Up, Up and Away: Traveling to Oaxaca’s Sierra Mixe

Many of you may have heard about the remote mountain village of Santa Maria Tlahuitoltepec. It’s a two-and-a-half hour drive up the misty mountains beyond Teotitlan del Valle and San Pablo Villa de Mitla, Oaxaca. It is way off the beaten path and tourists rarely visit there. During our recent Oaxaca Summer Mountain Tour, ten of us ventured out into Oaxaca’s Sierra Mixe. Yes, they speak Mixe here, and the tribal group is one of 16 different groups in the state. It was quite an adventure, first starting out on the soon to be completed (they say) superhighway to the coast. We got off at the Ayutla exit, miles past the road to Hierve El Agua.

Many know Tlahui (as it’s called locally) as the village whose traditional blouse was copied verbatim by French fashion designer Isabel Marant and passed off as her own in 2015. This became the outcry for what we call today Cultural Appropriation, an issue that continues for indigenous communities around the world, and especially in Mexico. While these designs cannot be copyrighted because they are centuries old, there is an ethical question: Are ancient indigenous villages entitled to recognition and compensation for their original designs?

In Mexico, we call this Cultural Patrimony, defined as an object having ongoing historical, traditional, or cultural importance central to the indigenous group or culture itself, and which, therefore, cannot be alienated, appropriated, or conveyed by any individual regardless of whether or not the individual is a member of the indigenous group.

Our destination was the workshop studio of Fernando Gutierrez Vasquez, a weaver and natural dyer, who uses locally sourced alder wood (palo de aguila) tree bark, the traditional dye of the region, to color blouses, dresses, scarves and shawls (blusas, huipiles, bufandas and rebozos).

The workshop space is terraced in three levels on the side of a mountain. We look out at misty mountains, most of the peaks shrouded in clouds. Tlahuitoltepec is a village of houses cantilevered into the surrounding hillsides connected by winding roads carved into the landscape.

Our first stop was at the dye studio where we saw vats of alderwood fermenting for a week in a cold water bath. This releases the color from the bark. Alderwood trees require humidity to grow and they are rich in tannic acid. This is a direct dye and doesn’t need a mordant to affix the color to the fiber.

The cotton skeins will be soaked for three days once the fermenting process is complete. When one puts the dyed skeins in direct sun, it deepens the color. Some of the pieces I saw looked a golden mahogany color. Oak bark, which is also used here, gives a rich beige color because it contains less tannin. The color can vary depending on the variety and age of the oak. The end result can be a surprising and unpredictable process — scientific up to a point! Fernando also maintains an indigo dye vat.

The weaving happens after the yarn is colored. The cloth will be woven on the flying shuttle treadle loom that has four harnesses. On the mid-level, weavers are working at four looms, their feet dancing, the looms singing.

There is a rhythm of harmony and creativity here. The beater on the loom sounds as if it is a Native American drum beat, a heart beat, living threads. Various patterns in the cloth can be achieved based on how the pedals are manipulated.

On the top level is the embroidery studio and gallery. Here women and men in the family cooperative work at embroidering the traditional village designs into blouses, shirts and dresses. This is machine embroidery but it is free-form. The creativity of the embroiderer is reflected in the work. The embroiderer guides the needle to create complex images without using a template. None of the sewing machines are electronically programmed. Each garment is unique based on the hand and eye of the men and women who operate the machine. This is definitely an art form.

Paula Perez, master embroiderer and Fernando’s wife, wraps up some of our purchases

The Spanish never got to Tlahuitoltepec during the first centuries of the conquest. It was too far, too remote. It was not until recently that the dirt horse path was widened and paved over.

We enjoyed a home-cooked lunch of chicken soup, fresh vegetables and rustic, stone ground tortillas under the palapa as the mist lifted and the sun peaked out. And, we enjoyed the gallery and the opportunity to meet the makers and purchase directly from them, knowing that this experience would be mutually satisfying for all of us.

After lunch, we made our way to the studio of famed potter Silvia Martinez Diaz, where we saw a demonstration of an ancient technique used to make bowls, pitchers and cooking vessels. No potter’s wheel is used here. They use the coil technique to hand build even the largest pieces, that are then fired in a wood kiln or open pit much like the New Mexico pottery I know.

As we left the village in mid-afternoon, we all agreed this was a special highlight of our week together.

Note: In Mexico, death is a continuum of life and a celebration. We still have spaces open for our Day of the Dead Culture Tour. Consider joining us to understand this rich and meaningful pre-Hispanic tradition and how death and mortality are considered in Mexico and the USA.

