It was his smile that drew me in. Wide and welcoming. And then my doubletake on seeing his unmistakably Zapotec blanket on the wall of his booth at Santa Fe’s International Folk Art Market. Deep indigo triangles reminiscent of far-off mountains rose above inverted light blue triangles that evoked lakes or valleys. The effect was calm, rich and beautiful.
I introduced myself, describing my long-ago trip to Teotitlán del Valle, the world-renowned Zapotec weaving village near Oaxaca. He listened with lively eyes as I told him about the pieces we bought that were made with natural dyes. I avoided mentioning that we paid about $25 each for the two pieces in 1975. At that time the village roads were dirt and turkeys roamed the streets and family courtyards. Weaving took second place to farming in those days.
I didn’t know it yet, but I was talking to master weaver Porfirio Gutierrez, who has been invited to show his work and collaborate with the Smithsonian and Getty museums, among many others worldwide. That morning in Santa Fe was just the beginning of a conversation about art, craft, tradition and culture that followed us from New Mexico to Oaxaca, and then to his studio in Ventura, California.
Six months after meeting Porfirio in Santa Fe, my husband David and I had the opportunity to go to Oaxaca with photographer Eddie Soloway. I wrote to Porfirio hoping he might have some recommendations for the area. His email reply came a day after we had visited Teotitlán del Valle with Eddie’s group, exploring the church and the weekly village market.
Luck was with us. Even better than recommendations, Porfirio told us that he would be in town visiting his family. Our itineraries would cross for just one day. Why don’t we come up to Teotitlán at 11 on Saturday morning? On our last day in Oaxaca, we drove back to the village, past agave plantations, mezcalarias and new restaurants eager for post-pandemic visitors.
Teotitlán del Valle
Porfirio greeted us warmly and introduced us to his sister Juana and her husband Antonio. We settled onto benches in the covered work area off the courtyard. That’s where they prepare natural dyes over wood fires to color the wool for rugs and other functional and decorative items. Porfirio dove right in, describing the process. “These dye pots all have a function,” he explained, pointing out large non-reactive vessels suspended on adobe stands.
One contained red derived from cochineal insects harvested from cactus; another held yellow from pericón, otherwise known as wild marigold; and another was deep blue from indigo.
Baskets along the wall held pomegranate, a high-tannin source for black, tree moss for a different yellow and tree bark for earth tones. “These all play an important role in creating up to 200 hues,” he told us.
Meanwhile Juana was using a stone metate to grind the tiny cochineal insects that Zapotec people have been harvesting from nopal cactus for centuries to use as a deep red dye. Just then, Porfirio picked up a few of the dried bugs and crushed them into my palm. It looked like blood. Then he squeezed some lime to brighten the color.
Porfirio assured me that the red was not blood. “It’s what the insects eat and how they process their food that creates a component called E1-20, or carminic acid, that makes it red. It’s not their blood even though culturally it has an association with God and ceremony.”
Porfirio’s stories—and his life—weave science, art and spirit together to create something new from his people’s ancient traditions. For him, the science, the chemistry, begins with water, the first reaction in the dye process. “Here in Oaxaca we have soft water. Spring water is perfect.” He went on to describe his extensive exploration of how various minerals transform natural dyes to generate a broader range of colors. His research, which took him to the Smithsonian archives, earned him an artist leadership award from the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian. “Nature is alive,” he said with reverence and a certainty that transcended the recitation of a recipe or formula. Bottom line: “You have to develop a good relationship with nature.”
His relationship with nature developed early. Like most people in Teotitlán, Porfirio grew up farming. “My family holds deep knowledge and understanding of the sacredness of food and medicine. My mother is a healer. She collected plants more for medicine than for colors,” he explained. By the time he was 12, he started to weave formally, beginning with a backpack he used for school.
Suddenly a group of collectors from Arizona joined us in the work area. As they settled in along the benches, we were invited upstairs for a weaving demonstration with Antonio.
Oops. It wasn’t just a demo. We were invited to try our hands sending the shuttle of colored yarn back and forth, building up the pattern. We were actually W-E-A-V-I-N-G.
That was the easy part. The hard part was balancing on the wooden foot pedals that separated the warp threads, alternating which were up and which were down, making the weaving possible. The sound of the shuttle flying back and forth added a soothing rhythm to the work, even done badly. It was exciting to see the piece grow. I imagined a young Porfirio learning to balance on the pedals like a novice surfer learning to ride a wave.
Porfirio explained that the looms used in Zapotec weaving were of Spanish origin. So were the sheep that provide the wool. Before the Spanish colonized the Americas, Zapotec weavers used ixtle, or agave fiber for their blankets.
Curious, I asked about the similarities and differences between Zapotec and Navajo weaving. “I don’t really know the history of the Navajos,” he said. “There’s a similarity in the materials because the Spanish brought the sheep to the Americas. They introduced the wool to both places, but the Navajo technique with a different kind of loom is completely indigenous. The looms we use came from Europe.”
Just before noon, church bells rang out and firecrackers boomed across the village. “It’s a saint’s day,” Antonio explained. Another import from Europe, I mused to myself. It was time to visit the showroom, thank Porfirio and head back to Oaxaca.
Porfirio’s story is not complete without a visit to his studio in Ventura, California. About an hour northwest of Los Angeles, Ventura is practically my home turf. Both of my summer camps were nearby, tucked into canyons flanked by dry hillsides. The hills and valleys of Southern California look much like the land around Oaxaca. The folds of the earth and the vegetation are familiar to anyone who has lived on either side of the border.
