Tuesday, October 4, 2016

A Guardian of Zapotec Tradition: Don Remigio Matus

Don Remigio at Work

 I received word recently from my friend at Lidxi Guendabiaani de la Cultura Juchitán, Yolanda Lopez, that Don Remigo Matus, a Zapotec palm artisan that I photographed in 2014, had passed away. He was eighty-three years old and had been practicing his oficio (trade) for over sixty-five years. It is at times like this that I realize the true significance of my oficios project. The lives and stories of people like Remigio usually go unnoticed. They work long hours doing honorable jobs that allow them to live simply. They are humble folk that earn little, but take much pride in what they do and in preserving their culture. In many cases, the jobs that they do are on the verge of dying out. The "modern world" offers young people easier jobs that bring more lucrative incomes. So as people like Remigio pass away, so do many of the traditions and ancient ways of doing things that define a culture.

Don Remigio was born in the house where he still lived until his passing. He learned his trade from a friend of his father when he was fifteen. He fell in love with sewing palm and bought his own sewing machine when he was seventeen. It was an old Singer foot pedal machine, the faithful tool that he worked with daily for over sixty-five years. He made bags, tortilleras, rugs, albanicos (fans) and one of his specialties (although not made of palm) a traditional Zapotec sombrero called Charro 24. It is worn in many of the traditional dances from the region of el Istmo and Remigio was a master at making them. He provided many young Zapotec dancers in Oaxaca's renowned Guelaguetza with their Charro 24. His palm work was an integral part of the many velas y regadas thast take place every year in Juchitán. He was viewed as a master of his trade.

The day Yolanda and I went to visit him, he offered to make me a sun visor. He took a quick measure of the circumference of my head, grabbed some bands of palm, and starting masterfully pedaling his Singer. It was hard to interview Remigio with the rhythmic "chica, chica, chica" of the needle bobbing in and out of the palm. But then Remigio was not a man of words. He'd rather listen to the music of his Singer than talk. It was as if his sewing machine were a piano and he was playing one of his favorite pieces for me. A wonderful gift.

The magic of Remigio's craft was in his hands and in his feet. His feet pedaled the machine at just the right speed and his hands moved the palm strips with ease in front of the needle. When I asked him how many people were still doing this kind of work he told me "two of us". There is no one interested in learning from him and continuing his craft. It takes too much time and work for too little pay. When I asked him if he ever wanted to do anything else with his life, he laughed and said, "no, nothing else. I am here working, just waiting for death to arrive". And it did. Rest in Peace, Don Remigio, or as they say in Mexico, "Q.D.P. Que descance en paz. You will be greatly missed.

I would like to sincerely thank Yolanda López Goméz and the entire team of 
Lídxi Guendabiaani Casa De La Cultura de Juchitán for all of their help in providing me with opportunities to photograph and interview artisans of the region. Without their help in establishing confianza with these people, this never would have been possible. They are doing an extremely important job in trying to preserve the rich cultural heritage of Juchitán. Felicidades amigos!

Yolanda López Goméz
Remigio in his Charro 24

Bands of palm