Alvin Starkman, M.A., J.D.
The rug weavers in the town of Teotitlán del Valle have had their heyday. In the 1960s they began to develop a reputation for being the most successful of all the artisans in the villages within the central valleys of the southern Mexico state of Oaxaca. But since then their economic fortunes have been characterized by peaks and valleys. As a consequence of COVID-19, residents of Teotitlán del Valle have found themselves at the bottom of the deepest gorge ever. But one astute local weaver, Rocio Mendoza Bazán, through her own ingenuity is managing to parlay the global mezcal boom for the benefit of her sometimes struggling family.
Rocio Mendoza Bazán at work on a loom.
Mezcal of course is the high alcohol content agave distillate which has taken the world by storm, in particular since the second decade of this century. And Oaxaca is the state where over 85% of the nation’s iconic spirit is distilled. Throngs of mezcal enthusiasts were coming to Oaxaca to learn about the intoxicant and the agave succulent from which it is derived (locally referred to as maguey), as well as to imbibe, advance export projects, photograph, and document for print and online publications. But by the end of March, 2020, they had stopped coming. And so did every other traveler. Sales of virtually all Oaxacan crafts dried up, including Rocio’s handmade rugs and tapestries many of which had been dyed using traditional natural colors derived from insects (i.e. the famed cochineal), fruits, mosses, nuts, plants and leaves (i.e. añil, from which indigo is derived) and seed pods.
One of the family's tapetes exhibiting typical pre-Hispanic designs and natural dyes.
Agriculture and tourism generate the lion’s share of the state of Oaxaca’s revenue. While the former is still a decent industry for national and international markets, tourism has screeched to a halt, for mezcal aficionados as well as for those who had been drawn to Oaxaca’s pristine beaches, internationally acclaimed cuisine, quaint colonial architecture, archaeological sites, and craft villages boasting pottery, wood carvings, metallurgy, wool and cotton textiles.
Miniature complete 5 liter copper alembic (still) made in Ocotlán de Morelos, Oaxaca.
To be fair, a few years earlier Rocio and sister-in-law Malena began exporting handbags to the US with the assistance of a couple of California entrepreneurs. It has helped the family through hard times occasioned by those economic depressions: Oaxaca’s 2006 civil unrest, the (Mexican) swine flu scare, the US economic crisis, media’s incessant fear mongering in the face of warring Mexican drug cartels, and more recently ZIKA.
Rocio is one of three daughters-in-law living in the family compound of husband Omar’s parents, Don Porfirio and Doña Gloria. Omar and brothers Tomás and Hugo, with their spouses and children, all live in the homestead along with Porfirio and Gloria. They used to weave for the tourist trade, with a modest amount of export based on custom orders. Working pine looms has by and large been good to the family, which includes four additional progeny and their families, all residing relatively close to Porfirio and Gloria. To different extents each of the seven nuclear families, and their parents, rely on weaving, as did their forebears.
Until 2020, virtually seven days a week Porfirio would be at his loom weaving rugs with traditional designs from memory, with representations of indigenous Zapotec imagery such as rainfall, maize and mountains…just like his father Tomás, grandfather Ildefonso and great grandfather before him. Gloria also weaved on small looms requiring less physical strength, but her expertise now lies in carding raw wool, either dyed, or natural. Hanging over the black wrought iron banister overlooking the sunny open courtyard would be batches of spun wool drying, in muted tones of green, brown, red and blue, as well as more vibrant colors illustrative of the occasional use of synthetic dyes.
Hand woven and dyed bags for carrying mezcal, with suede trim and leather closure.
This ritual in Teotitlán del Valle, an ancient tribal town about a half hour’s drive from the city center of Oaxaca, has played out continually since the 16th century, when in 1535 Dominican bishop Juan López de Zárate arrived in the village and introduced sheep and the first “modern” loom, shipped from Spain. The use of natural dyes and weaving predate the conquest, but it was the 16th century which jump-started a cottage industry producing serapes, blankets and tapetes (rugs). Before the Spanish arrived, weaving would be done on the back strap loom, and yarn would be from rabbits and deer, as well as cotton as long as traders arrived from parts of the country conducive to its growth and cultivation.
