The MZ Blog

Bringing it Back: Natural Dye

Porfirio Gutiérrez is a master Zapotec weaver from Teotitlán del Valle, the small village in Oaxaca, Mexico where most of the Manos Zapotecas artisans live. Porfirio now lives in Oxnard, California and MZ had the pleasure of connecting with him here.

Porfirio has recently secured funding from the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian for an Artist Leadership Program to take place in Teotitlán, focused on teaching youth the method of using natural dyes as their ancestors did. We caught up with him to learn more about this unique opportunity to research and restore the ancient knowledge in the village.

Porfirio on a loom

Porfirio on a loom

Like many people in our village, my family has descended from generations of Zapotec weavers going back as far as anyone can remember. As you know, Teotitlán has been known for its fine weaving since pre-Columbian times. In spite of our long standing reputation for fine work, the economic downturn and other factors have hurt our livelihood and threaten the existence of our traditional art.

In our town, other components of our Zapotec legacy are about to vanish forever. My parents speak Zapoteco, my siblings and I speak Zapoteco and Spanish, but our children speak mostly Spanish. The same pattern is true with our art; my parents spin, dye and weave. My siblings and I have these skills to some degree, but most of us have had to find outside work in other fields to sustain our families.

The youth in our village may never know the all of arts of their ancestors unless they are shown by the remaining masters who are still practicing our ancient techniques. In an effort to sustain our Zapotec art of weaving, I proposed to the NMAI to bring together experts with a group of interested individuals in our village for a workshop on traditional plant and cochineal dyes.

We are very fortunate that the NMAI wants to support our efforts and is going to help us with a 4-day training program. During this workshop students will see where dye plants grow in the wild, learn how to make them into dyes, and explore color combinations.

NMAI will come to Teotitlán to oversee the program and make professional video that will be posted on their website.

The Smithsonian’s NMAI Artist Leadership Program is truly an important step towards sustaining Zapotec culture and our traditional art form. Their video will give a glimpse into life in Oaxaca.

Dying indigo

Dying indigo

A woven rug 'Celestial Space' by Porfirio

A woven rug ‘Celestial Space’ by Porfirio

Before leading the workshop in Teotitlán next summer, which will be open to any interested youth aged 10-18, he will get a chance to further research the natural dying methods employed by his forefathers. He wants to investigate the ways in which the tradition may have changed as it has been passed down, primarily through verbal instruction, throughout the generations of weavers,

We are very much looking forward to following Porfirio’s journey as he strengthens the knowledge of natural dyes in Teotitlán, and with it, strengthens the Zapotec legacy, and the present day community.

Learn more about Porfirio and the Gutiérrez family on his website. 

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