Jacobo Mendoza tells me “the first step is birth, the second is youth, the third is wisdom, coming of age. The final step, which turns down, is death or perhaps heaven and then the cycle begins again.” He is pointing to the grecas. He explains that they also adorn the pre-Hispanic Zaptoec stronghold, Mitla. I try to picture them in stone. They look Greek to me.
I am intent on interpreting Jacobo Mendoza’s rug patterns. They seem both modern and yet ancient to me, ablaze in amazing tones of red and orange, or softly represented in greens and gold, indigo and yellow. Wavy patterns of water?
“No”, he tells me, “those are mountains.”
Navajo zig zags?
“No, that is lightening.”
Intricate patterns painted before the arrival of the Spaniards and depicted in the Borgia Codex endure in Jacobo’s weaving today. Nature, eyes of the gods, the cross of Quetzalcoatl, lightening, rain, the mountains that frame the view from his front door and are known as place of the gods intrigue me as I ask him what this pattern means, one by one, this one and then the next. Jacobo has been weaving Zapotec magic since he was a child of eight. He weaves them without a pattern, inventing new scenarios with the patterns that run in his blood. He is happy to explain. I am glad, interested to know the meanings I will put beside my bed or on the wall.
The path from wool to rug is a long one with many steps. Early Zapotecs wove with cotton and ixtle, the fiber of the magay plant and are rumored to have paid their tribute to the Aztecs with their fine textiles. Sheep and the treadle loom were introduced by the Spanish Dominican Friar Juan Lopez de Zarate in 1535. The Zapotecs have not looked back, producing serapes, clothing and tourist goods, mostly rugs, ever since. Teotilán del Valle in the state of Oaxaca remains famous for its rug weaving families and its Zapotec traditions.
To produce his rugs and fine wall hangings, Jacobo and his family first prepare the hand-spun wool from its rough state to the threads. Maria Luisa, his wife is an expert spinner. Their children Syliva and Jacobito participate in all aspects of the production (after school). Jacobo uses many kinds of wool; cashmere, alpaca, the rough local hand-spun sheep wool, as well as silk and gold and silver threads. His rugs run the gamut from all natural colored wool to super finos (extra fine) pure silk masterpieces.
Once prepared as yarn, the threads must then be dyed. Although aniline (synthetic) dyes were introduced in the early 20th century and are commonly used in Mexico including in Teotitlán del Valle, the Mendozas are dedicated to using only natural dyes. Because of his special expertise Jacobo is featured in French Dye Master Michel Garcia’s films on the slow dying technique, achieving a lovely bright yellow from the lenuga de vaca weed that grows in his garden. Other natural dye stuffs include cochineal (an insect), indigo, zapote, musgo de roca (moss), rosewood, different bark and various weeds that grow locally (whose names I can neither spell nor pronounce.)
Jacobo clearly lives in two worlds; traditional Zapotec and the mix that is modern Mexico. He has traveled the states where his rugs have been featured at New Hampshire Art Institute and the San Jose Art Museum as well as numerous galleries. His pieces can be found at the Peter Gray museum in Puerto Vallarta and Museo de Textiles in Oaxaca. His friends hail from the US, France, Germany and San Miguel. His daughter attends university studying to become an economist and yet, he remains deeply traditional. He prefers to speak in Zapotec and honors his traditions within his family. He is hardworking to a fault. As a friend I find him honest, loyal and kind with a strong sense of personal identity as a Zapotec. Knowing and working with Jacobo and his family gives me hope that traditions and cultures such as his will be able to thrive and survive in the years ahead.
Photos by: Barbara Erickson, Alexis White and Rodrigo Lopez
About the Author:
Barbara Erickson lives in San Miguel de Allende and Barra de Potosí, a small fishing village in the state of Guerrero. She retired after selling her business in Southern California and happily moved to Mexico with her husband of many years in 2003. She loves Mexican artesanía, traveling in Mexico, studying Spanish, making friends and supporting indigenous artists and hardworking students.
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