Life and the Dead in Oaxaca

By Carolyn Kallenborn, Artist and Social Designer

As an artist, all of my works are very personal. Though the form may vary from sculpture to dyed and stitched cloth to an installation or a film, the work always originates from a story or experience I want to share.  I create works as visual poetry, not to literally re-create a scene or story, but to evoke how something feels. What I have written below, is not in the script, but rather my personal motivation for creating the film La Vida y Los Muertos / Life and Dead.

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When I am in the U.S. it seems like that thought of death, and certainly the thought of our own demise, is a subject we tend to avoid. In every respect we protect ourselves from danger and death. We sell meat that has no traces of the being it once was. We embalm and entomb our dead in the thought that their bodies will remain unchanged.  It sometimes seems that we try to fool ourselves into thinking that if don’t look at death then maybe it won’t really come.

In my years of traveling to Oaxaca, I noticed that death and danger are an accepted part of every day life. People ride in the back of pick-ups all the time, manhole covers are left open on the sidewalks and people shoot fireworks right off their heads during fiestas. Whole, plucked chickens and skinned pig heads hang in the market stalls. The iconic image of “La Calavera Catrina” the humorous, elegant skeleton dressed in fancy clothes, is ubiquitous.

My Oaxacan friends talk cheerfully about “Los Muertos” describing the large sand paintings, and elaborate altars set for the festival when the dead return to party with the living.  I am captivated by stories and photos of the festival where people sit by the gravesides at 2 a.m. and share memories of their departed family members, play cards and picnic by the graves. It is a time that is both joyous and sad, painful and beautiful.

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I want to share the story of Day of the Dead because it is such a beautiful and poetic alternative view of death and our relationship to our loved ones who have passed. As an invitation to spend a few days each year to acknowledge and honor death and the dead, the celebration emphasizes importance of deeply enjoying life because we are reminded that we will not be here forever.

La Vida y Los Muertos (Life and Dead) is a documentary film filled with rich visuals and captivating music to evoke the beauty, joy, sadness and magic of the Day of the Dead in Oaxaca, Mexico. The film winds its way from the funky urban feel of the city of Oaxaca, through the intimate home altars in Teotitlan and Mitla, the enchanting candle-lit midnight cemetery of Atzompa, the wild demon dancers of Etla, and the joyous flower covered graves in San Antonino. La Vida y Los Muertos is a “silent” film with no narration, inviting the audience to immerse themselves in the music and the imagery to experience a slowing down of time that is an inherent part of the festival. The film provides an opportunity to notice the care and thoughtfulness of the preparations and to experience the joyous celebration of life.

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This film was produced for educational purposes to promote cultural understanding. All profits from viewing will go towards the development of cross-cultural education and the support of the communities depicted in this film.

 

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The Color Purple – Purpura Shell Dyeing in Oaxaca

By Marilyn Murphy, founder of Cloth Roads – A Global Textile Marketplace

Gone are the days when hundreds of Mixtec men scrambled over the rocky Oaxacan shoreline north of Huatulco to extract the milky liquid from the purpura patula, a marine mollusk. But thankfully to the persistence of a few people, the tradition of shellfish dyeing has survived, for these large mollusks yield the essential rich purple dye, hand woven into the traditional pozahuanco (wrapped skirt) worn by Mixtec women.

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It’s hard to imagine how many more years, Habacuc Avendano, the head of the Cooperativa de Tintoreros de Pinotepa Don Luis, will still be one of the remaining thirteen men who are experts at milking the glands of the purpura. He was 15 years old when he started, and he’s 73 now. I briefly introduced you to him a few weeks ago and promised you more. This “more” is the foremost reason for taking this trip, “The Last Shell Fish Dyers, Endangered Silk, The Finest Backstrap” run by Traditions Mexico.

Hidden in Coastal Crevices
We picked up Habacuc at a stop along the road to Huatulco and turned off the main road onto a gravel one heading down to the beach. His stories of the old days of shellfish dyeing began —how they used to walk eight days from Pinotepa and stay on the coast for about three months during the harvesting season of November to February (give-or-take a month). In those days, anyone could come to the coast and dye. But from his village, the men would carry a couple hundred skeins of commercially-spun fine cotton yarn, dyeing three-four skeins per day. After the season, they would walk back home.

