"Oaxaca, Mexico: An

Expatriate Life"

Writing by Stan Gotlieb

Pictures by Diana Ricci

A dying breed
The candles are bees' wax, and this man's family has been making them for generations. Candles play an important role in many ceremonies, and these candles are among the finest in Teotitlan del Valle, near Oaxaca. This picture was taken in La Mano Mágica (The Magic Hand), one of Oaxaca's premier galleries, during an Easter week arts fair. The tapestry behind him on the wall is the work of maestro Arnulfo Mendoza, co-owner of the gallery, and one of the most famous of Oaxaca's weavers. These are successful and prosperous artesans. They are among the lucky few.[Photo by Diana Ricci]

He is about five-foot-four, and nut brown. His hair is white, as is his bristling, debonair handlebar mustache. There is a twinkle in his eye, and a pronounced stoop to his back. He greets us with smiles, deference (for our status as envoys from the outside world and guests in his house) and formality. He is a poor worker and we are exotic strangers and potential customers, who bring greetings (and a box of special chocolates) from a long-standing and valued patroness. He is wearing unlaced high top sneakers, tan polished cotton trousers, and a white t-shirt with a large elongated oval hole horizontally across the front just below the solar plexus.

Maestro Fidel Diaz Valencia is 85. He lives with his two sons in an adobe and brick compound in a poor neighborhood in southeast Oaxaca. For over sixty years, he has produced rebozos (shawls) in the "ikat" (E-cot) style, in which the warp (the "lengthwise" strands) is first tied and dipped in indigo, before being strung on to the loom.

The maestro offers us a demonstration, and although he is hardly the first person we have ever seen using the shuttle loom, we are curious about where and how he works and whether he has any finished pieces in stock (he does not), so we follow him to his "taller" (ta-YAIR, workshop).

The room is windowless, with a low ceiling. It is crammed with a carding rig, a spinning wheel, and parts of looms. There are boxes and bags of obvious antiquity containing bits and pieces of who-knows-what. The feeling is one of walking through a swamp, where you have to stick to a narrow path to keep from falling into quicksand or coming in contact with a parasite-infested plant. It is not a place for the claustrophobic.

The loom occupies about a quarter of the room, a corner that is - if not scrupulously clean - orderly. The maestro sits down on a box and removes his high tops, and then squeezes himself between the loom and the wall. He works the pedals with his bare feet and throws the shuttle back and forth. Ropy muscles work in his forearms. His stoop, I decide, is not from old age but from the position he must assume in order to reach the shuttle ends. It would be worse if he were taller. I notice that the hole in his t-shirt lines up precisely with the loom head against which he leans: aha!

The maestro is the oldest of the remaining ikate weavers, and the only one in his neighborhood. There were three weavers in the next barrio (neighborhood), but one is dead and the remaining two are getting on in years. When they go, there will be no-one to take their places. His son explains that no-one can afford to hire an apprentice or an assistant, because there is no longer any money to be made in this trade.

It takes the Maestro three months to produce a tela (TEY-la: woven cloth) that yields four small rebozos. Much of the time is spent spinning the yarn, tying the strands, dying them, and setting them up for the loom. "We can't afford to pay a living wage for three months while waiting for the rebozos to be produced and sold", his son tells us, "and even then, we probably wouldn't be able to recoup our money. Not when the [automated industrial] machines produce rebozos so cheaply".

Unlike other "artesania" (hand-crafted products) such as pottery and painted wooden animals, textiles can be produced rapidly and cheaply by machine. If machine made textiles such as polyesters are used, the price drops even more. That's why many anthropologists, crafts teachers, and historians (such as Virginia Davis, a world-renowned textiles expert, who asked us to deliver the chocolates) are rushing in to capture the vanishing maestros on video tape, audio cassette and photos.

I ask the son how he feels about the coming extinction of his father's breed. He shrugs his shoulders. "What can you do? One trade is as good as another. The important thing is to change with the times, and to have work."

(March, 1996)

 

[Read a selection of "Letters From Oaxaca, Mexico"]

[Read a sample "Oaxaca / Mexico Newsletter"]