Weaving a Future in Teotitlan, Oaxaca

Porfirio Gutierrez’s Zapotec Textiles

The Mexican village of Teotitlan, Oaxaca, gave Porfirio Gutierrez his start in life. Porfirio,in turn, is determined to give Teotitlan its future. As the center of Zapotec culture and weaving traditions, Teotitlan produces many of the handloomed wool goods commonly associated with Mexican exports: the seemingly endless array of serapes, rugs and blankets sold in tourist markets. While the tourist industry supports weavers in the village, including many of Porfirio’s immediate family members, it is also the source of environmental and economic conflicts that keep the community from advancing its health and wellbeing.

“Several wealthy families have a monopoly on the weaving market in my village,” explains Porfirio. “They can dictate the prices and control the supply of available materials.” This inequality fuels his passion to provide better living conditions for Teotitlan’s residents. The key, he believes, is to raise awareness of the detrimental effects of using chemical dyes as opposed to using natural, locally sourced dye materials. When the rugs or blankets woven with chemical dyes are washed in Teotitlan’s local creek, the entire ecosystem suffers. If Porfirio gets his way, more weavers will resort to using the region’s vast supply of natural plants, minerals and insects, just as Zapotec weavers did until quite recently.

Porfirio is a persuasive advocate and can quickly elaborate the benefits of dyeing and weaving in the traditional Zapotec way. He knows what he is talking about, having supported himself as a weaver for twenty years, and being part of a Zapotec weaving family with generations of artisans before him. He also knows that freeing weavers from their use of chemical dyes is not easy. Thirteen years ago he followed an elder brother to Ventura, California, and there began experimenting with natural dyes and more modern interpretations of traditional designs. He founded Indigena Design Studio to involve his family of weavers in a sustainable, environmentally responsible venture.

With an eye to the future and roots firmly in the past, Porfirio is blending Zapotec-inspired patterns with his eco-conscious sensibility, producing striking rugs, tapestries and pillows. The range of styles he achieves in his work brings new meaning to the idea of organic design: both his materials and his methods have evolved to blend effortlessly with contemporary California style. Porfirio distills the essence of traditional patterns and soft hues into fresh designs that would be right at home in a modernist living room or an Arts and Crafts bungalow.

Asking Porfirio about his commitment to natural dyes and more sustainable practices inevitably leads to a history lesson in Zapotec weaving traditions. For centuries, Zapotec weavers found the sources for their dyes in the plants, insects and minerals native to Oaxaca. Using abundant resources like nuts, tree bark, cochineal insects and indigo, Zapotecs developed a sustainable palette of colors for their woven designs. As demands for export weaving began to dominate the marketplace, conglomerates demanded cheaper production methods and introduced chemical dyes to their contracted weavers. Now, faced with the contamination of their water sources, the weavers of Teotitlan are beginning to realize what they exchanged in the interest of larger production. Most commercial weavers have no say in what they produce or in the prices that they can command for their labor. They have lost touch with the environment that gives them their raw materials, and are in danger of losing touch with their collective artistic past.

The designs Porfirio sketches in his Ventura studio directly support his Teotitlan family of ten siblings and their parents. His sister, Juana, is the master dye technician, interpreting Porfirio’s drawings for the loom. She is a collaborator and influential partner in their design process. “She has her voice,” Porfirio notes, “and that is not common in larger workshops.” He personally oversees the creation of each piece in Oaxaca, working side by side with sisters, brothers and their spouses to complete each new piece. A rug measuring 3 x 5 feet can take several weeks to produce and represents hundreds of years of shared family history.

Porfirio also plays the roles of advocate, educator and cultural ambassador. Speaking before an audience of collectors back in the United States, it is clear he is a man on a mission.
Social justice and personal responsibility are as much a part of his design process as the geometric bands and borders he crafts at the loom. The more awareness that he can build, the more he is convinced that life in Oaxaca can be changed for the better.

Attempting to connect the past with the present, Porfirio investigates and studies ancient symbols from Zapotec and Mayan cultures. Tribal weaving has always had an element of storytelling to it, and Porfirio values the importance of reinterpreting and rediscovering traditional symbols and themes in his work. A circle motif that he recently discovered on a plate unearthed in an archaeological dig made its way into a new weaving. The symbol’s meaning resonates in his work and in his dedication to his community.  It tells the story of connection, respect and longevity, and represents the key to understanding his past and his commitment to the future of Zapotec weaving in Teotitlan.

Leslie Mehren has written for museums, auction houses and galleries in San Francisco and New York. Inspired by a lifetime of travel, she recently launched Anima Mundi, a unique source for people in search of authentic, handcrafted cross-cultural designs. Leslie lives with her family in Tiburon, California. To visit her website and blog, please go tohttp://shopanimamundi.wordpress.com/ andwww.shopanimamundi.com

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