Monday, June 29, 2015

A Symphony of Looms

José Leyva Garcia: Artisano Textil (Mantelero)

 I interviewed Don Chepe and his son, Gustavo in their workshop in el barrio Xochimilco, in the Centro Historico of Oaxaca. Gustavo did most of the talking as Don Chepe was busy spinning spools of cotton thread for weaving the various linen products that they specialized in. One hand spun the wheel, while the other held the "canilla"(reel) receiving the thread. He does this every day of the week from 8 AM until 7 PM, with a lunch/siesta break fit in somewhere in between. He can no longer physically do the weaving he did for most of his life, but his canilla keeps him very busy. He still loves his work.
La canilla
Don Chepe has been weaving for over seventy years. He began when he was sixteen, learning from his father, who had learned from his father. Four generations of the Leyva Garcia family have been working in this same taller (workshop) and producing quality linen bedspreads, tableclothes, curtains, etc. that they sell directly from their home workshop. When I asked Don Chepe what he likes most about his work, he answered, "Todo, desde principio al fin. Nunca pensé hacer otra cosa" (Everything, from beginning to end. I never considered doing anything different).
Don Chepe had nine children, six sons and three daughters. Four of his sons still work with him. They hold other jobs as well, but their true calling is at the loom. This is work of the heart, something they do as a family.
Pancho, Javier, Gustavo & Mario working together


Their workshop is on the corner of one of Xochimilco's colonial streets. It is inviting, and many people stop to watch and are invited in. Some buy a bedspread or curtains. All are treated like honored guests. The family is proud to show their talents as weavers to whoever may stop by. That is how friends and sales are made.
Gustavo told me that people were tired of seeing massed produced products that were all alike. They liked the traditions of Oaxaca and the fine craftsmanship of its artesania. "El artisano no tiene que buscar el mercado, el mercado viene al artisano" (The artisan doesn't have to seek out a market, the market seeks out the artisan).

Gustavo showing the tools of his trade

As true as that may be, to make it only on weaving is very difficult. The economic situation in Mexico makes living as an artisan a risky business. All, except for Don Chepe, had worked a second job at some point for the steady income. The job filled "la panza" (your belly) Gustavo told me, but weaving filled the body, the soul and the spirit.
In the sixties and seventies, almost every house in Xochimilco had a loom. The click clack of working looms resonated through the streets."When I was a child, it was a marvel to walk into this barrio", Gustavo told me."There was a symphony every day. It was padrísimo (awesome)! "It was so common, that I don't think people realized what a symphony it was, ... like the birds singing in the church courtyard at dusk".
Today it is more like a chamber recital with all four brothers playing. They are what remains of a livelihood that was once in every household of Xochimilco.
When I asked Don Chepe if he ever thought of retiring. He laughed and told me, "Mi pensión es mi bobina" (my retirement is my spinning spool). It gives meaning to his life.
Mario at his loom

I visited the family four or five times and  purchased a bedspread and curtains from them. We had become friends. When it was time for me to leave, Gustavo commented, "this photography project you are doing is letting you see the real Mexico, the 80% of us who do not live like the 20% that the media portrays as "normal life" in Mexico. The wealthy have their reality, and we, the people, have our own. When you buy something from us, you take with you a part of our lives, la parte humana de la artesania (the human aspect of artesania)". And that is what makes all the difference.