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Back Strap Loom Weaving has been practiced since pre-Hispanic times. I gave it go in San Cristobal de las Casas, and let’s just say I won’t be quitting my day job anytime soon!

This beautiful tradition and craft has been handed down generations. 

Depending on the size and intricacy of the design it can take anywhere from days to months to complete a piece.

It’s a fairly simple process and device but is by no means easy! You are essentially creating a grid pattern of interlocking yarns.

A loom is used to facilitate the weaving process, by providing a means of tensioning. 

The artisan usually kneels on the ground to weave. By moving their body, the weaver can control the amount of tension in the warp yarns throughout the weaving process.

The process:

  1. Cotton is threaded onto skeins
  2. Thread is selected with the patterns and colors of the final textile in mind.
  3. Once the thread is rolled, the design is painstakingly layered on the uridora, or warp board.
  4. The artisan establishes the final length and width of the piece. With the blackstrap technique the width is limited so this is usually used for small textiles like belts, bags, table runner, trim etc. 
  5. The warped thread is carefully transferred to the back strap loom.
  6. One end of the loom is tied to a tree, post, or wall. The other end is wrapped around the back of the artisan (hence blackstrap loom)
  7. You can increase or decrease tension by rocking forward or backward.
  8. The entire process and pattern is kept in the memory of the artisan, there are no written patterns or guides used.

Teotitlán del Valle is known for Zapotec weaving, using traditional techniques, tools, dyes, and patterns.

If you are interested in the crafts and artisans of Mexico, Teotitlán del Valle, a small Mexican village near Oaxaca city is a must visit.

Teotitlán del Valle is known for Zapotec weaving, using traditional techniques, tools, dyes, and patterns.

We were able to watch and learn about the whole process at Casa Don Juan and, I’ll tell you what, the art of natural dye is impressive, and so is the weaving and machines used to produce these beautiful pieces.

From woven clothing to traditional wool rugs, you’ll find It all in this community.

Zapotec weaving rugs

There is roughly 400,000 Zapotecs, known as the “cloud people”, around Mexico, but they once mostly inhabited the Valley of Oaxaca, where they built ancient cities such as Monte Alban and Mitla.

The Zapotec weaving process

Preparing the yarn 

Most pieces are made from wool – sheep, yak and alpaca but historically agave fibre and cotton were also used. To prepare the yarn the wool is brushed using paddles with wire prongs to get the fibres all laying in the same direction. Once it’s been thoroughly brushed, it is spun on a wheel into a usable yarn.

Natural dye process

The bundles of spun yarn are dyed using a mixture of plants, minerals and bugs, including marigolds, indigo and cactus parasites. After dying the yarn, it is washed in the river to ensure the colour doesn’t run on the final piece.

No two batches will every be the exact same colour adding to the beauty of this technique.

Weaving

The majority of the townspeople work in the weaving industry, and the families usually form co-ops by working on their pieces in their own homes and selling them from a central location. Each family or co-op has their own style, process and patterns when it comes to weaving. They all use Zapotec symbols, which hold special meaning, but the way they are combined is unique to the family. These patterns are blended into every piece from memory, and the techniques have been passed down through the generations!

Popular Zapotec weaving symbols used in the patterns are: 

  • Zapotec Star 
    The four points of the diamond represent elements of earth, air, water and fire.
  • Mountains
    A reminder of the transition of the Zapotec through the mountains, all of them sacred. 
  • Rain water
    One of the most vital elements for the sustenance of life. Signifies renewal, fertility and change. 
  • Cycle of life
    The geometric spiral represents the life cycle according to the Zapotec worldview.

    Each step represents a stage of life, beginning at birth and moving through youth, maturity and then decay, followed by the other world.
  • Clouds
    Zapotec Indians are known as people of the clouds.
  • Agave
    The agave or the maguey as it’s locally known is integral to the central valleys of Oaxaca.

    Both wild and cultivated, this plant offers sweet nectar that can be enjoyed as is or fermented into the local alcohol, mezcal.
  • Leaves
    Leaves of life are collected and help with health, respect, purity and healing.
  • Butterfly 
    The butterfly represents the spirit of the ancestors. When someone dies the spirit becomes a butterfly.

The whole process is time consuming but the finished product is not only beautiful but also helps to preserve the Zapotec tradition, culture and history.

Pro tip: We recommend you stop off at Teotitlán del Valle on your way to the Tlacolula market day.

For somewhere that doesn’t grow a lot of cacao itself, Oaxaca punches above its weight in the chocolate department.

It’s mostly consumed in a drink but there are plenty of blocks around too.

