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STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND

Updated: May 8

A NEW JOURNEY BEGINS


Acaxochitlan, Hidalgo Mexico

Photo by Jennifer Bjarnason

March 1, 2017


As a lone, female traveler, it can be slightly daunting to head off into unknown territory, where cultural and language barriers exist. In the highlands of Hidalgo, tucked away past the city lights of Tulancingo, is a small town named Acaxochitlan. I have come here in search of a Nahua weaver I met in Mexico City last November. 


As a small town of 35,000 people, perched at 7400 feet between folds of sweeping mountains, Acaxochitlan isn't a destination for foreigners. Some locals rolled down their car windows to wave at me and say hello. I checked into a three story hotel to learn I was the only guest my first night. I later learned the reason for my being the sole patron of the cocina down the street was because I had arrived on Ash Wednesday - a day of fasting among the locals. It certainly seemed I was the only outsider in town.During the week I spent between Hidalgo and Veracruz, I met only two individuals who spoke English.  It was refreshing to be in an area without the comforts I've become accustomed to elsewhere in Mexico. 



Church of Our Lady Guadalupe

Acaxochitlan, Hidalgo Mexico

Photo by Jennifer Bjarnason

March 1, 2017


Acaxochitlan is a Nahuatl word that translates loosely as "place where the reed bears flowers." There are three languages of prominence here - being Nahuatl, Otomi and Spanish. Most who speak indigenous Nahuatl and Otomi are also able to speak in Spanish, though not all are fluent.


Arriving on Ash Wednesday was intriguing, as I had never been exposed to this tradition. It was by happenstance I witnessed the unusual ritual, upon visiting the church for some peaceful solitude after my long and arduous bus ride. The Church our Lady Guadalupe was constructed in 1909 and offered a welcome relief from the hot afternoon.  


Ash Wednesday takes place 40 days before Easter, marking the start of Lent, which is one of the most prominent observations of the Christian Liturgical calendar. Palms are associated with Easter, as they were placed before Christ when he entered the Holy City. For this reason, the Easter palms are saved for burning at Lent. The ashes are then used as a blessing for those humble enough to acknowledge their most secretive sins. I felt captivated by what was happening, as one by one, individuals emerged from the front altar bearing a stark black ashen cross upon their foreheads. When the Priest vacated the church bearing the same cross upon his temple, I was struck by the beauty of a tradition that demonstrates such humility and equality among people.



Church of Our Lady Guadalupe

Acaxochitlan, Hidalgo Mexico

Photo by Jennifer Bjarnason March 1, 2017


There are places even Google Earth hasn't visited, and Santa Ana Tzacuala is one of them. The experience of visiting Estela Vargas and her family in the remote Nahua village of Santa Ana Tzacuala was fascinating and informative. The driver who brought me to the village couldn't find the unmarked street, so stopped at the centro food market. Rather than giving us directions, a young woman got in the cab to guide us straight to Estela's home, where she remained for much of the duration of my visit.


When we arrived at Estela's home, there were two big pots full of fabric being dyed. I've long studied plant technology from the Pacific Northwest Coast to learn about the various pigments derived from specific plants and trees, so this was quite special to witness and learn about.



Estela Vargas dying fabric with natural indigo pigment

Santa Ana Tzacuala, Hidalgo Mexico

Photo by Jennifer Bjarnason March 2, 2017



Indigo has a long, extensive history of representing power and royalty. "The Hindu god Krishna is most often depicted in blue, victims of human sacrifice were often painted blue in ancient Maya culture and the Virgin Mary is regularly imagined draped in blue clothes in Christian art." (Anne Matteson - Indigo in the Early Modern World).  


Before the creation of synthetic dyes used for denim jeans and other factory-made clothes, blue dyes were of the rarest in the world. There are over 300 related species of indigofera genus, but only two are acknowledged as being historical trade commodities. Indigofera tinctoria of India and Asia lead the indigo trade into Europe after 1498, while over in the Americas, explorers would observe indigenous peoples utilizing indigo pigments in pottery pieces, as well as for ritual. This species is called indigofera suffruticosa, known to the Nahua peoples as xiquilite and most commonly as Anil.


With a territory that spans the southern United States to the north of Argentina, this species grows in dry soil and thrives in areas that have been previously cultivated. The pinnate (feather-like) leaves reveal reddish-yellow flowers, and the plant can grow between 2-4 feet high. The Maya civilization was famed for their "Maya-blue" pottery - made from clay that was mixed with indigo pigment from Anil.



