Choirs of roosters and burros salute each sunrise in the pre-Columbian village of Teotitlán del Valle (pop. 6,000), nearly a mile high in the Sierra Juárez foothills a couple of miles off a rutted section of the Pan-American Highway east of OaxacaCity. Tall cactus fences separate oxen-tilled plots of corn and black beans. Short, broad grandmothers speaking only Zapotec, the native language of this region, their wide bronze faces creased like pecans, dutifully grind corn for tortillas and march their pigs to market . . . . . .
Past the stylish Zapotec restaurant that garnered enthusiastic reviews in the New York Times and Saveur magazine, past the new two-story brick houses that harbor shiny $30,000 pickup trucks and satellite dishes—most likely paid for in cash—past the Zapotec families with their own Web sites, and that new bed-and-breakfast yoga retreat up the hill. This display of wealth, while common in larger Latin American cities, is still startlingly rare in its Indian villages. That such prosperity exists in one of Mexico’s poorest states, a mountainous region consumed by profound poverty, is all the more surprising.
Too often prosperity of this kind has come only illicitly, say, with the harvesting of coca in Peru or the rise of narcotraficantes in Colombia. But that is not the case in Teotitlán. Anthropologists and importers alike agree that this tiny Third World jewel boasts one of the highest standards of living of any indigenous village in our hemisphere, perhaps the world—not because of drugs, but, remarkably enough, rugs.
Not only do Teotitlán weavers earn more than many white-collar professionals in Oaxaca City, a vibrant art mecca with more than a half-million people 20 miles away, but they, and the revenue they bring in, have elevated the village in countless ways. In families where the parents never got beyond the sixth grade—and many women were discouraged from attending school at all—children now routinely attend colleges such as the University del Mar and the National Institute of Fine Arts and Literature. The town has built roads, schools, a new city market, a drainage system and a clinic, which has three doctors. (Residents want two more.) Even more impressive, many women have gained economic independence and social confidence—ultimately helping to reduce teenage marriages and domestic violence.
“Teotitlán is a folk art miracle,” says Barbara Mauldin, curator of the Latin American collection at the Museum of International Folk Art in Santa Fe, New Mexico. “They have a great product, but it’s all about the people—their artistic talent, perseverance, marketing savvy, plus the good fortune of being located near a major tourist market in one of the most beautiful valleys in Latin America.”
You’ve probably seen the source of Teotitlán’s success— the Zapotec wool rug—even if you didn’t recognize it as such. Sometimes called Oaxacan rugs, or confused with Navajo varieties, they range in size from about 2-by-3-feet to 8-by-10 and cost anywhere from $25 to $500. (Elegant, naturally dyed pieces from the most famous weavers can cost several thousand dollars.) Over the past two decades, Zapotec rugs have shown up in thousands of living rooms across the world—on walls as well as floors—and in folk art boutiques and galleries from Oslo to Osaka.
Since the early 1970s, when I saw my first Zapotec rug, sold from a rusted Volkswagen van on a San Diego beach, the humble weavings have evolved from unpretentious tourist souvenirs into wildly popular “Santa Fe-style” fashion accessories and, more recently, folk art masterpieces. Some years ago they achieved a pinnacle of rug fame—Pakistani factories began churning out Zapotec knockoffs.
Still, Zapotec rugs would likely have gone the way of Nehru jackets were it not for buyers who sensed that the rugs transcended mere souvenir culture. Thousands of tourists from such creative hotbeds as Seattle, Toronto and Austin connected with the weavers, creating a buzz that eventually would bring a half-million tourists to Oaxaca state each year. Travelers who came to Teotitlán for an hour often found themselves spending entire days in weavers’ homes, taking photographs, exchanging addresses and bargaining into the night.
What was a mom and pop cottage industry 30 years ago—based on a centuries-old, pre-Spanish weaving tradition— has turned into a multimillion-dollar phenomenon involving a couple of hundred families and multinational importers. Today the enterprise is fueled by gallery exhibitions, coffee-table art books, TV documentaries, countless travel articles and, of course, the Internet. Farming families who once produced a few 5-by-7-foot rugs each month on the side now employ 10 to 15 weavers to meet the demands of American importers who order several thousand rugs each year.
Scott Roth, an importer from California who travels to the village so often he has his own room in one family’s home, made his first trip to Teotitlán in 1974. In those days, he says, “about 90 percent of the homes were adobe and 10 percent were brick. Now that’s reversed. They’ve had electricity since 1965, but there were very few TVs. No paved roads. There was only one car in town, a ’58 Ford Edsel. Now maybe 90 percent have TV; about half have refrigerators.” A commercial Teotit-lán weaver might make $15 a day, compared with the $10 a day a OaxacaCity police officer earns or the $8 a day paid to a teacher. (The minimum daily wage is $4.) “The wealthiest families have maybe $10,000 to $20,000 in cash savings, most often used to make improvements to their homes,” says Roth. “I’ve yet to see anyone who hasn’t made a sound economic investment.”