Check out this Oaxaqueño Chocolate recipe and tutorial if you’re interested in making your own. There’s nothing like peeling your own cacao to make you really appreciate the work that goes into your sweet treat.

Ingredients:

  • 500 gr. cacao
  • 400 gr. sugar
  • 1/4 slice of cinnamon
  • 15 almonds

Directions:

  1. Roast the cacao for 25 minutes over a hot flame.
  2. Let it cool and peel all the cacao.
  3. Blend the cacao with the almonds and cinnamon.
  4. Blend again adding the sugar.
  5. Pour into your moulds and let cool.
  6. Mix 2 pieces in 1 lt. of hot milk or hot water.
  7. Enjoy a hot chocolate.

Get a taste of Mexico at home with this delicious salsa ranchera recipe. We recommended serving with totopos (corn chips) and a cerveza (beer)

Ingredients:

  • 1lb/450 gms tomatoes, broiled
  • 4 chiles guajilloes (no veins or seeds) or any fresh, hot green chiles, charred
  • 2 garlic cloves, roughly chopped
  • 2 tablespoons of vegetable oil
  • 3 tablespoons finely chopped white onions
  • Salt to taste

Directions:

Blend the tomatoes, chiles and garlic together until fairly smooth.

Heat the oil and fry the onions gently without browning until it is translucent.

Add the blended ingredients and the salt to cook over fairly brisk heat for about 5 minutes. Stirring and the scraping the bottom of the pan until the sauce has reduced a little and the blend until smooth.

First off it has nothing to do with Halloween, is not sad and is a happy celebration of life.

One of the key features of Day of the Dead is the an oferenda or an altar which is made to honour the deceased & can be displayed at a gravesite or at home.

Altars with 3 levels represent the sky, the earth and the underworld. Altars with 7 levels are common and relate to the 7 levels that a soul must traverse before reaching heaven (or hell).

Upon dying, a person was believed to travel to Chicunamictlán, the Land of the Dead. Only after getting through nine challenging levels, a journey of several years, could the person’s soul finally reach Mictlán, the final resting place.

No matter how many levels you have for your alter some of the must have elements represent water, wind, earth & fire. Water is left in a pitcher so the spirits can quench their thirst after their journey. Papel picado, or traditional paper banners represent the wind. Earth is represented by food, especially bread.

Along with the water, wind & earth elements, photos of those who have passed & their family are added along with skulls (calavera) usually made of sugar to represent death & the sweetness of life. Cempushil flowers which are used because they are similar to the colour of the sun – an important god in prehispanic times. The name is derived from Aztec origins and roughly translates to the “flower of many petals.” The petals are also used to lead from the graves to the house as a guide for the spirits to their altars using their vibrant colors and pungent scent.

November 1st is when the spirits of the children that have passed are said to visit and toys & candy are added to the altar, then on November 2nd it is the adults turn and that’s when it’s time to bring out the cerveza, tequila, black mole & their favourite dishes.

Another popular figure for DoD is La Catrina, sometimes you’ll see her as part of an alter or as a decoration, and icon of her own, year-round. Her purpose is to honor & protect those who have passed & to symbolize the relationship Mexicans have with death.

The current iteration of Catrina is a female skeleton wearing a wide-brimmed hat & dress common for upper class Mexican women in the late 1800s – early 1900s. This style satirizes those who favored European culture over Mexican foods and customs. Popularized in graphic images by artist Jose Guadalupe Posada.

What do you feel when you think about death? 

Most know Tequila as something you shot before a wedge of lemon and salt but few realise that it’s also a scenic town in the Sierra Madre Mountains in western Mexico – 52kms out of Guadalajara.  

Tequila is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site; and a Pueblo Mágico.  

Mexico’s pueblos mágicos programme was developed by the tourist board in order to promote the rich cultural heritage and history of Mexico through smaller, once overlooked towns. 

Read more about the program here.

So what is Tequila

Tequila – in order to be called tequila it has to be made from Agave Tequilana Azul Weber – the plant AND it has to come from a specific area of Jalisco, Nayarit, Michoacan, Guanajuato, and Tamaulipas. 

If it was made somewhere else, it’s not tequila. 

Jalisco is the most important producer and the best tequila comes from the cities Los Altos de Jalisco, Tequila, Amatitlan, Arandas.

It also has to contain 35- and 55-percent alcohol.

To make tequila the agave has to grow for at least 5 years in order to produce enough sugar to produce fermentation on its own. If the plant produces enough sugars it will be called 100% Agave, if not it will be called Licor de Agave.

Once the plant is ready, a Jimador – the person that cuts the leaves,  leaves what looks like a huge pineapple. 

