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.