Into the Oaxaca Rain Forest: San Pedro Cajonos

Ten of us traveled by van for almost three hours to get to the Sierra Norte mountain village of San Pedro Cajonos where silk worms are cultivated, their cocoons spun and then woven on back strap looms into glorious silk garments colored with natural dyes! At the end, were were at almost 7,000 feet altitude, rising 2,000 feet above the Oaxaca valley. Once a dirt donkey path, the road meanders and winds through pine and oak forests, branches dripping with moss and bromeliads.

The hills are creviced with rock outcroppings, rivulets become waterfalls, moss and ferns form natural rock gardens. It’s slow going to avoid pot holes and maneuver the switchbacks as we climb, passing through the eco-village of Cuajamaloyos where zip-lining, hiking and wild mushroom hunting attract tourists.

Moises Martinez Velasco holding thousands of silk worm eggs

Our destination holds the promise of meeting Moises Martinez Velasco and his family, known as one of the finest silk weavers of Mexico. The state of Oaxaca and Mexico’s government have invested in building a stunning silk sanctuary, a contemporary concrete and glass structure perched on a hillside with stunning views, to research and promote the development of silk textiles. 1500 people live in San Pedro Cajonos. Their houses and workshops are built into the sides of the mountain, usually on several levels, making it necessary to move vertically from one room to another. Imagine bedrooms on the first plane, then the workshop above, then kitchen and dining/living rooms on the top floor. Stairways connect each level. Did I say the views are spectacular, lush and green.

Woven silk shawl with hand knotted fringe

We meet Moises at his home and he first takes us to meet his two elderly aunts, age 74 and 75, who practice the art of weaving ixtle — agave fiber — into bags that are use by campesinos to carry their lunch into the corn fields. This is a dying art. There are only 10 people remaining in the village who do this work; once 400 people made these ixtle bags. The agave leaves are stripped, soaked, pounded to soften it, and then spun into 2-ply strands. The aunts learned from their parents, who learned from their parents, and those who came before them.

Spinning agave fiber, ixtle, San Pedro Cajonos

This is a Zapotec community, and they have been living here since the decline of Monte Alban in 1100-1300 AD. The dialect they speak is different from the language of the Oaxaca valley. Spanish is the common denominator, although the older people still cling to their native tongue.

Ever and the silk worms she tends

Then, we visit Moises’ sister, Ever, who cultivates the worms. She has one room of her house dedicated to raising the worms from eggs. Each butterfly will lay 300 eggs. It seems there are thousands of little black specks deposited on butcher paper, and there are — 10,000 eggs which will survive for one year. Ever will use what she needs, removing the eggs and then folding up the remaining ones to sleep until the next time she needs them. And, of course, another family member raises mulberry leaves and the fields below the community’s Silk Sanctuary are filled with 500 mulberry trees. The goal is to grow the orchard to 1,500 trees.

The worms are voracious, eating entire leaves in succession throughout the day. Feeding them is a full-time endeavor. April and August are when the eggs mature into caterpillars. Controlled timing helps to ensure there are enough mulberry leaves to feed them. As the worms grow, they consume more until they are ready to spin the silk cocoon from the saliva of their mouth. At this stage they no longer eat, and prefer to seclude themselves among the leaves and branches of oak trees.

Silk is spun using a mechanized Japanese spinning wheel. There are 15 members in Moises’ cooperative. Four people are spinning specialists. The rest weave the cloth and make the hand-knotted fringes. It takes one day to wash the silk, another day to mordant the silk, a third day to dye the silk, and then two more weeks to weave on the back strap loom, sew the wefts of cloth together using a complex needle embroidery, and then to make the fringes — working five hours a day. The weaving technique here is plain weave.

Two types of worms are cultivated, one that produces the wild yellow cocoon that has been in existence in Oaxaca for over 450 years, and the white bombyx cocoon. The wild one has adapted to the environment and survives diseases, laying its eggs and then flying away. The one that produces the white cocoon dies after producing eggs.

At the Silk Sanctuary research center, PhD educated biologists and agronomy engineers study the life cycle through microscopes to determine if the eggs are healthy and why. Mostly, they are studying the yellow cocoons which are from the wild species. One engineer has training in Japanese silk cultivation. They continually check the humidity levels and room temperatures to understand the optimum time for egg development. This is the only center for silk cultivation and production in Mexico.

Silk blusas, hupiles, bufandas (scarves), and rebozos (shawls) from San Pedro Cajonos can be found at the Oaxaca Textile Museum shop, and when there are special pop-up sales in the city that we call expoventas. Of course, you can make your way to San Pedro Cajonos on your own, though this visit was a part of our Summer Textile Mountain Tour.

