Oaxacan Craftspeople: A Family Affair



Witnessing the Zapotec communities in Oaxaca is like traveling back in time to a place where what you do is truly who you are. While visiting villages in this vibrant, southern state of Mexico, we witnessed a dedication to one’s work seldom seen in the West. Families worked together towards a single goal. There was patience and quiet contentment. For some, this meant spending the day in solitude creating the highest quality rug. For others, working beneath a tree, weaving table runners with ancient symbols of power and protection; or shaping ceramics that chronicle a lost heritage.

The families make space for reflection and clarity. With pride in their lineage, and a will to make the most of what they have, they are some of the most jovial people we have met on our travels.

Our first encounter was Isaac Vazquez, a master rug weaver who specializes in pre-Columbus rug design and whose work has been exhibited at the MET. Vazquez trained under Rufino Tamayo and Francisco Toledo, two of the biggest names in the Mexican artworld, and to this day has maintained the authenticity of his art. While cheap synthetic colors have become the most viable option today, Vazquez’s studio is one of the last remaining workshops that still uses natural dyes to color their wool, foregoing more lucrative commercialization in order to stay true to their ancestors’ ways. 

Vazquez took us through the process, showing us how some colors are obtained. To name a few: red comes from cochineal, a parasite that grows on cactus; yellow comes from marigold; and black from the mesquite tree. These elements are mixed with catalysts to obtain their desired property. Cochineal, for instance, must be soaked in ammonia to be affective.

Though not for the squeamish, some families use the most readily available resource—their own urine! Once the pot is simmering, the wool is soaked in the dye for as long as needed to achieve the desired shade. The longer it soaks (and the darker the original wool), the darker the final color. Of course, the pee is washed away!

Vazquez stressed the importance of originality, pointing to contemporary rug weavers who choose to replicate the same designs. The craft, he said, is no longer as creative as it once was. The pleasures of conjuring up a unique design and bringing it to life over weeks and months is losing its appeal to younger weavers who want to turn a buck. While the risk of taking the route of authenticity is real, and oftentimes daunting, Vazquez said it is worth it in the end.

"Create what you want, not what the market wants." 

He told us a story about when he was younger. When he and Tamayo first met, he had 32 intricate rugs that were finished and sitting in his studio, unsold. To encourage his artistry, Tamayo, perhaps with a bit of luck, organized an exhibition at the MET in 1960. On opening night all 32 pieces were sold!

Though he might have received a bit of luck, the truth was there. From then on, Vasquez never questioned Tamayo’s advice, even when times were tough, and he always created what he saw in his dreams or what his heart most desired. Tamayo, he told us, insisted that one must stay true to his imagination no matter what and never stoop to the level of a trend. “Create what you want, not what the market wants,” he told us, relaying the same message his teacher gave him.

On another sweltering day, we had the pleasure of meeting a truly inspiring and endearing man, Mr. José García Antonio. We hadn’t planned to visit his workshop, but our guide strongly encouraged this detour, understanding our search for authentic artists.

It was at the end of a long day when we arrived at Antonio’s home and workshop. We were greeted by his wife Teresa, a sweet lady with a warm smile and a characteristic mole on her forehead that we would discover had far more meaning than even the most insightful storywriter could imagine.

Teresa took us through a courtyard strewn with ceramics and led us up an exposed set of stairs to the roof where her husband was seated. “I came up here to find warmth,” he said, looking vacantly in our direction. “This is the only place I can find it at this time of day.”

José lost his eyesight some 30 years ago. He stood as we neared with a wide smile and greeted us. Holding his wife’s hand, his beloved Teresita, as he called her, he began to tell us his story and how he has found his way despite misfortune.

“I began as a boy at age seven,” he spoke in Spanish, “molding figures out of mud as a hobby. My skill developed over time and after I received my first real commissions, my work took on a new meaning: to preserve Zapotecan culture.”

José said he began dressing his figures in the traditional way and detailing them with the bright colors of the tribes. His subjects, he said, represented the activities and traditions of his culture, such as dancing, planting, harvesting, and cooking. He told us how he created this way until he lost his eyesight to glaucoma.

As he was talking, we could not help but notice Teresa’s steady smile that seemed to say, “I’ve heard this story a million times, but it never gets old.” José explained how after going blind he began to mold figures that resembled his wife, as he could feel her contours and reproduce them. As he said this, we noticed that nearly all the figurines in the courtyard had a prominent mole on the forehead, not unlike the buddha. When we were given a full tour later, we found hundreds of them lining the walls, as well as the three kings that had been commissioned for Christmas.

José ended his interview with a final message: “You have to take advantage of what life gives you and continue your work. Don’t get stuck in a place of sadness or brokenness. So long as we breathe, we are alive; and so long as we are alive, we will create, and we will share and we will smile.”

His message and his place in the sunlight is a symbol of the attitude of so many Zapotecs, who possess an undying positivity and gratefulness for life, a depth of love seldom felt elsewhere.

“You have to take advantage of what life gives you and continue your work. Don’t get stuck in a place of sadness or brokenness. So long as we breathe, we are alive; and so long as we are alive, we will create, and we will share and we will smile.”