Dream Weavers

In the Mexican village of Teotitlán, gifted artisans create a future from bright hand-loomed rugs


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Understandably, wealth and worldliness have brought tensions. The long-standing divisions between rich and poor have grown more striking. The wealthier weavers’ large houses line a newly paved asphalt road leading to the Pan-American Highway (all the easier for tourists to find); the poor live on the fringes. “It has become a more segregated town,” says anthropologist Lynn Stephen.

While the Zapotec language remains strong, many adults lament the growing trend for children to speak Spanish. “Kids are watching too much TV,” says Reynaldo Sosa, the town’s vice president, sounding a familiar refrain. Even the very rhythm of work has changed in some homes. When everyone farmed, sunset signaled the end of work. After electricity arrived in 1965, the ubiquitous bare light bulb, hanging from a single electrical cord, allowed weaving late into the night, increasing profits as it reduced leisure time. With the encroachment of modernity, even AIDS has reached the OaxacaValley.

Still, Teotitecos seem to approach the future, whether it brings earthquakes or peso devaluations, with the collective knowledge that they will adapt and survive. Ask a weaver what would happen if the world quietly decided Zapotec rugs had outlived their hipness? “We would find other things to do,” says Sergio Martínez. Then he adds: “I don’t think people will stop buying rugs—maybe just a certain style.”

Beneath portraits of 21 uniformly unsmiling town presidents, dating back to 1919, Reynaldo Sosa allowed that a rug recession would not be good. “That’s why we are trying to prepare our children to be professionals,” he said, citing the need for more doctors and a high school. “After September 11, rug sales went really down, and we worried. But now things are better.”

That’s about as close as anyone here gets to panic. Much of this inner calm about unseen economic forces may result from the fact that Teotitecos for the most part try to avoid debt. “Our homes are paid for and we can grow our food,” one elder told me. “Can you say that in the States?”

Will Teotitlán’s young people stay committed to weaving or do they feel chained to the loom and yearn to abandon small-town life? Some smile at such questions and admit that having everyone in town knowing who you’re dating, or who you want to date, is a bit suffocating. But most of those I talked to assured me that they see weaving not just as a family duty or a traditional obligation, but as a cherished part of their identity. Like water to dolphins.

“There are kids in Teotitlán now who want to be lawyers, doctors and engineers,” said Pantaleón Ruiz, 29, a weaver who has his own Web site and organizes exhibitions in the United States. “I think that’s great. I took broadcast classes and worked at a radio station in San Francisco, but one day I realized art was my life. I went back home to Teotitlán.”


I still remember my first day in Teotitlán nearly 20 years ago, when a young struggling couple with three small kids accepted my $250 personal check for a rust-colored 6-by-9-foot rug—then, when I missed the last bus back to OaxacaCity, invited me to stay with them overnight. It was on that first visit with Alberto and Ana Gutiérrez that I met Alberto’s then teenage sister María Isabel.


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