Santos Reyes Zo-Chil-Quil-Azala
We wound down a ridge line road into uncertainty that morning, filled with the excitement of the expectation of heading into the unknown and the possibility of finding another town where traditional style was still happening, the curiosity of what would be around the next corner, and the inevitable anxiety that comes with uncertainty. In other words, it was a morning like so many mornings during the travels of the Living Threads project.
Santes Reyes Zochilquilazala is a small hamlet on the edge of a big mountain, the entire village facing south towards the gaping maw of a wrinkled and steep valley, bordered by one after another ridge line and mountain top. Heavy rains from a recent hard rainy season have taken bites out of the steep mountains all around and the open wounds of white and yellow soil shown in the sunlight. Just below Zochi where the steep trails to the cornfields began, one could see that entire corn fields, and perhaps even a home or two had crumbled into the valley below.
As we came into the village I pulled out my eagle-sharp spotting eye, trained and honed in sighting people dressed in village style (vs generic style, like me, and most everybody else) and coming around the corner my considerable spotting experience paid off, for standing in a field in the distance I saw someone who appeared to be wearing a white blouse with colorful woven decoration across the chest and an old straw hat! I felt a thrill, there WAS still traditional fashion in Zochi…kilo…silo…umm, well I still hadn’t learned how to pronounce the town name as we drove closer to the farmer in her field.
Not only that, but my eagle-eye had gone platypus, as we got closer the farmer morphed into a scarecrow! Or maybe it was a decoy to confuse traditional textile hunters, with a bunch of kids hiding behind some bush watching and laughing away, “did you see how that one got all goggle-eyed!!”
I was going to pull up to the house next to the field just the same, maybe take a closer look at the scarecrow, or ask at the house if people still dressed the traditional way here. Something like this is always the plan coming into a new town where there might be traditional style. Try to see someone wearing it, or ask around, check in at a little store and see what you can learn. And if you get an affirmative, then, and only then, head to town hall and go through the formalities of presenting oneself, explaining the project, debating it’s virtues and demerits. Nothing at all wrong with that, and always an interesting process, but it can take some time, and if traditional dress no longer exists in a given town, then onward without further ado, for long are the roads and many are the villages that might, or might not, have living threads.
As I tried to find the way closer to the scarecrow, fool-the-textile-photographer house the road went around a bend and…delivered me smack dab into the middle of town, face to face with town hall and a passel of men stacking firewood or looking on. Ours being the only car around, I being the only tall foreigner in the neighborhood, all heads turned to look.
Very well then, so much for the subtle entry and reconnaissance, I guess I’ll just take the bull by the horns here.
Do tell, where can I find the town president? “This way sir”, and several of us marched up to the second floor of the sky-blue, concrete building, including the president himself, and we arranged ourselves in the small office and began the dialog. Here, as in Cerro Encino Amarillo yesterday (which, consequently, we could see on the next ridge over), an assistant to the president translated for him between Mixtec and Spanish. I was pleased to see, once again, evidence of the strength and presence of Mixtec in this part of Oaxaca. As ever happy to see that 500 years of Spanish domination and current commercial colonialism still haven’t managed to wipe away the rich and original human heritage of this land.
The bottom line was, these men didn’t have much time to talk as they were busy preparing for a festival, but ever polite and accommodating, they heard my request, considered it and agreed that it wouldn’t be a problem for me to photograph in the village, for indeed, there WERE grandmothers who dressed traditionally. And so I was assigned a guide/interpreter from among the score of men doing their annual civic service, and then the town authorities shook hands all around and excused themselves to get back to their task at hand.
Our guide walked us directly across the little plaza to a small wooden house on the edge of a gathering of homes and spoke into the house to the woman there. She emerged, dressed in a lustrous blue velvet skirt and a long sleeve muslin blouse decorated with fine inlaid designs in reds and oranges.
No scarecrow this time, even I could tell the difference. And my goodness, what a beautiful blouse! It did resemble the 1960 photo on my treasure map, but much finer. I thought that decoration on the blouse might have been fine back strap brocade, but no, she explained, it was embroidery. Painstaking to be certain, with a running stitch picking up thin threads of the woven muslin blow to anchor it, and all told creating a pattern that to my untrained eye says “pre-Hispanic back strap woven design morphed over time into embroidery on muslin cotton”.
She agreed to sit for a photo session, and with a small crowd gathered around for the event, Marina began to pull out the gear; tripod, light stands, umbrellas and flashes, and I walked around rubbing my chin and scratching my head and muttering to myself, looking through one eye and then another, making a frame with my hands and putting together the puzzle in my mind of where in this setting I’d do the portrait and how I’d light it. Always a tense little series of minutes for me, and most certainly one of my favorite experiences of this project of many wonderful experiences.
I learned that there weren’t many women left who dressed traditionally here. Grandmothers, the last generation of a heritage. We photographed three of those women that morning in Zochi (it is fair to just call it that for short), each an experience. The velvet skirt woman of the first house, then a woman who looked like the butcher’s wife from an old English folktale, who lived in a tight quarters piled high with firewood and cats running here and there. Then to the edge of the village…I wanted to see if I could get a shot that showed the maw of the valley beyond, the ridgelines, the steepness of this place…
My town guide took me to the right place, a house on the edge of the village, the planet dropping off out the back door. The farmer pointed to where half is land had slide away in 2013 with those rains. And the woman we came to photograph had the finest of the fine embroidery I’d seen here, which would qualify it as world class!
“Can we take a picture down below there someone?” I asked, pointed to the trails that wound down the mountain. “Si, si” And, I asked the woman, “Do you work out there, with a shovel or something? “Of course, we all work”, came the translated answer. And so, we took a shovel and the bunch of us headed down the hill, past the landslide and onto the spectacular, steep, winding trails.
Snap, snap, snap…can you stand over here… look over there…walk back and forth…hold your shovel like this…look up to the sky…?
(Get the whole picture here)