Teotitlán del Valle
Cooperativa Vida Nueva, Fundación En Vía,
y las Experiencias de un Pueblo Artesano
Images from April 2018–May 2021
Ancient Zapotec and Mixtec carvings, from two separate pre-colonial eras of rule, exposed with pride along with some of the original stones of the colonial church in the town center of Teotitlán del Valle.
Here, the past is always present.
Teotitlán del Valle is a small town located in the heart of the central valleys of Oaxaca, México. It was once part of the sophisticated and powerful Zapotec civilization that ruled over the region. Many ancient cultural and political structures have remained strong throughout centuries of adaptation to significant changes, and continue to be passed down through the legends and languages, traditions, and crafts of the pueblos of the region. One of the most prevalent of these ancestral traditions is the practice of weaving.
For centuries, the people of Teotitlán sold and traded woven blankets and traditional clothing in the local markets. During the colonial era, the region’s main industry was the production of textiles and dyed cotton on treadle looms (also known as foot looms), which the Spaniards brought with them. Among the first products developed expressly for an outside market were tapetes (rugs), and in more recent years Teotitlán has become internationally famous for them. Today, the sale of textiles and other artesanal goods are the main source of income for the community.
Ancestral traditions involving natural dye processes and weaving have been passed down for centuries in Teotitlán. Each textile expresses a unique part of Zapotec culture through its colors and patterns–precolonial representations of the natural world and the cycles of life–but many people have also begun to weave modern designs. In this image, a small tapete [tapestry] is in progress on a treadle loom, in the Gutierrez family home. The pattern is a traditional Zapotec design which represents a butterfly.
During the colonial era, only men were trained to use the giant foot looms. European gender roles and stereotypes infiltrated the indigenous communities of the Americas, and women were excluded from industry and education. Many women continued to weave using traditional backstrap looms (connected to the waist), and eventually began to weave on the treadle looms. Both weaving processes coexist to this day, but most people use the larger Spanish looms.
Despite the numerous contributions women make in traditional communities in Mexico, they do not always hold an equal position of respect and recognition (as well as most places in our world). In Teotitlán, men are often seen as more important, and therefore hold power over the lives of their wives and children. Too many women have become victims of domestic and gender violence, specifically given the prevalence of alcoholism in the town, and other indigenous communities in Mexico (*during the colonial era, alcohol was used as a tool to subjugate native communities–NOTE******). Single women, specifically, who don't have a man to “control” and "protect" them, are often the most vulnerable, largely left out of political, economic, and social activities, with limited opportunities to support themselves and their families. These patriarchal beliefs and customs are changing in communities where there is more access to education (*as well as with the increasing population of those who have migrated to other parts of the country or world and then returned to the community****). However, an increasing number of women are left behind by their husbands and eldest sons who migrate to in search of work. Devastatingly, some people die crossing the border into the United states, or never make enough money to send home what their families need to survive. Some men leave their families behind completely. Across Mexico there is a great need for economic opportunities for rural communities in general, but the need for opportunities for women is becoming increasingly clear.
Do not blind yourself with alcohol, open your eyes to life. – Say NO to violence.
To address this need for economic opportunity and social agency, a group of single women in Teotitlán formed a weaving cooperative, which they called Vida Nueva (New Life, ***DATE***). They began by exploring their ideas secretly while making tortillas and cooking together at local celebrations, and then in the family home of Pastora Gutierrez Reyes, one of the original co-founders and leaders of the cooperative to this day. The women faced many challenges, both within their community from men and those who were disapproving, ***In a traditional community, where collective interests come before the interests of any individual, change is welcome only when it benefits the whole community.*** and from the bureaucracy of government agencies meant (in theory) to support organizations like theirs. Most of the women had very little education, spoke primarily Zapotec–not Spanish–and were unaccustomed to leaving their village.
View of Oaxaca de Juárez, the colonial capital of the state of Oaxaca, from Lomas de San Jacinto ***CHECK NOTEBOOKS*** .
