Keepsakes of Culture

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"Where are you visiting us from?" asked the tour guide as he looked me and my husband,
Joseph, up and down, trying to guess our origins. "We come from Indiana," I said. The guide's face lit up with excitement as he pointed at Joseph's all-weather black felt hat. "Oh yes!" the man exclaimed, "Those hats are very Indiana, like in the movie!" We were on our way to visit the pyramids of Monte Alban, and so we let him believe that indeed, we were from the land of Indiana Jones.

Jennifer's husband, Joseph Kilbourn, stands with the Monte Alban Pyramids behind him. - PHOTO BY JENNIFER DELGADILLO
  • Photo by Jennifer Delgadillo
  • Jennifer's husband, Joseph Kilbourn, stands with the Monte Alban Pyramids behind him.

Before we headed south to the state of Oaxaca (land of seven moles, fried grasshoppers, black clay and Tehuanas), running away from the SAD, the frigid weather and snow, I stopped by Homespun to purchase souvenirs for my friends and family in Mexico. Although marveled by the variety and talent of the makers, I was a bit annoyed with the lack of products bearing the name of our Circle City, or the outline of the state. I purchased some baby clothes and stickers, books by locals from Indy Reads, and a couple issues of Eñe, to further illustrate the coolness of my current hometown.

Once at our destination, I tried all possible foods and drinks, and spent our money on all varieties of local crafts. I bought alebrijes, embroidered aprons, shawls and blouses, leather sandals, woven earrings and wooden combs. There is something handmade in every corner. If I had a tail, I would have been wagging it the entire time, as I very much resembled a dog that has not been walked in a long time.

Toward the end of our trip, we visited a small town called Teotitlandel Valle, where many artisans of Zapotec heritage are known for their textile-making and rug-weaving. There we met a family who taught us about their craft. They showed us the original state of wool; how they comb it before spinning it; how they make the pigments to dye the threads naturally, and finally how to weave the different designs -- some of which are even older than the rug-making tradition.

These "chubby lizards" are made by Rolando y Jazmín Lazo at artisan house "El Aguila Zapoteca" (Zapotec Eagle).  - PHOTO BY JENNIFER DELGADILLO
  • Photo by Jennifer Delgadillo
  • These "chubby lizards" are made by Rolando y Jazmín Lazo at artisan house "El Aguila Zapoteca" (Zapotec Eagle).

During the textile-making demonstration, I saw from the corner of my eye some knitted creatures dangling from a wire hanger. They looked like little chubby green and gray monsters. I asked about them and one of the artisans explained to me that while knitting little lizards, she had decided to experiment and make them fat. The result was a new and original object that, although breaking from tradition in some ways, employed the same methods they had so elaborately explained to us.

This Zapotec rug by Julia Martinez Gonzalez is a souvenir version of the rugs made at Teotitlan del Valle.  - PHOTO BY JENNIFER DELGADILLO
  • Photo by Jennifer Delgadillo
  • This Zapotec rug by Julia Martinez Gonzalez is a souvenir version of the rugs made at Teotitlan del Valle.

While admiring my artisan bounty, I felt the sobering realization that I had pranced through a paradise of affordable artifacts without having exercised the same level of understanding I had with the textiles. I had been doing this from the moment I scanned Homespun for Indiana clichés, up to the moment the souvenir spell was broken by a knitted overstuffed reptile. Souvenir crafters are often robbed of their authorship, as they assume the aesthetic identity of a place or a people.

 A Google search reveals that, in fact, Indiana Jones is from Princeton, New Jersey -- not exactly a Hoosier. I think about the Zapotec family and wonder how people who are committed to promoting their ancient culture deal with making new traditions. Is there room for a couple of fat lizards in the future of Zapotec culture? I do not know. But I do know they are the mementos that remind me even the most ancient cultures are ever changing. We can and should communicate the history of our origins, never forgetting that all the parts that define us culturally have authors too.

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