In Oaxaca mezcal has strong ties to Catholicism as illustrated here, as party favors for confirmations and baptisms.
Rocio is part of Artesanías Casa Santiago. It’s comprised of that extended family of four households; Porfirio and Gloria, Omar, Tomás and Hugo and their spouses and children. Its main workshop, modest showroom and homestead have been on the town’s main street since 1966. Back then Porfirio occupied most of his working hours as a campesino in the fields, with rug production a sideline. Over the decades he began spending fewer days working the land and more producing tapetes. As the family grew, tapetes became its mainstay. But Don Porfirio still works the fields, and in fact now rents land to a mezcal producer. He and his family assist the mezcalero with planting agave, and periodic tending while awaiting maturity a decade or so down the road.
Portavasos, or coasters, of course with the agave theme.
Despite being one of the most personable families one could ever hope to happen upon in the entire state, the workshop never did get the large tour buses stopping by for exhibitions. Perhaps it’s the personalities of the family members which clearly doesn’t lend to the formality of onlookers seated in a gallery for a demonstration, followed by a hard sell. When tourism was booming, Casa Santiago’s share of the market for Oaxacan wool rugs and handbags would be individuals seeking out the workshop, often repeat business or referrals. Patrons were mainly those who wanted that southwest, Mexican, or Oaxacan flare in their home décor, or in the case of handbags for their fashion. But one must adapt with the times. Rocio joined the family through marriage to Omar. Seizing upon her acumen and resourcefulness she has quietly and without fanfare been able to exploit a new market, custom catering to all that is mezcal, agave and the bar industry.
Doña Gloria now enjoys weaving this type of scenery. It keeps her calm all day long.
However somewhat earlier this bright woman with a strong sense of her Zapotec ethnic heritage had begun to show her penchant for thinking just a little outside of the box. In 2008/9, while Oaxacan artisans were still recovering from the economic ravages of the earlier civil unrest, and the US economy was keeping many travelers close to home, Rocio decided to open up her home to tourists, cooking traditional Zapoteco dinners for a modest fee. And then when the opportunity to export handbags subsequently arose, of course she jumped at the idea. And now she makes tapestry designs for mezcal aficionados, including owners of mezcalerías, and bars and restaurants with a healthy complement of the agave distillate.
Don Porfirio enjoys replicating pre-Hispanic Zapotec imagery.
A few years ago management of King Bee Lounge, then a trendy bar / restaurant in Austin, Texas, known for live music in a vintage setting, visited Teotitlán del Valle. King Bee likely had the largest selection of Oaxacan mezcal of any bar in the city. Rocio was asked to make a tapestry of the King Bee logo. The result was more exquisite and exacting than anyone could have imagined, of course except for Rocio. That got Rocio thinking. She began making wool coasters with an agave motif, and then bags with similar imagery for holding a bottle of mezcal; suede trim, leather tie and all.
Custom tapestry woven by Rocio for the Austin, Texas, King Bee Lounge.
Then came large agave tapestries featuring the tall flowering stalk or quiote. She is currently weaving such a tapestry with the name and city of a Colorado mezcal tasting room woven into the fabric.
Custom agave tapestry made for Sarah.
Since textiles do not break as does pottery and those delicate carved wooden figures known as alebrijes, Rocio is able to ship her agave tapestries and related woven artistry economically and securely through the Mexican postal system. When visitors are precluded from coming to Oaxaca, they can nevertheless purchase and receive whatever they want, both stock and custom. This enables the family of Casa Santiago to weather the current and any subsequent storm which comes its way. It’s all thanks to the mezcal boom, and Rocio’s ability weave exquisite designs.
Thinking Outside of The Box: Modernity with a touch of tradition.
Artesanías Casa Santiago is located at Av. Juarez 70, Teotitlán del Valle, Oaxaca 70420 [tel: (951) 524-4154]. Alvin Starkman operates Mezcal Educational Excursions of Oaxaca [www.mezcaleducationaltours.com]