, cross a border without papers, and become undocumented workers. They are the farm laborers, restaurant dishwashers and cooks, gardeners, poultry slaughterers and handymen, doing the work that few others want. They stand in line on Friday afternoon, wiring remittances home, sometimes never returning.
The women continue on.
A few women go on to university in Pinotepa Nacional or Acapulco and become accountants or lawyers or teachers, but not many. Some women choose not to marry, a bond that requires them to go live with a husband’s family, taking on their livelihood and craft, contributing to the household of the in-laws. Some women see that the men are in despair, turn to alcohol for consolation when they have little earning capacity and lose their self-esteem. For this reason, many choose a life of independence.
We come not to judge but to understand. We do what we can. We support their work by visiting and buying direct. We are the appreciators who admire, wear and collect what they make. We are cultural appreciators rather than cultural appropriators.
The women who make cloth learned from their mothers and grandmothers. They have been around thread all their lives. Most started weaving at age twelve. They might sit tethered to the back-strap loom for six or eight hours a day or longer. It can take three months or longer to make a fine huipil.
Do you love what you do? One of us asks a weaving cooperative member.
I weave to help feed my children and family, and cover costs for school, one woman answers.
I do love to weave, and I’m proud to continue the work of my grandmother, answers another. It provides for us, but we need places to sell.
We must support each other economically, says a cooperative spokeswoman. It’s in our solidarity that we will help each other and raise us up. It’s more than a social get-together. It is our livelihood.
Children, boys and girls, age eight to twelve, are learning to weave. This is our future. Our boys are also learning to make loom parts and grow cotton. Men can always help and we encourage their participation, she continues.
In the outdoor kitchen, at the comal, a group of women pat masa into tortillas. They turn the corn dough with thumb and forefinger, careful not to burn themselves. Their fingers are worn with years of cleaning cotton, turning tortillas, washing clothes, spinning, caring for others. Some have lost their fingerprints to hard work.
They salt the hot tortilla, picking up the salt between thumb and forefinger, drizzling the tortilla, rolling it and handing it to us as a gift of welcome. It is fresh, slightly chewy and crunchy, the taste of real food. A simple life can also be a harsh one, and I caution our visitors not to romanticize the experience of being here.
In our home countries, we are absorbed with technology, family isolation and the intensity of politics. Indigenous women in Mexico are absorbed with finding access to markets for their work, good health care and education for their children. What unites us is our humanity and our mutual respect.
For many of us who go off-the-beaten-path to visit makers, we can first be surprised, even shocked at how humbly they live. Some of the most famous artisans I know live in adobe houses or those made with concrete blocks. They may not be able to afford a finished floor or it is not a life-style value.
We go into homes with packed dirt floors, swept clean. We go into outdoor kitchens where amazing food is prepared over a simple wood-fired stove; sometimes this is a grill over a cut off garbage can. Occasionally, the sanitary facilities are not plumbed and we must put a bucket of water into the toilet to flush it. We note these differences and appreciate the abundance in our lives.
We also appreciate the abundance in the lives of Mexican families who live close to the land: they live among their mothers, fathers and grandparents. They are supported by a deep network of community, of friends and tradition. They eat homegrown food. They yearn for the same things we do: health, education, contentment and prosperity. They create works of art.
We have curated this POP-UP, one-morning-only EXPOventa with the Best of the Best textile artisans we know plus ONE GREAT filigree silversmith who is usually hidden away in his studio in the LaNoria neighborhood of downtown Oaxaca. Please share. Tell your friends. Don’t miss it! Cash sales.
We are winding up our whirlwind Oaxaca City and Villages Folk Art Tour and scheduled this EXPOventa for our travelers. Eric and I want to open it up to the public to give these deserving artisans a chance to show off what they make. Meet the makers. Support the artisans directly. All proceeds go directly to them!
Our Oaxaca Coast Textile Study Tour 2020 began with a deep dive into the ecology of the region. We left Puerto Escondido in late afternoon for a hour ride north to the Manialtepec Lagoon. We are in the tropics, hot, sultry and a perfect place to escape winter.
It is magical here, where sea and fresh water mix with spring water to create a brackish environment where bioluminescence is created by algae. The phenomenon can be best seen on a moonless night.
This is a haven for nesting birds and a ride through the fingers of the lagoon reveals colonies of birds waiting to feed just before sunset. The banks of the lagoon host mangroves that have been here for centuries. It is a source of food for indigenous people, a host for sea bass, striped mullet and mojarra.
Along the shores that remind me of bayous and swamps of the American south, we see cormorants, woodpeckers, parakeets, hawks, ducks, heron, egret, orioles and more. Our eco-tour guide is knowledgeable and can spot birds from afar with razor precision. He points to a Peregrine Falcon high in a tree. We don’t see any crocodiles!
This is also where protected sea turtles come to shore along the beach to lay their eggs. We participate in an endangered Ridley sea turtle release, scooping the littles one out of their nesting hole with small jicara bowls, never touching the turtles with our hands. There is a line in the sand where we release them, and watch as they scramble from beach to ocean.
The turtles use their built-in radar to guide them to their habitat. We learn that only about ten percent will survive to adulthood.
After the sea turtle release, we take our seats around a dining table set up on the beach where we enjoy fresh grilled tuna prepared by a local cook. As we eat, the sun sets to the west, giving us another memorable experience.
By now it is dark. We climb back into the boat and travel the waterways back to the main lagoon. Our captain, who grew up on these shores, uses a strobe light to guide us, but I suspect he knows this water like a second skin and has navigated it since he was a child.
He finds just the right spot for us to jump into the warm water from the boat. This is one part of the experience that I love. Move the water with your arms and feet. Watch the droplets sparkle and glow in the dark. (A regular camera cannot capture the image of this phenomenon and so I remember with an impression imprinted in my memory.)
Our goal here is to understand the rich diversity of the Oaxaca coast. To see how indigenous people depend on their natural resources for sustenance. To explore the environment and protect the delicate balance that exists between human and wildlife. And, to enjoy ourselves!
This gives us a footing for exploring textile villages and meeting artisans in the coming days. It is also time to relax and ease into coastal life after the intensity of travel to get here.
Why We Left, Expat Anthology: Norma’s Personal Essay
Norma contributes personal essay, How Oaxaca Became Home
Norma Contributes Two Chapters!
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Norma Schafer and Oaxaca Cultural Navigator LLC has offered programs in Mexico since 2006. We have over 30 years of university program development experience. See my resume.
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Dye Master Dolores Santiago Arrellanas with son Omar Chavez Santiago, weaver and dyer, Fey y Lola Rugs, Teotitlan del Valle