Oaxaca and the Tlacolula Valley
+April 05, 2021
Oaxaca is a feeling. One that arouses all of the senses and inhabits your heart and mind even long after you’ve left. The colors of the traditional clothes and the painted walls; the aroma of the markets, the copal or flowers stalls; the taste of the outstanding gastronomy and spellbinding mezcal; the music of the parades, religious or familial fiestas; the textures of the multitudinous arts and crafts...
However it is too easy to romanticize a reality that is even more intriguing than just the idea of it. Like the traditional moles, delicious sauces made with a plethora of ingredients, Oaxaca is made of multiple layers. Embracing them all could take a lifetime, and that is why Oaxacans are so proud of their land and culture.
About seven hours south of the megalopolis Mexico City, the state of Oaxaca is composed of eight regions, mostly rural, overflowing with cultural richnesses. Numerous pre-colonial archeological sites like Monte Alban or Mitla are evidence of the culmination of the elaborate Zapotec civilization.
Nestled at the core of the state and of the Central Valleys region, the capital Oaxaca de Juárez is surrounded by hills. The center abounds in art galleries featuring brilliant local artists. Heading east from the colorful colonial architecture and the historical neighbourhoods, the chaotic highway is the spot to hop on a crowded bus and leave the urban area. Diving into the Tlacolula valley, villages dot the landscape on each side of the main road, in valleys, on hills or deeper in the sierra; there are so many Zapotec communities deeply rooted in a land that provides food and inspiration.
Some villages are well-known for their artistry. In Teotitlan del Valle, families have mastered the art of weaving for centuries. The sound of the wooden pedals of looms can be heard from many houses as wool rugs are crafted. The process of creating a piece is a journey that includes collecting, washing, carding the wool. The diverse hues that are displayed originally came from the use of flowers and plants, nut shells, cochineal, fruit etc...techniques that enhance a way of life in connection with its environment. The designs vary from traditional or figurative patterns echoing the ancient friezes to personal creations.
The quiet village of San Marcos Tlapazola takes pride in its red pottery molded by talented women. Using corn cobs, pieces of leather and stones to shape and polish the clay, their dexterity gives life to smooth and useful earthenwares.
The women of San Miguel del Valle wear embroidered aprons adorned with detailed floral and fauna motives sewn by skilled artisans. Every woman owns several to use in accordance to the occasion (daily work, festivity etc.). Paired with a silky and colorful dress, they brighten the streets. A lot of families are also dedicated to the practice of weaving wool rugs.
In these smaller villages almost everyone knows each other, which is of great help when you are looking for a particular home as the house numbers can be a bit confusing to a foreigner. Some villages, like San Sebastián Abasolo or Santa María Guelacé are more focused on agricultural activities.
Every Sunday, the valley gathers in the bustling market of Tlacolula. Although in the same geographic area, these communities have had different development paths and even if Zapotec is their native language, they speak different dialects of it. A language that has been a tool of resistance through the centuries and is eagerly learned by younger generations to perpetuate the legacy. Like in every country that has been colonized, the indigenous population still bear the toll of social and economic injustice, leading for instance to a high rate of migration to the neighbouring US.
While based in the city of Oaxaca, I volunteered for a year in 2019 as a photographer and translator guide for Fundación En Vía, a non-profit aiming at empowering women through interest-free micro loans, educational programs and responsible tourism. It offered me the enriching opportunity to meet inspiring women from these different communities.
They would always welcome me warmly, often inviting me to eat at their table while engaging in conversations about their work, the everyday life and their place as women. The organization holds families together and allows women to make their way into more official roles inside the community. They also maintain or invent businesses to gain more financial independence. These strong women preserve traditions while helping them progress, with the ambition of reclaiming the narrative, both as Zapotec and as women in a complex contemporary world.