Vida Nueva | Women's Weaving Cooperative
Creating Economic Opportunities for Women through Tradition & Community
Teotitlán del Valle, Oaxaca
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 indigenous 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. Their 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. In this image, a small tapete is in progress on a treadle loom, in the Gutierrez family home. The pattern is a traditional Zapotec design.
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.
Despite the numerous contributions women make in traditional communities, they do not hold an equal position of respect and recognition. Men are often seen as more important, and therefore hold power over the lives of their wives and children, making them all-too-often the victims of domestic and gender violence, specifically with the prevalence of alcoholism. 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. In communities where there is more access to education, these patriarchal beliefs and customs are changing. However, an increasing number of women are left behind by their husbands and eldest sons who migrate to the United States in search of work. Many of them die crossing the border, find a new life in the U.S., or never make enough money to send home what their families need to survive. There is a great need for economic opportunities for rural communities across Mexico, but the need for female independence 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). 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, 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.
Eventually, they found their way to a nonprofit organization based in Oaxaca City 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 their own bodies were still a mystery, and understanding that suffering violence and misogyny wasn’t just a part of a “normal” woman’s home life 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 workshops began to transform 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. The women decided to display their work together, promoted equally and sold directly to customers. The sale of each piece goes 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 have children to send to school or other life expenses and contribute less.
A mural painted on the wall inside the Gutierrez-Reyes family home, where the women
continue to gather for their meetings.
The women began to realize that they had 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 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.
In a traditional community, where collective interests come before the interests of any individual, change is welcome only when it benefits the whole community. The Vida Nueva Cooperative 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 poverty and desperation, 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.
Pastora, demonstrating the use of her foot loom. Weaving on these looms is a tiring workout for the legs, back, and arms.
The ancient church of Teotitlán del Valle, through the growing ahuehuetes [Montezuma cypress trees].
For thousands of years, this mountain has been of great spiritual importance to the native people of the central Oaxacan valleys and surrounding mountains. Today, it is a reminder of the wisdom and presence of the ancestral past.
This project was completed as part of an independent learning contract with The Evergreen State College, titled Documentary Photography in the Face of the (American) Capitalist Hydra. The program is a follow-up of an earlier study abroad in Oaxaca and Chiapas, titled Alternatives & Resistance to Global Capitalism, with professors Peter Bohmer and María Isabel Morales.