In Teotitlán del Valle, the art of making tapetes is a tradition passed down from generation to generation among the Zapotecs, one of 16 indigenous cultures in the state of Oaxaca.
Colorful textiles line storefronts and stalls along the main roads at the center the village, located at the foothills of the Sierra Norte mountains just 20 minutes outside of Oaxaca City. Inside storefronts, artisans greet visitors, inviting them to take a close at every step of the process.
Pastora Asunción Gutierrez Reyes is one of hundreds of artisans in Teotitlán. Now a well-known artisan, she welcomes visitors, both Mexicans and tourists, to her home and workspace. Colorful rugs are stacked in a small closet and some are on display under a covered porch.
CREDIT: Credit: Julissa Treviño
She’s a founder of Vida Nueva, the village’s first women’s-only weaving cooperative to commercialize their long-held skill.
“We started it 20 years ago now. It was a struggle back then because of the beliefs, tradition, machismo and culture,” Gutierrez Reyes says, her long braid falling down her embroidered apron. “That was an impediment to better opportunities for women.”
The Zapotec date back to pre-Columbian times, at least 2,500 years. They excelled in agriculture, writing systems, weaving and ceramic art, according to historians. Textiles have long been an economic driver in Teotitlán, as well as a platform for sharing the culture’s history and stories.
The city is internationally known for its handwoven wool rugs, but only in recent decades have women been part of the business.
Vida Nueva, which was founded in 1996 by six women, defies traditional indigenous norms by allowing women to be at the forefront of every aspect of the business, from weaving to selling. Children in the community begin weaving as early as six or seven years old, but it’s the men who continue on with the craft as adults. It’s only in the last 40 years or so that women have been part of the work, says Adelina Montaño, who’s not a member of the Vida Nueva cooperative but sells at the artisan market in town. Montaño learned how to weave when she was 8.
“It’s passed down by generation. My mom and dad taught me,” she says.
While men work 12-hour days at home making rugs, women sell at the market, take care of the kids, cook and clean, occasionally weaving when they have time. About 80 artisans sell at the 20-stall market.
As an indigenous community, one of the issues Vida Nueva first faced was machismo, and the idea that women shouldn’t or couldn’t work a traditionally men’s craft. Instead, they are expected to stay home to fulfill the household duties. Many of the women in the community didn’t know Spanish, Gutierrez Reyes says.
The women who founded the group did so out of necessity. Their husbands or children had either migrated for work, or the women were single.
CREDIT: Credit: Julissa Treviño
Silvia Gutierrez Reyes, Pastora’s sister, explains that when Vida Nueva first started, people made negative comments. She says they would ask “Why are those women outside working?”
“Even now, women marry very young here,” Silvia adds. “A woman who was going against the grain was judged.”
In the early stages of the cooperative, Gutierrez Reyes said men often questioned the quality of their work simply because they were women. Of course, rug-making is labor-intensive, notes Gutierrez Reyes. Because traditional processes from decades past are still used, artisans start their work at the most basic level.
They comb the wool and spin the yarn, then color the wool using dyes. Some still use natural dyes. The most common, and beautiful, among them is cochinilla, a scale insect found on prickly pear cactus that can be crushed to make a blood red color, and indigo, which is extracted from a plant called añil. Dyes can be diluted with water or altered by using citrus. Weavers then take to their looms, weaving in symbols and designs of the Zapotec tradition. Larger pieces can take anywhere from three months to a year to make depending on the complexity of the design. The final pieces can cost thousands of pesos.
It took years for Vida Nueva to commercialize their craft. Vendor spaces at the artisan market are inherited. Occupants can only occupy one if a family member passed it down to them, Silvia says. Otherwise, artisans can work through tour guides, who bring visitors to the town and take a percentage of the selling price. Or, they could go into Oaxaca City to sell, but women didn’t make that trip alone at that time. It wasn’t until the early 2000s they started selling directly to customers.
Today the cooperative, now with 13 women, is well-known in Oaxaca. They have a locale in Teotitlán but have showcased traditional Zapotec tapetes internationally, too. Other vendors in Teotitlán have well-established storefronts. Some even have websites where they sell directly to customers outside the country.
Members of the collective work on their craft at home, coming together once a month. They decide how often they want to work and how much they want to sell their work for, with the profits going directly to that artisan. They’ve also been expanding their craft by making purses, yoga mats and pillows.
Now, when you walk through the village, women artisan’s names appear on signs pointing visitors to rug shops based out of their homes. Other women’s cooperatives have also popped up in recent years. Some visitors even go out of their way to support female weavers.
Gutierrez Reyes is happy to have some healthy competition. Teotitlán might still be a place with a lot of machismo, but things are slowly changing for the better, she says.