Monthly Archives: December 2007

Bibliography Oaxaca: Reference Library

These books are in my collection and they are wonderful.  My three favorites are:  1491, A Perfect Red, and Made in Mexico.  Great Masters of Mexican Folk Art is one of those coffee table book treasures that is now out of print and if you can find one on Amazon, you have to pay a king’s ransom.  The Unbroken Thread laid the foundation for the establishment of the new Museo Textil de Oaxaca, and if you are interested in textile preservation techniques, it is a great resource.  Enjoy!

  • Blossoms of Fire, by Maureen Goslin
  • 1491, by Charles Mann
  • Guns, Germs and Steel, by Jared Diamond
  • A Perfect Red: Empire, Espionage, and the Quest for the Color of Desire, by Amy Butler Greenfield, HarperCollins, ISBN 0-06-052275-5
  • Mexico South by Miguel Cabo Rubios.
  • Calendaria Astrologia Tolteca Zapoteca, Coleccion Luna Roja, ISBN 968-15-1792-X.
  • The Codex Borgia by Gisele Diaz and Alan Rodgers, ISBN 0-486-27569-8, Dover Publications, 1993.
  • The Unbroken Thread, Conserving the Textile Traditions of Oaxaca, The Getty Conservation Institute, ISBN 0-89236-381-9, 1997 J Paul Getty Trust
  • Zapotec Weavers of Teotitlan, by Andra Fischgrund Stanton, Museum of New Mexico Press, 1999, ISBN 0-8913-334-4
  • Taller Flora, by Carla Fernandez, Editorial Diamantina, Consejo Nacional para la Cultura y las Artes, 2006, ISBN 968-5467-08-0
  • Great Masters of Mexican Folk Art, by Fernandez de Calderon, Sarmiento and Alvarez, publisher: Fomento Cultural Banamex, ISBN 968-5234-0904
  • Made in Mexico: Zapotec Weavers and the Global Ethnic Art Market, by W. Warner Wood, Indiana University Press, ISBN 978-0-253-21986-2
  • Design Motifs of Ancient Mexico, Jorge Enciso, Dover Publications, ISBN 0-486-20084-1
  • An Aztec Herbal: The Classic Codex of 1552, by William Gates, Dover Publications, ISBN 0-486-41130-3

