As if it weren’t enough to lose El Maestro Francisco Toledo this week, news comes this morning from dear friend Patrice Perillie that Margarita Avedano Lopez, founder and president of Tixinda Mexican Dreamweavers Cooperative, has died.
The cooperative, one of the most famous on Oaxaca’s Costa Chica, is in the Mixtec weaving and dyeing village of Pinotepa de Don Luis, about an hour up the mountain from the Pacific Ocean.
Margarita’s brother, Don Habacuc Avedano, is one of the few remaining men who harvest the rare caracol purpura snail for its incredible purple dye, which Margarita used in her weavings.
We know this village intimately because we visit it as part of our Oaxaca Coast Textile Study Tour. We know Margarita for her outstanding collection of regional textiles that she sold in the village market, and for her extraordinary prowess as a back-strap loom weaver and dyer.
True, there are others to carry on. Yet, recognizing women in this region who preserve culture and tradition through artisan craft is essential. The work of Margarita, known as Tia Tere, deserves special acknowledgement because of her dedication to traditional methods: weaving the posahuanco (wrap-around skirt) using natural dyes such as indigo, caracol purpura and cochineal, and carding and hand-spinning (with the drop spindle) native coyuchi and white cotton into the finest threads.
As the generations age and pass from us, how do we keep their memory and their talent alive, going forward? To honor Margarita, it is imperative that our appreciation for Oaxaca traditions carry forward. It is essential that we continue to support handcraft. I feel privileged to have known her and to have acquired cloth that she wove and fashioned into fine garments.
Descanse bien, Margarita Avedano Lopez. We will miss you immensely.
News came in this morning that Francisco Toledo died last night at age 79, a number I no longer consider to be relevant. He was an iconic figure in Oaxaca and Mexico. Maestro Toledo was a champion for human rights and righteousness, for all the goodness in people, for the aesthetic beauty of our city and our nation. He fought vocally and fiercely, without reservation or equivocation, for First Peoples and native species, for indigenous corn. He stood in the way of Monsanto as it threatened eradication of our cultural heritage. Today, I speak as a permanent resident of Mexico. The loss is enormous.
Who will step in for him? His memory is a sacred honor to peace and justice. You are a blessing to us, Maestro Toledo. Your incredible art is only a fraction of who you are and the legacy you leave us. I can’t think of a person who has the profound impact of your voice and your pen, the courage and the fortitude to step in and be heard. You leave us with dignity and the memory to keep doing what is necessary to counter the evils of our time. You leave us with a void. Let us hope that in the void, voices rise to equal yours.
This is a book review, of sorts. Perhaps it’s my own journal of movement and re-discovery both internal and external. The Time Machine of air travel took me from Oaxaca to Santa Fe, New Mexico, to Huntington Beach, California, now to land in Durham, North Carolina. I also call North Carolina home though I spend most of the year in Oaxaca. After three weeks on the road to visit friends and family, I am now taking time to chill and to read.
True Confession: I never read Oaxaca Journal by Oliver Sacks, who fell in love with Oaxaca in 2001 when he went with the New York City fern society to venture into the desert and cloud forests in search of rare species. The book was published in 2002.
Ferns per se aren’t my thing. But Oaxaca is. So, my friend Jenny, who read it three times, brought her copy to me in Santa Fe and here I am, telling you about it.
This is a quick read. Entertaining and informative. After living in Oaxaca for almost 14 years, I am taken with a sense of new discovery of place and a reminder about how important it is to pay attention to the familiar — it’s so easy to take in the sweeping view instead of noticing the fine details. When we move too fast, we miss so much.
It’s like taking a close-up photo — you have to crouch down, bend your knees, get your eye focused on the particular, the micro, to appreciate its beauty. Oliver Sacks reminds me to slow down. Throughout the book, he talks about how he and his fellow travelers use a microscope to examine the underside of fern fronds to understand the biology of life. I take this as an instructive metaphor. In the process of looking for one particular thing it is possible to see others heretofore unknown.
