Author and photographer Eric Mindling has spent nearly three decades traveling the back roads of Oaxaca, Mexico. His 2016 book Oaxaca Stories in Cloth: A Book about People, Belonging, Identity, and Adornment shows not only his love, but his respect for the dramatic geography of Oaxaca and the people who have made it their home. More than 100 sensitive, intimate, full-color portraits of traditional people offer rare glimpses of Oaxacan village life. The companion vignettes are a beautiful blend of villagers’ personal stories and Mindling’s praise song to vanishing cultural traditions of Mexico. The excerpt below is a beautiful and significant account of Eric’s exchange with a Chinantec elder named El Mago. —Karen Brock, associate publisher
El Mago the Magician was not an easy man to ﬁnd. Mystery and rumor surrounded him. “Be warned, he won’t talk to just anyone,” I was told. “They call him El Mago because he is a witch doctor.” But I was also told that El Mago knew stories about the remarkable designs on the Chinantec huipils of the Valle Nacional area, and I very much wanted to hear those stories. For all the rich costume heritage in Oaxaca, few people know the symbolic meaning of the designs and colors.
I had been traveling for several days in the villages of the Valle Nacional municipality, where El Mago lived, looking for people who continued to dress in traditional fashion. The long, rectangular cotton huipils that are worn here are a basic part of indigenous women’s apparel throughout Mesoamerica. Yet the designs embroidered on them are unique to this area. In fact, most communities dress in a style speciﬁcally their own. In a sense, traditional styles are like the ﬂags of nations, each one singular, recognizable, and replete with story. But in this case, the nations are villages or regions.
El Mago had overseen the weaving of his daughter’s huipil when she chose to marry in the old way, and the magician made sure that all the right symbols were woven into it. El Mago not only knew the stories of the Chinantec huipils; he also knew how they were intertwined with the lives of women and of nature.
Lives of Women
“All our dress huipils are characterized by tree designs,” El Mago said, pointing to a white cotton huipil decorated with a stylized, red, geometric tree. His hand had the strength of an ironsmith and the grace of an aristocrat. “Look at this one here, the design on it is called El Arbol Disparramado, a sprawling, wildly branching sapling. This is what little girls once wore, because they too were wildly branching saplings, running about and stretching upwards day by day like some fast growing, verdant plant. As they grew out of, or wore through one huipil, their mother or aunt or sister made them a new one, with even longer branches on it to represent the girl’s growth.”
El Mago continued with his telling. “Once the girl began to menstruate she became a señorita, and word was sent to sisters and female neighbors until a menstruation huipil could be found and lent. We call it Arbol de la Primavera, the Tree of Spring, and it meant she could be courted. In a few months’ time she would have one woven for herself, and as on her previous huipils, her family symbol would also be part of the design.” El Mago brushed his hand across the Primavera huipil. “You see here, this means she was the daughter of the family of the curandera, the healer. Healers were highly respected; she would have been recognized with that honor as she went about her day.”
El Mago described the way young men, accompanied by their ambassadors, elder members of their family, would come to request the young woman. They would knock on the door, always on a Saturday afternoon. “Excuse me,” the grandfather would say at the threshold, “I have earth, I have sand on my feet, I come to dirty your house. I humbly come with the hope that I may ask the hand of your daughter for this young man.” The elders would be invited in, chairs would be pulled out, and there would be conversation. The daughter, observing from another room, would relay a message through her father. Usu- ally the message was no. It might be no again and again, suitor after suitor. But always the hosting family would treat the visiting family to a hot corn drink. A moment would inevitably come, however, when the right man at the right time would pop the question, perhaps on his second or third visit. And she, chewing at the corner of her shawl in anxiety and anticipation, would say yes.
“And then a new huipil would be made, El Arbol del Compromiso, the Commitment Tree huipil, and the young man would bring a gift. But I don’t mean ﬂowers or a beaded necklace. No, he would bring a deer. The following Saturday there would be a feast, with fermented tepache and food made with yellow, blue, red, and white corn. If she ate this food with pleasure it meant that she was happy and this was the ﬁnal acceptance of the groom.”
“The commitment huipil was worn for two, maybe three years, and in this time the girl learned to become a woman and the boy learned to become a man. She had to learn to grind corn and make perfect tortillas, to cook delicious squash empanadas, trout-gut empanadas, soups. She had to learn to embroider, to know plants. And the boy, he went to work with his future father- in-law, getting to know how this new father farmed, what his land was like. And he had to learn how to weave, because here among us Chinantecs, it is often the man who weaves the cloth and the woman who embroiders the design.
“After two or three years, in which time this couple could not touch each other, they would be married. Again this young woman would change her way of dressing and she would now wear the marriage huipil, El Arbol de Matrimonio. On the bottom is a ﬂower with a heart in the center that unites two ﬁgures, and from this design six branches grow, representing children. Above there is a dove that symbolizes the union of two beings.
“And now, married, she is a woman, so she will have the right, and the obligation, to wear the different ritual huipils at sacred festivals and events throughout the year. There was the huipil of harvest, which was embroidered with lush foliage symbolizing abundance and worn after the corn was gathered. Its purpose was multiple, both proclaiming a thank-you to the gods and goddesses of the elements, of the sun and moon and stars, for a successful harvest and also transmitting the message that ‘my family is now free to help another with their harvest’ in our mano vuelta system of reciprocated work. There was the moon cycle of May when thanks and reverence were shown to the corn goddess for her abundance at the stone temple in Monte Flor. The rituals of giving thanks were many.”
El Mago’s stories drew me into an ancient world that I’d caught glimpses of during my twenty years of living here. The fact is, many of the old ways of doing and being are gone and can only be perceived in ﬂeeting glimpses, deﬁned by negative spaces and rumors in the wind. The original cultures with their monumental wealth of accumulated knowledge, the places of power, pride, and beauty that distinguished indigenous communities before the Spanish Conquest have been broken, shamed, systematically ignored, and swept into the corner to be forgotten.
And yet they persist, like the enduring roots of an enormous oak tree that lifts and splits the concrete sidewalk or the seeds that always ﬁnd the earth and push upward toward the light. They persist in the stories and memories of people like El Mago.
And in some villages, like those around Valle Nacional, and many dozens more throughout the state of Oaxaca, community fashion bespeaks a deep cultural heritage. These unique styles of adornment, the ﬂags of heritage, the wrappings of roots and belonging that deﬁne a community’s history are still woven, sewn, dyed, embroidered, and worn by the daughters and sons of those who ﬁrst wandered into this land some ten thousand years ago.
Learn more about the ancient living cultures and the woven symbols of the peoples of Oaxaca.