The Teotitlan Trail

I’ve got to back up two days in my mind because I didn’t do an entry for 12/21 and it’s already 12/22.  First, my impressions of the day: an old man, whip in hand, head covered with yellowed woven straw sombrero is riding a donkey down the cobbled street at a pretty fast clip. Between him and the donkey’s neck is a bundle of hay wrapped in cloth and bound with string.  He is sitting on the hind quarters of the beast. Poinsettias are in bloom everywhere, pink, deep red, fuschia–they are native to the area. Sister’s friends Linda Uno and Linda Dos arrive from Oaxaca city accompanied by Elsa.  The troupe is four gringas — me, Barbara, the two Lindas — and the two indigenas, Janet and Elsa. We hike the back alleys, the cobbled and dirt streets, to the end of Iturbide to find the casa of Alejandrina and Tito.  He is one of the finest weavers in the village but not famous like many of the self-promoters. He mostly does contract work for his cousin who is the famous one and sells Tito’s work under his own name. (This is how some families support each other here–cousins, uncles, nieces and nephews working to produce for the famous one.)  The house is cool, calm, beautiful. The altar, a feature of every Zapotec village home, is decorated for Christmas. The Virgin of Guadalupe raises her outstretched arms in blessings over the baby doll laying on the poinsettia decorated cloth table cover. The baby is Jesus.  The walls are thick adobe, floors are concrete, the kitchen is modern with sienna stained concrete countertops, the whitewashed walls are punctuated with textiles: antique huipiles from Peru and the Isthmus and intricately woven Saltillo-style bags by Tito.  We sit on the comfortable sofa and leather covered bamboo-woven chairs typical of Spanish Oaxaca and Ale displays the treasures she brought from Oaxaca to show us: a finely woven silk tapestry about 18×24″ that was the prototype for a top that Tito wove for Lila Downs, the singer.  The piece, 22 threads per inch, vibrated with color, the pattern was a feather border that was iridescent yellow, cream, rust and magenta.  There were small silk bags finished off with straps hand woven  in Santo Tomas Jalieza, a village famous for its fine work on backstrap looms.  If you go to the website: I will try to post photos of this later today. The work is extraordinary. More impressions:  Dolores Chavez prepares pollo con mole negro and sopa de higadito for comida.  Here’s the recipe for the sopa:  prepare chicken broth to taste.  Scramble 6 eggs together with 1 cup of chopped cooked chicken and season to taste with salt, pepper, paprika.  Bring the chicken stock to a low boil.  Pour the egg/chicken mixture into the boiling soup.  Serve with salsa huajillo (This is a mild chile pepper.  You can use as a substitute any mild chile pepper salsa.)  We all sit around the large rectangular table that is brought out into the courtyard. We are surrounded by looms with rugs on them in various stages of completion. We stuff the chicken mole into fresh corn tortillas or flour tortillas that are possibly 18″ in diameter, ripping them apart and stuffing a piece with chicken mole and quesillo, the famous Oaxaca cheese.  After lunch, Elsa, Janet, Barbara, Linda Uno and I climb into the back of the pick-up truck for a visit to the mezcal vendor who is only in town this afternoon to do his pre-Posada sales. Eric drives and Linda Dos is in the cab beside him.  How we get into the truck bed is a hoot. I lift my skirt, put my foot on the bumper and hold on to the back of the tailgate like it was a horses mane, hoisting myself up and over in one clean swoop.  A couple of others pull the tailgate down, hoist their fannies up, do a little swirl to get from a seated to standing position to maneuver onto the truck bed.  We giggle, look at the sun setting, the 10,000 foot mountains ringing the valley, the lights of houses coming on in the dusk, and ride to the edge of the village in search of the mezcal vendor.  Of course, he got tired of waiting for us and was not there when we arrived.Next stop: Juvenal and Norma Gutierrez. He teaches English to villagers eager to learn in order to better communicate with customers from Canada and the U.S. They have a large compound behind tall walls and a big iron gate.  We go there because Norma makes magnificent aprons, checked cloth in various colors that she decorates with big, bold appliqued flowers, fantastic curlycues and zigzags. They are like the apron version of alebrijes.  Village women wear them like a uniform.  The Gringas want to buy and there is an English class in session.  Juvenal invites me and Barbara to speak to the class while the two Linda’s look at aprons (mandils).  I ask one man, Where do you live? He answers, Hidalgo Street. I ask, do you live in a big house or a small house? He says, I live in a poor house. I say, no, you live in a rich house, every house is rich. It doesn’t matter what size it is. There is silence and we look at each other.  I see him as a beautiful, strong and caring man. He looks at me with huge eyes, warm, open, accepting and appreciative. I ask him to repeat, I live in a small house on Hidalgo Street. I want to go back to teach because these are opportunities for all of us to see the world and ourselves in a different light.  At that moment, I think of the young man from Costa Rica waiting in the RDU airport to go home. He is in Duplin County, NC, one of the most rural, underserved parts of the state, teaching ESL through the Visiting International Faculty program. No doubt, he is teaching children of immigrants in the public schools yearning for education, too.The Giggling Gaggle of Girls climb back into the truck, Eric at the helm, steering us to the other side of the village, up the steep hillside, down the back alley of Calle de Fiallo, until we get to the home of Josefina Mendoza, at the outskirts of town.  From her house you can see the lights of the next village in the valley below.  It has taken me two years and five visits to discover these hidden treasures. Her house has no number, one just has to know, search, discover. Her husband is working in the U.S.  She and her daughter weave magnificent pieces using natural dyes, and they, too, contract their work out to a famous weaver to sell under his name.  I know her well enough that we hug in reunion, I ask about her sister who has recovered from cancer diagnosed last year, and the health of her mother.  I speak in halting Spanish, she speaks in Spanish with bits of English good enough for greeting and to complete a commercial transaction.  Josefina supplements her weaving income by selling frijoles in the village market during most weekdays or attending to the basket vendor’s stall when she is not there.It is late now, almost 9 p.m. and we make our plans to go to the Ocotlan market on Friday for the big market day, then go to sleep.     

