The Zapotec of Oaxaca’s Central Valley in Mexico have been weaving rugs since Pre-Hispanic times. Alberto Sánchez Garcia and his son Bëërt Sánchez Martinez of the village of Santa Ana del Valle are sixth-and seventh-generation Zapotec weavers carrying on that tradition. Yet when meeting the pair at their open air workshop, I learned that Alberto and Beert define their work differently: Alberto considers himself an artisan; Beert views himself as an artist.
“The terms artisan and artist are related–they both deal with the act of creating,” said Beert. “Craft has a cultural heritage, it involves traditional process and techniques, it is high-touch. I invest in the materials I use, but it is my investment of myself into what I do that makes it art. I use my work to express myself. My father considers himself as an artisan but I think he, too, is an artist because of his passion for weaving, that he has made it his life.”
Indeed, Alberto has been practicing his craft for more than forty years. He learned how to weave from his older brother when he was 12 years old; his brother had learned from their father, who died when Alberto was four years old.
“As children we start small,” Alberto said. “I began by learning to spin the wool, and then learning to make the dyes”. Alberto pointed to cacti hanging overhead and explained he has been engaged in “micro farming” of cochineal for his own use for 30 years.
What looked like a patch of white fuzz on the nopal cacti leaves was in fact a community of cochineal insects, each about the size about a grain of Arborio rice. The Oaxaca area of Mexico is one of the few places in the world where the cochineal insect lives. The female cochineal insect produces an acid that is a deep crimson–-it’s vivid hue has made it a hot commodity for centuries as a natural dye.
In fact, it’s said that in the 15th century, the Aztec Emperor Montezuma extracted a yearly tribute of 2,000 decorated cotton blankets and 40 bags of cochineal dye from each of eleven cities he ruled. Soon after the Spanish conquest of the Aztecs, cochineal began being exported to Europe; by the 17th century, cochineal was traded as far away as India. The dye was considered such a valuable commodity, its price was regularly quoted on the London and Amsterdam Commodity Exchanges.
The process of extracting the dye is very similar to that of making tea. After being ground-down and added to water, the insect is then heated to extract the color and then combined with either alum or another mordant which acts as a fixer. The resulting distinctive tones can range from red to purple depending on the acidity or the alkalinity of the mixture. A little of this bug goes a long way–-100 grams will dye about two pounds of fiber to a deep shade. Showing me a small plastic baggie of the dye, Alberto said its takes three months to produce the amount shown inside.
Beert has put a new, global spin on this age-old Oaxacan technique. Through the Textile Museum of Oaxaca, he took a course in tie-dying from a visiting Nigerian master artisan. That connection inspired Beert to create wearable Nigerian-Oaxacan fusion works of art that are in high demand among his contemporaries.
Beert’s experimentation with color and form was recognized in 2008 by the non-profit Friends of Oaxacan Folk Art (FOFA), which awarded him honorable mention in its young artists’ competition. The piece he submitted to the contest depicts the words “Ricaaza-lù” in Zapotec and “I Love You” in English. Beert and both of his parents speak the Zapotec dialect as well as Spanish.
Fifty percent of Oaxaca’s residents identify themselves as being of indigenous culture–-the highest percentage of Mexico’s 31 states after the Yucatán. The Zapotecs and the Mixtecs are the most numerous and well-known, but there are sixteen indigenous groups that are officially recognized. These cultures have been better preserved than most others in Mexico due to the state’s rugged and isolating terrain. Santa Ana de Valle is located in the Valles Centrales, a region in the heart of the state that consist of three river valleys that form a kind of Y. The northwest arm is the Etla Valley, to the south is the Grande Valley, and to the east is the Tlacolula Valley, which encompasses about 25 communities, including Santa Ana de Valle.
In 1982, when he was 20 years old, Alberto left Tlacolula Valley for a long and life-changing journey. He had just married Martinez Cruz Eleuteria and becoming a husband inspired him to take a powerful step toward pursuing his passion and creating a livelihood for his new household. He decided to travel to the U.S. as a migrant worker to earn the money to purchase his first loom. He paid a “coyote” 300 pesos to guide him safely across the border to a safe place to live and work. Alberto said that cost of that journey has escalated wildly–-the fee is now $8-10,000 per person. Coyotes will agree to “lend” eager migrants the money, and then garnish their wages for one to two years, akin to the Colonial indentured servant system.
