Words and photographs by Ehren Seeland
A tangled mass of trumpet music infiltrates our Thursday afternoon, rhythm moving in tune with the clack-clack of the enormous standing foot pedal looms that line the workspace of Familia Lazo Mendoza. In the courtyard of the family compound, sweeping views of Teotitlan del Valle survey the scene as cochineal bugs are crushed into the palm of a Fundación En Vía tour participant. Once her ivory hand is stained crimson, citrus juice is added to convert red to orange, with a further transformation moving from orange to purple, given a pinch of baking soda. Dazzled by this artisanal science project, the group moves in closer as Angela, a participant in the interest-free microloan program with Fundación En Vía, explains the process in detail with the help of Kim, our skilled translator for the day.
Angela, who wears her curly salt and pepper hair in two soft braids behind her ears, adjusts her embroidered blouse, tucking the edges into a fuchsia sash around her waist. Kneeling over a basket, she expertly cards a handful of wool, which she then twists between her fingers into a long string that she carries over to the wooden spinning wheel. She extends the string as an invitation for a tour participant to attempt to spin the wool onto a spool – a feat that seems simple until you actually try doing it yourself. She and the participant both laugh as the string breaks for a third time. Nothing a bit of practice won’t remedy, she notes.
Angela is a part of the #30 borrowing group in Teotitlan, along with two other local members, Belen and Maricela. The women are currently on their 6th interest-free loan, and with this, they are able to purchase wool, plants and insects for the fabrication of natural dyes, along with other raw materials used to make rugs (tapetes), bracelets, bags and hand-woven shawls.
Piles of natural-colored stoles are stacked on a bench, waiting for the final alteration to the ends that move this mass of fibers to an intricate arrangement of artfully rendered knots. In total, these shawls take a full week to complete, from start to finish. The final products can be found at the Xochimilco market in the courtyard of the Xochimilco church in Oaxaca, as well as from the family compound in Teotitlan, and by special order direct from the family. Every Friday and Saturday, Angela leaves her house at 5am in order to be present at the market from 7am to 3pm – an event that offers everything from organic produce to an enticing assortment of local delicacies.
Angela was initially hesitant to join the microloan program, as she was worried that the repayment process would prove to be too challenging. With the encouragement of one of the founders, Angela finally decided to take part in the process once her daughter-in-law also agreed to join. To date, their group has never missed a payment, and the interest-free microloans have allowed them to both diversify and grow the family business.
This expansion has also seen the inclusion of special orders from international clients, as evidenced in the ongoing work on a massive black and white tapete that is currently being woven on the largest loom in the workshop. With hands and feet moving in tune with tinny trumpet music, one of the artisans flashes a smile our way as he moves delicate merino wool across the strings of the loom.
Our crimson-handed tour participant continues to wipe cochineal from her palm with a wet paper towel as we shuffle our feet forward to the ongoing clack-clack of the loom. The feet of the artisan bob up and down as fibers are interlaced, soon to be complete, moving this piece from the music-filled workshop to a new home in New York City. With this, we bear witness to the act of transformation in another sense, as the magic of the weaving community of Teotitlan del Valle will soon infiltrate the infamous city that never sleeps.