The family of Porfirio Gutiérrez comes from the Zapotec community of Teotitlán del Valle, in the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca, that is known for its traditional hand-woven textiles arts. The family’s roots stretch back centuries, and they are proud of their Zapotec heritage and identity.
While an estimated 80% of the Oaxacan population is indigenous, most people of pre-Columbian heritage have lost their native tongue and now speak Spanish. Teotitlán del Valle is one of the few towns where the Zapotec language is still spoken and many ancient traditions are still maintained. The ceremonies, rituals, beliefs, and stories are all part of a deep expression and oral history, and are passed down from generation to generation.
Presence of the Zapotec culture can be traced as far back as 600 BC in Oaxaca. The ancient Zapotec city of Monte Albán dates from 400 BC and was still in use as late as the early 1500s AD. The focus of Zapotec power was then dispersed to smaller autonomous Zapotec factions that built sites such as Mitla.
The Zapotec civilization was very advanced for the new world. They had developed an important agricultural system and being to grow corn at least 5,000 years ago. Zapotecs had their own calendar, hieroglyphic writing, mathematics, and many arts — including ceramics, textiles, sculpture, and painting.
Teotitlán del Valle
Many Zapotec cities were flourishing at the time of the Spanish conquest. The Spaniards demolished most of the indigenous buildings and used the debris in erecting their own buildings, including Catholic churches which were usually built on the site a dismantled Zapotec temple.
Archeologists have found strong evidence that mankind was weaving as early as the Neolithic age and there are indications that it may even go back as far as the Paleolithic era. Experts agree that the Zapotecs have been weaving in Oaxaca’s Valles Centrales region since around 1500 BC and possibly as early as 7000 BC. Remarkably, in Teotitlán del Valle, some components of the craft are much the same as they were a millennia ago.
Other significant elements were introduced by the earliest Spanish settlers within 20 years of their arrival in 1518. Oaxaca’s traditional backstrap loom was displaced by the upright foot treadle loom. The spinning wheel, originally from the middle east, made its way to Spain and then on to Oaxaca to replace the spindle and hand twisting methods previously used to make yarns. The wool of the Spanish Churro sheep became the fiber of choice over indigenous plant fibers derived from small boll cotton and maguey in Teotitlán.
Natural Dye Tradition and Preservation
The native Zapotecs of Oaxaca have been weaving with fibers that they have dyed with the natural elements found in their environment since the earliest evidence of their existence in Oaxaca’s Grand Valle region. The Osuna and other pre-Columbian codices depict cochineal and cotton textiles being given as tribute to the Aztecs during their period of dominance over the Zapotecs. The Spaniards also valued cochineal dye as a lucrative export to Europe before it was replaced by new synthetic dyes.
For Porfirio and his family, the traditional dye stuffs are sacred and precious. They represent their cultural identity and pay homage to the great dyers before them.
The first chemical dyes were discovered in 1856 by William Henry Perkin in London. They have replaced plant dyes in most countries because they are faster, less expensive, and simpler to use than natural dyes. Chemical dyes can also be highly toxic, particularly in large amounts. They present a threat to the health of the dyers using them and to the environment when they are disposed of in the ground or water systems.
In Teotitlán del Valle, the labor-intensive craft of making and using natural dyes has become rarer with each passing decade. The number of weavers still using traditional all-natural dyes is estimated to be less than 5% of all the weaving families in the village. When they are gone, there will be no one left to pass on the knowledge of where to gather local dye plants, or how to prepare them for dyeing. Without this intrinsic part of Zapotec weaving, this authentic pure art will be lost to the past.
The Zapotec weaving tradition in Teotitlán went through a major transformation in the 1960s when the commercial market we know of today began developing. This market started to encourage colors that don’t exist in natural dyes, faster production, cheaper prices, and repetitive designs. Under this pressure the Zapotec community started to replace their deep pride with the mass production of weavings using chemical dyes. The weavings that were traditionally used in everyday life and in ceremonies were now called “rugs.” That was something new.
