Amy with SMU-in-Oaxaca

Amy spent winter break 2007-08 in Oaxaca, Mexico, where she and other SMU students explored culture, art and anthropology – visiting villages, churches and museums; participating in festivals; and working alongside the indigenous people of Oaxaca.
Amy is a junior from Austin majoring in studio art with minors in art history and women’s studies.

Read more from Amy with SMU-in-Oaxaca

Tlacochahuaya and Teotitlan Del Valle

Excerpts from Amy’s blog

Amy31-1.jpgI’d like to begin with the group’s visit to the church in Tlacochahuaya, the most beautiful church I have ever experienced (16th-century church.) It’s cool inside, and the entire church – almost every inch of it – is painted in motifs of flowers and faith. The reds and blues and browns of the paints made from plants and earth and bugs understandably show the wear and tear of their years, yet they are deep and vivid in their emotion.

Amy31-2.jpgThe stories of faith, hope and suffering are evident, as well as potent images of Christ on the cross, wearing an intensely purple skirt. The mixture of the architecture, wall painting and religious imagery creates the feeling of participating in this kind of soft explosion, a spiritual party. Balloons hang from arch to arch, incredible mounds of flowers and candles situate themselves along the altar. The spirit of Oaxaca, its emphasis of repetition (constant spiritual involvement, the imagery of balloons, of flowers, religious symbols, etc.) is most certainly found in this space.

amy31-o.jpgAfter climbing a narrow, winding staircase our group is able to see the view from the second floor as well as the 16th-century, flower-decorated organ. With tiny faces painted onto its front it is quite mysterious. There are many historically significant objects and symbols present in this church and in Oaxaca in general that are rarely used today but continue to play a part in the space. Like spirits their bodies are vacant but the souls are present, in a way. This idea also links up with Oaxaca’s interest in the spiritual world, present in examples from Monte Alban, The Day of The Dead celebration, and New Year’s festivities in Teotitlan Del Valle.

Teotitlan del Valle
Teotitlan del Valle is near Oaxaca, a short drive in what seemed like the direction of Mitla. Like most communities in Mexico it is built around a central plaza and church. The mountains are behind the village, and family farms are found throughout. The community has a provincial, humble quality from what our group briefly saw. Thick adobe walls and tiled roofs were ubiquitous in the area we drove through. Although this village seems quiet and sleepy, it is a vital component (and very active!) to Mexico and the world through migration and tourism.

Teotitlan is renowned for being a Zapotec community involved with treadle-loom weaving. Local weavings are sold and demonstrations occur daily in homes and markets. At least one family member weaves in nearly every household (Esther says) … work is often split between weaving and farming.

Amy31-5.jpgThe opportunity our group had – to visit a family’s weaving workshop in Teotitlan – was unparalleled. The husband and wife collaborated in this process, making everything: dyes (all from crushed, organic ingredients like pecan), the yarn (hand combed, washed and spun), the process of weaving (made on a room-sized tapestry loom, with foot peddles made from rectangular blocks of wood).

Hand-woven textiles are an important part and product of Oaxaca, where both the horizontal and the body looms are used. Weaving on the body loom is, traditionally, a woman’s craft, while mechanical weaving is usually done by men (note to Esther for providing me with this information). The body loom is mainly used to produced two things: a rebozo, a scarf which is also used as a sash or hair tie. The body or back strap loom is a fascinating process, because it is so directly connected to the body (more on this later, when we visit the back-strap loom site).

The mechanical loom or horizontal loom is another form of hand weaving. This is the process used at the weaving house in Teotitlan. Here wool pieces are woven onto large structures … tapestry weaving, what we were introduced to, can also be done using a horizontal loom. These looms are capable of weaving cloth many yards in width, making rugs and other larger textiles. The symbols found in Mitla (not but a few minutes away from Teotitlan) are ubiquitous in the rugs of Teotitlan for two reasons. I believe it is for the purpose of tradition – to incorporate and instill the spiritual notions embedded in the Zapotec symbols.

