Thursday, October 21, 2010

Oaxaca Part 9: The Spectacular Church and Convent of Santo Domingo

Templo y ex-Convento de Santo Domingo de Guzman. The photo was taken from the roof terrace of the Hotel Aitana, where Carole and I stayed during our visit to Oaxaca. My good friend Judy King, of the Living at Lake Chapala-Mexico Insights website, gave me some astute advice about this spectacular example of Spanish colonial architecture. Judy told me to make Santo Domingo the last church in Oaxaca to visit rather than the first, since this church is so gorgeous that it might spoil my experience of the other 26 colonial-era churches of the city, even the grand Catedral de Oaxaca. She was absolutely right.

A scale model of Santo Domingo shows its size and complexity. Actually, the smallest part of the complex is the church itself, seen above as the darker structure with the two steeples. Connected to the church are a warren of cloisters and courtyards where, for centuries, members of the Dominican Order lived, worked, and performed religious activities. The convent area is no longer used by the Dominicans, but now houses the Regional Museum, also called the Museum of Oaxacan Cultures. In the upper left corner is an open area which is now part of the Botanical Garden where many of the State of Oaxaca's native plants are grown and displayed. The Santo Domingo complex thus provides a visitor with a variety of delightful experiences. It is a good idea to plan for more than one full day to visit its various attractions. If there is one site to put in your "do not miss" category during a visit to Oaxaca's Centro Historico, this is it. For a map of the Centro Historico on which you can locate the Santo Domingo templo, convent, and Botanical Garden, click here.

Steeples of the Santo Domingo church rise above a broad plaza. The two arches to the left of the steeples form the entrance to the Museum of Oaxacan Cultures. The plaza in front of the church is the only area of Oaxaca that rivals the zocalo for activity. Every time we came by, day or night, there was something going on. We saw artists painting or drawing the scene, wandering musicians and jugglers, vendors selling crafts and food, and--several times--encountered weddings in progress. The church is built on an east-west orientation, with the altar on the east, the direction of the rising sun. The rays of the sun symbolize the divine light. This and other elements of the architecture are similar to Dominican edifices built in Europe during the Middles Ages. The front of the church was constructed using Oaxaca's famous green cantera stone and shows a strong Renaissance influence. The two 35 meter (115 ft.) towers are unusual in this area of high seismic activity. Many churches in the area which were built before or during the construction of Santo Domingo suffered greatly from earthquakes. Building such high towers must have been a real act of faith.

Faith, Hope, and Charity at top of the front entrance of the church. Faith is symbolized by the figure on the left, holding the cross. Hope is the figure on the right. Charity is in the middle, over the emblem of the Dominican Order. The Dominicans were invited by Hernán Cortéz to New Spain to evangelize the indigenous people, whose allegiance to their old gods was disconcerting to the conquistadors. The Dominicans were famous for their ability to convert the heathen of Spain and North Africa, and the first of them arrived in New Spain in 1526, only five years after the defeat of the Aztecs. Frays Gonzalo Lucero and Bernardino de Minaya were the first two in Oaxaca, arriving in 1529. Somewhere between 1570-1575, the Dominicans began work on their church and convent in Oaxaca, a project which continued for almost 200 years. From 1608 to 1857, the Dominican Order used Santo Domingo de Guzman as the seat of the Province of San Pedro Martir, an area that comprised the modern states of Oaxaca, Morelos, Tlaxcala, and parts of Campeche, Chiapas, and Yucatan.

The Family Tree of the Founder. As you walk into the church, the ceiling immediately above contains this incredible decoration. It is the family tree of Santo Domingo de Guzman, the man who founded the Dominican Order in 1215 AD. The tree spreads in all directions with scores of lifelike representations of de Guzman's relatives and ancestors. This is one of the finest examples of artwork of its time. The Family Tree is much larger than what I was able to capture in one photo and is stunning in its complexity.

