Mixteca High and Low, day 1.

Fried Chicken in Chalcatongo

Fried Chicken welcomes you to Chalcatongo!

This was our welcome into the deeper reaches of the upper Mixteca.  High country of pines, low mountains and hills nibbled to the nub by sheep and goats. Eight thousand feet above the ocean and frost on the windshield at dawn. Old country where the ancient Mixtec kingdoms once ruled and the old time artisans made some of the finest gold jewelry and alabaster sculptures seen in the Americas. Most of the few books that survived the conquest are from this area, offering a glimpse into the elegance and complexity of the old Mixtec societies.

Unique in this pine covered highland is the log cabin architecture…one after another well-made rectangular pioneer-style log cabin with steep, wide-eaved tin or shingle roofs , or a newer version where large chainsaw cut planks take the place of the logs.  And then the even newer versions with builders emulating the old design but making them bigger and fancier, two stories tall, sometimes even three, with especially wide eaves and even four sided roofs…looking something like a cross between Uncle Tom’s Cabin and a Japanese pagoda.

Log Cabin in Ticua

Traditional upper Mixteca house


But by the time you’ve made it to Chalcatongo you’ve gotten deep into the Mixteca and the architecture belies that fact. See, the thing about the Mixteca is that…high, cold, dry, thin soiled…it was an act of true mastery carried out by those old time peoples to build civilizations on this stingy land. These days it is better known for its erosion and for having the highest rates of immigration to the United States in all of Oaxaca.  The deeper you travel, up to a certain point, the more immigration you’ll find. There are vans and pickup trucks in the streets with license plates from New Jersey, Texas and California. You will encounter guys on the streets who say, “good morning man, how you doing?” There are even Chinese restaurants!

The new Mixtec houses appear as a version of the American sheet rock palace. There are large two or three story trophy houses with gabled roofs, dormers, ship lap wood-like siding, front porches, all expertly made from concrete. The architecture speaks bold statements saying loud and clear, “I made it big!” These are also non-verbal expressions of “I’m not an Indian!” which in Mexico means third class citizen.

The streets of Chalcatongo, and the towns further down the road as we travelled onward, were dotted with these statements of success and efforts to bury inherited shame.  Amazingly opulent places, some even actually made out of wood by skilled carpenters who learned their trade framing houses in the suburbs of Las Vegas and Phoenix bringing their tricks back home and hewing 2x4s with chainsaw mills.

Travelling through this landscape of migrant dreams and lost heritage, we slowly headed into an area where the houses faded away and the woods grew big. We saw pine trunks in between sharp karst limestone boulders that opened to grand vistas of deep spreading valleys and ridge line after ridge line.The Penasco Valley, Oaxaca

Then we zig-zagged out of the highlands, rattling through the little towns of Yucunicucu, Zaragoza, Monte Verde, Tezoatlan. Distracted we missed the right connector road somewhere I suppose. So we went winding down through oaks on a narrow little track that held little promise of going anywhere until we came to a clear stream lined with big cypress trees and a creek crossing that threatened to swallow up my little car.

Indeed, my car was swallowed up, but the creek then spit us out on the other side with hopefully only minor scratches on the oil tank. We then came to a house way up the valley on the other side and asked where the road was to “such and such a place” which we thought we were near. The woman said, in so many sighs and grunts, “boy are you guys far off track!”

Will she make it?

Will she make it?

But she got us back on track and by brunch time we arrived in Santiago Nuyoo, near neighbor to Santa Maria Yucuhiti. These two towns were our day’s destination.

Side note here…I’m saying “we” and “our” here so let me introduce she who makes the adventure plural, Marina; my photography assistant and sweetie who also takes most all of the behind the scenes photos of these photo outings, but leaves the driving to me, and we like it that way.

Nuyoo and Yucuhiti, two Mixtex towns sitting on a little slope at the head of a canyon under the semi-circle amphitheater walls of enormous limestone cliffs, one hell of a dramatic spot! Why did we decide to drive hours down convoluted dirt roads to get here? Because we’d heard a rumor that people might still wear their community fashion here.