Note: We still have spaces open for our Day of the Dead Culture Tour, October 29 to November 4, and for our one-day Day of the Dead Tour on October 31 to explore the deeper meaning of this pre-Hispanic celebration.

Pop-up Expoventa, Teotitlan del Valle, Saturday, July 30

Starts 11 am to 4 pm take MEXICO 190 to Teotitlan del valle enter village turn left at Francisco I Madero Continue to end at basketball court. Slight left down and across the dry creek. on other side bear right at the fork. Go to 4th house on left. Prolongacion Francisco I Madero #80. Workshop Taller Tenido a Mano and Norma’s casita.

Featuring best quality back-strap loomed clothing, many with natural dyes Meet weavers and artisans. Buy direct from makers. Curated by Eric Chavez Santiago.

La Malinche: Mexico’s Mestizo Origins

For those who don’t know, La Malinche was the young woman-child and slave sold to Hernan Cortes on the Maya coast of Mexico in 1521. She was traded by the Chontal Maya along with 19 other 12-year olds. Her narrative is complex and formidable. An exhibit at the Albuquerque Museum examines her role as survivor, interpretor, and companion. In viewing the exhibit and knowing of her story, I continue to ask myself, Why was she so maligned?

In contemporary history, as interpreted by Mexican writer/poet Octavio Paz in his 1950 essay Sons of Maliinche, he defined La Malinche as a traitor responsible for the Spanish conquest of indigenous Mexico. This is an interpretation that has stuck and is only beginning to be questioned and debunked.

Mestizaje, the mixing of Spanish and indigenous, is the origin story of modern Mexico. It factored prominently during the Mexican Revolution when political leaders were trying to establish a new identity for the re-imagined nation, one based on honoring indigenous roots. And, yet, La Malinche continues to be denigrated as the ultimate betrayal. To be known as a Malinchistas is a derogatory slur applied to those who favor anything foreign.

To understand Mexico is to understand the context of the Spanish conquest and Aztec (Mexica) dominance. The Aztecs controlled the territory from Tenochtitlan to Nicaragua for over 150 years. Heavy tributes were collected from indigenous tribal groups and the Aztecs were hated by many. La Malinche recruited indigenous allies, some of which included the Zapotecs, the Tlaxcalans, and those from Texcoco (surrounding Tenochtitlan) who aligned with the Spanish to defeat the Aztecs. With this backdrop, La Malinche emerges as the negotiator, interpretor (she learned Spanish and knew Nahuatl, language of the Aztecs), facilitator.

Her images are depicted in the codices of the time — the painted pictorials that told the story of the Spanish expedition in Mexico. She wears a red and white huipil, her hair is tied in braids around her crown (sign of a married woman). She sits with Cortes and tribal royalty to broker the alliances that would destroy the Aztecs. Why is she depicted as evil, as the traitor?

it wasn’t until the Chicano movement of the 1970’s that La Malinche began to be reinterpreted as heroine, representing the sacrifices that women made for family and community. Women have culturally had no voice, are controlled and dominated. This is evidenced by machismo, and we see even more of behavior now in the United States with the reversal of Roe v. Wade and the dominance of conservative, repressive values that have migrated into our legal system.

There is no better time to talk about La Malinche as symbol of survival and intelligence. It is also the time to talk about missing and murdered indigenous women in Mexico and in Navtive American tribes of the United States. Domestic violence against women rose signficantly during the pandemic.

In modern Oaxaca, La Malinche survives in the Dance of the Feather. Her duality as an indigenous girl and a convert to Catholicism (legitimate) and baptized Doña Marina is depicted by two distinct individuals, as if one could be separated from the other. Dance as historical interpretation exists in New Mexico, too, with the Dance of the Matachines, depicting the Spanish conquest of the Aztecs. La Malinche plays a prominent role here, too. As a resident of Oaxaca and New Mexico, I find this overlap fascinating. The exhibition concludes with contemporary photographs of New Mexico indigenous villages celebrating the Dance of the Matachines.

As I exited the Albuquerque Museum, I could help but make these observations and a list:

  • Men determining the fate of women
  • Women without choices
  • Women without voices
  • Women without rights
  • Women as slaves and chattel
  • Women who are powerless
  • Women as evil, bearing the Garden of Eden legacy
  • Women as temptress, sexual object
  • Women objectified in fashion, film, photography

I found this exhibition to be provocative and gave me pause to think about the fate of La Malinche and all women who are enslaved in traditional roles with few choices and little chance for escape. This is why this exhibition is so important. I hope it comes to a city near you.

