For me, the most emotional part of our visits to the remote Oaxaca villages along the coast of Oaxaca is to meet the women who weave and hear their stories.
Our Oaxaca Coast Textile Study Tour takes us north out of Puerto Escondido along Mexico Highway 200. This region is called the Costa Chica and extends from Puerto to Acapulco, Guerrero. Small roads, often winding, are like fingers carrying people to/from the main towns of Jamiltepec, Pinotepa Nacional and Ometepec.
We travel deep into the foothills into these weaving villages where isolation has preserved a traditional way of life.
We meet the women who are the backbone of their families. For the most part they work in cotton. Their work is intense. They grow and pick native cotton. They clean and card it. They preserve the seeds of natural cream-colored, green and coyuchi brown cotton. They use the malacate drop-spindle to make thread. And, they weave wefts of cloth using the back-strap loom, creating designs formed by a technique called brocade or supplementary weft.
There is a growing market for natural, hand-made cloth dyed with natural plants and cochineal and the caracol purpura snail. But the market is still not big enough to create widespread prosperity. It takes years to be recognized and sometimes, not at all.
Women and families struggle. Mostly it is the women’s work that brings the income that buys medicine for aging parents or a sick relative. Mostly it is the women’s work that pays the school tuition, buys books and uniforms for children and grandchildren. Mostly it is the women’s work that brings food to the table — the tortillas, the hot chocolate, the occasional chicken for a fiesta.
Men work the fields. They raise corn, beans and squash. They tend the animals. This work is not income producing because every family grows its own corn, beans and squash to feed themselves. There is no commercial market for the basics that go on the table. This work for men is subsistence farming. In the socio-economic life of a village, weaving cloth can mean a path out of poverty.
Another path out of poverty is the long road north, to El Norte, where uneducated village men can migrate with a coyote across the desert at night, cross a border without papers, and become undocumented workers. They are the farm laborers, restaurant dishwashers and cooks, gardeners, poultry slaughterers and handymen, doing the work that few others want. They stand in line on Friday afternoon, wiring remittances home, sometimes never returning.
The women continue on.
A few women go on to university in Pinotepa Nacional or Acapulco and become accountants or lawyers or teachers, but not many. Some women choose not to marry, a bond that requires them to go live with a husband’s family, taking on their livelihood and craft, contributing to the household of the in-laws. Some women see that the men are in despair, turn to alcohol for consolation when they have little earning capacity and lose their self-esteem. For this reason, many choose a life of independence.
We come not to judge but to understand. We do what we can. We support their work by visiting and buying direct. We are the appreciators who admire, wear and collect what they make. We are cultural appreciators rather than cultural appropriators.
The women who make cloth learned from their mothers and grandmothers. They have been around thread all their lives. Most started weaving at age twelve. They might sit tethered to the back-strap loom for six or eight hours a day or longer. It can take three months or longer to make a fine huipil.
Do you love what you do? One of us asks a weaving cooperative member.
I weave to help feed my children and family, and cover costs for school, one woman answers.
I do love to weave, and I’m proud to continue the work of my grandmother, answers another. It provides for us, but we need places to sell.
We must support each other economically, says a cooperative spokeswoman. It’s in our solidarity that we will help each other and raise us up. It’s more than a social get-together. It is our livelihood.
Children, boys and girls, age eight to twelve, are learning to weave. This is our future. Our boys are also learning to make loom parts and grow cotton. Men can always help and we encourage their participation, she continues.
In the outdoor kitchen, at the comal, a group of women pat masa into tortillas. They turn the corn dough with thumb and forefinger, careful not to burn themselves. Their fingers are worn with years of cleaning cotton, turning tortillas, washing clothes, spinning, caring for others. Some have lost their fingerprints to hard work.
They salt the hot tortilla, picking up the salt between thumb and forefinger, drizzling the tortilla, rolling it and handing it to us as a gift of welcome. It is fresh, slightly chewy and crunchy, the taste of real food. A simple life can also be a harsh one, and I caution our visitors not to romanticize the experience of being here.
In our home countries, we are absorbed with technology, family isolation and the intensity of politics. Indigenous women in Mexico are absorbed with finding access to markets for their work, good health care and education for their children. What unites us is our humanity and our mutual respect.
For many of us who go off-the-beaten-path to visit makers, we can first be surprised, even shocked at how humbly they live. Some of the most famous artisans I know live in adobe houses or those made with concrete blocks. They may not be able to afford a finished floor or it is not a life-style value.
We go into homes with packed dirt floors, swept clean. We go into outdoor kitchens where amazing food is prepared over a simple wood-fired stove; sometimes this is a grill over a cut off garbage can. Occasionally, the sanitary facilities are not plumbed and we must put a bucket of water into the toilet to flush it. We note these differences and appreciate the abundance in our lives.
We also appreciate the abundance in the lives of Mexican families who live close to the land: they live among their mothers, fathers and grandparents. They are supported by a deep network of community, of friends and tradition. They eat homegrown food. They yearn for the same things we do: health, education, contentment and prosperity. They create works of art.