This story was published in the Oaxaca Times.
´Being born here we have weaving in our blood, ´ says Pastora Asunción Gutierrez Reyes of the craft of rug-making.
´I find inspiration in the trees, the birds, the landscape. In a sense everything finds expression in my weaving. The colours and patterns and forms are everywhere.´
Ms Reyes, an energetic woman of 33, is the director of Vida Nueva, a women’s weaving cooperative based in Teotitlán del Valle. The village is a heartland of Mexican rug-making, located 20 minutes from the city of Oaxaca. Indigenous Zapotecs have been weaving here since pre-hispanic times, and many of their pieces feature patterns and symbols that have been passed down from generation to generation. Rugs hailing from Teotitlán del Valle are sold all over the world, and the village itself is a hub for the rug-trade – home to many stores and stalls that sell to tourists and exporters.
But while the art of rug-making is ancient here, Vida Nueva has broken with tradition. The collective was started 10 years ago by a group of women hoping to improve economic and social conditions for themselves, their families and their community. Their name, ´Vida Nueva´ – ´Galvain Cuy´ in Zapoteco – literally means ´New Life´.
When Vida Nueva was conceived it was the first time in Teotitlán del Valle that a group of women had embarked on such a venture.
´At first there was criticism, particularly from older women who said, ´What good can come from this?´
´The custom is that the role of an indigenous woman is limited to the house and family. She does not go independently. A woman who does is regarded with suspicion,´ says Ms Reyes.
More public disapproval came from men, who questioned their moral character and implied that their business activities were a ploy to meet ´city men´. ´We cried and it was very difficult. Yes, it was hurtful, but if someone was upset, someone else in the group could help to put things in perspective. We were strong for each other.´
A central goal of Nueva Vida is to empower its members through education, and in these early days workshops on self esteem and confidence proved particularly important. Nueva Vida received help from a local collective called GAEM (Grupo de Apoya a la Educación de la Mujer) whose mission is to support disadvantaged women through educational opportunities.
GAEM founder and director Flor Cervantes says, ´Nueva Vida first came to us with a focus to expand their market and improve their craft, but soon we realised that there were a host of life skills that they could benefit from learning´.
Ms Reyes explains, ´GAEM was very important because they gave us courage, even to visit Oaxaca on our own. They taught us to ask and express what we really thought, so we could communicate with people in official positions and seek out the resources available to us. As indigenous women we didn´t know how to negotiate and talk as equals´.
´Finally we were talking about things that were very important. For instance, we were speaking honestly about our feelings, our sexuality and learning about health and how our bodies operate. All this gave us confidence in all aspects of our lives.´
Over the last decade, through working with GAEM and other organizations, Nueva Vida´s members have participated in courses spanning caring for the environment, healing and traditional medicine, domestic violence, design, accounting and business practice.
Thanks to education in business they learned how to set a just price for their rugs. Previously, Nueva Vida members sold through intermediaries but at such low prices that what they made was barely enough to cover materials. They also saw their rugs being sold in shops for considerably more than what they were receiving.
So in 2000 Nueva Vida took the bold step to sell their rugs directly to customers, at a price that took into account their costs. Another benefit from working independently is that members are now free to choose for themselves the designs, colours and sizes of their pieces, rather than simply working to orders. ´The creativity has come back,´ says Ms Reyes.
Rugs may feature original designs, interpretations of famous paintings, or most commonly, traditional Zapotec patterns and symbols. These represent elements of nature and forces such as love, life and death. For example, a bird stands for liberty and infinity, while the design resembling Greek keys stand for protection, continuity, strength, grandeur and power.
