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.
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.
Zaachila Zancudos: Dancing on Stilts is Cultural Heritage
The Stilt Dancers of Zaachila are called Zancudos because stilts are long and leggy like mosquito legs. Stilts are called zancos in Spanish. The Zancudos are very proprietary about this dance. They consider it part of their cultural identity and heritage.
Zaachila Bachos Zancudos Buin Zaa
After I wrote the blog post about the Lila Downs concert during Guelaguetza season and published a photograph of stilt dancers there invited from Santa Maria Tlahuitoltepec that also appeared on Facebook, I received a deluge of messages from Zaachila Zancudos, critical of my calling the dancers from Tlahui Zancudos. Many were quick to tell me that they were the first to use stilts to dance. I explained that I only photographed what was presented at the Lila Downs Concert. Yet, the backlash poured in and I wondered why.
I wanted to go to Zaachila to talk with the group Bachos Zancudos Buin Zaa (Zancudos de Zaachila) to find out more about their history and traditions, to understand why they reacted so strongly.
Erick Aragon Rodriguez (left), me, Pedro Aldair Antonio Aragon
On Thursday, Zaachila market day, I arranged to meet with Pedro Aldair Antonio Aragon, age 21 and a zancudo since he was six years old. Aldair invited his friend and fellow zancudo, Erick Aragon Rodriguez, now age 36 who learned to walk the stilts when he was ten, to join us. Kay and Dean Michaels, friends from North Carolina now living in Oaxaca, joined me.
Zancudos sculpture in Zaachila zocalo
There is immense community pride in this dance, originally called Bachos. It is part of village identity. The dance goes back at least 100 years and Aldair carries on the tradition of his father and grandfather, who were also stilt dancers. A bronze monument of a stilt dancer stands in the center of the village zocalo or main plaza as a testimony to this history.
Erick explains that stilts were originally used to cross rivers and arroyos. The land is filled with rolling hills, swales and deep gullies and it makes sense that this became a necessary mode of transportation and navigation around and through the limitations of the landscape. How stilts came to Zaachila is a matter for research. Were they brought by Europeans or an innovation to deal with the terrain?
Entering town, the Virgin of Guadalupe, artist’s adaptation, greets us
The wooden stilts are made in Zaachila. There is a workshop that fabricates and sells them. I am told by the young men that about ten years ago, a troupe of Zaachila zancudos traveled throughout Oaxaca towns to perform the dance. In Tlahuitoltepec someone asked to buy a pair of stilts, which were then reproduced. Tlahuitoltecos from the Mixe region of Oaxaca learned how to use the stilts and created their own steps, using their own indigenous dress. Aldair and Erick say the stilt dancing has been in existence there for less than ten years.
We met at Comedor Denisse for barbacoa de res, there for 51 years
There is controversy. They emphasize that Zancudo is a word associated with Zaachila and should not be used in association with Tlahuitoltepec. They say the word is part of their tradition, culture and to honor the grandfathers. Anthropologists consider dance, language, dress and other forms of artistic expression to be part of cultural identity. I want to understand, not arbitrate.
The softest, best BBQ beef ever!
The Zaachila Zancudos have never gone to an official Guelaguetza because their village leaders field their group of Los Danzantes de La Pluma (Dance of the Feather). About five Zapotec villages in the Valles Centrales de Oaxaca perform the Dance of the Feather. Which is selected each year to go to Guelaguetza depends on the office of tourism/government Committee of Authentication.
At Comedor Denisse, mole amarillo, too
Today, there are about 80 people in the Zancudos group. Thirty are ages three to ten years old who are learning the dance. Eleven year olds dance with the adults. From time to time, about 10 to 30 people can show up for a dance or calenda (parade), but for major fiestas more dancers will turn out.
Coming up on Thursday, September 6, 5 p.m.
Zaachila will celebrate her Saint’s Day honoring Santa Maria Natividad. There will be a big parade of Zancudos, going from the church to the Zocalo.
Everyone is invited.
Go early! Go to the market. Have lunch. Eat nieves.
We have been talking about cultural appropriation at Oaxaca Cultural Navigator for some time. The new cultural center in Teotitlan del Valle addresses the question of what is cultural heritage and who “owns” it, who has rights, if any, to copy or adapt.
Your comments and opinions are welcome!
After lunch, we said goodbye to Aldair and Erick. Kay, Dean and I could not resist the nieves stalls on the zocalo. There is a line-up of about six permanent puestos. Which one to choose? We picked the busiest, of course, owned by Doña Chabelita who has been there sincce 1966, the oldest in Zaachila. Her grandson just returned from 20 years living and working in Connecticut. Impeccable English. Not sure about immigration status, but who cares!
Dean savoring nieves de vainilla
Doña Chabelita, ready to retire after a lifetime of ice cream making
Melon and pecan nieves. The Best!
A treasure trove of pitaya (dragonfruit) in Zaachila market
Posted in Cultural Commentary, Travel & Tourism
Tagged authentic, bachos zancudos buin zaa, cultural appropriation, cultural heritage, Mexico, Oaxaca, Santa Maria Tlahuitoltepec, Zaachila, zancudos