Fireworks Sale: 9 Huipiles from San Juan Colorado, Oaxaca

Happy July 4th everyone! Here in Taos, New Mexico, the town has lifted the fireworks ban and the celebrations are popping with live music everywhere. I hope you are celebrating what it means to live in a democracy and how we can best protect our personal rights that were heretofore guaranteed by the federal government and past Supreme Court rulings.

Oops! one more for sale! and it’s gorgeous!

SOLD #10 We can send you this one immediately. Measures 32” wide x 36” long. dyed with indigo, wild marigold and mahogany. $255 plus $14 mailing

I leave for Oaxaca on July 20 and return on August 5 for our Summer Mountain Textile Tour. Eager to be returning there. If you make a huipil purchase, I will bring it back with me to mail to you after August 5.

We are offering Brisaida’s weavings at below retail. Why? To encourage women weavers like her to find direct markets for their work. Remote Oaxaca villages like San Juan Colorado on the Oaxaca coast where Brisaida lives, was born and raised, have little access to selling directly to collectors. They often rely on middlemen to come and buy up their work below fair market rate to resell in Oaxaca City. Their husbands work subsistence farming with no chance to sell, raising crops solely to feed the family. The only cash income for the family might be from what the women are able to make and sell or from remittances. Brisaida reached out to me to ask me to help her and I said YES.

These are garments that you can wear with pride that are completely handwoven on the back-strap loom and dyed with natural materials. They are lightweight and gauzy, perfect for the heat. with your purchase, you support indigenous weavers who live in remote areas where tourists rarely travel. You are supporting sustainable entrepreneurism. As soon as a piece sells, I send funds directly to Brisaida. She is among the finest weavers of this village and a member of Las Sanjuaneras cooperative.

How to Buy:  mailto:norma.schafer@icloud.com Tell me the item you want by number. Send me your mailing address. Tell me how you want to pay. Choose one of three ways.

You can pay one of three ways: 1) with a Zelle transfer and no service fee; 2) with Venmo or 3) with PayPal. If you choose either #2 or #3, we add on a 3% service fee which is their charge to us, and we will send a Request for Funds to your email address. The request will include the cost of the garment + $14 mailing. If you want more than one piece, I’m happy to combine mailing. Tell me which payment method you prefer and I’ll send you more information. Buy now and I’ll bring your garment back with me on August 5 when I return from Oaxaca to New Mexico.

A Note from Brisaida

My name is Brisaida Garcia Quiroz, and I’m 34 years old. I learned to weave on the back strap loom at age 10 and I am very proud to do this work. I am happy and love the process of creating the cloth and using natural dyes on cotton that I often hand spin myself from pre-Hispanic native Oaxaca cotton. I am an indigenous woman and with the weaving I do, I know I can help my children get ahead. I am thankful that you are able to help me.

SOLD. Blusa #1: Indigo, with supplementary weft (called brocado) with natural white cotton and cotton dyed with mahogany bark. Size is 27″ long x 29″ wide. $235 plus mailing.

SOLD. Blusa #2: Indigo with supplementary weft dyed with cochineal, mahogany, wild marigold, plus natural white cotton. 29″ long x 30″ wide. $235 plus mailing.

SOLD. Blusa #3: Dyed with indigo and iron oxide. 28″ wide x 28″ long. $200 plus mailing.

SOLD. Blusa #4: Dyed with indigo and Brazil wood, and supplementary weft dyed with natural white cotton, mahogany, wild marigold and indigo. 28″ long x 29″ wide. $235 plus mailing.

SOLD. Blusa #5: Dyed with iron oxide and indigo, with supplementary weft dyed with indigo and native white cotton. 29″ long x 26″ wide. $235 plus mailing.

SOLD. Huipil #6: Raw indigo is uncooked leaves which are rubbed on the cotton to get this soft green tone. This huipil is embellished with a supplementary weft dyed with the shell of the cacao (chocolate) bean and native white cotton. 43″ long x 32″ wide. $298 plus mailing.

SOLD Huipil #7: Dyed with wild marigold and the supplementary weft is dyed with hand-spun white cotton and guapinol. 37″ long x 31 inches wide. $298 plus mailing. Liliana

SOLD. Huipil #8: Mixed colors with natural dyes of indigo, iron oxide and wild marigold. 37″ long x 27″ wide. $247 plus mailing.

SOLD Huipil #9: Dyed with mahogany, with the brocade supplementary weft threads dyed with natural white cotton and wild marigold. 39″ long x 29″ wide. $298 plus mailing.
NOTE: Please measure for fit; width is across the front of the garment, side seam to side seam. All sales final. Thank you.