Day 3 Mixteca jaunt: Of Molting Villages

San Martin Peras, like so many towns, going through growing pains.

San Martin Peras, like so many towns, going through growing pains.

As we traveled onward, our overnight stay was in San Martin Peras. This village was a white dot on the textile treasure map. Perhaps, I thought, in this burgeoning town there are people making textiles. But, I saw nary a soul dressing in anything but factory made clothing.

Meanwhile, as I travel, I’ve been trying to come up with a way to describe what I’m seeing in one-after-another rural town. Last evening in San Martin it struck me — these towns are molting. They are in the midst of shedding their old skins that they’ve outgrown, sold on the new construction trends of changing times.  Village after village appears to be a work in progress, an active construction site with half-finished concrete block houses everywhere, piles of sand and gravel, rebar lying in wait along the edge of the newly paved concrete road and protruding like insect antennas out of the tops and sides of the flat roofs of all the grey buildings. All day long the sound of hammers and chisels putting holes in the cement wall to pass waterlines and electrical cables, nothing finished, inside or out, all in movement, change, growth, transformation. It would be fascinating to watch a time lapse film of the villages of Oaxaca from 1970 to present, because roughly speaking, that’s the time frame of this current molt.

Torn down or squeezed in between the new concrete boxes are the remnants of what the previous molt left. Likely that molt happened so slowly over hundreds of years it was hardly noticeable. Tinted gray in concrete dust are the old adobe houses, the wattle and daub, the Spanish tiles, the wood beamed and shingled places, the last grass roof houses. The old time places managed an elegance in their cut and trim that the new buildings fall short of. Try as hard as they might (and some try very, very hard, while others don’t try at all), the new just can’t seem to muster the style of the old.

Hand embroidered blouse, velvet dress and concrete house in San Juan Pinyas.

Hand embroidered blouse, velvet dress and concrete house in San Juan Pinyas.

(for the whole picture, click here)

As with community fashion, once there were marked regional styles in architecture and as I travel through Oaxaca I see the remnants; from the log cabins of the upper Mixteca, the tiny two story adobe houses with wood rail porches and roof crosses in the northern sierra, the bamboo walled, palm-roofed long houses in the Papalopapan region, the thick-walled adobe court yard houses of the central valleys, the masterly built stone buildings of the Tamazulpan del Progreso region, etc, etc.

And as with clothing, each of these styles of architecture was a reflection of the region; the natural materials, adaptations to climate (and earthquakes), the needs of the people and creative inspirations over the centuries all rolled into the graceful styling that became the community vernacular.

Similar to the trends of architecture are the trends in dress and clothing. Like the last few steep peaked thatch house roofs with cooling, open bamboo sides surrounded by the new concrete shoe boxes, or the remaining Mixtec log cabins built of local resources in a landscape of migrant trophy houses built of industrial materials, so too appears the community dress in many of the villages I’m travelling to. In all directions people are dressed in impersonal, imported, factory-made clothing with meaningless name brands sewn on; just as I am, just as you are. And then walking through the crowd appears a grandmother, and then perhaps another, wearing full length, hand woven white huipiles with red zigzag patterns woven around the neck and chest with geometric swirls and flowers in oranges and greens. Around their necks they wear a pile of red beaded necklaces, and braided into their hair are two ribbons tied into bows at the end all of which is wrapped around their heads in a style just so, as the women of this village once commonly wore their hair.  What they wear they wove, the work of their hands is in every meticulously placed thread.

Hand embroidered huipil and house of bamboo, palm and wood planks, San Pedro Ixcatlan

Hand embroidered huipil and house of bamboo, palm and wood planks, San Pedro Ixcatlan

(for the whole picture, click here)

There is no meaningless brand name sewn into their clothing, and yet their clothing is a brand loud and clear that says, “I am of this village-nation; I am of this heritage and of this history”.  And though the knowledge has been lost in the last 500 brutal years of cultural attack, the designs around their necks and across their chests once told a story, the colors and shapes are symbolic of stages in life, position, reverence, and connection.

Of course it is these people whom I am seeking. These are people who still bear the woven flags of their village-nations and heritage. These women and men are my cultural heroes. Against tremendous odds, here and now in 2015 some of them still wear their culture. They still weave, dye, and embroider their collective voice. They still walk and dance and work wrapped in the style and brand that says “I am from here!”

Today we are headed to Santos Reyes Zochiliquilazala. This village is a white dot, we-don’t-know-if-there–is-a-textile-tradition village, on the Big Textile Treasure Map. On the back side of the map there is a photo of the blouse in the museum’s collection with the acquisition date of 1960. Odds of there being anything there all these years later are slim. But filled with a sense of adventure and quest, I figured it was worth making the little trek down.

Did we find anything? Tune in next blog…

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.