My husband Peter and I just returned from a fabulous trip to Oaxaca, Mexico. Yes, we were there during one of the earthquakes - our hotel shook to its core and it was quite frightening. While we were fortunate that the city of Oaxaca was spared for the most part, it was disheartening to learn of the severe damage in other areas.
Oaxaca is replete with stunning gardens, architecture, great museums, fantastic markets and some of the best food in the world. I can still taste the mole with blackberry sauce! And while exploring the city we were on a quest for fair trade artisans whom we could support by purchasing their products. It didn’t take long as right in the city center we found 3 spectacular fair trade cooperatives. They were comprised of a multitude of artisan products from surrounding villages. The artisans bring their wares to Oaxaca to sell in a cooperative where each artisan receives fair wages. It was incredible to see so much spectacular handiwork under one roof!
However, what we had really come for was to visit the nearby villages and buy from the artisans directly in their homes or shops. Oaxaca is surrounded by so many small pueblos that it was hard to decide where to focus our attention. The first one we visited was Teotitlan del Valle. This is the village famous for rug weaving. It seemed like every home had the most stunning rugs, handbags, pillows, scarves and wall hangings for sale. It was a sea of color and some of the artisans continue to use natural plant dyes. We were treated to tours of artisan homes and weaving demonstrations from some of the most gracious, welcoming people I’ve ever met.
The village artisans use ancient weaving techniques that have been passed down from generation to generation. Many are weaving on backstrap looms, a traditional wooden loom with no foot pedals. Rather, the weavers sit on the floor or on a chair and weave using a very simple, portable loom on which they create stunning pieces. This was truly a feast for the senses!
Next on our list was San Bartolo Coyotepec, a village famous for its barro negro, black pottery. This style of pottery has been in existence since the Zapotec era, but the black glaze was developed in the 1950’s by a woman named Doña Rosa Real. Doña Rosa discovered that by polishing the pottery while it was almost dry and lowering the firing temperature the clay turned a shiny black. Rosa died in 1980 but her grandchildren have continued the business and we were able to visit their workshop in the village. The pottery is gorgeous and varied, and we brought home several amazing pieces.
The last village we visited was San Martin Tilcajete, where the famous alebrijes are made. Alebrijes, hand-carved and intricately painted folk art, can be found all over Oaxaca, but the tour we received at a workshop called Taller Jacobo y Maria Angeles was spectacular! We were shown the process of making an alebrije from start to finish, along with much interesting lore. We even were told what our spirit animal was according to a native astrological system!
The process of making an alebrije is very involved: the copal wood is hand-carved into the desired shape using no power tools. It is then left to dry for several days or even weeks, depending on the size of the piece. Once dried the piece is intricately hand-painted by skilled and very talented artists.
The workshop we visited had various stations where the painting occurred. The less experienced painters were working on simple pieces, whereas the more seasoned ones were working on extremely detailed and sometimes enormous animals that had been commissioned. The artists are all paid fair wages and are learning a skill that will support them throughout their lives, as the demand for this type of folk art is high throughout the world. We were thrilled to see yet another example of successful fair trade in action!We’re back home now but are still reveling in the wonderful art and aromas of Oaxaca. If you get a chance to go please do – you will love it!