Four years ago Margarita Mendoza García and her two daughters would weave beautiful tapetes, or wool rugs, using chemical dyes. The practice of using chemical dyes was all that Margarita had ever known. She said the knowledge of her predecessors; of the seeds, fruits, flowers and leaves that grow wild in the mountains that buffer Teotítlan to the North, had been all but lost.
The Zapotecs, who inhabited the town of Teotitlán del Valle since 1465, have always had a strong tradition of weaving. Using plant fibers tinted with plant dyes and back-strap looms they would weave the beautiful geometric patterns that can be found at the Zapotec ruins of Mitla. From the onset of the Spanish conquest, the Zapotecs adopted the practice of weaving with sheep’s wool using large looms, but still to this day can be found weaving the same sacred designs of their ancestors.
However, in the 1980’s a shift happened, largely due to increased tourism, which raised demand for tapetes, as well as the arrival of synthetic dyes. Many weavers began using the chemical tints, which are cheaper and much less labor intensive, in place of traditional plant dyes.
Margarita explained to a tour group that had a chance to visit her in her home that when she was growing up her parents still used the natural plant dyes. But they only knew of a few plants, such as pericón, a wild aster flower, which produces light yellows or greens, or walnuts shells and pomegranates rinds, which, if left to soak will produce varying tones of brown. The results of the tapetes that her parents made from these wild-harvested plants were muted, natural tones of browns and greens. She thought that chemical dyes were the only way to achieve bright colors.
But that is only because the knowledge of the plants had been lost, Margarita explained to us. Four years ago the trajectory of her work, and her life’s purpose shifted dramatically when she was invited to join a cooperative that was starting in Teotítlan. The Bii Dauu Zapotec Textile Arts Center is a cooperative made up of six families who have dedicated themselves to preserving the knowledge of natural dyes. Together they share knowledge, land and a vision to “create consciousness and commitment in the resuscitation and usage of natural organic dyes in textile arts production.”
Since joining the cooperative in 2008, Margarita and her two daughters only use natural dyes in the creation of their tapetes. Aster flowers, marigolds, nuts, zapote fruit, pomegranate rinds, rock moss and seed pods are all wild-harvested in the hills around the town. There are two natural dyes that must often be purchased. One is the cochineal bug, which grows a specific type of nopal cactus and produces a bright red. The other is indigo, which is a petrified plant substance that comes from a hotter region of Oaxaca state, and produces blues. With these natural dyes, and the right technique, any brilliant color can be recreated in a tapete.
“The generosity of nature showed us how to get brighter colors,” Margarita said.
However, with her newfound close attention to the plants that have always been harvested in the foothills of the Sierra Norte, Margarita recognized that the plants were harder to find, and as she put it, in danger of going extinct. Her new passion, and a main purpose of the Bii Dauu cooperative, is to cultivate for the first time ever these useful and rare plants that were so important to their forefathers.
Now behind her home, Margarita has created several garden beds, which she amends with homemade compost. She went into the hills and collected seeds, including those from a very special plant called marush, which Margarita says only grows in this small valley and has never warranted a name in Spanish, let alone English.
Though many of the seeds didn’t take as they weren’t used to being cultivated, Margarita has coaxed and cared for about five marush plants, as well as small bunches of pericón. She even has a large nopal cactus, which she plans on inoculating with the valuable cochineal bug.
In addition to remembering almost lost plant wisdom, the use of natural dyes is important for the health of her family and the earth, Margarita explained. The chemical dyes were harmful to she and her family’s health and the dyes that were poured onto the earth in such large quantities soured the land for plants and contaminated water sources.
It seems that the resuscitation of these natural plant dyes preserves aculture and promises better health for future generations on the land in which the Zapotecs have lived for centuries.
By Hannah Aronowitz