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.
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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.
Women Weavers’ Cooperative Vida Nueva, Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca: Part Two
This post continues the narrative about women weavers in Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca. See Part One for my introduction.
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Vida Nueva (“New Life”) Cooperative at the International Folk Art Market
Twenty years ago, Vida Nueva cooperative was founded by six single women from the same extended family group, three of whom where sisters. Some of the women had husbands who never returned to Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca, after migrating out for work. Some had not married. Some were widows. They needed to support their families and weaving had the biggest potential economic reward for their labor.
But, weaving was not women’s work.
Pomegranate dyed wool
The traditional role for women was (and still is, for the most part) to stay at home, keep house, tend the children, cook and raise small animals like chicken, sheep, pigs and goats.
Twenty years ago, weaving and then selling/marketing the product was not a usual role for women, plus it was unheard of to go to the city to develop customers. Most women of the time went barefoot, wore indigenous dress and did not go beyond the family compound expect to daily market. Entering the city was foreign, uncomfortable, intimidating.
Cleaning the finished rug
Since the height of the Bracero program, when men migrated to the U.S. as temporary farm workers, and women learned to weave out of economic necessity, the number of women who now weave is substantial. Today, most women work alongside husband, father or brother, to weave in a family centric enterprise. A few also participate in selling and receive recognition for their contributions.
It took a while for Vida Nueva to get started, but they had the help of a non-governmental agency, Grupo del Apoyo a la Educacion de la Mejor (now defunct). Through donations and business development guidance, Vida Nueva began producing rugs for sale in 2001. Their first clients, arranged by the NGO, were adult Spanish language students who were visiting Oaxaca from the United States.
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The cooperative meets regularly, makes decisions together, created a mission statement, a vision, goals and objectives for the organization that includes a marketing plan, and have built distribution markets over time. They also put money aside each year to invest in an annual community project that can benefit everyone in Teotitlan del Valle.
Using the stone metate to crush indigo to powder for dye
Not all the rugs woven by Vida Nueva are made with natural dyes. Most are woven with synthetic colors because most buyers don’t want to pay the price for a naturally dyed rug and prefer bright, electric colors. But, the cooperative will do custom orders for naturally dyed rugs and from time-to-time, may have some on-hand.
Today there are 12 cooperative members, two of whom are married. Their clientele has developed by word of mouth over the years, and they also have been invited to participate in shows/sales in the U.S.A. including the International Folk Art Market and the Feria at Lake Chapala, Mexico Arts Show.
Vida Nueva Women’s Cooperative Contact Information
Teotitlán del Valle, Oaxaca
Telephone: 951 524-4250
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Posted in Cultural Commentary, Oaxaca rug weaving and natural dyes, Teotitlan del Valle, Textiles, Tapestries & Weaving, Travel & Tourism
Tagged Bracero program, cooperatives, economic development, Mexico, Oaxaca, social history, sociology, Teotitlan del Valle, Vida Nueva, weavers, weaving, Women, women's studies