This Year’s Buying Trip to the Village and Mucho Mas

by Susanna Starr

Having just returned from a visit to the weaving village, the images are strong in my mind. For some time my family of three grown children have been talking about getting together in Oaxaca when we did our next buying trip. Although they’ve come down to the weaving village individually as children and young adults for many decades, this was the first time they came down together. At this point in their lives, work and time are difficult to come by, so we started making arrangements, scheduling the visit and noting it into their calendars, many months prior to the anticipated trip.

Amy, Roy and Mirabai in front of Tlamanalli Restaurant
Amy, Roy and Mirabai in front of Tlamanalli Restaurant

Our Interwoven Lives with the Zapotec Weavers: An Odyssey of Love

The Zapotec Indian culture is a rich one, with many thousands of years of enduring traditions. Of all the traditions, family is probably the most important of the underlying structure of this ancient culture. My partner, John Lamkin, and I had recently published a beautiful book called Our Interwoven Lives with the Zapotec Weavers: An Odyssey of Love (sales@Starr-Interiors.com) which tells the story of my more than forty years of working with the same families in the village. John’s beautiful photographs accompany that journey. In it, I trace three generations of families that I’ve been so close to, as well as photographs of other weavers I’ve been working with, especially on the Line of the Spirit™, a special designer collection that has been an important part of what we do for more than twenty-five years.

Roy enjoying tortilla fresh from the comal Rosario, husband Faustino, Amy, Roy and Mirabai.
Roy enjoying tortilla fresh from the comal
Rosario, husband Faustino, Amy, Roy and Mirabai.

Having Mirabai, Amy and Roy accompanying us to visit each of the weaving families was not only important to the families, but to our family as well. When Roy and Rosario Mendoza met again,  thirty years had passed since they both were living in the Mendoza house in Oaxaca. but there was no problem in recognizing each other. Mirabai and Amy were down more recently, sometimes with their own children, but now there were not just two generations, but three. As close as I am to the original families and their grown children, it’s this third generation, the same age as my own grandchildren, that are moving beyond the life they were born into, while still honoring and practicing the cultural values that have continued for so many generations before them.

Armando in front of special "Tree of Life" which we purchased
Armando in front of special “Tree of Life” which we purchased

Now, through the hard work of their grandparents and parents, they have been afforded educational opportunities never before available to preceding generations. Although many of the young people of this age are still weaving, those who have been given the opportunities to study at universities are continuing on to become doctors, dentists, and studying for other professions.

I feel as proud of their accomplishments as I do those of my own grandchildren. The ties we have are strong ones and having our families together during this time was evidence of the warmth and friendship that goes far beyond just a working relationship. Living in the village, waking up to the sounds, visiting the market to buy our flowers and fresh produce, visiting the families we work with, having lunch at El Descanso and at Tierra Antigua with the Montaño families was joyful…and memorable.

The Montaños at El Descanso
The Montaños at El Descanso

Also memorable, was the evening we spent at the home of our good friends, Florentino and Eloisa Gutierrez. Their son, Juan Cristobal, who studied audio engineering in California, has put together a band and at Mirabai’s urging, decided to perform a concert for us. It was held in their spacious courtyard, with luxuriant flowers and plants providing the perfect backdrop for the concert. And, the younger Fidel Montaño was the lead singer. Writing their own music and lyrics and accompanied by a few other members of the band, the concert was outstanding.

Juan Cristobal, Fidel and their band, Km 1
Juan Cristobal, Fidel and their band, Km 1
Roy holding Alta's grandson Pablito
Roy holding Alta’s grandson Pablito

We spent important time with Alta Gracia, the dyemaker for Line of the Spirit™ since its inception and with her son Jaci and his wife Soledad. We visited with the wife of Felipe Lazaro who passed away recently and bought some of her specialties of roasted pumpkin seed bars, amaranth bars and light wafers and exchanged warm embraces. We visited with Maria and Eloisa Bautista whose recently married son, Jacobo now is following in the footsteps of his parents who have been part of the Line of the Spirit™ team since it began, more than twenty-five years ago when he was just a baby. Our family meeting with Jovita and her brother, Valentino and his wife, was affirmation of the ongoing relationship of our families, as it was with all the Line of the Spirit™ weavers.

Maria & Eliseo Bautista with Susanna and Jazi
Maria & Eliseo Bautista with Susanna and Jacinto

Having lunch at Tlamanalli, the acclaimed restaurant of world-famous chef, Abigail Mendoza, and her sisters, was another special event. In the kitchen, we cried together with their mother, Dona Clara, who lost her son Arnulfo, one of the most talented artists the village has ever known and one of our close friends. In the beautiful patio, we enjoyed some of their famous dishes at the traditionally decorated tables. The embraces we exchanged were heartfelt.

Our family with wife of recently deceased weaver Felipe Lazaro
Our family with wife of recently deceased weaver Felipe Lazaro
Our family looks on as art director, Jacinto Morales, discusses technical aspect with Juan Luis and his wife Paula
Our family looks on as art director, Jacinto Morales, discusses technical aspect with Juan Luis and his wife Paula

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Yes, this was a memorable visit, a testimony to what business can really bring as its reward. We have all prospered and its always a joy to see how the entire village has also prospered over these decades. But, always, its the personal relationships, the warmth and genuine caring, the being part of an extended family that is the real bonus. This is as much a part of our connection as anything else that we continue to be involved in together. The weavings they produce and that we sell to our clients who provide a home for them where they will be enjoyed and appreciated completes the circle. But the heart connection is what cannot be seen, just felt, and what endures.

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Our Interwoven Lives with the Zapotec Weavers – The book

“Susanna Starr has captured this lyrical and sentimental journey from Taos to Oaxaca and back in her upcoming book entitled Our Interwoven Lives with the Zapotec Weavers: An Odyssey of the Heart.   It is part memoir, part photographic journal, part tribute to an ancient civilization’s survival in the twenty-first century, and completely a must-read to those enchanted with the story of the Zapotec Indian people.  She will host a book  signing on June 21, the highlight of a month-long photo exhibition that kicks off the gallery’s anniversary celebration.” 

 OUR INTERWOVEN LIVES WITH THE ZAPOTEC WEAVERS: 

An Odyssey of the Heart

by Susanna Starr

 with Photographs by John Lamkin

Village Church atop Ancient Zapotec Temple Ruins
Village Church atop Ancient Zapotec Temple Ruins

 The book is available right now through Starr Interiors!
A new mini-coffee table book — soft or hard cover 

Pages: 135
Price: $29.95 Hardcover or $19.95 Softcover
Publisher: Paloma Blanca Press
Official Pub. Date: June 2014 (now available through the gallery)

I hope this story serves as a reminder that business is not a negative word. Trading is as old as human history, whether for goods or services. It doesn’t have to be exploitative nor impersonal to be successful. Rather, if it is infused with joy and happiness, it can provide a vital, important and enriching aspect of our lives.
–  Susanna Starr, Taos, NM

[See Excerpt Below.]

Advance Praise

“A must read for anyone who wants to do well by doing good in the world . This improbable story about an American “hippie” and traditional weavers in the Oaxaca Valley of Mexico will fire your Imagination and touch your heart. Susanna Starr’s life story proves that love, respect, learning and success in business can go hand in hand.”–Judith Fein, Author of LIFE IS A TRIP: The Transformative Magic of Travel 

“OUR INTERWOVEN LIVES WITH THE ZAPOTEC WEAVERS is a beautiful book, both the writing and photographs.  I own a Zapotec rug and appreciate the work of these artists. This book gives them credit where credit is long overdue.” –Tom Aageson, Executive Director, Global Center for Cultural Entrepreneurship

 

One of life’s memorable intersections…

OUR INTERWOVEN LIVES WITH THE ZAPOTEC WEAVERS: An Odyssey of Heart celebrates American entrepreneur and gallery owner Susanna Starr’s forty years of working with the Zapotec weavers of the Oaxaca Valley in Mexico. Starr  takes us back to the moment when she first navigated dirt roads into the remote village of Teotitlan in the 70s, and fell in Heart with the vibrant Zapotec hand-loomed weavings and the warmth of the weavers themselves. She leads us on a three-generational trek of mind and spirit, as the Zapotec families and her own grow in parallels of symbiotic prosperity and mutual respect that reminds us that “business” does not have to be a negative word.

Susanna Starr is the owner of Starr Interiors in Taos, New Mexico, which began as La Unica Cosa in 1974, and features hand-dyed 100% wool rugs, wall hangings, and pillows traditionally dyed and loomed by the Zapotec weavers.

OUR INTERWOVEN LIVES WITH THE ZAPOTEC WEAVERS: An Odyssey of Heart reflects Starr’s philosophy that business need not be kept separate, but can be an integral and meaningful part of everyday lives.

I hope this story serves as a reminder that business is not a negative word,” says Starr. “Trading is as old as human history, whether for goods or services. It need not be exploitative or impersonal to be successful. Rather, if it is infused with joy and happiness, it can provide a vital, important and enriching aspect of our lives.

The weavings have been purchased by numerous celebrities including Paul Simon, Sting and Diana Ross, and featured in style magazines such as “Architectural Digest.”

With Love it began…With Love it flourished…And with Love it continues.

The book is due out in 2014, and features poignant photographs by photojournalist John Lamkin.

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BOOK EXCERPT:  Introduction

For a long time I’ve been encouraged to write about the years I’ve spent working with the weavers of a small Zapotec Indian village high up in the mountains outside of the city of Oaxaca, Mexico. Not only have I had this encouragement from family, friends and people I’ve dealt with through my weaving gallery in Taos, New Mexico over the past forty years but, most importantly, I’ve been encouraged by the weavers themselves.

Now the time has come to tell that story. Far from being a story of running a business of introducing and selling these weavings in the United States, this is a story of the personal interactions that have taken place between me and the Zapotec people over the past four decades. The gallery that I’ve run during this time has simply been a vehicle to promote and distribute this particular art form. In the evolution of the gallery and of the weavings in general, as in any other part of life, many changes have taken place. But, as in any other endeavor, some constants remain.

For me the most important of these constants is the deeply personal connection I’ve had with particular weaving families as well as with the village as a whole. This connection has encompassed half of my life and the passion remains. Obviously, this is a personal narrative, but it also tells the story of people working together to preserve a culture and to promote a craft that has great impact not only on the individual weavers but on the whole village. The success I’ve enjoyed is mirrored in the success of that village and the individual weavers with whom I’ve been connected.

The story begins with my first visit in 1974 driving, with my partner Ramon, down a long, dirt road through a somewhat hostile village whose people were resentful of the people of the neighboring village and refused to give any helpful directions. But, continuing on, we eventually reached our destination. We finally arrived in the small square that was the center of Teotitlan del Valle.

The book is divided by generations. The first generation deals with that arrival and my initial introduction to the weavings. It paints a picture of the early years. There is a description of my own life at that time and the involvement with the Zapotec Indians of the village that was to become life changing for me.

The second generation is my work with the children of those initial weavers, after having had a long relationship with their parents. This is the same generation as that of my own three children. All of these children are now grown and well into the middle stage of their own lives. Although I am still very much connected to the parents, most of my business dealings over the past two decades have been with this second generation, children when I first knew them, and now associates in the business of buying and collaborating on rug designs and purchases.

The third generation, who are primarily teenagers and young adults, is now just coming into its own. Once again, there’s the parallel with my own family. In this section we look at the grandchildren who have been raised in the weaving tradition but who have been afforded opportunities their own parents, and certainly not their grandparents, were unable to enjoy when they were of a similar age.

In this time of instant communications and cutting edge advances in the promotion of products, from smart phones to purchasing online, this narrative illustrates the fundamental exchange, on a very personal level, of real people and the weavings they produce completely by hand. Each of the weavings I’ve ever handled is infused with spirit. I know this to be a fact. It’s not only the spirituality of the people that permeates all that they do, but also the authenticity with which they do it. Each weaving represents part of someone’s life. No weaving machines or equipment of any kind are used, despite the availability of mechanized looms and computerized designs.

This is not to suggest that the village is backward or unaware of changes that have taken place in the marketplace. Rather, they have chosen to incorporate many aspects of our contemporary world, while at the same time maintaining the integrity of their traditional way of life. But this third generation, as a result of the work and dedication of their parents and grandparents, has been afforded many more opportunities to make different life choices. They have not only had the same exposure to the same things my own grandchildren have, but they have also had educational opportunities the previous generations had been denied.

The weavers I first encountered had only an early grade school education in the village which was all that was available to them at that time. This second generation saw their children attend the newly built grammar/junior high school. The third generation now has had access to high schools and universities. Weaving is still an option and a good choice for many of this youngest generation but for some, as you will see, their lives are taking different directions. Some things, however, remain the same, among them the sanctity of the fundamental family unit and the continuing importance of maintaining their cultural heritage.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Susanna Starr is an entrepreneur, photographer, speaker, artist and travel writer. She is the owner of Starr Interiors in Taos, New Mexico, which began as La Unica Cosa in 1974, and features hand-dyed 100% wool rugs, wall hangings, and pillows traditionally dyed and loomed by the Zapotec weavers.  Susanna has lived in Northern New Mexico for forty years, and has over twenty years experience in the hospitality business as owner of Rancho Encantado, an eco-resort and spa in Mexico. Her degree in Philosophy is from Stony Brook State University of New York, and she is IFWTWA Regional Membership Coordinator (RMC) for Riviera Maya & Oaxaca, Mexico. Susanna Starr is also the author of FIFTY AND BEYOND: New Beginnings in Health and Well-Being published by Paloma Blanca. Her online articles have appeared in numerous publications, including Soul of Travel Magazine, The Examiner, and the award-winning travel journal, Your Life Is a Trip.

About John Lamkin (Photojournalist):

John Lamkin is a freelance travel journalist and photographer based in Taos, New Mexico (and lives part-time in Quintana Roo, Mexico). He is a board member and Global Membership Chair of International Food, Wine & Travel Writers Association (IFWTWA). Lamkin attended the San Francisco Art Institute and founded San Francisco Camerawork. In addition to food, wine and travel writing, he has worn many hats in public relations, copy writing, technical writing, and poetry writing. He is the former editor of Camerawork Quarterly and Music of the Spheres Magazine, and a member of the North American Travel Journalists Association (NATJA). Lamkin is a contributing writer for Luxury Latin America, Luxury Avenue Magazine, Suite101, The Examiner, Reuters America, Your Life Is A Trip, Jetsetter, and he is also a columnist for The Syndicated News. He is fluent in Spanish.

 

 

Visiting the weaving village and reflecting on three generations

Weaving Village Church   © John Lamkin
Weaving Village Church
© John Lamkin

by Susanna Starr

Before doing a recap of the year, I want to go back to the last buying trip in Oaxaca, in the early part of the year. As always, visiting the village, seeing all the new and exciting weavings and, most importantly, visiting old friends, is an ongoing joy in my life. This buying trip was excellent once again with beautiful acquisitions from the Montaño family, including the work of Fidel, Pedro and Alicia as well as their father, Edmundo. Visiting Armando and Juan Gutierrez, sons of Felipe, also provided an abundance of new colors and designs, as well as warm embraces. And Efren Lazo’s ranges of bright reds are always outstanding.

