Beyond the stream they call the Rio Grande here, the women gather in a circle around the pine-shaded, packed dirt courtyard outside of Ernestina’s house. They are learning how to weave with another sort of material, not the usual hand-spun wool that is traditional for Teotitlan del Valle, the famed rug weaving village. They are using brightly colored plastic strips.
This is palma plastica (plastic palm) says maestra Norma, who came from San Baltazar Guelavila, to teach. This is the new-age derivative of the traditional palm used for centuries by most villagers in this valley to make petate sleeping mats, food and storage containers. The craft is slowly disappearing and few Oaxaca weavers now produce this traditional folk art. See: Decline of a Craft: Basketmaking in San Juan Guelavia, Oaxaca.
The plastic strips will become handbags, coin purses, and placements that can be sold to tourists in the local morning market. Another source of much needed income for women to have their own money, whether they are married or not. This week’s lesson is an experiment in economic development — how to make a small business.
Ernestina organized the multigenerational five-day event and invited friends and relatives to participate. The abuelas — grandmothers — are joined by daughters and granddaughters, nieces and cousins. There is a baby tended to by a grandmother while mom learns.
As I walked by Ernestina’s house, I noticed this unusual colorful activity and waved. She invited me to come in to see what they were doing and asked if I would return with my camera to take photos. Of course, I did!
Norma’s town San Baltazar Guelavila, is known for it’s hand-woven baskets and is also an artisanal mescal-producing center. It is in the mountains beyond Santiago Matatlan off the Carretera Internacional 190, otherwise known as the Panamerican Highway, which runs from Alaska through Oaxaca to the tip of South America.
An experienced lifelong basket weaver, Norma told me she can weave three to five baskets a day. She has fast fingers. The beginners were happy to make even three baskets in five days. The baskets will sell for between 100 and 150 pesos each. That’s $7.50 to $12 USD. The average working wage in Oaxaca is 100 pesos a day, so the women are happy if they can produce and steadily sell one basket a day!
Ernestina hopes so. But, of course, that depends on tourists visiting Teotitlan del Valle, and most come via tour buses and not as independent travelers. They may stop at a pre-determined rug weaving gallery and then go on to San Pablo Villa de Mitla to see the archeological site or continue on to Santiago Matatlan for a mezcal tasting. They will miss the 9:00-11:00 a.m. daily morning market, which is at the heart of this 6,000 person community. And, miss the opportunity to buy one of these colorful, handmade totes.
People here love intense color. The natural materials are giving way to synthetics because of cost and convenience and personal taste. Yet, as I pulled up a chair around the circle and sat a while, I was reminded of my own knitting circle back home in North Carolina and the comfort of good friends. And, the revival of a traditional craft that can make the difference in women’s and children’s lives here.