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)

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…

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…


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.