It was kind of fitting that we returned Teotitlan del Valle again today which brought us full circle on this journey to Mexico with the first interview being just across the street. Before our meeting with the women’s cooperative, Vida Nueva, we sat drinking coffee, thinking about what an incredible journey it had been, the people we had met and how much had been learned along the way.
At the back of the coffee shop was a hive of activity as the whole family seemed to be preparing for a celebration which turned out to be a wedding this coming weekend. The man explained that they will spend 4 days preparing the feast, just as someone walked past with two upside down turkeys under his arm, feathers and all. All hands were on deck as they prepared the cocoa beans, one person roasting them, the grandmother turning them over, someone else peeling and so forth, it was quite amazing to watch. Another small insight into the powerful close knit community over here.
We also managed to drop in on the very first person we interviewed across they street, Matea, who had given us our first insight into a woman weaver way of life. In sharp contrast to the first time we walked into her shop she greeted us like old friends and it was nice to present her with one of the Welsh tea towels as a gift of thanks from WCMT.
On to the final interview of the past two weeks with Pastora Gutierrez Reyes, one of the 8 women who form the collective – Vida Nueva (new life).
Although we have visited other weaving cooperatives run solely by women, we were keen to to talk to Vida Nueva to gain another different perspective and because of their admirable core philosophy and inspirational story in helping women from all sorts of backgrounds.
Vida nueva are a group of Zapotec women from Teotitlan del Valle. There are 8 members altogether, some of who are widows, single or unmarried women. Through their cooperative which they formed 20 years ago they are able to support each other in their daily struggles and challenges and share ideas and techniques with the aim of crafting economic and artistic opportunities for Zapotec women.
Historically only men were permitted to weave but in the past 55 years women have been able to share in this rich heritage. Pastora talked about the difficulty in gaining equal respect and recognition as women, which is why they formed the cooperative in 1996. She explained about the criticism they received and how strong they have had to be in standing up for themselves especially as they are completely self built with no help from the government or (as other cooperatives have been) supported or helped along by the church.
Through travelling to Mexico City to sell their work, the women came across a woman’s rights organisation who gave them opportunities to do workshops in organisation and business.
Their mission is to create economic opportunities for women by serving their community and preserving their Zapotec heritage.
Pastora talked about how much they have learned along the way and about the exploitation they have suffered in the past by their distributors which is why they work together and now sell direct to their customers which gives them full autonomy. Every piece of work has a label telling you a little about the woman who wove it. Each of the women gets 100% of the sale for their work and then they all contribute once a month to the cooperative. Some of the proceeds go towards helping women in the community through workshops on topics such as domestic violence, traditional medicine, health care and weaving techniques. They also have created a variety of projects such as stoves for women, toys for children and ‘planting new life’ – a reforesting project to replant an area of Pueblo with 400 native plants and trees. They are also currently working on a project to build compost toilets for families in this area as there are no facilities, which means local rivers have become polluted.
8 years ago they started a project to help revive natural dyes since much of the ancestral knowledge has been left behind with the introduction of chemical dyes. Their work has led to a great resurgence in natural dyes and they have had students from all over coming to learn from them which is very promising. Vida Nuevas work is made using 100% wool and only natural dyes such as indigo, walnuts, flowers and the cochineal bug which produces a brilliant red, amongst many others.
Pastora then talked about the weight of women’s work, with a great amount of daily duties in addition to the weaving. They work in the field, talk care of the children, make tortillas, prepare meals, wash clothes, shop at the market, and carry out religious duties and community responsibilities. The responsibility is great and the women here lead a hard life which is why it is so important to be able to earn a living from their weaving work.
Each tapete contains the inspiration of the Zapoteca woman who wove it. The work itself is exceptional and full of individuality.
Before the Spanish conquest, their Zapotec ancestors created designs representing the wind, rain, sun, the moon, the stars, the animal world and many, many more. They carved the designs into to the stone of buildings and wove them into tapestries. Symbols of love, life and death. A bird stands for Liberty, the Greek keys represent protection, continuity, strength, grandeur and power. Each rug tells a story. Pastora showed us how they weave symbols of rain and life’s path with different colours for the ups and downs we experience along the way. They weave the beauty of their heritage into their weaving.
Each one will take months or more depending on its size and complexity of the design. She showed us her own most recent work which is personal to her, so full of deep meaning and feminine wisdom. We weren’t allowed to take photos of it but I did take a photo of one the traditional designs. The meaning behind the pattern is called Ono de Dias, (eye of God).
The centre of each figure includes two triangles that look like a butterfly which represents freedom. Then the diamond around each butterfly signifies the community, the power of the Pueblo and the strength of its people and the border represents the two figures within.
This meeting was a such powerful way to end this incredible journey which has evolved to be just as much about the independence and equal rights of women who are crafting a new world as much as the primary reasons of bringing awareness to ancient craft techniques and to investigate how those techniques are being transferred to modern day practise. I have learned so much about women’s strength and power out here. We have met some extraordinary men and women along the way and made deep connections through the research and learned about ways of life, their deepest wishes for their children and for the future of their work which is still being passed on centuries later. At the beginning of the trip I had no idea how deeply rooted my passion is to understand these ways of life and do my part in keeping handcrafts alive and also what it means to be able to earn a living from objects of your own creation. I want to thank the WCMT for granting me this opportunity to learn and inspire new ways to bring this knowledge forward and help bring more value to traditional crafts.
I will be sad to leave Mexico tomorrow where so much knowledge and creativity exists. The last stop before home is a stopover for the day in Miami to visit my uncle which no doubt will be a shocking contrast to the past month! Then I will be going home for a month to write everything up before part 2 of my trip in Japan at the beginning of March. More soon!