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)

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?


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.