Monthly Archives: July 2009

Oaxaca Indigenous Textiles: Preservation or Adaptation

A group of Mexicanos and gringos gathered on Monday evening in the city for the Oaxaca preview of “Weaving a Curve” movie and to see the latest work of Federico Chavez Sosa, master weaver of Teotitlan del Valle.  Most of us came dressed in our local Mexican finery.   Patrice, who has been living in Puerto Escondido for over 20 years and holds dual Mexican and U.S. citizenship, was wearing a fine huipil handwoven in coyuche cotton (pre-conquest, native to the region) indigo dyed huipil.  Eduardo, a Mexicana artist who was raised in Ensenada, Baja California, and I were wearing our Juchitan traje.  Sheri donned a magnificent olive green robozo woven in the mountain village of Tenancingo which was wrapped around a floral blusa intricately hand embroidered in the village of San Antonino in Ocotlan, Oaxaca.

As we were treated to the exhibit of Federico’s magnificent weavings, our talk turned to the textile traditions of Oaxaca and Mexico, and how weavers are adapting traditional huipils to meet the demands of the marketplace — as innovators have done for millenia.  We talked about how some of the great weavers from Santiago Pinotepa Nacional, noted for their traditional handwoven striped faldas (wrapped skirts) dyed with cochineal and purpua, are now sewing the fabric into halter tops and zippered straight line skirts that are being worn by local women as well as sold for the tourist market in Oaxaca.  Traditional adaptation is occurring for many reasons.  Weavers cannot afford to wear the work they create.  They might be able to afford to wear a blouse that costs 85 pesos (about $5 USD), and prefer to sell what they weave that will bring income to the family.  If a San Mateo del Mar weaver, for example, can sell a huipil for 500-1,000 pesos, she may not wear her own work.  The influences of the dominant culture, driven by television, the internet, and the shifting styles of contemporary fashion, bring change (wanted or not) to once remote villages that are now connected to the world by technology.  Out-migration, returning emigrants who worked in the U.S. for a while and then returned to their home villages have an impact.

I asked Federico and his daughter, Janet Chavez Santiago, why they do not use the rugs they weave on the floors of their home.  “We weave them to sell, they say.  These are our livelihood.”  Zapotec rugs from the village of Teotitlan del Valle are a great example of adaptation.  Woolen goods woven in the village on the fixed frame pedal loom were originally blankets and sarapes (ponchos) which the Spanish needed to cover themselves and their horses.  The fixed frame pedal loom is an import from Europe by the Spanish.  Teotitlan Zapotecs adapted the backstrap loom techniques to the floor loom and shifted from weaving in cotton to weaving in wool in 1521.  In the 60’s and 70’s, rug exporters from the U.S. came to the village and introduced Navajo motifs for export to a hungry U.S. design market primarily based in Santa Fe.  Zapotecs adapted.  Floor rugs were never part of their original weaving repertoire.

As we observe these changes in the weaving culture of Oaxaca, it is important to not make a judgment about whether what is happening is good or bad.  Adaptation, change, and innovation will occur as long as human beings wander this earth.  It is part of creativity and of market forces.  Yet, some of these traditions will disappear unless we are willing to support the weavers who continue to weave fine work using natural dyes and other high quality raw materials, and be willing to pay a higher price for their work.

There are more questions than answers.  What will the long-term impact be on local weaving villages where more than half the male population has left to work in the U.S.?  When they return, what attitudes will these men bring with them that will influence change in the traditional lifestyle and artforms?  Do we expect small, isolated indigenous villages to retain their traditional cultures while the rest of the world changes around them and how is this possible?  Does this mean that we expect people to continue to live with substandard education, health care, and access to economic opportunity?  Does textile preservation require that life remains static?  Are our priorities to preserve the well-being of the people or the work they produce?   What will be “lost” if the last woman in a village who weaves fine work dies and there is no one else to carry on?

19 Hours in Juchitan: Trajes y Telas

Surprise!  We’re in Juchitan.

In my humble opinion, I think Juchitan has one of the greatest markets in all of Oaxaca, especially if you love fabric and the traditional dress of Tehuanas — heavy hand embroidered floral designs on either velvet or floral patterned cloth with complimentary skirts often fringed in lace or eyelet cotton.  The traje of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec region is among the most colorful and interesting in Oaxaca.

We are circling the Zocalo looking for a hotel after deciding not to spend the night in San Mateo del Mar.  Families, couples and Muxes stroll the square filled with balloon and food vendors.  After finding rooms and checking into the Hotel Santo Domingo del Sur on the Pan American Highway across from the Pemex station at the intersection at the crossroad that leads to the center of Juchitan, we returned to  the Zocalo to eat garnaches (a local open-faced small chalupa or mini-tostada) and drink Corona.  The cost was 10 pesos for two pieces.

