Oaxaca’s handcrafts give an important perspective into this state’s many varied cultures. It is Mexico’s most diverse and traditional state owing to its extremely rugged terrain forming cultural microcosms relatively isolated from the rest of Mexico. Here, Oaxaca crafts open the door to a timeless world.
The state is Mexico’s premier destination for cultural tourism precisely because of this diversity. Tourists are attracted by colorful garb, colonial architecture and agrarian lifestyles that seem unaffected by the passage of time. Such a view is not 100 percent accurate of course; Oaxaca has changed and continues to do so, but it does keep very visible and tangible elements of its past. Handcrafts are one of the most important.
Handcrafted items are found all over the state, but those of the highest quality are concentrated in the Central Valleys region, the three valleys that interconnect around the city of Oaxaca. This is because the area was home to most of the pre-Hispanic city-states and was a tributary state of the Aztec Empire before the arrival of the Spanish.
Oaxaca’s oldest surviving craft is also least known and appreciated. Basketry and the weaving of other items from stiff plant-matter dates back long before any civilization. Fibers include the reeds that grow along riverbanks in the valleys, willow branches, maguey fibers and corn husks. Although towns such as San Juan Gelavia and Papalutla now host annual fairs to raise the profile of this art, it is not sought out by folk art collectors, which keeps prices extremely low.
Such products are mostly found in local markets in towns such as Octotlán de Morelos, Tlacolula and Villa Díaz Ordaz.
Two traditional handcrafts that contribute significantly to Oaxaca’s folk-art fame are textiles and pottery, practiced all over the state. The importance of textiles not only comes from the continued use of the pre-Hispanic backstrap loom, but also from the fact that the traditional dress of every ethnicity and almost every community has identifying characteristics. This is particularly true of indigenous women’s traditional dress. The most important garment is the huipil, a rectangular fabric folded in half with an opening for the head. In most, but not all cases, the sides are sewn leaving openings for the arms.
The most traditional huipils are handwoven with handspun cotton thread. Because they are laborious, most are made only as ceremonial wear or for sale in the market. Everyday huipils are often made of commercial fabric. Huipils are not limited to Oaxaca, but one type is. Juchitan’s huipils are short, worn more like a blouse and are paired with a skirt, made famous by Frida Kahlo.
Another important weaving tradition is the rug-making of Teotitlan del Valle. These are made of wool on pedal looms, both introduced by the Spanish. This weaving is a major attraction in the Central Valleys region and has attracted the attention of fine artists who collaborate with local craftspeople. This has resulted in markets not only for rugs with local Zapotec designs, but also rugs with more modern designs.
Oaxaca’s pottery varies from extremely rustic to highly sophisticated. Basic utilitarian wares are made all over Oaxaca, but exceptionally fine pieces are works of art in their simplicity. Perhaps the most famous pottery of Oaxaca is the “barro negro,” or black clay pottery of San Bartolo Coyotepec. Prior to the 20th century, this was a simple pottery tradition, focusing on the making of large containers called cántaros to transport liquids (especially mezcal). In the last century, a potter now simply known as Doña Rosa (Lady Rose), discovered on her own that if she burnished her pieces before firing, the clay would lose its ability to hold water but gained a brilliant black shine. The new pieces attracted tourists’ attention, sparking an entirely new local industry in decorative pieces. Today, Coyotepec has very notable potters, including Carlomagno Pedro, who has raised the status of the technique from decorative to fine art, creating murals with barro negro elements in Oaxaca.
Another important pottery center is Santa María Atzompa. Its clay is worked in two important ways. The older is the green utilitarian ware, which in many cases still uses lead glaze. (It is recommended that buyers purchase pieces only for decorative purposes for this reason.) Most pieces are made to be sold cheaply, but the state’s MEAPO folk arts museum has a collection that shows the technique’s possibilities. The other is the making of polychromatic figurines, made famous by the Blanco family. Teodora Blanco became notable through her fine decoration of figures, especially with the use of pastillaje, tiny rolled bits of clay pressed onto the main figure to create raised decorative patterns.
One of the state’s most famous handcrafts is really a recent innovation. The name “alebrije” has been made internationally famous thanks to the movie Coco. There are actually two versions of the figures. The older version was developed by Mexico City paper mache artisan Pedro Linares. Manuel Jímenez of San Antonio Arrazola is credited for the Oaxacan version. Jiménez met Linares via British documentary maker Judith Bronowski in the 1970s, adapting Linares’ idea to Jiménez’s wood carving skills and Oaxacan sensibilities. This version has since gone on to become the more famous of the two as they are very popular with tourists. San Martín Tilcajete is now the main producer of these colorful figures, but they are still made in Arrazola, as well as in La Unión Tejalapan.
To capitalize on the concentration of handcrafts created in the Central Valleys, the state has set up a Ruta de Artesanias (Handcraft Route), linking the Central Valley’s most famous producers. In addition to the towns mentioned above, other important centers are included. Santo Tómas Jalietza is noted for its cotton textiles which are embroidered and or woven on a backstrap loom. Products include blouses, other traditional clothing, curtains and tablecloths. San Antonino Castillo Velasco is particularly noted for its embroidery, including one technique called “a ver si puedes” (Let’s see if you can) or “hazme si puedes” (Make me if you can). Both names refer to the difficulty of the embroidery due to the large number of very small elements. Ocotlan de Morelos in the far south of the region is best known as a commercial center, but it is the home of the Aguilar family’s ceramic figures as well as the fine knives done by Apolinar Aguilar Velasco and others.
With the exception of textiles, little attention has been paid to the handcrafts in other parts of the state. Notable textiles include huipils made in locations such as the Triqui region, the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, and the Chinateca region. The blouses of Santa Maria Tlahuitoltepec became famous due to a dispute between the town’s Mixe residents and French designer Isabel Marant, who created a blouse that is extremely similar.
Non-textile crafts include the making of knives and machetes in Tlaxiaco, Santa Catarina Juquila and Santiago Jamiltepec. The Tehuantepec region produces a heavy-duty orange pottery, usually used for tiles and flowerpots. Hammered and filigree gold and silver jewelry are produced in Tehuantepec as well, along with Huajuapan de León and the city of Oaxaca.
Oaxaca is where the past and present meet, interacting with each other and preserving each other. This is seen in its people, its cooking and of course, its handcrafts. It is what draws so many visitors from abroad, with more than a few who fall in love with it and stay.