We’ve been traveling on Oaxaca’s Costa Chica for the past four days. This is the stretch of territory that starts at Puerto Escondido on the Pacific Ocean and goes north to Acapulco along Mexico’s Highway 200.
A highlight of our 12-day Oaxaca Textile Study Tour that started in the central valleys of Oaxaca, was a visit to San Juan Colorado, a remote Mixtec village at the end of the road in the fold of a mountain above Oaxaca’s coast.
In this weaving village, women work with three varieties of native cotton: coyuchi, natural and green. They use natural dyes from tree bark, flowers, indigo and cochineal.
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On occasion, they will insert thread dyed with purple that comes from the caracol púrpura snail, endangered and harvested from ocean outcroppings of rock. Legally, only a few indigenous men are licensed to harvest the snail. They gently squeeze the ink onto cotton or silk and return the live snail to its home. Poachers threaten its existence.
They weave geometric designs on back-strap looms using a supplementary weft technique of counting and adding threads to the cloth. Their work is prized and many whom we met are featured on posters that hang on the walls of the Museo Textil de Oaxaca education department.
Cotton is prepared by first washing it, drying it and removing the seeds. A woven palm leaf mat, called a petate, is draped over a roll of corn husks that is tied with a long palm frond. Everyone here knows how to clean, wash and beat cotton. Not everyone spins using the drop spindle malacate. It is a special skill.
Seventy-five year old Zenobia Zenaida Lorenzo is the cotton beating expert her cotton is the softest and easiest to spin, all the women agree. Beating the cotton achieves the same result as using a carder for wool.
Work is differentiated by gender. The men grow and harvest cotton, planting in August and harvesting in December. They make the wood tools and parts for the back strap loom. Women weave in between cooking, cleaning and caring for children.
Identity is interwoven with cloth here. Women imbed ancient symbols of fertility and images of the natural world into the cloth. Each adapts a uniform design to make her own fabric unique.
Traditional traje, or dress, consisted of a back strap loomed skirt woven with cotton dyed with cochineal (red), indigo (blue), and purple (caracol purpura). The weather is hot and steamy.
This is a traditional topless culture. Today, in the regional market, we see a few older women covered with gauze transparent shawls, doubled and draped over their bosom.
Remote villages throughout Mexico have been able to keep their traditions and identity because of their isolation from the contemporary world. Now, very few places are inaccessible and the pressure to conform with western clothing is intense.