The main nave of the church, ending in the gilded altar area. Every inch of the surfaces before you, including walls, ceilings, and archways are intensely and minutely decorated in the Baroque style popular in the 17th Century. At the top of my photo is an arch forming the last portion of the Family Tree. Then begins a long arched ceiling covering the main nave, supported by columns and portal arches along each side. Each of the portal arches leads into a separate chapel devoted to a particular saint. Just after the main ceiling ends is the concave interior of the main dome, followed by a golden wall, called the retable, at the back behind the altar. Note to fellow photographers: don't attempt to photograph this during the day. It will be dark and shadowy, and flashes are not allowed. However, in the evening after the last service there is a window of about 15 minutes when the entire area is illuminated just before the church is closed for the day. It's not much time, but it will be your best chance to capture some of this splendor.

The barrel vault arch of the main nave ceiling. This section of the ceiling is about 1/2 of the total area. Once again, it was so huge I couldn't capture it in one shot. The actual architect of Santo Domingo is not known, but a Dominican friar may have drawn up the original plans.

Closeup of the main nave ceiling. The ceiling contains dozens of oil paintings like this, portraying various biblical scenes, richly framed with intricate gilded stucco designs. I am always amazed that so much exquisite detail is used on areas difficult to view without the assistance of a telephoto lens. I suppose it was about rendering adulation to the divinity, rather than just for human appreciation. A detailed contemplation of all the paintings of this ceiling would take hours.

The decoration of the interior of the main dome was also incredibly intricate. Here, the artists not only used paintings, but also stucco sculptures of saints. No square inch was left undecorated. A great deal of the interior church was destroyed during repeated occupations by troops in the years after the Independence War ended in 1821. Then, in 1857, the Reform Laws of Benito Juarez forced the Dominicans to vacate the convent. The church itself was closed for religious purposes from 1866 to 1902. During that period, this magnificent building was used as a cavalry depot, and in 1869 much of the finery was looted or vandalized.

Left side of the main dome shows saints in various poses. Finally, in 1902, the Catholic Church re-opened the templo, or church area, for religious purposes. However, portions of the convent area remained in the hands of the Mexican Army as late as 1994. The Dominicans, who did not have a good relationship with the bishops of this period (a problem they had with many bishops over the centuries) did not regain control of the templo until 1938 and never got the convent area back. In 1972, the Army turned over about 1/2 of the old convent to the University of Oaxaca for a Regional Museum. This finally became the Museum of Oaxacan Culture in 1994 when the Army turned over the last part of the convent, along with the area which became the Botanical Garden.

Retable of the High Altar. The Retable is the gilded area with saints in their niches behind the altar. This was one of the areas destroyed in the mid-19th Century. It was restored, along with much of the rest of the beautiful old templo between 1959-1961.

One of 10 chapels along the sides of the main nave. Each chapel is entered through an elaborate arched portale such as the one seen above. Although it shows Jesus on the cross at the top, the main focus of the chapel above is the Virgin of Guadalupe, the patron saint of Mexico. She is surrounded on all sides with other religious figures and angels.

Closeup of the Virgin of Guadalupe. She is always shown in the same pose, dressed in exactly the same manner. Each element of her pose and clothing has complex religious and symbolic meaning. Her painting is almost overwhelmed by the gold pillars that frame her on either side

Closeup of a gilded pillar next to the Virgin of Guadalupe. Notice the tiny wreathes of what appear to be roses spiraling up the pillar. A bouquet of roses was one of the items provided by the Virgin to Juan Diego in 1531 to prove to his skeptical bishop that this humble indigenous man's vision was real. Just another of the innumerable little details built into this architectural triumph.

The architecture of the convent area echos Europe of the Middle Ages. Above, the two towers of the church rise above the arched portales surrounding the main courtyard. The convent is composed of several long, two-story intersecting cloisters, built around multiple courtyards. Movement was generally directed along open-air passageways. A friar could look down through one of the arches into the courtyards below.  

Austere but beautiful, a fountain rises above the cobblestones of the main courtyard. The feeling in the convent area is very different from that of the church, for the most part. Unlike the intensely detailed decorations of the church, the convent lines are smooth and simple. The fountain symbolizes Grace or the Living Stream.

