In the Oaxaca village of Teotitlan del Valle, there are hundreds of excellent weavers. Few have gained the international recognition of Arnulfo Mendozo, owner of La Mano Magica gallery, and renown for his tapestry weaving skills and talent as a painter. Arnulfo died from a sudden heart attack a few days ago, leaving behind a young wife and child. He was fifty-nine.
The church is resplendent, filled with lilies, lit with massive beeswax candles adorned with wax birds and roses. On every dark wood pew, rubbed to a polish from years of use, are four or five people shoulder to shoulder, rising, kneeling, sitting, praying, singing. I steady myself. Hold the smooth wood of the seat back in front of me, feel the wood resonate and penetrate me as if it was Arnulfo speaking. I am glad I do not have my camera. Today, the space is sacred.
The hundred or so pews are filled with family and friends, distant relations, collectors from Puebla, Mexico City, Oaxaca, the U.S.A., and Canada, onlookers, paparazzi. Some straggle in just before the mass ends. Before me are red pony tails, black braids woven with dark blue ribbon, lowered heads covered in shawls with their intricately woven fringes swaying in rhythm to the a capella ring of bells. The priest performs mass, sends Arnulfo’s spirit soaring. For a moment, I go with him and then come back to here, now. This prayer is for Suzie, too, as tears come. The man I sit with, another fine weaver I know, embraces me. The mass ends. We reach out and hold each person around us, moving from one to another in benediction.
Four men each carry a stanchion topped with a circle of encrusted white roses four feet in diameter. As they leave the church altar, twelve pallbearers, six on each side, follow shouldering the ornate mahogany-colored wood casket decorated with etched copper where Arnulfo rests. Behind them are four more men bearing another four stanchions of rose circles. Family members spill into the aisle with lit candles, armloads of fresh flowers, heads downcast. I see that the village grandmothers carry flowers, too.
We assemble in the church courtyard. I hug Arnulfo’s cousins and nieces, offer murmurs of condolence, and join the procession through the village streets to the cemetery. The band is out front. The tubas, clarinets, trombones, saxophones, drums alternate between dirge and dance. I walk slowly, lagging, matching steps with Magdalena, half my height now, who buried a husband and son years before during the same year. Every several blocks, we stop, pray, give the pallbearers rest. The sky darkens heavy with clouds on this late Sunday afternoon in southern Mexico.
Across from the cemetery entrance is the woman who usually sells snacks at the health clinic. The ice cream vendor scoops, fills cones with burnt vanilla, angel kisses, hot pink nopal fruit. A woman silently offers bottled water for sale. Inside, fresh flowers fill almost every urn. The grandmothers peel away from the procession as it enters sacred space and scatter to family graves. They begin to sweep away the leaves and debris, remove dried flowers and replace them with the fresh bundles they carry. The pallbearers stop under an ancient tree where the earth is soft and ready. Copal incense wafts smoky and pungent. If you get too close you will begin to cry.
The band forms a circle under the permanent awning. There is a press of people around the gravesite. I hang back to leave space for the family. An ex-pat moves away from the edge of the grave, approaches me, asks me why they dig up the bones of Arnulfo’s father to place Arnulfo there. I explain about the ten-year cycle of using the same family plot, then ask how she knows Arnulfo. “Oh, I read about it. I took a group to the Tlacolula Market today and we decided to stop here, too.” she says. “It’s time I find them and go.”
Someone is in the tree beside Arnulfo’s grave, taking photos, high above the rest of us, another ex-pat I recognize but don’t know. He is hovering at the perfect vantage point, wears white. The band plays a waltz. The ex-pat lowers himself from the tree, passes inches from me with no eye-contact, takes a few more steps, then pivots as the father-in-law of the deceased moves past me going in the other direction toward the grave. They criss-cross in front of me. The father-in-law is from another country across the Pacific Ocean. They are both now steps away. The ex-pat stops the older man, asks, “What will happen to all the things in the gallery?” I say, “That’s not a question for today.” The father-in-law’s face scrunches up, his brows almost touch, he stares, then shrugs, doesn’t answer, turns, continues on. The man in white, says, You interrupted me, that was rude. He didn’t understand you, I say. I did, he says. That’s perfect, I say. He moves to another side of the cemetery, takes photos of people huddled on tombstones.
There is clapping. Testimonials. A thunderclap answers. Human hands clap again. He was so young, I hear someone say. He was so talented, says another. That’s life, says a man I know who stops to greet me as I walk slowly away.
