The Lovely Couple: New Friends, Master Weavers, Spirit Village
Every so often you make an easy connection with people. This was the case with The Lovely Couple, Graciela and Gerónimo (I've taken to calling them "G & G" at times), who I first met at a seasonal, artisanal market in Oaxaca City. The market presents a rare opportunity to view some of the finest craftsmanship from all over the state of Oaxaca and, in many cases, meet the artisans who actually make the pieces.
I was instantly drawn to one particular booth. A handful of the woven, wool bags displayed were unlike any I had seen anywhere: funky, bright, exquisite. Turns out the bags that caught my eye were all made by the woman, Graciela, standing right there. What luck!
We got to talking for a while. Her husband, Gerónimo, was also there. I learned that this enterprising duo come from a long line of master weavers. While her husband still weaves rugs, Graciela's love is weaving bags. And it shows. For her most recent bags, she had decided to try out some new designs (see the Cuadrados Bag and a Thousand Stripes of Color Backpack below, which she made and named), breaking from the more traditional weaving designs of her village. Yes!!
I told them I was headed to Puerto Escondido for a few days but would stop by again for the last day of this market when I returned.
Things didn’t go exactly as planned upon my return. We ate at a much celebrated new restaurant in Puerto Escondido on our last night. Unbeknownst to me, I chowed down some maguey worm salsa. Trust me, I’m down for all sorts of adventures, but I just don’t revel in the pride of adventurous insect eating. Turns out the salsa didn’t like me either.
I was very weak the next day, but made it back on the single prop plane to Oaxaca. Making good on my promise to visit G & G again, I zombied myself to the market. I managed to get to their booth, but felt my senses shutting down, as they do before one passes out, and got myself to the ground before gravity took over. I began to wonder if I had a shopping problem. I was immediately offered a chair and some water. Once recovered enough to stand, they insisted I come visit their workshop in their village the following week. They said they would offer to pick me up in the city but didn’t have license plates on their truck and, as such, were relegated to pueblo driving only. In any event, they were happy to pick me up at the highway turnoff. I happily agreed to the visit before stumbling back to my room to sleep.
Graciela and Gerónimo live in an idyllic pueblo nestled in the mountains about 30 minutes from Oaxaca City. If you ever had any romantic idea of what a Mexican pueblo in the mountains might look like, this would be it. I was told that the name in Nahuatl/Aztec means “land of the gods” and that the Zapotec name for the village means something close to “at the foot of the mountain.” Both feel about right when you’re there. It reminded so much of the high desert landscape where my family lives in Northern Nevada. If one can have a spirit village as one can have a spirit animal, mine would be this one. I instantly felt at home.
Their village is a Zapotec village. The Zapotecs are a strong and proud indigenous group mostly concentrated in the state of Oaxaca. This particular village is famous for its textiles, which are woven on pedal-operated looms. All the textiles are woven with local sheep's wool dyed almost exclusively with natural dyes derived from bugs, stone, flowers, fruit, etc. Zapotec culture in this village is very strong, and nearly everyone speaks the local dialect of Zapotec language.
We met up at Graciela's parents’ textile shop in the center of the village where I learned more about the history of their particular families’ craft. Both of their families have been weaving for many generations.
They patiently explained to me the entire process, from sheep to rug (or bag). All the sheep’s wool is sourced locally. Gerónimo's father used to have sheep, but now they buy the wool from local herders instead. In this family, the women are the experts in transforming the raw sheep wool into yarn, which can then be woven as is or dyed with natural colors. Graciela's mother, who speaks little Spanish, showed me how she combs and spins the wool (pictures above).
The dying process is very time consuming and laborious. Part art, part chemistry. Some of my favorite colors come from the cochineal bug, from which all the rich carmine red dyes are derived. The process and history of this hot-commodity bug are fascinating: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cochineal. I’m also partial to the deep blue dyes from the indigo plant, a dye which is expensive and difficult to cultivate. The natural colors are white, black and gray (often a spun mix of black and white), all of which can be dyed for different effects.
I also met Graciela's sister and her father who, at a much advanced age, nimbly hopped off a mountain bike he had ridden to the shop to meet me. He still weaves rugs on a daily basis. The business is truly a family affair.
G &G invited me to a juice at the daily market near the church. The market was filled with older Zapotec women, hair woven into long, beautiful braids, convening to chat and pick up fresh tortillas and other food essentials. I was the tallest person in the market by far. We picked up some things to take back to the house: fresh cow’s cheese, tortillas and a chocolate bread (pan de cazuela) that is only made in the Valley.
Their house is set back into the mountains of the pueblo with an incredible and sweeping view of the valley. They started building the house themselves eight years ago after they were married. It is stunning. The second story is nearing completion, and they insisted I come back to stay once it’s completed. Yes, please.
It became very apparent that these master artisans are meticulous at everything they do, from weaving, building their house and caring for what amounts to a proper botanical garden in their yard. They bring this exaction to their work with a very balanced and Zen-like approach. They showed me their atelier, where they work side-by-side on looms constructed by special carpenters in the village. The atelier is open in the front to the view of the valley and their yard where their three dogs play. They love working here, listening to music.
They also showed me the queen-size beds in the unfinished story of their home, which were filled with yarn ready to be woven into works of art. It was breathtaking to see so many colors and try to appreciate the labor that went into just this part of the process.
Over our market snacks we easily shared stories and a deeper understanding about work and purpose. Such incredibly generous, sincere people. I expect and hope we will work together and remain in contact for years to come.
--Jess, Founder & Principal Shopper, Le Mondeur