Let me say right here at the outset of writing about the field work for this book that there is no guide book to the textile villages of Oaxaca, there is no text book, there is no series of published academic papers telling one where these villages are.  However there are two important resources, both with their pros and cons. One is word of mouth, which is usually accurate, but can often be hard to come upon and often with limited reach.  The other is the recently published map of Oaxacan textiles put out by the Museo Textile de Oaxaca, which lists every place they’ve ever heard of that in the last 100 years had a textile tradition. This map is a gold mine of information, no question about it.

However it has some idiosyncrasies that makes this exploration all the more interesting.  It lists villages with symbols as follows:  1) UPSIDEDOWN ORANGE TRIANGLE= Once having a textile tradition, but not anymore(we are not interested in these villages for this project, they are textile extinct) , 2) RIGHTSIDE UP YELLOW TRIANGLE = having an active textile tradition (we are interested in these villages), or 3) WHITE DOT= uncertain if there still is an active textile tradition (we are uncertain how interested we are in these villages, they are a crap shoot).

The other idiosyncrasy of the map is that it has so many villages and so many small lines indicating those villages that is near impossible to read.  But that’s how treasure maps should be, riddles in their own right, and this one is most certainly a treasure map and most certainly filled with riddles.

Museo Textile Oaxaca textiles treasure map

Museo Textile Oaxaca textiles treasure map

Deciphering the riddles,  I found Nuyoo and Yucuhiti with this map, both listed as having a yellow triangle active textile tradition. I then followed up by doing an image search on google to see if anyone had posted images from these villages showing people dressed in village fashion. And bingo, I found a couple of good images. So between the two solid clues I planned the visit.

But a couple of important details: First, the textile map’s aim isn’t to talk about villages where people still dress in their villages clothing, but rather to identify villages where there is or was or might be an active textile tradition. If they are weaving or embroidering, that is an active tradition of course, but it doesn’t mean anyone is actually wearing their work in their day to day lives.  Meanwhile, the key to being included in my project is that the textiles have to be used on a daily basis by someone in the village. That is the parameter I’ve set to call something “Living Threads”; the threads are still walking, working and dancing on someone’s back and hips, part of their life every day, and part of a continuous heritage dating back who knows how far…but a long time to be certain.

The other important detail is that while pictures of people in a village dressed in village fashion found in an image search on Google is a great clue, it is wise to remember that in many villages the old style has been relegated to the role of the tuxedo, pulled out of the closet only for special events. And these are the kind of events that then get posted on the internet and indexed by Google.

And this was the case for both Nuyoo and Yucuhiti…yes, as the textile map suggested, there is still a textile tradition here, some women do still weave. But no, they don’t wear their community unique dress anymore, except, as in the case of the photos, when a big wig comes to town and is received with honors.

We got here a decade too late. So we had a brunch of huevos a la Mexicana with orange juice in a backroom kitchen that served as Nuyoo’s main restaurant and then headed on down the line.

Loco Motive!


Picking up where I left off, with the question of “how on earth do I document over 60 villages?!” when I’d thought it was going to be 15, when I’ve got a full time job and other projects on top of that? How to make this happen when I’ve got a fully scheduled life happening already and hadn’t worked into my 2014-15 calendar “photo document people from here to Oaxacan kingdom come “?

Well the answer is actually quite simple.  When the task before you makes total sense no matter how you slice it, you find the time. And that’s how I see this project. I find it to be profoundly inspiring, meaningful, important, challenging and fascinating. And in the long run it might even feed me. So I’ve hired people to do most of my day job; great people to guide the tours I was to guide; an excellent manager for my tour company who does the job WAY better than I ever did.

And then, tighten the belt a bit and go to work. And while I’ve had no clear map at all as to how I’d get from point A to B on this project, nor even point A to A.1, the vision has been enough…more than enough…it has felt like a locomotive inside of me pushing me forward.

Loco motive! And it has brought me a long ways.