Eventually, they found their way to a nonprofit organization based in Oaxaca City called ***NAME*** that helps women achieve economic and social equality. For the next eight years, the organization held workshops designed to empower the women to respect and support themselves in ways they never had before. The first few years were focused on reproductive health, concepts of self-esteem and confidence, and domestic abuse. Many of the women already had children, even grandchildren, but many of them didn't fully understand the way their own bodies worked, and learning that the ways many of their husbands treated them was abusive and unacceptable was an important revelation. The organization gave them chickens and pigs, and taught them how to care for the animals. They had no money, but for the first time in their lives they felt rich having meat and eggs to eat, and being able to barter for other goods in the village market.
The content of these workshops began to move toward business management, and the women learned how they could make tapetes (rugs, one of the main market items of the village) and sell them from their homes instead of through dealers and markets. Eventually the collective decided to display their work together, promoted equally and sold directly to buyers, cutting out the middle-men that have traditionally profited the most off the community's craftmanship. At Vida Nueva, the sale of each piece goes directly to the weaver, who then contributes a percentage of her profits to the cooperative’s shared fund, depending on how much she is able to spare. Some women are able to give more (and do), while other women contribute less and use their shares to send their children to school or use the money for other life expenses. ***OTHER COOPERATIVES – BII DAUU***
A mural painted on the wall inside the Gutierrez-Reyes family home, where the women
of Vida Nueva continue to gather for their meetings.
The women in the original cooperative began to realize that they had the power and authority to make a difference, not just in their own lives but also in their community. Every year, using the cooperative’s shared fund, the women organize educational workshops about issues in the community such as domestic violence, alcoholism, and environmental contamination, and develop an annual project that benefits the community in various ways. Among these are a large reforestation project in which even local government (an ancient system of social organization and responsibility) participated, the implementation of recycling bins around the town to decrease contamination of the land and nearby river, building ecological stoves that substantially decrease women’s inhalation of smoke while cooking, and bringing gift baskets to the elder women whose children have migrated on Mother’s Day.
Vida Nueva has spread awareness of issues within the community, created important changes and empowering other women to create a more respected position in the community for themselves using the traditional crafts and knowledge passed down to them from their ancestors. Significantly, Pastora was offered an official position in the village assembly as the first woman to serve in Teotitlán’s traditional local government– a formal recognition of the benefits the work of the cooperative has brought to the community as a whole. This small group of women, formed out of desperation and need, through their recognition of the ever-changing nature of culture and society–that culture is something to be practiced and shaped, not a passive force that will (or should) survive untended–have made a new life for themselves, and continue to transform their community along the way.
Cochinilla, a parasitic insect found primarily on the maguey plant, used to create natural dyes of deep red and purple. ***cochinilla process***
Pastora, demonstrating the use of her foot loom. Weaving on these looms is a tiring but rewarding workout for the legs, back, and arms.
The ancient church of Teotitlán del Valle, through the growing ahuehuetes [Montezuma cypress trees]. April 2018
For thousands of years, this mountain has been of great spiritual importance to the native people of the central Oaxacan valleys and surrounding mountains. ***meaning of "Teotitlan" in Zapotec - "at the base of the mountain"???*** Today, it is a reminder of the wisdom and presence of the ancestral past.
Stephen, Lynn. Zapotec Women: Gender, Class, and Ethnicity in Globalized Oaxaca, 2005, Second Edition. Duke University Press, Durham, NC.
Bacon, David. The Right to Stay Home: How U.S. Policy Drives Mexican Migration, 2013. Beacon Press, Boston, MA.
Documentary Photography in the Face of the (American) Capitalist Hydra with professor Peter Bohmer, The Evergreen State College, Olympia, WA, January through June 2020
Alternatives and Resistance to Global Capitalism: Mexico, U.S. and beyond study abroad in Oaxaca and Chiapas, Mexico with professors Peter Bohmer and María Isabel Morales, The Evergreen State College, Olympia, WA, April through June 2018