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Threat and Sustainability
This dyeing tradition came under threat in Oaxaca during the early 1980s when a Japanese company, Imperial Purple Inc., overharvested them. Instead of allowing the mollusks to recover, they collected dye year round. Within four years, the population was severely depleted. Led by anthropologist Marta Turok and the Pinotepa shell dyers, the Mexican authorities were petitioned to protect the purpura habitat. Since 1988, only licensed Mixtec dyers are permitted to harvest dye, taking monthly turns according to the moon cycle, thus creating a healthy environment for the shellfish. The men of Pinotepa de Don Luis continue this practice, trading or selling the dyed cotton to their village women weavers.

Dyeing Process
Unlike the murex mollusk which is known for its imperial purple dye and is killed in the process of obtaining the ink, the purpura have always been milked alive and left to replenish their dye fluid for harvesting at another time. The purpura shell fishermen need to be in the right spot when the tide is low to search the dark crevices for the grey-shelled snail. Sometimes there are two low tides during the light of day and they are able to search more.

Purpura, Silk and Threaded Flowers tour.

Carrying a skein in one hand and a long-pointed stick in the other, Habacuc pries the snail loose. He knows just how and where to squeeze the snail to irritate it, causing the release of the milky-colored liquid and filling the mouth of the shell. Once this liquid is exposed to air and sun, it starts to oxidize to yellowish-green and must be quickly applied directly onto the yarn. Once the liquid is applied, the purpura is placed back into its crevice to recover. This process is repeated, moving from shell to shell until his skein is saturated with dye. From here, the skein is opened up on a rock, exposed to full sunlight, and left to oxidize turning from shades of green to turquoise to purple. In this way, it’s similar to the non-toxic and permanent indigo dye which also changes color when exposed to sun and air. Watch this video of Habacuc and this process on our visit that day.

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Yarn and Weaving
It wasn’t easy convincing Habacuc to sell us the cotton skein dyed that day, especially knowing it takes about four skeins to weave a luxurious pozahuanco. My partner Suzanne carried it with her—the stench so strong that even after washing it a few times in her hotel room, she had to triple-bag it. And she still worried about getting it past the dog sniffers in customs. After arriving home and giving it a number of washings, the odor disappeared but the color remained as strong as ever. As you can see, the uneven color application gives a striated effect to the final yarn.

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Pictures by Eric Mindling and Ana Paula Fuentes (Traditions Mexico).

Tlaxiaco’s “Top” Surprise

By Antonio Recamier, Guide at Traditions Mexico

I don’t consider myself a food expert, but living in Oaxaca for over six years definitely has made me a food lover. Every market we visit, every restaurant we try out; it is always a culinary treat. Some of the capital’s most popular restaurants stand out for their unbelievable dishes, created by some of Mexico’s (sometimes the World’s) best chefs. These top chef restaurants aren’t the only ones standing out; there are great Italian and Japanese restaurants too! All thanks to the region’s culinary heritage and the vast diversity of natural ingredients available, from delicious vegetables and fruits to a large number of species of corn; and all of superb quality at a very reasonable price.

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Definitely one of my favorite areas to visit as a Traditions Mexico guide is the Mixteca Alta. Surrounded by lush pine mountains and breathtaking landscapes, the region’s flora and fauna is uniquely diverse. One can easily distinguish the large amount of exotic produce available, particularly when diving into the Saturday market in the region’s capital of Tlaxiaco. The city’s rich history and mix of Indigenous and Spanish heritage is present across its streets, stalls and eateries. There is also a great variety of peoples and cultures: this can be seen not just in visits to homes in the different villages, but also in the area’s cuisine.

