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?

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.

Good.

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…