In the Zapotec village of Teotitlán del Valle, in Oaxaca State, Mexico, the rug-weaver Pastora Asunción Gutierrez Reyes, 46, graciously welcomes me into the open courtyard of her home. She is in the midst of pulverizing cochineal, a parasitic insect, to create a red dye. On an open fire nearby, pomegranate skins are simmering in a pot of water. All the dye recipes Gutierrez uses belong to her great-grandmother. The patterns and symbols that she weaves into colorful rugs are pre-Hispanic representations of the cycles of life and the natural world.
Gutierrez is an advocate for change in Teotitlán del Valle. She is largely responsible for bringing herself and the women in her village into the modern era using the traditional crafts and methods that have sustained them for generations. Rugs were among the first products developed in Teotitlán del Valle expressly for an outside market. Interest in them picked up in the 1970s after a villager from Teotitlán del Valle working in the United States saw woven textiles lying on a floor. The rugs were based on the serapes and blankets that had been made in the village for two millenniums, and which had only been sold to locals or tourists.
Most of the 5,500 or so people in Teotitlán del Valle are involved in rug-weaving. And among them, Gutierrez is a powerful force. About 20 years ago, she tells me, she and other single women (those who were either unmarried or widowed, or whose husbands had migrated to the United States for work) were being exploited by village middlemen, who forced the women to sell their rugs through them. The women weren’t being paid enough to break even. Gutierrez, along with her mother and grandmother, brought a few of the women together to figure out what other products they could make and sell that the middlemen wouldn’t notice or care about. They tried their hand at candle making, trinkets, embroidery and baked goods. But the men insisted that the women continue to produce rugs for them. So the women next tried a schedule where they would work for the middlemen one week, and for themselves the next.
The money allowed the women to buy wool and to sell rugs from their homes, but the middlemen continued to threaten them. The women then decided to travel 200 miles every week to the market in Mexico City to avoid undercutting the middlemen. This only further ostracized them at home. “We were called ‘women of the street,’” Gutierrez recalls. They gave up trying to sell rugs, and then discovered that the grant had in fact been a one-year loan they were unable to repay. They were very publicly sued by the government and were further shunned in the community. They sold their jewelry and livestock to pay their debts. On top of it all, they still had to attend the political rallies. Gutierrez remembers feeling hopeless.
But one day, about 10 years ago, as Gutierrez was walking back to the bus in Oaxaca, she met a woman named Flor Cervantes who worked in the nonprofit space to help women achieve economic and social equality. For the next eight years, Cervantes met and worked with the women in their village. In the first couple of years, they did not discuss work; Cervantes started by teaching things like basic reproductive health.
At this point in the story, Gutierrez’s sister Silvia, 26, finds some old pictures to show me. In one, a group of women, including Gutierrez and her mother Sofia, now 70, regard a diagram of fallopian tubes. For Gutierrez and her peers, many of them already mothers, their own bodies were still a mystery. Cervantes taught them about domestic violence — “There’s a word for that?!” says Gutierrez, recalling their shock at the time, “We just thought that was life” — and about the concepts of self-esteem and confidence: “Ideas that had never occurred to us,” she adds.
After a few years, Cervantes began to hold more business-oriented workshops on how to have meetings or set up a treasury. But they never discussed weaving. Cervantes was focused on helping the women support themselves by keeping chickens and pigs. “Even though we had no money, for the first time in our lives, we felt rich,” recalls Gutierrez. They had all the meat and eggs they could eat, and they could trade for other goods thanks to Teotitlán del Valle’s barter system. After eight years, Cervantes encouraged the women to work on their own. “She sacrificed much in her own life to help us,” Gutierrez says tearing up. “We not only learned skills from her,” she adds, “but we also learned to open our hearts.” Gutierrez feels an immense gratitude toward Cervantes; she believes she is responsible for everything she and her group have achieved, and for the woman she is today. It is hard to square the bright, woman sitting across the table from me with the abject powerlessness she describes experiencing only 10 years earlier.
The group, which fluctuates between 13 and 20 women, received official approval for their cooperative, Vida Nueva, which they would need to allow them to sell their goods outside of Mexico. They won a grant from the U.N. for new looms. And they initiated a practice of developing a different program each year to benefit their community, each woman giving as much as she chooses from her own profits. Over a year ago, they got their first wholesale client, a new shop in Oaxaca that sells the work of various artisans, and their first export clients.
Now, they are creating rugs for the group’s first North American client, a Texas-based home décor website called The Citizenry. The company requested rugs in neutrals with blown-up, simplified patterns, which felt, at first, like an affront to her traditional design practices. “We love color, and to us a rug without color is depressing,” she says. “But then I figured perhaps life in the city is so chaotic that people want something more calming.”
I ask how the men treat her now. She says that men have changed over the years and she encounters less machismo today. And her community projects and her commercial work have garnered respect, she says. The collective she heads initiated the village’s recycling system, created an eldercare program and spearheaded a reforestation of communal land, even getting the local government to kick in additional acreage. Last year she was the first woman to be offered an official position in the village assembly. “Just a year before,” she says, “no one wanted a woman to have a position.” The men respect how she has diversified her product offerings from just rugs into bags, totes, pillow cushions and even sandals, using leather from a neighboring village. In a traditional community, where the interests of the group come before the interests of any individual, change is welcome only when it benefits the whole community. Modest and proud, Gutierrez does not say anything more. Still, it’s clear that this small group of women, formed out of poverty and desperation, has altered the economy of its entire village.