It is a sauna in Juchitan this time of year (summer).   Even in December, the coast is tropical.  Coconut and banana palms sway in the constant wind which helps keep the skin cool.  We are back at the Zocalo in the morning at 9 a.m. for desayuno (breakfast) at a beautiful restored Colonial-style two story casa that has been recreated as Restaurant Casa Grande.  The frescoes swirl around stone arches two stories high.  Fans swirl to keep the air moving.  Two green parrots call from the second story wrought iron veranda.  Service is excellent and the food is outstanding.  Carrot, orange and guayaba juice is fresh squeezed.  The coffee was strong, sweet, spectacular. We had tamales con elote with creme sauce and salsa verde, Oaxaquena scrambled eggs with quesillo in a picante red sauce, queso fresco with nopales in a salsa verde cream sauce, and omelets.  Every dish was different and distinguished.  The cost was 35-75 pesos per person, depending upon the choice.  Take a look at the small shop in the courtyard that sells Juchitan traje.  Well made and reasonably priced.

We decided to split up to do our market meanderings and meet back at the restaurant at 12:30 p.m.  I ran into Eric on the second story of the main market across the street from the Zocalo, where I was window shopping for huipils.  He said he had found a great shop that sold fabric and also had wonderful handmade blouses around the backside of the market.  I followed him there and it was a treasure trove, packed with bolts of fabric that they will make up to order, plus a great selection of ready-made embroidered pieces ranging in price from 350-950 pesos for a complete top and skirt outfit.  It was definitely hard to choose.  Here’s the shop info:  “Telas y Trajes Regionales — STI Lorena, Calle 2 de Abril, S/N Local 1, Juchitan, Oaxaca.”  By midday, I had purchased an orange polka dot skirt for 180 pesos, a complimentary floral hand embroidered top for 450 pesos, a beautiful green outfit for 350 pesos, and a long black tunic with white stitched trim for 220 pesos.  This will all add up to under $100!

We sat in the Zocalo people watching, holding our bolsas full of beautiful trajes, and sipped coconut milk from the fresh coconut we held on our laps through straws and people watched.  By 1:30 p.m. we were back on the road for the return trip to Oaxaca, a 250 km ride through curving, mountainous two-lane road.  The logical halfway stop is at El Cameron, where a family run comedor offers good food and clean toilet facilities.  The owner had lived and worked in Tennessee for 11 years, and had studied air quality and pollution control at the community college.  Eduardo, a multi-dimensional artist, is incorporating the stories of transborder migration into her next exhibition which will open at the Museo Textil de Oaxaca in November, and interviewed the owner about his experiences to incorporate into her work.

As we continued toward Oaxaca, the landscape changed from palms to saguaro cactus.  Cash crops of agave that is the basis for tequila and mezcal were planted on hillsides and their tall spikes topped with flowers were like mini-trees.  Donkeys, bulls and goats grazed along the highway and sometimes strayed onto the road.  A lone bicyclist pedaling uphill on the concrete shoulder emphasized the struggle to get from one place to the next both literally and figuratively.  Under the green and yellow concrete shelters marking bus stops along the mountain route, campesinos waited for buses, and life here seems like it is a series of working and waiting, working and waiting.

Recommendations:  Hotel Santo Domingo del Sur, Juchitan, 750 pesos double, 550 pesos single, air conditioning, free wi-fi, very clean and comfortable, email:, (971) 711-10-50

They Speak Huave Here: A Day in San Mateo del Mar

It is difficult to hear Francisca Palafox Herran speak over the sound of the wind.  She is the weaver, one of the last of the great Huave backstrap loom artisans, who we have come here to interview in her home village of San Mateo del Mar, on the southern coast of Oaxaca beyond Salina Cruz.  In this small fishing village, Huave women have been weaving on backstrap looms for generations.  Traditional huipils from here are finely woven cotton decorated with motifs of the beach and sea: turtles, fish, crab, palm trees, shrimp, birds, butterflies, stars, fishermen, dancers.  Sometimes a fox will appear in a textile, too.  It is hot and humid here and the airy fabric would have provided women with covering that breathes.  The village, however, has adopted the dominant Tehuana style of dressing, so Huave origins are not immediately evident by the traje (local costume).

Francisca Palafox is 33 years old, the youngest in a family of many children.  She was “discovered” by Remigio Mestas, who searches for master weavers in remote villages and encourages them to preserve their craft by representing them in his shops in Oaxaca and San Miguel de Allende, and by offering them national and international exhibitions.  Francisca learned to weave from her oldest sister who learned from their mother.  Their sister, Telofila Palafox is also an excellent weaver.

