Teotitlán del Valle is a unique, fascinating small pueblo about 31 kilometers from Oaxaca City. I came to this pueblo because rarely does anyone here speak English. It is a Zapotec pueblo and the people here are justifiable proud of their heritage. They will not hesitate to tell you they are 100% Zapotec. Two languages are spoken here. The primary one is Zapotec and the other is Spanish. However, Zapotec is not taught in the schools. Spanish is while Zapotec is taught in the homes. The couple I’m staying with tell me they always speak except when they are with people, like myself, who do not know the language. Then they switch to Spanish which they speak fluently.
Teotitlan is known primarily for its textiles, especially rugs hand woven on looms from wool which is from local sheep. It is woven into strands, washed, dyed from natural dyes made from local plants and insects, The designs represent both Zapotec cosmology as well as more modern designs, Just a little more history for those who might be interested. The name of this pueblo comes from Nahuatl which actually means “land of the gods.” In Zapotec it means ‘at the foot of the mountain’ and it is in fact snuggled in the foothills of the Sierra Juarez mountains. Teotitlan has a long history and goes back to its beginnings in 1465 and the people proudly promote and retain their cultural heritage and language. Enough on that for now.
I am living during this time with a Zapotec couple, Mariano and Rafaela, with one son, Carlos, who is now studying graphic design, I believe, at a university here in Mexico. They have a two story house, quite large actually. This house has been passed down from grandparents to parents to their son Mariano. It is interesting here that the community owns the land but you can own the house.
If you want to sell yours you must first offer it to a family member or relative. Otherwise, it can be another person or family already living in the Pueblo. I ask if someone from outside the village could purchase a house here. He said it’s very unusual because they want to maintain the heritage and culture of the Zapotec people. All sales must be approved by the Pueblo Authority. It is rarely possible for someone outside the Pueblo to be able to purchase a home here. But it does happen once in a great while and must go through a very rigorous vetting system. If it happens, it is almost always someone who is well known by residents of the pueblo who can vouch for the person or family and their willingness to accept the governance here. It is not the purpose of this Pueblo to create a diversity of people and cultures but, as already indicated, preserve the Zapotec way.
They are around 50 years old, Mariano just celebrating his 54th birthday. Both are weavers as is most everyone in the village. In this house there are 3 looms, all with some textile in progress. Marino is presently competing a commissioned piece for a business in NYC. If you are nosey like me, you will peer inside houses with open doors as you walk down the street. I’ve not peered into one yet that did not have at least one loom and most have multiple looms as well as a spinning wheel and a sewing machine or two. Most, if not all, are part of a cooperative which display and sell each others products: carpets, wall hangings, day back packs, scarves, purses and other things like ponchos. This is serious business and the people are very talented artists, yet it all seems low key. While here I’ve met a number of Westerner who have come here just to learn the art of weaving, perhaps specifically Zapotec, or to improve what they already do.
Living with this lovely couple has given me the opportunity to learn of and watch the entire process including making the dyes from plants and insects. The color red, for example, is made from a very small barely visible insect that lives on cactus leaves and survives on the plant’s moisture and nutrients. See the photo below. The name of the little rascals is Cochineal. The people used to only have the wild cochineal to use until 25 years ago an elderly man, living outside the city of Oaxaca, experimented with the wild cochineal and eventually produced a domesticated cochineal. Apparently it produces better colors as well as a greater variety. So at my house there are several rows of leaves or pads hanging on long wooden bars full of the insect which are in the maturing process. Mariano took one off a leaf or pad, put it on my hand and rubbed it across my palm. It left a long dark red dye which is then used to dye the wool. It is also possible to lighten the color or mix it with yellow, for example, to get a slightly different color. In the photo below of my hand, the lighter color is the result of putting a drop of lemon juice on the dark red.
Across the room there was a basket of leaves from a bush which, when boiled for 30 minutes to a hour, make a blue or yellow color, depending on the leaf. These colors, after being drained from the pot, are put in a large pot again of hot water and the bunch of wool fibers are dipped in the pot, the water kept at a certain temperature, and left there for an hour. The gas fire is turned off and the yarn is left in the pot of water overnight, eventually being dried, washed and finally dried again ready for use.
Mariano and Rafaela said the the type of pot in which the wool is boiled in the dye can also produce different colors or shades of color. An iron pot, for example, produces more of a purple color rather than the blue.
The yarn soaking
Drying and then ready for use
The little white spots on the cacti pads are the Cochineal at various stages of maturing. When ready they will be scrapped off.
—the cochineal rubbed on my hand. Top orangish color the result of a drop of lemon juice. Those little grey rascals are the cochineal —-
Mariano is the primary weaver of the family, and at times he shares this responsibility with others in the cooperative when he cannot be there. For example, for this year Mariano has been given responsibilities related to the temple/iglesia in the center of the village. A bit more about the way the pueblo operates. This is a very traditional Zapotec village with traditional clearly defined male and female roles. There is a village governing body with a president which makes decision for the village. The villagers do have a voice, however. I believe it is once or so a year there is a village gathering to discuss issues, make decisions, and that sort of thing. The entire pueblo, basically, attends these meetings. There is also a representative from the Mexican government in attendance. Voting is by a raise of hands.