Indeed, this month marks the one year anniversary of the first photos created for Living Threads. It has been a year of immense creativity, tremendous journeys into the fabulous corners of Oaxaca, lots of being exhaustion and the making real of a day dream built on the dangled carrot of  “would you like to write a book on Oaxacan textiles?”.

As of today I have worked in 35 villages, photographing some 130 beautiful woman and men. And in one hour from now we head out again for another 7-day field trip. We are headed to the upper Mixteca to visit a handful of villages out there where there might or might not still be living textiles. In my upcoming blog posts I’ll share tales from the road…from this trip about to unfold, as well as from other trips from this past year and upcoming weeks.  I’ll give you a peek behind the scenes and I’ll even share some of the finished work with you.

Join me for the journey, and tell your friends. It’s not every day we get to take a trip like this!


15 villages (?!)

Alright, I said, if I’m gonna make this book about traditional dress in Oaxaca, first thing I need to do is figure out the scope of the project. Oaxaca is big and broad and deep. How many villages are out there where people dress traditionally? That will tell me how long I’ll be travelling, roughly how many portraits I’ll be taking and about how little or how much of my life this will consume.

Who do go to for the answer? Well, I figured I was a great place to start. After all,  I’ve lived here twenty odd years, have made a point of learning about traditional textiles and run a tour business proud of offering trips to the fascinating textile villages of remote Oaxaca. I’ve spent long, long hours traveling to those villages to learn about them and create the tours.  Indeed, if I didn’t feel like I had at least a decent sense of the scope of it all, I wouldn’t have dreamed up this idea in the first place. In other words, I ought to know.

So I sat down and made a list of every village I could think of in Oaxaca that had traditional dress. Several of them I knew well, had visited many times. Others I only knew of through legend, old photos or hearsay.  I wrote names, scratched my head, walked around a bit to see if something would come to mind I hadn’t thought of, and then did it all again.

"All" the Oaxacan Textile villages.

“All” the Oaxacan Textile villages.

When it was all said and done, I had 13 names. However, I thought, there were probably more, because some of those names I had where based on vague knowledge. Usila, for example, for all I knew the tradition didn’t exist there any more…or maybe it did and there were other villages in the area with dress as well.  Like Usila I had several examples…maybe there was, maybe there wasn’t, maybe there were more than I knew of in that region.  So in the end, doing the kind of math that my mind does using complex algorithms, hypothesis and artistic delusional equations I came up with the number 15.

Fifteen. 15! That’s how many villages in Oaxaca have traditional dress.


Now, if in each village I make 5 portraits I’ll have 75 portraits. A fabulous body of work. And if it takes me 4 days to make those portraits in each village (including travel time) it will take me two months of field work to get this project photographed.  A big time commitment, but achievable.

With this solid bit of knowledge stored away, I prepared for the job.  And in the mean time I consulted some other friends who also knew about textiles in Oaxaca pretty well.  Between them they came up with the same list I’d worked up, plus two more villages.  Suddenly it was 17.

And then I headed into Mixes to photograph the two villages I knew about there. And once there I asked people if there were others. Yes, yes of course, they said, and they named five more villages. Five more! 22 villages!! Goodness!

Maybe I didn’t know as much as I thought I did!

Then I happened to met a woman who knew the Usila region (Papaloapan) quite well. Yes, she said, there is still traditional dress in Usila. And she went on to name a long list of other villages in the region with traditional dress as well. Eight more! Thirty villages!

Wait, wait, wait! What have I committed too?

I’ m gonna eat some humble pie and make a long story short, trying to keep the word count of this blog under 1,000 because I know you’ve got lots of other things to do. Between one thing and another, not the least of which was the publication of an insane map earlier this year by the Museo Textile de Oaxaca (in which they show every known village in Oaxaca with a textile tradition that once existed, currently exists or currently may or may not exist [because no one in our urban realm really knows in a lot of cases])…between one thing and another that list is now hovering around 65 villages and/or style regions.

There is so much more out there than I’d ever imagined! Clearly, I had no idea! How exciting to learn that the world of textiles in Oaxaca is a magnitude greater than I thought.

But how on earth am I going to photograph in so many villages?

