There were no signs here, no restaurants, no shops, and no Spanish spoken. A lone dog, its head on its paws, eyed me in boredom. “Down there is where the pumas live,” Daniel, my chaperone said, pointing to the dense rolling hills surrounding us. We advanced towards a barn house. Cacti carpeted the yard. An elder hunched over a loom outside the front door. Splays of butterfly yellow spooled out from his apparatus.
“You’ve found me,” a man in a navy embroidered shirt announced in English as he came out. He spoke to the weaver in a melodious and lilting tongue.
“Zapotec,” Daniel whispered. “It’s the only way to communicate with anyone in the village.” When they’d finished their conversation, Daniel introduced me. “Meet Nico, his family has been farming and weaving here for centuries.”
“Yes. Welcome to our workshop!” Nico replied, smiling. “Come inside. I will show you where the magic happens.” In the living space tapestries of indigo, mauve, and sepia riddled with geometric cyphers hung from the wall, draped over the dining table, and covered the floor.
For the next hour and a half Nico instructed us on local ingredients his parents use to dye the wool; “everything we grow here or get from our neighbors.” He showed us mixing and mordanting processes; “it all depends on timing.” He taught us traditional designs that convey meaning for his tribe; “the zig-zag represents lightning, the spiral is our life cycle.” Finally, he demonstrated how to operate the treadle loom. His fingers flew over the shuttles, darting between the curtain of yarn and the frame. His feet pedaled smoothly, so that both the heddles and the levers made a rhythmic beat as the carpet set into its pattern.
“When did you start learning to weave?” I enquired.
“At six years old.”
“Nico just decided to return to rug making, though,” Daniel explained. “He’s been overseas studying.”
“Oh! What were you studying?”
“I completed my master’s degree in textile engineering.”
“Before that, he graduated as a chemistry major. His parents hoped he’d join a tech start-up or go into academia.”
Nico laughed. “Yes, instead I’m disappointing them by carrying on the old traditions.”
“What made you want to return home?” I asked.
“This is where I belong. I could have pursued those other careers, but they felt too small for me. I thought if I was going to give my life towards any profession, it should be one that called to me, something that was a part of who I was.”
“You don’t feel trapped? Worried about the prospects of your dying craft?” Daniel teased.
“That is always a concern. But I am hoping that by putting my education towards guiding my ancestor’s knowledge into the future, I can both keep their skill alive and infuse innovation into it.”
“You should see all the clever ideas he’s got to expand the business.”
“I’m not ready,” Nico replied, embarrassed, “there’s so much to be done and I’m still in the process of figuring out how best we should move forward.”
“Nico’s thinking of going beyond the conventional motifs, really bringing the design component into the future.”
“And what do your parents think about that?”
“They’re unsure of course. I’m trying to make them understand that implementing computer graphics and creating more complex sketches will get our artistry noticed. But, right now I’m excited about color play. I’m like a kid in the lab….” Nico scurried between his baskets of marigolds, tarragon, persimmon, moss, and cochineal animatedly handling the seeds, powders, and leaves. “I’m changing the water type I use…experimenting with oxidation levels…combining different acids and bases…researching different fibers as well.”
“Are you modernizing to aniline dyes?” Daniel asked.
Nico grinned. “No, no, no…I would never do that…it would be easier and faster, but where’s the fun?”
Like any creative endeavor weaving is an arduous craft. Very few of the villagers still practicing the art make a name for themselves. Since Nico employs only natural methods, each process is even more time consuming. Despite his uncertain future, it was refreshing to see Nico so enthusiastic, willing to forego the dependability of other occupations to commit to weaving. Perhaps it’s because I so often struggle to feel confident in my metier, but I admired Nico for his audacity and dedication.
“You’re seeing this through, then?”
“My dream is to have one of my designs displayed in an avant-garde museum, so that there’s a thread between the artistry of my forefathers and what lies ahead.”
As we veered to the kitchen for lunch, I couldn’t stop ruminating about Nico’s vision. It’s difficult for the past to coexist with transformation. It either gets obliterated or mummified in arrested development. So, I’m eager to discover how Nico will honor the path of his ancestors while embracing our digital age. I hope he will be able to usher history forward as he seeks to weave the future into the past.
Most artisans live and work deep in Oaxaca valley and use middlemen to sell their wares in the markets. They continue to depend exclusively on tourism and face economic and social barriers. While visiting make sure to travel outside of Oaxaca City, into the region’s ethnic villages each of which specializes in a different craft such as pottery, textiles, wood carvings, and silversmithing.
Watching (and interacting with) local artisans is such a wonderful entry into discovering a culture. Let me know about crafts people you’ve encountered whose work has amazed you and feel free to add a link to their shops, or your own if you are a maker, in the comments below!