My sister and nephew had come to visit me in Oaxaca, escaping the icy grip of the polar vortex in the frozen north.
When you have been on the road for months, a visit from home is sweet. You may have gotten used to being solitary and invisible, but it’s nice to finally have people around who know you well and love you anyway. And also to have company on your hitherto solo excursions.
Since Oaxaca is surrounded by fascinating excursions, one of our first was to the ancient weaving community of Teotitlán del Valle, 18 miles (31 kilometers) southeast of the city of Oaxaca. Weaving is bred in the bone of this Zapotec village—since about 500 b.c. when cotton goods woven on a backstrap loom were sent as tribute to the Aztecs in the north. After the Spanish conquest, a Dominican bishop brought sheep and standup looms to the region, and violá!—an industry in woven woolen textiles was born.
Today, Teotitlán is internationally known for wool rugs, which often incorporate Zapotec and Mixtec designs and mythology and which are usually made from natural dyes on looms that have been in families for generations.
Getting to the town from Oaxaca involved a brisk morning walk to catch a colectivo out of town. We negotiated a fare so as not to wait for more passengers, and barreled off down highway 190. At the turnoff to the town was a conveniently located mezcal distillery, which lured us in. Resistance was futile.
Mezcal gets a bad rap as a second-rate home brew compared to tequila. It’s distilled similarly from various kinds of agave (tequila uses only the blue agave), each of which gives the resulting spirit a distinctive flavor. As with tequila, the agave heart is first roasted, then crushed by mule-power, then distilled. The process is fairly crude compared to the artesanal tequila I saw at 7 Leguas.
Many months later back at home on a sultry summer eve, I cracked open my little bottle of mezcal with my brother-in-law. It was strong and smooth and smoky and took me right back to the dusty hills and heart of Oaxaca. This stuff takes no second place to fancy tequila.
Trundling our bottles across the highway, we headed into town and turned right at the first sign pointing toward a family of weavers. Let the search begin!
Throwing caution and the wisdom of comparison shopping to the wind, my relations dug right in to the selection of rugs the mother of the house brought out. This was a small, one-loom shop operating in the midst of a family compound. No showroom. Not much diversity of product, but the mother was very patient, hauling out rugs and showing us how the wool was dyed with cochineal and how adding grapefruit juice from a nearby tree turned the rich vermillion color into a bright orange.
(Side note: The story of cochineal is fascinating. It is a natural dye from a bug that feeds on the prickly pear cactus. The dried, crushed bugs are a rich, red color called carmine. Oaxaca is the largest producer of cochineal in the world, having just the right climate for cactus and bugs. The region has been producing garments dyed with cochineal for hundreds of years. As soon as the Spanish nobility saw the royal, red color, they appropriated it as their own, and it became the European color of nobility for a while. Cochineal continues to be produced today just as it always has, and weavers throughout Oaxaca use it to dye their textiles.
To my surprise, some food items in the US are also dyed with cochineal—some Dannon yogurt flavors as well as Starbuck’s strawberry frappuchino. Sounds yucky, but that’s just because we aren’t a culture that consumes bugs.)
By now, the grown daughter was called on to help wrap our many goods. When my sister counted out a thick roll of pesos, the mother, who had been helpful and patient but not pushy throughout the process, crossed herself several times and kissed the roll of money.
“You don’t know what this means to us,” she said with tears in her eyes. Her husband was in the US trying to work and send money home. The rest of the family was trying to keep the business intact and food on the table. By now, my sister was all teary, too, and we left in the warm knowledge that our money was not misplaced.
Incidentally, I’ve heard this story all across Mexico—fathers, brothers, sons in the US trying to work and send money home. It’s dangerous and difficult. Many industries in the US (such as agriculture in my state) need this labor and since we have no functional guest worker program, a dangerous border crossing and illegal entry is the only option. These are church-going, hardworking people, for the most part, contrary to what some might think.
The rest of the day we wandered from shop to shop around town. Most were part of extended family businesses—everyone is a weaver. Many of the designs were the same, often woven from memory. Some of the larger gallery/showrooms developed a more international market, usually mostly in the US, and these sell the bone fide, high-quality goods.
But I also heard that the Great Recession hit the town particularly hard, when the US wallets clamped shut. As rug sales plummeted, weavers had to scrabble for other income, and a lot of looms went silent forever.
In the waning light of afternoon, once again we stood on the highway with our bottles and our rugs waiting to flag down the next northbound vehicle. I love travel days like this when new and rich experiences come so pleasantly.