Las Zapotecas are from a small town in the state of Oaxaca called Teotitlan del Valle, 29 km from the city of Oaxaca. A community with a rich weaving culture that has been passed down from generation to generation. TMAC works with a cooperative of female weavers, Vida Nueva, who are challenging the patriarchy by creating work for female carpet weavers.
The cooperative was founded in 1996 with the intention of creating work for women who were struggling to find a way to generate their own income. 23 years later and the cooperative is still going strong, currently providing work for 22 women weavers.
The history of Teotitlan del Valle is rich, it was thought to be founded somewhere between 200 BC and 200 AD and was a central hub in the Zapotec civilisation that was once the most prominent in Mesoamerica. The history of weaving within this town dates back as far as those dates and remains alive today. Many of the ancient Zapotec traditions are still practised within the community today. Religious practises, herbal medicine, legends, social customs and political structures are all still deeply embedded with Teotitlan del Valle.
Despite its deep roots, over the centuries the community has had to adapt to significant economic and cultural changes. The infiltration of capitalism, globalisation and influences from the Spanish and more recently the USA has played a role.
The cooperative that TMAC works with, Vida Nueva, was born out of a need for income from women who were single, widowed or with absent migrant husbands and had limited opportunities to support their families. In addition to this, all these women had an obligation to the community due to a system based on the principle of reciprocity. The cargos system, requires the head of each family to make contributions of either money or goods to the community as well as give their time at certain points throughout the year.
Though this collective ethos is in theory admirable it cast a long shadow over women who did not have the same status or opportunities as men, thus adding a far larger burden on their shoulders. Traditionally, Zapotec society was controlled by men and made up of complex hierarchical structures inaccessible to women. Zapotec women are becoming more vocal about the multiple forms of discrimination they have experienced as women whether for their gender, their indigenous roots, the poverty they live in or their inability to speak Spanish.
Social restrictions on women included a restriction on meeting alone together for more than 30 minutes. When the idea for the cooperative came about, the women would secretly meet to discuss their ideas. In the early days, the husbands of the two married women in the cooperative would either come to meetings to observe, sitting with their arms crossed disdainfully across their chests, or they would knock on the door to collect their wives after 30 minutes. The married women soon left the cooperative. Other men in the town would gossip and call out to the single mothers and widows that they were without a man to control them. But, there was always someone who encouraged them to keep going. And so, remarkably, they did.
And yet, the Zapotecas refused to give up. The found an NGO who helped them set up the legal framework of the cooperative and ran workshops with them about gender equality, rights and how to manage the cooperative. They learnt that it was better to sell from their homes rather than through dealers and in markets. This also meant they were able to stay true to their heritage and create the designs that they wanted to incorporating ancient motifs and continue to use natural dyes and weaving methods.
Step by step the confidence of the women grew and in time other women joined and collectively they developed their vision for Vida Nueva. They even set up a system wherby they rotated president and secretary roles. They agreed that their work would be displayed together, promoted equally and sold directly to customers, with the sale of each piece going to the weaver, who then contributes a percentage of her earnings to the cooperative's shared fund. Members are encouraged to seek out opportunities for professional and personal development through attending courses, learning English and even participating in an international congress on the rights of indigenous women in New York.
The women work between six and seven hours a day each, depending on their schedule. Each woman has her own weaving loom at home and can fit her work around other responsibilities including childcare and looking after the home.
The Zapotecas use 100% wool to weave rustic and earthy carpets. The process from beginning to end is labour intensive and the women work together from the beginning to the end of the process. First the wool is washed, dried, spun and dried again. The dying process has to be seen to be believed. Using 100% natural dyes from fruits, vegetables, plants and even insects.
Some examples of these dyes include: Mikla, a plant that can take up to two months soaking in water to be ready for the tinting process and resulting in a light grey colour. Dried pomegranate is soaked in cold water for two to three weeks to extract a pink colour, if you add bicarbonate of soda it creates a beautiful sky blue. Insects are taken from cacti and dried in the sun to create a deep red colour. For turquoise, the women use these insects and add ash transforming the shade to a vibrant teal. Add lemon juice? A burnt orange colour is produced. Once they dyes are ready they are soaked with the wool in hot water to set.
Although the women have tried to make formulas for the dyes, it’s near on impossible to make the same colour twice due to the concentrations of different chemicals in the natural dyes, as an example the pH of a lemon can determine the strength of colour.
The designs of the carpets are inspired by pre-colombian symbols. Over the years these designs have evolved to suit more modern tastes. The different geometric shapes represent important values found within Zapotec traditions including movement and protection. The butterfly symbol that can be found in each of the Zapoteca carpets represents freedom; because even though we fight for our liberty, we always need more.
The cooperative is now fully established and the women are using their newly found power and authority to make a difference, not just in their own lives but also in their community. Through the cooperative’s shared fund, they complete an annual community project and have delivered workshops in the school and town about issues such as domestic and family violence, drugs and alcohol. Their work has encouraged other women to form their own weaving cooperatives and significantly, they were formally recognised by becoming the first females invited to join the town assembly as leaders of the community.
“It is our mission to empower indigenous women through creating fair economic opportunities”