One very special aspect of the Zapotec indigenous communities located around the city of Oaxaca is that many dedicate themselves to a special artisanal craft. Manos Zapotecas works in the village of Teotitlan del Valle where, ever since the onset of the Spanish, they have dedicated themselves to dying sheep’s wool and weaving it on bi-pedal looms into rugs called tapetes, the small ones which we use to make into bags. Even before the conquest, the Zapotecas of Teotitlan wove plant fibers on back-strap looms, and the culture and knowledge of weaving is something that is passed on from generation to generation with very much pride. Often to the extent that the knowledge is guarded with a protective secrecy.
In other towns, there is other kinds of knowledge that is passed through generations. One town specializes in black clay, another in weaving cotton. The painted fantastical animals called alebrijes are found in only 2 towns, and baskets woven from grass in yet another.
This weekend, we visited a nearby town of San Marcos Tlapazola, nestled in the foothills of the Sierra Sur, the mountain range that borders the central valley of Oaxaca to the south. Located about 15 minutes from the popular Sunday market of Tlacolula, San Marcos Tlapazola is renowned for their beautiful red play pottery.
Our destination was a women’s cooperative called Mujeres de Barro Rojo, or “Red Clay Women.” As is very typical in Zapotec communities, traditionally the women would help in the preparation of the the materials and perhaps in the creation of the pottery, but once married, their work caring for their families would take precedent. In Teotitlan, the women have been working the looms for one or two generations, as previously they were confined to the hard and important work of preparing the yarn. In San Marcos, according to a bright and gregarious women who spoke with us, that change happened only 15 years ago.
She explained that because they traded their pottery for things like beans with the nearby towns, the bartering system left them with no actual money with which to purchase what they needed, like medicine or home improvements. Because of the dire economic state of the village, her father allowed her to travel to sell the pottery and eventually women grew to take a larger role in the production and sale of the red clay pottery.
The cooperative is made up of 15 women. They wear colorful, shiny dresses like a girls’ “princess dress,” with embroidered aprons over and their two braids pleated with bright ribbons. One gave us a demonstration of how they make their traditional cookware, a pot for beans and a comal, with which to cook tortillas.
The pottery is actually made from the strong yellow clay from a nearby mine, and then painted with red clay which is found in a higher location. The clay is also mixed with river sand. One woman formed a beautiful pot out of a lump of clay in just minutes, pushing the pot around by hand on a piece of plastic in lieu of a wheel. The only tools used were a corn cob and piece of leather to result in the graceful and useful object.
The women said that some people in town didn’t like that they did demonstrations, they want to keep the knowledge and secrets of how to work the red clay to themselves. But the women who shared their craft weren’t worried. They had travelled enough to see that others didn’t have the resources to make it. The nearby locations of the yellow clay, red clay, and river sand are unique to San Marcos, and the people who who make the beautiful pottery.