Critics delight in this book, which they call the work of travel writing. Sacks died in 2015 at age 82, but he lives with us through his insights. He is a role model for inquisitiveness and curiosity, experimenting with the joys of life.
As I follow Oliver Sacks around Oaxaca to familiar places, I am struck by how it was in 2001 and how it is now in 2019, years later, and how things change and don’t. Read 1970’s accounts of rutted, dirt roads in Teotitlan del Valle, and you don’t recognize the place today.
Then and Now. Do’s and Don’ts.
Take the road to the Sierra Juarez where biodiversity yields cloud forest, mushrooms, ferns, bromeliads and steep hiking trails at 10,000+ feet
Compare the simplicity then and sophistication now of mezcal making and big business, bringing great wealth to the Oaxaca valley
Assume a naive perspective of culture, people and place with one or two visits, and the propensity to romanticize lifestyle so different from our own
See the grandeur and importance of Zapotec civilization in Mesoamerica by visiting Monte Alban, Yagul and Mitla to gain respect for indigenous people
Project your own desires, wishes and beliefs as you yearn for a simpler life
Sacks visits Teotitlan del Valle with his group to see the rug weaving and natural dyeing process. See page 115 in the book. In 2001, there were few families working in natural dyes and it is understandable that a guide would take them to visit the most famous weaver of the time, Isaac Vasquez Garcia, The Bug in the Rug. The New York Times mentions him in a 1988 print story, Wall Hangings From Oaxaca, now digitized. You will see how demand and time has changed the pricing.
When I arrived in Teotitlan in 2005, I was determined to find a weaver working in natural dyes who had not yet been discovered. Fame, I think, has a way of changing people, pricing, production and products. I didn’t go with a guide, so I set out to explore the village on my own by foot, to compare weaving quality and ascertain the visual difference between natural and commercial dyes. That is how I met the Chavez Santiago Family to start my Teotitlan del Valle adventure. They now run Galeria Fe y Lola.
It is easy, when one doesn’t speak Spanish, to misunderstand, misinterpret, what is said. Sacks reports that Isaac Vasquez and his family produced all the cochineal from their nopal cactus to dye the rugs. This is impossible. It takes thousands of bugs to make a dye vat. Dried cochineal is purchased, then and now. Peru and the Canary Islands are the largest producers. There is a Oaxaca cochineal farm now to supply local demand but there is not enough produced for export.
Sacks reports that weavers in the village had a deep knowledge of dyeing. At the time only a handful of weavers used natural dyes. Everyone knew how to use the one-step, easy process of making a chemical dye.
Now, perhaps a dozen families use natural dyes. I like to promote all of them. It’s a worthy endeavor. It is an expensive and chemically complex process. Yet, everyone knows how to give a cochineal dye demonstration that includes squeezing the bug on the palm of a hand, changing the color with lime juice or baking soda. Ask to see the dye pots before jumping to conclusions!
Sacks is expansive in his Oaxaca Journal. He talks about astronomy of the ancients, the cuisine of bugs and mole, cultural competency, the traditional and modern, hanging out on the Zocalo, Hierve el Agua and calcified waterfalls, the magic of tianguis street markets and more.
I don’t know why it took me so long to get to this. It’s been on my reading list for a decade. If you are returning to Oaxaca or making a first trip, I highly recommend this read. The page-turner took me two days! The impact reinforced the messages of living.
I’m in New Mexico and hour north of Santa Fe in the village of Abiquiu, where painter Georgia O’Keeffe reconstructed a dilapidated adobe, converting it into a winter home of extraordinary minimalism. She would have been at home in the living simply movement of modernity. One could also say she shaped it.