Estela Vargas showing the pigmented fabric

Santa Ana Tzacuala, Hidalgo Mexico

Photo by Jennifer Bjarnason, March 2, 2017



Born on April 23, 1968 to Ramon Vargas Suarez and Matiana Vargas of Santa Ana Tzacuala (Municipality of Acaxochitlan), Maria Estela Vargas Vargas has been dedicated to back-strap weaving since she was 14 years old. As per Nahua tradition, Estela was taught the fine weaving techniques by her mother Matiana. It takes an average of two years for a weaver to master these techniques, from learning how to set up the loom, to maintaining the tension for even lines.


In addition to weaving, Estela harvests and procures her own dyes from nature, as well as spins her own wool. She has taught her daughters and nieces to weave, and will continue teaching women in her family.  


Estela and her family create a number of different garments, all of which require dedication, patience. skill and time. The Quexquemetl is one of the most famous garments from the central Mexican region, and is a backstrap woven poncho while the Nahuatl word for Rebozo is Payo. Estela was recently invited to Pachuca, Hidalgo where her work was showcased on radio and television broadcast. She has also participated in many auditioned cultural festivals in Hidalgo and Mexico City.  


Estela says she is very proud to carry these traditions forward, and that she thanks God for her gift.


Thank you to Alberich Vargas for helping me obtain information on Estela's biography, and natural dyes.



Backstrap Loom Weaving

Santa Ana Tzacuala, Hidalgo Mexico

Photo by Jennifer Bjarnason March 2, 2017



Warp, Weft, Shuttle, Shed Rod and Heddle Strings are terms associated with weaving. Warp refers to the threads that the loom is strung with, while weft describes the thread that weaves back and forth via the shuttle. The shed rod and heddle strings are part of the complex set-up that allows one to separate the odd from even strings, in order to weave back and forth.


The archaeological record indicates backstrap weaving in Mesoamerica dates back to 1500 BC. It is common for baby girls to receive weaving tools at birth, even though most girls start learning the basic weaving process around the age of 8. This tradition has been passed from mother to daughter for centuries.  


As women in indigenous communities contribute substantial income to their families through the sale of their textiles and handicrafts, these art forms are a crucial foundation for economic and cultural stability. With young people turning to high-fashion, the weavers and embroiders of Mexico are now relying on international buyers more than ever before.



Estela Vargas weaving on Backstrap Loom

Santa Ana Tzacuala, Hidalgo Mexico

Photo by Jennifer Bjarnason March 2, 2017



When I arrived, there was a pot of coffee de Olla (coffee made with cinnamon) just off the fire and fresh made tortillas being prepared for lunch. The pots of fabric were ushered aside to make room for everyone to join the feast of soup, tortillas and a beautiful avocado salsa. I was so honoured to have this opportunity to meet Estela and her family - her son Alberich, her aunty Carmen, sister Alicia - and many other family members. I look forward to returning, as Estela mentioned the opportunity for a group to learn how to harvest and process the Anil plant for a dye workshop.


Estela's doctor arrived during lunch - and many laughs were shared between the Nahuatl, Spanish and English being spoken all at once. Dra Talia Mora dropped me back at my hotel, and I enjoyed a quiet evening examining the lovely pieces I had purchased from Estela and her family. 



Lunch with Estela Vargas & Family

Santa Ana Tzacuala, Hidalgo Mexico

Photo by Alberich Vargas March 2, 2017



The following morning I received a call from Ginya at the front desk. As neither of us could converse clearly, she hung up. A few seconds later, someone knocked on my door. When I saw two serious looking strangers, the thought that I was in trouble did cross my mind, but much to my surprise - it was a gift of beautiful, fresh made pastries from Dra Talia Mora, for my long bus-ride to Papantla that day. The lengths locals will go, to ensure guests feel welcome and special, is indescribable. This gesture of kindness was the start of many new important and special friendships to be rendered here.  


I am so grateful to the wonderful hosts of this land - and truly hope visitors to Mexico will come, not with fear, but with an open heart. For even in the most tucked away corners, as a stranger in a strange-to-me land, these have been the most special moments. - Journal Excerpts March 2, 2017



Home and property of Estela Vargas & Family

Santa Ana Tzacuala, Hidalgo Mexico

Photo by Jennifer Bjarnason March 2, 2017


As an afterthought - I think it interesting to mention why I ended up at Estela`s home. When I met her in Mexico City, November 2016, I had just lost my bank card to a hungry ATM. Without the ability to withdraw cash meant I could not purchase any of her work on spot, so I had asked her for contact information and an address. About three days before I left Morelia, my friend helped me contact Estela to confirm that she would be home. When I arrived at her home, she was visibly surprised but remembered me because of my red hair. I imagine she did not believe me, in Mexico City, when I said that I would come to her village to meet her. But I did. And it was an incredible experience I will never forget. - JBj

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