Catch part 2 of this article for more on that…

A Photographic Style

As I mulled over the concept of doing a book on Oaxacan textiles, one of the key elements that made me say YES was the vision I saw inside my mind about how I wanted to make the photographs, create the portraits. Indeed, it was clear to me that the project was largely about the images, and that the images would tell the story. Clothing is very much appearance, it is style and fashion, it is adornment and color and texture. A lot of words might convey that…but you know what they say a photo is worth!conrado-110

It was also clear to me what kind of portraits I wanted to make, and those were, to some degree or another,  the kind of images one sees in glossy magazines or on movie posters. I wanted to photograph the people who dress traditionally in a similar fashion to how we (we being the Westernized Community) photograph our cultural heroes; movie stars, top athletes, beautiful models, musicians, etc.  I think you know what I mean…think of a movie poster, think of the cover of some hip magazine, think of Micheal Jordan in Nike shoes.

Now, for some reason, that’s not done.

Now for some reason, that’s not done. When it comes to us taking pictures of the traditional people of the world, the unspoken rule seems to be that the approach should be documentary style. Examples are National Geographic or gritty black and white type. I have great admiration for on the spot street photography like that and do plenty myself. And I AM doing a documentary project. But, well, for me the people who carry their heritage on their backs, who are the visual icons of their community’s history, THEY are MY cultural heroes. And so I want to portray them the way my Westernized community portrays its cultural heroes, via the photo shoots with models posing, multiple flashes and fancy post production editing. That’s how all those movie posters, shoe ads and magazine covers are created. And they look great, are eye catching and in one way or another, affect the way we perceive and think about things (I wanna be like that guy…)

I’ve decided to break the unspoken rule. Not dramatically, but significantly just the same. I’ve made a decision to approach my subject matter similar to how one might do a  commercial shoot- Ie, you conceptualize the shot, choose the location, pay your model, bring in lighting, have the model pose and work the angles and expressions until you get what you feel is right and then that shot is transferred into the computer “developing room”, aka Photoshop, Lightroom and other great software helpers, and it is rendered into a visually rich image.

That is not what we’d call documentary photography. Yet I’m doing a documentary. So go figure.


However I am making some changes over a classic commercial photo shoot. First, I have very limited choice in who my models can be. There is one requisite, and it is that they must be a person who dresses traditionally on a daily basis. Otherwise, no dice.  Second, I make almost no wardrobe decisions. The point is to take photos of people dressed the way they dress. And finally, I have limited choice over location. It has to be in or near the community the person lives in, and in most cases it has to happen within about 50 feet of where I meet the model. Photo shoots in these communities are not a common event and to have the model traipse around town with me, my camera and tripod and assistant with light stands and umbrellas, it’s a bit too much of a bizarre parade in a small town.

So I want to picture my cultural heroes the way my culture pictures it’s cultural heroes, even though my cultural heroes are of a different sort and from a different culture. You follow?

Two main reasons for that.

One is that it will turn heads in my Westernized community. All we’ve really learned how to see are pictures of traditional people through the traditional documentary approach. To see something in a new way is a gift, both to the viewer and the viewed, because it offers a new perspective, and in that new perspective there is the opportunity to catch a glimpse of the broader truth and a drop more of understanding. Both are precious things to all involved.

Two is that it will turn the heads (I hope) of the people I photograph and their extended communities. You see, they watch the same TV as we do, encounter the same kind of magazines or see the same kind of advertising.  Their eyes, like ours, have been trained by the pros up in the marketing department to be attracted to a certain kind of imagery.  All their young boys wanted to be Micheal Jordan in Nikes too, their young girls to dress like the models and actresses they see. In other words, they, like us, want to be like our cultural heroes.  They also understand when the photograph is portraying them as the “marginalized Indian”, as the photographs so often see to do. What if the photo wasn’t doing that? What if instead it was saying “to be who you are, dressed how you do is right on”?

Because a photo can say that. And its true.