Like many in his generation, Porfirio migrated north at 18 for better work so he could help send money home. He worked in fast food, first as a cook, then a cashier, then a manager. There were grocery jobs. Along the way, he met his wife Yolanda, a Ventura native from a Mexican family. Once they married, the early jobs weren’t enough, so he got a commercial driver’s license. His job driving a concrete truck for a construction company evolved until he was running one of the firm’s 27 plants. Along the way, he became a U.S. citizen.
About ten years into his life in Ventura, Porfirio had the opportunity to go back to Teotitlán. “That’s when I realized the richness of the culture I inherited. I was running away from it, looking for other things, but for all the right reasons.” He began weaving again, traveling back and forth to the studio in Oaxaca.
To keep creating after Covid interrupted travel to Mexico, he established a Southern California studio in the Bell Arts Factory building in Ventura. Porfirio also wanted to pass his art and knowledge on to his sons, David and Noah.
When we arrived at the Ventura studio on the first of March, Porfirio was blessing the space with smoke from copal. Each month he takes a moment to appeal to the greater being for all things necessary to support his work, thank his colleagues and keep tradition alive.
We waited while Porfirio completed his ritual, taking in familiar elements from the workshop in Teotitlán. Nopal cactus for harvesting cochineal hung next to skeins of colored yarns. Two grinding stones, one for indigo and the other for cochineal, were carefully placed on the floor. Rugs in various hues and patterns hung on another wall. The studio was ready to greet visitors.
When Porfirio started weaving again, he didn’t just go back to the tradition. He enhanced it. He worked to rejuvenate the use of natural dyes and focused on pieces that honored that practice. He also strove to communicate a personal vision within the textiles, creating his own original designs. “I was looking for a medium to express myself, and I’m blessed to have found it within my own tradition,” he said with a genuine gratitude that permeates all his work.
Porfirio’s art was also influenced by his many years in the U.S. His construction jobs introduced him to modern, minimalist architecture as he worked on Southern California homes. He also encountered the Bauhaus, mid-century artists like Josef Albers, and Japanese modernists. “All those influences have tremendously enriched and uplifted my craft,” he acknowledged.
An indigenous immigrant
Porfirio’s original work is a deep—and I might add, beautiful—reflection on ideas that he has been working out during his life in diaspora. “What does it mean to be an immigrant in an indigenous context,” he asks. “Modern, urban society sees me as an immigrant, a minority. At the same time I’m from a traditional culture that lives on the land. It has very little to do with borders,” he says.
“I have to show my U.S. passport to get across,” he continues, “but the land is one. The plants—many of them are the same—have been growing there for who knows how many thousands of years, just like here. Much of my work is guided by that. In California, I’m in my land. In Mexico, I’m in my land.”
The Covid lockdowns gave Porfirio time to think about the meaning of his work and his desire to preserve his indigenous culture. “I always thought that preservation needs to happen within the community in Oaxaca. That’s where they have the culture, from the minute they get up until they go to bed. But I forgot about myself, my two boys and the 200,000 other indigenous Oaxacans in Southern California,” he told us. “Now when I think about tradition, preservation, it has really nothing to do with the community back home anymore, because they have it. We don’t anymore. When I think about those things, and the legacy, if there’s such a thing, it belongs to the community. It doesn’t belong to me.”
Sharing the legacy
Now it’s Porfirio’s turn to be a master and mentor. He presents workshops in person and online and co-curated the show Wrapped in Color at the Arizona State Museum in Tucson. That exhibit included a weekend immersion in the Oaxacalifornia—yes, it’s a thing—culture.
His beyond beautiful Diaspora pieces featuring migrating butterflies have been included in the Futures exhibition at the Smithsonian’s Arts and Industries Building and at the TextielMuseum in the Netherlands as part of its To Dye For exhibition. Those pieces are not only woven, but include paint, ink and felting, expanding his craft into art well beyond the traditional.
The Arizona State Museum, through a project called Honoring Tradition, has paired Porfirio with a master Navajo weaver to mentor three upcoming indigenous students from around the Southwest. And he has been awarded a research grant from the Getty Foundation for its Pacific Standard Time 2024 project. His presentation, which goes on exhibit at the Atkinson Gallery in Santa Barbara in 2024, explores the history, science, mythology and contemporary uses of the cochineal dye-making process. After the lull of the Covid period, his dance card is full.
Nature as teacher and guiding principle
Toward the end of our time in Ventura, David, Porfirio and I piled into his pickup for an excursion to the Ventura River. During the pandemic he spent a lot of time in nature, reflecting on his roots and his future.
We drove inland for about 20 minutes, past the plant where Porfirio used to work. We parked by the river and walked along its banks to a grove to pick a plant he called yashi. For plant geeks, its official name is Baccharis salicifolia, otherwise known as mule fat. It grows natively throughout California and Central America, and is happiest in riparian environments. Porfirio will use the leaves to make a soft green dye.
“Yashi is a Zapotec word. My mother used it for medicine and for bathing,” Porfirio explained. It was growing in dense clusters about six or seven feet tall. “Plants have not only taught me so much about their life cycle, their properties as medicine, food, or dyes, but they also remind me of who I am.”
“The plants have allowed me to think about my place in time and history. It has nothing to do with a country, immigration status or borders. So much of my life and understanding continues to be guided by nature, the land and the plants.”
Learn more about Porfirio Gutierrez, his work and upcoming exhibits here. His studio/gallery at the Bell Arts Factory in Ventura is open Monday-Saturday by appointment. Many thanks to Porfirio and to studio coordinator Jenni Struthers for their time and assistance weaving together this story and for sharing photos of the copal blessing and two Diaspora weavings.