Tuesday, March 15, 2022

Elizabeth Gonzalez Gutierrez: Modista

Elizabeth Gonzalez Gutierrez (Liz) is a seamstress and dressmaker. She has been cutting and sewing fabric for over forty years and has built a faithful clientele due to the quality of her work. Like many others in this project, she found that secondary school did not meet her needs. Instead of continuing her formal education, she decided to pursue an oficio that she could excel in, that of a seamstress. She studied for two years, got her diploma, and opened her first shop at age twenty-two. Her mother died when Liz was quite young and her work helped support the family. Besides her work as a seamstress/dressmaker, she began giving pattern cutting classes. She became a sought after teacher and  many of her ex-students went on to open their own shops. 
Her business was thriving until the revaluation of the peso in 1997. The financial crisis hit her hard. People opted to buy clothes at department stores rather than have their clothing handmade. Her classes also dropped off considerably. Young people were turning to online courses rather than in-person classes. It was a difficult period, but she managed to survive. What allowed her to survive was her ability to embroider typical indigenous designs and to transform older traditional garments into dresses for weddings, quince años, and evening gowns. She has learned to embroider the designs from the Istmo, Mixe, la Costa, el Valle Central and la Mixteca. She also designs outfits for the major fiestas of these various indigenous regions. This is very laborious and detailed work that takes much time and expertise. But because it is such an important part of the culture, people are willing to pay the price for a job well done. Liz is proud of the work she does. "No es justo una costura; es un arte" (it isn't just sewing; it is an art).
What Liz likes best about her job is the satisfaction she gets from cutting a piece of fabric and creating a garment that pleases her clients. She studied with a tailor and learned how to make the very precise measurements needed for a perfect fit. It shows in her work, it is an art form, not just a trade.
At age sixty-five, Liz has no plans on retiring. She loves the work that she does and wants to pass it on to the younger generation. She often works seventy-two hours a week and enjoys every minute of it. "As a seamstress/dressmaker, you never stop learning. New fashions come and go, people's bodies change size and shape, and we must change with them." As I was about to leave, she brought out a file of diplomas and recognitions that she had received during her life as as a seamstress/dressmaker. "When I am no longer able to do my work, there is no one to take over my shop. It makes me happy to know that those who I have taught will keep my oficio alive." In preserving her oficio, she is also helping preserve the rich indigenous traditions that make up the cultural fabric of Oaxaca.


Sunday, March 6, 2022

Luis Sarita: Talabartero

 Luis Sarita is a leather worker (talabartero). He makes a range of products, from saddles, harnesses and holsters to billfolds, belts and huaraches. I met Luis in 2019. I was searching for a talabartero and a tanner (curtidor), and was told I could still find some in Ejutla, a pueblo an hour and a half from Oaxaca. It took a bit of searching, but I was finally directed to Luis's workshop. I explained my project to him and he accepted to be part of it without hesitation.
After a friendly invitation to a copita de mezcal, I arranged to come back a few days later to photograph him. As I was getting ready to leave, he told me he was an avid player of Pelota Mixteca, an ancient ball game played by indigenous people in the region, and proudly showed his glove. At 72, he was the oldest player on his team. It was an important part of his life.  
When I came back later that week, I found Luis working at his table. It was covered with the  tools of his trade. Along with the punches and cutting blades were an assortment of hides and skins; cow and goat hides as well as snake, iguana and crocodile skins. Ejutla used to be a leather working center with many talabateros. Now there are four and there is only one tanner left. Cow and goat hides must now be purchased in Ocotlán, a nearby pueblo. The exotic skins are expensive and very hard to find and some are now protected by law and cannot be hunted. Luis understands the ecological concerns, but claims that as a talabartero, this is his livelihood. "If I cannot get the raw materials I need, how can I survive?"
Most of Luis' clients are local ranchers and farmers. Many come to Luis because he does all his work by hand, no machines are used. He even cuts his own thread from goat hide and punches all the holes by hand.  He has been working leather for fifty years and what he likes most about his profession is that he still follows the old tradition and produces high quality, hand made goods that will last many years. This is what sets him apart from other talabarteros. His way of working is dying out. Machine made and imported synthetic goods are adversely affecting his business, as are environmental laws protecting animals from being hunted. He feels that the profession he has practiced for fifty years is doomed to extinction. He is one of the last of his kind.
When I returned to Oaxaca in January 2022, his friend, Alberto, who makes guantes de Pelota Mixteca, gave me the sad news that Luis had passed away a few months earlier. His fellow players carried his casket to the Pelota Mixteca playing field and gave him the send off that he so rightfully deserved. 
Luis and his guante de Pelota Mixteca

For more information about Pelota Mixteca, see: