DIXZAA | WORDS FROM THE CLOUDS
An interview with Samuel Bautista Lazo: Zapotec, weaver, farmer and sustainable manufacturing PHD
In the indigenous village of Teotitlán del Valle, in the central valley of Oaxaca, is a community that have been weaving for centuries. The ‘Benizaa’ (people from the clouds) identity is defined by this artistry and trade of weaving. Also known as ‘Zapotec’ (the name given to them by Mexica people), they are famous for their quality of craft, traditional dyeing and weaving techniques, and ancient language and customs. Tucked at the foot of El Picacho mountain in this cradle of civilisation is Dixza Rugs Organic Farm, home to a traditional Benizaa family: Mario, Leonar, Samuel and Celestino. This family are keeping the millenary weaving tradition alive, farming the land of their ancestors in a sustainable way and sharing their skills and knowledge through weaving demonstrations and workshops.
‘When you buy one of our rugs, you are not just buying an object; you are bringing a piece of Zapotec woven tradition to your home. We share with you 10,000 years of know how, ancient stories and teachings that our ancestors have passed down from generation to generation in our oral tradition and weaving heritage’
Earlier this year, searching for inspiration and fresh perspectives, I was drawn to this land with a deep craft heritage. After stumbling upon an online interview with Sam, the eldest brother of the family, I reached out to see if I could visit. A chance find and a spontaneous conversation, but two moments that lead me to one of my most memorable and affecting experiences. This extraordinary family welcomed me like a little sister. Guiding me patiently on a pedal loom, leading me through eclectic local markets, hiking up El Picacho in the midday heat and galloping on horseback through mountain valleys. It’s difficult to summarise all the adventures, conversations and insights of my stay at Dixza Farm but a good place to start is with the unique and inspiring story of Samuel Bautista Lazo…
Growing up in Teotitlán, speaking Zapotec every day, Sam noticed the subtle undercurrents of discrimination and disrespect towards his native peoples in a predominantly Spanish speaking Oaxaca. With an incentive to over come these perceived shortcomings, combined with the global economy crash of 2018 when the rug business was particularly affected, Sam saw an opportunity. He decided to study abroad and explore production management to support and give longevity to his family’s business; moving over 5000 miles away from his home village to Liverpool, UK, to undertake a PHD in sustainable manufacture. Immersed in concepts of sustainable and eco-conscious design, he delighted in his own ancestry of creating products with intrinsic quality and integrity. The ancient way of weaving rugs with natural dyes and fibres, powered by muscle and firewood from renewable resources, and with a deep, respectful understanding of the natural and spiritual world. Sam knew the power of the way their rugs are made and what they represent, he also knew the resilience of his community. And so he returned to his home, intent on adapting to the inevitable and impending ecological challenges that his village, family and farm will face.
‘We believe that this ancient knowledge has many answers that are appropriate to the current challenges that the world faces today: from environmental sustainability, social justice, land management, food production and the search for fulfilment and meaning in life’
On returning to the village and the family farm, he could reinterpret what he had previously felt as shortcomings. Life on the farm could be seen as under privileged compared to the materialistic measurements of the modern world. Yet this is only a superficial evaluation compared to the richness in Zapotec culture and wealth of joy in daily life in Teotitlán; working the land alongside family, riding horses bareback in the mountains and singing and dancing at local gatherings and fiestas. Committed to learning more about his cultural heritage and understanding the ancient knowledge from their native way of life, he has dedicated his time and actions to share the stories, lessons and traditional experiences with those who don’t understand it. He now travels the world with the wares Dixza Farm and Teotitlán, sharing his knowledge of the indigenous way of life, Toltecayotl - the belief system of ancient Mexican shaman, and decoding the wisdom woven into the symbols and patterns of Zapotec rugs.
What is daily life for you and the family on the farm?
Every day is different of course, but there are certain chores that need to get done and there are always exciting projects to work on. Typically we get up around 7am, we used to grow our own alfalfa so we needed to get up at 6 to cut it fresh daily and store the days fresh alfalfa for the farm animals. Due to climate change and longer draught seasons these days we buy fresh alfalfa from other local farmers who have access to deep water wells. The first thing in the day is to feed the goats because if they get up and see us walking around the patio they will start making a lot of annoying calls to get our attention and remind us to feed them. My mom would make some atole (something like corn milk, as in almond milk) or chocolate or tea to start our day. After having a hot drink and some sweet bread, we would water the plants, clean the patio, sweep the corridor with the looms and do any farm chore in the bucket list. For example, after harvest season we process and clean the corn seeds. Often we go to the mountains to check on our cows that roam there freely. Or we prepare rooms for the Airbnb guests.
The farmers breakfast is a big breakfast, so after the small breakfast in the morning, my mom goes to the local market where she keeps a stand where she sells shoes by catalog and trades other craft items from different villages from the region. During late winter and spring someone has to take the day off to herd the cattle in the country side all day, taking them to green pastures and away from other people’s corn fields. Most of our rug weaving and wool dyeing activities start around 11am to 12pm after farm chores and the morning market is done, that is also the way we offer it to our students. Typically we would weave from noon to the afternoon, just taking breaks to eat some fresh delicious seasonal fruit or to make some hot tortillas for dinner. We have to give fresh water to the farm animals around midday and feed them four times a day. The afternoons are spent doing more farm chores or little projects in the house. When it is beginning to get dark I like to go for a walk in town and visit my auntie’s shop where there is always a crowd gathered to enjoy a beer and conversation.
My brother is in charge of another part of our family business; Celestino drives a dump truck to buy and sell construction material, i.e. gravel, sand, building stone. About 6 years ago, a piece of our land was flooded and our alfalfa crop was buried under a bank of gravel and sand. So my dad and my brother saw the perfect opportunity to invest in a front loader for our tractor and eventually we also bought the dump truck. The money from the rug business goes into the dump truck business and when rug sales are low we take money from the dump truck business to buy wool and pay the weavers that we work with.
I sometimes take time to sit down to read archeological magazines and ancient history, then design rugs based on that and the ancient stories of our people. My mom is often running a pot to dye wool and prepare new colors, because she spends the mornings at the market she knows everyone in the village and everyone knows her, so we have a vast network of weavers that we could work with. My mom and I sit down with the weavers and work on the detailed design of our rugs, we make sure the measurements and color combinations are the ones we want and arrange for payment and delivery times. While my mom and I are more involved in the rug business aspects of the family activities my dad is fully in charge of the farm operations. All in all we are all in it together and help and support each aspect of our family business.
When are you most calm?
When I am present in whatever activity that I am doing, I can get very calm when I am fully immersed and lost into a weaving pattern. Walking definitely helps, so hiking the sacred mountain in front of our house gets me calmed right away. I am often calmed when I am out in nature, either herding cows or collecting plants for natural dyes. All in all, I think I am calmed when I am doing things that I enjoy doing and when I have little time to let my mind wander; that I have learnt from my mother. My dad teaches me to stay focused, and in his way I think he is only calmed once he has achieved a big task and your body and mind are completely exhausted.
When are you most excited?
Definitely when I am dancing. But I get pretty excited when I talk too; I get excited when I travel to give talks about the ancient knowledge of my ancestors, a knowledge that lives in our weaving heritage. I get very excited when I meet people from across the world that want to learn about our culture but also teach us and share their knowledge with us. I am excited to see the connections forming between different places and cultures. Travelers often say that Zapotec people are very smiley people, I think that when you are rooted to a place and if you are doing creative arts it is easy to get excited and feel life shine through ones actions.
When are you most angry?
I am most intellectually angry at all instances of inequality. During my youth I was very angry when I learnt about the horrors of the genocide and invasion by Spain and the catholic church of the ancient territory of the Anahuac (most of what is now known as Mexico and United States of America). These days what hits me the most is to see international companies still coming to our native territories to take advantage of our resources; for instance, the wind energy technology in the Isthmus of Oaxaca is mostly Spanish owned and I am pretty sure that the profits generated benefit mostly the rich people in the capital, not to the average native farmer that has preserved the lands for millennia. The worst cases are Canadian mining companies coming to indigenous communities and instigating violence and division to break the social structure and gain access to the land; it is just another form of colonialism.
It also bothers me that we put so many hours into making our products and they are still undervalued for the work that goes into them. The minimum wage is Mexico is about 5 USD per day, while in practice no one pays that, some people make 10 to 25 USD per day working on farm and construction jobs. In the world of international prices for commodities, it makes me mad to see that someone’s work is valued more purely by the coincidence of the economic region into which they were born. As long as this inequality exists, we will always have “developing” nations and “developed” nations. I say “developed” because it is developed nations that are using up the earth’s resources at an unprecedented rate and thus affecting the life supporting systems of the earth that most of indigenous communities have been preserving; so in that light who is more developed?
When are you most motivated?
I feel like this question doesn’t really apply to our world view… I grew up getting up very early in the morning to cut alfalfa to feed our farm animals; things in the farm need to get done regardless of your mood of the day. It is only recently that humans have so much surplus in terms of food and shelter (at least for a segment of humanity), especially developed countries that have access to huge amounts of resources. So it seems like for a modern human it is a luxury to have the will to do something. Of course there are days when I don’t feel like weaving, then there are a lot of farm chores that need to get done. There are very hot days when farm chores are harder to perform so we retreat to the shade of the loom. These days, I indulge in watching television or reading a book when I don’t feel motivated to keep weaving at night like my parents and grandparents generations did. I guess what I am trying to point out is that there is a natural rhythm of life that pulls you to do things: for instance, you have to plant corn when the rainy season starts in order to feed your family for the entire year. You don’t really have a better option or a second chance, so you do what you have to do. It is by doing and by staying connected to those rhythms of the natural world that motivation is not needed. If you will, you can tap into the forces that make life happen and flow in spite of any struggles. I am also the type of person that can get up at 5am and start working right away without needing coffee or a morning ritual, as long as I have good tasty food in my belly I will do the dance of life and get things done. Unless is siesta time of course!
Samuel Bautista Lazo