These pineapples are taken to huge steam ovens and are cooked and crushed to obtain the juice. The juice is then fermented and passed through two distillation processes before producing a final product. This is Tequila Blanco or white tequila. This is that the stuff that’s used in your margaritas – it’s not super high quality but good enough to mix. 

To produce a higher quality, more flavoursome tequila, once it reaches Blanco point, rather than bottling it for sale it can pass through an aging process in oak barrels to make either: 

  • Tequila Reposado – aged between 2 – 10 months or 
  • Añejo (12 – 24 months), 
  • Extra Añejo (more than 2 years).

The wood gives the colouring that comes with añejo as well as a finer taste of course a higher price tag.  

Ok so what about Mezcal? 

The plant used in Mezcal is also an Agave, but a different variety. Mezcal is not limited to one type of agave like Tequila but the most common or the ones that produce the best Mezcales are Agave Espadin or Agave Weber. 

Mezcal can also be produced in any state in Mexico but the most popular comes from Oaxaca and Tamaulipas.

The big difference between Tequila and Mezcal is its production, Mezcal is more of a craft drink – like the craft beer or tequila. In general Mezcal has a much greater range of possibilities because it’s not limited to one type of agave, it can be a blend. 

Each Agave Plant has to obtain maturity for 6-8 years, then leaves are cut and it is cooked just like tequila. But other than the lifting of some of the restrictions that tequila has to be made under another major difference is the cooking of the pineapple. Using a large fire and volcanic rock, once there are only ashes and the rock has gotten hot enough temperature the pineapples are thrown into the fire to be cooked, that is where Mezcal gets its smoky flavours. Then the pinapples are crushed to obtain the juice and it is fermented and distilled just like tequila.

At the end of the day tequila is a variety of mezcal but there are some branding and legal aspects that say they are different. It sounds like Tequila lucked up and is the famous cousin but Mezcales is the more interesting in general. 

Because of its handcraft process, Mezcal is a more refined and expensive drink in Mexico.

How to drink? 

No, you don’t want to take a shot with lime and salt. This was a process that was sold to people to disguise the horrible taste of poorly produced, cheap tequila. 

Good tequila can be sipped on its own and won’t give you a nasty hangover if you drink it straight but there is a technique – Tequila Yoga. 

  • Pour a small about into a glass, (by the stem), raise the glass to eye level and look at the tequila’s color. Is it white? Get your shaker you’re having margaritas!
  • If it’s a light to deep brown give it a swirl, just like wine and look for the ‘legs’ or the ‘string of pearls’ AKA the liquid clinging to the walls of the glass. If it sticks you can proceed with your sipping.
  • But first! Take a deep breath and exhale all the air out of your mouth, take a small sip, enjoy the flavours and then breath out. 
  • Pour about one ounce of tequila in a tequila glass or snifter. Hold the glass at the stem (not the bowl), raise the glass to eye level and look at the tequila’s color.
  • Swirl the tequila gently in its glass. Note how the tequila clings to the walls of the glass, looking for the “string of pearls” effect.[2]
  • Take a small sip, swishing the tequila around in your mouth for about 10 seconds, letting the alcohol travel over different parts of your tongue.
  • Swallow and repeat! Fancy, huh?

Salud!

1. Hablas español?

While you don’t need to be a fluent Spanish speaker it is a good idea to pick up some key phrases and make an effort to speak the language.

A few phrases we recommend learning are:

  • “hola” (hello),
  • “por favor”(please)
  • “buenos dias” (good morning),
  • “buenas tardes” (good afternoon) and
  • “adios” (good-bye) or
  • “hasta luego” (see you later)
  • “habla despacio” (speak lowly) or
  • “otra vez por favor” (once again please}

2. Be Polite

Mexicans are some of the politest and friendliest people you will ever meet and you should match that by using niceties, so at the risk of sounding like your Mother remember to mind your Ps and Qs.

Always greet people when you enter and use “Desculpe” (excuse me) before asking a question of or directions. It also pays to ask if they speak English before assuming they do and launching into a request.

Mexican communication is more subtle than a lot of tourists are used to and being too direct can come across rude or even aggressive. This is especially true of American communication and Kiwi’s probably lay somewhere in the middle with our direct-ness.

A good example of this is if a street vendor approaches you or offers you something, you should say “Buena Suerte” (good luck) or “Muchos Gracias Ahorito No” (thanks very much. not now) not ‘no gracias’ (No thank you).  It is kind of like the Kiwi ‘yeah, nah’, let them down gently.

3. Take it easy

In Mexico everything moves at a slower pace so you’re better off relaxing and accepting that before you arrive than getting your knickers in a twist. Getting frustrated is only going to get you labelled as rude and then you’ll never get anything done.

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