Gothic-style galleries use high barrel-vault ceilings. After the rich, vivid colors of the church, the convent seems monochromatic, but pleasingly so. Above, Carole beckons me on to another gallery. She often finds it necessary to gently prod me when I get too preoccupied with my photography. I have a distressing tendency (at least to her) to go wandering off into the maze of galleries and side chambers in a place like this.

16th Century fresco decorates an otherwise unadorned wall. Above, a Dominican friar communes with two young angels, while other friars peep in the door. The convent used to have many such frescos, but most have apparently deteriorated, been painted over, or were simply destroyed by vandalism during the military occupation of the building in the 19th and 20th Centuries.

Partially restored fresco imitates the shape of a column. The Dominicans were apparently not without humor. Near the top of the column, a face with a silly grin holds the folds of a cloth in its teeth. The face reminded me of the Alfred E. Neuman character of Mad Magazine whose motto was "What? Me worry?" 

The one heavily decorated area of the convent is the main staircase. This monumental staircase was apparently modeled after one found in the famous Escorial monastery in Spain. 

The ceiling over the monumental staircase is decorated with saints. The figures and the decorations were made from stucco. The stucco surfaces which were not painted were gilded, a technique applies gold in a leaf or powdered form. This technique is very old, and the ancient Greek historian Herodotus mentions the Egyptian use of it in his time.

The Botanical Garden was originally the garden of the Dominican friars. They imported and acclimated many European plants useful for food and materials. In contrast, the plants grown here today are those natural to the Oaxaca area. In the foreground of the picture above are several cactus and succulent plants. Unfortunately, we were unable to visit the Botanical Garden during our stay in Oaxaca. There are only a handful of English-language tours during the week. You cannot just wander through, but must take one of the tours before going off on your own. The timing was never right for us, so--like the Abastos market--this is something we will save for another visit.

This concludes Part 9 of my Oaxaca series. If you would like to leave a comment, please do so in the Comments section below, or by emailing me directly. If you leave a question in the Comments section, PLEASE leave your email address so that I can respond.

Hasta luego, Jim

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Oaxaca Part 8: The ancient hilltop fortress of Yagul

Ancient Zapotec fortress town of Yagul, seen from above. During one of our tours of the Oaxaca area, Carole and I stopped at Yagul. In the lower left is the ball court, and to the right of the court are several open plazas and the remains of a complex of palaces. Stretching off in the distance is Tlacolula valley, one of the three great central valleys of Oaxaca. The nearby Rio Seco supplies water to the area and forms one of the boundaries of the archaeological site. For a map of the area, click here. Yagul lies a short distance north of the road between Oaxaca City and Mitla. Although it has been one of the most- studied of Zapotec and Mixtec sites in the area, Yagul is one of the least-visited by tourists. The consequent quiet serenity added greatly to our enjoyment of the site.  The ruins are open Tuesday through Sunday from 9am-5pm and the entrance fee is $30 pesos ($2.41 USD). Guides are available for $120 pesos ($9.65 USD).

Rubble from the ancient baths of Yagul. The inhabitants seem to have had a strong aesthetic sense. They could lie back in the baths on this bluff above their town and enjoy the view of the lush valley and mountain range beyond. Next to the tub is a shelf-like area where bath items and clothing could have been placed. In August, the time when we visited, the weather was very changeable. Warm sunshine was followed quickly by the rolling dark clouds you can see above. Then, just as quickly, sunshine returned.

Yagul is set on the highest of several plateaux leading up to a huge stone bluff. The first plateau we encountered on our way up was edged by these cliffs. The stone cliffs and other outcrops in the area provided a ready source of building materials to the ancient Zapotecs, as well as caves for their even-more ancient predecessors.

