THE CULTURE

The family of Porfirio Gutiérrez lives in Teotitlán del Valle, a small village in the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca that is known for its traditional hand-woven textile arts. MAP OF MEXICO

About 80% of the population in the state of Oaxaca are indigenous with Teotitlán del Valle being Zapotec. Most people of pre-Columbian heritage have lost their native tongue and now speak Spanish. Teotitlán del Valle is one of the few towns where the Zapotec dialect is still spoken and many ancient traditions are still maintained.

Porfirio Gutiérrez and family are descendants of and participants in the rich Zapotec tradition of weaving. A brief summary of each influencing topic is listed below. Many topics have a link to more photos and in-depth explanations.

HISTORY

TEOTITLÁN DEL VALLE

DAILY LIFE

TYPICAL HOMES

TRADITIONAL GARMENTS

SAD NEW REALITY

PRESERVING A LIVING HISTORY

DETECTING REAL NATURAL DYES
HISTORY

Presence of the Zapotec culture can be traced as far back as 600 BC in Oaxaca. The Zapotec ruins of Monte Albán date from 400 BC and were still in use as late as the early 1500s AD. The focus of Zapotec power was then dispersed to smaller autonomous Zapotec factions that built sites such as Mitla.

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VIDEO ON THE RUINS AT MITLA

The Zapotec civilization was very advanced for the new world. They had developed a calendar, hieroglyphic writing, mathematics, and many arts including ceramics, textiles, sculpture, and painting.

In the early 1500s, the Spanish introduced two important innovations that were adopted by Zapotec artisans and are still in use today. Indigenous weavers had been using the backstrap loom for centuries but the more efficient free-standing vertical loom (also called a foot-pedal loom) brought by the Spanish was widely embraced. The other big change that the Spanish introduced was the use of Churro sheep wool. Previously, weaving had been done using coarser and more labor intensive indigenous fibers from ixtle (maguey), a small bolled cotton, and jute.


TEOTITLÁN DEL VALLE

Many Zapotec cities were flourishing at the time of the Spanish conquest. The Spaniards demolished most of the indigenous buildings and used the debris in erecting their own buildings, including Catholic churches which were usually built on the site a dismantled Zapotec temple. In Teotitlán, this is the case and when their Catholic church was most recently restored, remnants of the original Zapotec buildings were found embedded in the church walls. When replastering, these carved stones were left exposed to be seen as reminders of Teotitlán's rich heritage.

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DAILY LIFE

Family chores start well before dawn. Sheep need to be fed, their pen cleaned, and crops tended to before breakfast. Home grown corn that has been soaked overnight is hand ground into masa on the metate. Teotitlán is known for its large 12" wide tortillas. The day's supply is hand pressed and roasted on an open wood or cob fire.


Around 8 am women walk down to the daily market to buy fruit, vegetables, fresh cheeses, baked goods, and a little meat for the day's meals. Flowers are often bought for the home altar. They walk home, prepare breakfast and sit down as a family to eat. The custom is to greet each other before starting the meal.


On the breakfast table you may see atole (a hot thick corn-based drink), Oaxacan-style hot chocolate, oversized Oaxacan tortillas, bean paste with avocado leaves, salsas, Oaxacan string cheese and queso fresco among other foods.

After eating everyone sets to work weaving, gathering dye plants, dyeing, spinning, and other daily activities. The church bells ring at 7pm to signal that the end of the day is near. They ring again at 8pm to let the village know it is time to quit work. There is still some preparation done for the next day. Corn is shucked and removed from the cob, roasted and/or soaked in water so it will be soft enough to grind into masa in the morning. The sheep are fed again. Without daylight, not much more can be accomplished.


TRADITIONAL GARMENTS

Most older Zapotec women in Teotitlán still dress and wear their hair in the beautiful traditional manner. Long braids are often intertwined with satin ribbons and worn down or wreathed on the head. The colorful embroidered blouses that Oaxaca is famous for are still worn as well as other richly colored blouses. Traditional skirts are made of plaid cloth and wrapped around the waist, falling to mid-calf. Colorful hand woven sashes are tied around the waist and beautiful shawls are worn for warmth and in church. Embroidered aprons are usually worn when doing work that might soil clothes. The overall effect is beautiful and naturally artistic.

Traditional clothes for men include huarache sandals, light cotton shirts and straw hats. Colors are muted in comparison to women's clothing.


A SAD NEW REALITY

About 70% the people in the village of Teotitlán are engaged in some facet of the textile arts. The worldwide recession has been a serious setback for them, decreasing tourism in Oaxaca dramatically.  The weavers who depended on selling to visiting vacationers and collectors have suffered a severe reduction in income compared to the years before the economic downturn.

There has been a slow but steady migration from natural dyes to chemical dyes since their introduction in the late 1800s. Over 90% the weavers in Teotitlán have deserted traditional methods for chemical dyes to save time and money. Porfirio and his family worry about pollution and other health issues that come with synthetic dyes. But more importantly, they believe that only by using natural dyes and traditional methods can they preserve the ancient Zapotec art and heritage that is slipping away.


PRESERVING THE ART OF NATURAL DYES

The first chemical dyes were discovered in 1856 by William Henry Perkin in England. They have replaced plant dyes in most countries because they are faster, less expensive, and simpler to use than natural dyes. In Teotitlán del Valle, the labor-intensive craft of making and using natural dyes has become rarer with each passing decade. The number of weavers still using traditional all-natural dyes is estimated to be less than 5% all the weaving families in the village. When they are gone, there will be no one left to pass on the knowledge of where to gather local dye plants, or how to prepare them for dyeing. Without this intrinsic part of Zapotec weaving, this authentic pure art will be lost to the past. Porfirio Gutiérrez and family proudly perpetuate this expertise and welcome visitors into their studio to observe and learn how it is done.


TESTING FOR REAL NATURAL DYES

There are some simple tests that anyone can do to see if a weaving has been made with yarn that has been dyed with natural plant dyes or chemicals. Cochineal is one of the most common dyes to be replaced with cheap synthetic chemical dye because it is very time consuming to grow & gather, and is very expensive if purchased. To test for real cochineal dye, a sample of red yarn boiled in fresh lemon juice for 5 minutes will lighten, whereas chemical dyes will not change. Another characteristic of plant dyed yarns is the residual scent from the plants that were used to dye them. Natural scents range from earthy to fresh green to tarragon (brown). Chemical dyes can be detected this same way but the smell is not natural. Caution: many chemical dyes are not rinsed clean and may cause respiratory problems over prolonged exposure.

SEE OUR VIDEO ON TESTING FOR REAL NATURAL DYES
TYPICAL HOMES

Most Zapotec families have a Catholic altar in the home. It is usually adorned with fresh flowers and lit candles. Flowers are considered a luxury in many cultures but are common in the homes and gardens of Teotitlán. The people value beauty and nature and often commonplace items are arranged in an aesthetically pleasing manner.





Most homes in Teotitlán are built around the perimeter of a central courtyard that is gated to the street. The courtyard is usually planted with fruit trees, flowers, ornamental plants, and plants used in the dyeing process.



This is also where most of the work is done.




SEE A SHORT VIDEO ON:
- Testing for real natural dyes
- The Ruins at Mitla
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