Centuries-old craft traditions are dying and why that matters now more than ever

On our recent trip to Oaxaca, I walked up to O*, a renowned weaver that splits his time between El Centro and his coastal hometown. I asked if he was willing to teach me the art of ‘telar de cintura,’ a pre-Hispanic weaving technique that has existed long before colonization. "Just the basics are fine,” I said. "I am no expert and have no experience weaving anything– really,” I concluded. He smiled and accepted. I could tell this was not the first time that he had heard this. I was relieved and also surprised at how quickly he agreed to teach me. After we agreed on the price, days and hours that my lessons were to take place, I walked away with a renewed sense of excitement. Excitement to learn a new skill or hobby at best– but this one rooted centuries-old tradition. And one that would give me deeper insight into the intricacy of the craft.

On my first day, we started in a somewhat hurried manner. O mistook the time that we were to start and so did I. As soon as we started, however, I could tell that we had an easy connection and the conversation started flowing naturally. Aside from teaching me the first step to weaving, which is arranging your thread in a cross-like pattern, one-by-one, making sure that the threads do not interlock, he started telling me about his place of origin, how and why he started weaving, and his family background while his children giggled, playing in the background.

In between the rising heat of the afternoon, thread-folding, and occasional words of instruction, O told me of the challenges that he faced as an artisan:

"Are you the only one in your family that weaves in this way?" I asked.

"Yes," he responded. "And the truth is that this craft is dying, I believe that this problem is not unique to us," O said. "It’s a universal problem. For us though, the reality is that no one is interested in the craft," he continued. "I learned this craft from my parents. I have taught my own children but they are still very little. My nieces and nephews that are older are not at all interested. They have bigger aspirations and plans, they tell me. Plans that include moving to the city and seeking employment (likely in an office). It’s really a shame," he insisted. "This craft is a part of who we are. It’s our identity, our history. Without it, we lose a piece of knowledge but there is nothing that can be done. Government support is lacking and is not without gaps so newer generations see no future in this. They see no financial future."

As O’s words carried me from one end of the room to the other, gradually moving from thread-folding to sitting, then belt-fitting in preparation for my first attempt at weaving, my concern grew as I sat with his words. My attention then quickly turned to what O was saying, "trama, cruce" signaling the correct weaving movement. As I listened to O explain and gesture the movements that I was to replicate soon after, his words: “there is nothing that can be done” continued to linger in my mind. I could not help but wonder what losing this craft could mean for generations to come. As an educator, I know that this cultural knowledge is integral to identity formation. My mind shifted back to O’s instructions and I proceeded to make my first attempts at weaving. O looked on, he seemed pleased. I was relieved– in the same way that a student feels when the teacher approves of their work.

*artisan's name will be mentioned henceforth as 'O'