ESE_3098Editors note: you gotta read Jan 18th’s blog before you read this one to get the whole back story…so if you haven’t, go back and read it. If you have today’s blog goes a little something like this:

We left our story on the 18th with;

...But there it was, just like that million dollar day dream…”do you want to write the book?” In my heart of hearts…hell yes! But really now, practically, it just doesn’t make sense.  No, I’m not the person…

For the next five days, as I went about my tasks, there was a running dialog in the back of my mind, a cast of mental characters in a running debate. “Should I or shouldn’t I write this book? Could I or couldn’t I? Making a commitment like that, dang, that’s a little like getting married, not to be taken lightly”.

But in the end, the decision, yes or no, didn’t matter I realized. The great pleasure and power of the moment was in having a real live mind game to play, a true “what if” scenario that was of extreme interest to me. IF I did choose to write it, HOW would I write it. And since no one was looking inside my mind, I was free to play with the idea, which I did, (especially while I wasn’t looking…sleeping at night, daydreaming during a meal, watching for obstacles on the road while I drove). While in the front of my mind I kept running into obstacles built of limited creativity, in the back of my mind the wheels were turning.

I crossed a crucial threshold in the mind game when I realized that the book I could write on Oaxacan textiles didn’t have to look like the book I wrote on Oaxacan Pottery.  See, as it turns out I AM an expert on Oaxaca pottery. I can write about it and talk about it from all sorts of unique angles, and the book I wrote was, in effect, the encyclopedia of Oaxacan pottery, describing all the different techniques, all the kinds of vessels made, functionality on three levels,  cultural nuances plus a listing of all the pottery villages that I know of in the region (68).  Each time I thought about writing a book on Oaxacan textiles, I thought of it in a similar format, to which I could only say,  “nope, that’s not in me”. The world of textiles here is equally as complex, if not more so, than that of pottery. It took me 15 years to learn what I put into that pottery book. I didn’t want to spend 15 more to make the textiles happen. I’m too old for that anymore!

But then I thought, in the grand panorama of textiles in Oaxaca, what is it that interests me the most? What is it that speaks to me. And the answer leapt to mind; it wasn’t the wonderful wool rugs, nor the lovely embroidered blouses sold in fine galleries in the city, nor the table cloths and curtains of colorful cotton. No, it was the traditional dress and those villages where people still dress in a village specific fashion, in a style that connects them to their community, that makes them unique, that carries in the cut, the weave, the fibers, the colors very deep and meaningful heritage. These places, for me, are the places that still hold onto something very uniquely Oaxacan…very uniquely this village or that. Watching our grand human world becoming more and more uniform under the thrall of high dollar marketing campaigns…watching the deeply rooted people of Oaxaca run as quickly and blindly as the rest of us toward some shiny plastic future tears at my heart.  I deeply believe that we lose, have lost, much, much more than we’ve gained in our rush for modern and comfort and convenience and pre-made.

Where I come from, the Western US, there really are no points of comparison. Most all of us are in the same boat, playing the “Lets Move Forward Quick” game without even realizing it. But here in Oaxaca there are points of reference. There are people, families, communities and vast regions where that game is of little value or interest, where people are deeply rooted and living in ways that make a great deal of sense for PEOPLE if not necessarily for business or industrial production. And the reason those ways make sense is because these are very old cultures, miraculously intact to some degree in spite of the ongoing assaults against “indigenousness” that they’ve been subjected to since 1519.  Old cultures have evolved lifeways that are time tested to function, as simple as that. And they do, and I get that, and in brief that’s why I’m here and have been for the better part of the last 23 years. I’m learning from the people of rural Oaxaca what I can’t learn in the place I was raised and formally schooled. For me one of the clearest indicators of people still being connected to those wiser, old ways of living, is that they dress in clothing that is part of those old ways.

And that to me speaks volumes.

Once I got beyond my own preconceived notions about what THE book on Oaxacan textiles should contain and thought about what MY book about Oaxacan textiles would look like, it was obvious it would be about traditional dress where it is still used as part of living traditions…and the people who give it life…ie. wear it in their daily lives.

