Mixteca High and Low, Day 4. Zo-Chil-Quil-Azala

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.

Walking around the edge of the planet in Zochiquiliazala

Walking around the edge of the planet in Zochiquiliazala

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.

The photographer show.  Gears grinding, getting the shot, and in denial about the need for bifocals.

The photographer show. Gears grinding, getting the shot, and in denial about the need for bifocals.

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.

Detail of fine hand-embroidery on muslin cotton

Detail of fine hand-embroidery on muslin cotton

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”.

Photographing the sharp-eyed woman of the blue velvet skirt.

Photographing the sharp-eyed woman of the blue velvet skirt.

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.

santos reyes zochiquilazala

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…?

Santos Reyes Zochiquilazala-204_HDR

(Get the whole picture here)

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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 2

Somewhere out there are villages with textiles.  In the Sierra beyond Juxtlahuaca.

Somewhere out there are villages with textiles. In the Sierra beyond Juxtlahuaca.

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.

Corner stores are always great sources of information as we travel. They also have yummy cookies.  Photo by Marina

Corner stores are always great sources of information as we travel. They also have yummy cookies. Photo by Marina

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?”

Explaining to my would-be model, her extended family and neighbors as well, what the heck I'm up to, with the aid of a sample book of portraits I've taken in other villages.  Photo by Marina

Explaining to my potential model, her extended family and a few neighbors as well, what the heck I’m up to, with the aid of a sample book of my portraits taken in other villages. Photo by Marina in Santiago Tilapa

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.

The first traditionally dressed woman we met in Llano Encino. Her granddaughter joined in, sharing a school book with grandma.  Photo by Marina

The first traditionally dressed woman we met in Llano Encino. Her granddaughter joined in, sharing a school book with grandma. Photo by Marina

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.

Another traditional woman in Llano Encino and a makeshift studio in her house. She holds cotton that she is preparing to spin.   Photo by Marina

Another traditional woman in Llano Encino and a makeshift studio in her house. She holds cotton that she is preparing to spin. Photo by Marina

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.

Explaining where I wanted them to stand with hand gestures and translations into Mixtec. The results are invariably unexpected!  Photo by Marina in Santiago Tilapa

Explaining where I wanted our models to stand with hand gestures and translations into Mixtec. The results are invariably unexpected! Photo by Marina in Santiago Tilapa

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.

My models patiently await as I adjust the lights, work on my shooting angles and cheer on my volunteer light grip.  Photo by Marina

My models patiently await as I adjust the lights, work on my shooting angles and cheer on my volunteer light grip. Photo by Marina

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…

Click, click….click.

…check the final results here.

This will go into history, won’t it?