Pictographs on the cliff face long pre-date Zapotec arrival in the area. These pictographs date from at least 3000 BC. However, in the nearby caves called Guilá Naquitz, archaeologists have made extraordinary discoveries. Squash seeds, the earliest known domesticated plant seeds on the North American Continent, were found here. They date to approximately 8,000 BC. In addition, the archaeologists discovered cobs from the earliest known domesticated maize (corn), dating to approximately 4,100 BC. This area of Oaxaca's Central Valleys may well have been the birthplace of agriculture in the New World, although there is still some dispute on this. Between 1,500 BC and 500 BC, the Olmecs from the Gulf Coast appear to have colonized the area. Around 500 BC, the Zapotecs arrived and established dominance over the Olmec settlements. At the time, the Olmecs were rapidly declining as the pre-eminent Meso-American culture. However, their achievements in architecture, astronomy, mathematics, and social organization influenced and shaped every civilization that followed, including the Zapotecs. Early relief carvings, found in the city of Monte Alban and known as the Danzantes, show a people conquered by the Zapotecs who have a definite Olmec appearance.

Site map of Yagul. The 4 large plaza areas seen above had religious and ceremonial purposes. In the center of the site, the structure in the shape of a capital "I" is the ball court, always an important feature in Meso-American cities. To the right side of the ball court are a group of 6 small green squares which are patios of the palace complex. On the far right is an oval-shaped area containing the baths at the top and the natural stone fortress on the bottom. The Zapotec name Yagul means "Old Tree".

View of the ball court from the fortress on the bluff. In design, this ball court is quite similar to the one found at Monte Alban. Following the Monte Alban pattern, there are no rings set into the sloping side walls as one finds elsewhere. The Yagul ball court is unusual because it is the largest in the Oaxaca area, and the second largest in all of Meso-America, after the Maya ball court of Chichen Itza. While the general area had been inhabited for many thousands of years, Yagul was not founded as a town until about 500 BC, about the same time as Monte Alban. Its life as a Zapotec community closely followed that of Monte Alban. When that great mountaintop city declined, its people moved to smaller communities such as Yagul. However, after a relatively a short period it too declined and then was abandoned sometime after 950 AD. Yagul was re-occupied by the Mixtecs who continued to use it as the capital of a small city-state until the Spanish arrived in 1521.

The palace area contains 6 patios, each surrounded by long, narrow rooms. Some of the patios contain the stumps of pillars, like the one above, which may have held up roofs partly overhanging the patios. The palace areas were the most exclusive living spaces in Yagul. The design of the palaces and their patios is unique within the Oaxaca area.

The entire palace complex is constructed in the same way, from the same materials. The walls are of uncut stone, some of it apparently collected from the river bottoms. After the stone walls were constructed, they were smoothed over with mud, and then surfaced with stucco and brightly painted. The floors were also surfaced with stucco.The roofs may have been flat and constructed with wood.

More than 30 tombs have been discovered in and around Yagul. Above, a tomb near the entrance to the Yagul complex. Notice the elaborate stone pattern ahove the entrance of the tomb. This method of decoration closely mirrors that of the nearby Mixtec city of Mitla, indicating that the tomb is from that later era. Mixtec tombs often contained gold and jade jewelry of stunning beauty and fine craftsmanship. Unfortunately, most of the tombs of Yagul were looted centuries ago.

Stuccoed stone walls, and stumps of pillars grace a patio in the palace complex. In the background of this photo you can see the bluff topped by the bath structure seen in the second photo of this posting.  The semi-arid character of the environment is indicated by the large cactus on the upper left behind the wall.

Plaza 4 is surrounded on all sides by steps leading up to temple structures. On the lower left of the photo is the entrance of one of the tombs. Just behind the tomb entrance is a stone altar, covered by a protective roof.

The altar in Plaza 4 is shaped like a frog. The frog is probably related to a water or rain cult. Interestingly, there is a temple at the Maya city of Uzmal also devoted to a frog cult. While there is no specific evidence of a connection, the Zapotecs did have trade relations with the Maya for a long period.

A hilltop fortress looms above the rest of Yagul. The structures on the hilltop are clearly defensive in nature. They may have been built by the Zapotecs to defend against the incursion of the Mixtecs, or by the Mixtecs to defend against the Aztecs centuries later. While this hill does not look impressive to me from this point of view, my perspective changed as we approached.

