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…

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.