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One of the perks of taking Tlaxiaco as our home base when exploring this region is the hotel restaurant. As a visitor one expects to have a good service, but what always surprises me is the creativity and flavour of most of their choices on the menu. The “salsas” prepared for breakfast dishes are exquisite. Their confitted pork dish accompanied with local fruits is superb. And the first time I tried their chocolate with pasilla pepper cake I melted completely from the moisture and warmth of the dessert, let alone the magnificent taste. Along with the food, the restaurant’s staff is also wonderful. Very attentive and eager to ask if we need anything else, the ladies that wait our table and team in the kitchen run a tight ship. I had always wondered who was behind this great operation, assuming that it was the hotel owners who ran the restaurant as well.

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Nevertheless, there was always one staff member who appeared familiar to me, as if I’d gotten to know her somehow just by watching her stand behind the counter by the kitchen. After a couple of extended visits in Tlaxiaco, I started to say hello whilst passing by, and sometimes engaged in a light conversation while taking care of the check. She seemed too familiar – I had to clear the doubt, so I sent a picture of the restaurant’s patio (in which she appeared) to my wife, whose memory is as reliable as a Swiss wristwatch.

“What is Ixchel Ornelas doing there?”, her text message read. I replied, clueless: “Who? I don’t know who you mean. I just know that the lady in the back works for the hotel restaurant. Who is Ixchel Ornelas?”

“ARE YOU AT EL PATIO?” I had seen a sign a couple of times outside of the hotel that read: Restaurante El Patio. I had always figured it was a fancy way of referencing the location of the hotel eating space. “Ixchel was in Top Chef Mexico! She almost won!” my wife exclaimed through digital words. “Ooooh…”

Now it hit me! This was Chef Ornelas’ restaurant in Tlaxiaco! No wonder she looked familiar! Of course we had seen her on TV during the Top Chef show; I had finally discovered why having a meal there felt so special. It was a refreshing realization, and felt very blessed to have this opportunity to try her creations while on guide duty. Quite the tour treat!

Originally from Oaxaca, Ixchel is one of the most recognized cooks of the Mixteca region and the state of Oaxaca. Owner of El Patio restaurant and interested in culinary anthropology, she has experimented in its kitchen as a gastronomic researcher for 15 years. During this time she has dedicated herself to documenting and disseminating recipes and traditional preparation techniques of Oaxacan cuisine. She has participated in the Festival “Saber del Sabor” (Knowledge of Flavour), and is a Delegate of the Conservatory of Mexican Gastronomic Culture. She has also been working with a group of local cooks for a long time in the documentation of the “mole de mayordomía” (a minced beef mole dish, traditional to the city of Tlaxiaco), to be declared a municipal heritage. Moreover her impressive career, she has become a friendly face and true friend, always greeting us with a big smile when we visit the Mixteca.

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Chef Ornelas’ dishes truly reflect the wonderful uniqueness of the region’s cuisine. Each day of the tour, we visit different villages hidden between the Mixtec mountains and valleys to explore rare customs and crafts, and a vital part is to indulge in the local cuisine. Our lunches during these day-long journeys are prepared by the artisan families themselves, and you can’t imagine the sensations when trying out their very simple meals. It is then we appreciate Ixchel’s intense passion for local food and the exuberant ingredients it is composed of.

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I feel very fortunate to be meeting and interacting with such wonderful people during my travels with Traditions Mexico. I can’t wait for my next adventure! You will probably read about it here, or who knows; maybe you will join us for it!

Days of Plagiarism

By Diego Mier y Terán, Co-Founder Innovando la Tradición http://www.innovandolatradicion.org

Lately, there has been an outcry on social media over the numerous cases of plagiarism that have come to light. I am not talking about our distinguished Mexican President’s dissertation (although it is quite a coincidence), but about the many well-established companies that are appropriating indigenous traditional designs to commercialise them at a very high price after having done very few changes. Even brands that pride themselves on their ethical and social values have done so. This is plagiarism and, at the end of the day, a theft. And in the case of unbalanced power relations between the predominant and the indigenous cultures we could also brand it a plunder.