The sheer cliffs surrounding this natural fortress would have been daunting to an invader. Above, Carole wanders along the path at the foot of the cliff, providing a sense of scale lacking in the earlier photo.

A view from the top. A young Czech who was part of our tour took this photo of me. I was sitting on top of a vertical drop of more than 200 feet. The view was spectacular, but the perch was a bit precarious. From such a position, a defender could observe the approach of an enemy at a considerable distance.

Horses graze in lush fields below the fortress. I took this photo from the perch seen in the previous shot. The horses look a long way down, but it is even further than it appears. I used my longest telephoto setting to bring them into focus. The fields around Yagul, watered by the Rio Seco, appear very productive and would have provided the Zapotec and later Mixtec populations with ample food.

Jesus and Susana descend from the fortress. These two Spaniards were also part of our tour. Among our little group were the Czech man who took my photo, these two from Spain, and an Australian woman, as well as Carole and I from America. The Czech and Australian both spoke English as well as Spanish, Jesus spoke a little English, and Carole and I speak a little Spanish so we all were able to communicate pretty well. We enjoyed each other's company so much that we joined up after the tour to take dinner on the Oaxaca plaza. One of the pleasures of traveling is the opportunity of forming international friendships.

This concludes Part 8 of my Oaxaca series. Next we will look at the spectacular Santo Domingo church and convent complex. I hope you have enjoyed visiting the Yagul ruin. If you would like to leave a comment, you can do so below in the Comments section, or email me directly. If you leave a question in the Comments section PLEASE leave your email address so that I can respond.

Hasta luego, Jim

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Oaxaca Part 7: Mezcal & Weaving--two local specialities

The central Valleys of Oaxaca abound with small mezcal distillers. During our visit to the area, Carole and I took a tour which included visits to both a small mezcal fabrica (factory), and an artisans' center for weavers. The visits were delightful because we not only got to see and sample the finished wares, but we were able to see the ancient processes by which two of Oaxaca's most famous products are created. As many as 5000 businesses manufacture mezcal in the State of Oaxaca. Only about 150 are officially registered; the rest are very small operations, much like the one we visited which produces a brand called El Rey de Matatlan (The King of Matatlan). 

Mezcal starts with agave, a member of the maguey family. Wild maguey (pronunced "ma-gay") is found throughout Mexico, from the deserts to high mountain areas, and there are over 50 varieties in Oaxaca alone. However, over 90% of mezcal is made from just one variety, the espadín agave. Farms, like the one shown above, grow maguey in household garden plots until it is 2 years old. It is then transplanted it to the edge of fields to become a sort of fence until it is harvested. The plant was used by indigenous people for thousands of years before the Spanish arrived. They discovered its value as a fermented drink, and utilized it in religious ceremonies and as medication. In addition, the spiky leaf of the maguey is tipped with a long thorn useful as a needle, and the fibres of the leaf itself were used to weave rope and sandals. Many folks north of the border are familiar with tequila, made from blue agave. Tequila is a form of mezcal, but is only made in the State of Jalisco to the north. Another difference is that most tequila is made using stainless steel tanks and stone ovens, while most mezcal is made with the more traditional methods shown later in this posting. The overwhelming majority of mezcal produced in Mexico comes from the State of Oaxaca.

When agave is harvested for mezcal, it becomes a pineapple. When the agave is harvested, the leaves are cut off with a special tool called a coa by workers called jimadores. What remains is called a piña (pineapple in Spanish). It certainly looks like a pineapple, but it is several times larger than the ones from Hawaii with which we are familiar. The farmer who plants an agave should not do it when thirsty for mezcal, because it takes 8 years to mature to the point you see above. It also takes 7 tons of raw piña to produce 1000 liters of mezcal. The indigenous people fermented the juice of the maguey into a drink called pulque, which is still consumed in rural areas of Mexico. However, it was not until the coming of Cortés that the native people learned the art of distilling spirits, an art originally taught to the Spanish by the Moors, 700 years previous to the Conquest.

