For the past six days I have been on a textile journey through the Cuenca del Papaloapan Region where the Sierra Madre de Oaxaca mountain range meets the coastal plain of Veracruz. This has been off-the-beaten-path travel into remote villages where textile traditions, back strap loom weaving and intricate embroidery techniques, manage to survive in a dominant culture invaded by polyester, machined fabrics and low-wage, Chinese-made clothing.
Travel took us overland starting from Veracruz, the oldest port in Mexico, south along the Gulf of Mexico to Tuxtepec, a jungle wonderland and gateway into Oaxaca state from the east. Today, I’m featuring the indigenous dress of San Felipe Usila, the most isolated village of our tour.
From Tuxtepec, it takes us three hours to get to Usila on a winding mountain road, half of which is unpaved. But, the gift of meeting some extraordinary weavers who are incredibly hospitable make the trip worthwhile.
We are greeted with the opportunity to purchase some very beautiful pieces followed by a lunch of chicken and mole amarillo, and handmade tortillas fresh from the comal. Dinner is a delicious, home-cooked traditional stone soup that is a pre-Hispanic recipe originating from Usila. Overnight lodging in Usila is basic and clean. A hotel is located on the outskirts of town down a dirt road that turns to mud in the rain. It’s a rainforest here, so the climate is tropical, damp and lush.
Many of the plants and animals of the region are reflected in the weaving designs including flowers, squirrels, corn, butterflies and the tree of life. Every woman has her own interpretation of the mythic and actual world that is translated to cloth, so each weaver creates a different and very distinct design.
We learn that the two headed eagle represents the duality of life, the good and the bad. We see quetzalcoatl, the plumed serpent, and the eye of god that offers protection. We are told about the four cardinal directions, how they are incorporated into the woven story and their pre-Hispanic significance.
We hear that traditional women want to be buried in their wedding huipil so that their husbands will recognize them in the afterlife. We see that only the grandmothers continue to wear the huipil as a daily garment.
For holidays, festivals and special occasions there is more elaborate dressing with the media-gala and gala huipiles, adorned with flowers, ribbons, lace and intricate detailing that is unparalleled.
Many of the ancient techniques of back strap loom weaving to create traditional clothing has been lost by some villages. There is a dedicated effort to teach young women the techniques to keep the tradition alive. But, it’s a challenge. People everywhere want an education and higher paying jobs.
Today, the major markets for these garments are textile lovers and collectors who purchase them in many fine Oaxaca galleries. Few dare to venture into the hinterlands to find these treasures on their own.
Oaxaca Cultural Navigator offers in-depth, educational workshops usually based in one location to establish a sense of place. We are not a tour or guide service. I decided to travel with Tia Stephanie Tours to discover the source of this beautiful, ancient, woman-centered tradition. We moved from village to village across a wide swath of territory at a racer’s pace to get an excellent overview.
If you are more inclined to get there as an independent traveler, take a bus or collectivo from town to town, or rent a car and drive from Oaxaca city on Mexico 175. Get a Guia Roji Mapa 20 for the Estado de Oaxaca.
You may want to stop and spend the night in Pueblo Magico Capulalpam de Mendez or continue on until you reach Valle Nacional. There are several lovely hotels in Capulalpam and a few small hostals in Valle Nacional. From there, you can get to the pueblos in the Papaloapan Region that we visited: Valle Nacional, Rancho Grande, San Miguel Soyaltepec and San Lucas Ojitlan, bypassing the entry through Veracruz. This route will take six to eight hours of driving from Oaxaca to Valle Nacional over winding mountain roads! You might also consider establishing a base in one of the villages if you don’t mind sleeping in a hammock or a basic, no frills room with only cold running water.
Tuxtepec, Oaxaca: Huipils, Dance of the Pineapple Flower and Guelaguetza
Oaxaca’s July Guelaguetza features some of the most glorious traje — indigenous dress — throughout the state. But few, if any, surpass the beauty from the state of Tuxtepec.
