Mexican Folk Art in Oaxaca

Gemma Bowes, The Guardian, December 10, 2011

The fashion designers and interiors stylists who have hijacked the Mexicana aesthetic probably have little idea of its origins. Zig-zag stripes, cacti and silver; eagles, skulls, and skeletons ... these motifs, which currently appear on hipster T-shirts, and on Aztec-patterned Pendleton blankets in Urban Outfitters, define the traditional arts and crafts of Mexico. Bright and beautiful, skilfully made, often intricately beaded, woven or carved, the country's folk art is a vibrant link to its pre-Hispanic indigenous culture. Symbols and animals represent gods and food sources (even the armadillos), colours derive from natural plants and minerals, and every item, from pots and weaving to ritual masks, once had a practical use dating back hundreds, and often thousands, of years.

The relative rarity of Latin American crafts and influences on this side of the Atlantic, compared with the Asian and African handicrafts now so prevalent in British homes that they have been rendered rather naff and studenty, means they hold the same exotic appeal that so tantalised the Spanish conquistadors, at least to a magpie-minded hoarder like me.

I hadn't specifically planned a shopping trip when I went to Mexico, but faced with all the beaded bull skulls, chunky turquoise jewellery, striped blankets for £5 each, skeleton earrings and painted pots, I succumbed to that giddy shopper's excitement.

Finding, in unexpected places, traditional things that you truly love and are accidentally fashionable is one of the thrills of travelling. I have found amazing leather saddle bags for a few pounds in Negombo, Sri Lanka, and nu-rave-ish bobble necklaces in Russia for £2. I lusted after some multi-coloured warrior boots from Mongolia (so cool!). But few places are as rich in handicrafts as Mexico. Every region and town specialises in certain products: Taxco for silver, Dolores Hidalgo for tiles, Michoacán for textiles and metalwork. But Oaxaca in the south-west has the most extraordinary spectrum of folk art. It is the most ethnically diverse of the country's 31 states, with 16 indigenous groups (the largest being Zapotec and Mixtec), and in a small area, there are dozens of villages making unique rugs, pottery and wooden carvings.

While anyone can turn up at the workshops, markets and stores across the state and in Oaxaca city, to unearth the best examples for reasonable prices it helps if you have a good guide.

Linda Hanna, an American expat, fills that role, offering custom tours of the craft-making villages from her folk-art themed B&B, Casa Linda, a colourful bungalow a few miles north-east of the city, in San Andrés Huayapam.

She took my friend and me there in her beaten up old banger, delivering us to her pretty walled garden with its mountain views, decorative tiles and a pyramid-shaped chapel full of strange dolls of the Virgin of Guadelupe – a celebrated amalgam of an indigenous figure with the Catholic virgin.

Inside Casa Linda, the decor erupted on to my eyeballs – long-haired horned masks, woven belts and huge painted gourd bowls hung on the walls alongside a giant Chagall-esque mural, paintings of Mexican girls, rows and rows of patterned plates. Shelves heaved with carved wooden animals, birds and dragons; cushions, rugs and blankets were layered up on every seat. The woman was clearly obsessed.

Over chicken and mole tamales (corn parcels once eaten by the Mayans), Linda outlined our options for the next few days. Hundreds of families make art in Oaxaca, specialising in about 13 different crafts, but we'd only have time to see a handful. We would have to prioritise.

Focusing first on rugs, we set off next morning to Teotitlán del Valle, the main rug-weaving village. "A lot of tour buses come here now, and it's affected the economy. Now the whole village is making rugs," said Linda. "Those on the first streets sell more, and the tour buses always go to the same ones, where they get a commission."

Linda has a more ethical approach. She doesn't take commission, and shares her clients around the best, most reliable producers, many of whom have become her friends over the 14 years she's done this.

"This family is really good at making their own natural red and green dyes," she said, pulling over at El Tono de la Cochinilla (, a Zapotec workshop run by a family for four generations. "If you want rugs with more blue, I know another place."

