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Dream Weavers

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

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All this in a state where the per capita annual income is just over $1,000, and even lower among the state’s 18 indigenous groups, including Huaves, Zoques, Popolacas and Zapotecs. Twenty-seven percent of Oaxacans cannot read or write, but among the state’s Indians the rate climbs to 42 percent for those over 14 years of age. While Teotitlán is hardly free of poverty, the village shimmers like a Vegas casino compared with nearby settlements that barely have electricity, plumbing, roads, schools or clinics.

Picture a high sierra village, set against a backdrop of cornfields and marigold plots and framed by serrated Aztec mountains, where the air is thin and clean and warm, and weaving families still welcome strangers with smiling faces and homemade soup. In a typical weaving home, a nondescript, corrugated metal front door—one learns not to judge books by their covers here—leads to a sunny inner courtyard, perhaps shaded by a lime tree, climbing jasmine or pink bougainvillea, and a room with a Virgin of Guadalupe shrine at one end and stacks of folded rugs at the other. Amid the seductive fragrance of lanolin in pre-washed fresh wool, a child may greet you at the door, but an older sister or aunt stands ready to talk if you’re a serious buyer. The man of the house smiles and continues clacking away on a heavy loom (with notable exceptions, men still do most of the weaving and design work; women usually perform all domestic chores, cook and help prepare the wool).

Handshakes are gentle. In conversation, Teotitecos wait for you to finish; interruptions and aggressive behavior are considered rude. Over many visits I’ve yet to witness an adult scream at or hit a child. “The kids have great role models in their parents,” observes Roth. “I’m convinced their healthy upbringing is one reason why they’re so artistic.” When kids aren’t playing or in school, they’re likely carding or cleaning wool, preparing to move up to dyeing, spinning or, ultimately, weaving.

Elena Gonzalez, the 36-year-old daughter of Januario Gonzalez, a respected weaver, says that her “very traditional” mother, who was never taught how to weave, is aghast that Elena cooks with an electric stove and uses a blender to make the cornmeal paste for tortillas, rather than grinding it in a basaltic metate, as women have for centuries. Even so, the two of them happily coexist in the kitchen.

In 2,000 years, the village has survived natural disasters, the industrial age—and that unpleasantness in the 1500s. Five hundred years ago, when Spaniards enslaved the Zapotecs, confiscated vast valleys and mountain ranges, and exposed millions of Indians to smallpox and other diseases, the resourceful Teotitecos were allowed to keep their land. That privilege may have been granted because they demonstrated a willingness to adapt to European culture.

The Spanish recognized the Teotitecos’ splendid weaving skills, and in an irony, considering the misery they otherwise brought to the Zapotecs, introduced churra sheep and the upright European-style loom, which have helped sustain Teotitlán ever since. By the 1600s disease claimed as many as three or four Teotitecos a day—reducing the region’s Zapotec population from 350,000 to 45,000. Yet somehow Teotitlán survived.

Teotitlán’s rug trade remained fairly modest until the mid- 1980s, when American consumers developed a fascination with all things Southwestern. Joe Carr, author with Karen Witynski of six books on Mexican design, claims that Ralph Lauren and his Santa Fe-style Polo ads spurred the craze. “When I lived in Santa Fe,” says Carr, now a resident of Austin, Texas, “I sold Ralph Lauren some of his very first Navajo blankets, around 1978 or ’79—four or five really expensive, classic blankets like you’d see in his ads. He grabbed hold of this [Southwest] design thing.” Then collectors from New York and Chicago began showing up in Santa Fe and Aspen looking for Navajo antiques. Eventually, Carr says, several buyers realized that a vintage Navajo rug, which might cost $25,000, could be reproduced in Teotitlán for less than $500. “From across the room,” Carr adds, “most consumers couldn’t tell them apart. The Teotitlán rugs were perfect as decorative pieces.”

Before long, living rooms in Minneapolis and Kansas City were looking like tepees. Teotitlán weavers rode the wave, whipping out thousands of Navajo designs, often altering their own traditional (and naturally dyed) browns, grays and indigos to appease America’s Southwestern design police, who decreed pink, teal and sky blue the acceptable colors of the day.

But some weavers rejected pastels, Navajo knockoffs and the easy geometric clichés they could weave with their eyes closed, and began creating designs inspired by the works of modern artists like Picasso, Miró and M.C. Escher. One innovator, Sergio Martínez, introduced bold russet, black and gold rugs, inspired by fabrics from Ghana and Nigeria. “It shocked some of the other weavers,” Martínez said one afternoon, as his son cruised past on Rollerblades. “Change does not always come easy here.”

Another artisan, Arnulfo Mendoza, who studied weaving in France and Japan, pioneered elaborate silk, cotton and wool designs that sell in his OaxacaCity gallery for more than $5,000. “Now I have people knocking-off my designs all over the state,” says Mendoza, whose rugs have been exhibited in Berlin, Madrid and New York. “I guess that’s better than them copying Picasso—because my work is rooted in the tradition of Mexican textiles.”

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