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.
The tombs of Monte Alban, the ancient Zapotec civilization perched atop a mountain in Oaxaca, Mexico, revealed, when excavated, unparalleled Mesoamerican gold metal smithing, stone and beadwork. For many of us who live in Oaxaca or visit there, we become attached to filigree work in traditional designs brought to Mexico via the Moors who taught the Spanish this intricate technique.
I’m offering Oaxaca and New Mexico jewelry for sale from my collection. If you are interested, please indicate by number and send me an email email@example.com with your mailing address. I will add $10 USD to mail within US and $28 USD to mail to Canada to invoice.
Throughout the Americas adornment was and continues to be a symbol of tribal identity and pride. Distinct styles developed which continue today, made by makers who live along the Rio Grande River Valley of New Mexico, and Navajo and Hopi groups who inhabit the mesas and desert of western New Mexico and northern Arizona.
Silversmithing techniques migrated from Mexico to the Southwest, where these techniques were taught to Native Americans. Horsemen need spurs, bridles, belt buckles and bolo ties. Women need earrings, necklaces and rings.
Necklaces and pendants were fashioned from hand-drilled, cut and polished stones, shells, animal teeth, fossilized plant materials, and wood.
To visit Santa Fe is to go back into this history for me. It is a personal history, too. One of migration along the Santa Fe Trail, traveling Old Route 66, and our own family’s trek from the Midwest to California in the early 1950’s.
Every day, Native American jewelry makers and artisans sit under the Palace of the Governors portal on the Santa Fe Plaza. Every day, based on lottery, a lucky few can spread their blankets and display their work. This is like attending a juried show. Each vendor is licensed and must adhere to strict quality guidelines to sell here. I’m drawn to this place for many reasons.
I’m going back to the memory of our stop in Albuquerque after two days of travel on the Atchison Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad Super Chief in September 1953, on our way to resettle in Los Angeles. I was young, my sister a toddler, our mom cautious. There were Indians sitting cross-legged on blankets as we stepped onto the platform. Laid out before them was silver and turquoise jewelry, blankets, ceramics, trinkets. Were they wearing buckskin and feathered headdresses? I can only imagine. It was the time of Wild West romanticism, Cowboys and Indians, Roy Rogers, Dale Evans and Hopalong Cassidy.
I was curious. Our mom shooed us into the dining room and then back to the train. It’s likely we passed by Fred Harvey bracelets, real Navajo blankets, tooled leather belts, Hopi pottery, Zuni petit point, squash blossom necklaces: Native American jewelry we dream about today.
As mom and daughters traveled west by train, our dad drove the Plymouth station wagon along Route 66, pulling a small tarp-covered trailer through the desert, a water bottle hanging from the front grill. The manual shifter was on the steering column. Only he could drive it. He later became a huge admirer of Maria Martinez, the famed black pottery maker from San Ildefonso Pueblo, attempting her iconic style.
I’m taking you back to Santa Fe Plaza and the Palace of the Governors. Here is an opportunity to meet artisans, talk with and buy directly from them. Many come from miles away. Navajo silversmiths will travel from Gallup, NM. They might do other things, like teach school or repair cars or serve as tribal administrators. Sometimes, a family member like a mother, father or brother, might sell in their stead.
If you are adventuresome, like me, you might strike up a conversation and ask to visit a home and workshop. Many live within a two-hour radius. That’s how I got to the Santo Domingo Pueblo to see where Warren Nieto lives and creates.
I’m considering organizing a September 2020 folk art study tour of northern New Mexico, based in Santa Fe or environs. This could include visits to Native American jewelry makers, weavers and potteries. We will also include a Native American Feast Day. This feels like a good fit with my love of indigenous arts and my desire to directly support native artisans, as we learn about life, culture, craft and continuity. If you are interest in knowing more as I develop this program with Sheri Brautigam, please send me a note to add you to the list of interested people. firstname.lastname@example.org
Tonight the famed Santa Fe International Folk Art Market opens on Museum Hill to the thrill of all of us who embrace the work created by indigenous people as an expression of self, culture and community. It will continue through the weekend.
On Thursday afternoon, skirting a dramatic downpour of rain, the IFAM officially began with the Parade of Nations around the Santa Fe Plaza. Outstanding artisans from Mexico represented the best of the entire country and her dedication to craft preservation and culture.
It takes a village. It takes the ingenuity, dedication, years of creative work without the promise of recognition. It takes collectors and appreciators who reward talent by purchasing amazing pieces. It takes the support of NGOs and individuals who give time, energy and resources to step in to help artisans, most of whom speak no English, or may speak some Spanish, and who prefer to communicate in their indigenous language, which is probably their first language.
The International Folk Art Market brings people together from all around the world to celebrate native craft and creativity. It offers a forum to appreciate, understand and applaud.
The parade around the plaza brought tears to my eyes for many reasons. This joining, this coming together in celebration is a marvel. I recognized so many faces from the artisans I know in Oaxaca and Mexico. We waved. We embraced. The crowd responded.
The Market is juried and space is limited. Many talented people from Mexico apply and are not accepted. Space is limited. Most wouldn’t even dream of coming this far because it requires about $2,000 US dollars to fund the travel and expenses for one person. There is an application fee and artisans pay a percentage of sales to the organization, too. And, then, of course, there is the huge obstacle of getting a Visitor Visa to enter the USA.
So this is a special group in many ways.
To be here is to have pride in Mexico, what her people do and create, the tenacity required to get this far, the savvy to be able to translate creative work into an application, the perseverance to risk ridicule and jealousy by peers who wish they could have achieved.
There are joys for all us derived from being in a community of like people from around the world.
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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