The Melting Pot: Miami to Mexico City

Airport Melting Pot

Yesterday was a LONG travel day, starting at 2:30 a.m. eastern time.  As soon as I landed in Miami, I knew I was in the transition to Latin America.  In the airport, Spanish is the dominant language both among travelers and service people.  As an English speaker with a very rudimentary knowledge of Spanish, it is clear to me that it will be critical for future cross cultural communication in our world, we must become bilingual.  I also began to notice in the airport melting pot that we are a country of beautiful, racially diverse peoples whose origins are from throughout the Caribbean. And, then, what do I find when I land in Mexico City?  Krispy Kreme donuts and Starbucks coffee along the endless shopping mall promenade on the way to the connecting gate to Oaxaca.  Now, why am I surprised that a Winston-Salem, North Carolina, company (almost in my back yard, so to speak) has implanted itself into Mexican food culture? In North Carolina we struggle with the integration of Latino immigrants, whether to accept academically talented yet undocumented students into our colleges and universities at resident tuition rates, and how far we will go legally (or not) to expel the “other” from our midst. On the other side of the border, Mexico struggles with the Americanization of its culture, the erosion of identity through the likes of Krispy Kreme and Starbucks, Dannon competing with Lala in the refrigerator case, ubiquitous television marketing a consumer lifestyle.  

Going through “immigration” in Mexico City, I see the teenage brothers and sisters traveling in pairs, without their parents, entering the country of their cultural origin but not their birth, U.S. passport in hand.  Intuitively I know what this is about: the parents, undocumented immigrants, sending their children who were born in the U.S. “home” to visit grandmother (abuela) and tio (uncle) and primos (cousins) to keep the family connection alive.  I board the plane to Oaxaca and sit next to a beautiful 14 year old. She is traveling with her mother and sister.  Her English is impeccable, yet she looks Zapotec.  She says it is a language her grandfather speaks, but no one else in the family learned it.  She was born in Fresno, California.  They traveled by bus from Fresno to Tijuana, where they bought plane tickets to Oaxaca through Mexico City.  This must be a path that many from Mexico who live on the west coast take and I realize that there are many layers to our culture in the U.S.  – many ways of innovation and living that I am not aware of because I live in my own world. 

Eric and my sister, Barbara, pick me up from the airport in Oaxaca, and I am now back in the land I call my other home. (I am almost 62 and wonder how long it will be that I can make this lengthy journey, and then I recall my aunt who has been traveling alone to India for over 30 years.  She is now 90 and continues to make the trip–an admirable quality!)

Food Culture

We stop for dinner at El Porton before going on to Teotitlan.  This is a new diner that looks a lot like Denny’s, but what a surprise!  We had squash blossom soup and chicken flautas topped with mole, crema and avacado.  It was as good as if we were in a 4-star restaurant and the bill was under $10 per person including drinks.  

Experimenting with Cochineal: A Pinch of This and a Tad of That

In July 2007, when Andrea Donnelly, a textiles student,  came to Teotitlan from NC State University to do a natural dyeing residency with Eric Chavez, I listened to their conversations and took notes.  Erick talked about how few people are coming to their home in Teotitlan since the teacher’s strike, so he appreciated that Andrea came to study and workshop with him and his father Federico.  Eric explained that he has experimented with cochineal and is able to get over 95 different shades ranging from dark purple to bright orange, reds, and pinks, by manipulating the Ph of the dye bath.  The color intensity and shading depends on whether he uses lime juice or vinegar and the quanitity of cochineal.  An acid solution will result in a brighter color, he says.  Eric is experimenting, measuring the Ph of the dye bath, and recording recipes (chemical formulas).  Another variable is the shade of natural wool a weaver chooses to dye.   Brown, black, white, and beige wool will absorb dyes differently and add to the variation in color.

We estimate that only about 10% of the village weavers are actually using natural dyes because they are so expensive and labor intensive, and those who do usually estimate the ingredients each time they dye, much like our great-grandmothers used to cook — a pinch of this and a tad of that.  