Ernesto Maldonado González gave us a tour, demonstrating the weaving of colourful threads into a bird pattern on a loom, then showing us into a little hut to see how the raw wool is first separated into grey and white before being dyed in order to make light and dark shades. This is how we make red, said Ernesto, showing us a flat piece of prickly pear cactus covered in white fluff. He picked off the fluff and pinched it: blood red seeped out. "See? Cochineal, an insect makes this. Here, now squeeze some lime on it." It turned brighter. "Now this … " baking soda, to make purple.

The Spanish were almost as crazy for cochineal in the 1600s as they were for the silver and gold they found in Mexico. Red dye was so hard to come by that the colour was worn only by royalty and the church. A kilogram of dried cochineal still costs around $100 and only makes enough dye for two rugs. Once we'd seen the processes and work that had gone into every piece in the showroom, the $2,000-3,000 price-tags for the finest seemed justified, but I settled for a couple of lovely little ones for about £50 each.

"People here have such incredible skills," said Linda as we drove home, "but being too creative is a gamble. They would rather keep doing traditional work that sells. The time and expense involved means that even if they would find it creatively rewarding to make more unusual pieces, they wouldn't indulge themselves in that way."

The next day, however, we visited one artistic family, the Fabians, who do experiment. Rare black pottery has been made in San Bartolo Coyotepec for hundreds of years, and this family have made it for as long as anyone remembers. Now Omar, their young son, is winning awards for his lattice-like cut-out work.

As with every visit, having Linda greatly improved the experience, gaining us inside access to their studio in the back garden, and translating complex explanations of the process.

A TV pop show blared away in front of the father, son and daughter, sitting in a row and working on their own pots. It took eight days to make each.

The clay came free from a natural source 4km away, but only men were allowed to collect it, explained the father, Miguel, because women brought bad luck and made it have stones in it.

From there Linda drove us to Jacob and Maria Angeles's workshop near San Martín Tilcajete, where legions of artisans carved, whittled and painted wooden alebrijes, real and mythical animal figures that represent spirits in Zapotec culture, and hot chocolate whisks and decorative bowls that went into my bag for Christmas presents. For myself I bought a colourful woven table runner at Santo Tomás Jalieza, a backstrap weaving village where women weave textiles sitting down, with long strings tied up above them that are pulled taut at the other end by the backstrap they wear.

Between visiting the craft villages, Linda took us to fantastic cantinas and into Oaxaca city. There, in the Reforma district, we stopped at Artesanias Tali on Emilio Carranza street, run by Angela Garcia Hernandez, a sweet lady who has sourced beautiful traditional clothing and jewellery from distant pueblos for 46 years. Some embroidered clothing cost hundreds of dollars, but I found more presents in a basket of milagros, silver charms traditionally bought outside Mexican churches which are believed to bring luck and help fix certain ailments – buy a foot-shaped one for gout, little boobs for breast cancer, a baby for fertility.

It was by pure luck that our stay coincided with the village's festival. Most villages are named after a saint, and on that saint's day, every village of that name throws a party. San Andrés's revolved around the scariest fireworks I have ever seen. The whole community sat around the public square on plastic chairs, and we were urged to share trays of free beer and tequila shots that were brought round continually. At last, once the excitement had built, local boys took turns to set light to huge firework-spurting catherine wheels in the shape of different animals, worn on their heads, then ran right into the audience, sparks flying, loud bangs exploding. It was terrifying and lasted for hours, and was followed by a huge towering inferno of even bigger, louder fireworks. By the end, part of the church and a car had caught alight.

On our last day we'd planned to visit Monte Albán, the pre-Colombian site on a hilltop above Oaxaca city, but we spent so long shopping again that by the time we got there it was closed. Never mind, said Linda, there is a saying, "He who leaves Oaxaca without seeing Monte Albán, will certainly be back." "… With a bigger suitcase," I would add. By this stage mine was bursting with Christmas presents, gorgeous handmade jewellery and furnishings, yet I'd only spent a couple of hundred quid. And this was guilt- free shopping too: perhaps I'd helped a little to keep alive the skills passed down from gnarled hands to teenage fingers over generations.