Nueva Vida is deeply committed to preservingand honouring the traditional artesian processes of rug-making. They begin withraw dirty wool bought from a nearby village and months later have a finishedproduct. Whilst Ms Reyes estimatesthat around half the rug-makers in Teotitlán del Valle rely on some chemicaldyes to colour their yarn, Nueva Vida makes natural dyes the traditional wayfrom ingredients such as plants, bark, nuts and the insect cochinilla. This isa time consuming process – for instance to produce 1kg of cochinilla dye tocreate shades of red purple and orange, around 150,000 insects must be pickedby hand. Ms Reyes says the time savings that could be obtained in usingchemical dyes are outweighed by the knowledge they are staying true to traditions.In addition she says, using chemical dyes can take its toll on the health ofweavers along with that of the environment.
Currently the collective has 14 members, ranging in age from 14 – 78. They are predominantly widows, single or solo mothers, but the collective is open to anyone who supports its ethos and has the time to commit to monthly meetings, workshops and occasional volunteer projects. The collective carries out some activities such as going into the hills to forage for dye ingredients together, but each woman weaves from her own home. Rugs are then sold through the Vida Nueva headquarters, which doubles as the home of Ms Reyes and six of her female relatives.
Vida Nueva members don’t make enough money to live on from their rugs alone and must supplement their income with activities such as growing corn and raising chickens. But Ms Reyes is clear about the positive change Nueva Vida has made in their lives.
There are now extra funds for medical emergencies, improving their homes and the schooling of their families. In Ms Reyes own family, thanks to the increased profits from selling rugs, three girls will be able to finish high school, whereas before they would have had to finish at age 13 or 14.
But the thing that has pleased her most is the personal changes that she has seen in the collective’s members, such as bolstered confidence, young women choosing to wait longer to marry and have children, and greater equality and happiness in their marriages when they do.
And criticism of Vida Nueva has turned into approval and support from the community. The local authorities have given them a place and voice in town meetings, and the way that they have been able to improve the resources of their families has been noted.
´Even some of the older women of the community who criticized us originally are now asking for or offering help,´ says Ms Reyes.
But Nueva Vida still regards itself as just beginning and has aspirations to be a ´real business´ with stable export markets, and increased visibility in the local market. They also wish to improve the quality of their work and generally educate Mexicans to value their traditional arts.
´And yes, we very strongly want to make a good living from our work,´ says Ms Reyes.
While this financial goal is real and important, the motivation to weave as a way to preserve traditions and satisfy their souls creatively seems equally evident.
Summing up her feelings on weaving Ms Reyes says, ´It’s a poem… it’s love.´
Directions to Nueva Vida’s shop: FromTeotitlan del Valle´s central artisan’s market, take the steps to the right ofthe town hall, then walk down Calle Centenario. Nueva Vida´s shop is number 1on this street, the first house on your left. They can also be contacted onphone (01 951) 52 44250 or firstname.lastname@example.org
THE WEAVING PROCESS
STEP 1: Bundles of raw wool are bought from neighboring villages. The wool comes in a variety of different shades – from white to gray to brown to black – and needs to be separated.
STEP 2: The raw wool is taken down to the river and washed by hand. This is done only in water without cleaning products of any kind.
STEP 3: The raw wool is combed between two ´cardas´- brushes made of wood with metal bristles, in a process known as carding.
STEP 4: The clean and carded wool is spun by hand on a spinning wheel or ´ryeca´.
STEP 5: Dyes are prepared by hand from ingredients such as bark, moss, pomegranate, indigo and cochineal. These ingredients are collected and left to infuse or ferment in water.
STEP 6: The yarn is dyed by placing it in boiling water that contains the dye. This is done over an open fire.
STEP 7: Before weaving the lengths of yarn are wound onto spools which can then be used with the loom.
STEP 8: The weft threads of the rug need to be measured out and strung onto the loom. This process can take a few hours, depending on the size of the rug.
STEP 9: Rugs, blankets, bags or other products are woven using a treadle loom or ´telar’. Weaving a rug can take from a week to several months depending on the size and complexity of the design. Only one piece of work can be woven on the loom at any one time.
STEP 10: The weaving is cut from the loom, the knots on the fabric are cut off and piece is cleaned and brushed down. The fringes are rolled and knotted and the weaving is finished, ready for you to buy.