Mexico and Beyond

TEOTITLAN DEL VALLE

Text and photos: Héctor J. G. Mellado

 

“Good morning, do you know how I can get to Teotitlan del Valle?”

   “Yes. Take the bus that’s headed for Mitla, get off at the Teotitlan junction, and there are motocabs there that will take you to the textiles.”

   This is more or less how I remember that direction they gave me at one of the avenues that lead East of Oaxaca’s capital city and that serves as a starting point to reach Teotitlan del Valle and other villages in the region.

   I followed the instructions carefully and, after a while, I was riding a motocab, a motorcycle turned public transport that can carry more than one passenger and can take you to the town center.

   The first thing you do when you arrive is orient yourself with the place’s signage: you decide if you’re headed towards Yu' lai (city hall) or Yu' Galnazak (the cultural center), for example.

   The signs in Teotitlan –written in Zapotec– also point out the direction of the important spots in Spanish and English, for those who can’t speak the local language.

A Zapotec-Spanish mix

 

One of the essential places to visit, without a doubt, is the church that was built over constructions from the former Zapotec village. You can discern on the walls and the front of the building stones with meanderings and anthropomorphic relieves.

   Faces of man and jaguar emerge from within its walls. Mysticism is present at the most important center of faith of the region, where one culture imposed itself on another.

Textile tradition

 

My steps lead the way and take me to walk the streets. I visit the textile studios and shops, thus arriving at the core of the commercial activity. Every family devotes its time and creativity to the manufacturing of wool textiles: carpets, handbags and tablecloths - this tradition is the main source of income for many inhabitants. The use of the pedal loom technique and natural dyes give rise to whimsical designs that mix tradition and color to tell stories among their threads.

Colors from nature

 

 

The use of natural colors is a method that has survived from generation to generation for centuries, maintaining the same technique. The farming of the cochineal (Dactylopius coccus) to get reddish colors is an example. These tones are obtained from this little insect that grows on nopal pads and whose insides dye the threads red.

   During the 18th and 19th centuries, the production of cochineal was one of the main commercial activities in Oaxaca, bringing these lands international renown. From the port of Acapulco huge amounts of cochineal-dyed textiles were exported to China and the Philippines.

   Other plant materials are used, like indigo to create blue tones; walnut shells and roots for ochres and browns; and cempasuchil flower for orange.

Colors from nature

 

 

The use of natural colors is a method that has survived from generation to generation for centuries, maintaining the same technique. The farming of the cochineal (Dactylopius coccus) to get reddish colors is an example. These tones are obtained from this little insect that grows on nopal pads and whose insides dye the threads red.

   During the 18th and 19th centuries, the production of cochineal was one of the main commercial activities in Oaxaca, bringing these lands international renown. From the port of Acapulco huge amounts of cochineal-dyed textiles were exported to China and the Philippines.

   Other plant materials are used, like indigo to create blue tones; walnut shells and roots for ochres and browns; and cempasuchil flower for orange.

An emperor’s offering

Oral tradition says that the main tribute that this village used to pay to the Mexica Emperor Moctezuma was composed of textiles made with plant fiber from agaves and cotton and dyed by Zapotec hands. However, after the arrival of the Spaniards some techniques changed, due also to the arrival of sheep’s wool as a raw material.

A feast for the senses

Tradition and color feed the eyes of the person who walks the streets of Teotitlan. Color melts into flavor giving rise to the gastronomy of its traditional cooks, who prepare tlayudas with cheese and tasajo (dried beef), tetelas, chicken enchiladas, tamales, grasshoppers, and mole in its different varieties. They make the traditional food another reason for the traveler to pay a compulsory visit to Teotitlan. In addition, the region is well-known for its production of mezcal, which in the state of Oaxaca has a long tradition – and there’s nothing better than a shot of young mezcal with a little worm salt for some after-dinner conversation.

   A recounting of my sensory experiences occupies my mind on the way back to the starting point.

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