Monthly Archives: March 2008

Tapestry Traditions & Textures by Tricia Goldberg

Tricia Goldberg first met Federico Chavez, his son Eric and daughter Janet, in April 2007, when they came to San Jose, California, with an exhibition of their work at the San Jose Museum of Quilts and Textiles. Tricia, a weaver and member of the American Tapestry Alliance, shares her connection through a published narrative in the Winter 2007, Vol. 33, No. 4 issue of Tapestry Topics, A Quarterly Review of Tapestry Art Today. I have reproduced much of it here with Tricia’s permission.

“When my friend Deborah Corsini, the museum’s curator, talked enthusiastically about a family of traditional weavers who would be bringing their rugs to the museum, I had no idea I would be visiting them in their home and studio that summer. About two months later, my husband, two daughters and I found ourselves in Teotitlan del Valle….I had mentioned our vacation plans for a visit to Oaxaca to Deborah and discovered that the Chavez family lived nearby. With her encouragement, we made plans for a visit. As Eric had told me by e-mail, a sign directed us two or three blocks from the town’s main street down a cobbled lane to their home….

“The Chavez family greeted us in their home’s open courtyard, which holds a sturdy loom, winding equipment, and vast quantities of year in a wide range of subtle colors. The yarn is natural wool from sheed raised in nearby villages. It is locally spun on drop spindles which produces a texture quite different from that of commercial or wheel-spun products.

“Eric Chavez has dedicated himself to reviving and maintaining centuries-old traditions of natural dyeing. As Federico wove and Janet wound bobbins, Eric explained how indigo produces many shades of blue and cochineal yields various reds, pinks, purples and oranges. Cochineal comes from the crushed bodies of beetles that are raised on cactus plants, harvested, then dried.

“Federico’s rugs are rooted in the indigenous Zapotec traditions of geometric, loom-controlled patterns, but increasingly they contain his own more personal, experimental designs based on images from nature as well as motifs from Zapotec mythology. He stands at his loom, operating its two pedals with one foot. He uses plain, straight wooden bobbins and packs the weft with a simple plastic comb.

“At least four generations of the Chavez family have been weavers: Federico, who taught his own children to weave, learned from his father Jose, who in turn was taught by his father Victoriano. Federico wove and sold his first rug when he was 10 years old.

“In an adjoining gallery room, Federico, Eric, Janet showed us their collection of finished rugs, spreading and unrolling many of them on the floor so we could appreciate the dazzling variety of colors and patterns.  Their inventory is large, perhaps larger than they would like. Typical of most people in the area, they are still feeling the effects of a drop in tourism brought about by last year’s civil unrest in Oaxaca.

“This gallery space is also the family’s dining room where we were invited to join them for a traditional lunch of chicken mole prepared by Federico’s wife Dolores. We were joined by Omar, the youngest son, a 13-year old who is a skilled weaver himself.

“Eric and Janet are sophisticated young Oaxacans who gracefully blend modern life with tradition. Eric holds a college degree in business and tourism and works to study and preserve ancient artistic traditions. Janet is a student of comparative languages at a nearby university and, in addition to her work for the family’s rug weaving business, maintains strong ties to local religious customs. She told us she hoped to be invited to participate in a celebration a week later in which she and other women would parade through the town in traditional costume, carrying ornate canastas (baskets) on their heads holding saint’s images. Although the basket is heavy, she explained, if you can carry it, this means that your sins for the previous year were not so great. With her parents’ help, she modeled the costume for us — a long, wrap-around wool skirt (cochineal dyed and woven by Federico) and an elaborately embroidered floral blouse — and before our eyes she changed from a modern young woman in jeans into a traditional Zapotec maiden.