These are some examples: Pottery Barn, Hermes or Mara Hoffman – among others – have industrially reproduced, often in China, the colourful Otomí embroidery to have it printed on bikinis, scarves and similar garments. French ‘designer’ Isabel Marant added a few inches of fabric to blouses from Santa María Tlahuiteltpec and sold them as her own original designs. It was only when the brand Antik Batik, also French, sued her for having copied ‘their’ designs that she had to publicly admit that the original design was from Tlahuitoltepec. (Village authorities have refused to take legal action and demanded only an apology, to which Marant has refused). Very recently, the Argentinian brand Rapsodia started selling blouses from San Antonio Castillo Velasco, Oaxaca. Huicholes and Tarahumaras have seen their iconography and designs copied over and over again, being the Nike trainers one the most notable examples. Beyond the Mexican borders, in Colombia several companies have very cheekily copied the Wayuu backpacks to mass produce them, like Spanish ‘designer’ Stella Rittwagen.

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Honour for those who deserve it. We should highlight the case of Pinead Covalín, a pioneer, if not in plundering –since it’s an ancestral practise – but in justifying it as an altruist way to promote Mexican culture. Basically, a favour Mexico should thank her for. Many companies contend (apparently in their favor) that by using traditional designs on their products they are promoting and giving visibility to a certain cultural group. Under such a clearly colonialist point of view, indigenous groups – who have been resisting opression for centuries – would be so thrilled to be part of the dominant culture that they would consider any interaction, event theft, as a favour. Well, thanks for your help, pal.

In most cases, the indigenous community in question is not even given credit for the original piece. In other cases, their name is used but only to name the product or collection, thus reducing their entire cultural universe to a commercial brand. Researcher Carlos Arturo Martínez Negrete has compiled 1,600 plagiarised products in Mexico. This proves that we are not talking about isolated cases, but about a defined production strategy. A globalised robbery that generates huge and fast profits at any cost. It is about cheapening processes and profiting from the increasing interest of first-world consumers in ancestral cultures (or better said, aesthetics). It is a strategy that affects any kind of production, not only craftsmanship. A craze to amass fortune limitlessly that seems to have possessed the minds of those most powerful, just like the most dangerous virus.

We, as designers, have to be aware of this situation. The examples above are very obvious because they are ruthless. However, appropriation can be very subtle and disguised as an ethical or social project.

There are more and more designers that want to ‘help’ artisans. Sometimes because they are fed up with the common designer’s role; sometimes because of a genuine desired to help; or just because they are looking for new market opportunities. They go to a traditional village with excess of enthusiasm and lack of self-criticism, and try to teach locals how to improve their products to increase sales. This is often motivated by the prospect of personal, communicational or financial profits as a result of their being marketed as ‘conscious designers’.

But when artisans are seen as people in need of help, lacking something (and therefore inferior), they are also quickly turned into a resource. Here you can read more about the idea of the artisan as a resource – a somewhat long article I wrote a couple of years ago.

Plagiarism is serious and sad for different reasons. Among other, because already-profitable companies get richer at the expense of the cultural achievements of groups who are systematically marginalised and do not have the same access to markets. They make the most of a power imbalance and rebrand their plagiarism as inspiration. But it is also sad because they miss the opportunity to learn, create and grow. Plagiarism in the design world fails to improve our culture and increase its value through inventiveness. Instead of using an interest in indigenous cultures to learn from them, create something unique and share ideas, designers turn to a disgraceful practise that has negative consequences on both sides. Are these brands’ capacity and creativity really so poor that they cannot come up with new ways to combine colours and shapes without turning to plagiarism? Couldn’t they invest resources in creating new iconographies, new names, new stories?

Translation by por Bisila Noha.

 

A Deeper Oaxaca

By Eric Mindling

Oaxaca, Mexico is rightfully famous. The historic core of Spanish colonial Oaxaca city is a UNESCO world heritage site loved for its lively artistic and cultural life and superb regional cuisine. Just beyond the city crowning a mountain top are the ruined temples, palaces and ball court of the ancient Zapotec kingdom of Monte Alban. Nearby is the legendary Tule tree, largest trunk diameter on earth as well as fascinating weekly markets in the towns of Tlacolula, Ocotlan and Etla. There are villages of traditional crafts people; the tapestry weavers of Teotitlan, the potters of Coyotepec and Atzompa, the carvers of Arrazola and San Martin Tilcajete. The truth is, the state of Oaxaca goes on and on, and given that it’s not that far from the US, many people return year after year.

