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.