“We decided to return to Teotitlan the following week, assuming (correctly) that Janet would be in the parade. The procession through the town’s narrow streets and the accompanying festivities were well worth a second trip. We had also decided to purchase a small rug that we had admired on Federico’s loom the week before. To our surprise, it was finished, but was still on the loom because another rug was still being woven on the same warp threads. He was happen to cut off the rug we wanted and assured us that tying the unfinished one back onto the loom would not be a problem. We value our rug for its beauty and as a link to the Chavez family and the art of Oaxaca.

“We want to encourage more travelers to visit Oaxaca and experience first-hand this beautiful area and its friendly and creative people.”

Tricia Goldberg lives in Berkeley, California, and hosted the Chavez family at an American Tapestry Alliance event at her home during the ATA’s Silver Anniversary Biennial Celebration.

Amazing Maize: First Cultivated in Oaxaca 6,000+ Years Ago

It’s amazing to know that in a farming area southeast of Oaxaca City, likely somewhere in the highlands past Mitla or Matatlan, is where maize originated. Maize is different from the huge kernel, yellow corn we know in the U.S. Its variegated, multi-colored kernels are smaller and full of healthy richness. The Oaxaca region is home to at least 59 species of maize, from the protein-rich variety used to make tortilla chips to a softer grain mashed for use in tamales. Maize comes in a rainbow of colors: blue, red, black, purple, orange, yellow, creamy white, and a mix of all, each used for a distinctive purpose with distinctive textures and flavors. The cobs vary in size, too, depending on what it is cultivated for.

grinding maize

Photo: Grinding maize in Teotitlan

Farmers in Oaxaca first bred maize some 6,000 to 8,000 years ago, and from there it spread and was adopted by Africa, Asia and Europe. Worldwide, we eat it roasted on the cob, popped, stripped and cooked into cereal or polenta, ground and baked to become bread or cakes. It is a staple that traces its origins to a possible DNA mix of teosinte and gammagrass (there is still some controversy about origins, since teosinte has very tiny cobs and kernals). Plant geneticists believe that edible maize was developed by Mesoamericans within a 100 year time span — an incredible, accelerated feat! When combined with beans, maize offers a complex protein that is very nutritious.

Though the exact date and circumstances of the first cultivation of maize is a mystery, by 1500 A.D. the Aztec and Mayan civilizations had long called the descendants of that original plant “maize,” literally “that which sustains life,” and claimed that the crop was flesh and blood itself. Maize cob and stalks were incorporated into the stone carved images of Aztec, Mayan and Zapotec leaders connoting royalty derived from the gods and assumed a central place in their headdress. It was a symbol of power, source of life.

In the modern economies of the U.S., East Asia, and Europe, however, it is the ultimate legible” industrial raw material: agribusiness uses its starches and cellulose for fuel, fodder, paint, plastic, and penicillin. The risk is that genetically modified corn will eradicate the local small farmers of southern Mexico who have been practicing sustainable agriculture, farming on 10-acre plots for millenia, using the same milpa techniques as their forebearers to replenish the earth without having to use chemical feritilizers, a stake in the ground for cultural preservation and a healthier food source. Local farmers cannot compete with the lower priced genetically modified corn produced by agribusiness, and we have seen smaller farmers in Teotitlan give up their plots. The debate is fueled around NAFTA and corn imports, providing more corn for more people that may or may not have as much nutritional value as the original source, and the risk of the genetically modified corn wiping out the DNA of the heirloom varieties.

The practice of milpa is the farming technique of growing corn, beans, avocado, and squash all together on one plot of ground, the beans and squash twining around and hanging on to the corn stalks, adding their nutrients to the soil, year after year, with no depletion of minerals. Oaxaca soils have sustained food growth in this manner for thousands of years with no loss of productivity.

You can read more about this in Charles Mann’s book, “1491,” and when you visit Oaxaca and eat tamales and tortillas, think of this food as a 6,000 year old contribution to gastronomy and world health. Ask, if you like, where the corn comes from in order to support the local farmer and local economies. You’ll be doing your part for sustainable development.