It’s been a week since the new Community Cultural Center debuted on August 18, 2018 with a grand opening event. It was spectacular! What I love about the new Centro Cultural Communitario is it’s tri-lingual explanation of village life and values in Zapotec, Spanish and English. I also love the simplicity of PRODUCTORA’s architectural design that brings past into present.
The center explanations begin with a discussion about what is on display, exploring three core themes: indigenous customs and uses (usos y costumbres), artisanal production, and celebrations and ceremonies.
Most importantly, the curators raise the question, What is cultural heritage? We need a context for this center and what it means. It is not a museum, per se, but a gathering place, an educational space to share, discuss, and learn. They explain that “Cultural Heritage includes tangible goods — works of art, historical and archeological monuments, urban and natural landscapes — as well as the intangible practices of a people — expressions, beliefs, knowledge or techniques, that which are cherished and passed down by the community generation to generation.”
[The Dance of the Feather, video above, is one key ingredient to cultural heritage. The dancers make a three-year promise to community and church that is a serious undertaking. This is not a folkloric dance, as many think, but essential to identity.]
I don’t think we can talk about cultural heritage without addressing the issue of cultural appropriation. This is an important topic in Oaxaca and worldwide when the dominant culture adopts elements of the minority culture, often for commercial benefit without recompense to the originators.
“The array of tradition-based creations such as worldview, mythology, usos y costumbres, language, literature, music, dances, games, ceremonies, and crafts, among others, constitute the intangible cultural heritage also known as a living heritage,” they say.
The Grand Opening featured traditional dances, including the Jarabe del Valle from this Tlacolula de Matamoros ensemble. The dance is part of every village festivity, especially weddings, quinceanera’s and birthdays.
For me, an important reason to live and celebrate life in Teotitlan del Valle is all bundled up in an ancient, deeply rooted history of thousands of years. More than having survived, Teotitlan del Valle has thrived because her people have innovated, adapted, changed and evolved while continuing to honor and respect tradition. At the core of this is the family and community.
[A Note About Abigail Mendoza: Anthony Bourdain discovered her and she became famous. Abigail and her sisters operate famed Tlamanalli Restaurant in Teotitlan del Valle. She has made a two-year volunteer service commitment to head up the cultural center committee, part of usos y costumbres traditions. She told me this responsibility may have an impact on how often the restaurant will be open. Abigail is also the sister of the famous artist/weaver Arnulfo Mendoza who died in 2014.]
The curators continue by saying that: ” Teotitlan del Valle is characterized by its remarkable artisanal production of tapestries and carved candles, the elaboration techniques of which are passed down through generations within the nuclear family. The workshops are located in households, meaning that the profession plays a part in everyday life. Making yarn, dyeing, weaving and carving candles are learned from childhood. The manufacturing of handicrafts is the embodiment of community and family tradition which comes from its origins in the ancient Zapotec people. It is the vehicle to express their individual creativity, their emotions, and worldview. Additionally, for most of the people of the town, this is their main source of income.”
On display are the hand-made beeswax candles from the family of Grand Master of Oaxaca Folk Art Viviana Alavez Hipolito. The work passes through the generations. Women who marry into the family learn and do it, too. It is not merely decoration. It is part of ceremonial life. Church and home altars are festooned with these candles. Only three candle makers remain in Teotitlan del Valle.
A highlight of the space are videos of traditions, practices and examples of life. All the videos have English subtitles, a nod to the value and importance of English-speaking visitors to Teotitlan del Valle. It helps us understand more!
In many traditions, continuity depends on how well we inculcate values and practices in our children. The community cultural center does more than show and tell visitors — nationals and foreigners — about essential practices. It says to local children that they can be proud of their heritage and make a commitment to carry it forward.
The process of using natural dyes on wool to weave tapestries on the two-pedal loom is part of the cultural center exhibit space. This is an intense and time-consuming process, much more complex and expensive than using aniline (chemical) dyes. Only about a dozen families in the village of 6,000 people work in natural dyes, though many more know how to give the demonstration.
Visitor Hours: Quien sabe? Who knows?
I’ve been privileged to live with a Zapotec family in this village for thirteen years. I live on their land in a casita that I built that will revert to the family when I no longer live here. This is also part of usos y costumbres traditions. No foreigners can own land here. We have no written contract. Our arrangement is based on our word of commitment to each other, that we call trust. A model for how the world might be.
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