Monthly Archives: August 2022

Up, Up and Away: Traveling to Oaxaca’s Sierra Mixe

Many of you may have heard about the remote mountain village of Santa Maria Tlahuitoltepec. It’s a two-and-a-half hour drive up the misty mountains beyond Teotitlan del Valle and San Pablo Villa de Mitla, Oaxaca. It is way off the beaten path and tourists rarely visit there. During our recent Oaxaca Summer Mountain Tour, ten of us ventured out into Oaxaca’s Sierra Mixe. Yes, they speak Mixe here, and the tribal group is one of 16 different groups in the state. It was quite an adventure, first starting out on the soon to be completed (they say) superhighway to the coast. We got off at the Ayutla exit, miles past the road to Hierve El Agua.

Many know Tlahui (as it’s called locally) as the village whose traditional blouse was copied verbatim by French fashion designer Isabel Marant and passed off as her own in 2015. This became the outcry for what we call today Cultural Appropriation, an issue that continues for indigenous communities around the world, and especially in Mexico. While these designs cannot be copyrighted because they are centuries old, there is an ethical question: Are ancient indigenous villages entitled to recognition and compensation for their original designs?

In Mexico, we call this Cultural Patrimony, defined as an object having ongoing historical, traditional, or cultural importance central to the indigenous group or culture itself, and which, therefore, cannot be alienated, appropriated, or conveyed by any individual regardless of whether or not the individual is a member of the indigenous group.

Our destination was the workshop studio of Fernando Gutierrez Vasquez, a weaver and natural dyer, who uses locally sourced alder wood (palo de aguila) tree bark, the traditional dye of the region, to color blouses, dresses, scarves and shawls (blusas, huipiles, bufandas and rebozos).

The workshop space is terraced in three levels on the side of a mountain. We look out at misty mountains, most of the peaks shrouded in clouds. Tlahuitoltepec is a village of houses cantilevered into the surrounding hillsides connected by winding roads carved into the landscape.

Our first stop was at the dye studio where we saw vats of alderwood fermenting for a week in a cold water bath. This releases the color from the bark. Alderwood trees require humidity to grow and they are rich in tannic acid. This is a direct dye and doesn’t need a mordant to affix the color to the fiber.

The cotton skeins will be soaked for three days once the fermenting process is complete. When one puts the dyed skeins in direct sun, it deepens the color. Some of the pieces I saw looked a golden mahogany color. Oak bark, which is also used here, gives a rich beige color because it contains less tannin. The color can vary depending on the variety and age of the oak. The end result can be a surprising and unpredictable process — scientific up to a point! Fernando also maintains an indigo dye vat.

The weaving happens after the yarn is colored. The cloth will be woven on the flying shuttle treadle loom that has four harnesses. On the mid-level, weavers are working at four looms, their feet dancing, the looms singing.

There is a rhythm of harmony and creativity here. The beater on the loom sounds as if it is a Native American drum beat, a heart beat, living threads. Various patterns in the cloth can be achieved based on how the pedals are manipulated.

On the top level is the embroidery studio and gallery. Here women and men in the family cooperative work at embroidering the traditional village designs into blouses, shirts and dresses. This is machine embroidery but it is free-form. The creativity of the embroiderer is reflected in the work. The embroiderer guides the needle to create complex images without using a template. None of the sewing machines are electronically programmed. Each garment is unique based on the hand and eye of the men and women who operate the machine. This is definitely an art form.

Paula Perez, master embroiderer and Fernando’s wife, wraps up some of our purchases

The Spanish never got to Tlahuitoltepec during the first centuries of the conquest. It was too far, too remote. It was not until recently that the dirt horse path was widened and paved over.

We enjoyed a home-cooked lunch of chicken soup, fresh vegetables and rustic, stone ground tortillas under the palapa as the mist lifted and the sun peaked out. And, we enjoyed the gallery and the opportunity to meet the makers and purchase directly from them, knowing that this experience would be mutually satisfying for all of us.

After lunch, we made our way to the studio of famed potter Silvia Martinez Diaz, where we saw a demonstration of an ancient technique used to make bowls, pitchers and cooking vessels. No potter’s wheel is used here. They use the coil technique to hand build even the largest pieces, that are then fired in a wood kiln or open pit much like the New Mexico pottery I know.

As we left the village in mid-afternoon, we all agreed this was a special highlight of our week together.

Note: In Mexico, death is a continuum of life and a celebration. We still have spaces open for our Day of the Dead Culture Tour. Consider joining us to understand this rich and meaningful pre-Hispanic tradition and how death and mortality are considered in Mexico and the USA.

