Although Oaxaca has been overlooked as a travel destination in recent years due to the media’s constant misrepresentation of the dangers of Mexico, intrepid friends have told fanciful tales that finally lured me and my reluctant companions to this verdant land.
In my opinion, the best trips are the ones where you get to explore the land and the culture without too many established plans. This was not the case in Oaxaca. I had spent hours upon hours planning this trip and lined up a long list of destinations, restaurants, and day trips. Thankfully, our tour guide José was not afraid to take us on what first seemed like an impromptu encounter, but later revealed itself to be a kismet rendezvous.
We had hired José to drive us around to some of the ruins and villages outside of Oaxaca City, each of which are known for a particular artistry, be it pottery, chocolate, or weaving. In this case, I had specifically requested pottery and had said nothing about an interest in weaving, but suddenly, we were pulling up to a private residence with a locked gate.
José got out to see if anyone was home, and indeed there was. We were invited into the home and workplace of Benito Hernández Contreras, a 63-year-old, third generation weaver, who weaves masterpieces on a loom built by his own grandfather.
His work is so stunning that he was once invited to sell his creations at the Guggenheim Museum. Even as a writer who reveres the power of words above all else, I am humbled by the fact that I am incapable of conveying the charm and enchantment of Benito and his world – at least with words alone.
Gracious, kind-hearted, and an exceptionally eloquent English speaker – especially for someone who never had any formal training – Benito first showed us around his open-air workshop. He showed us baskets of raw materials, such as wool and indigo leaves, which are eventually transformed into the rugs, wall hangings, and scarves that take months to complete.
Original weavings were made with cotton and ixtle, a plant fiber typically obtained from agave and yucca, that was used as payment to the Aztecs. Around 1535, Dominican bishop Juan López De Zárate introduced people to sheep’s wool and treadle looms, which enabled them to make more substantial weavings such as serapes, rugs, and blankets that were then sold at markets.
Benito still makes the natural dyes for his weavings the same way his ancestors did. He showed us the cactus leaves he had hanging on strings along the stone wall, covered in what looked to be white powdery dots, but turned out to be living cochineal bugs, which feed off the nopal, and are then used to make the bright crimson dye called carmine.
I had no idea they were still alive until Benito crushed one in my hand, saying, “It sacrifices itself for us.”
There was reverence in his tone, even for this little creature, no doubt, because it is ultimately the source of his and his family’s sustenance. Respect for the land, the process of creation, and the art itself is something we felt from everyone we met in Oaxaca, whether their talent was making mole, animal carvings, or rugs.
Benito shared with us that his own passion is teaching the younger generations, including his own children, these venerable weaving techniques. Although the art of weaving has been around for centuries, it’s quickly becoming obsolete in lieu of synthetics. Even this land – one of the poorest states in Mexico – is, sadly, not immune to the tide of modern technology and commercialism. The transition, unless hindered by those who have respect for the preservation of weaving and other traditions, will eventually leave artists such as Benito without a purpose or an income.
All we could talk about after leaving Benito was how fascinated we were by him and how we wanted to share his story and his talent with the world.
I don’t remember exactly when we decided we should make a documentary about him, but I emailed him not long after we got back home to San Antonio to see if he would be interested in being our subject, and he was, as you can expect, as excited as we were and ever-gracious.
We already have our plane tickets and our director of photography on standby to return to Oaxaca at the end of September, the same time we went last year, to try to capture and preserve just a sliver of Benito’s wisdom and gift for weaving.
Maybe we’ll be lucky enough that this documentary will somehow catch fire and inspire artists, tourists, art lovers, and others to learn about and support a soon-to-be-forgotten treasure.
If you’d like to have your own heirloom, made by Benito himself, we are currently offering his art work as rewards to backers of our Kickstarter campaign, which we’re using to raise funds to produce the documentary. We are just a few hundred dollars and days away from reaching our goal. We appreciate all the support we can get.
To see past work, such as a documentary on the local food scene that won an award last year at the San Antonio Film Festival, click here.
Please also follow our endeavors in Oaxaca on Facebook.
Top image:Benito, a third generation weaver in Oaxaca, Mexico, works to preserve the ancient, traditional Zapotecan methods of weaving. Photo by Kimberly Suta.