San Mateo del Mar is a humble, isolated village, dependent upon fishing for mojarras (a type of fish) and camarones (shrimp), which is sold in the local street market and exported to Tehuantepec and Juchitan.  But mostly, the catch of the day provides food for the family.  We did not see many young people.  An aging populations implies out-migration to bigger cities for education and job opportunities not offered here.  This is a simple, and by all appearances, difficult life.  My impression is that this small group of Huave are at risk of being absorbed into the larger culture.  This is part of what makes Francisca’s work so important.

A group of us from the Museo Textil de Oaxaca have traveled over 6 hours through mountainous Mexico Highway 190 to come here to interview and film Francisca in preparation for a documentary the museum is making to accompany an upcoming exhibition of her work.  We watch as Francisca and her cousin Sabina demonstrate the techniques of weaving on a backstrap loom, and talk with Francisca’s children, a son Noe, age 15, and two daughters, Jazmin, age 13, and Liliana, age 11, as they weave and continue the traditions.  There is a risk in this small Huave village of losing the craft.  Most women are no longer weaving, and if they are, the quality of process and product are generally basic.  Lili coats the warp threads of the backstrap loom with atole (a corn drink) to make it easier for Francisca to dress the loom and separate the threads.

Museum director Ana Paula Fuentes, textile preservation director Hector Manuel Meneses Lozano, and education director  Eric Chavez Santiago ask questions about weaving process, culture, values, design, history, impact on Francisca as an individual, her family and her village, the future of Huave weaving.  Eduardo Poeter, a Mexican multimedia artist in incorporating stories of transborder migration in her upcoming exhibition, is also with us.  We are there for five hours.

In the next courtyard, separated by a green chain link fence and a gate, I see an elderly woman finishing the fringes on a piece of textile.  This is Antonina Herran Roldan, Francisca’s mother, age 73.   Her husband is asleep in a hammock in the next courtyard.  The village is hammocks, palm thatched huts, tin covered palapas, sand, salt, wind, intense heat.  In another section of the courtyard, shaded by ancient lime trees, a man weaves a fishing net and ties weights to the border.  Everyone is weaving.  Floral huipils and children’s t-shirts flap on the clothes line.  Two bird cages are filled with green, blue and white exotic warblers.  Antonina shows me her work, including a hanging basket she has adapted from fishing apparatus as container for fruits or vegetables.

When the filming is complete, we are invited to sit down for the afternoon meal together.  The big table is covered with brightly colored laminated cloth.  We are served a first course of thick, pancake-like tortillas, eggs, limes and fresh water to drink.  A bowl of sea salt is on the table.  We use a soup spoon to bring salt to bread and squeeze lime on top.  It is VERY hot and salt is essential to retain body fluids.  (We are told it does not rain much here.) Salt is also used to cure the chunks of fish that is float in the fish soup that is our next course.  There are commercial salt flats in nearby Salina Cruz, and indigenous peoples have been bringing salt from the sea and drying it here for millenium.  The soup is seasoned with pepper, salt, fresh squeeze lime and a spinach-like green herb called epasote.  It is delicious.

After the meal and a few textile purchases from Antonina (everything that Francisca weaves is only available from Remigio Mestas), we decide to walk through the village market.  This is not a tourist location.  There are no beach palapas or hammocks for rent.  We all agree that we will pass on the only hotel in town that is neither clean nor hospitable, and travel to Juchitan for dinner and lodging.

You can see from the photos that the day was extraordinary and Francisca and her family were most welcoming.  It was an incredible adventure.  The 45 minute ride to Juchitan was easy, and we found comfort in the patio of Bar Jardin, on Cinco de Mayo, just off Av. Efrain R. Gomez a couple of blocks from the Zocalo, with beers, Margaritas, and salsa fresca shrimp ceviche.

Carolina Nursing Student Volunteers in Centro de Salud

During her externship at the public health clinic at Teotitlan del Valle, Carolina nursing student Lindsey Bach developed a diabetes health education and promotion program to teach local people about eating healthy and exercise.  She made a delicious dish of lentils, black beans, tomatoes, onions, mango and papaya, seasoned with peppers, a bit of salt, and cilantro.  Yummm, healthy and delicious.

Rug Exhibition & Sale in Oaxaca, July 27, 1 – 10 p.m.

An exhibition and sale of handwoven, naturally dyed 100% wool rugs made by Frederico Chavez Sosa from Teotitlan del Valle will be held in Oaxaca on Monday, July 27, 2009, from 1 p.m. to 10 p.m. at Cuarto Privada de la Noria #208, Col. Centro.  There will be many sizes and designs available at a range of affordable prices.  If you are in Oaxaca for Guelaguetza, please stop by!

We are also showing the premiere of the film, “Weaving a Curve” movie which explains the process of creating highest quality rugs using natural dyes, and the weaver’s motivations as seen through the eyes of Federico Chavez Sosa.

If you have questions or need directions, call Eric Chavez Santiago:  951 209 17 31.  If you are calling from a land line in Oaxaca:  044 951 209 17 31

or you can send me an email: