Indigenous Culture

Sourcing Artisan Treasures in the Central Valley of Oaxaca

Mica Miro, Responsible Tourism Program Manager for Fundacion En Via, looks on as a textile artisan explains her process.
Mica Miro, Responsible Tourism Program Manager for En Via, learns about the weaving process.

Words and photographs by Ehren Seeland

The state of Oaxaca regularly serves as a target destination for leagues of visitors, given the temperate climate, enticing cuisine and rich cultural diversity. While these aspects are sufficient in stirring up a siren call to yearning travel hearts, it is the work of local artisans that are the true daughters of the river god.

Given the supreme quality of the locally made textiles, ceramics and woodwork, it is no mystery why scores of inquisitive souls voyage to the state as a sort of creative pilgrimage. Throughout the year, there are hundreds of artist retreats, weaving workshops, informative lectures and vivacious gallery openings, which are often served with a side of mezcal and intimate conversation. There is also no shortage of local shops to leave one feeling like a pirate explorer – hands raised victoriously around a magical bounty of handmade plunder. That aside, the crown jewel is having the option to expand from these impressive shops in order to connect with the local artisans directly.

Irresistible ceramic duck salsa dishes guard green glazed water pitchers.
Irresistible ceramic duck salsa dishes guard green glazed water pitchers.

The Oaxaca valley is composed of a series of pueblos (towns) that generally maintain their specific concentrations in this respect, and have done so through an extensive selection of markets that have been in place since pre-Hispanic times. Teotitlan del Valle, for example, is famous for their wool rugs, while Santa María Atzompa maintains notoriety for original ceramic pieces, particularly utilitarian works that are coated with a recognizable green glaze. A continuing weekly series of markets allow for public spaces in which people can search for treasure. The towns are keen to welcome visitors into the folds of their creative history, along with their family homes and workshops.

In a modern world where the production of mass-produced, disposable fashion has exploded, there is also a growing movement of conscious consumers who are actively pushing for more transparency in supply chains. With this concentration comes the acknowledgement that there is a human price to pay for cheap consumer goods, along with a real desire to connect with the makers of artisan products in order to glean the stories and knowledge that have been passed down through generations. What simply looks like a table runner today, may eventually read as a testament to personal history and dedication to craft, once these personal connections are made. These purchases also speak to a focus on quality and simplified spending that harkens back to the time of grandparents, when people owned a small but well-curated selection of quality pieces that were rooted in classic versatility and durability.

A spinning wheel is arranged with colored wool and a selection of handmade tapetes.
A spinning wheel is arranged with colored wool and a selection of handmade tapetes.

Textiles
Teotitlan del Valle
Before the arrival of the Spanish, this pueblo mainly worked with fibrous materials on backstrap looms. With the Spanish, came standing foot pedal looms and the introduction of wool, which now acts as the heart of this community. While there are blankets and rebozos on offer, this locale is most widely regarded for their tapetes (rugs), which often incorporate natural dyes and both traditional and modern designs.

A brightly colored textile piece waits as an artisan takes a short break to stretch her legs.
A brightly colored textile piece waits as an artisan takes a short break to stretch her legs.

Santo Tomás Jalieza
The main attraction of this town is the tiny market that sits directly across from the local church. Table runners, placemats, bags and delicate ribbon are produced by the local women on backstrap looms via a process that you can witness in person near the market stalls. This community is assembled into a collective of roughly 40 families, which means that they are able to produce custom orders at an expedited pace, while also honoring the intensive labor that goes into these works by ensuring fair pricing through a democratic process that sees the same prices across the board. The women will not barter with you, as they know what their time is worth – and I respect that.

San Antonino Castillo Velasco
Famed for their magnificent embroidered wedding dresses and textile pieces, this pueblo is the queen of embroidery. Hand rendered flowers and birds burst forward from a hothouse of colored thread and cotton – your own personal textile garden. If you know someone with a little girl, there is nothing sweeter than the elfin frocks on display.

San Miguel del Valle
A unique identifying factor of this pueblo is that the women are dressed in brightly colored dresses with puffed sleeves, lace collars, with heavily embroidered aprons. Given this traditional dress, sewing and embroidery both play large roles in the products that are on offer, with the fancy aprons being the star attraction.

Pottery
Ocotlán de Morelos
From red-painted bowls with white floral slips, to celebrated hand-built painted figures that depict whimsical scenes from local tradition, this pueblo has long been celebrated for their ceramic work. Friday morning serves as their giant local market and is not to be missed.

San Bartolo Coyotepec
If you have had the pleasure of moving your hands across the shiny black finish of a piece of barro negro, you will understand the appeal. This community has been making pottery for over 2,000 years, and while is it beautiful, it is very porous, so is generally largely decorative.

San Marcos Tlapazola
These ubiquitous pieces can be found everywhere from the tables of fine dining city bistros, to chipped comals that casually offer up cheesy quesadillas and other local delights. Much like the bulk of the pottery in the region, this work is produced by women, who use earth from their local fields that is formed by hand and pit-fired for a rustic-looking finish. While also porous, this can be remedied with this particular type of pottery by pouring in hot atole and boiling it stovetop for roughly 15 minutes. This process helps to seal the vessel, preventing future leaks and extreme changes in color after this hot corn drink has been cleaned from the inside of the surface.

Hand formed and painted ceramic skulls pay tribute to the Dia de los Muertos tradition.
Hand formed and painted ceramic skulls pay tribute to the Dia de los Muertos tradition.

Santa María Atzompa
Founded between the 7th and 9th century, this pueblo has always been known for pottery work that is both decorative and utilitarian. Detailed clay figures of María de la Soledad can be found, along with an array of adorable appetizer trays, plus cooking pots and water pitchers with an emerald green glaze.

These examples exist as some of the classic artisan wares in the region, however there is more to uncover, including hand carved and painted wooden figures known as alebrijes, complex handmade baskets, along with sophisticated metalwork. Taking the time to inquire around the stories that have led to these magnificent works, and allowing yourself the opportunity to let the hands and hearts of those who have brought them to life into your own world, will surely invoke the siren call. When your body is encased in these magical melodies, don’t fight it. There are worse places to be shipwrecked than the beautiful state of Oaxaca – I assure you.

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