Stone-lined pits called palenques are used to bake the piñas. First, hot rocks are placed in the pits, and then the piñas. After covering them with agave leaves and earth, the workers leave the piñas to bake for 3-5 days.  During the baking, the piñas absorb the taste of the wood smoke and earth.

Golden brown piñas, recently retrieved from the stone pit. After baking, the piñas get a rest. They are piled up for a week before the next step.

Grinding piñas to a mash, the old fashioned way. After their siesta, the baked piñas are placed in a large flat pit lined with stone or concrete. The workers then bring in a horse, hitch it to the axle of a huge grindsone, and walk it round and round the pit. Gradually, the piñas are reduced to a fibrous mash.

Agave mash is placed in a large wooden vat. These vats generally hold 300-500 gallons. Workers stir the mash with a large pitchfork, seen above. They will add water, cane or corn sugars, and various yeasts to encourage the beginning of the fermentation process. After this, the mash is placed in vats to naturally ferment anywhere from 4 to 30 days.

After fermentation, the distillation process begins. Double-distillation is the usual method, with the fibres removed after the first distillation. The energy for distillation comes from blazing wood-stoked stoves. The first distillation produces a low-grade alcohol, which is then added back for a second distillation.

The final distillation process looks a little like a Kentucky "moonshiner's" operation. The "proof" or alcohol content has been reduced to 80, still capable of a respectable wallop. Workers then pour the mezcal into bottles or into wooden barrels for aging. Compared to other kinds of liquor, mezcal ages fairly rapidly. The greater the age, the smoother and darker the mezcal. Two months is the youngest, and that level of aging produces a clear liquid called blanco, capable of singeing your eyebrows. After 2 months to a year, the mezcal is called reposado (rested) and has a light amber shade and a smoother taste. At least a year must pass to produce añejo, the darkest, smoothest, and most expensive variety of mezcal. The famous worm (actually a caterpiller) is found at the bottom of bottles of blanco, put there as evidence that the alcohol content is capable of perfectly embalming the creature, called a gusano.

And now for the ultimate test. After our tour, we wound up at the mezcal bar, which displayed an incredible variety of mezcal. The bartender provided everyone with a thimble-sized cup and invited us to sample as many varieties as we liked. Carole drinks very little alcohol, and I don't drink at all, but the invitation was too tempting. Beyond añejo, reposado, and blanco, the varieties included chocolate, mango, coconut, and countless other flavors. A warm glow soon extended itself up from my mid-section to my head. Giggling broke out in our tour group. I was glad that I hadn't driven our car. Carole and I finally settled on a small bottle of mango mezcal, which we found excellent when mixed with coffee.

Oaxaca's world-famous weaving

Where it all starts. Oaxaca today is world-famous for its weaving, and Zapotec weaving was famous even when their world only consisted of ancient Meso-America. Zapotec weaving was traded to the Teotihuacan empire, and with the ancient Maya cities. Even at that time, the village of Teotitlan del Valle near modern Oaxaca was famous for its weavers. When the Aztecs invaded the area under Moctezuma I in 1457, they demanded woven cloth from the Zapotec towns as tribute. The Spanish, who arrived in 1521, introduced sheep and foot-pedal looms and Zapotec weavers quickly discovered the benefits of these new materials and technologies. With wool, one's supply of weaving material is relatively mobil, and not dependent upon the uncertainties of finding wild plant fibre, or the expense of importing cotton from the Gulf Coast lowlands. In addition, wool blankets and garments stay warm, even when wet. Above, two young girls herd their sheep along a mountain road.

After shearing the sheep, the real work begins. Carole and I visited an artisans' center near Teotitlan del Valle as part of the same tour on which we saw the mezcal fabrica. The weavers demonstrated the processes of preparing, spinning, and dying the wool, and the use of foot-powered looms whose basic design hasn't changed since the Conquest. Above, an artisan hand-cards the wool with two flat, square, wood paddles about the size of those used for ping-pong. The faces of the paddles are covered by short metal spikes and the raw wool is placed between them. Holding one of the paddles stationary, the artisan draws the other paddle toward herself in short, smooth motions that remove debris and smooth the fibres.