Into the Oaxaca Rain Forest: San Pedro Cajonos

Ten of us traveled by van for almost three hours to get to the Sierra Norte mountain village of San Pedro Cajonos where silk worms are cultivated, their cocoons spun and then woven on back strap looms into glorious silk garments colored with natural dyes! At the end, were were at almost 7,000 feet altitude, rising 2,000 feet above the Oaxaca valley. Once a dirt donkey path, the road meanders and winds through pine and oak forests, branches dripping with moss and bromeliads.

The hills are creviced with rock outcroppings, rivulets become waterfalls, moss and ferns form natural rock gardens. It’s slow going to avoid pot holes and maneuver the switchbacks as we climb, passing through the eco-village of Cuajamaloyos where zip-lining, hiking and wild mushroom hunting attract tourists.

Moises Martinez Velasco holding thousands of silk worm eggs

Our destination holds the promise of meeting Moises Martinez Velasco and his family, known as one of the finest silk weavers of Mexico. The state of Oaxaca and Mexico’s government have invested in building a stunning silk sanctuary, a contemporary concrete and glass structure perched on a hillside with stunning views, to research and promote the development of silk textiles. 1500 people live in San Pedro Cajonos. Their houses and workshops are built into the sides of the mountain, usually on several levels, making it necessary to move vertically from one room to another. Imagine bedrooms on the first plane, then the workshop above, then kitchen and dining/living rooms on the top floor. Stairways connect each level. Did I say the views are spectacular, lush and green.

Woven silk shawl with hand knotted fringe

We meet Moises at his home and he first takes us to meet his two elderly aunts, age 74 and 75, who practice the art of weaving ixtle — agave fiber — into bags that are use by campesinos to carry their lunch into the corn fields. This is a dying art. There are only 10 people remaining in the village who do this work; once 400 people made these ixtle bags. The agave leaves are stripped, soaked, pounded to soften it, and then spun into 2-ply strands. The aunts learned from their parents, who learned from their parents, and those who came before them.

Spinning agave fiber, ixtle, San Pedro Cajonos

This is a Zapotec community, and they have been living here since the decline of Monte Alban in 1100-1300 AD. The dialect they speak is different from the language of the Oaxaca valley. Spanish is the common denominator, although the older people still cling to their native tongue.

Ever and the silk worms she tends

Then, we visit Moises’ sister, Ever, who cultivates the worms. She has one room of her house dedicated to raising the worms from eggs. Each butterfly will lay 300 eggs. It seems there are thousands of little black specks deposited on butcher paper, and there are — 10,000 eggs which will survive for one year. Ever will use what she needs, removing the eggs and then folding up the remaining ones to sleep until the next time she needs them. And, of course, another family member raises mulberry leaves and the fields below the community’s Silk Sanctuary are filled with 500 mulberry trees. The goal is to grow the orchard to 1,500 trees.

The worms are voracious, eating entire leaves in succession throughout the day. Feeding them is a full-time endeavor. April and August are when the eggs mature into caterpillars. Controlled timing helps to ensure there are enough mulberry leaves to feed them. As the worms grow, they consume more until they are ready to spin the silk cocoon from the saliva of their mouth. At this stage they no longer eat, and prefer to seclude themselves among the leaves and branches of oak trees.

Silk is spun using a mechanized Japanese spinning wheel. There are 15 members in Moises’ cooperative. Four people are spinning specialists. The rest weave the cloth and make the hand-knotted fringes. It takes one day to wash the silk, another day to mordant the silk, a third day to dye the silk, and then two more weeks to weave on the back strap loom, sew the wefts of cloth together using a complex needle embroidery, and then to make the fringes — working five hours a day. The weaving technique here is plain weave.

Two types of worms are cultivated, one that produces the wild yellow cocoon that has been in existence in Oaxaca for over 450 years, and the white bombyx cocoon. The wild one has adapted to the environment and survives diseases, laying its eggs and then flying away. The one that produces the white cocoon dies after producing eggs.

At the Silk Sanctuary research center, PhD educated biologists and agronomy engineers study the life cycle through microscopes to determine if the eggs are healthy and why. Mostly, they are studying the yellow cocoons which are from the wild species. One engineer has training in Japanese silk cultivation. They continually check the humidity levels and room temperatures to understand the optimum time for egg development. This is the only center for silk cultivation and production in Mexico.

Silk blusas, hupiles, bufandas (scarves), and rebozos (shawls) from San Pedro Cajonos can be found at the Oaxaca Textile Museum shop, and when there are special pop-up sales in the city that we call expoventas. Of course, you can make your way to San Pedro Cajonos on your own, though this visit was a part of our Summer Textile Mountain Tour.

Note: We still have spaces open for our Day of the Dead Culture Tour, October 29 to November 4, and for our one-day Day of the Dead Tour on October 31 to explore the deeper meaning of this pre-Hispanic celebration.