Here in Nuevo Mexico, thinking of Mexico is unavoidable. The vast, expansive, unending landscape of desert, scrub oak, sage and cactus always brings me back to the root of native Americans, of indigenous First Nation peoples, to New Spain and the conquest, to the land that was once an integral part of Mexico. Place names call out original Hispanic settlers, land grants. Tribal communities draw parallels to Mexican pueblos where creativity thrives and hardship is an undercurrent.
The land stretches out in folds, crevices, upheavals, arroyos, twelve thousand foot mountain ranges. It is dry and hot in July. It is getting drier and hotter. Afternoon thunder clouds build up and in the distant purple hills, I see rods of lightening and the softening horizon of rain. Along the green ribbon Rio Grande River Valley ancient peoples who migrated south from Mesa Verde continue their traditions.
We are not permitted to photograph the interior of the Georgia O’Keeffe Home and Studio in Abiquiu. We are not permitted to take photos of the interior through the glass picture windows while standing outside. The home is as it was when she left it, each particular and well-chosen item in its particular place. Each item a sculptural statement, most created by icons of modern furniture design.
The walls are pale mushroom or cream or beige or faded salmon. They are thick adobe. Deep and cool. Through the window is a living painting. The walls are barren. Bare. Empty only to the imagination of what might lay beyond. The vast changing of the sky, the season, the chill or warmth of air. One can imagine the isolation and solitude of living there amidst the expansiveness of the hills, mountains, a ribbon of road, eagles soaring on the thermals, a garden to feed and nurture belly and soul.
The palette at the O’Keeffe house in Abiquiu is neutral. White cotton covers the kitchen sofa. The kitchen faces north, the light preferred by painters, the guide tells us. The windows are huge. Standard Sears metal cabinets disappear recessed into deep adobe walls. The table is simple whitewashed plywood that sits atop sawhorses, worn smooth with use and age. Nature and living space merge.
Throughout the house the naked walls speak — nothing is necessary. A painter’s easel served as coat rack when she turned from painting to making ceramic vessels.
Details complicate things, she said. To become acquainted with an idea, one must revisit the same subject over and over. Her paintings took on the austere minimalist life she lived. Seeing this, hearing this, reminded me of the traveling exhibit Georgia O’Keeffe: Living Modern, I saw in Winston-Salem, NC, at Reynolda House, that included a dress that she designed and sewed into multiple versions using different fabrics and colors.
Being there also challenges one to revisit lifestyle and think about how we are acculturated to consume, compete and communicate. I am always grateful for these moments of self-reflection to ask the essential question: Who am I? What is the meaning of my life? Being with O’Keeffe in Abiquiu helps in the continuing process of self-reflection.
The 2019 International Folk Art Market in Santa Fe, New Mexico, has come to an end. The three-day extravaganza is a chaotic mix of tribal, ethnic, indigenous creativity from around the world. It brings together many talented artisans who have no other paths to reach international markets.
Santa Fe is a destination for many reasons. This is where friends from all over the country converge to volunteer, too. A group of us planned a reunion around being here. We coordinated our volunteer time. We stayed at the same, small, old Route 66 motel that has been in service since the 1950’s. I imagine my dad may have stayed there as he pulled a trailer with all our family household belongings behind our 1953 Plymouth station wagon on the journey west from Detroit to resettle in Los Angeles.
The market officially begins on Friday night with a special opening night preview at $250 per person admission. I always volunteer, so I get to watch the passing parade of Texas and Oklahoma oil and gas heiresses and collectors dressed in their finest attire. It’s a cocktail party that goes from 5:30 to 10:00 p.m. The ticket gives one first pick. I volunteered with Santa Fe de Laguna, Patzcuaro, potter Nicolas Fabian Fermin, and I packed up lots of beautiful pots that night.
The frenzy continued on Saturday morning when the Early Birders got in at 7:30 a.m. After the late night on Friday of bubble-wrapping ceramics, I just couldn’t get going to get there before 10 a.m. when the event opened to general admission. With hundreds of artisans and thousands of people, it was a crush to get through the aisles to see all that was offered at this huge bazaar.