I am on a textile tour to discover the artistry of some of Oaxaca’s most remote villages. The evening our group arrives in Tuxtepec from Veracruz, we are treated to a fashion parade. Featured are the region’s woven and embroidered garments that we will see over the next several days. It’s like attending a sneak preview!
They varied from the more simple daily wear of traditional women to those that are more elaborate and reserved for special occasions.
The presentation is organized by Jose de Jesus Hernandez, known as Chucho. He teaches dance and has a collection of authentic dresses. Chucho explains that fifty-eight years ago there was a movement to return to the roots of the region by the younger generation. That’s why the Flor de Piña dance was created.
I realize that all the different huipil designs in this one dance at the Guelaguetza is a compilation to express the diverse weaving and embroidery styles of Mazateco and Chinanteco communities that are part of Tuxtepec.
As our week together comes to a close, we return to Tuxtepec one last time. Dance master Hector Arturo Hernandez meets us at the hotel, teaches us the Flor de Piña dance steps and brings huipils from his collection to show and tell. I would say we were not equal to the task of keeping up with the strenuous foot work of the dance!
More than one hundred and eighty young women audition to represent these Chinanteco and Mazateco villages. Only thirty-six are selected, says Don Hector Arturo, who has been teaching the Danza Flor de Piña for the past thirty-five years.
He recruits and selects the dancers, and serves as the narrative voice for the Tuxtepec delegation at the Guelaguetza. As soon as I hear him speak, I recognize him. Our models for Don Arturo’s collection are women on the tour.
In 1958, the governor of Tuxtepec decided that the jarocho music and dance presentation at the Guelaguetza did not fully integrate Tuxtepec with Oaxaca, since jarocho is a part of Veracruz identity. So, the Danza Flor de Piña was choreographed and orchestrated to the poem of native son Felipe Matias Velasco.
By doing this, the back strap loom weaving and embroidery of these remote Oaxaca villages became a distinguishing feature of the Guelaguetza, something that we all identify with its pageantry and with Oaxaca.
Those who study Oaxaca culture and communities know that the term guelaguetza is NOT about this annual tourist attraction that is a dance interpretation of the word. It is a way of life, the foundation for maintaining community and mutual support in indigenous pre-Hispanic Mexican villages.
Note: These finest quality huipiles range in price from 1,500 pesos to over 6,500 pesos. Some take more than three or four months to make. The current exchange rate is about 13 pesos to the dollar. The average wage of an agricultural or hourly wage worker in Mexico is 100 pesos or eight dollars a day. Tourism is Oaxaca’s economic engine.
How To Get There
If you are more inclined to travel independently rather than taking a tour, take a bus or collectivo from town to town, or rent a car and drive from Oaxaca city on Mexico 175 to Tuxtepec. Get a Guia Roji Mapa 20 for the Estado de Oaxaca.
You may want to stop and spend the night in Pueblo Magico Capulalpam de Mendez or continue on until you reach Valle Nacional. There are several lovely hotels in Capulalpam and a few small hostals in Valle Nacional. From there, you can get to the pueblos in the Papaloapan Region that we visited: Valle Nacional, Rancho Grande, San Pedro Soyaltepec and San Lucas Ojitlan, bypassing the entry through Veracruz.
This route will take six to eight hours of driving from Oaxaca to Valle Nacional over winding mountain roads! You might also consider establishing a base in one of the villages if you don’t mind sleeping in a hammock or a basic, no frills room with only cold running water.
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Posted in Clothing Design, Cultural Commentary, Oaxaca Mexico art and culture, Photography, Textiles, Tapestries & Weaving, Travel & Tourism
Tagged Chinateco, Danza de Flor de Pina, Embroidery, Flor de Piña dance, guelaguetza, huipil, indigenous dress, Mazateco, Oaxaca, pineapple flower dance, traje, Tuxtepec, weaving