For example, the rug I purchased at the weaving family’s home contains a cross with a zig-zag triangle surrounding it. This is the ancient symbol for Mitla, and represents the fall of Mitla. In a way, incorporating Zapotec symbols into contemporary rugs preserves the history that is so near and vital to their identity. Also, I believe the symbols are present in contemporary work (not just rugs, actually, also in the wood carvings, etc.) for marketing purposes. This is a smart tactic, as indigenous people realize there is a demand from tourists for these “classic” symbols of Mexican culture.

The Zapotecs along with the Mayans devised sophisticated and complex symbols that are thought be among Mesoamerica’s earliest writing systems. Symbols and writing provided a venue for Zapotecs to express their identities and to reference themselves in terms of time and space. Many glyphs have to do with naming people and places, referencing time and expressing power. According to my research and Esther’s information, the Zapotecs may have venerated and respected certain spirits and forces, communicating with them by means of an image of a man accompanied by the appropriate symbols. Particular symbols may have represented certain powers, deities, or gods and may have been invoked during specific events or ceremonies, which may explain why some images and sets of symbols appear frequently.

Amy31-6.jpgBack to the loom: All weaving observed in Oaxaca, on both the body and horizontal looms, was initially done by men (Esther confirmed this). But women helped in preparation of the wool, spinning the yarn, and typing the fringe. The body loom is considered an ancient type in America and Europe but it is still used in many parts of Latin America. However, it has been largely replaced by the horizontal loom with pedals for easier, more efficient weaving. The width of weaving that is practical to the body loom is more limited than that on a frame/mechanical loom. However the continued use of the back strap loom and a more primitive type of floor loom provides material for the study of early, early weaving.

The video pieces fully illustrate the intensity of the process of making, of collaborating and thinking together as a couple – which is what our group was able to see with this family. We were able to examine the process of dying and weaving, a very mediative and concentrated task. During our stay the family made us the most wonderful meal/snacks: homemade guacamole, cheeses, chips and cokes. It was incredibly touching and generous. The idea of sharing and collaborating is found throughout Oaxaca, a kind of exchange that is rare in Western culture.

An interesting portion of the demonstration was when the family illustrated to the group how the red pigment is made using cochinilla (cochineal). Cochinilla is an insect native to Oaxaca that lives on the surface of nopals (prickly pear cactus). The insect is collected and sacrificed in order to make the scarlet color. From the cochinilla, the family obtains a wide variety of different tones of red by adding other elements such as baking soda, lemon juice, ash, and lime. Other colors in the family’s tapestries were indigo and green, obtained from river rock moss.

Following the color demonstration, we walked over to a loom where the husband was working on a tapestry rug. In his demonstration he explained that red rugs (use of cochinilla) are traditionally the most expensive rugs as are those with circular forms, arc, etc which require special attention when weaving as straight lines is the normal pattern. I will never forget the generosity of this family and the work made by them.

Amy31-3.jpg Following the weaving workshop, we headed to a nearby restaurant and mezcaleria to eat and observe how mezcal is made. Mezcal, like tequila, is made from the agave (maguey) cactus plant. At the mezcaleria, we were shown how the agave must grow for six to eight years before it is ready to be used. Once mature, its leaves are removed and the body of the plant (called a pina for its resemblance to pineapples) is ready for use.

A wood-fire is burned in a deep pit (horno) and river rock is placed over the coals until they are incredibly hot. Then, the pinas are placed and covered with burlap, tin, and earth. Once the pinas are ready they are removed and trimmed. They are then placed on a stone for grinding that is very wide in diameter and ground by a large stone wheel that is pulled by a horse. (Esther did a wonderful rendition of this pulling act!) The extract that is collected is then fermented; the liquid is placed in what I think is called a “still” and heated. Once the liquid has fermented it is placed in oak barrels and is ready to age.

After lunch we retreated home to rest…

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