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Profound Oaxaca tour, Laguna Guadalupe

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In my case I liked it so much I never left, and that was 25 years ago. For a person like me who is enthralled by tradition and culture, Oaxaca is limitless. Don’t stop exploring once you’ve visited the must-sees. Your trip has just begun! Keep going and you’ll soon find that you’ve left the other toursits behind, that you’ve found your way into a quiet shop, a small village, the home of a welcoming artisan…and you’ve begun to really meet the character and characters of this place.

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With a little Spanish (there are even great phone apps) and a guide book (Moon guide and Lonely Planet do a great job) and the abundant public transportation you can head to the hills. Throughout Oaxaca communities have built cabins for eco-tourism, most larger villages and towns also have hotels and a municipal office focused on tourism and more than willing to lend a hand when visitors knock on the door. Oaxacans as a rule are hospitable and welcoming.  Go exploring, it’s worth it! 16 indigenous languages are spoken throughout the state and the tortilla was invented here! pre-Hispanic cacao drinks made with flowers, tropical seeds, and of course cacao beans, are still part of daily life and rituals. And the natural world is delicious as well.  From the mangrove lagoons and the beaches of the Pacific, to the lush coffee growing country around Pluma Hidalgo, to the spectacular cactus forests around Cuicatlan, to the cool mountain mists of the Benito Juarez area in the Sierra Madre, Oaxaca will delight.

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Purpura, Silk and Threaded Flowers

Tejas, Tlahuitoltepec

Hierve el Agua, Oaxacan Light Photo workshop

If you are keen to see more but not quite sure how to go about it, consider a tour with us. For travelers with adventurous spirits, Oaxaca will reward you endlessly.

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  • Eric Mindling, born in the USA, has written two books about the culture and arts of Oaxaca, including the award-winning Oaxaca Stories in Cloth. He is also a photographer, public speaker and the founder of Traditions Mexico Cultural Tours. But his real profession is sitting on the back porch of village houses and chewing the fat.

Off the Beaten Path with Traditions Mexico

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By Lauren Alexander on 14/09/207 – Que Pasa Oaxaca – http://www.quepasaoaxaca.com

Traditions Mexico is not your average tour company. Established in 1997, they offer cultural journeys for travelers who want a more immersive and hands-on experience than what may be offered by other tour companies. Their well-experienced guides chaperone travellers through remote villages and sites, journeying deep into the world of Oaxacan art, cuisine, and the lives of its creators.

Our group participated in one of Tradition Mexico’s day trips “Tortilla! Food of the Soul” diving straight to the heart of the tortilla where we witnessed the journey from its humble origins as maíz, to its final presentation in a delicious, savoury meal prepared by local tortilla makers.

The first stop on our adventure was the archeological site of Yagul, perched atop a hill in the Valley of Tlalocula, approximately 1.5 km away from Oaxaca City. The ruins, which served as a city-state for the Zapotec people, were constructed between 500-700 AD and are known to be close to the caves where the first ears of corn were discovered.

One of the first things our guide Antonio pointed out to us was the shards of pottery littering the grounds that were most likely from pots used for cooking, as evidenced by barely detectable burned surfaces on the clay.

While the ruins are not large, as many as eight elite Zapotecan families were said to inhabit the labyrinth-like residential area, otherwise known as “El Palacio de los Seis Patios” (The Palace of Six Patios) at a time.

Not far away from El Palacio lay the ball court, which is the biggest in the Oaxacan Valley and the second largest in Mesoamerica after the court at Chichen Itza. Not only does the altitude of the ruins offer stunning views of the surrounding valley, it also provided the Zapotec with a lookout point for spotting potential invaders.

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Perhaps helped by the fact that we were the only visitors on site at the time, the feeling at Yagul was peaceful and serene. It wasn’t hard to imagine families going about their daily lives, buying and trading goods, and preparing meals to be shared amongst other villagers.

Next, we made our way to San Marcos Tlapazola to meet a collective of women known as Las Mujeres de Barro Rojo, or the Women who Work with Red Clay. As with many of the outlying towns of Oaxaca, San Marcos Tlapazola’s economy is rooted in the production of a craft that is unique to the village, which in this case is items made from clay and glazed a distinctive red color.