And once that idea came into my mind it made utter sense, both in my heart and my gut.  Thus, the seed that had been planted with the offer to write a book on Oaxacan textiles began to wiggle and hum inside me…as if a root and a leaf where trying to sprout out of the seed lining.

And then there was another detail… for several years a new dream career has been building in my life and it’s called Photography. I’ve been wondering out load how to combine my passion for photography with my respect and admiration of the people of rooted Mexico.  Once I put two and two together it all gelled in an instant. Ahh, yes, of course! I want to make a book of portraits of people who dress traditionally in the state of Oaxaca. Through pictures I want to celebrate the textiles of Oaxaca and the people who give them life, people and dress that are unique to Oaxaca, unique to her communities and that are still a real and active part of a cultural story. Living textiles, living threads!

And ping, out popped the root, up shot the leaf and the seed had germinated! I turned to the women who had put the idea on my table and said, “Yes, I’ll do a book on Oaxacan textiles”, and the idea of it captivated me and thrilled me as much as any journey I’ve ever taken.

PS. To those of you who shared encouragement to go forward with the project after my first post, thank you so much. Of course what you couldn’t know is that this part of the story unfolded many months ago and only now have I managed to turn it into a blog.

And stay tuned to see how it rolls from here, from defining the photographic approach, making a list of the villages and then heading out into the field to start making the portraits! It is a good and valuable journey.

The Seed is Planted

You know the imagination game we play as adults, “What would you do if you had a million dollars”?  One sits back and day dreams about it for a while,  with any luck breaking out of your regular, square, time and money limited thinking habits and peeking into a dream of something really cool you could do…if only.  And then you shrug it off because, well, you don’t have a million dollars and aren’t going to anytime soon and you’ve got this pile of work sitting on your desk waiting for you right here and now.

untitled-160I think many of us have other versions of that day dream game pass through our minds that are a bit closer to home…related to what we do, where we live, who we love. “What would you do if you could get that dream job?”.  “What would it be like if I lived in such and such a place?” “What if my lover were perfect in all these ways?”.  Whatever, I think you get my drift. We day dream…it seldom has much to do with reality, and usually there is nothing backing those day dreams.

But this project, the Living Threads project, it started as a day dream that was plopped in front of me quite unwittingly. You see, I make my living as a cultural tour guide in Oaxaca, Mexico, creating tours focused on people and their traditions. Many of the trips I build look at textiles, weaving, natural dyeing, traditional dress. I love these things, the old ways in which we humans live. Lots of subtle wisdom in it, lots of elements that just make sense. Hard to put words on it, but I get it in my gut, and I build journeys to share these places with others.

A while back on one of my tours, which was focused on weaving, dyeing and traditional dress of a far corner of Oaxaca, the clients were a group of women who all worked in the publishing industry in the US…specifically publishing related to textiles. They came from Interweave Press and Thrums Books .  I’ve been running textile tours long enough that plenty of people know of me. I’ve written a couple of articles published in Interweave Press magazines. I wrote a book about Oaxacan pottery. They knew who I was and a bit about my background. So aside from coming on the tour to have a grand time, much to my surprise they also came to ask me a question:

“How would you like to write a book on Oaxacan textiles?”

“We can publish it.”  Wow! Now that’s an exciting thought! Oaxaca NEEDS a book about its textiles, there really isn’t anything out there. But there is so much going on here in so many places and in so many ways, I thought to myself, and though I know the general panorama, I’m no expert. And though I love the weaving and dyeing, I’m not technical, I don’t know how they tie up their looms and make those designs, I don’t know their methods of embroidery, I don’t know the chemistry behind indigo or cochineal dye…dang, there’s a whole lot I don’t know come to think of it! And I’m not sure I want to go and learn it all either. There are others that know much more about these things than I… one of them should write the book on Oaxacan textiles.

And so, though I said I needed to reflect on the offer for a week, in my head I’d already made up my mind: No, I’m not the person to write the book on Oaxacan textiles.

But there it was, just like that million dollar day dream…”do you want to write the book?” In my heart of hearts…hell yes! But really now, practically, it just doesn’t make sense.  No, I’m not the person…