Diana, Karina and Pedro Montaño © Susanna Starr
Diana, Karina and Pedro Montaño
© Susanna Starr

But, at this point in the lives of all my weaving friends as well as my own, the most exciting thing that’s happening is the third generation. Edmundo and Felipe and I go back more than 35 years. Armando, Juan, Fidel, Pedro, Alicia and Efren were small children then. Now they’re running the businesses and their own children are launched into the world. This generation has the advantage of making other choices. Diego Montaño, Pedro and Karina’s son, is producing a line of his own small, deluxe, finely woven pieces, several of which are now featured at Starr Interiors. But his older sister, Diana, has chosen a different career.

We were sitting at Pedro and Karina’s new house, restaurant and showroom enjoying some of her wonderful cooking, when we saw someone start up the entry and then veer off to the side. “Oh, that’s Diana,” said Karina and called out to her daughter who didn’t want to disturb the clients at the restaurant. Once she heard her mother and saw that it was us, she resumed walking in. I was stunned. I’ve known her since she was born 22 years ago and have seen her during all these years, but all of a sudden it seemed that I was seeing someone new. This tall, beautiful young woman is now studying medicine and was wearing her hospital “whites.” As I write this, I feel the same emotion I had then, which was so very powerful that my eyes filled with tears. I was so proud and so very happy not only for her and her accomplishment, but for her parents and, by extension, her grandparents, my friends, Alicia and Edmundo.

The story of each of these families deserves a separate telling. They are the core weavers that I’ve been working with for almost four decades, each of whom has been a meaningful part of my life as well as providing the base for Starr Interiors’ collection of fine weavings. The weavers I started with, my oldest friends from building businesses together, are now much less active than they used to be, although still involved as I am. The second generation has now taken the active roles and the third generation is exploring completely new paths of their own. But the tradition of the village remains strong and vital with every generation participating in festivals and special events which are the life’s blood of the village. They maintain the traditions that go back thousands of years with honor and respect for their deepest meaning. Zapotec is a language that continues to be used. As they do all this, they are very much a part of the 21st century.

Edmundo Montaño at Ceremony  © John Lamkin
Edmundo Montaño at Ceremony
© John Lamkin

While we were there, we were privileged to attend a special ceremony at the church where Edmundo was honored as head of the new committee. In an ancient ceremony that passed the staff to the new person in charge of the governing committee, the meaning of governing was reaffirmed. The person chosen for this task was picked because of his ability to add to the guidance of the village in a caring way with complete dedication to his office. There is no pay involved. Those who are chosen for the committee which governs village matters for a period of several years, and especially the head of the committee who has received the ceremonial staff, take their responsibilities seriously and work for the common good of the entire village, including preserving the customs, traditions and many celebrations as well as working with the president of the municipality.

Women preparing Tejate   © John Lamkin
Women preparing Tejate
© John Lamkin
Zapotec Musicians at Ceremony  © John Lamkin
Zapotec Musicians at Ceremony © John Lamkin

Although it is men who traditionally take on this responsibility (for thousands of years the women have been taking on the responsibility of the home and children), the women have a strong presence in preparing the cauldrons of drink called tejate and the labor intensive preparation of tamales . All of them are dressed in their best embroidered huipiles (blouses) and traditional skirts, while the men wear their traditional straw sombreros. The bands that play the Zapotec music are an important part of any festival or ceremony. Most of them are weavers who are musicians as well. Music, like weaving, is an important part of the culture, also developed over thousands of years.

Ceremonies of this kind are held in the church, a structure built by the Spanish more than five hundred years ago on the remains of what originally was a Zapotec temple. Fortunately, some of the original work is still to be seen in the arches, on the walls, and on parts of the exposed foundation. The glyphs and geometric designs of their ancestors is a reminder to the people of the village of their heritage which they keep alive through their ongoing continuation of customs. For us, it is a glimpse into the wealth of that heritage.

Susanna Starr – owner of Starr Interiors, photographer, speaker, artist, writer, holds a degree in philosophy from Stony Brook State University of New York.  She lives in Northern New Mexico. Susanna is the author of the book: Fifty and Beyond: New Beginnings in Health and Well-Being published by Paloma Blanca Press and is a board member of the Travel Writers Association.