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Upon our arrival we were warmly greeted by sisters Dorotea and Macrina who specialize in making pottery from the aforementioned clay that is found locally.

While the women make a variety of goods including gourds for water and animal figures, we had arrived to learn about the comal: the traditional clay cookware upon which tortillas are prepared over an open fire.

The clay used for the pottery is mined from a nearby hill by the women, and is collected in rebozos (shawls), which the women then carry on their backs into town.

The tradition of working with clay has been passed down by women in the family for generations. Even the tools used to mold the clay have been passed down from mother to child, symbolizing the rich tradition of pottery making in the family.

We were surprised to find out that most of the tools used to make the pottery are somewhat commonly found, and perhaps even a bit unconventional. For example, a small piece of basketball is used at the base of the potter’s wheel which allows the women to easily rotate the clay while shaping it. A de-kerneled and dried corn husk is rolled on the surface of the clay to elongate and shape it, and a piece of gourd is used to shape the inside of the pots and form a “belly”.

We sat back and watched as Macrina transformed what was once a large heap of clay into a beautifully finished comal, ready for the fire. The entire process took about ten minutes from start to finish.

The women have ventured long and far to sell their wares, and have even traveled to New York City where Dorotea says the sisters had a successful run. While the sisters’ pottery is internationally in demand, much of it can be found in Oaxaca proper, and of course is available for purchase at the sisters’ locale in San Marcos Tlapazola.

After leaving Las Mujeres de Barro Rojo we began snaking our way through the brick streets of Tlalocula and eventually eventually arriving in a small locale in San Juan Guelaivia.

Here, both yellow and blue corn, or maíz negro, were being ground and formed into a thick masa (dough), by a woman named Celia. As we stood and watched the corn being processed, Celia explained to us that the kernels were previously soaked in limewater, which softens them and makes them easier to grind.

The masa from this batch was to be turned into tortillas that Celia sells to neighborhood regulars and at the local market. On an average day she makes up to 100 tortillas that are either blandas, the softer variety of tortilla, or tlayudas, which are left to cook on the comal for a little bit longer to give them a slight crunch.

Afterwards, we headed to Celia’s house to begin the process of making making our very own tortillas. She began by demonstrating with the press how to flatten the ball of masa to form the perfect tortilla.

Following her example, we began to press our tortillas and then laid them on the comal to begin cooking. After a minute or so Celia whisked the tortillas off the comal and set them aside, as we continued to press tortillas.

Eventually we had made enough, and we enjoyed our novice tortillas with homemade salsa and a few slices of fresh queso.

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Although delicious, the tortillas only served to whet our appetites since we hadn’t eaten since breakfast. To round out the meal, we headed over to the home of Maria Trinidad in Teotitlán del Valle, a village best known for its production of textiles. Maria’s home featured a large loom in the common area outdoors, that was surrounded by traditional rugs, clothing, and other goods the family produced.

Before eating, we gathered on the floor around a metate, which is a stone tool traditionally used to grind corn and other grains. It was clear we were going to have to work for our food, so we observed Maria closely as she ground the corn into fine powder so we’d be able to repeat the process.

After working up a sweat over the metate it was finally time to eat. Maria offered us a mezcal for a job well done and we gathered around the table to enjoy a lovely caldo de pollo that had been cooking for us long before our arrival.

It was a wonderful way to round out our journey, and it provided me with an opportunity to reflect on the generosity of all the women we had visited that day.

The trip was a success not only because it was well guided, but also because of the personal relationships the company has developed with each of the hosts. We were welcomed like family every step of the way, creating an experience that simply could not be found anywhere else.

For more information on tours from Traditions Mexico, click here.

  • Lauren Alexander was a guest of Traditions Mexico.