Alberto found his way to a job harvesting broccoli and tomato crops on a farm in Santa Maria, California, where he worked for eight months before returning to his wife and village of Santa Ana de Valley. With $600 he had earned in California, Alberto bought his first loom, commissioning a specialized craftsman to construct it. The loom, which is 1.70 meters wide by two meters high, has since doubled in value. Alberto now has eight looms at his workshop-–four that he uses, two that Beert weaves on and two that another son, now in the U.S., previously used.
Alberto used to travel to Mexico City and Guadalajara to sell his rugs, but for the past twenty years, he has worked with an Arizona company that commissions large custom orders. Those commissions are for both pieces that have designs like paw prints or elk, which are not traditional Zapotec motifs, as well as rugs that use the ancient symbols seen at Oaxaca’s pre-Hispanic sites such as Mitlan and Monte Albán.
The traditional designs consist of geometric figures which convey different meaning. The “Greca” motif symbolizes the cycle of life of an ordinary person, according to the Zapotec Cosmo vision. This design depicts an ascending line which represents conception, birth, childhood, youth, followed by a horizontal line which conveys maturity, and then a descending line representing old age and death, followed by another horizontal line which represents life in another world. Other geometric figures represent the life cycle of a warrior or shaman.
Of Alberto and Martinez’s five children–-two daughters and three sons–-Beert is the only one who shares his father’s passion for weaving. Like his dad, Beert also began weaving as an adolescent and has now been weaving for 15 years. After high school, he took two years to consider his future while also developing his weaving and drawing. He then attended university in the neighboring state of Puebla, where he studied engineering. Since graduating, he has worked in quality control and production efficiency for a company that manufactures tires.
Beert considers his dual careers as engineer and artists to be endeavors that require opposite but complimentary skills–-he enjoys the mechanical aspect of engineering, as well as the creativity and inspiration of weaving. And on occasion, his engineering experience prompts innovation in the weaving workshop–-he recently came up with a new system that saves money on thread.By collecting the wool detritus generated in the weaving process, then cleaning and “carding” it (using a brush-like paddle to separate and straighten the fibers to produce a continuous thread), waste is eliminated and a new material to work with is created, with a unique texture and appearance.
Beert pointed out one of his earliest works, a very traditional image of Jesus as a child in the manger. In contrast, he showed me a current piece he was still working on, a very contemporary standing sculpture made of recycled paper and painted with natural dyes of cochineal and indigo, featuring fantastical, expressive faces.
Beert told me that his inspiration for the piece is a poem called “The Seven Selves” by the 19th century Lebanese poet Kahlil Gibran, from his book “The Madman.” The sculpture brings to life the poem’s meaning, which examines the masks that society teaches us to wear–and the freedom that comes from being true to one’s self, even if that sometimes means being misunderstood by others and seen as “mad.”
Beert struck me as a young man who has figured out that perhaps the greatest freedom is the ability to discern which of society’s practices and philosophies–-old and new, from his own culture and those of others around the globe–-to weave into his own authentic world view.
“My father thinks of his art as nice and relaxing work that keeps him in touch with his family heritage, and his sense of pride in the Zapotec culture,” Beert said. “I use traditional techniques but to me, my work as an artist represents my particular vision of reality.”
Beert invited me over to his loom to look at a piece he had just begun. I admired the vivid colors and aquatic feel of the nascent work, and asked if he used a diagram to map out the design.
“No, my inspiration is in the moment and the image is only in my mind,” he said. “For me, this work symbolizes the intangible interconnection between nature, animals, and humanity.”
I was delighted that a month later, I was able to appreciate Beert’s vision. He sent me a photo of the completed weaving, and the piece’s pattern is clearly influenced by Zapotec designs yet has a distinctly contemporary feel. The dreamy abstract composition evokes the elements of nature and magically melds the past with the present.
Alberto and Beert seemed to me to embody the phenomenons of destiny, duality and being flip sides of the same coin. The father-son share a passion for their craft regardless of whether they call themselves artisan or artist. That passion for weaving took both of them out of Oaxaca and on a trans-generational quest across continents. In the early 1980s, Alberto traveled to the U.S. as a migrant worker picking vegetables to earn funds to buy a loom with which he could earn a living at home in Oaxaca. Now, more than 35 years later, Beert is experiencing a different kind of season in the sun far away from home. He is in Mulhouse France on a six-month fellowship at the invitation of el Programa de Intercambio Internacional del las Artes Basilea-Mulhouse-Friburgo Atelier Mondial. Through their uniquely personal journeys, both father and son have created lives and livelihoods of which their ancestors would be proud.