The way to create color using synthetic dyes is much simpler — one doesn’t need a mordant because there is sulfuric acid (toxic) already added to the dye mixture.  In natural dyeing, Eric and Federico use alum and cream of tartar to “fix” the dyes.  Ancient Zapotecs used only natural dyes from palnt materials.  Eric has researched this and says that the written  records that explained methods to extract dye from palnt materials were destroyed in the Spanish conquest.  He wanted to preserve this part of his culture, so began experimenting using modern chemistry techniques. 

In previous entries, I’ve talked about the toxicity of chemical dyes and their environmental impact.  When a weaver dyes 20 lbs. of wool at one time, standing over the dye pot, breathing the vapors,  not using a mask, this will cause itchy throat, watery eyes, and inflamed lungs.  Respiratory problems are not uncommon.  This is one reason why Eric wanted to learn more about natural dyes — to lower the health risks of his people. 

As Eric continues, he explains that there are other natural options for mordants that come from the plants called tejute (Teh-hu-tay) and pericone, in addition to using alum and cream of tartar.  There is an old Zapotec recipe for using tejute that is most effective.  You chop the plant, add it to cochineal along with oak tree bark and then boil it for the dye bath.  Pericone is used to make yellows, and results in the same coloration as the yellow one can extract from moss.  These plants are almost extinct.  The cooperative, Bii Dauu, runs an organic farm near the reservoir outside of Teotitlan and they are growing percone and tejute to reintroduce and preserve it.

When the Spaniards came to Mexico they hoped to find gold, but they discovered cochineal instead.  The Spanish imported 70 tons of cochineal a year for sale on the world markets.  Cochineal was used to dye the red coats of the British Army and the lipsticks made for Europe’s royalty.  The cochineal bug has a short life span as a parasite on the prickly pear cactus.  It is picked, dried, ground and then mixed with various ingredients to create many shades.  Cochineal mixed with baking soda yields purple, with lime you get red or orange, with vinegar — orange, mixed with pomegranate seeds and skins yields green and beige.

Discover the REAL Teotitlan del Valle

If you were to arrive in the village with a taxi driver or via tourist bus, you would have an entirely different experience than if you chose to travel independently.   On your own, you might do some research in advance to identify the weavers working with the best wool, using higher count warp threads and only natural dyes, which could take time and study.  Then, you would need to figure out how to get to Teotitlan del Valle —  on a public bus,  a shared collectivo taxi, or a taxi hired for transport only.  I am the first to admit, jumping on a tour bus could be convenient (although, I’ve never done it, I can certainly understand it) and saves some time.  But it will cost you an authentic experience.  

My friends Eric Chavez Santiago and Elsa Sanchez Diaz are both graduates of the tourism program at Universidad Anahuac de Oaxaca.  Eric is  a very accomplished weaver who lectures and demonstrates weaving and dyeing techniques at museums, universities and galleries in the U.S. and Elsa is a cultural liaison and interpreter.  Both have 10-year travel visas to the U.S.  They want to create real experiences for visitors to meet Teotitlan weavers who are committed to working only in natural dyes.  If you go to our website: we have an explanation about the importance of continuing the traditions of using natural dyes — for historic and cultural preservation and for health.  The toxic chemical dye vapors that indigenous weavers breathe is creating early onset lung disease, emphysema and some cancers.  So, there are important reasons to support weavers who work with natural dyes, beyond the aesthetics of a more beautiful rug.  If visitors can differentiate quality and only purchase rugs made with natural dyes, then  more people in the village will dye their wool this way.   Elsa and Eric have contacted weavers in the village who they know work ONLY with natural dyes and have asked them to be part of  a self-guided walking map of the village that the two are creating.  The map will include local spots of interest,  lodging and dining suggestions, and contact information. Travelers can contact Elsa to purchase the map.  If travelers desire, Elsa will  personally guide them, and provide round-trip transportation to and from the village from Oaxaca City.  The idea is to showcase the village from the perspective of those who live there, engaging in discussions about customs traditions and history with local experts, exploring the back alleys to meet weavers, or perhaps dining in the home of an accomplished cook. Elsa and Eric want to offer day visits, overnight stays, and residencies and workshops for artists, university students and teachers.  If you’d like more information about this, let me know, or contact Elsa Sanchez Diaz directly at email:   In Oaxaca, call her at 01(951)51-43069.