Silk Production in San Pedro Cajonos

From the Capitol city of Oaxaca, we travel up a beautiful forest road to arrive at the Martinez family home in San Pedro Cajonos. San Pedro is one of three villages that make up the trilogy of the Oaxaca silk route, in the municipality of San Francisco Cajonos.  Recently, the weavers in this area have revived the production and promotion of the ancient technique of silk cultivation. The elaborate process involves growing the silkworms, as well as the spinning, weaving, and dyeing of garments made with this precious material. In the central courtyard of the house, we find a colorful clothesline with fabrics in natural tones: red, indigo, pink and yellow, which give us peek at the texiles the artisans produce. Beautiful shawls with elaborate fringe, scarves, blouses, and huipiles with gradations of color, are all created with natural dyes.

Moisés Martínez, an artisan, who specializes in silk production and natural dyes welcomes us.  Walking through his workshop, he carefully explains every step of the silk cultivation and textile production. This trip is an incredible opportunity for you to personally experience the rich cultural traditions of Oaxaca, Mexico through experienced guides of  Traditions México. (Http://traditionsmexico.com)

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Silkworm Cultivation

It all begins with the thousands of eggs that the female silk moth deposits almost immediately after being fertilized by the male. Moises jokes saying that it is the fastest act of love of all the species on the planet because it happens just barely after the moths have left the cocoons.

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There are two types of silk worms: the criollos (wild or “native”) and the “improved.”  The latter are not bred here from the local silk moths but are purchased from a distributor. While both types of silk moth produce white silk after processing, the cocoons formed by native silk larvae have a deep yellow color, while the cocoon of the “improved” larvae are white. There are also subtle differences in texture. The silk from the native worm is slightly irregular and the silk from the “improved” worm is somewhat smoother.

After the larvae hatch, the main work is to keep them well fed with mulberry leaves. Over the course of  20 days, the hungry worms eat and grow, sometimes eating as much as 90 kilos of leaves a day.  The Martinez family maintains their own grove of mulberry trees a few miles from their home to provide enough leaves for the hungry works. Keeping the grove healthy and abundant is also part of the silk production process.

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After three weeks, the worms stop eating and their color changes to a transparent green. This color change is the sign that they are ready to form their cocoons of silk. Moises and his family spread out the cocoons on oak boards and wait for the worms to do their work.

Yarn and Fabric

The first step in making the yarn, is to boil the hard cocoons which softens them to a small mass of fibers. It is also during this boiling and washing that the cocoons from the native wild silk worms lose their yellow color and become white.

In some parts of the world, the boiling process is done when the worm is still alive inside the cocoon, killing the worm.  But the Martinez family prefers to wait for the moth to mature and naturally abandon the cocoon.  Not only is this kinder to the worms, but it is important for the family to allow the moths to mature and generate new eggs for the next crop.

Spinning into yarn is done manually with drop-spindle or with a spinning wheel.  It is only after these long processes that the skeins of silk yarn are formed and ready to weave.

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Silk 5

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Almost all members of the Martinez family weave on a traditional backstrap loom, a weaving technique used in Central America for thousands of years.

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After about a week for the weaving process, the women create elaborate knotted fringe on many of the rebozos, scarves and some of the blouses. Moises recently invented a wooden tool that helps with this work.

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Natural Dyes

After the weaving and knotting, the pieces are ready to be dyed with natural dyes. Moises and his brother Joseph, especially like to experiment with dyeing techniques such as ikat or shibori. They are continuously participating in textile innovation workshops. They enjoy trying new things and are aware that it will allow them to reach a specialized market for their products.

Silk 3

Moises has already made the dye pots to demonstrate the process for us since some of these concentrates take days or weeks to prepare. With only a handful of dyestuffs: pericón (wild chamomile), palo de Brazil (Brazilwood), indigo (indigo) and cochinilla (cochineal) the expert dyers in the family will show us how they achieve hundreds of shades.

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The challenge for the Martinez family and all the silk producers in the Cajonos region is, undoubtedly, to find the right markets for the sale of their products. At first glance the prices of the products may seem high.  But after witnessing the elaborate process of the cultivation of the worms to the fine finishing of the colorful woven textile and you know experience, time and care it takes, know that the pieces are priceless.

For more information about our day tours to San Pedro Cajonos, contact Traditions México at: connect@traditionsmexico.com

  • Article and photographs by Claudia Muñoz. Translation by Carolyn Kallenborn.