Porfirio begin to be deeply concerned about this situation, but at the same time it inspired him to contribute to the preservation of traditional methods. The family never had the opportunity to sell their weavings directly to clients. Instead, they would sell them to the people who had the access to market, so their talent was never acknowledged. Porfirio's sister Juana, who is 9 years older than he, shared his concern but didn't have the opportunity to change the circumstances.
Porfirio and Juana came together with Juana's family, their parents and a few of their siblings, and decided that their legacy must survive. They decided that it was deeply important for the younger generations in the community to learn the importance of natural dyes, and the issues with chemical dyes.
Not only was it important to encourage the revitalization of this practice and pride in the community, but also to educate the world about the existence of real natural dyes in Teotitlán del Valle. Today the studio of Porfirio Gutiérrez y Familia is not only shaping an artistic style, but they also remain committed to honoring and paying homage to the great master weavers and dyers before them. Their textiles are an art form, a medium where they can express their concerns and narrate their deep Zapotec culture.
Family chores start well before dawn. Crops need to be tended to before breakfast, home grown corn that has been soaked overnight is taken to the local mill to ground into masa, which is later ground on a metate at home. The day's supply of tortillas is hand pressed and roasted on an open wood or cob fire.
Around 9:00 am, women walk down to the daily market to buy fruit, vegetables, fresh cheeses, baked goods, and a little meat for the day's meals. Flowers are often bought for the home altar. They walk home, prepare breakfast and sit down as a family to eat. On the breakfast table you may see atole (a hot thick corn-based drink), Oaxacan-style hot chocolate, oversized Oaxacan tortillas, bean paste with avocado leaves, salsas, Oaxacan string cheese and queso fresco, among other foods.
After eating, everyone sets to work — weaving, gathering dye plants, dyeing, and other daily activities. The church bells ring at 7 pm to signal that the end of the day is near. They ring again at 8 pm — by then the village knows it is time to quit work. There is still some preparation to be done for the next day. Corn is shucked and removed from the cob, roasted and/or soaked in water so it will be soft enough to grind into masa in the morning. Without daylight, not much more can be accomplished.
Most older Zapotec women in Teotitlán still dress traditionally and wear their hair in a crown of long braids intertwined with satin ribbons. Colorfully embroidered blouses are still worn. Traditional skirts are made of plaid cloth and wrapped around the waist, falling to mid-calf. Red handwoven sashes are tied around the waist and beautiful shawls are worn for warmth and in church. Embroidered aprons, called mandiles in Spanish, are usually worn when doing work that might soil clothes. Traditional clothes for men include huarache sandals, light cotton shirts and straw hats. Colors are muted in comparison to women's clothing.
Testing for Natural Dyes
There are some simple tests that anyone can do to see if a weaving has been made with yarn that has been dyed with natural plant dyes or chemicals. Cochineal is one of the most common dyes to be replaced with cheap synthetic chemical dye because it is very time consuming to grow and gather, and is very expensive if purchased. To test for real cochineal dye, a sample of red yarn boiled in fresh lemon juice for 5 minutes will lighten, whereas chemical dyes will not change. Another characteristic Is the price and the number of pieces available for sale, as well as the overall colors seen on every piece. The process of natural dyeing is much more labor intensive and more costly, therefore goods made with this practice will cost more, and normally only a few pieces can be created each month.
Natural dye colors are rich, but not overly bright or strong. If you are visiting a studio, make sure you see large amounts of dyestuff and dye vats — it should look like a working area, not just a showroom. It is very common to see a demonstration done with cochineal insects, changing the pH, with lemon juice and limestone. Natural dye is much more complex than that, and it takes years to learn and become a master.
Plant-dyed yarns have a residual scent from the plants that were used to dye them. Natural scents range from earthy to fresh green to wild marigold. Chemical dyes can be detected the same way but the smell is not natural. Caution: many chemical dyes are not rinsed clean and may cause respiratory problems with prolonged exposure.