Next, a spinning wheel. The artisan turns the the wheel by hand. This, and the other processes we saw were completely human-powered. She periodically twists some of the raw wool together with the end of the spun thread, Gently drawing it backward, she creates another long section of thread. Within a surprisingly short period of time, she creates a considerable quantity of usable thread on the spool at the opposite end of the board from the wheel. Once she has accumulated a quantity of thread on the spool, she reverses the direction of the spin and creates a loose bundle of thread, ready of dyeing.

The coloring process is even more ancient than the Spanish Conquest-era technology. The ancient Zapotecs had long used the cochineal insect (Dactylopius coccus) to create a vivid, crimson dye called carmine. The insect thrives on the surfaces of nopal cactus paddles, such as the one seen above. The dusty, white material on the green cactus paddle is made up of thousands of the tiny insects. When the Spanish discovered the Zapotec's secret in making their crimson dye, they began to export cochineal to Spain and Europe. It remained an important export from New Spain for the next 400 years, second only to silver, until alternatives were developed in the 19th Century. The red color comes from carminic acid which the insect produces to deter its predators. Recently cochineal has become commercially viable again, because many competing dyes have been found to be carcinogenic while cochineal is not.

The technology of mano and metate goes back to neolithic times. The mano is the long cylindrical stone roller, and the metate is the 4-legged stone tray on which a variety of substances are ground, in this case cochineal. Despite its New Stone Age origins, one can buy a mano and metate at many present-day rural Mexican hardware stores. They are not tourist-oriented products, but working implements. The cochineal insects are killed by boiling or other heat processes before they are ground up into the dry carmine powder. It takes about 70,000 insects to make one pound of dye. When the powder is mixed with other natural substances such as roots and nutshells, it creates other colors such as scarlet and orange. The dye is mixed by hand in enormous pots, and the spun wool is swirled around in them with large wooden paddles until the correct shade is attained. 

Foot-powered loom. Like most such looms one finds nowadays, there are very few, if any, metal parts. The moving parts are connected with twine, and most or all of the supports are held together with wooden dowels. The technology of this loom is virtually unchanged from the days of the Conquest. The foot-powered loom was introduced in the 1530s and by the 1580s New Spain was one of the most productive areas for wool cloth. Still, the old customs have persisted, and one can still easily find wool and cotton cloth made by back-strap looms similar to those of the pre-hispanic era.

Weaver at work. Using one of the foot-powered looms, this artisan weaves a beautiful orange and black blanket. Many of the designs are ancient and can be found on stonework in the ruins of old Mixtec palaces nearby. Weaving in Teotitlan del Valle is a family affair. Children as young as 4 learn to card the wool, and at 8 they graduate to spinning. At 13 to 15 years old they learn the loom, beginning with simple designs. Until the late 19th Century, during the regime of Porfirio Diaz, all the weaving processes were conducted in the home. Diaz industrialized weaving and, until recently, the ancient methods were dying out. The re-discovery and popularization of hand-woven cloth has revived small artisan operations, contributing to Oaxaca's popularity as a tourist destination.

The finished products. The artisans' workshop had a wonderful display area but I had taken only a few pictures before I noticed a sign prohibiting photographs in this area. The artisans are very protective of their designs and don't want them copied by unscrupulous competitors.  Here, the man seen previously on the loom displays a complex weaving containing the design of the national emblem of Mexico. Behind him you can see a large rug with a more traditional geometrical Mixtec design. 

If you visit Oaxaca, I strongly suggest you take one of the many tours of the craft villages to see the weaving, mezcal making, pottery, woodworking and other crafts that Zapotec and Mixtec villagers are practicing. I hope you have enjoyed this posting. If you would like to leave a comment, you can do so in the Comments section below, or email me directly. If you leave a question in the comments section, PLEASE leave your email so that I can respond.

Hasta luego, Jim