The Zapotec Indians weavers of Teotitlán del Valle, Oaxaca Valley, Mexico, achieve a modern day success without sacrificing their age-old traditions.
Day of the Dead with the Zapotec Indian Weavers of Teotitlán:
The 21st Century Meets Ancient Mesoamerica
by John Lamkin
Nearly 40 years ago, I bumped along the pot-holed highway south out of Oaxaca City, Mexico to get to the Zapotec Indian weaving village of Teotitlán del Valle, an enclave of dirt streets and meager houses--with earth floors, outdoor kitchens and outhouses. The only school had but three grades, and there was very little electricity.
Less than half a century later, Teotitlán del Valle is a modern, successful village that keeps its fascinating Zapotec heritage alive through its ancient traditions and celebrations. The art of weaving, for instance, has been practiced for centuries in Teotitlán del Valle, dating back to the pre-Hispanic era, a time in which the village paid tribute to the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan through offerings of woven cotton products at the end of the XV century.
Today, an easy drive directly into town from the Oaxaca highway leads to many shops boasting vibrant displays of weavings in many sizes, colors and designs—from ancient to modern—including Frida Kahlo. We passed large new houses, most were of traditional style and incorporating a weaving store, and at least one was concrete-and-glass modern, an Internet café, a small hotel, and Tlamanalli, a world-class restaurant famous for its Zapotec cuisine. Many streets are paved now and many of the houses are bigger and have better facilities, such as, electricity, indoor plumbing and telephones. There are more schools, a health clinic, sports fields, streetlights, and improved roads that won’t rattle your teeth loose.
New cars and pickups abound, although oxen and burros still roam the streets. The latest phenomenon is the mototaxi, somewhat like a rickshaw with a motor, which many local entrepreneurs decorate festively and use to ferry around “the city people," as the Zapotecs call the tourists who descend on Teotitlán during the fiestas, and as a “rapid transit system” for locals.
All this prosperity is due to the Zapotec people’s industriousness and to the help of a few rug buyers from the U.S.
It is the rugs that are Teotitlán’s heart and soul, it’s “alma y corazón.”
On my most recent trip, I traveled with a crew, filming the traditional weaving processes handed down from generation to generation. We interspersed filming the weavers with attending celebrations and accepting many invitations to join local families for hot chocolate, mescal (a distilled spirit made from agave plants), tamales (steam-cooked corn dough often filled with chilies and meat) and countless other traditional Zapotec delicacies. It was the beginning of the Day of the Dead fiestas, a holiday when Mexicans gather family and friends to pray for and remember those who have died.
We accompanied Alta Gracia López, a dye-maker, to a village in the mountains to buy yarn. As we stepped out of the car, a loudspeaker system boomed, “Gente han llegado para comprar lana--People are here to buy wool!” Soon a crowd of elderly women were jostling each other for our attention, each clutching a few balls of yarn to sell.
The wool is sheared from Churro sheep, introduced by the Spanish around 500 years ago. Women card the wool, then spin it using the centuries-old drop-spindle method. Wool and mescal are this village’s only industries.
One of the elderly women invited us to her house to watch her spin. Her granddaughters, dressed in T-shirts, jeans and running shoes, came with us.
“Do you intend to follow in your grandmother’s footsteps?” I asked one girl.
"We respect her and what she does, but we will be doing something else.” she said, her answer typical of the village’s younger, better-educated generation, who leave to find work elsewhere.
Returning to the weaving village, wool in hand, we watched women spin it into skeins on a traditional spinning wheel.
Then came the dyeing process.
Alta Gracia lit wood fires under large metal cauldrons of water in an outdoor shed. When the water rose to a boil, she added just the right amount of dye, a pinch at a time, to get the exact magenta and turquoise she wanted--an artist in action. She then added mordant to set the colors. After the wool cooked just long enough, she let it cool and then lifted it out on a long wooden pole, heaved it over her shoulders and trundled down the hill to the river. There she washed and rinsed it several times, beating it on the rocks in between lathers. Before her day was done, she would cart the heavy, wet wool back up the hill and hang it on a long wooden rack to dry in the sun like a bright, woolen rainbow.
