By Jen Stillwell
As I sit here on this flight from Mexico City back to Los Angeles, I feel as though I am finally able to start gathering my thoughts on my time in Oaxaca, and the program that Fundación En Vía and I designed and implemented. My overall feeling is gratitude. My takeaway can be summed up in that simple and powerful word. My little world I’ve built around myself will never be the same, and I am just enormously thankful…and grateful.
While I was visiting the various villages in Oaxaca, I just kept coming back to this observation: The textiles of the area were so beautiful, but the attempts to make handbags or small accessories were falling a bit short. There was no lack of inspiration or inspired design in the area – that to me was extremely evident in the “tapetes” that the women were weaving. The colors are so rich, the zapotec designs so beautiful and filled with meaning, the process of the natural dyeing so pure; I was truly taken by the products they were creating. That was not the issue. The issue was more that I saw a lack of variety in design.
This next part of my trip back in March is where I think fate intervened. When I told my studio mate in LA that I would be traveling to Oaxaca, she mentioned to me that she had a good friend who worked at a microfinance company in the area. Fundación En Vía seemed so unique to me in the sense that it blended tourism with microfinance. It also seemed like a great way to get to know the area and meet local women entrepreneurs in the process! I met with Mica, the program director and she invited me to one of the En Vía tours, and I jumped at the offer.
Before the tour, and after picking Mica’s brain, I had had the idea that maybe there was some way I could design some sort of short course that taught the basics of leather working and also handbag development. I wanted to take the tour and see if this made any sense. I wanted to get more of a sense of the current bag styles, the women behind the products, the limitations of the area, the accessibility of the raw materials, etc. The tour was eye-opening. I found the women I met to be hungry for new ideas, funny, warm, and empowered. These were women, I sensed, that were business savvy, wanted to evolve their designs, and were brimming with creative ideas. After the tour, I was excited to try to hatch this program and after a super productive meeting, the wheels were in motion.
I won’t bore you with the details of what the next couple months looked like. Me, back in LA, Yanet in Oaxaca- the two of us emailing back and forth about leather logistics, details on things like metal zippers versus non-metal zippers. How could we get access to sewing machines? How is leather measured in Mexico? The questions and the details were endless. Yanet informed me that we had 60 artisans in 3 different villages signed up. I thought maybe we would have like 15 max, 60 seemed so enormous to me. I felt the weight of personal responsibility pushing down on me, but I forged ahead. We both did. En Vía did such an amazing job with the logistics. Figuring out where each class would be held; breaking up the classes into smaller groups; making sure all the women got check lists of tools and materials they would need for the class. And then it was time for me to board the plane with my leather hand tools and head back to Oaxaca.
A whole month in Oaxaca, and three weeks of it was spent teaching a series of 2-day workshops to all the women who signed up for the classes.
The women are beautiful. They are smart, they are intuitive, they are creative, they are fast-learners. They are grateful for the knowledge I brought; they are grateful for the new techniques I taught them; they are grateful for the fact that I showed them how to work leather. Whatever level of gratitude they are at, if it’s a scale of 1-10, 10 being most grateful- if they are a 10, I am a 200 level towards them. I never got into this thinking I was going to be some sort of superhero with bragging rights about how I “helped” all these women. I did this because I have all this knowledge that needs to be passed on. I did this because I had the time and the energy and because I’ve always felt in my bones that I am meant to help people – it’s where I shine the brightest. I did this because I learned my craft from artisans that took the time to teach me. My first leather teacher has since passed away since I did my apprenticeship with him, but I will never forget a conversation we had about this very idea, and a promise I made to him that one day, when I felt like I was finally good at leather, that I would pass on the knowledge.
The classes were challenging. We were trying to fit a lot of information into a short period of time. They asked me so many questions. I attempted to answer them the best way I could. The women realized their strengths and weaknesses in terms of handbag construction and leather working. Some realized they were really good at hand stitching, some not so much. Some realized they were really good at cutting leather, others not so much. This was OK, I told them. No one is going to perfect at everything, recognize what you do best, and where there is room for improvement. I was amazed how quickly they were able to pick up the concepts we were discussing.
On my last day in San Miguel Del Valle, as I ran down the street to catch my bus, I heard my name being called and realized that I was being chased down the street by one of my students. She was waving a tapete in the air that she was trying to give me. I quickly doubled back and grabbed it, she was insistent. I barely made it to the bus, and as I waved out the back window at her, I saw all of my students in the street waving back at me. I choked up but held back the tears because I didn’t want to embarrass myself on the public bus. On my last day in Teotitlan Del Valle, the women didn’t want to leave. We all went and took a group shot together with all the bags. I just paused briefly and looked at that picture on my phone while writing this, and I am truly struck by the great look of pride on the faces of these women. Pride in their craft, in their work, in all the bags we made. They are so proud, and there I am in the middle of the photo, absolutely beaming. Tired, but beaming. I’ve never hugged so many people in one day as I did that day. Another woman gave me a tapete. And then another woman gave me a tapete. and now I have so many and I’m so honored.
I tend to be a bit cynical in my day-to-day, ex-NYer life. That’s just the way I am 75% of the time. I am the daughter of a ship captain and a life-hardened South American mother. There is however this other part of me that is open to magic and to the idea that people/places/things can come into your life and change you. Albert Einstein said: “The mind that opens to a new idea never returns to it’s original size”. I went to Oaxaca to expand some minds, and what ended up happening was a mutual expansion. An expansion for which I will be eternally grateful.
Thank you to all the people at En Vía for letting this program take flight and encouraging me to do it. Thank you to Oaxaca for being such a beautiful, inspiring place for craft. Most importantly, thank you to the women weavers who allowed me into their lives and made me feel appreciated for my own craft.
The question I was asked by nearly everyone as I was leaving was: “so, when are you coming back?” I didn’t know how to answer at the time because that was not part of my plan. But now, as I write this, I think I can say: “Very soon, Oaxaca. See you soon”