I think of Arnulfo. He looked so young, even at fifty-nine. Smooth, chestnut skin, a few laugh lines, a shock of slightly receding pitch hair drawn into a ponytail at the nape of his neck, the contentment of fatherhood. I remember him standing at the gallery doorway on Macedonio Alcala, he waves and smiles, I do the same, stop in, buy artist-imprinted T-shirts for my husband and son. His new wife packages them in tissue with gentleness.
I remember years ago when I first came here, in search of his fine tapestries, the shoulder bag with strands of gold and silver, woven into wool the color of nightfall, wet earth, blood, garnet, magic, climbing the hill to Casa Sagrada to find the kitchen where the family taught the secrets of Zapotec mole negro.
I think of Suzie, thirty-five, still in a coma. Why did she get into this particular taxi that crashes into a concrete barrier at sixty miles per hour? Yesterday, Kathryn and I talk about Suzie. We remember her giddy filled-with-life laugh, how people light up when she enters a room. Is it all about when our time comes, Kathryn asks? You mean, is it predetermined, how and when?, I ask. Yes, she says. No, I say. I think it is random, like when my son was held up at gun-point, averted his eyes, lived. Life happens in a moment. This is life, and to know and accept is all that matters.
After the funeral, I pick up Robin, whose daughter-in-law is scheduled for an emergency cesarean to deliver an early, underweight baby. The risks are high. The baby is in stress. We drink white wine, wait for news. The phone rings. She begins to sob, then says to her husband on the other end, thank you, Grandpa.
Women Weavers in Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca: Part One
Recently, I spent the day with a University of Michigan, public policy and economic development researcher, who asked me to introduce her to the Zapotec weaving culture of Teotitlan del Valle. Her expertise is India. Now, she is exploring how India and Mexico intersect and diverge in their support of artisans, particularly weavers.
hand-woven indigo rug with dye prepared by Juana Gutierrez
During our almost 10-hour day, we visited with five weaving families who work in natural dyes, two of whom are official cooperatives, registered with the government. One of these cooperatives, Vida Nueva (New Life), is solely woman-operated. Our time with spokeswoman Pastora Gutierrez enlightened my knowledge about how women came to become weavers in Teotitlan del Valle.
Federico Chavez Sosa at his loom in Teotitlan del Valle
Weaving on the fixed-frame pedal loom is mostly men’s work. The looms are big and heavy. It takes upper body strength to operate them. When the Spanish friars introduced this tapestry loom (along with churro sheep) to New Spain with the conquest, they trained men to use it, just as men traditionally worked this loom in Europe to create textiles for warmth.
Oaxaca tapestry looms turned out blankets, ponchos, sarapes and other articles of functional cloth for insulation used by people and horses.
Started in the early 1940’s, during World War II when men were overseas, the United States Bracero program opened the opportunity for Mexican men to work legally as temporary, seasonal agricultural laborers. From 1948 to 1964, more than 200,000 Mexican worked in U.S. agriculture each year.
Hand-woven tapestries with spinning wheel
Talk to anyone in Teotitlan del Valle and you will meet someone who participated in this program or has a relative who did. I am told the impact on Teotitlan del Valle was huge and saw the exodus of many of its young and middle-age men. They worked in the fields and orchards of America to earn a living to support their families.
Many men didn’t return.
This is when most women learned to weave.
Young women, who always did the cleaning, carding and spinning of sheep wool, learned to dress the loom and weave tapestries. Many began producing sellable textiles by age 11. Mothers, aunts, sisters, nieces and cousins came together to make this a family endeavor until the men returned, much like the sewing bee in small town USA. The making and selling of textiles remained closely within the family group.
Old sarape design, now a floor rug
By the mid-1970’s, Teotitlan del Valle weaving shifted from blankets and clothing to ornamental floor rugs, brought on by the market demand of Santa Fe interior design style. Importers developed relationships with village weavers who became exporters. Many were men who had learned a little English working in the Bracero program and had returned to the family and village infrastructure.
Book: Zapotec Women by Lynn Stephen, Duke University Press
Posted in Cultural Commentary, Mexican Immigration, Teotitlan del Valle, Textiles, Tapestries & Weaving
Tagged bracero, culture, dye, farmworker, history, Mexico, natural, Oaxaca, tapestry, textiles, weaver, weaving, Women