Yesterday Upper Mixteca, today Lower Mixteca, or so this region is called. But as we drove out of Juxtlahuaca, where we’d spent the night, our route quickly started taking us up. And up. And up, and within 40 minutes of driving out of that town set in a mild valley, we found ourselves on a winding ridge line looking over a landscape of grand, wrinkled, jumble edges, steep slopes and deep, deep valley bottoms. Big broken mountains for as far as the eye could see, and zig zagging here and zig zagging there, dirt roads heading to villages. Our paved road eventually turned into one of those dirt roads, dropping off the high, oak and pine forested ridge tops and down to the river bottom, then over a dry grazed hill to a town called Santiago Tilapa.
The trusty textile map had a white dot for Tilapa, meaning the author didn’t know if there was still a living textile tradition here. The map had a photo of the huipil (traditional square cut indigenous womans gown) from Tilapa taken in 1988. If they still made such a huipil here it would be pretty cool, since it was a finely woven huipil, and it would be one place less that has lost its ancestral dress in the last three decades.
So, rolling the dice on a white circle and a photo of a huipil from 1988, we made the drive out here. Why not? If, like yesterday, it didn’t pan out, there were two other villages in the region that I wanted to look into as well; the white circle village of Santos Reyes Zochiquilazala and nearby San Juan Pinyas, which rated a yellow triangle on the map, meaning the textile tradition was still alive. Indeed, I was thinking we’d visit all three of these villages today and make some time.
The good thing is I’m quite used to taking my planned agendas and dumping them.
We parked next to the under construction church of Tilapa and I got out to ask a man where the town hall was. Nearly everywhere we go, first stop is town hall to introduce ourselves, explain the project and ask for their blessing to work in the village. The man pointed across the street to a building also under construction which would one day be town hall. Then, in a friendly manner, he asked us what brought us here, from which ensued a conversation that led to him signing on as our local guide, his wife cooking us breakfast and us spending the next six hours with him tracking down grandmothers in huipiles.
He explained to us that in Tilapa there were women who still wore the huipiles, his mother and grandmother-in-law in fact, but their huipiles were made of embroidery on muslin, whereas deeper into the mountains were other towns where the women still wove the huipiles.
Take me there, I said. And he did.
But until now, I hadn’t seen a huipil anywhere. All the women in the village wore floral print skirts and blouse shirts of polyester in pretty colors. To be certain this was community unique dress, a uniform of sorts — the modern, inexpensive and convenient agreement on how one should look here. But no huipiles, nor anything else that looked like more traditional dress, which didn’t worry me that much. I know that in places where the old style is disappearing it can often be only a handful of grandmothers who still wear it, and they don’t show up downtown much. However, I wasn’t sure whether this man actually understood what I was talking about. How often does someone show up saying “show me the grandmothers dressed the old way”?
We wound up in a steep ridge top town oddly named Llano Encino Amarillo (Yellow Oak Plain) and, as is correct, headed to town hall. Court was currently being held on the porch in front of the town hall building by a group of rural farmers doing their civic service as president, secretary, treasurer, etc. They were seated on long worn wooden benches with the three main fellows behind a beautifully aged pine table with just a hint of the original yellow paint still showing.
This will go into history, won’t it?
As we walked up they pulled chairs out for us, and other onlookers came closer to see what it was all about. I introduced ourselves and then presented the project — to which they all listened attentively but passively. This was followed by a long, animated discussion in Mixtec that bounced from one person to another and often between several all at once. The only person who didn’t say anything at all during this was the president. Finally, a man sitting to my right who had taken on the role of interpreter, or perhaps speaker of the house, said something to the president, who grunted what sounded like an affirmative. Then the man turned to me and said, “Yes, there are women who wear the traditional huipiles here. And the president says that as long as this photography and book project is not going to cost the village anything, you are welcome to do your work here.” Then another man said, more as an affirmation than a question, “This will go into history, won’t it?”
Then three of them got in a truck and beckoned us to follow, which we did in my little car. After a half mile of eating dust, following behind, we pulled up to an adobe house. The three men went inside and pretty soon a woman came out dressed in a pristine white huipil. The dress was beautiful, with two horizontal red ribbon stripes joining the panels and exquisite baskstrap woven geometric patterns across the chest plate (front and back) in neon reds, oranges and magentas with green accents.
Wow! Textiles alive and well out here! And here was a huipil in full rural fashion without any of the color dimming influence that seems to happen in villages that have contact with outside buyers. These buyers relentlessly lobby for more “earthy tones” in an effort to please “we the urban folks” in our over-stimulated, over-synthetic worlds.
And the photography began.
We spent hours making pictures, with her, her granddaughter and then travelled on, finding grandmothers both in Llano Encino Amarillo and Santiago Tilapa. A very gracious family cooked lunch for us in Encino and we shared travel stories. The mom was fromVeracruz, and once lived in Baja California before she married a man from this village, where she learned Mixtec in 3 years. Her son had been to California and Washington and told stories about long hours picking Halloween pumpkins. And they asked me the question I’ve been asked so many times, “Why can you come here, but we can’t go there?” It’s all about money.
The day’s work wound up with a dream photo session in the hilltop graveyard above Tilapa. At my behest, Antonio, our guide for the day, talked his mother and grandmother-in-law into going there with us. I bought flowers and it was that time of the day when the light goes from good to unbearable.
Unbearable is when the light is so good…and the setting so good…and the models so perfect that I feel utterly overwhelmed. It’s like being handed the perfect opportunity and it is my job to mold that opportunity into striking beauty, to not waste the gift of the light, the place, the beautiful ancient style of the grandmothers and the moment. I feel a tremendous responsibility to get it right, like the whole world is watching and saying, it is up to you to craft this moment into perfection.
Sometimes the pressure of moments like these feels so big I think I’m going to implode.
But instead I look around for the best spot, wring my hands a bit, and take some test shots to see how the scene frames up, what the light is like in my screen. I get Marina to set up the lights, stand in front of them as my test model (so as not to wear out my real live, never-done-this-before country models) to check the look and then get my model(s) to stand where Marina was and try not to look like a frozen plank. Click, click, flash, flash, the sun is perfect, PERFECT, but do I have this composed right? Are my flashes doing what I want them to do? What DO I want them to do?? I point and wag my hand at Marina, unable to make coherent words as the gears in my head go into overdrive in the creative excitement of the moment. I tell the model to look this way and that, stand here and there, I try to say something funny, or nothing at all and just let her gaze as she will…
…check the final results here.
This will go into history, won’t it?