So everyone is expected to do his share of voluntary work for the entire village. It is a way of giving back. The president can come to you and give you your assignment which is usually for one year and sometimes for 3 years. People are generally happy to do their assignment and to contribute to the village family in this manner. So Marion was recently asked to care for certain activities and festivals on special religious holidays. I’m told it is also possible to give money in lieu of service under special circumstances but it is almost impossible to decline contributing in some manner. You will certainly quickly become an outsider and perhaps even ask to leave the pueblo. (This is a village of about 5,000 residents). They are essentially self governing but Mexico City wants to know what is going on. It seems to work very well and the residents are pleased with the arrangement. I’m told there is no crime because if there were you would have to answer to all your neighbors!! There us no sense of paranoia and wondering if the neighbors are watching you but a sort of ‘neighborhood watch’ as many communities have in the States. A sense of tranquil! To me it feels totally safe to walk around day and night. Its quiet and there just isn’t much happening. If that is what you want, this might be the place for you. There are a few expats here doing just that.
As I mentioned. earlier, this is a very traditional village so the men and women have clearly defined roles. Rafaela does all the cooking and cleaning as well as a good share of preparing the wool. Mariano does the majority of weaving as well as certain parts of the preparation and dyeing of the wool. I asked him once at dinner if he does any cooking and he said no, not at all, that Rafaela does all the kitchen work. I notice that Mariano does help clear off the table. I can say this much that Rafaela is a Class 1 cook. Absolutely delicious. I’m not losing any weight! She, as the other women, go to the market each morning to buy fresh fruits, veggies, meat, bread and whatever they need for the day’s food. No supermarkets with food shipped in from across country or another continent! I’ve noticed, too, in my time with them, that they relate to each other real well, seem happy, laugh and have ongoing conversations. as mentioned before, the roles are clear and apparently accepted….. by the entire village.
My observation is that Mariano and Rafaela are somewhat progressive for this village. They know of a larger world and think in that manner. I believe it was as recent as a year or two ago that the two of them were invited to the University of California, Berkley, to teach the process of making natural dyes and the dyeing of the wool. These folks are very talented and skilled artists.
A few examples of the results….
And to be loved, some photos of Rafaela preparing a type of bread called Tlayudas which are folded over and filled with various combinations of meat, veggies, beans, hot sauce and other goodies. The Tlayudas are made from corn rather than wheat or processed flour.
The Pueblo is alive and community oriented. Small as it is, it seems rather much like one big family. The markets, of course, are a delightful place to watch community happen. It’s one of my places to get a jugo verde (healthy green juice) made right in front of you listening to the whirl of the blender, and while doing so practice a little Spanish. I love watching the people greet each other, smile, have something of a conversation and move on to their purchases. Somehow I seem to prefer it to Food Lion! 😎
A few photos of the daily market at Teotitlan del Valle……
A bit of a taste of what’s in and around Teotitlan
Lake Presa, one of the Pueblo’s source of water supply. There are two. Actually, residents, in most cases, can did their own well in the pueblo if they wish and cDNA avoid the fees charged for the city’s water.
There is more than one way to climb a pole!
Other than carpets that are made in the village, candlemaking is another major industry. The candle you see in this photo appears to have lots of flowers, but each of those flowers that you see is made from candlewax. They really do such a beautiful job of candlemaking. This is done primarily for the Catholic Church here to decorate the inside, but is also a part of many homes. The candles are used primarily in their religious lives.
This little cafe has become my morning cappuccino stop…..with WiFi……for better or worse! Actually, there are about five cafés in this village. They’re all quite nice and one is even sort of more upscale with a Starbucks flavor! It even sells what is very close to French pastries. Divine!
Overlooking the pueblo…….some lovely mountain scenery…..
A rather modern building has been built here and it is a museum which gives a history of the Pueblo and a pictorial and written description of the culture and organization of this particular Pueblo. It also has a classroom and a two-story library below with computers available for people to use. It’s designed in such a way that it fits in quite well with the architecture of the village as a whole. Sometimes music concerts are held here as well, such as a recent quartet of French horns put on by for musicians from Mexico City except for one who is from this Pueblo.
The Catholic Church……
Bougainvillea in the Temple courtyard…..
One of my little village friends, Trina, who liked playing with my iPhone and taking selfies!
Brick 🧱 Patterns…..lines, light and shadows
I found it to be a rather emotional experience when I decided to purchase two carpets, one made by the hands of Rafaella and the other by the hands of Mariano, both with symbols of the Zapotec cosmology. I found one that I immediately fell in love with one that Rafaela had already made, and Mariano and I designed another one with Zapotec symbolism and colors that he is in the process of weaving.
Part of the emotion, I guess, is a result of the bonding that can happen over a few weeks between you and the people you’re staying with. And I found this couple to be warm, loving, generous and understanding. An absolute delight. How can one not feel a certain amount of emotion when taking home two gorgeous art pieces woven by the loving, competent hands of these talented souls.
So this comes to the end of the commentary of this lovely village close to Oaxaca city. A Zapotec village, traditional and proud of their culture and heritage.