That didn’t give me much time to cover more than a fraction of the aisles, since I was meeting friends Jennifer and Mark Brinitzer, Ann Brinitzer and Katie and Don Laughland for an early lunch in the cafe. The women came with me on our 2019 Chiapas Textile Study Tour (a few places open for 2020) and we became fast friends.
It was thrilling and heartfelt to see so many artisans I know from Oaxaca represented at this outstanding exposition. It takes years of making highest quality work to gain this level of recognition, plus it takes entrepreneurship and some luck to gain entry to this juried show.
It’s very expensive for artisans to participate, too. They must cover their own shipping, travel, lodging and food expenses and they give 20% of their sales to the IFAM organization for the opportunity to sell.
If they are part of a cooperative with many makers, the profits must be divided. As with the case of Dreamweavers Cooperative from Pinotepa de Don Luis, there were three representatives at the Folk Art Market — Amada, Teofila and Patrice. Patrice did a fundraiser and collected over $4,000 USD to cover some of the expenses. And, they had excellent sales. However, the net gets divided among 30 weavers and dyers, so each person might earn only a few hundred dollars.
For individual artisans and families, the profits are much better but ONLY IF there are sales. If it is a slow year, there is an opportunity to sell at a discount (the artisan names the percentage) on Sunday afternoon, the last day of the show. Brisk sales one year does not guarantee success for the next. The risk is entirely on the shoulders of the artisan.
Odilon Merino Morales from San Pedro Amuzgo on the Costa Chica of Oaxaca, Mexico, consigns what he doesn’t sell with Sheri Brautigam who runs the online Etsy shop, Living Textiles of Mexico. If you didn’t get to the show and want one of these incredible textiles, please contact Sheri. She also has pieces from Pinotepa de Don Luis’ Dreamweavers Cooperative.
The benefit of doing this is that the artisans do not need to pay the return shipping for unsold goods and it leaves the beautiful pieces in the USA for better access to those of you who missed the show and want to make a purchase.
I volunteered on Saturday afternoon from noon to 6:00 p.m. with the Dreamweavers Cooperative. I know these women well since I lead study tours to their remote village on Oaxaca’s Costa Chica.
The IFAM show is a destination and an adventure. Since I know many of the artisans, it is a special and heart-throbbing experience to meet them outside their humble homes and villages in the world of commerce. For some, this is their first visit to the USA. Their first flight on an airplane. Their first success at getting a visa to enter the USA and overcome the fears of border crossing and disrespect.
This is the moment to applaud what Oaxaca artisans have accomplished. There are so many more talented people whose work goes unrecognized and unrewarded. For those of us who love Mexico and appreciate the talent, history, culture and art, the process of bringing accomplished artisans to the world marketplace is an on-going effort.
Thanks to all who support and applaud what they do.
In the vast New Mexico landscape, one can disappear, rediscover Georgia O’Keefe, experience Nuevo Mexico, land of enchantment, understand the history and artisanry of nearby Native Americans who live along the Rio Grand River. It is hot, dry, high desert with the kind of beauty that brings the romance of the Old West into one’s spirit.
Look at the rain over purple hills, fields of sage and lavender, the dry withered look of dehydration — plants and people, wrinkles in the earth and on weathered faces. I imagine what it would be like to be an indigenous person here, too. I know the Oaxaca story well. There are many similarities — both experienced the Conquest, the attempt at culture annihilation, and the resurgence of identity amidst the face of adversity and hardship.
Again, let’s applaud the talent of our First Peoples.
Zayzelle: Dress Simply is our new clothing line, one dress, one-of-a-kind, one size fits many, imaginative cloth. Plus, jewelry and an easy-to-wear pullover scarf. Keep checking back for What’s New.
Norma Writes for Selvedge Latin Issue
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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