After drying, the wool was ready for the loom. When I first visited Teotitlán, women did not weave. That task was left to the men, and the designs were much simpler. But now, women weave rugs, wall hangings and pillows in an array of colors and complex designs.
Alta Gracia's husband is a master weaver, and her three sons, in their twenties and thirties, are also skilled weavers. The family is very enterprising. Alta’s daughter has a small flower nursery on their property, and the family raises much of its own food, as do many families in the village.
This being fiesta preparation time, Alta fired up several barbecue pits and sold the sizzling goat meat to the neighbors. Invited to attend the family’s pre-fiesta feast, we enjoyed barbecued meat served with several of her homemade sauces, ranging from mild, but tasty, to raging hot. It was an unforgettable meal, a meal that in itself would have made the trip worthwhile, and it whet our appetite for the actual fiesta, for which we saw preparations being made all around us.
The market buzzed with activity and the sound of people speaking Zapotec. Everywhere were flowers--especially marigolds, the favorite for Day of the Dead, sugar cane, special breads--some with small ceramic heads imbedded in them and some with words welcoming the dead, sugar skulls--everything needed to prepare the altar to entice the "difuntos," or deceased, to return.
Next to the market is a church that the Spanish built atop a Zapotec temple. Part of the temple is visible, and many stones in the church have ancient Zapotec symbols--deities and glyphs--carved in them, the same symbols that appear in many of the rug designs.
For Day of the Dead, each family decorates its altar with candles, flowers, food and photographs of departed relatives in anticipation of their return. They also set up a small altar nearby to commemorate the children who have died.
On the first day of the festival, the departed children return--church bells ring in the afternoon announcing their arrival. The next day the children leave and the adults come to visit the living.
In the evening, the difuntos leave their loved ones’ houses and spirit to the cemetery, where they are joined by the living for a lively fiesta, with mariachi bands playing and plenty of mescal, beer and soda to drink.
The festivities last well into the night, when the difuntos finally depart for another year.
(A word of warning: Staying too long and drinking too much mescal might hinder your departure.)
WHEN YOU GO
The closest airport in the area is the Xoxocotlán International Airport (OAX) located about 15 miles west of Teotitlán del Valle in Oaxaca City, Mexico.
Several airlines make daily connections from the U.S. with layovers in Mexico City Airport (MEX). Continental has daily flights to OaxacaCity from its Houston hub.
OaxacaCity is about 340 miles (547 kilometers) southeast of Mexico City. Teotitlán del Valle is 15 miles (24 kilometers) southeast of OaxacaCity. Public transportation, taxis and tours are available to Teotitlán del Valle from OaxacaCity.
BEST TIME TO GO
A perfect time to visit the area is during the Day of the Dead, which is held during the last days of October and first days of November.
WHERE TO EAT
Tlamanalli World renowned traditional Zapotec cuisine. Praised in the NY Times, Saveur, Fodor’s and others.
On the main street, Avenida Juárez #39
Phone: 52 (951) 524-4006
Open in the afternoons from , and closed on Mondays and Thursdays.
Credit cards are not accepted.
Good healthy, traditional Mexican and Zapotec food. They also have a weaving and gift shop.
Avenida Juárez #51
Phone: 52 (951) 524-4152
Open every day.
The Sacred Bean
A coffee house and restaurant, specializing in good coffee and chocolate.
Avenida Juárez #49
WHERE TO STAY IN THE VILLAGE
El Descanso has some bungalows. Inquire at the restaurant.
At the top of the Hill (Cerro Sagrado) overlooking the Village
They offer on-going half-day excursions for both residential guests and for visitors. These include: cooking classes & excursions, horseback riding adventures, traditional healing arts, cultural explorations, and guided hiking excursions.
Rates start at $120 per person - double occupancy w/ interior bath
* Includes full breakfast and full dinner
* Welcome cocktail
Phone: From the USA or Canada: (310) 455-6085
Within Mexico: 01 (951) 516-4275
MORE INFORMATION MEXICO TOURISM BOARD:
Phone: (800) 44 MEXICO (446-3942) (for brochures) or (310) 282-9112, Website: www.visitmexico.com